Virginia Film Festival 2015: Day 4

Virginia Film Festival 2015I was surprised at how much fun Employee’s Entrance was to watch, and not just because of the naughtiness on screen.

 

 

 

 

I kicked off my fourth and final day at the Virginia Film Festival with another classic film—Employee’s Entrance, a pre-Code film (1933) directed by Roy Del Ruth. While Employee’s Entrance certainly isn’t in the same class as The Maltese Falcon, it is still enjoyable and particularly worth seeing for the contrast it provides with some screen conventions that are familiar in post-Code films. It was screened from a newly-restored 35mm film print, courtesy of the Library of Congress, and the constant whirring of the projector provided a reassuring counterpoint to the snappy dialogue on screen.

The story begins with an appropriately racy moment: a hard-driving store manager, Kurt Anderson (a shifty-looking Warren William) takes advantage of a prospective employee, Madeline Waters (a radiantly beautiful, 20-year old Loretta Young) who is hiding out in the store overnight because she doesn’t have anywhere else to stay. Anderson is equally ruthless in his business dealings, ruining a supplier when a shipment is delayed due to labor issues, and firing longtime employees for small mistakes or for opposing his ideas.

Madeline gets a job as a model in the store, and falls in love with a young up-and-comer named Martin West (Wallace Ford), who manages the ladies’ clothing department. Anderson also has an eye for West, but for his talent and ambition, and offers him a promotion on the condition that he totally devote himself to work. Meanwhile, the board of directors plans to take over management of the store, removing Anderson from his position in the process, by taking advantage of the fact that the owner, Commodore Franklin Monroe (Hale Hamilton) is out of town.

I was surprised at how much fun Employee’s Entrance was to watch, and not just because of the naughtiness on screen. It’s also surprising funny, with Alice White excelling as Anderson’s secret weapon (when he wants to distract a competitor, he sends White’s character to bat her eyelashes, and more, at the unfortunate man in question), and there’s also a hilarious scene for Young involving balloons, a lit cigarette, and a bald head. You quickly get used to the on-the-nose dialogue (Anderson introduces himself by saying his philosophy is “smash or be smashed”) and the story moves quickly while still managing to develop our interest in the main characters.

Leonard Maltin introduced Employee’s Entrance, and he had some interesting things to say. The first was his suggestion that if you want to see what influence the 1934 enforcement of the Motion Picture Code had on American film, you should compare the Betty Boop cartoons from before and after the Code, or the attire worn by Jane in the Tarzan movies from the two periods. Another was that Employee’s Entrance, like many pre-Code films, is highly politically incorrect, but we shouldn’t be offended because the film is based on attitudes and convention of the day. I found this to be a strange remark because I find the accepted conventions of Hollywood movies today to be more offensive than anything I saw in the 1933 film. Case in point—the romantic pairing of women with men decades older than themselves, but never the other way around. Second case in point: the romantic pairing of female characters who are substantially better looking, and often more accomplished and intelligent, with dumpy male characters who have absolutely nothing to recommend them. At least we know that Kurt Anderson is a cad, but we’re actually expected to like the male sad sacks that populate Judd Apatow’s films.

The closing night film was Son of Saul, directed by Laszlo Nemes, which has already garnered quite a lot of recognition since winning the Grand Prix (second prize in Cannes speak) and FIPRESCI Prize at Cannes this year. The story is set in 1944 among the Sonderkommando of the Auschwitz-Birkenau prison camp, a group of prisoners who received privileges such as increased food rations in return for handling the dirty work of ushering their fellow prisoners to their deaths, along with jobs like sorting through the belongings of the dead and shoveling their ashes out of the ovens. The “privilege” of serving in the Sonderkommando was tempered not only by the distasteful and morally ambiguous duties they were required to carry out, but also by the knowledge that within a few months they would themselves be victims of the gas chambers.

Nemes focuses on one prisoner in particular, Saul Ausländer, who tries against all odds to give the body of his son a proper burial. Or maybe it’s not his son, or maybe he doesn’t have a son, or maybe the young boy he is trying to bury is standing in for all the sons of the world—what matters is that it is Saul’s obsession that the boy be buried with the traditional Jewish rites.

Son of Saul is an immersive movie, placing the audience in the midst of the horror and chaos of the death camps as the Germans scramble to complete their final solution before the Allies arrive. Cinematographer Matyas Erdely shoots much of the film in a tight focus on Saul’s face or head, with the shallow depth of field partially obscuring the horrors taking place around him. At the same time, Nemes is able to create a sense of how complex the social relationships were among prisoners, with much trading of information, contraband, and “shiny” (jewelry and other valuables stolen from the dead), and how they managed to organize an escape attempt despite the constant and brutal presence of the guards. Son of Saul is an ordeal to watch, but an ordeal that richly repays your time and effort. | Sarah Boslaugh

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