Saturday, 29 May 2010

The Shopworn Angel (1938)

Margaret Sullavan, James Stewart, MGM in the late 1930s, produced by Joe Mankiewicz – you could be forgiven if you were to think that “The Shopworn Angel”’s director was Frank Borzage. It even has his themes of sacrifice and redemption through a spiritual love. Only it isn’t. The name on the credits is that of H.C. Potter, better known for “Mr Blandings builds his Dream House”.

At the beginning the film looks like it’s going to unfold like a very simple love triangle from the 1930s. Sullavan and Walter Pidgeon are romantically attached until she meets a young naïve soldier (Stewart). Trying desperately to impress his friends he tells them she is his girlfriend and out of sympathy she plays the game. What unfolds is a truly unusually love triangle – something that reminded me of “The Wings of Dove” (the film, as I never read the book).

I was pleasantly surprised by the film’s ending, and in retrospect I think it far more realistic than I would expect for the period. Frankly, I think had Borzage directed it he wouldn’t have made it the same. Another happy surprise was Walter Pidgeon’s performance. I am used to see him as either the flat second banana (e.g. “Too Hot to Handle”) or as Greer Garson’s husband in whatever thing MGM thought would sell tickets (“Mrs Miniver”, “Madame Curie”, etc., etc., etc.) and this happily falls in neither category. Margaret Sullavan and Hattie McDaniel (as her maid, as you might have guessed) are very good, although I prefer Sullavan in Borzage's hands, and James Stewart looks as naïve as only he can.

Despite all this the film doesn’t quite make it. I can’t exactly put my finger into it, but it lacks something – if I had to guess I’d say is Stewart’s saccharine naivety that doesn’t quite do it for me, it never did.

PS - I am left wondering if the artist who made the poster had ever seen a clear photo of Margaret Sullavan.

PPS - added a second and much better poster.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951)

A while back I mentioned an example of a comedy that tried too hard to be funny. This time I will be talking about a film that tries to hard to be profound and have meaning. Needless to say, it fails. The film is opus 4 (of 6) in Albert Lewin's career as a director and is an updated/reinterpretation of the story of the Flying Dutchman, where the captain of the ship condemned to wonder alone through the seas unless he finds a woman to break his curse. It stars Ava Gardner and James Mason.

The film is highly regarded by some, in particular for Jack Cardiff's cinematography. This is indeed the most interesting point of the film, as Cardiff makes it look unlike any other Technicolor film - a talent I like, but sadly in this case from a purely intellectual point of view, as I didn't like the colour palette which looked too much like watercolour over a black and white image. There is a sequence towards the end, in James Mason's room that I quite liked, with the game of light and shadows. I also didn't entirely dislike James Mason's performance, although finding it amusing that he (as a Dutch character) has a flawless, perfect, posh English accent, which is Mason's own. By the way, I would like to know if it was just me, but does he get dubbed over his narration? I'd swear that at some point, the voice-over changes.

But here finish the points of interest... and at 2h what remains is a very long, over baked, flavourless film. The problems start with cast. James Mason aside, it was a bore to watch. Ava Gardner seldom could act and she didn't here, failing to give the character the heart she conquers by the end of the film. Also her voice got on my nerves, silky sexy but so hollow. The rest of the cast is as forgetful as is dull, but I got the impression that Lewin wanted to cast George Sanders as the archaeologist and failing to do so got a look-a-like. Also, Spain seems to be full of gypsies rather than Spaniards. Is this to add to the mystic element? Several key moments have Spanish only dialogue (the reading the cards scene in particular), not subtitled, which I could understand enough to follow, but is frustrating if you can't at least follow some of it. Also, I was left wondering which language were the fishermen speaking in the first scene, as it didn't sound like Spanish to me. Galician? My guess, as the pronunciation of words was very similar to Portuguese.

