Sunday, 20 July 2014

James Garner (1928-2014)

I don't think I have seen more than four or five of his films
, but twice with Julie Andrews - in "The Americanization of Emily" and "Victor, Victoria" - he created something I loved.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

The Story of Temple Drake (1933)

The opening credits of  "The Story of Temple Drake" start with the image of a decaying Southern plantation house during a storm. Immediately you are aware that something darker is coming. But this is not a horror film. Instead is an adaptation of Faulkner's novel "Sanctuary". What follows is one of the most unique, key films from the 1930s that due to rights issues (methinks) has lingered around in vaults (originally a Paramount production, if I am not mistaken 20th Century Fox now holds the rights).

From the introduction and the introduction to her lingerie, we know Temple Drake is not as virtuous as her grandfather would like, and certainly not as girls should be. She herself states she isn't, even if there is a half hearted attempt to disguised it later on when we see what some of the more frustrated men wrote on the toilet's wall. The character enjoys sex and she knows it: later there is a clear implication that during their time together, the only moments when she "doesn't look down" on Trigger are those in bed.

It is surprising that the film was made at all. The novel was deemed innappropriate material for cinema audiences, and while the film presents (as far as I know) a more sanitised version of the story, it still manages in its very short and fast paced 70 minutes to be extremely dark covering murder, rape and Stockholm Syndrome. As if to provide the contrast, the film is beautifully shot by Karl Struss (who won an Oscar for "Sunrise") with the key night sequences shot with a very noir feel.

This is arguably Miriam Hopkins' best performance. While the final sequences provide her with the showcase piece that most actors love to have (and she's very good in those), her best moments come after the rape scene: the blank expression being the most outwardly expression of the shock she has just experienced. But generally, there are no hysterics, not even small ones, and in the end the all scenery is intact. And it's not just Hopkins that give a career best. Jack La Rue as Trigger is unforgettable. His close-ups are the most menacing of the 1930s. His presence alone is enough to make the audience unconfortable.

Furthermore, it's not just Temple and Trigger, all the characters are unsympathetic except the murdered boy: the judge, the grandfather, the boy who abandons Temple, the couple, even the lawyer who wants to marry Temple Drake. The film neither needs or asks for your sympathy. "Baby Face" the closest I can think in that it doesn't ask sympathy from the viewer. The irony is that two of the most daring films of the 1930s in terms of characterisation (along with Mae West) helped a new order that enforced the Production Code and forced into the underground the seedier side of life.

"The Story of Temple Drake" is a very special film. For a moment in time, it promised to set a direction for a (Hollywood) Cinema that never came to be. The surest sign of this is the impact the film continues to have in the lucky few than have found it. If you have a chance to watch it, grab it.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Kay Francis' diamonds: Jewel Robbery (1932) and Trouble in Paradise (1932)

In 1932, Kay Francis twice got her jewels stolen by very skilled thieves. First, William Powell took her new diamond ring in “Jewel Robbery”; then Herbert Marshall took her new diamond purse in Lubitsch's “Trouble in Paradise”. In both instances, the thieves returned the stolen item and return for her. I have now watched both films three times over the last 18 months or so, the last time as a double bill at the BFI. So I have decided to write about them together as well.

Trouble in Paradise” is one Ernst Lubitsch's most famous titles. Along with Francis, it stars Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins as the duo intent in stealing as much as possible from Francis' Madame Colet, a widow who owns a perfume company. William Dieterle's “Jewel Robbery” co-stars William Powell as the thief with designs on Francis. The first was made by Paramount, the second by Warner Bros., but in an atypical style – in fact, if you showed me the film without credits, I'd have bet on Paramount. I love both films. But if I have to chose a favourite, I'd go with “Jewel Robbery”, as I feel it has improved with every viewing. However, it suffers from two obvious disadvantages even before one watches it: its availability and its similarity to Lubitsch's film.

On the first point, one of the great problems in defining the film canon (or any other canon) is availability. If a film is not shown, how are we to judge it? “Jewel Robbery” is neither well-know nor was it easily available or screened: and if no one can see it, no one can judge it. If it has no reputation, then it's forgotten. Fortunately, more recently it seems to have been rescued and it even has made it into the wonderful “Forbidden Hollywood” DVD sets (which is how I first discovered it). Don't get me wrong, this a Hollywood factory product; just a damn good one. On the second point, the film probably struggled with is its thematic similarity to the better known Lubistch and more important its well-deserved reputation in his canon. I have no idea of the production order of the films, and whether WB copied Paramount or vice-versa (since Kay Francis was borrowed from WB I wouldn't discard it) or if it was just a coincidence, but “Jewel Robbery” made into the screens two months earlier according to IMDb.

