Monday, April 24, 2017

Rebecca (1940)

A pretty young woman (Joan Fontaine) is the travelling companion of a wealthy busybody (Florence Bates). While in Monte Carlo they cross paths with dashing rich man (Laurence Olivier). He is mourning his dead wife and thus acts aloof and antisocial. Despite this, pretty woman and dashing widower spend time together and get married. He takes her back to his expansive estate

Skittish and unsure, the new Mrs. de Winter has to contend with a distant husband, a household staff that seems not to embrace her, and the spectre of the dead OLD Mrs. de Winter (Rebecca). George Sanders plays the George Sanders character, Leo G. Carroll played the Leo G. Carroll character, and Nigel Bruce plays the Nigel Bruce character. Nice when that all works out.

What a peculiar film! Apparently faithful to the source material, the pace was hurried to get all the facts in place. Also, the extensive use of matte paintings and miniature sets, while impressive, were very apparent. But it was the film’s frantic pace that initially troubled me. Over time, however, it slowly won me over to this, Hitchcock’s first Hollywood film only Best Picture.

Rebecca is one of the earliest Hitchcock films I’ve seen and it has the polish characteristic of his later work, but somehow feels a little different. Set in the modern day (1940), it seems a little like a period piece. Austere mansion, polite society, elevated language, and not expressly a genre picture. That said, it does resemble Suspicion a bit, Fontaine’s (and Bruce’s) other Hitch Flick.

In the end. as I said, I did come around. It’s an interesting and very good picture. The scene between Fontaine's unnamed character and Mrs. Danvers is truly bizarre. For my money, not THE best picture of 1940, but up there. AMRU 3.5.
“I've been thinking...
Now why would you want to go and do that for?”

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Gone with the Wind (1939)

Entitled bitch Scarlett (Vivien Leigh) learns that the man she is infatuated with (Leslie Howard) is marrying his cousin (Olivia de Havilland), then the war of southern aggression takes the men’s attention away from her, and all the while she is pursued by the cad Rhett Butler (Clark Gable). After losing her precious way of life she learns to be self sufficient, saves Tara, gets her man, and lives happily ever after. Promise.

Chalk this up as another ‘How the hell did I not see this until now’ film. I’m sure this is because I have seen bits and pieces and, well, I have issues. Costume melodramas aren’t exactly in my wheelhouse and I have reveled in my dislike for this kind of film. I have called the Wizard of Oz the greatest bad movie ever and this the worst great movie ever. Not that anyone could say the line Fiddle-dee-dee without sounding like a complete fraud, but some of the acting was horrendous. But mostly I have an extreme distaste for the idolization of the old South, where the idle rich live in lavish comfort on the backs of unimaginable cruelty. And make no mistake, some of that is here, but more on that later. So, after seeing fifty candles on my cake I actually sat down and watched all seventy hours of this epic, romantic, quasi-historic costume melodrama. Here is what I have to say.

There are no likable characters in the film, said one son, with the exception of de Havilland’s Melanie, and she was just a paper-thin generic goodie character used as a foil for horrid Scarlett. To disagree somewhat, I did like the cad Rhett Butler. He knew who he was and owned up to it. He pursued Scarlett because she was just like him. Selfish, manipulative, and driven. Oh, and she was hot. And rich. This may be Gable’s best roll, even though he dismissed it as a woman’s picture. But if you really liked Scarlett as a protagonist, then you are a terrible person.

The third leg in this love triangle is Ashley Wilkes, played by a middle aged ugly man. I guess they didn’t want people rooting for him too much. Seriously, Howard was pushing fifty during filming! He loves Scarlett (I guess) but marries his cousin because that’s what the Wilkes always do. I suppose. Then the war, then all hell breaks loose, then our story resolves. Back to my principal issue.

Slavery is the single greatest evil my nation perpetrated on other humans, and that is saying something. The best thing you can say about the institution is that it was worse in other places. America didn’t need to continuously import slaves to replace the ones dying in the fields, like in the Caribbean. They lived long enough to produce new slaves. If that’s your saving grace, then, again, you are a terrible person. Slavery is never justified by the gifts of civilization and Christianity. And you cannot reminisce for the old south without acknowledging the great and terrible evil that allowed it to exist. The Old South needed to die just as the aristocracies of old Europe. Let’s get back to the film.

What I had missed about Gone With the Wind was there is more than one way to enjoy the story. You could feel sorry for Scarlett or the loss of plantation society as many people do. But the events depicted are not necessarily a treatise on the loss of something grand or the cruelty of the North, but a statement that War is Hell and here are events that happened. Enjoying the story does not necessitate sympathy with slaveholders.

Stepping away from the heavy narrative for a moment, I'd like to shout out to Scarlett's dad played by Thomas Mitchell. He also appeared in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Stagecoach, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington all in the SAME YEAR! Olivia de is pushing 101, almost as old as my uncle.

