Saturday, 25 December 2010

Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957)

I started Frank Tashlin's "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" hesitantly. I finished it bitterly disappointed. In between, I laughed a lot. So what went wrong? Well, my initial reaction is very easy to explain - Frank Tashlin. As a Looney Tunes' director he was never my favourite and I didn't care much for "The Girl Can't Help It" when I watched it a few years ago, albeit some good cartoony moments. I just never warmed to it. Since it starts the same leading lady (Jayne Mansfield) and a similar leading man (Tony Randall here; Tom Ewell in "The Girl...") I hope you can see where I was standing.
"Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" was a different kettle of fish. It was funny from the start, smart, mixing effortlessly George Axelrod witticism (the film is based on his play) with Tashlin's visual humour. A satire on television, celebrity and the film and advertising industries that hasn't lost its bite and gelled perfectly with my sense of humour. Of course some of the gags are better if you know the context - the intermission Tony Randall presents is a delight, but becomes extra caustic if you realise in 1957 film was loosing the war to television - plus is Rita Marlowe (Mansfield's character) that much different from the current flavour of the moment? True, some now need strange outfits instead of "oh so kissable lips", but it's the same thing.

The film benefits from the great cast: a perfectly cast Tony Randall (his career was mainly on US TV before I was born and therefore unknown to me); the ever magnificent Joan Blondell, who should have appeared more; Hitchcock's favourite John Williams as the stiff head of the advertising agency and Betsy Drake as the jilted (and jealous) girlfriend. I was less convinced by Jayne Mansfield. True, the part doesn't demand that much of her, but take Marilyn in "The Seven Year Itch" (adapted from another Axelrod play) and see what the part required. Both are blond objects of desire placed within reach of an average man. But Marilyn had a stupendous comic timing and Mansfield not so. The scenes with Randall when she aims to seduce him are too long and feel like a distraction from the really good bits of the film. Still, she manages not produce any major damage.

The great disappointment is the ending (Grouch Marx's cameo aside) or rather the long ellipse that omits how everyone ended as they did (the actual ending was fine). It thought it lazy and that Tashlin (who wrote the script) had finally ran out of ideas. I felt denied the climax the film had been building to, where all the pairs would be rearranged and the natural order of things would be restored. A real pity, considering how smoothly everything went till then.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Blake Edwards (1922 - 2010)

Blake Edwards will forever be the man who directed "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and the Pink Panther films, but my favourites are "The Days of Wine and Roses" with Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick, both superb; and the gorgeous, funny and I think, underrated, "Victor Victoria" (or maybe I just have a soft spot for it) with Julie Andrews. He was also married to the leading lady.

He got an honorary Academy Award a few years ago and got is sole nomination for the screenplay of "Victor, Victoria". As such, the trailer below for your pleasure - and mine too.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

When Frank met Barbara IV: The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)

The final film in this series is, to me, the most interesting and arguably the best. In contemporary China, the fiancĂ©e of a missionary finds herself the houseguest of General Yen, a ruthless warlord who is in love with her. Despite herself (and more on this in a moment) she finds she is falling for him. As I mentioned here, this is a film that could not have been made two years later. A mixed race relationship, where one of the elements is a “decent white girl” was far more than the conservative audiences of the 1930s were willing to allow – and it became explicitly forbidden.

Capra directed the film with Oscar success in mind and to ensure recognition of quality by his peers. But it shouldn't have taken him much to realise that the film would not be a hit at the box-office. Despite appearances, the film is (for 1933) on General Yen’s side and quite unsympathetic of white people (Walter Connolly’s Jones, the general’s “financial adviser” comes as particularly unpleasant). The missionaries are presented as prejudiced creatures (not exactly very christian), unwilling to see China beyond their own preconceived ideas. Their lack of interest in the country is openly criticised by Yen, who despite being ruthless, is also a sophisticated character and a lover of fine things. In a sense, he is not quite a Bond villain in the making, like Fu Manchu – While we aren’t given any historical background to the civil unrest (probably audiences would be mildly aware) I strongly suspect that he is not just fighting for power and money; he is also fighting for his own survival - as indeed the film hints at. By the end, our sympathies lay with the character we are told from the start is the enemy.

Of course, not all is perfect – although most of the Chinese characters and extras are played by people of far eastern ancestry, the main part itself is played by Nils Ashter, a Swede. Interestingly, his overpowering presence works in favour of the character and probably made the film acceptable at the time of release (after all, under all the make-up there was a white actor).

