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Archive for the ‘Frederic March’ Category

Mary Of Scotland

01 Dec

Mary Of Scotland—directed by John Ford. Historical. 123 minutes Black and White 1936.
★★★★
The Story: An attractive young queen assumes her throne only to be bullied by everyone.
~
Mary of Scotland as a monarch is not a good subject for drama, although Mary Stuart as a person is so tempting that even Schiller placed his great talent at her disposal. I saw Eva Le Gallienne and and Irene Worth (and later Signe Hasso) do it in Tyrone Guthrie’s production at The Phoenix. It is a play frequently revived. It is based on a confrontation between the two queens Elizabeth and Mary that never (as politically inexpedient) could have taken place. And of course there is the opera Maria Stuarda of Donizetti, based on the Schiller. Schiller had a massive talent for extensive confrontation scenes of a romantic order. And they have a certain carrying power in his play. Shakespeare wisely stayed clear of the subject, even when his patron, the king, was Mary’s son, James. Maxwell Anderson, however, riding his over-stuffed studio couch of talent into the ditch accomplished a traffic jam.

What’s the problem?

Mary made unwise decisions. If we had a good play about her today, it would resemble the decisions the present queen of England is seen to make in The Crown: every single decision Elizabeth II makes is wrong. But her string of errors holds the story of her reign together.

But Mary was also a creature of determining bad luck, which Elizabeth II is not. And bad luck is a subject that cannot be dramatized. While if ever an actress was born to overrule bad luck it was Katharine Hepburn, even she cannot do it. Dudley Nichols, an able screenwriter if there ever was one, cannot do it. Pandro Berman has produced it magnificently, but that merely detours the problem. And, of course, John Ford directed it with his crude sentimentality and his robust love of men doing manly things this time in kilts. They execute them in close order marches, singing in brave choral unison, amid the screeches of bagpipes.

Frederic March as the sexy rash warrior Lord Bothwell is miscast although he assumes the position with all the will of the matinée idol he wasn’t. Frederic March cannot assume a role perfect for Errol Flynn. March’s real-life wife Florence Eldridge as Elizabeth falls into the same trap that snared Bette Davis in the role: playing the queen as a waterfront thug.

Katharine Hepburn alone carries the film, which is all over the place. Alone among the actors at least she is not over-costumed by Walter Plunkett. Sometimes she plays in the Noble Mode of her era and choice, but often she is touching, not because she can generate at will that left-eye tear of hers, but because Mary was flustered and muscled by her Scots lairds. She assumed a throne whose rule of a child-king had been in the hands a regency of men too accustomed to having their own way, and her assumption was ignorant, incompetent, and incorrect. But to see Hepburn helpless has its appeal.

She is supported by the brilliant filming of Joe August. If you want to learn something about how to shoot this sort of royal hooey (Game Of Thrones), watch Mary Of Scotland. Watch how his camera holds his actors in its embrace, caresses them with black, searches their faces in fade-outs.

When I was eighteen I lived in Oundle and visited the next town over, Fotheringhay, where Mary was held by Elizabeth in house arrest. After much delay, Elizabeth signed Mary’s death warrant. But when Mary was beheaded and fell dead, a commotion bestirred her garments. Then it was discovered she has secreted her lapdog in the voluminous sleeves of her dress.

It’s a telling detail of a woman too trivial to grasp the reality of her royal situation. A child woman, of course, Hepburn could play but only as a hoyden as Jo in Little Women. Still she looks lovely in the role and acts it with all the restraint necessary to an actor baffled by a role of a sexy woman once played on Broadway by the least sexy actress of all, Helen Hayes. That is to say, into the basic material nothing fits because the basic material for drama is not there.

Hepburn is not box-office poison, but the material RKO gave her in those days was. Or perhaps her arrogance in thinking she could overcome that material by force of personality was the poison. Hepburn was not an actress who could shape material to her own ends. That was not within her genius or appeal. She could do a lot. She could not do everything. Still if you love or admire her, as I certainly do, here she is in the least heroic role she ever played. And it is worthwhile to see how she keeps her seat in the role to ride it right off the cliff at the end.

 

Anna Karenina

05 Feb

Anna Karenina — directed by Clarence Brown — Tragedy. A young mother married to a chilly bureaucrat is wooed and won by a high riding cavalry officer. 93 minutes Black and white 1935.

