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Archive for the ‘Walter Pidgeon’ Category

Holiday In Mexico

20 Jul

Holiday In Mexico – directed by George Sidney. Musical. 128 minutes Color 1946.

★★★★

The Story: The daughter of the ambassador to Mexico convinces herself into an imbroglio and then sings her way out of it.

~

Jane Powell’s first film at MGM which produced, let’s say overproduced, ten years of her subsequent films. These were the sort of films one stayed away from in the dull days of DDI. Those were the times when The American Dream was just invented. It consisted then as now of two things: a tract home and golf. And that demented fiction: The Girl Next Door. Taken over from Dianna Durbin and Judy Garland, this presented the American teen-age lass as sparkling, as jolly, and as virginal as an icecream soda.

Jane Powell began very good at this, except that she not only plays characters who are irritating but she also is so. And she is so because, at this point in her development, everything she does as an actor is pat. It is new but it is never fresh, which makes it shiny but conventional. For she is never in the moment. She on top of the moment as one might be said to be on top of a carousel horse. So, while her responses are always on the money, they come out as miniature mugging. She’s not riding a real horse.

Three kinds of acting are on display here, and they are wonderful to behold in juxtaposition. Next to Powell as her father is that master of imperturbability, Walter Pidgeon. He is riding a real horse. He never brings anything new but everything he does is fresh, so it looks new. Everything he does belongs to him. Nothing is forced. Everything is right. He is easy in his craft. He has presence. He has bearing. He has humor about himself and others. His alias is Aplomb. He is completely responsive to the actors opposite him. And at the end he gives one of the most beautifully delivered, down-to-earth tablecloth speeches I have ever heard an actor negotiate.

The speech is good also because it’s well-written, although the same may not be said for the scenario as a whole, which involves our Jane, aged fifteen, running after José Iturbi, a grandfather. We won’t go into it. It is a wonder Xavier Cugat himself does not go after her; he was said to have an eye for Chihuahuas and nymphets. Chihuahuas and nymphets? Actually they’re both the same thing.

In the third kind of acting, Mikhail Rasumny, plays a Russian Ambassador whose daughter has fallen for Pidgeon. What was going on in The Moscow Art Theatre at that time had nothing to do with Lee Strasburg. This is brilliant prototypical comic Russian acting. Don’t miss it. One scene. He’s hilarious. A masterwork of its type. A lesson in the craft.

To say the film is a holiday is bunko; it is not a holiday; they are in residence – which is no more Mexican than the MGM backlot. And Cugat and Iturbi were Spanish.

Yet the whole business is beautifully produced and costumed and directed. And Iturbi’s piano numbers are a lot of fun to watch. As is the finale – where they all appear in a outdoor concert with our Jane singing Ave Maria (written by an Austrian) in an open air arena the size of Arizona.

 

Mrs Miniver

08 Jun

Mrs Miniver — directed by William Wyler. Drama. An average upper-middle class English family encounters WW II in their own back yard. 134 minutes Black and White 1942.

