(USA 1963)

Joseph Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra takes me back to high school Latin class, where I saw it the first time. One of the most expensive movies ever made—adjusted for inflation, its budget of $44 million amounts to roughly $336 million today (—Cleopatra is a straightforward albeit very glamorous and maybe not entirely accurate history lesson. Everything about it, like ancient Rome, is impressive, excessive, and just plain epic. The characters are practically real-life deities, and the actors who play them—Elizabeth Taylor (Cleopatra), Richard Burton (Mark Antony), Rex Harrison (Julius Caesar)—are legendary. The sets are huge and overwhelming. Watching Cleopatra is a luscious Technicolor orgy for the eyes.

Is it a good movie? It kept me engaged, at least what I stuck around for (see next paragraph). Taylor injects her wry wit into Cleopatra. It’s fun and weird to see Carroll O’Connor (i.e., Archie Bunker) as a Roman senator. All that said, though, Cleopatra is not exactly entertaining.

Speaking of Latin class, Cleopatra was parsed out over a week, so it didn’t seem as long as it is: over four hours—edited from its original plan of six hours! Even the trailer is long. Fuck. Sadly, it’s too much for a school night. I left during intermission after the first segment—Julius Caesar and Cleopatra—and that is still longer than most movies today. For the record, I’m not counting this in my official tally because I didn’t stay for the whole thing. Et tu?

(Music Box) C+

Music Box Theatre 70mm Festival

Dead End

(USA 1937)

I never heard of the Dead End Kids until I saw this film. Long before West Side Story and The Outsiders, the Dead End Kids served as a Depression Era vehicle for social commentary on American urban life. Living in tenements along the East River as the moneyed started to convert Manhattan’s slums into upscale properties, the Dead End Kids demonstrated some of the pains of change and the kinds of decisions necessary to avoid going down a road to ruin (i.e., a life of crime). The ensemble held on in different incarnations well past its shelf life until the late 1950s, when the actors were in their mid-30s and had become more of a comedy act.

Adapted from Sidney Kingsley’s successful 1935 play, Dead End is the one that started it all. It goes through a day in the life of a street “gang” led by Tommy Gordon (Billy Halop). The kids are rough around the edges and have names like Dippy (Huntz Hall), Spit (Leo Gorcey), and T.B. (Gabriel Dell). They openly mock their rich neighbors across the street in the co-op that abuts the slum (the windowless door to the co-op clearly states “service entrance”), steal, fight, play cards, shine shoes, and spend a lot of time swiming in the river at the end of the block. A slick neighborhood expat gangster, “Baby Face” Martin (a young Humphrey Bogart), who apparently made it as a hit man elsewhere, returns with his thug, Hunk (Allen Jenkins). No one, not even his low-talking mother (Minor Watson), wants him around. Meanwhile, Tommy’s sister, Drina (Sylvia Sidney), a mother figure who’s off work striking for better wages, is trying her best to keep Tommy on the right path. She mentions a few times that the extra $3.50 a week (!) she’s fighting for would get them to a better place. She’s all into Dave (Joel McCrea), an unemployed architect with his eye on a rich girl (Wendy Barrie) who lives in the co-op.

Loaded with subplots, the story is okay even with its old school melodrama. Some of the performances—specifically Bogart, Sidney, McCrea, and Watson—are decent. The surreptitious way syphilis is slipped into the story is interesting. Otherwise, Dead End has issues. It may have been edgy in the ’30s, but in comtemporary eyes it reads as silly, even campy. The set is too tidy and ordered to be a real street. The kids’ exaggerated fake Archie Bunker accents get annoying after awhile—I expected to hear the word “murdalize” at many points (I didn’t). The story is moralistic in an unsophisticated way that even the ABC Afterschool Special never was. Still, Dead End depicts a world without a middle class and criticizes gentrification, points that ring familiar today. I didn’t hate Dead End, but it’s completely forgettable.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) C-