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Archive for the ‘Turn of the 19th Century’ Category

My Gal Sal

22 Nov

My Gal Sal – directed by Irving Cummings. Period Musical. American songwriter Paul Dreiser struggles from the rural Midwest, through raree shows, and into the arms of a beautiful musical star. 103 minutes Color 1942.

★★★

Like Victor Mature, the movie is a big lug. It is also A Gaudy Fox Musical, first meant for Alice Faye, then for Betty Grable, but finally made with Columbia-import Rita Hayworth, and Gaudy doesn’t suit Rita Hayworth, because she is already gaudy enough, with her dazzling smile and power to seduce.

It is also true that Fox musical numbers were usually comic numbers, and they don’t work well for Hayworth, since they are not in her proper range.

Finally, while Hayworth lip-syncs her songs well, she is not actually singing them. Only two major musical comedy stars of that era actually could both sing and dance well: Grable and Garland. Ruby Keeler did neither well, though she did both continually, as though talent for one or the other would one day break through.

What Hayworth did better than any of them was dance her particular dances. Only one of them works at all well for her here, a ballroom number, choreographed and partnered by Hermes Pan, and even here the costume is a demerit. Still and all, watch her port de bras. Her arms are lyric. Pan said she had the most beautiful hands he had ever seen; her upper-body carriage is always emblematic; she had a goddess in her shoulders.

But she does not prevail over the stupidity of the musical numbers staged for her. A movie of the previous year, Strawberry Blond, at Columbia is a much more heartening film. Again, she plays the title role, and it is of the same period and features the same sort of barber-shop songs – although in Strawberry Blond, the music is a constant background, not hitting us in the face like a fly ball as it does here. Besides, that was directed by Raoul Walsh, and this wasn’t.

Phil Silvers, with his personality of a merry cactus, has a couple of good scenes, The lovely and talented Carole Landis plays an early girlfriend of Mature. James Gleason is the cheating music publisher Mature makes rich.

Indeed, as you can see, we are generally in the realm of Gilded Age con men, and all the males of the film, save for the constipated Bruce Cabot, fall into this category. Mature is the con man’s con man. And his playing two pianos at once in a medicine show he works is spectacular and fun and odd and endearing – indeed, an act of genius. Mature was a big hearted galoot and game, and these qualities were a fine foundation for his career in films. As an actor in his craft he is without particular interest. You might say that even interesting roles didn’t lend him interest. He could do it and do it full out, but he lacked the artistic intelligence and imagination to create something marvelous – unless playing two pianos at once is imaginative and marvelous – and you know something? – I daresay it is!

 

Cony Island

21 Oct

Cony Island –– directed by Walter Lang. Period Musical. A vulgar saloon singer gets mentored into Broadway by a con man who loves her. 96 minutes Color 1943.

★★★★★

Betty Grable remains the greatest female “entertainer” of movies. She remained on the top ten box office stars list for ten years, one of the few actors and the only woman ever to do so.

It is easy to write her off. Oh, yes, she was all tarted up in spangles. Yes, her hairdos were mad confections and her costumes Technicolor flamboyant.  She played low-class dames from show-biz, and she was famous for her legs. She was the star of mere Fox musicals. She lacked class. MGM was more high-tone. Fred Astaire never danced with her.

Well, Hermes Pan, who choreographed Astaire’s sequences with him, choreographed this film and dances with her here. In his view, she and Rita Hayworth were the best of the female dancers. He could give her an elaborate sequence and was amazed that she could copy it immediately! “Honey, I’ve been doing this since I was eight.”

She was a good singer, she had a complexion that Zanuck demanded always be shot in color, she had a living-doll figure, with a subtle sensual hip action natural to her.

She is equaled only by Judy Garland, a performer of enormous actor-intelligence, who had many of the same qualities as Grable – one being, a wicked camp humor. Neither were ballroom dancers — those were Rogers, Hayworth, and Charisse — but Grable in her way was just as much fun.

Grable was a superb film actor in the Musical Mode, which has its own acting tropes and requirements. Within this mode, she clearly can do anything, and as such she is one of the greatest film actresses who ever lived. Oh how dare you, you might say, Bette Grable was not Garbo. But it would smarter to say, Garbo was not Betty Grable. Betty Grable  is fresh-as-a-daisy, highly responsive, giving, funny, emotionally susceptible. She could be frequently wrong-headed and often embarrassed. Fox gave her stories to suit her bent and nature, because she was unchallenged in her craft, talent, and appeal. In comic dancing, which most of her numbers were, she has no rival. Watch her for her speed, delivery, imagination, and self-parody.

Grable’s energy is essentially volatile but longing to settle down. She chases men, which Garland also did and which Monroe never did. Grable has a big open expression, is vulnerable to being hurt, is eager, and the most obvious thing about her is that she always plays someone hard-working. She’s in rehearsal; she’s got to step for a living; she’s a vaudevillian with a lot of shows to do a day. Betty Grable, unlike Alice Faye, has not got a lazy bone in her body. She’s a good singer, but can’t coast on the power of her singing, like Faye and Garland. But inside, she is naturally musical. She loves music; it’s so plain; it’s a treat to see it – it’s a physical entity with her like her cute figure and full lips. It’s in every dance she dances.

