Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Merry Christmas

To all my readers wherever you are, whether resting on sandy beaches or shivering in the snow, whether you celebrate the season or happily ignore it, here's wishing you a time of joy and light. As the year draws to a close, I always feel a rush of gratitude for the people that encourage my love for writing and for film and I will number you all in my blessings. Thank you and Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 24, 2012

Farewell, Jack Klugman

Pardon me, but don't you ever sweat?
Jack Klugman (1922-2012)

Image of Klugman credited to Raquel at Out of the Past, who has a moving tribute to the late actor posted here

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Snowy Day Movies

If anyone asks me what I'm thankful for, it's that we had our first snowfall this week. It doesn't matter where I am or what I'm doing, the first snow of the season will always send a little jolt of electricity down my spine. Growing up in my tiny hometown in northern California, the first snowfall always followed a certain pattern. It would come at night, sudden and silent as a thief, and you would wake up to streets soaked in white. Because it was early in the season, the snow would melt as rapidly as it came and by lunchtime, all your dreams of snowball fights and sledding would have dwindled to the size of the slush puddles. But that didn't mean you couldn't still hope for a day off from school, since the ice could make the back roads a hazard. And that meant an early morning of waiting by the phone, listening to the snow fall off the tree branches, as you prayed for it to stay just a little longer.

Well, the first snowfall this year got me thinking about the way movies use snow. I'm such a fan of snow that even just watching it on film makes me happier. So on that note, I present you with a list of some of my favorite "snowy day" movies. 

It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

It's best to get the most obvious entry out of the way early and as over-familiar as this film might be, it doesn't take away from the emotional power of watching George Bailey's life come apart in the falling snow. It's a movie that illustrates perfectly the first principle of snow. When you're miserable, it's just one more sign that God hates you. But when you're happy, it's a sign of renewal. A reminder that things can become beautiful again. Watching Jimmy Stewart joyfully wipe away blood and and flakes of frost from his face is one of cinema's great moments for a reason.

Queen Christina (1933)

Garbo just looks so fantastically healthy in this movie, doesn't she? As the headstrong, regal Queen Christina, Garbo is so beautiful and so vividly aware of her own body, that it's impossible to take your eyes from her. I don't know what kind of beauty regimen consists of staying up all night reading and then washing your face with snow but who can argue with such results? This movie earns a place here solely for that scene, which always makes me want to just copy Garbo and bury my face in some fresh snow.

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

My astute readers will notice that I'm not including Citizen Kane on my list, despite it containing arguably the most famous snow scene in all of cinema. Well, that's because, great as it is, the sleigh ride sequence is many times greater. It's a perfectly staged vignette, a short story in its own right that foretells the dramatic clashes to come (youth versus age, the modern versus the traditional, and the first stirrings of infatuation versus an old love coming back into life). And more than that, it's also the last, truest moment of happiness before these characters will be consumed by a future they barely understand.

Curse of the Cat People (1944)

Curse of the Cat People should be taught in film schools as an object lesson that a low budget does not mean a film can't look beautiful. It's glorious to look at, a vivid evocation of a little girl's inner life and the mysteries she finds lurking in twisted trees and shadowed houses. But  the film positively shimmers in the snowy scenes, as our heroine's friendship with Simone Simon's ghost comes to a moving conclusion. Simon appears in the snow, garbed like the Good Fairy, her usual seductive appeal mellowed to a sweet melancholy. If you've seen Cat People, then Simon's scenes here act as a generous  counterpoint to her character in the previous film. Instead of the tormented monster, she's become the innocent fantasy.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

The sight of Catherine Deneuve, with her absurd tower of blonde hair and her fur coat, shaking off the snow and staring into the eyes of her former lover, is one that will never leave you.

