Sunday, 29 June 2008

The Great Lie (1941)

The Great Lie is one of many Bette Davis' vehicles from the 1940s, a woman's picture through and through (today they would be called melodramas). It was her forth and final collaboration with director Edmund Golding, and one of many with George Brent. The rest of the cast includes Mary Astor in a Oscar-winning performance and Hattie McDaniel. The plot is pure soap - George Brent finds out that his marriage to pianist Astor is not legal and when she refuses to abandon her career for him he goes and marries old sweetheart Davis. Sadly, soon he is given for dead in the Amazon. Astor meanwhile is pregnant and Davis gets desperate. She asks for the baby...

That anything interesting came out of this is quite remarkable. Davis and Astor do wonders with her scenes together and George Brent gives what I think is one of his best performances in the beginning of the film (not much competition there...). There are even light hints of a lesbian relationship when the two women are hiding in the Arizona desert, with Davis taking a "father" role to Astor's "mother".

The casting is quite interesting as there isn't really a leading character. It's a three way ensemble piece, with Davis out of her usual roles. In truth, her part seems to be tailored to Olivia de Havilland's screen persona at this stage (e.g. 1942's In This Our Life with Davis). I always found interesting that some of her best performances came opposite strong charismatic actresses such as Miriam Hopkins, Mary Astor, Olivia de Havilland, Anne Baxter(*) or actors like Errol Flynn, Henry Fonda or James Cagney (I'm one of five people on Earth who actually like "The Bride came C.O.D."). There is of course an exception which is "The Letter", my all time favourite of her performances.

Watching it tonight I could really find three faults with the film - the awful dubbing in the last scene, the black characters that are way too stereotypical and the third is a very personal thing that isn't really worth mentioning, as it won't matter next time I see the film.

(*) - Not mentioning Crawford is simply because a) I don't like Baby Jane and b) Joan Crawford is far more interesting that Davis in that film. And I really wish they would have done something else together in the 1940s (but not "Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte" cause I think is Olivia de Havilland's best performance after Melanie Wilkes).

Saturday, 28 June 2008

A Star is Born (1954)

I can't remember when I saw A Star is Born for the first time. My guess is that it was in the early 1990s, and I must have been around 15. I recorded it and I do remember I didn't like it, but not why. It is a Hollywood fairy tale gone wrong, a twisted version of Pygmalion and Galatea, where a famous actor discovers a new talent, and as her star rises, his fades. It stars Judy Garland and James Mason, and it's one of Oscar's great idiocities that she didn't win Best Actress for this.

At the time I first saw it, I wasn't aware of the history of the cuts and different versions of the film, and I didn't like the stills which I thought were an "artistic" decision (they are not!). By then, I also had seen Cukor's other version of the same story, which I thought much better (sadly never recorded that one because I still do think it better) and I avoided the Garland version completely ever since, including a screening at the NFT during the Cukor's complete retrospective in 2004 (which I regret as I write this). Meanwhile, I bought the DVD probably cause it was cheap.

Recently I got curious to see the film again as a result of some comments I read in a web forum. And I was by turns disappointed and marvelled. Disappointed because it really isn't the great film that could have been - most musical numbers are way too long, in particular the "Born in a Trunk" sequence which I realised was one of the reasons I disliked the film in the first place. But I saw many things I enjoyed, great and small. The performances of Judy Garland, James Mason and Jack Carson are absolutely fantastic. About two hours into the film there is a scene where she confesses she has moments where she hates her husband, followed by a cheerful musical scene she has to finish shooting. Amazing. The drama is really good, but slowed down by the songs which often are in the way. The bright red of the colour scheme. "The man that got away", which is one of her best songs. The Oscar sequence, the James Mason/Jack Carson sequence at the races, the ending (despite quoting Humoresque), all great.

Will I ever see the film again? Probably not unless a complete print is recovered or I get a chance to see it on the big screen - and this is one of those films which should be seen in a cinema. But I am quite happy to have seen it again.

Saturday, 7 June 2008

The Deep Blue Sea (2008 Revival)

"To love with one's eyes open makes life very difficult"
Terence Rattigan, "The Deep Blue Sea" (1952)

This is a play that opens with an attempted suicide. A woman is found by her neighbours passed out next to a gas heater. The only reason why she isn't dead is because she forgot to put a shilling in the meter (I have to confess I love the touch). Soon we find that she did it because her lover can't reciprocate her love, and she knows it - the line above being something she is told.

It would be hardly a play I would recommend to young lovers. Its main theme is the disintegration of relationships, but it is a fantastic play, almost a British version of a Tennessee Williams drama. I have no words other than these to describe it, but it produced quite an impact on me, mainly because of the richness of the text and Greta Scacchi's wonderful performance as a woman who has sacrificed everything for a love affair with a man who can't give her what she needs. There's a moment (immortalised in the poster for the production) when her lover comes back, unaware she tried to kill herself, and he grabs her from behind and for a brief moment you can see why this woman left everything (including a very dull husband) for this younger former RAF pilot. And all without a word... Marvellous.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Double bill of Shaw and Wendy Hiller

Monday I spent my evening at the BFI (as you do...) - went there to see a double bill of Bernard Shaw adaptations, namely 1938's Pygmalion and 1941's Major Barbara. Both were scripted by George Bernard Shaw himself (in collaboration with others) and both have Wendy Hiller as the heroine.

While I found "Major Barbara" a bit long and at moments a bit dull, I was fascinated by "Pygmalion". It was just marvellous comedy, perfect timing, great performances. I had started with some reservations because I find most british films of the period slightly lacking in sparkle. And although I thought Leslie Howard was a tad too young for Higgins, there isn't any reason other than Rex Harrison why he can't. But the cherry on the cake was a wonderful Eliza from Wendy Hiller. This was a discovery. I knew her name, of course, and her face from a few Hirshfeld caricatures - now I have truly became a fan of her cheekbones.

As for "Major Barbara", despite the wonderful cast (Hiller, Rex Harrison, Deborah Kerr, Robert Morley), it does suffer of Shaw's excess of preachiness and didn't do much for me. Probably it wasn't helped by all the problems in production with the director (who couldn't direct) and his dependences his "assistants to director" (one of them being David Lean). As I'm going to see the current theatrical production at the National quite soon, am quite curious to see how they compare. And to complete another "double bill" of Shaw, Peter Hall's revival of "Pygmalion" is also in my to see list.