Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Luise Rainer (1910-2014)

I think I only have seen "The Great Ziegfeld" but her interviews were marvelous and her contribution for "When the Lion roars" a key one.

Friday, 5 December 2014

Something else that shouldn't happen in a cinema

There's a Maggie Smith season and the BFI is showing a rare late 1950s TV play, Somerset Maugham's "For Services Rendered". Yet, the version is in colour and Maggie Smith-less. On the plus side, the version they actually showed is so rare, it's not on IMDb.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Zaza (1938)

In George Cukor's career, "Zaza" comes after "Holiday" and before "The Women" and "The Philadelphia Story". In Claudette Colbert's, it comes between "Bluebeard's Eighth Wife" and "Midnight", two wonderful Wilder/Brackett scripted films. And yet, the film is little more than a footnote in both their careers.

While the film's story is perfectly banal (doomed love affair with a married man), for once I don't think the problems start with the script. It's solid, competent, gives characters a chance to develop and keeps the story moving at a good pace. To me the main problem are the two leads: Colbert and Herbert Marshall. Marshall has even less presence than in other films, and devoids his character of any charm - although to be fair he doesn't have as much screen time as his character should have. But I don't like him, and it pains me to see him on screen. Colbert on the other hand is completely miscast, despite a few glorious moments. When she plays Marshall (the meeting at the station, the backstage meeting) she excels - but then she overdoes the innocent girl moments. And this is the key - she is far too knowing for me to believe she could ever be deceived by a man, any man.

Cukor himself, should have been more at ease with the material - we are in his favoured milieu of the theatre ("A Double Life", "Les Girls"). The Portuguese Cinematheque note on film also draws comparisons with "Camille". But I never felt his heart was on this. The good moments - the opening and closing, the scenes I mentioned above, and Colbert's scene with the doll - are few and far between. The opening scene in particular, with the camera travelling through the occupants of third class train carriage ending in Colbert in a shot that anticipates her similar introduction in "Midnight" On the other hand, certain scenes drag (Colbert's visit to Marshall's Paris apartment) or fail to achieve the right tone (most of the backstage scenes, where there is a lot of repetition).

The best thing in the film are the three supporting actors, playing Colbert's stepmother, her maid and her agent/partner (respectively Helen Westley, Constance Collier and Bert Lahr). Their presence helps bridge the duller moments of the film.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Lauren Bacall (1924-2014)

She was discovered by Hawks, met Bogart and became a legend. And that was only her first film.

But a 70 year career is often reduced to four years and four films made at its very beginning  is over simplistic (actually, usually only two or three - no one ever remembers "Dark Passage", sometimes probably not even "Key Largo"). As is to focus on her status as a fashion icon, on "The Look" or her looks (and by the way, she still looked amazing in her last public appearances). Bacall was much more interesting both off and on screen. I will focus on the second. This was a woman that worked both in Hollywood's Golden Age and in 21st Century arthouse. She was directed by Hawks, Minnelli and Sirk. But she was also directed by Lars von Trier and Jonathan Glazer.

And while an icon of Hollywood, she did surprisingly little film work during the Golden Age, just over a dozen films between 1944 and 1960. But she certainly knew how to pick them. In the early 1950s she played a lesbian in Curtiz's "Young Man with a Horn"(*), stealing the film from under Kirk Douglas and Doris Day's feet, and a romantic gold digger in the Cinemascope delight that is "How to Marry a Millionaire". As the decade moved on, she starrred in "Written in the Wind" for Sirk and "The Cobweb" and "Designing Woman" for Minnelli. The latter is one of her most memorable performances, in a opposites attract romantic comedy with Gregory Peck. She also played Elvira in a rarely seen TV adaptation of Noël Coward's "Blithe Spirit".

For the next couple of decades she worked on television and theatre and her film work was in waves, but included a supporting role in a guilty pleasure of mine ("Sex and the Single Girl"), the leading lady in John Wayne's last film and a scene stealing performance in "Murder in the Orient Express".

