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.