When she is on screen you cannot take your eyes from her. This is not just a result of the solo position of her numbers or that she is the lead. It is the inherent talent to draw focus. Her like-ability makes her a great star, and the fact that, behind the sequins and feathers, she is unpretentious, good-natured, innocent, accessible, and real. It makes her the pin-up of World War II and the top female star in the world. She deserved it and still deserves it.

Cony Island one her many hits, is a piece of Gilded Age froufrou.  It begins with four rowdy musical numbers in a row, topped by Charlie Winninger singing Who Put The Overalls In Mrs Murphy’s Chowder. No, it aint refined, but boy is it good! There are two kinds of vulgarity, one is empty and one is full; one is flaccid and one has vigor, one gives you a belly ache and one gives you a belly laugh. Neither type have any taste, but the second type, to which Betty Grable and her films belong, sure is tasty. Indulge yourself. She’s like an icecream soda. You’ll end up refreshed.

 

Blackthorn

20 Apr

Blackthorn – directed by Mateo Gil. Butch Cassidy has survived and twenty years later wants to leave Bolivia to visit Etta Place’s son, but is waylaid by a suspect Spaniard. 102 minutes Color 2011.
★★★★
As an actor Sam Shepard can carry a film, but in this case he cannot carry it far enough.

And that is because of the construction of the narrative. If we learn only at the end that the Spaniard is a nefarious character, we feel cheated as an audience of the loyalty we have bestowed on the destiny of these two characters. And there is no reason for it.

We should know the Spaniard is a nefarious character from the start. Sam Shepard as Butch Cassidy, disguised as Blackthorn, should not know it. His tragedy should be that his long, deliberate, and pseudonymous isolation has caused him to become ignorant of the truth of the world. And our participation as an audience should be our suspense waiting for the truth to be disclosed to him and how he behaves at that moment. And it should also result in some change in his romantic attitude regarding his twenty-years after planned visit to his “son.”

But there are other faults with the script. First: is Etta’s child fathered by Sundance or by Butch; were they both involved with her, and how come?

Second: how was Sundance mortally wounded?

But, third and most important: we are given no clue whatsoever, either in the playing of Shepard or in the script, that Butch has a moral bone in his body. We hear that in the old days he and Sundance only stole from the rich, but that may be a legend. Butch’s final action must come out of a code which is never offered to us, so once again we feel cheated. Will Butch be pulled toward the money or toward his code when he learns the truth about that Spaniard? That should be lodged in our suspense early. As it is, Butch’s code springs upon us at the last minute like a rattler.

The Spaniard is beautifully played by the beautiful Eduardo Noriega. Stephen Rea is quite wonderful as a degenerate Pinkerton laying in wait for Butch all these years. His character and his scenes and his playing of them are all extra to the story, but they shed a light, they bring a life, they supply a dance, essential to our beguilement. As does the flabbergastering scenery of Bolivia where principal photography took place.

 

Hysteria

10 Jun

Hysteria – directed by Tanya Wexler. Women Lib Drama. Two daughters become the objects of the attention of a doctor with an unusual therapeutic practice for women in the 1890s.100 minutes Color 2012.

★★★

Oh, Maggie Gyllenhaal. Maggie Gyllenhaal. Maggie Gyllenhaal. Repeat that word over and over for as long as this page is long and for as long as you like, and consider it an hosanna. The picture is a women’s lib version of a subject, 19th Century medical masturbation as a placebo for female ailments, also dealt with concurrently by the play In The Next Room: The Vibrator Play, which I have seen and which, like this, is unworthy to witness as a subject for a cause so great as equality of gender. The orgasms we see on screen are cartooned by the actresses and by the director; they are never taken as real, deep,and important. They are executed by actresses chosen because they are funny looking: either fat or thin or blousy, and when we see ordinary women being treated, they and their orgasms are mocked by the actresses themselves. The male doctors engage in this treatment with reverence. They take it they are engaging in a medical breakthrough. Jonathan Pryce is the senior physician in a part written only one way, so we know how he and the movie will end. As we know how it will end with his two daughters, the one proper, the other a Shavian modern woman running a settlement house, played by the great Maggie G. Watch how she stands at the trial scene. She never stands foursquare, but, like Garbo, always at an angle. Her whole performance is like that, except once. See if you notice it and how telling that is! Anyhow, the script is routine, and the performance by the leading actor is  – well, let’s say he is not such as to carry a film. But with a film this flimsy, that would take Atlas. The spectacular, even scandalous subject is not sufficient to make a good story of it. It simply plays like an oddity out of an old Sears Roebuck catalogue. It presumes to find itself important. One thing it seems to be blaring out is, “Tut tut, Men don’t understand female sexuality or even consider it to exist!” So you see, it’s really mean-spirited and as dated as a zombie.  It presumes to look down on male ignorance. Everything about it presumes, except for M.G, who simply vibrates with life. She, and she alone is the vibrator.

