Charles Farrell is Chico, an athiest who works in the Paris sewers (I’m not sure what he does down there – looks like he’s doing his laundry, or fishing rags from the water) and dreams of being a mighty street washer up on the surface. Janet Gaynor lives with her abusive sister, possibly both as prostitutes. As usual for the beginning of a Borzage movie, Something Good happens to the guy (he’s given a better job) while Something Bad happens to the girl (a rich uncle comes to take them in, asks if they’ve been “clean” and Janet answers no, so relatives leave and Janet’s sister tries to kill her). Chico saves her but gets himself in a pickle with a cop… he says she’s his wife, so now the cop will come by Chico’s house tomorrow to verify the story.

Standing in the gutter, looking at the stars:

What to do!? If you said “why doesn’t Janet stay at his house for a day” then you’re as smart as the screenwriter. Chico lives on the seventh floor, whose set is actually seven stories high, as noted by the outrageous vertical tracking shot following the pair up the stairs. There’s some business about who’s sleeping where and some talk about God, work, fear of heights and whether Chico is a very remarkable man (he is), and the next day he buys her a wedding dress.

A very remarkable man:

I don’t know how long afterwards (a day? a year?), war breaks out, and it breaks out in a hurry – Chico has about an hour to report to duty. The war lasts a few years, he and his street-washin’ buddy flamethrow some dudes, the local cabbie is roped into a huge cab-driven troop movement (which actually happened, and which Borzage recreated with either an awful lot of cars or a clever model).

Papa Boul and what’s left of his cab:

Chico is feared dead, so Janet’s admirer back home (not a slimy villain or anything, just a suave dude who likes her) is making his move when Chico bursts in, alive but blind and believing in God, for a happy-ish ending (he’s still blind).

Chuck on the stairwell:

The story doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a gorgeous movie. The street set (which looks familiarly like the one from Street Angel) and the apartment are wonderful, and the war is remarkably shot (dig the silhouette-soldier who attacks Chico).


Farrell and Gaynor are as good as in their other movies (well, maybe Gaynor has less to do here), and Gladys Brockwell (dead two years later after a car crash) shines as Gaynor’s whip-bearing sister. Simone Simon and James Stewart starred in a sound remake ten years later, which is not quite as highly regarded.

Gladys Brockwell:

Opening titles: we hear a nice Tom Waits song (the soundtrack is great overall) and see “JVC PRESENTS.” Didn’t JVC used to make blank tapes? The kind that weren’t even as good as Maxell?

Five segments in five cities. Has cute parts, and I guess it’s part of the greater Jarmusch body of work or whatever, but also kinda feels like something that could’ve safely stayed in 1991 (or maybe ’93; it was ahead of its time). What’s funny is that it doesn’t seem like the kind of movie that should get easily dated (except through the usual – fashions, cars, mobile phones – only period pieces are immune to those) but it has this early 90’s aura about it, like Smoke or a Hal Hartley movie, which I don’t see in Dead Man or Down By Law or Mystery Train. Maybe it’s just Winona Ryder. Anyway this remains my least favorite Jarmusch picture, though I did enjoy it overall. If you could break it up Coffee & Cigarettes-style, it’d be nice to lead from New York straight into Helsinki, and maybe add Rome every third or fourth viewing.

LA: Winona Ryder is a midget phonebook-sitting wannabe-mechanic driving fancypants cellphone-calling casting agent Gena Rowlands home from the airport. Gena’s client is looking for a tough young girl, an unknown, so predictably she propositions Winona, who turns Gena down. Jim says it’s the first movie Gena agreed to do after John Cassavetes died. I never made it past this segment when I first tried to watch Night On Earth a decade ago… pixie Winona is too hard to take as a street tough.

NY: East German Armin Mueller-Stahl (same year he did Soderbergh’s Kafka) is new to New York and cab driving, so passenger Giancarlo Esposito takes over, picking up sister-in-law Rosie Perez for a miniature Do The Right Thing reunion, wide-eyed Armin taking it all in.

Paris: Isaach De Bankolé (stolen from Claire Denis) kicks out some diplomats, picks up a blind girl (Beatrice Dalle, star of Time of the Wolf, also a Claire Denis regular) and asks her a bunch of dunderheaded questions.

Rome: Roberto Benigni picks up a priest, drives like a madman (but there’s no traffic so it’s cool) visits a couple transvestites, and tells horribly perverted stories until the priest dies after dropping his meds on the floor and Roberto quietly unloads him on a park bench.

Helsinki: Cabbie picks up three guys from a hard night on the town. Of course all four of them have been in Kaurismaki films (one of the passengers played Polonius in Hamlet Goes Business. They tell their drunk friend’s hard luck story and the cabbie replies with his own hard luck story. Way to end your movie on a dead baby tale there, Jim.

Nice color cinematography by Frederick Elmes (a Lynch regular who later shot Broken Flowers) – not seen here cuz it was a rental and I forgot to get screen shots.