Gone With the Wind is an amazingly beautiful film. The sets, the photography, the editing, it all comes together wonderfully. And the copy I saw was a fairly poor transfer. I can only imagine what a fully restored 4k edition would look like. And for a film that’s two minutes shy of four hours, it never drags. That’s coming from me, charter member of Short Attention Span Theater fan club. I will see it again. AMRU 4.

I don’t leave you with a film quote (of course there were many to choose from), but one from Leslie Howard, who died four years later, a causality of the war:
“I hate the damn part. I'm not nearly beautiful or young enough for Ashley, and it makes me sick being fixed up to look attractive.”

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)

Young Henry (Richard Greene), heir to the Baskerville Estate, gets to move in early when uncle Charles dies of a heart attack. Or was he eaten by a phantom hound? No, it was a heart attack. Anyhow, Charlie’s good buddy Dr. Mortimer thinks the family is cursed (you now, by a hound) and young Henry’s life is in great danger. He goes to the legendary Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) for help.

Remember when I covered the 1959 Hammer version? You do? I don't, to be honest. That was almost seven years ago, and yes, I still haven’t read the source story. I may have gotten details wrong there, so hopefully I’ll do better here.

In a pre-Cumberpatch world, Holmes and Watson were synonymous with Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. (Remember Nigel from Suspicion?) The pair did fourteen Holmes films between 1939 and 1946. Impressed? Twelve were between 42 and 46, plus they even made an appearance in an unassociated comedy. Now THAT’S a production schedule! As such, their style and performances became the standard for all future versions.

The character of Watson (in a pre-Martin Freeman world) was that of a portly, somewhat pompous windbag. A complete foil to Holmes’ understated genius. That characterization comes from Nigel Bruce. The Watson from the stories was the admiring and frequently confounded narrator, not dissimilar to Freeman’s depiction.

Veteran studio hack John Carradine played the suspicious butler. This was just about when his career was taking off. That same year he’d appear in Stagecoach and eventually build a reputation in the world of horror. Also appearing is Lionel Atwill as the good Doctor. He too would spend time working the Universal horror circuit. Come to think of it, Basil himself also had a brief spell there.

The Baskerville estate lies, apparently, on a rocky asteroid, far from civilization but with unusually fast mail delivery. Anyhow, they hold dinner parties,  perform seances, and fall in love while waiting for the mythical hound-beast to eat them all. Or not. Hard to tell.

The Hound of the Baskervilles was a lot of fun. A better than fair mystery with great atmosphere, the kind Old Hollywood sometimes did well. There were red herrings and amusing moments, and a good time was had by all. Except those who died. The next one won't be too far off. AMRU 3.5.
“Oh, Watson - the needle!”

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Seven Year Itch (1955)

In the summer, wives and children of the well to do escape the Manhattan heat for lakeside paradises, leaving husbands and fathers behind to behave like unsupervised delinquents. Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell) wants to be good, yes he does, but, you see, this hot blond (Marilyn Monroe) just moved upstairs, and you know …

Originally a play, the story revolved around a man’s affair when the wife is away. No, actual affairs just won’t do, says the Hays office. Instead of feeling guilty for having an affair, good old Sherman has to feel guilty about WANTING to have an affair. So Ewell plays the aging, dorky, ladies-man-wanna-be to Monroe’s ditzy sexpot confused why men react strangely to her baby-doll act. We, the audience, grin and pretend to be wiser.

For reasons that escape me, now that I’ve seen the film, I don't understand how Marilyn’s subway skirt scene became so iconic. It is shorter and less sexy than I expected, and, well that’s all I have to say about that. Hey, look! It’s Carolyn Jones, again in a tiny role. She played Morticia …. nevermind.

The production code turned a very provocative stage play into a somewhat confounding film. Billy Wilder and George Axelrod did their level best to create a viable comedy out of a redacted screenplay, but the end result is only mildly amusing and eminently dated. Compare this to Irma la Douce made seven years later also by Wilder (and originally was to star Monroe) after standards were loosened quite a bit. Neither were fantastic films, but Irma at least had sex appeal. In a very giggling-twelve-year-old sort of way, but still. I would be curious what a faithful adaptation would look like.

The Seven Year Itch isn't uninteresting, but it is somewhat strange (Sherman has fantasy conversations and narrates his own life). There is humor, but nothing to evoke an actual laugh. AMRU 3.
“Miss Morris, I'm perfectly capable of fixing my own breakfast. As a matter of fact, I had a peanut butter sandwich and two whiskey sours.”

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Miracle Worker (1962)

A baby girl (Patty Duke, eventually) loses her sight and hearing to an illness and becomes more and more unmanageable. Out of desperation her parents hire an unconventional carpetbagger (Anne Bancroft) to work a miracle, maybe.