 

Gentleman Jim

03 May

Gentleman Jim — directed by Raoul Walsh. Sports Drama. An Irish roughneck boxes his way to the world championship opposite Francis L. Sullivan. 104 minutes Black and White 1942.

★★★★

“What am I watching this thing for?” I ask myself, for I am full face with a type of picture I am familiar with and which thank goodness is no longer made. The over-the-top smiles and paste-thick Irish accent of Alan Hale cues the question. Oh, yes, I remember now: it’s a movie made in a period when immigrants from Europe were more recent than they are today, a period when we didn’t have the word “ethnicities,” but the word “nationalities.” We didn’t have the word “media,” but in those days there were German language newspapers, and Yiddish and Chinese newspapers, and “Abie’s Irish Rose” was the popular radio show. People were just over from the old country and felt their security depended upon living near one another and loudly holding onto the mores of their motherland. I am first generation myself. John Ford’s films were slathered with an Irishness that no longer exists, and this of Raoul Walsh is also. In the mid 1950s “nationality” dissolved, replaced by the sectionalization of popular music, but until ten years after The War, everyone listened to Bing Crosby, who no longer exists either, although Frank Sinatra does, whose popular territory is certainly bounded with a frontier of nationality. Such nationalist immigrant films as Gentleman Jim are long gone. Barry Fitzgerald is unthinkable today. But I stuck with the film, which is remarkable in several ways. Low-life, high-life, comedy, family drama, action, romance, farce commingle with Shakespearean ease. The huge fight crowds in pre-Boxing Commission days are fabulously unruly, for no one could direct films of mass mayhem like Raoul Walsh. They lend enormous excitement to the fights. The bouts themselves are brilliantly filmed, and it is clear that Errol Flynn is performing them, no easy feat, since Corbett, the father of modern defensive and strategic boxing, had easy feet himself and danced his partners into exhaustion. It is one of the best fight films ever made in terms of the events themselves. Outside that everything is hearty – a blarney shattered by such films as Raging Bull, Someone Up There Likes Me, The Set-Up, and especially The Fighter which put pat to the notion of good healthy family support for their darling of the ring which Gentleman Jim promulgates like a jig. Flynn is perfectly cast in this part, one of many he would play in Walsh’s films. He is highly energized, impenitently boastful, lithe, strong, and Irish as Paddy’s pig, although actually came from Tasmania.  He is very good, and well supported by Minor Watson, Jack Carson, Arthur Shields, Rhys Williams, and William Frawley. As with all Walsh’s films the foundation of the action is romance, but Alexis Smith is incapable of suggesting the sexuality underlying the lady’s interest in Corbett. She is always the lady, never Judy O’Grady. Walsh wanted Rita Hayworth or Ann Sheridan, either of whom would have been better at it. But the key player in this is Ward Bond — so loud and clear for John Ford so long that we never knew what a fine actor he was. The key scene of the film is his reconciliation with Flynn; his sweet shyness is riveting. Going from the brash slugger, Francis L. Sullivan, to the beaten world heavyweight champion, he makes Sullivan into the foolish titan he was. Flynn’s lines about Sullivan’s lying in bed that night, lost, is marvelous piece of film writing. I was born the year Corbett died in the town he lived in, Bayside, Long Island. Corbett Road, I was familiar with. His fights took place in the 1890s, but everyone in the country knew who he was. This was Errol Flynn’s favorite film, enormously popular in its day.  You might check it out to see why.

 

Annie Oakley

02 Apr

Annie Oakley — directed by George Stevens. Western. A country lass can shoot the thorns off a rose at 50 paces. So she joins Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. 90 minutes Black and White 1935.

*

This is a George Stevens production???!!! — the George Stevens who directed Alice Adams and The More The Merrier and Shane and Woman Of The Year? Inconceivable! It is a movie barren of distinction, save for the slight truth Preston Foster gives it as the bragging sharpshooter Annie loves. It’s a marvelous part, and later on Howard Keel would also be excellent in it, as a man whose pride is hurt and who misconducts himself because of it. The roles are great but the script is so poor even Stanwyck looks like a bad actress, which she wasn’t. She was an actress of limited range and disposition, sure, but she had the common touch and a beautiful carriage and natural presence and surety of execution, all of which counted for a lot in her work — in any actor’s work. Alas, the film is puerile, and one wonders at the aesthetic degradation studios felt they had to drag their audiences into in order to snare them. In real life, Annie Oakley was a woman of parts, smart and able and of fine disposition, and she had a long career. Oakley wasn’t even her name; it was Moses; she changed it to have more show-biz potency. Why didn’t Stevens make a film about the fun of that? Stanwyck is able to convey Annie’s youth — as a teenager — but, of course, she is incapable of creating a character — that was not her forte and why should she? — she already herself had enough character for twenty — and besides the script gives her so little to work on. And as to the director — oye! — who would have thought that he would one day direct A Place In The Sun. And yet why should I feel such dismay? As Somerset Maugham said, “Only the mediocre maintain a level,” and George Stevens certainly was not that. I should keep in mind that he directed a hundred films I never saw and never hope to see. That this was one of the forgettable ones is forgivable and then some.