Lost Horizon (1937)

I saw Lost Horizon as a kid and surprisingly, it's stuck with me all these years. I say "surprisingly" because really, how much can a child relate to the philosophical yearnings of Shangri-La and the malaise of adults wondering whether or not to surrender to happiness? But I think what caught my imagination wasn't the High Lama's speeches or the carefully Code-appropriate romance of Ronald Colman and Jane Wyatt. It was for the scene where Colman and his brother are fleeing Shangri-La. They have taken a native woman along with them, played by the glamorous Margo. They climb the Himalayas, with the wind shrieking at their backs and the icy air lit up like the flames of Hell. Colman knows in his heart that it's senseless to leave the paradise of Shangri-La but the others are bitter, determined. And then his brother screams. "Look at her face, Bob, look at her face!" The beautiful woman they were carrying in their arms has aged a century in a single moment, turning into a withered crone. By leaving Shangri-La, she's doomed herself. And as Colman watches in horror, his brother goes mad and leaps from the mountain. He is left alone, with nothing to do but to keep walking away from the place he never wanted to leave.

Portrait of Jennie (1948)

(image taken from Classic Movies Digest)

Wins a place on this list for the moment where Joseph Cotten walks through Central Park with Jennifer Jones. Jones is Jennie, the strange, beguiling girl that will haunt him for the rest of his life. Jones was almost thirty at the time but she's perfectly childlike, clutching her muff and prattling on about school and the Kaiser and paintings, while Cotten listens, half-confused, half-enchanted. But as they start walking, the shadows fall over their faces and Jennie starts to sing. "Where I come from nobody knows and where I am going, everything goes. The wind blows, the sea flows, nobody knows. And where I am going, nobody knows." It's a moment to send a shiver down your spine as you realize you're not dealing with any conventional Hollywood romance.

Odd Man Out (1947)

I saw this film for the first time a few months ago and its final moments immediately became my favorite snow scene of all time. As you can see by this list, that's saying a lot. It's superb, haunting, unforgettable.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Halloween Movie Meme

When I'm between projects, there's nothing that clears my head like a good movie meme. And since it's the season of spooks and ghouls, that means it's time for a Halloween meme! Now, as a self-confessed scaredy-cat, I'm probably not the best suited to coming up with a scary movie quiz. And when I do watch horror movies, my tastes skew closer to Jacques Tourneur than Eli Roth. But that doesn't mean I don't love Halloween and the season of fear. There's something to be said for a centuries-old holiday that isn't interested in brotherly love or independence or anything but scaring the pants off you. And to honor this fine tradition,  here's a thirteen-question Halloween movie meme, courtesy of The Girl with the White Parasol.

Anyone who wants to answer this meme is welcome to post it up on their blog. If you do decide to do it, please provide a link back to this blog. And if you'd like to respond but don't have a blog of your own, feel free to post your answers in the comments down below. Happy haunting!

1. Who is your favorite movie witch?

2. What is the first movie you can remember being scared by?

3. Name a classic horror film that would be substantially improved by better special effects.

4. Name your favorite Val Lewton film.

5. What movie villain or monster has the most frightening "stare-into-the-camera" moment?

6. What is the most irritating horror film cliche?

7. Are there any movies you refuse to watch alone?

8. Picture an old childhood nightmare of yours. Now try to adapt it to film. Can it be done?

9. Who's your favorite "scream queen?"

10. What is the most disappointing horror remake?

11. We've all seen our share of vampires, zombies, and werewolves on film, but are there any mythical creatures or monsters out there that you think deserve more movies (i.e. golems, changelings, the Minotaur, etc.)?

12. Along the lines of "Scary Mary Poppins," can you think of any non-horror flicks that could easily be adapted to fit the genre?

13. And now, just for fun, pick one movie monster or villain to be remade into a cuddly plush toy, just for you.

Now go do the meme! Joan Crawford wants you to do it! 

Just kidding. I have no idea what that expression means and I don't think I want to know.