★★★★

The films of William Wyler won more Academy Awards for actors than any other director, two of them for this picture, which won for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Cinemaphotography. Teresa Wright won it for Supporting Actress, and Greer Garson for Best Actress. She didn’t want to do it, and didn’t get along with the director, at least at first. But the fact is that she won the award more for the role she plays than for her playing of it. For neither the film nor her work in it hold up much any more, despite passages here and there. But it was an enormous hit during its day, and rightly so. Helmut Dantine, who rather looks like her twenty-year-old son in the film, is the vicious German, and despite opposition by Mayer, Wyler has him as a very nasty piece of goods indeed. (Mayer was afraid of losing the Axis market, if you will.) Dantine does a good job, but it is for the audience to play the scene where he appears in Greer Garson’s kitchen. Garson is merely moon-faced, unreadable, and this could be said of her performance throughout, except for a moment of humor here or there or the look in her eye when she cajoles Dame May Whitty into relinquishing a rose prize to Henry Travers, a lowly fancier. Garson always acted as though there were a powder puff in her mouth. She is always A Lady doused with English Lavender. My gracious, how gracious!  So her performance, here as elsewhere, is generalized, lacking in punctuation or particularity. Eccentricity is not hers. (One wonders how she ever got to replace Rosalind Russell in Auntie Mame on Broadway.) But at the time this did not matter. She stood for something! And it worked. What she stood for was the ability of everyday people in the Allied home front to engage in the war bravely and positively. She was The War Effort. It was not just a case of The British courage; it was the courage of all people everywhere to endure the hardships of that time and win through. I lived through that time, and Mrs Miniver was the iconic film for it. Looking at it now, one sees how forced the humor is, and how false the Hollywood settings look, and how unquestioning the script. In it, Garson is a portrait, but not of a person. Her work is less than simple. Teresa Wright does just fine; Richard Ney’s performance is every excuse for his big-toothed smile to be promoted. Rhys Williams, Reginald Owen give good, useful supporting performances. Wyler and Henry Wilcoxon, who played it beautifully, wrote the sermon by the rector which is the film’s famous coda. But the only principal performance that stands up over time is that of Walter Pidgeon as Mr. Miniver. With his easy earthiness, his graceful humor, his physical practicality he grounds every scene he is in, keeping them from floating free in a story that does not exist, but which depends everything upon narrative liaison, in which, at least, Wyler is superb. Still it is Pidgeon one thanks. Watch him: he is always acting. He holds everything together. With the merest of means, he brings possibility for joy and real exhaustion and a witty taciturnity to the mise-en-scene. The passage in the home bomb-shelter in the garden is a stunning scene, that still works today; and his authority in it, that is to say, his deliberate modesty of means, contribute immensely here, as they did throughout his long and beneficial career. He was the most deft of actors.

 

Dark Command

22 Apr

Dark Command — directed by Raoul Walsh. Western. All Kansas is saved from the dread Will Cantrell by an illiterate con man. 94 minutes Black and White 1940.

★★★★

Shall we consider the matter of John Wayne? Here he is ae. 32, handsome as all get out, slender of hip and tummy, tall in the saddle and looking good there, and with that brow even out-furrowing Gable’s. This director, Raoul Walsh, discovered him in 1930, changed his name from Marion to John and from Morrison to Wayne, and in his early 20s put him, in white buckskins, as the hero of one of the greatest Western ever made, The Big Trail. Now The Big Trail was shot in Cinemascope, or a thirty-years-too-soon wide screen version like it, but movie theatres refused to install the screens, so the film, although popular never remade its nut, and Wayne was relegated to B Western for ten years — until Stagecoach, after which he was an A-list star. Another ten years would go by until Red River when John Ford recognized that Wayne could actually act. But with Dark Command in 1940 he is re-united for the first time since The Big Trail with Walsh, and he is also reunited with Claire Trevor his costar in that hugely popular movie. She plays a lady of property, and Wayne plays the grifter sidekick of George Hayes who runs an itinerate dentistry. Wayne’ voice sidles through the film so unobtrusively that he steals every scene he is in. He really knows his business by this time, and is no longer the callow youth in buckskins. He has not yet become the taxidermied version of himself he sometimes arranged to be later nor has he developed that walk of a pigeon-toed panther. He is an extremely passive actor and a very good one. You can still see how beautiful his mouth is. He is sexy because he is sexually innocent. He’s a young man and a happy actor. Opposite him Walter Pidgeon, of all people, has been brought in to play the sociopath Will Cantrell. In a way it’s smart casting, because no one in town suspects that mousy schoolmaster is the dread raider. However, a vigilante is still not a part Pidgeon can craft, but fortunately the story takes care of him. It’s a role that succeeds by the reputation of what people say about him. His mother is movingly played by Marjorie Main, and Walsh gives full value to her. And the wonderful Claire Trevor, fresh from her success in Stagecoach, plays the mettlesome and sharp society girl who is the love interest of both men, another of Walsh’s terrific independent women. A young Roy Rogers with his beautiful mobile face plays her brother, and it’s fascinating to watch him at this boy-stage, although he is 29. Porter Hall plays the dithering foof who fouls up the denouement beautifully. Watch what happens when an actor simply lets his mouth hang open. Anyhow, it’s Wayne’s movie and an interesting one from the hand of Walsh, who knows exactly how to set up a shot, how to direct scenes of panic and mayhem so you think people are really going to get hurt, and how to ravish you with the sight of midnight horses.

 

 

Big Brown Eyes

20 Apr

Big Brown Eyes — directed by Raoul Walsh. Comedy. A NYC cop and a manicurist turned reporter foil a Chopin-playing jewel fence. 77 minutes Black and White 1936.