Great comedy, funny, I loved the hell out of it. Katy liked too.

Ruggles (large-faced auteur Charles Laughton) is a butler for the Earl of Burnstead (Roland Young: Topper in Topper and Uriah Heep in David Copperfield). The Burnstead family and the Ruggles family have been in the same Earl/butler relationship for centuries. Along comes the American New Rich to shake things up: wild-west Egbert (Charlie Ruggles, still recognizable by his eyes over the thick mustache) and his haughty wife Effie, who win Ruggles in a card game and move him from Paris to Red Gap, Washington, USA. Egbert treats Ruggles as a buddy rather than a servant and keeps calling him “colonel”, so when they arrive in Red Gap, Ruggles is mistaken for an important guest in Egbert and Effie’s house, and Effie has to keep up the charade to avoid embarrassment. Ultimately there’s no escaping embarrassment for stuck-up Effie, and Ruggles takes advantage of the goodwill he’s acquired in town and the sense of freedom imbued by the American West to open his own (assumed successful) restaurant, cuddle (implied) with his sweetie (also implied) boot his rival out the building, and get publicly applauded at the end.

Ruggles is a great character. He’s not exactly the typical stuffy butler who gradually learns to relax – he seems from the start to have an inner life, and he adjusts relatively easily from selfless servant to personable entrepreneur. Overall much funnier class commentary than in The Rules of the Game, yet you don’t hear Cahiers du cinema all calling this the best film ever made. Based on a play and filmed a few other times, including a silent with E. Everett Horton as Ruggles, and in technicolor with Bob Hope and Lucille Ball. McCarey directed this soon after a Marx bros. movie and before a Harold Lloyd movie. Appropriately, we watched it soon after a Marx bros. movie and before a Harold Lloyd movie (neither one by McCarey, sorry bud).

character Ruggles (left) with actor Ruggles (right):

Besides being a great director, Charles Laughton was in everything from Whale’s The Old Dark House to Kubrick’s Spartacus. Silent star turned successful comedy/drama character actress Zasu Pitts is Ruggles’ dark-haired love interest, and Leila Hyams (also a silent star, best known for playing the nice girl in Freaks) is a blonde singer, a hot young society gal. I wanna say that Lucien Littlefield (Scandal Sheet, The Bitter Tea of General Yen) played the asshole who tried to keep Ruggles down.

My third feature by the celebrated Hou. I only half enjoyed/understood the other two, Goodbye South, Goodbye and Flowers of Shanghai, both seen on video, but I appreciated his short The Electric Princess Picture House. So I didn’t know what to think going into this, and neither did anyone, probably, seeing how it’s in French and a semi-remake of a 30-minute children’s classic. Hou’s pacing seems more suited to the big screen than home viewing, so I’m glad it played the Landmark, and Jimmy and I (who saw The Red Balloon together in the same theater earlier this year) both enjoyed it.

Juliette Binoche is a harried puppeteer mother, Simon Iteanu is her son, Hippolyte Girardot (Lady Chatterley, La Moustache) is the downstairs neighbor, and Fang Song is the kid’s new nanny. Song is an aspiring filmmaker with a handicam who loves the film The Red Balloon. Bleach-haired Binoche once worked as an au pair, feels abandoned by her husband, wants to kick out her downstairs neighbor so her older daughter can visit this summer (but can’t find the lease contract), and does marvelous voices for the Chinese puppet show she is directing. Simon seems like a happy kid, takes piano lessons, plays pinball, has a loving relationship with his absent older sister (seen in flashback, she cancels her annual summer trip to Paris late in the movie).

Then there’s the balloon. Simon sees it at the beginning and it follows him on the subway, then to his home and on a class field trip. Song sees it at one point, also… but neither of them ever touches it. It may just be a symbol of imagination, and not a real balloon at all. The camera moves slowly, fluidly, always seeming to hover balloon-like instead of resting, and blobs of red (clothing hanging to dry, a lamp) are often hanging in the frame when the balloon itself is absent.

Just as I was noticing the long length of the shots, a bus with a large Children of Men advertisement drove by – nice. Shot by the cinematographer of most Hou films, Pin Bing Lee, who also did In The Mood For Love with Chris Doyle. Score is light piano music (all staticky on our print), and it closes with the Bobby McFerrin-sounding song from the trailer.

None of these descriptions do justice to the film, which I’m starting to think is one of the few great films I’ve seen this year. Peaceful and calming to watch despite being set mostly in a cluttered, loud, claustrophobic apartment, there’s just enough story/character/action to play upon every emotion in the book without leaning too hard on any of them, leaving me feeling like I’ve experienced & felt so much within such a minimal framework. The characters aren’t desperate, but they don’t have an easy time either. One review described Binoche as a mother under siege, and with all that’s going on around him, Simon’s childhood is under siege too. But even while portraying conflict, the movie manages to ooze joy – so much joy that it’s put a major dent in my plans to watch all the commerce-driven Hollywood product out this summer. How could The Incredible Hulk compare?