Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Captures - Viva Villa!

If you’re familiar with the Jahnke’s Electric Theatre page on Facebook, you’re all too aware of the ongoing JET’s Most Wanted project. If you’re not, I’m not sure how you got here but hey, welcome! Simply put, JET’s Most Wanted spotlights obscure but worthy titles that have never before been released on DVD (in the US…foreign mileage may vary).

Since I started JET’s Most Wanted waaaaay back in 2010, over 300 featured titles have been released on DVD, Blu-ray and/or MOD DVD. It’s an eclectic group, so odds are you’ve probably even purchased a few of them. But if you’re anything like me (and honestly, I pray to God you’re not), there are likely a few discs in your collection that remain unwatched, despite your best intentions. Personally, I feel a twinge of guilt when I finally get a Most Wanted pick on disc and allow it to sit, unopened, for months. I can almost hear the disc taunting me from the shelf. “You asked for it. You got it. Now what are you gonna do with it?”

Welcome to Captures, an occasional new feature here at the Electric Theatre. In this space, I’ll be taking a closer look at former Most Wanted picks to see how they hold up now that they’re readily available. When I first started JET’s Most Wanted, I focused on movies I’d already seen that weren’t on disc. It didn’t take too long before the scope widened to include movies I’d always wanted to see but couldn’t, which naturally led to discovering more unavailable movies that sounded interesting. Captures is meant to be a deep dive into the seemingly bottomless well of movies previously unavailable on DVD.

Viva Villa!, newly available on MOD DVD from Warner Archive, has tumbled into obscurity since its release in 1934. If you Google “Viva Villa” today, the first results you’ll get are for a chain of Taquerias in Southern California. But at the time, it was a sizable box office hit and up for multiple Oscars including Best Picture (hey, this can double as an Honor To Be Nominated column, too! Score!). It even won one for Best Assistant Director John Waters (not that one, obviously). Bet you didn’t even know Best Assistant Director used to be a category, did you? I know I didn’t.

If Mr. Waters assisted everybody who had a hand in directing Viva Villa!, I’d say he earned his Oscar. Like most studio system films, this was producer David O. Selznick’s vision more than the director’s. Jack Conway ended up with screen credit but William Wellman and Howard Hawks each did uncredited work as well. It comes as no surprise that the resulting film is extremely episodic and about as authentically Mexican as a Doritos® Cheesy Gordita Crunch from Taco Bell. But the movie is undeniably entertaining and that goes a long way.

Wallace Beery, sounding more like Chico Marx than a Mexican Revolutionary, stars as Pancho Villa. Beery was a huge star in the 30s thanks to movies like The Champ and The Big House but for years, I only knew him as a punchline in the Coens’ Barton Fink. (“Wallace Beery! Wrestling picture! What do you need, a road map?”) Beery is rarely mentioned in the same breath as the other legendary stars of the 30s these days but after watching some of his most enduring work, it’s easy to see why he was such a popular personality. He’s a boisterous, larger-than-life character, eager to please and oddly likable even when he’s boasting about his rape-and-murder filled exploits.

Part of this is due to the fact that most of the violence and mayhem takes place off-screen. The storyteller’s mantra may be “show, don’t tell” but Viva Villa! never uses imagery when dozens of words can be employed instead. Although the filmmakers do have a penchant for whips, first in the opening scene where young Pancho sees his father killed after 100 lashes. This comes back into play years later when an incensed Pancho tries to teach Spanish aristocrat Teresa (Fay Wray) a thing or two about real suffering. The scene is shot in silhouette (presumably by the great James Wong Howe, one of two credited cinematographers). The moody camerawork and Wray’s reactions give the whole thing a distinct S&M quality. Even during all this, Pancho Villa comes across as a big, friendly, loyal, kinda dumb dog, ironic considering his father dies protesting that he is a man, not a dog.

Structurally, Viva Villa! bears an unmistakable similarity to Elia Kazan’s Viva Zapata!, released almost 20 years later. Personally, I preferred Viva Villa! to Kazan’s humorless slog of a movie. Neither movie can lay much claim to historical accuracy and suffers from casting very American actors in very Hispanic roles (though, granted, Kazan’s movie does have Anthony Quinn’s Oscar-winning performance going for it). But Beery as Villa at least seems to be having fun. You can’t say the same about Marlon Brando as Zapata. Brando always seems on the verge of realizing he’s made a mistake and walking off set.

A dozen movies were nominated for Best Picture in 1934 and, believe it or not, three of them still remain unaccounted for on DVD: the opulent biopic House Of Rothschild, the musical One Night Of Love, and The White Parade, a tribute to young nurses. I can’t say how Viva Villa! stacks up next to these rarities. For that matter, I don’t think anyone would argue that it deserved to triumph over the year’s winner, Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night. If nothing else, Viva Villa! serves as a reminder of the studio system’s remarkable capacity for making effective entertainment out of the most chaotic and troubled productions. It’s no classic but the fact that it’s even coherent is something of an achievement.

Viva Villa! is now available on MOD DVD at

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