★★★★

You like fast-talking dames? Check out Joan Bennett as the gum snapping, dialogue snapping manicurist that Cary Grant can’t stop chasing. She can’t stop mistrusting him, and it’s no wonder: Cary Grant as a New York City flatfoot? – never! He is both very good in the part and also quite unbelievable. Why? I don’t know. It’s not his accent, which is maybe lower class Bristol and maybe not, and at least is he is never in uniform. In fact, he is a plainclothesman, in really beautiful suits in which his figure looks great. No, it’s hard to pinpoint it, except there is that about Cary Grant which suggests a man who even when taking a bath wears a tuxedo. The dialogue is rich with comebacks, wise-cracks, and quick-draw ripostes – very much in the style of the 30s, and is really a style that has gone out of style, but in its heyday, here is a great example of its fun. They spray the picture faster than a tommy gun. If you like smart talk, alà His Gal Friday, take a gander at this gander and his goose. Bennett is terrific as a classic Walsh heroine, testy and full of personal ability and wit. Walter Pidgeon plays the smarmy sophisticated fence, and he is just wonderful. Unequalled in savoire faire, Pidgeon was released here and in Dark Command to play villains, not what we remember him for, but here he is just grand. Lloyd Nolan is a gun-crazy henchman devoted to cut flowers, and Walsh’s scene with him in a luxe bathroom arranging American Beauty Roses as he gets murdered is heaven-sent. But I say too much. If I don’t watch my lip, Nolan will come alive and gun me down too. But I aint no squelch, I ain’t I tell ya, I’d never rat on nobody. Don’t shoot, I didn’t mean it. Bang. Argh. Crash. I’m under da daisies. And if you watch Lloyd Nolan closely, so is he.

 

 

The Last Time I Saw Paris

23 Mar

The Last Time I Saw Paris — Directed by Richard Brooks — Drama. A novelist returns to Paris on a mission and relives the beauty and sorrow of his marriage after World War II.  90 minutes Color 1954.

* * * * *

At this moment, Elizabeth Taylor was the most beautiful woman in the world. She is 22 perhaps, and she is like a ripe plum. Helen Rose, who dressed her, has put her only in primary colors, no prints, realizing that nothing must compete with our rapt attention to her face. I am 77 and grew up with this girl, and with the history of her face as she grew from a child in a Lassie movie, through a horse-loving teenager in National Velvet, through her first kiss, and her teenage marriage, and the birth of her children. What was that face becoming? For the most part, she never played a woman who had a job, and in adult roles she largely played leading women to men who were the focus of the story, as here, with Van Johnson. However, the focus of the story is not always the focus of the camera or the focus of our attention. Here the focus of the camera, whenever it can be, is on her, and besides one cannot one’s eyes off her. Look at the great black and white domino party scene where she is profile. Her profile is fabulous. That is to say, it is the profile of a face which writes the story of the culture of its time. This history has to do with our attention to The Visible Ideal in whatever form it may take. Since, in her face, that ideal exists, our gaze upon it includes the questions: is it immortal, how will it change, what will become of it? There is a spiritual force in such beauty; at least there is in the beholder of it. All culture is the arrival of spiritual force in the plastic forms of art, and this face possessed it, especially in the 1950s when culture in America was at a despicable low. In the place of that mediocrity was this face. But it is not the face alone that is riveting and important, for she is an actress playing a part, and such she must bring into her craft the fabric of her nature. She is that rare thing, a great romantic actress. So what we see is that she is so loving and in such pain about that love; that she is quietly witty and forgiving. Her equipment includes a Voice With Money In It, as Fitzgerald described Daisy in The Great Gatsby. Indeed all these qualities make her the perfect Fitzgerald heroine, and Fitzgerald wrote Babylon Revisited upon which this movie is based, and he also wrote a famous screenplay of it, on which this film may be based, for it certainly has beautiful dialogue, in scene after scene, all played exquisitely by Elizabeth Taylor. Van Johnson has a line in the sardonic and the vexed which does not really carry us into his heart. But Walter Pidgeon is enchanting as the bon viveur father, and Donna Reed is usefully stiff-necked as Taylor’s older, mean sister. This is an essential film for American cultural history. Her beauty and her talent in romantic roles cut through everything at that time. Do not miss it. It is the last romantic role Elizabeth Taylor played and the greatest.

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