Worst of all is the dialogue - it's so stylised and artificial it pained me. Full of quotes and self-references, aided by visual metaphors (Ava Garner's almost sexual reaction after the car is thrown off the cliff), in case you missed the point, it hasn't dated very well. The whole story is moved forward by characters who have forebodings, predictions, read cards, quote ancient Greeks and live in a world of perpetual coincidences (or fate aligning, whichever you prefer). That was the intention, but the result is that it becomes unintentionally funny. You would have to be a genius to pull it off. Watching it at the BFI, several people were giggling or laughing in the silliest moments (and they all looked like respectable film fans by the way) and so did I.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

The Bride Wore Boots (1946)

In Barbara Stanwyck's filmography, "The Bride Wore Boots" stands as the last comedy in the career of an actress whose comic talent brought us among others "The Mad Miss Manton", "The Lady Eve" and "Ball of Fire". While uneven and competent for most of is duration, it ends being no more than a footnote. It also suffers from a good ten year delay; in 1937 was called "The Awful Truth" and in 1940 "My Favorite Wife" and in both occasions starred Cary Grant and Irene Dunne. So you've guessed - a married couple gets divorced and... you know the rest.

The film isn't bad, it's just not good either. Barbara Stanwyck's energy and Robert Cummings' charm manage to keep it afloat most of the time. But even they fail occasionally. She is too clumsy in the scenes where she's ruthless towards her husband, often being too aggressive and exploding quite quickly. Patrick Knowles as the second banana is limited by the script to a caricature. However, the biggest disappoint with the film was Diana Lynn. When I saw the opening credits I was quite excited with her third billing. The know-it-all sister in Wilder's "The Major and the Minor" and in Sturges' "The Miracle of Morgan Creek", it's evident here that she was being groomed by Paramount for something bigger - the second female lead. The problem is that her part failed her and she comes up so unsympathetic and irritating that makes Gail Patrick in "My Favourite Wife" someone you want as your best friend.

On the plus side, I quite like the way they showed the children being manipulated by Stanwyck's character to make her ex-husband's life pure hell. The opening sequence is brilliant telling you all you needed to know about all those involved. The whole subplot with the horse is quite well done, albeit a bit saccharine. And best of all, Peggy Wood as Stanwyck's mother, one of those know-it-all characters that dished sarcasm so well (reminding me of Lynn's work in the aforementioned films).

All in all, there's no genius in this. It'll make you laugh and occasionally cringe. Oh, and keep an eye for a very young Natalie Wood as the little girl.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Lucky Night (1939)

If you ever want to put someone off classic films forever, just show them "Lucky Night". It is a strong contender to one of the worst A-pictures of the 1930s - other than Robert Taylor's astonishing good looks (he is one of the prettiest men ever captured on film, if not the the prettiest) nothing works. In fact the film is so bad, it should be used as an example of how not to do.

Let's start with the main problem - the script, and look away cause there will be spoilers. It looks like it has been glued together, and badly, from separate stories, something typical of the early talkies (as I mentioned here, for example). A rich heiress (Myrna Loy) is bored so decides to go and find a job and the meaning of life. She fails and that night, on a park bench, she meets a fellow unemployed (Taylor) and they embark on a night of drink and gambling where nothing goes wrong. They wake up married and because her father disapproves, they decide to take a go at it. It doesn't go very well. He wants fun and she wants a home (this is after all an MGM film) so they part ways. Then there's a happy ending which is parachuted two minutes before the ending.

I assume the intention was to show the compromises that make up relationships. Instead, we have the opposite. Magic will solve everything. At the end, neither has surrendered and consequentially all is bound to happen again. The characters are also so sketchy that one doesn't really empathise with them, or even side with them. They're both idiotically naïve and Taylor's character in particular has very peculiar notions of how to survive. Loy's father describes him as "a poet who doesn't write", which pretty much summarises him. All this is exacerbated by a director (Norman Taurog) who fails to direct, guide or even try to savage the film.