 

 

Come And Get It

06 Jan

Come And Get It — directed by Howard Hawks and William Wyler. Romantic Drama. A proto-lumber-tycoon deserts a girl and twenty years later falls for her daughter. 96 minutes Black and White 1936.

* * *

When Sam Goldwyn recuperated from his operation and saw the footage Hawks had shot of Edna Ferber’s novel he hit the bedpan, which flew into the fan, and Hawks walked out. So Wyler filmed the last quarter of it, and you can’t really tell, because the great Gregg Toland was filming it, and he controlled the art of the thing. What Goldwyn didn’t like was that the first of the dual female roles had been turned from a mousy barkeep to an impudent chanteuse with a mind of her own, a Hawks type, and Goldwyn had given Ferber promises. The girl is played beautifully in her first major role by Frances Farmer. She’s a cross between Maria Schell and Jessica Lang (who later played her in the movie Frances), and she is very good indeed. She’s a glorious milkmaid, as both the mother and the daughter. As the mother she ends up with Walter Brennan, an actor of great imagination, in the first of his three Oscar winning roles. As the daughter she ends up with Joel McCrea, who, as always, is excellent in the comic scenes. The one she does not end up with is Edward Arnold who has the lead, in what would have been Hawks’ King Lear. But Arnold does not have the latitude for a role this size, and his performance illustrates the weakness of perpetual determination as an acting method. He has his guns and he sticks to them; the problem is that they are guns. He plays out the role, but we never sympathize with his folly, as we should if we are asked to witness it. (Hawks originally wanted Spencer Tracy, who might have been marvelous.) Remarkable and famous scenes in this picture make it worth seeing and studying. Robert Rosson who was Hawks’ frequent second unit director went to Canada, Wisconsin, and Idaho and took the amazing logging sequences with which the picture begins. And there is a spectacular branagan in a saloon with round steel table trays being skimmed into mirrors and clientele. And, of course, Toland’s camera work is a study in itself.

 

 

Sherlock Holmes: The Game Of Shadows

18 Dec

Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows — Directed by Guy Ritchie. Boulevard Thriller. 129 minutes Color 2011.

* * * * *

Better than the first one by a long shot. Firstly because it is more witty, and secondly and thirdly because it is more witty. By that I mean that while it is also more spectacular, the spectacle is witty. I am not going to spoil the jests by describing them; let them come upon you unawares. Then too, the story swans around Europe with uncommon velocity and the picture simply expects you to go along for the ride, which is essentially Dr. Watson’s ride, since that is who we have to be, since none of us can ever be Holmes, can we. When a director or storyteller takes wit for granted in his audience he has done the wittiest thing he could do. And always the director lets us in on the joke, by which is meant that he expects us to finish the punch line for him, Alà Lubitsch. And it also means that the dialogue is witty, and dialogue can only be witty in a film if there is really a lot of it, so that we can sink our ears into it and live with the flavor of it as things unfold. There are mistakes, or rather one mistake, which is that, again, the fight scenes fall prey to scrambled editing so that there is no knowing what is going on or what is doing by whom to whom. But these are over early, and the story opens out into its drolleries and detours amply. The décor, the costumes, the carriages, and the protocols are all Teutonic, the jammed living rooms, the opulent restaurants, the creamy excesses of dress and manner, the expression, the repression – all are Germanic. It is 1891 and Victoria is on the throne and she was a German. Victorianism everywhere always has a German accent. And the designers have made the most of this and played off against it in the person and personality of Robert Downey Junior, who is the most romantic in appearance and affect of any Sherlock Holmes before. He never wears a high collar or a tie. His shirts are always Byronically open at the neck. He never does the prim Basil Rathbone/Jeremy Brett thing of the pinched genius with the long condescending nose. Instead he is all close-up and personal and tousled and Peck’s Bad Boy. Of course, like those others, he is dreadfully neurotic. He also speaks a lot more clearly here than in the first installment. In all this he is ably mated by Jude Law, again as Watson, who almost equals Holmes in magical prestidigitations. Stephen Fry makes an astounding appearance as Mycroft Holmes, Sherry’s brother, and a welcome presence he is indeed. Can we follow all this? We are not meant to. All we are meant is to feel privileged to tag along. I liked doing that. It is a sumptuous ride.

 

 

 

Under Capricorn

11 Jul

Under Capricorn – Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Costume Melodrama. An early 19th Century rake from Ireland is sent to Australia where he cleans up the marriage of a childhood friend and noblewoman now married to a rich peasant landholder. 117 minutes Color 1949.

