Saturday, 25 April 2009

35 years later...

... and stealing Deda's idea: It's 35 years today that dictatorship ended in Portugal. Because of it I grew up in an environment that valued freedom and individual liberties and despised censorship. I wasn't born then. That happened less than 4 years before my birth. Actually, my parents didn't even know each other, but certainly it was one of the most important dates in my life and everyone in my generation - even if we often take it for granted. This song was the code to start it all. With my thanks.

Bea Arthur (1922-2009)

Since I first knew of her through TV, I was wondering if I should go with some clip from "Maude" or "The Golden Girls", but in the end it was really a no-brainer. Here is the excellent Bea Arthur in a duel of words with the also excellent Angela Lansbury, the hilarious "Bosom Buddies" from "Mame" (since Angela Lansbury was not in the film, I prefer this one from the Tonys).

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Jack Cardiff (1914-2009)

If he hadn't done anything else but "Black Narcissus" (for which he won an Oscar for best colour cinematography) he'd still deserve to be among the great, and often unsung, technicians of the cinema. But he did more than that, including many British technicolor films from the 1940s, "The African Queen", "War and Peace", and one for which I have a soft spot, "Death on the Nile".

He was also a director, and continued working into his 90s.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

The Last of Mrs Cheyney (1937)

I can't resist stories about jewel thieves. If they are comedies, all the better. So how could I not take the chance to watch "The Last of Mrs Cheyney"?

Until I saw it, the most interesting thing about this film was that Joan Crawford replaced Myrna Loy as the lead of this version of "The Last of Mrs Cheyney". When I say "replaced Myrna Loy" I strongly suspected "forced MGM to replace Myrna Loy with herself". You see, Crawford was due a picture with Gable called "Parnell" and didn't like it. Her gut instinct was right - that wasn't exactly a success. Anyway, she got the part. So instead of an historical drama, she did a comedy. Considering Loy's gift for comedy, these were amazingly large shoes to fill. But she does it, in a charming way. The difference is perharps that Powell isn't the love interest, but rather Robert Montgomery.

I have to say the film surpassed my expectations. I'm always weary of Crawford's stuff at MGM, as it can be excellent, or the opposite. This is one of the best, and I can only say I'm sorry that is not on DVD.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Private Lives (1931)

As a Noel Coward fan I have wanted to see this film for quite a while. It is an MGM production of 1931, the year after the play took both the West End and Broadway by storm with Coward himself and Gertrude Lawrence as the leads (thus creating theatrical legend). But I was also quite apprehensive. "Private Lives" is a delightful play (you can read my comments on a recent production here) but is incredibly stage bound - there are only two sets, there's hardly any action after the first act and it lives or dies on the charisma of its leads and their ability to carry the witty dialogue. So, the casting of Norma Shearer worried me slightly. Full of mannerisms from the silent era and a sense of self importance, she's usually not my cup of tea.

Surprisingly, I was worried needlessly. She is a delightful Amanda, full of life, energy, sexiness, all the requirements to make her come truly alive. Only once did I see one of her exaggerated expressions, and most of time her face revealed the truth of her character's feeling under the witty fa├žade - the best example are the early scenes with Victor, building up to the famous balcony scene. Or a brilliant moment where she was trying not to laugh at Sybil and Victor arguing. True, the adaptation is fairly close to Coward's text which probably didn't do any harm - they opened the action and replaced a flat in Paris for a chalet in Switzerland, but I recognised most of the dialogue. But credit where credit is due and Norma has managed to impress me for the second time - I am now quite curious to see her in another pre-code "Strangers May Kiss", but who knows when that may be.

As for the rest of the cast, well, no one will ever remember the actors who play Sybil and Victor, which are among the most ungrateful parts I know of. Robert Montgomery as Elyot is also very good, but not comparable to Norma. In fact it is very clear that this was HER vehicle and he was there to support HER. But I'm ok with it - although I am not sure if he was.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Cleopatra (1934)

If you're looking for a more or less accurate story of Cleopatra's life and loves, then Cecil B. DeMille's 1934 classic might not be your best choice. On the other hand, if you are looking for Egyptian Art Deco, spectacle over substance, Claudette Colbert in shiny costumes or a complete disregard for History, timescale or logic, then this is the film for you.

I very seldom laugh at a film. Like them too much for that, but I caught myself doing that at some of the preposterous things going on the screen - Anthony sending a message to Cleopatra in which they should meet at noon in a square in some city I forgot, Julius Caesar (Warren William) coming back to Rome and surprising everyone. I understand that film doesn't require to follow the facts, but in this case it becomes unintentionally funny. I expected the climax of the film to be the Battle of Actium. Well, it seems they must have ran out of money. It's simply a montage of soldiers in land, marching, and occasionally the shot of a few miniature boats moving around. I would never know from this it was a battle at sea. It really isn't worth of DeMille.

Of course there were interesting things. Claudette Colbert tough gal from NY, I mean the Nile, is actually the main reason why the film is engaging. She's quite charming, beautifully dressed and lit, although lacking the power and charisma of Elizabeth Taylor. Colbert herself is much, much better in that year's "It Happened One Night" for which she won an Oscar. There also a few good lines, and the Egyptian art deco feel is actually quite cool. But I guess it pretty much ends there.