* * * * *

Frederick March had learned the secret of perpetual middle age, and he is no more a prince than my chest of drawers. He lacks the rash dash which John Gilbert had as Vronsky in Garbo’s earlier and silent version, which is in modern dress, and in which her scenes with her child are far more interesting than they are here with the dread Freddie Bartholomew. Vronsky requires an actor of Byronic allure, shirt open to the waist, a part perfectly suited to Errol Flynn, here being played by a businessman. Garbo plays it as though courteously exhausted by her marriage, whose doom she puts up with with a lovely and sincerely kind and interested social smile. She is unutterably beautiful, with her thick eyelashes and the astounding geography of her eyes, summoning everything from an exhausted interior. She does not look well in many of her costumes, though, and her hair-dos are an error. And of course the movie does not work because, for its transience, the love affair has to decline, and it can’t if it has never peaked, and it can’t peak if there is no lubricity between the two lovers, and there aint. The piece is over-produced; it looks foolishly expensive. as though all the Russian upper classes lived in MacMansions; Russian haute bourgeois interiors never had ceilings that weren’t there, nor were they that vast; after all, they had to be heated. Garbo does not play a beautiful woman; she, as usual, dismisses her beauty humorously as beside the point. Good. But I question the drone her voice takes on as one who has given up hopelessly before the play begins, making the performance appear a bit prefabricated. That is, I question her choice. The director Clarence Brown she liked because he managed traffic so well, but he’s an awful dullard, and the picture’s excellence, so far as it has any, is solely the product of Williams Daniels who filmed and lit most of Garbo’s films; the banquet scene, the ball, the movement of light across her face; the placement of Garbo in it; all the camera moves; all the angles; shooting from behind the harp, everything like that is not directorial, not Clarence Brown but Williams Daniels. Williams Daniels is the man. He is one really playing Vronsky here. He is the one madly in love with her. He was one of the great lighting and filming geniuses who ever lived. Garbo was a great actress and a great beauty and a great soul, and he caught it all, over and over again for us.

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Tomorrow The World

05 Feb

Tomorrow The World – directed by Leslie Fenton. Drama. On the home-front in WWII, a German adolescent is fostered out to relatives in the U.S. but turns out to be a member of the Nazi Youth Movement.  82 minutes black and white 1944.

* * * * *

Betty Field delivers the knockout performance that makes this material work. She sets up every scene so strongly that you understand perfectly what she is up against in the nasty little Nazi-youth which Skippy Homier plays. Homier comes from the Broadway company of the play, and his performance is dyed in the wool and equally as strong as hers. You really have to hand it to him. He is thirteen years old when he makes the picture, and not a moment too soon. He plays the part of a German youth movement youngster, who, during WWII, is brought to America to live with the family of his deceased father. He plans to take over America, and actually partly succeeds. One always thought of Betty Field as a little squishy as an actress, but not here.  Here she is opposed to two heavy talents, Frederic March and Agnes Moorhead, and they both are in fine form indeed. To watch Moorhead’s economy of means is a treat. And Frederic March has a line in stalwartness that is real and well judged. But it is Field’s scenes with March that grip one, as she fires tactic after tactic to confront him. In the entire film the acting is strong, direct, and simple, an excellent example of the style of film acting of that period. No pauses. No back story. No self-indulgence. No reaching for a depth the material will not support. As to the story, I had no idea how it would turn out. And it did.

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Man On A TIghtrope

05 Feb

Man On A Tightrope – directed by Elia Kazan — Drama. The owner /ringmaster and his small touring circus fall afoul of The Communist regime in Czechoslovakia. 105 minutes black and white 1953.

* * * * *

Kazan was a high Virgo and while that means that he understood what was crucial, what was critical, it also means that he was highly critical of himself and his own work, and not always accurately. Thus his put-down of this work – an action adventure piece that actually comes alive completely in the bumbling escape attempt with which it ends. Man On A Tightrope is the best circus picture I have ever seen. Kazan adores the circus folk and their life, and really gets down with them. You see their color, their gypsy soul, their absurdity, their dignity, and their crazy fun. The story is based on the actual escape of a real circus from the Communists, and Kazan actually filmed this in Europe and actually uses that very circus in the film. He brings in Hollywood actors to play the principals, Alex D’Arcy, touching as the bashful lion-tamer, Gloria Grahame, once again as the girl who doesn’t want to say no, Richard Boone as the lumpen-heavy, Adolph Menjou covered with cigarette ash lying on a couch as he plays the bureaucrat out to outwit the owner, , and Frederic March as that owner. Kazan originally wanted March as Willy Loman in Death Of A Salesman, which is strange because March is no more Willy Loman than my cat. He has too much inner stance. He is too middle-class. But he had used him in the original stage production of The Skin Of Our Teeth, a Kazan early triumph, when March told him, “Be careful with me. I tend to over-do,”  and which Kazan loved him for. It’s just wonderful how wonderful March could be. He is often miscast. He is not a sexually exciting actor. He doesn’t offer romance, even when young. But he can offer pain and its discombobulation and weakness. He can offer doubt. He offers the promise of middle-age, even when young, which means that he offers the values of a grown-up; at no point is he ever an adolescent. You have to take him seriously, even if you don’t particularly like him or don’t particularly like looking at his face, which is one thing you don’t have to do with a stage actor but do have to do with a movie actor. And you have to respect his technique which is displayed here with no showiness. Kazan, good naturedly said about March here that he had to keep Freddy from hamming it up, but March never seems in danger of doing that. Terry Moore, though, pushes it as the love interest with Cameron Mitchell, but that was the way she always was, and you wonder why Kazan allowed Zanuck to cast her. She’s a false note in a bad plot move, but the rest of the material is right on. What do you have to sacrifice to escape oppression is the theme. Perhaps Kazan didn’t quite realize it, but it’s a great theme. Too bad, but it’s still a marvelous piece, typical of Kazan in his love of actors, his spacious sympathies, and his phenomenal understand of human nature.

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