* * * *

Not a suspense story, but rather one more along the lines of Rebecca, the story of a marriage threatened by a dark past, it is a film which rewards study. It was filmed, as was Rope, in long takes, looping through rooms and circling around and around, and it also involved the longest monologues you’ve ever heard, and it is good to hear them. The great Jack Cardiff filmed it, so it is velvet in motion. Looking wonderful in Regency costumes, Michael Wilding plays the playboy younger son out to make his fortune if he does not have to raise a sweat to do so. His long face moves so curiously that it’s rather hard to understand his craft as an actor, particularly when so many of his lines are rushed, as is the way with English actors of that era. It has five principal roles, three English, one Swedish, one American. Cecil Parker, Margaret Leighton, Wilding, Joseph Cotton and Ingrid Bergman as his drunken wife. And it becomes obvious what is wrong with that mélange. Joseph Cotton is what is wrong, and it throws the entire film. He is miscast. He is supposed to be an ex-Irish stable boy who has married a milady, Bergman, well above his station. In the film, he is the one who suffers most, because of this class difference. But we never believe for a minute that he is a peasant. His opening moment is wonderful, as he enters a bank with a well-earned ruthlessness that has given him character. But he looses that thereafter, and ends up being just a middle-class American. Neither he nor Bergman tries for an Irish accent. Bergman always felt the public liked her Swedish accent, and she was right, they did. And Cotton just speaks American. Class accents are enormously important in distinguishing caste; Margaret Leighton is the only one who knows this. But the problem is that Burt Lancaster is not playing the part. (Of course there were no Michael Caines or Sean Connerys at that time.) Bergman plays her usual put-upon dame. She has no fight, she has no moxie. She never evinces the dash attributed to her. Being a victim was also what she figured her public wanted. She brings her peerless complexion to the character and a world-class charm in scenes with Cecil Parker. But the rest of the time she is making pastry. She brings a steady emotionalism of the role to bear, but was she ever deeply engaged emotionally in any part she ever played? In a way, I’ve got to hand it to her. There was something in her limited artistic imagination that allowed her audiences’ imaginations to fill in the blank. However, I found the film fascinating as a study of Hitchcock’s story-telling devices. Under Capricorn has been much maligned: notorious for not being Notorious. Instead, think of Rebecca and enjoy.

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La Ronde – Ophuls

14 May

La Ronde – Directed by Max Ophuls. Satire. Eleven stories of French lust promiscuating until they circle around and meet up once more. 93 minutes Black and White 1950.

* * * * *

By the merest chance I saw this picture immediately after The Marriage Circle, a silent of Ernst Lubitsch. Both films have the same title and the same temperament of approach to the material, which is seriously humorous. They both deal with promiscuity, which in the French version is carried out and in the American version, of course, is not carried out. In both versions the women are the sensitive ones and the men the fools. The treatment is quite different, but the idea that lust is important is held up to the deracinating light of a wise smile. Ophuls’ movie is based on a play of Schnitzler which caused a riot, and a scandal, and an outrage, for it illustrated how sexual disease is transmitted. Ophuls’ version knows nothing of this. His version uses the word, l’amour, but it has nothing whatever to do with love; lust is the subject. 11 congresses link arms, but each one is told by the camera so luminously that nothing particular is actually illuminated. The sheen both allures and monotonizes the material. But we do have the wonderful décor, the fabulous lighting, and Ophuls’ terrific dolly shots which give us a barrier through which to peep at the principles. His placement of actors in motion, his symmetry, his fancifulness, his artifice and artificiality – all serve his turn. He has many superstars in this film, but the real superstar is his camera. His camera is the actor, the strong one, who reveals the forgivable nothing of l’amour. His cast is brilliant, particularly when you realize that some of the women playing teenagers are completely convincing although well into their thirties. Gerard Philipe is perhaps the best, as a chocolate soldier count in full regalia, entering the dressing room of a renowned comedienne and looking about sensitively at a setting which he judges to be far from noble. What a perfect decision for an actor to make. Simone Signoret, Simone Simon, and the magnificent Danielle Darrieux are wonderful. I saw this film when it first came out. I thought I was going to a dirty picture that would tell me something about sexual attraction, and I left feeling poisoned by it. Now I can see the truth of it. Which is that sexual attraction is simply a movie camera: it glamorizes, it luminizes what it lights on, and leaves it impenitently when the light moves on. This for me now is the masterful truth of this film.

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La Ronde – Vadim

12 May

La Ronde – Directed by Roger Vadim. Sex Drama. From one on to the next to the next and the next. 110 minutes Color 1964.