Stanwyck’s character, a young American girl called Megan (pronounced Mee-gan, which I found quite strange) starts not terribly far from Alden Pyne in Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American” – dangerously idealist. Of course, she does not have his resources and, unlike him, she gives in. From the moment she sees General Yen, she’s fascinated, but feels rejected (metaphorically quite well represented by a handkerchief). Then despite herself she finds herself more and more attracted to him – although this time she’s the one rejecting his advances – and his handkerchief. In what is the best sequence in the film (and quite explicit too), in her dreams she admits the truth: as she is about to be raped by a Fu Manchu type when at last moment she is saved by a masked hero – however, when he takes off her mask, it’s not her fiancĂ©…

In the end, we are treated to a speculative speech by Walter Connolly – and in Stawyck’s face (she doesn’t say a word, nor does she really need to) we know that his words are really the epilogue. It’s not Capra’s best film, it might not even be one of his most touching – but it is one that is worth looking beyond 1933 and 2010 prejudices.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

When Frank met Barbara III: Forbidden (1932)

When I saw “Forbidden” for the first time, I think in the London Film Festival a few years ago, I wasn’t particularly impressed. When I saw it there again, it was second time lucky. And probably would have like it better if I hadn’t spent half of the screening trying to remember which film it remind me of – in the end I realise it was Edmund Goulding’s “The Trespasser” (1929) with Gloria Swanson which he remade in 1937 with Bette Davis as “That Certain Woman”, two examples of heavy handed melodramas. Goulding would do much better for instance in “The Old Maid” or that supreme soap-opera that is “The Great Lie”. Capra’s straight storytelling skills and lack of tendency for melodrama actually suited the script well – it tones it down, creating some pathos to the characters that otherwise would have just been sinking in excess.

These same characters, while well handled, that are also the strangest element of the film. This is the story of a librarian (Stanwyck, of course) who spends her savings on a holiday cruise to Havana. On the boat she meets and falls in love with a man (Adolph Menjou), and they start a life long affair – you see, he’s married to an “invalid” (i.e. she wears a cane…) and worst, he has political ambitions. While I have no problem empathising with characters who repress themselves out of duty (e.g. “Brief Encounter”) there is something not quite right with the leading character’s obsessive love with Menjou’s. For him, she gives up everything despite the fact he does not give her anything in return and won’t let her go (she tries a few times). In fact, he goes further, taking things from her. In part this feels like 19th Century romanticism taken to extremes, but really is more like an essay on the effects of a sudden release of sexual and emotional repression exploding in the hands the first person who releases it.

More appealing is Ralph Bellamy’s workaholic news editor with a crush on Stanwyck. His is an ambiguous character that has a personal vendetta for Menjou’s which you aren’t entirely on what is really based on (for all intents Menjou is not a corrupt politician and Stanwyck is his only skeleton in the closet).

Capra’s work throughout is almost unnoticeable, thus showing off his skills to keep the pace and retain our attention, focusing on the key moments of the relationship. It’s the script that ends up being the most unsympathetic to its own characters. After torturing Stanwyck for 80 odd minutes, the film ends in the harshest of ways. I assume the idea was not to leave a dry eye in the house, but it’s too bleak for that – you just end engulfed in the black hole that her character’s emotions have become.

Friday, 3 December 2010

When Frank met Barbara II: The Miracle Woman (1931)

After “Ladies of Leisure”, the next Capra/Stanwyck was “The Miracle Woman”, the story of a minister’s daughter who, after her father’s death, becomes an evangelic preacher. With the help of a crook, she swindles her followers until she meets a blind veteran (David Manners) whose life she had unknowingly saved.

Clearly an attack on hypocritical evangelic preachers to whom money is the only religion, the film hasn’t had a very successful story. It’s easy to see why it was a flop at the time of release – for 1931 this is quite an attack on the moral hypocrisy, not only of those preaching, but also those seating in the benches (the opening sequence is quite a good example). However, modern audiences probably agree with me that the film doesn’t go far enough. Capra and the script probably toned down the original material as Stanwyck’s character is actually a profoundly religious person, with a deep faith, only going astray through a general disappointment with Mankind – in the end, she resumes the path of virtue and through fire, all is purified.

The film is also hampered by a weak ending that is in effect a huge ellipse: it’s too clean, avoiding any real answers – I mean, how did they all get out of that mess? Did the police never bothered to investigate anything?

On the plus side, despite some excesses in the opening sequence (and I think it may have been this, and not “Forgiven” I mentioned here) the performances are excellent, especially David Manners’. He’s extremely good as an unsentimentalised blind man: self-sufficient, resourceful and definitely not wallowing in self-pity. His suicidal tendencies are more the frustration of not being able to succeed at something (we are clearly told that money is not a problem). I am not sure what to think of the dummy though. The other highlight is Beryl Mercer, as the motherly landlady.

Overall, of all the four films, this is the one who disappointed me the most. It had enough to be an absolute classic, but instead, Capra’s lack of conviction on his attack deliver us a disappointment with some good moments and performances.