Kay Francis is, of course, the obvious thing the two films have in common. And despite the many, many wardrobe changes (the most extreme example being the “Yes Madam Colet/No Madam Colet” sequence in “Trouble in Paradise”), the characters are quite different. Lubistch goes at lengths to show that Madame Colet, while a bit na├»ve and very rich and keen on pretty things, isn't a bad person – she fights her boardroom quite charmingly saying she won't lower her employees wages. By contrast, in “Jewel Robbery” and by her own admission, Francis' character is a thrill seeking, superficial and bored lady who lunches. This is maintained throughout the film, from her glorious awakening and bath to her final close-up. What both films show is that Francis was a good comedienne and ask an interesting “what if” her career had been in Paramount comedies rather than the WB cheaper women's pictures.

Both films are also prime Pre-Code examples. Just to stick to “Jewel Robbery”: suggestive dresses (the dressing gown), drug use, adultery for thrills, trivialisation of marriage (the suggestion that she should be faithful to faithful because of diamonds) and several stages of undressing, many, many hints of sex and of course, Kay Francis' glorious, naughty final close-up. At moments it feels like it out-Lubistches Lubitsch...

But “Jewel Robbery” has two great advantages over the Lubitsch. The most obvious is the leading man. William Powell is a perfect cast as the suave, seducing thief. The initial robbery sequence is a perfectly display of his easiness in the role. Herbert Marshall is just flat. It's his best performance as far as I can tell, but there isn't much competition there. The second is the flow of the film. The tight timescale (the action lasts less than 24h) helps maintain a coherence that is missing in “Trouble in Paradise”, which goes from Venice to Paris over the course of several months, and more importantly the way it frames the two women in the picture: Miriam Hopkins dominates the first 20min or so, then disappears for a considerable amount of time and never fully reappears.

But it is the Hopkins/Francis duality that actually gives “Trouble in Paradise” its strongest grip over the audience. Like in “The Philadelphia Story” a few years later, you are never sure which woman will win – for this is a duel between the two and the spoils are the man and the jewels he steels. Then, there are the many wonderful witty moments Lubitsch filled his films with. From the dialogue (e.g. “maybe I am wrong, maybe he is her secretary”); the closed doors and changing clocks; and finally the two most obvious sexual moments in Lubitsch's work I am aware, the two moments when Hopkins and Marshall out-steal each other.

The other thing that works well in the Lubitsch film is that is clearly an ensemble piece. Hopkins is wonderful whenever she's given a chance (as she would be later in “Design for Living”) even if her mannerisms occasionally are a bit too much. Then there are Charlie Ruggles and Edward Everett Horton in one of his less prissy roles, albeit the one that suggests that he may prefer “business associates” of both genders. C. Aubrey Smith and Robert Greig complete the cast. By contrast, “Jewel Robbery” becomes quickly a two hander between Francis and Powell (in their sixth of seven collaborations).

I think these are two of the best Pre-Code comedies Hollywood produced. They are precursors of the elegant comedies to come, mostly done by Paramount and starring the likes of Claudette Colbert, Carole Lombard and Barbara Stanwyck. They're also more adult that what would become the norm in film; films where excitement and thrills (or lust, if you prefer) win over love and wholesome values. Which probably make them perfect for the 21st century.

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Bob Hoskins (1942-2014)

With Betty Boop, in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit".

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)

"The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes" is one of Billy Wilder's last films - released in 1970, there would be only three more films before he retired just over ten years later. Starting off as a humourous take on the famous detective, the film ends as a more classic, if still deliciously funny, Sherlock Holmes adventure. It mostly covers two episodes, the first concerning a Russian ballerina, the second a Belgian woman in search for her husband.