Note: The first image was taken from 0rchid_thief.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Tentpole Characters

In his review of Sunset Boulevard, Roger Ebert spends nearly half of it talking about Erich von Stroheim's character Max. It's my favorite kind of Ebert review, the kind where he just throws out trying to sum up a film classic and instead just follows his own interests.
"The performance that holds the film together, that gives it emotional resonance and makes it real in spite of its gothic flamboyance, is by Erich von Stroheim, as Norma's faithful butler Max...We might not take (Norma) seriously. That's where Max comes in. Because he believes, because he has devoted his life to her shrine, we believe. His love convinces us there must be something worth loving in Norma."
His description of Max always fascinated me because I think it nails down a very important concept. The idea that a film can rise or fall, not just on the protagonist, but also on a supporting character, shoring up the film's foundations without calling attention to the fact. Without Max, Norma Desmond could so easily have been a campy parody, despite Swanson's superb performance. Without Alida Valli's haunted devotion, would Harry Lime be nearly as memorable a villain? Well, I got to thinking about the subject and just had to make a short, by-no-means-conclusive list. For the sake of a title, let's call them "tentpole" characters.
1. Lew Ayres in Holiday

In Holiday, Katharine Hepburn plays the upscale but troubled Linda Seton, a free spirit who's been stifled all her life by her controlling father. Now, when it comes to fiction, I'm usually quite willing to sympathize with rich, beautiful people, but man does Linda test that limit. And I say that as someone who loves this film. This is a wealthy woman in 1938 with the gall to say this: "Compared to the life I lead, the last man on a chain gang thoroughly enjoys himself." It's all I can do not to yell, "Oh cry me a river, rich girl!" This is where Lew Ayres comes in. He plays Linda's brother Ned, a melancholy alcoholic who has given up his musical ambitions to grind his soul to death in his father's office. He is Linda's confidante as she slowly comes to realize her love for Johnny Case (Cary Grant), her sister's fiancee. Ayres plays this witty, unhappy man to perfection. Without once even raising his voice for sympathy, Ayres shows us how this man has been worn down by convention and family duty. He has no fight in him, except when it comes to Linda. He shows us everything Linda stands to lose. And because of that, we're on their side.

2. Patricia Neal in The Day the Earth Stood Still

The Day the Earth Stood Still cuts its way through the overheated, pulpy jungles of '50s science fiction like some vast, frozen iceberg. It's a smart, suspenseful movie, but so cold. Even the scenes of Klautu bonding with the little boy carry that feeling of unease. We are faced with the unhappy prospect that these advanced aliens will come down and intone, in the wise voice of Michael Rennie, that humanity better get with the program or else. But the humanity personified in scenes of generals barking orders or by the furrowed brow of Hugh Marlowe doesn't really put up much of a show for itself. Thank God then, for Patrica Neal. She's the only fully realized human character in this film; it's her warmth, confusion, and courage that we cling to. Neal had the great gift for creating characters who feel lived-in, from the practical but yearning Alma in Hud to the coolly cynical lover in Breakfast at Tiffany's. Her characters never feel like they started existing the moment the director yelled "Action." Would "Gort, Klaatu barada nikto" have been half so memorable without that tremor of mingled fear and determination in Neal's voice? Klaatu may be Space Jesus but Helen is our true savior.

3. Gladys Cooper in Now, Voyager

People like to cite Now, Voyager as one of the definitive romantic films. But for my money, the real force behind the story isn't the swoony love story of
Bette Davis and Paul Henreid, it's the battle of wills between Davis and Gladys Cooper. Cooper is one of the bitchiest mothers ever put on screen, a woman so ruthless she would throw her rickety body down the stairs just to make her own daughter feel guilty. She torments poor Bette Davis (how often do you get to say that?) into a nervous breakdown, simply by refusing to give any kind of affection or freedom to her offspring. Cooper's performance in such a juicy role is understated. She delivers Mrs. Vale's constant stream of complaints in the kind of everyday, distracted tone you might expect from someone who's been speaking poison so long they've forgotten how to talk any other way. Now, Voyager tells a pretty old story: the ugly duckling who finds love and beauty. It's wish fulfillment. But it would all collapse into a soggy mess without Cooper, who shows us how much heft and emotion there can be in these kind of stories. Especially when the freedom of a human soul is at stake.