I was also expecting the film to be a full-on pre-code. Except it isn't really. IMDb lists an October 1934 release date, which is past the cut date of 1st July 1934 when the Hays Code became the Law. It's a strange hybrid in a sense - neither pre-code or post-code, an aborted epic from DeMille. As Angelina Jolie's character in "Changeling" says, it's an overrated film.

Monday, 6 April 2009

Another thing that shouldn't happen in a cinema

I'm sure everyone has accidentally spoiled a film for someone else they know - my mother revealed the end of "Dial M for Murder" without thinking, and I assume my brother has yet to forgive me for revealing the ending of a film I didn't even see...

However, how about this - you go to the cinema and the film is introduced by a scholar, and it's actually quite an interesting introduction up to the point where said scholar decides to reveal the ending, which as you might imagine was not the most popular move with the audience.

Friday, 3 April 2009

Barbara Stanwyck and why I love her

I envisaged this post a few weeks ago, albeit in a slightly different form. I got the idea for it while watching my third Barbara Stanwyck film of the weekend, Fritz Lang’s “Clash by Night” (1952) – the other two being Robert Siodmark’s “The File on Thelma Johnson” (1950) and Douglas Sirk’s “There’s always Tomorrow” (1956). It was meant to cover all three films, and my general love for the actress. On top of these, in the last few months I had a chance to see “Meet John Doe” again and watch “The Furies” and “You Belong to Me” for the first time (the latter in a Sony release for Portugal and Spain which left a lot to be desired). Sadly have yet to finish “Clash by Night”, so let’s see where this post goes.

If my memory doesn’t betray me, and going through her filmography on IMDb, I’ve seen around 25 of her films, am halfway through two (“East Side, West Side” is the other), have still to watch three I owe and have one more on the way. And there’s still many more I would like to see – she was arguably the queen of pre-code (“Baby Face” is amazing and I was quite impressed with “The Bitter Tea of General Yen”), a gifted comedienne (“Ball of Fire”), excelled at drama (the Sirk melodramas, “My Reputation”) and created one of the definitive femme fatales in “Double Indemnity”. But there’s no love like the first, and of her films my favourite is “The Lady Eve”. Of all the leading ladies of classic Hollywood none can match her range, and in my eyes the only one who I love more is Bette Davis post-1938, William Wyler and “Jezebel”.

True, she sometimes indulges in too much hysterics. The opening scene of “Forbidden” is a tad too much, as is most of her (small) part in “Executive Suite”. Her work in the early 1930s is not always balanced, her body posture is often too aggressive, too out there – “Night Nurse” is ok but “The Miracle Woman” and “Forbidden” left me cold. I much prefer her 1940s stuff. She’s more subtle – Hawks in “Ball of Fire” and Preston Sturges in “The Lady Eve” seem to have had a touch in that, as probably did Edith Head, who did her costumes for most of her Paramount films. Less aggressive, more vulnerable, capable of producing an amazing performance as a widow falling in love with a soldier who was considered her social inferior (“My Reputation”). Almost like a WWII version of “All that Heaven Allows”. In the 1950s, when she had the luck of good material she gave an amazingly touching performance like in “There’s Always Tomorrow”. But now she was, more often than not, the mistress of all men in tough Westerns like “Forty Guns” – not my favourite genre. Finally, in one of her final films she steals the screen with her lesbian madam preying over Capucine in “Walk on the Wild Side”.

I know exactly how all this started. I caught “The Lady Eve” by accident – As simple as that. I was going through a phase where I taped every old film of television as my mother put it, which I have to say was a great education. I fell in love with Stanwyck immediately (and the film) and thus started a love affair through the silver screen that still lasts. A few scenes pop to mind – the first few scenes with Henry Fonda at the boat, the ones on the train when she tortures him with the made-up stories of her past lovers but above all, the scene where she hatches her plan, when in a close up full of mischievousness and in a posh English accent she utters the words “I shall be as English as necessery” (yes, I know it’s wrongly spelled, it’s on purpose). I honestly think her Oscar nomination for “Ball of Fire” should have been for “The Lady Eve”.

My first contact with the films of Douglas Sirk was because of her (I saw “All I Desire” many years ago at the Portuguese Cinematheque during a Sirk retrospective). Later, “Double Indemnity” (Billy Wilder AND Barbara Stanwyck, how could I resist it?) was top of my want-to-see list for ages until I got the original R1 DVD in 2002. Definitely she was one of the deadliest of all women in film. There are still loads of her films I would love to see, mostly pre-codes (“Illicit”, “Ladies they talk about”, plus “The Purchase Price” which is arriving soon), but also some of the comedies and noir (“The Two Mrs Carrolls”, which I know will be out on DVD eventually as it has Humphrey Bogart in it).

She is unusual for her time, as rather than be signed to a single studio, she had short-term contracts. Her pre-codes are mostly at Warner or Columbia, the comedies mostly at Paramount and RKO, the noir and the melodrama again at Paramount and Warner. She later also did films for Universal, MGM and Fox – she worked with all seven majors (and some independent ones as well).

Mmm… this is massive now. I think I will leave a post on “There’s Always Tomorrow” for later.