There are many Wilder touches throughout the film that alone would be worth the price of admission: the wonderful dialogue in the ballerina's dressing room; the scene backstage at the theatre when gossip spreads like fire and one set of dancers replaces another; the special appearance of Queen Victoria (and his own "we are not amused"); the monks at the end. But interestingly, the ending. The mastery of Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond's script is that the tone darkens so progressively, so subtly, that the rather bleak ending is neither out of place nor could allow a happier one.

Of course what we see is not what Wilder intended to be seen. While I feel that the film works perfectly well as it is, it’s well known that two whole episodes, accounting for over an hour of footage, were cut and the footage lost. With time, the sound of one of these episodes and the images of the other have been found, and were presented as extras in the US release of the film. Regretfully, I do not own it, so (annoyingly) I haven’t seen them.

The perfomances are wonderful throughout, with Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely wonderful as Holmes and Watson. Christopher Lee is also a delight as Mycroft Holmes, as a mastermind of British Intelligence which Mark Gatiss (co-creator of the BBC's "Sherlock") admited in the screening's introduction that he used as an inspiration for his own performance as Mycroft.

Alexandre Trauner, one of the greatest art directors and a regular Wilder collaborator also shines here. The sets are impeccable, detailed, lived in – as they were, for instance, in “The Apartment”. I think it’s a serious praise to his work, that while I am convinced that the London exteriors were sets, I am still wondering it they might have been the real thing.

In a career that includes "Double Indemnity", "Sunset Blvd.", "Some Like it Hot" and "The Apartment", a film like this is easily eclipsed. But even if it's not a first rate Wilder, it's still a delight and won’t disappoint.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

I have no idea how many times I have watched "The Philadelphia Story". Three at least, very likely more. I remember for a while it being my most wanted in my "must watch" list, the high expectations and the deception it followed. I really didn't like it. I found it flat. None of the subsequent viewings (on TV/VHS/DVD) changed it. However, watching it at the cinema I fell for it and realised how good it is. But I am wondering what changed. Did I become more agreeable to the film with age? Or watching a nice print at the cinema made a difference? Or possibly both.

Based on a play by Philip Barry, "The Philadelphia Story" was directed by George Cukor and starred Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant (in their last film together) and James Stewart. It's a story of woman having to choose between three men while finding out that the flaws in oneself are what make us human and life worth living. It's also funny and at moments, very tender. The film also has an interesting backstory, with Hepburn (for whom the play was written) outsmarting Hollywood and ensuring the film was done on her terms, and in the process relaunching her career.

One of the things I noticed for the first time is how little Cary Grant (top billed) appears - or is perceived to appear - compared to James Stewart. Both are good, and Stewart got an Oscar for this (or as most people see it, a delayed one for "Mr Smith goes to Washington"). They both play well against each other, particularly in a key scene after the party in Grant's house: Stewart does a very good drunk, with Grant playing his straight man. Grant's character is actually the most interesting one to me, because he is the one that reveals the least. He is smart and aware. He is loyal to his ex-wife and clearly is in love with her, but we know very little more. But what's special is that this is not because he is underwritten but because he is a fully rounded character, acting consistently but choosing to do more than hint at his thoughts.

Another character the films gets extraordinarily well is Ruth Hussey's photographer. Her character shows an unusual maturity, almost modern, for 1940s films, waiting quietly for the right time to show her feelings (which technically she never really does, as I don't think she thinks the time was right). This was Hussey's career high and she got an Oscar nomination out of it, losing to Jane Darwell for "The Grapes of Wrath".

But the film belongs to Katharine Hepburn. She's is the focus of your attention despite the fact the film is constructed around her. Yet, she's never showy and delivers her character's transformation from self-righteous goddess to human being in a organic way. The final scenes are among her finest screen moments, particularly when she relinquishes one of her two men. She also looks amazing, exactly like one the many drawings Hirschfeld did of her.

Of course the film is not without faults. Virginia Weidler's performance hasn't aged well (or it could be that I never liked her in any of her films... I vaguely remember her being particularly annoying in "All this, and Heaven too"). The subplot with the father made me cringe: blaming the daughter's lack of devotion for his affairs?! This is probably the greatest plausibility
hole in Philip Barry's play and David Odgen Stewart's Oscar winning script.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Mickey Rooney (1920-2014)

The second most famous child actor of the 1930s and one of the most memorable presences in film. My favourite role is as the young Clark Gable in "Manhattan Melodrama". But that is, of course, just the tip of the iceberg.