The cast is not much better. Douglas Fowley as George, the friend who supports them through the mad night is the only good thing in that department. Robert Taylor and Myrna Loy suffer from the bad script but they are also to blame. In the pre-war dramas she made at MGM she looks too noble and suffering and looks stale and uninteresting as a consequence - she doesn't appear to be the same woman who did "The Thin Man", "Libeled Lady" or "Third Finger, Left Hand". Maybe she was only at ease in comedies, or may those were just better scripts, better directed. Robert Taylor on the other hand was never a great actor and that shows. Good looking, yes, charming, yes, but of limited talent. But funnily enough, he survives the crash better that Loy.

Monday, 10 May 2010

Lena Horne (1917-2010)

Lena Horne had probably one of the most frustrating careers in Hollywood - just because she wasn't white. She talked quite candidly about this in "That's Entertainment III". She was a singer whose numbers could be easily taken out of the film, especially in the South of the USA. Yet, among those numbers are one of the best renditions of "Stormy Weather" ever (although I prefer Judy Garland's). One of the few starring roles was in Vincente Minnelli's "Cabin in the Sky", an all-black musical, but even there one of her numbers ("Ain't it the Truth") was cut because she sang it while in the bath, i.e. too sexy (and it is...). MGM released it later in one of their shorts and you can see it as an extra on DVD. Go, watch it, do it, pay homage to a great singer who never got the chances she deserved as an actress.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Black Narcissus (1947)

Along with "Brief Encounter" and "Kind Heart and Coronets", "Black Narcissus" is my favourite British classic film. Like those two it's uniquely British in feel and subject matter (emotional repression, like "Brief Encounter"). It also has that magnificent cold Technicolor palette so characteristic of this side of the Atlantic which I never could account for (probably the natural light, so different from the Californian sun). A Powell and Pressburger collaboration, beautifully shot by Jack Cardiff and starring Deborah Kerr and Kathleen Byron, it follows a group of nuns settling a convent in a Himalayan hill top, in what used to a harem. The atmosphere of the building, the pure air and the constant wind tear down the nuns' defences and leave them prey of their own desires.
This is a film about repressed desires and dreams and what happens when your present is faced again with past desires. Several times through the film one or the other of nuns mention that they have been thinking of something they had forgotten. In the case of Deborah Kerr's Sister Clodagh we even see that past in flashbacks. She's the young mother superior of the group, the youngest ever. When she is assigned the task of leading this group of nuns at the beginning of the film her face betrays her pride, a rare crack in her perfect façade. Among the nuns under her supervision is Kathleen Byron's Sister Ruth (the de facto second lead despite her 6th or 7th billing). As the film starts she's described as "ill". The two women are the two sides of the same coin - one so repressed that she's almost not human, the other equally repressed but about to explode. The two women actually resemble each other when they are in their habits, and I couldn't left wondering if that was just a coincidence.

Sister Ruth finally explodes when the only white man in sight appears. Clearly treated as a sex-object (he wears shorts that almost look like hot pants and gratuitously exhibits his bare chest to the nuns) he is the catalyst of Sister Ruth's rebellion - giving in to her desires. At this stage we realise that her "illness" has been sexual frustration and now she's ready to give in. And her most daring weapon is lipstick, in one of the best sequences of the film. They reminded of Gene Tierney's red lips in "Leave Her to Heaven".
Key in showing all this is Jack Cardiff's cinematography. With light and colour he manages to show the beauty and remoteness of the hill top and most important the emotions of nuns. In particular, he transfigures Kathleen Byron's face to reveal the beast that possesses her - a quasi-madness in the first great confrontation with Kerr; the black and white contrast in the second and that amazing final sequence. He won a well deserved Oscar, as did Alfred Junge for the amazing art direction. The film was mostly shot at Pinewood but you'd never know, and it's through the work of those two men, along that of matte painter Walter Percy Day, that it doesn't occur to you that you never left the studio set.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

To all the recent and expecting parents I know...

I thought you might sympathise with this...

(c) Jan Eliot 2010