Video Picks & Passes







Chicago: Recurring sexual dialogue, lyrics, attire and choreography; illicit affairs including brief bedroom scenes (no nudity); brief violence; some profane and obscene language; general decadence.Kind Hearts and Coronets: Comic depiction of serial murder (teens and up). Young Mr. Lincoln: Brief violence; an offscreen murder (fine family viewing).

Recently released in a new DVD edition, 2002 Best Picture winner Chicago has been called a “cautionary tale,” for no good reason I can see. Not only do the guilty live happily ever after while the innocent go unrewarded and even (what’s more) unadmired by the film, but the audience is expected to come away not shaken and challenged but humming “All That Jazz.” Like Moulin Rouge! Chicago involves sordid goings-on in a rather seamy milieu. But where Luhrman’s film tried to contrast its dissolute ambiance with heart-warming sincerity and idealism, Chicago is cynical to the core. There’s no moral counterpoint, no character capable of putting the film’s decadence and absurdity into perspective.

Why is Chicago’s black comedy distasteful while Kind Hearts and Coronets (new on DVD from Criterion) — the first, darkest and best of British Ealing Studios’ acclaimed crime comedies — comes off as a cheerfully mean-spirited delight? Perhaps it’s partly the outward gentility and sophistication of the British aristocracy that Kind Hearts gleefully satirizes, an ironic contrast to the story’s underlying ruthlessness and moral decadence. It’s also a more enjoyable place to spend 100-plus minutes than the seamy world of Chicago, which wants to have its cake and eat it too, pandering to the very crassness it parodies.

Kind Hearts stars Dennis Price as a disgruntled distant heir to a peerage who decides to avenge his disinherited mother by murdering the eight ranking family members that stand between him and the title.

In tour de force cameos, Alec Guinness plays all eight relatives, old and young, male and female. Another Ealing comedy, The Lavender Hill Mob, was chosen for the Vatican film list, perhaps partly because its subject was only theft, not murder. That’s understandable, but while Mob is a classic, Kind Hearts is Ealing’s masterpiece.

If that’s still too dark for your tastes, try Henry Fonda in John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (also new from Criterion). Fonda’s most familiar turn as a legendary historical character in a Ford film is of course as Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine — but he’s far better cast here, and gives a more vivid performance. Rangy, folksy, slow-spoken and self-deprecating, Fonda embodies the young Honest Abe persona as comfortably and naturally as his frontier clothes. Lincoln’s future as an orator is foreshadowed less by his performance in the murder trial with which the film’s final act is taken up than by the jailhouse scene in which he stands down a mob bent on lynching two presumed murderers.

“We’ve gone to a heap of trouble not to have at least one hanging,” one man objects. “Sure you have, Mac,” Abe acknowledges. “Trouble is, when men start takin’ the law into their own hands, they’re just as apt in all the confusion and fun to start hangin’ somebody who’s not a murderer as somebody who is … [till] a man can’t pass a tree or look at a rope without feeling uneasy. We seem to lose our heads in times like this. We do things together that we’d be mighty ashamed to do by ourselves.”

It may be hokum, but Young Mr. Lincoln is good wholesome Americana hokum, as only John Ford could deliver it.

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