* * * * *

A version of the Arthur Schnitzler play once filmed by Max Ophuls who brings into the material a satirical voice personified by Anton Walbook’s intercessions. Here there is no satire and no interruptions; Vadim’s approach is straight on. What’s similar is that in both films the females are sympathetic humans and the males are the idiots, just wanting to get their jollies. Once sex is over, the men want no further history; once sex is over the women want history to begin. As in Ophuls’ the men rush to the women’s slaughter; the women submit winsomely, as though regretting the loss of the fairy tale they believed love to be. One great difference is that Vadim’s script omits the use of the word l’amour to the degree Ophuls employed it, so we have the grace to know the story is about flat out sexual seduction, and we have the joy to see that the seducers are all mostly female, no matter how the males may posture. Two beautiful males, Jean-Claude Brialy and Jean Sorel open and close the picture, neither one having to play any his aces to take the queens. But the females still are more wonderful than the males, just as they are in Ophuls’. On the other hand, Vadim’s also omits Ophuls’ great interest in camera style. Ophuls’ film is about the beauty of film; Vadim’s is about the beauty of women. An interesting advantage Vadim’s has is that the omission of Walbrook’s recesses gives the screenwriter a chance to expand on certain characters and certain scenes, and, since the screenwriter is no less than Jean Anouilh the most fully developed character is the playwright. Jane Fonda plays the part Danielle Darrieux took, and our Jane does very well in the part. Vadim was a handsome and sexy man, and Fonda married him. His interview in the Extras is fascinating. And her interview about him might be said to contain more wisdom than the film itself.

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Heaven Can Wait

15 Apr

Heaven Can Wait – Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Sophisticated Comedy. Standing before Satan to see if he qualified for the flames, an old roué reviews his long love-life. 112 minutes Color 1943.

* * * * *

Watch and learn. How does a director get a laugh from an audience by a scene in which nothing is seen but a closed door? All who direct comedy, all who like to watch it and care to wonder how it is done, sit, please, at the feet of the master. This is the Lubitsch Touch at its peak of charm and engagement. The story is a continental pastry of the kind that Lubitsch specialized in, but the war was on, so it’s all transported to New York City. It doesn’t work nearly so well as Budapest would have, but never mind. It extends one man’s entire love-life-time, in periods ranging from the romantic past, whenever that was supposed to be, to more-or-less the present, whenever that was supposed to be. Here as elsewhere, Lubitsch’s collaborator, the invaluable screenwriter Samson Raphaelson, brings us into the ruthless realistic room of sophisticated comedy once again and sets the tone. (Be sure to play his priceless comments on Special Features.) We have of course Charles Coburn to begin with who is a master of the style, indeed a master of all styles, and can do no wrong. Louis Calhern brings his magnificent carriage and his magnificent everything into the role of the roue’s father, towering over Spring Byington’s superb carriage. Dickie Moore plays Ameche as a teen hottie and I’m so glad for him. Gene Tierney is, for once, really good, because she is not forced to force. She plays a character written to triumph by throwing all her lines away. Don Ameche, whose masculinity no one could question, plays it for the fool lying behind his masher, a choice which carries the film perfectly. Laird Cregar is tops as the devil sinking that splendid galleon of an actress Florence Bates. Marjorie Main and Eugene Pallette are unthinkably cast as Tierney’s parents, which is a comic spectacle in and of itself. The difficulty with the material is that the persons of the script are essentially dealing with the  jilts and joys of infidelity, a habit of Ameche’s which, this being America and not Hungary, cannot go uncondemned. However, take a deep breath and dismiss all your moral and immoral scruples and sit back and imagine it is once upon a time, and enjoy once again another of Lubitsch’s tribute to life itself.

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Three Little Words

22 Mar

Three Little Words – directed by Richard Thorpe — a musical in which two songwriters meet and part and meet and part. 102 minutes technicolor 1950.

* * * * *

Vera Ellen maintains her nine-inch waist for us, which distracts from the fact she is taller than one would have thought, for she wears no heels with Astaire. She was not a graceful dancer, as were Rogers, Charisse, and Hayworth, but she was insanely accomplished. Her grace is always force-manufactured by her training, never inherent, for her dance category was the most vulgar of all dance modes, Acrobatic. She shines only in the comic dances, and fortunately there are three of them, and she does them beautifully. In her her romantic dances with Astaire, she is cold, even gelid. Of course, Astaire himself was cold, but he was also cool, so he carries himself enjoyably to himself and to us always, and his clothes, except for a certain hat, are a triumph of sartorial imagination. This is a bio-pic about Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, songwriters of “Nevertheless,” “Thinking of You,” and “Boop-boop-be-do,” all of which became re-hits when this film was released. This is Fred Astaire’s best acting job in a musical; he actually gets angry! Red Skelton plays Ruby as though he were a gem-stone, and the beauteous Arlene Dahl plays The Beauteous Arlene Dahl, and it is enough. Gale Robbins in Rita Hayworth figure and dresses has a number and so do Gloria DeHaven and Debbie Reynolds. The film never stalls with production numbers or plot because, mercifully, there are none. It’s a popcorn movie suitable for any occasion.

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Charley’s Aunt

21 Feb

Charley’s Aunt –– directed by Archie Mayo –– an 1892 comedy in which two Oxonians inveigle a pal to impersonate their aunt as chaperone for a visit from their girlfriends. 80 minutes black and white 1941.