This is the story of Helen Keller, the deaf, dumb, and blind kid from those witty and original jokes of my youth. The movie did not address whether or not she could play a mean pinball. My mother knew of Keller in her youth as a motivational speaker, so I guess she wasn’t actually dumb in either sense of the word. Back to the movie.

Here are some things that struck me: Fifteen year old (and victim of 2016) Patty Duke was tiny, no bigger than a child of eight. In adulthood she topped out at five foot nothing which aided in her portrayal as a much younger child. Playing a deaf and blind child can go oh so very wrong in oh so many ways, but Duke’s experience playing the character onstage payed off. Her performance felt amazingly authentic, without even a hint of camp.

The Miracle Worker was a very low budget production. With a budget of half a million (chicken feed even by 1962 standards), it shows in the titling, score, and film grain quality. This did not hurt the story, in fact a more Hollywood polished product may have detracted. The task at hand did not need to be romanticized.

Helen’s mom was played by none other than Inga Swenson, better known to me as Ingrid Swenson from Soap and to a lesser extent Gretchen from Benson. She didn’t play a very endearing character on television and it was surprising to see her all young and hot, and with an accomplished southern belle accent.

This fascinating character study and battle of wills has only the power of the acting performances going for it, but power it has in spades. Helen’s behavior and the events ring very true, although it did look silly sometimes when she would push Anne Sullivan and she’d go flying. Still, even though it’s fifty five years old, I’d recommend it to anyone dealing with a less than compliant child. AMRU 3.5.
“Mrs. Keller, I don't think Helen's greatest handicap is deafness or blindness. I think it's your love and pity. All these years you've felt so sorry for her you've kept her like a pet. Well, even a dog you housebreak.”

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Road to Singapore (1940)

Two regular guys (Bob Hope and Bing Crosby) are being pressured into marriage. Bing by his captain of industry dad (Charles Coburn) and fairly hot fiancee (Judith Barrett), and Bob by, I don’t know, some thugs because he took liberties with someone’s daughter? We never see her. So anyhow, they escape to Singapore to bachelor freedom and poverty. There they meet a hot dancer (Dorothy Lamour) who is escaping her angry … boss? Boyfriend? (Anthony Quinn).

From what I understand, all of the Road movies follow the same format. Flee to exotic location and compete over cutie Lamour as an excuse for comedy gags and running bits. The trio appeared in seven such films, the first few being the best, if IMdb is to be trusted.

It was originally a vehicle for George Burns and Gracie Allen (not sure how the escaping marriage angle was handled there), then offered to Fred MacMurray and Jack Oakie, and finally given to Hope and Crosby because they were clowning around on the Paramount set. Thus a comedy team was born.

I enjoyed Bob Hope in The Cat and the Canary. The horror element was skillfully relieved by solid comedy. But here the laughs were in short supply. The tone was light and the banter playful, and I'll excuse the level of cultural sensitivity you could expect, but I don’t recall snickering, even once. And while Hope was working hard the laughs, Bing’s cucumber cool demeanor was about as interesting as his search engine namesake. The end result was a watchable, mildly interesting, unfunny, and skippable film. AMRU 2.5.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Irma la Douce (1963)

An honest Parisian cop (Jack Lemmon) is fired for calling a raid on street walkers. He then falls in love with one of them (Shirley MacLaine) and becomes her pimp. It’s the classic love story.

What was originally a musical was adapted into a rather strange film. Themes like crime, prostitution, infidelity, domestic violence, and even murder are treated with a bizarre whimsy. Universal Protagonist Jack Lemmon suffers through all of it. He loves Irma and cannot stand it when she serves her customers, so he concocts a bizarre plan to deal with his jealousy, but no spoilers here.

Marilyn Monroe and Charles Laughton both were set to appear but were totally croak-city come production. A Marilyn Irma (or EAR-ma) would have been an interesting change. Surely she would have highlighted the character’s stupid qualities. Laughton would have played bar owner Moustache, and would have been wonderful but I don’t see how he could have improved on Lou Jacobi. Who wasn’t dead yet was Grace Lee Whitney as Kiki the Cossack, whom geeks will recognize as Yeoman Janice Rand. Also interesting is the the film debut of James Caan and an early appearance of Bill Bixby. Look them up, ya damn millennials!

Very bawdy by early 60’s standards. Unlike another Billy Wilder film made a few earlier (which I will soon cover), the sexuality holds up. Many shots of topless women from the back, MacLaine included. It’s a twelve-year old’s dream. Before the internet, that is. It is a good example of how Hollywood changed during these times. What a difference eight years makes.

MacLaine didn’t think much of the script nor the film, but it earned her an Oscar nom none-the-less. The tone is almost off-putting with it’s flip treatment of dark material, but it doesn’t fail to entertain. The dialog is clever and witty like (almost) all Wilder films, and it is visually appealing. But that’s another story. AMRU 3.5.
“It's a hard way to earn an easy living.”