In 1996, she ran away with "The Mirror Has Two Faces", her only Oscar nomination (which she lost unexpectedly to Juliette Binoche). In 2009, she finally got an special achievement award - but  then she got the limelight slightly stolen, as it was the first year where special Oscars were presented separately.

Yes, she taught Bogart how to whistle, but she did so much more than that.

(*) Until her death, "Young Man with a Horn" was likely to have been the oldest film with all leads still alive.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Robin Williams (1951-2014)

This was a shock. Can't remember what was the last film with him I saw ("Insomnia"?) but from the late 1980s to the late 1990s he had a touch of Midas in him. In "Aladdin" he stole the show with a perfect performance.

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 naïve 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 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 perfect 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 steals. 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.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Funny Face (1957)

Audrey Hepburn's male partners are a good case study for Hollywood sexism and ageism. In the 1950s and 1960s, she was often paired with older men, some old enough to be her father (Bogart, Cooper, Astaire, Fonda and Cary Grant - although he was in a category of his own). While we are expected that this bright, gorgeous creature could fall in love with older men; older women often had to suffer if they dared wishing to be interested in virile young men. This is one of the more extreme cases in this series - at some stage Astaire actually says that he doesn't care for her intellect. In the same vein, there is a scene where domestic violence turns rebellious women into devoted ones (this is set in France, so it could be aimed at French women). In fact, faced with Astaire's irrestitible charm, she abandons all intellectual preocupations for love.
Stanley Donen directed "Funny Face", which tells the story of a pretty young girl with intellectual ambitions that accepts a job as a modelling job in Paris so she can meet her favourite philosopher. Recycling Gershwin songs, it really intended to cash on Audrey Hepburn's stardom.

The satire has dated badly (the intellectual circles, the philosopher more interested in more material pursuits), and the romantic bits are over the top (the swans and the barge are really good examples). Hepburn is beautifully photographed (and the new restoration looks impeccable) and murders a few Gershwin songs (particularly "How long has this been going on?") but she has nothing else to do other than showing pretty clothes - although she does it well, creating an iconic image in the Louvre sequence. As for Astaire, all he does is repeat all he had spent the previous two and half decades doing. And while it's fun to see Paris in the 1950s (and how little the city centre has changed) and Givenchy and Edith Head get to show off their talent as designers, I fear this one is for hardcore Audrey fans only.

The sole redeeming feture of the film is Kay Thompson who gets the best number ("Think Pink!") and lightens up the others she appears. Oh, and Audrey's photographs within the film are very good indeed.

Friday, 28 February 2014

Al Hirschfeld and The Ultimate Solution of Grace Quigley (1984)

I love Al Hirschfeld's work, but it's always a pleasant surprise when I accidentally stumble against a new poster or cover art, or a caricature that I particularly like. Due to his longevity, his work covered the 20th century greats of Hollywood, Broadway and the West End. If there's no Hirschfeld drawing of you and you were working at that time, you really didn't make it.

So, by accident, I found the poster for "The Ultimate Solution of Grace Quigley" (1984), which has the distinction of being Katharine Hepburn's last film starring role (opposite Nick Nolte). I had never heard of the film, and from online clips it looks a lot like a cheap TV film. It has a interesting premise, though - but best of all, is the poster (particularly Kate's drawing).

Monday, 24 February 2014

Harold Ramis (1944-2014)

"Animal House", "Ghostbusters" and "Groundhog Day". No need to say add anything else.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

I Married a Witch (1942)

Veronica Lake is a strange one in Hollywood stardom. She had an iconic hairstyle which propelled her to stardom. She was in a few movies ("Sullivan's Travels", the Alan Ladd noirs) which have endured well, and partly because of this, she has a reasonable cult following. What she didn't have was a wide range in her acting skills, and in René Clair's "I Married a Witch" she is absolutely dreadful - and I am aware I am in a minority here.