* * * * *

Randy Skretvedt on the Special Features gives a nifty rundown of the lives and careers of every single person in the cast and crew. From this we learn oodles about Jack Benny, Kay Francis, Edmund Gwenn (whose deathbed words were, “Comedy is hardest”), Anne Baxter, Reginald Owen, Alfred Newman who did the music, Archie Mayo who directed it, and George Seaton who brilliantly adapted it for the screen. We are give such tidbit-info as that Laird Cregar was 24 when he played Sir Francis Chesney, the father of one of the 30 year old Oxonians. Cregar came on the set and announced to one and all, “To dispel any question about my preferences, yes, I am homosexual!” This in 1941; pretty good wouldn’t you say? I once played the part and I wish I had thought of his business with the cane. Watch for it. The play is unfailingly funny. It is the most popular English comedy ever written, and justly so. Jack Benny skedaddles around as the aunt, and his performance is on the level of Robin Williams as Mrs Doubtfire or Dustin Hoffman as Tootsie; that is to say nobody would be convinced that this is a female for one instant –– which in this case, unlike theirs, is part of the fun, since here everyone’s life depends on being convinced of it. Mayo’s direction is tip-top as he keeps things moving from brisk scene to scene, and Peverell Marly has filmed it exactly right to glamorize the women and deglamorize the men. Among the Special Features is a promotional short worth seeing, with Tyrone Power, just brilliant, coming on to have lunch with Benny, joined by a highly energized Randolph Scott (two of the most notable bisexual actors of  film). We’ve all seen Charley’s Aunt in the theatre, and we can now see it over again in our parlour, and over and over again. Good family fun, I should say, wot?

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O’Henry’s Full House

03 Feb

O’Henry’s Full House – directed by Henry Hathaway, Henry King, Henry Koster, Howark Hawkes, Jean Negulesco  — Comedy. Five of the master’s tales. 117 minutes, black and white 1952.

* * * * *

Marilyn Monroe — there she for a full two minutes, yet for all time — with that figure and the air of a dream-mistress and the hurt of a molested 12 year old asking for more and asking for no more at the same time. She is child-like appealing in the moment when she says, “He called me a lady,” after she listens to Charles Laughton. He is tip top as the grandiose bum who seeks to spend the winter in a cosy jail rather than on a desolate park bench. David Wayne does a terrific crazy derelict with just the right hat. Richard Widmark  reprises his Johnny Udo from Kiss of Death, which is super to see again. He was never a subtle actor, so this is perfect for him, and I place you in his competent evil hands. I saw this picture when it came out, and was bored, but that was the era when Marlon Brando was emerging, so I found it old fashioned. But now I enjoy that it is old fashioned, for that was its intention, and I ask: would these costume stories work in modern dress? I think not. For their entertainment value is high, but their value is the entertainment of antiques. Put this in your Antiques Film Road Show and enjoy — O’Henry really knew how to tell a story: The Gift of the Magi, The Ransom of Red Chief, The Clarion Call, The Cop and the Anthem, The Last Leaf.

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Annie Oakley

17 Dec

Annie Oakley — directed by George Stevens — a country lass can shoot the thorns off a rose at 50 paces. So she joins Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.

*

This is a George Stevens production???!!! — the George Steven who directed Alice Adams and The More The Merrier and Shane and Woman Of The Year? Inconceivable! It is a movie devoid of distinction, except for the slight truth Preston Foster gives it as the boasting sharpshooter Annie loves. The script is so poor even Stanwyck looks like a bad actress, which she wasn’t. She was an actress of limited range and disposition, sure, but she had the common touch and a beautiful carriage and natural presence and surety of execution, all of which counted for a lot in her work — in any actor’s work. Sorry, but this film is puerile. One wonders at the aesthetic degradation studios felt they had to drag their audiences into in order to snare them. In real life, Annie Oakley was a woman of parts, smart and able and of fine disposition, and she had a long career. Why didn’t Stevens make a film about the fun of that? Stanwyck is able to convey Annie’s youth — as a teenager — but, of course, she is incapable of creating a character — why should she? — she already herself had enough character for twenty — and besides the script gives her so little to work on. And as to the director — oye! — who would have thought that he would one day direct A Place In The Sun.

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Easter Parade

14 Nov

Easter Parade –– directed by Charles Walters –– a famous hoofer chooses a bistro chorus girl to turn into his next dance partner –– 103 minutes color 1948.

