Frank Kogan (koganbot) wrote,
Frank Kogan

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Otis Ferguson, writer

This evening I was haranguing Dave over at skyecaptain's lounge on the subject of Otis Ferguson, and I promised him I'd post a couple of Ferguson passages that happen to be in my files, Ferguson being the greatest film critic ever, so here they are. I had them on my computer not particularly for their ideas but so I could study their rhetorical devices any time I found my own writing tiring out. The first passage is great prose but is simply an introductory couple of paragraphs so doesn't have as much critical meat as the second, which is also a great bit of writing but is just as great criticism. It merely recounts the history of a project and then summarizes a plot, but the summary is a virtuoso dance at the expense of plot conventions, hitting the marks with comic precision that makes them absurd, but with a delight in the absurdity, and with an energy that the movies of his time seem to authorize, the bad ones as well as the good (maybe the bad better than the good).

Number One:
Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is going to be the big movie explosion of the year, and reviewers are going to think twice and think sourly before they'll want to put it down for the clumsy and irritating thing it is. It is a mixture of tough, factual patter about congressional cloakrooms and pressure groups, and a naïve but shameless hooraw for the American relic - Parson Weems at a flag-raising. It seems just the time for it, just the time of excitement when a barker in good voice could mount the tub, point toward the flag, say ubbuh-ubbah-ubbah and a pluribus union? and the windows would shake. But where all this time is Director Capra?

I'm afraid Mr. Capra began to leave this world at some point during the production of
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, his best picture. Among those who admired him from the start I know only Alistair Cooke who called the turn when Deeds came out. Writing in England, Cooke confessed to "an uneasy feeling he's on his way out. He's started to make movies about themes instead of people." When Lost Horizon appeared, I thought our Capra was only out to lunch, but Cooke had it. You Can't Take It with You in the following year (1938) made it pretty evident that Capra had forgotten about people for good. He had found out about thought and was going up into the clouds to think some. From now on, his continued box-office triumph and the air up there being what they are, he is a sure thing to stay, banking checks, reading Variety, and occasionally getting overcast and raining on us. Well, he was a great guy.

Number Two:
There is no reason why the movies should stop making bad musical comedies so long as bad musical comedies make money in buckets, so the only squawk on The Great American Broadcast is that its standard ingredients for success in this field could have been shaped together for fair entertainment, as well. It is another of the Twentieth-Century-Fox series of Only Yesterday in Tinpan Alley and uses everything in the formula: the ups and downs of love in show business (radio, this time), specialty acts, songs, wisecracks, blows, background music with old tunes, and what we might call a Spitalny Finale. As usual, the story is only an excuse for introducing these baubles; but at the same time, and also as usual, the story manages to do a lot of shoving around and by the end has got half the emphasis all to itself.

At first they thought of doing an authentic history of radio as entertainment and imported a prominent studio engineer from the early days as adviser. Well, this gentleman worked up a lot of material, but this was too technical and dull, so they put a writer on with him and the two worked up one or more treatments, but these were technical and not bright enough. So apparently they said to hell with it and threw the stuff into the customary mill, with credits for four writers but nothing more from the engineer, or from history. So Jack Oakie meets John Payne in a fight and they meet Alice Faye. Jack loves Alice but she doesn't love him. Alice
hates John but soon they are making with kisses, so Jack hates John. Cesar Romero loves Alice but she marries John and nobody loves Cesar, but Jack goes to work for him. Then Alice goes to Cesar on a technical matter and John hates Alice and leaves the country. Alice and Cesar are going to Reno, off with the old and on with the new, so Jack hates Cesar and manages to get hold of John. Jack wants to help John and now loves him, so they fight. Cesar goes away and Alice and John fight. Then they kiss. Then it says the end.
Tags: otis ferguson
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