Actually the whole film is somewhat odd, on and off screen. Produced by Paramount, it was sold by the studio to United Artists when Paramount had a surplus of films and UA not enough. Assuming the film was sold after Lake's peekaboo hair made its first screen appearance (I have no evidence for making this assumption), Paramount only would have sold it either they thought the film was a sure hit and a lot of money passed hands or if the studio had little faith in the film and disposed of it as quickly as it could. I have to say that with the film as the only evidence, I am inclined for the second option.

The film tells the story of a witch falling in love and marrying a man (Fredric March) whose family condemned her to burn centuries before. It is perhaps better known as one of the inspirations of the TV series "Bewitched". Originally set to be produced by Preston Sturges and starring Joel McCrea, that might have resulted in a better film, as March and Lake famously didn't get along. This occasionally shows - Lake lacks the catlike playfulness she should have had while seducing him (I keep thinking what Barbara Stanwyck, Carole Lombard or Irene Dunne could have done with it). Only at the very end of the film (when she sorts things out), was I happy with her performance.

Of course, the film fails elsewhere and I am not blaming Lake for it all. March is best described as competent here (and he could so much better) and the film takes a while to gather pace, with the first half dragging a bit. It does improve in the second half, particularly in the wedding scenes and the build-up to the climax. I also loved the epilogue (possibly the most Paramount-like moment of the whole film). The supporting cast, particularly a young Susan Hayward as the always nagging fiancée, is very good. She also would also have been a good choice for the lead. Oh, and the posters are great (and Lake does look very good indeed).

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Family Honeymoon (1948)

"Family Honeymoon" is the last pairing of Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray. And of the six I have seen (I am missing the elusive "Practically Yours"), it is the dullest and most uninspired. It is also the most reactionary, even if it starts off with a good premise. A widow with three children is to marry an academic. However, the kids babysitter (her spinster sister) breaks her leg and is unable to manage the kids who tag along on the honeymoon.
Up to the end of WWII, marriage meant the couple was finally allowed to have sex (e.g. Minnelli's "The Clock"). This meant that the film (and its leads) could, particularly in comedy, increase and escalate tension with the audience knowing that at the end there would be some release (yes, I know awful pun). Whereas here the children are the excuse to keep everything censor friendly. Colbert dexterously avoids any move from MacMurray; one scene has her giving a stern look, completely emasculating him: MacMurray is an an absent minded professor who is not will not be rewarded until he ascertains his masculinity over an over feminine Colbert, who seems to have failed to notice her children are unruly until she looses her man - the double implication that a) a woman can't raise children without a man and b) a woman needs a man to guide her to life. These are lazy post-war Hollywood stereotypes at their worst.

The plot is also full of preposterous incidents (a mother not paying attention to their kids at a train stop?!) and a predatory woman (Rita Johnson, failing to do what Gail Patrick could do so well) to keep the story moving to its 90th minute. This latter point is actually extraordinarily annoying, as it passes all possible suspension of disbelief, with Johnson's character too eager to disrupt the honeymoon. Although I must confess that the party sequence at the end was a slight improvement over the rest of the film.

Neither Colbert or MacMurray do more than the bare minimum and I would suggest that all they thought of was the pay check, and honestly I can't blame them. Hattie McDaniel has a small role, just a bit more than a cameo, and looks very ill in what was one of her last film roles. Only Lilian Bronson as Colbert's sister manages to make something interesting of what is an disappointing
farewell of one of my favourite actor pairings of old Hollywood.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Shirley Temple (1928-2014)

The most famous child film star of all time. No two ways about it.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Juanita Moore (1922-2014)

Oscar nominated for "Imitation for Life", I recently saw one of her (uncredited) performances in "A Child is Waiting".

A fine actress, whose skin colour prevented her go as far as her talent would have let her.
PS - She may have been born in 1914, but that date seems to have been mentioned only in obituaries.