* * * * *

Even with Edith Head doing the things, Judy Garland proved impossible to costume properly, a doom of her entire career. This was partly to due to the fact she not only was devoid of urbanity but she was also devoid of any show biz cache and she was short waisted and very tiny. What she exuded was The Rural, a quality that did not lend itself to haute couture or any kind of couture, vis the ghastly green velvet dress with the mink stole and all the others. Her best costume is a rust bathrobe with no makeup. Or the costumes for her comic numbers. From The Wizard Of Oz on she is rural, not because she was in that movie but because she is devoid of guile. She was very intelligent and quick and a lot of fun and talented beyond reason. Her gifts as an actress were remarkable: she is present, even when her deep brown eyes seem absent, responsive, imaginative, physical, ready, and always with a wellspring of humor about to burst forth. And with that rich hungry voice. Her acceptance of Peter Lawford as a pick-up in the charming song, A Fellah With An Umbrella, is a model of good naturedness, an actress’s choice that can’t be beat. The only element  defying this is an eyebrow make-up, here and always, unreal. Astaire is made in the first part of the picture to look like Stan Laurel because of a bowler and because he actually does resemble Laurel. His dancings are phenominal, as he sets the pace with a terrific number with drums in a toy store. Stepping Out With My Baby is a great song, perfectly orchestrated, yes, but take care to watch his footwork still on the stairs after his entrance. He is dressed in red and white, and while the second half of the dance is sabotaged by the costumes of the other participants and the dances they have to do in them, his dance is not elaborate, but his body is vitality itself. The picture is best in its first third, at which time you think it is one of the greatest musicals ever made. But that’s because all the jolly Garland and Astaire dances are there, but one: We’re a Couple of Swells, which is a parody of The Easter Parade itself. (If you ever wanted to know what Camp actually means, this song is it.) The musical stalls somewhat as it grows over-responsible to the plot of Astaire’s vindication regarding Ann Miller, his former partner. Miller, who is Olive Oyle in tap shoes, dances like a Tommy gun and is quite good as the vainglorious diva. Watch Garland, the most generous of actors, as she listens to Jules Munshin make the salad, and how her responses just naturally help that scene build. Pay attention to her separate and particular relation to the bartender played by Clinton Sunderberg, and the camera isn’t even on her. Very well directed by Charles Walters. Wonderful Irving Berlin songs. Astaire and Garland marvelous together. An Easter Bonnet!

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The Far Country

24 Oct

The Far Country – directed by Anthony Mann – A Western in which our cranky hero delivers a herd of cattle to the Yukon only to be double crossed. 97 minutes color 1955

* * * * *

Jimmy Stewart plays a self-centered adventurer who lands on his feet in a series of astonishing Canadian Rocky settings outside Jasper. Walter Brennan without his teeth and Jay C. Flippen as a drunken gold-panner play his picturesque sidekicks. The story is episodic, but the episodes are attention-getting. John McIntyre as the law-gone-bad character is a study in self-confidence. The glorious mountains are a mess to negotiate but Ruth Roman’s hairdo is never mussed in the mountains, but that’s Hollywood for ya, idnt it?. One of several strong Westerns Stewart made with director Anthony Mann — always with the same horse, Pie. Worth seeing.

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Tall In The Saddle

17 Oct

Tall In The Saddle–– directed by Edwin L. Marin –– a western in which a cowboy has to fight the enemies of the dead rancher who hired him and also fend off his comely hellcat neighbor. 87 minutes black and white 1944.

* * * *

Ella Raines generates a wild gypsy heat for Wayne, and looks great in chaps riding full bore into town to shoot him dead. Wayne had a great figure in those days, and his face begins to take on the wry humor that became his stock in trade and lent so much character and fun to his work as he grew older. The story is casual and episodic, which is just right if you want Gabby Hayes to give full value, which he does; an oddity, but a very good actor at what he did. I saw this when it first came out and fell in Love with Ella Raines. I have still not gotten over it.  Shoulder length dark hair, a dancer’s carriage, a direct and level look, she’s my type. I was 11, and I knew what I wanted . In my 20s I remained faithful to Ella Raines by falling in love with Janice Rule. To this day, any picture in which either of these beautiful women appear gets my full and biased attention. Altogether one of Wayne’s best middle period Westerns –– varied and likable and well told.

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They Came To Cordura

17 Oct

They Came To Cordura – directed by Robert Rosen – Period Western drama in which an officer must chaperone a pack of renegade men and a treacherous woman across the parching desert. 123 minutes color 1959.

* * * *

A better picture than it was thought to be at the time, the actual story of internal human values supervenes in our interest in the arduous trek. Rita Hayworth was a good screen actress and a knockout. The sight of her elegant dancer’s carriage sitting in a saddle in a wide-brimmed hat shading that incredible jaw-line is alone worth the price of admission. In support are a pack of first class stars, Richard Conte, Van Heflin, Tab Hunter. Gary Cooper is close to the end of his work in films. He seems too old for the part, at least he looks too old –– for the simple reason that the efficient cause of his being given this assignment would only obtain to a newcomer. The grueling haul of seven individuals of dubious character across the spectacular desert ranges of the Southwest is stunning. Robert Rossen of All The Kings Men wrote and directed, and the script demonstrates a gripping moral debate, the constituents of cowardice and courage, Cooper’s home territory. Better now than before, this film may grow into its proper audience. It was, and still is, the sort of picture no longer made by Hollywood: one with adult themes, made with adult stars, and intended for adult audiences. Well worth watching.

* * * *

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