4. Ann Sheridan in Kings Row

This selection might be a little biased due to the fact that I love Ann Sheridan and wish she'd gotten more roles like this. Warner Brothers liked to advertise Sheridan as the "Oomph Girl," branding the gorgeous Texan redhead like she was a flavor of bubble gum. But when she got the chance, Sheridan proved she was plenty more than that. She had energy and humor and an irrepressible down-to-earth attitude. There's always a normalcy peeking out from under her performances. In Kings Row, she plays Randy Monaghan, the tomboy from the wrong side of the tracks who grows up into the loving, courageous wife of Ronald Reagan's character. Sheridan gives Randy an overlying pragmatism and intelligence that grounds the romance perfectly. She's the kind of woman who would always be a friend first, a lover second. As the spiritual predecessor to films like Peyton Place and Picnic, Kings Row is the kind of "small-town, dark secrets" melodrama that risks becoming too overblown. Lucky for us that Ann Sheridan is there to remind us that loving people can also just be good common sense.

5. Thomas Mitchell in Only Angels Have Wings

Only Angels Have Wings might go neck and neck with To Have and Have Not for the title of most Hawksian Howard Hawks film. A wisecracking and sexy woman (Jean Arthur) falls in with a group of daredevil men and quickly becomes fascinated by their tough and emotionally distant leader (Cary Grant). The leader is quick with the quips but slow to open his heart. Lucky for poor Jean Arthur, she has Grant's loyal number 2 on her side, "Kid" Dabb (Thomas Mitchell). Mitchell would have had my everlasting gratitude just by virtue of not being Walter Brennan ranting about dead bees but his portrayal of Kid is worth more than that. Mitchell had a way of watching his fellow actors that always gets to me. There's kindness there and understanding, but he never tries to draw too much attention. He bides his time. His gentle regard for Arthur is such a relief after seeing her get constantly embarrassed and berated by Grant. And of course, his character here is a powerful reminder that Grant really is a great guy. He'd have to be to win the loyalty of such a man.

6. Rita Moreno in West Side Story

It's funny how growing older has flipped my perception of West Side Story. As a kid, I was dazzled by Natalie Wood and couldn't understand why Rita Moreno and George Chakiris got all the attention. Now, I get it. In the original Romeo and Juliet, the tragedy isn't just about two lovers who can never be together. The tragedy is also about two families who have mindlessly destroyed all their best, brightest, and most cherished children for an empty rivalry. This is soft-pedaled in the musical by turning it into a very '50s style story of teenagers and grownups who just can't understand. We never see the parents, only ineffectual police officers and a head-shaking storekeeper ("You kids make the world lousy!").  When you take out the family aspect of the story and replace it with street gangs, it muddles everything. Why would street gangs react with such outsized horror at the thought of actually killing each other? It makes characters like Tony and Riff and Maria seem a little like suburban kids who've been teleported into the wrong story. This is where Rita Moreno is so essential as Anita. She's the only one who seems to truly feel the passion and pain of the situation. The near-rape she suffers at the hands of the Jets is still the only part of the film where I want to cringe and look away. But it's more than just one scene. Without Moreno's sexy, vibrant presence at the beginning (I love her back-and-forth with Chakiris), the film would lose a lot of its charm. Just as it would lose so much of the tragedy without her. If we hold onto the Romeo and Juliet connection, then Anita is clearly Mercutio.  A plague on both your houses, all right.

7. Julie Harris in East of Eden

I have an ingrained resistance to love triangles and the way they cause presumably intelligent characters to flutter around as indecisively as little kids choosing snow cone flavors. It's even harder when one character stands at the apex, wittering over the hardships of life. In East of Eden however, Julie Harris manages the incredibly tricky feat of convincing us that she really is as sensitive, intelligent, and loving as the other characters think she is. Even as she flirts and falls in love with her brother's troubled boyfriend, Harris never seems truly petty. Offscreen, Elia Kazan would credit Julie Harris for giving James Dean invaluable support, adjusting her acting rhythm to his and calming her shaky costar with long car rides and talks. East of Eden may be a tale of fathers and sons, but Harris is the film's heroine.

8. Diana Lynn in The Major and the Minor

Billy Wilder's The Major and the Minor belongs to that rarefied class of romantic comedy where you never know whether to laugh or to be disturbed. Ginger Rogers pretends to be twelve years old so that she can afford a train ticket. In the process, she falls in with Ray Milland, who's charmed by her but believes she's only an innocent kid. Through one of those comedy contrivances, she ends up at Ray Milland's military academy, having to dodge amorous cadets while falling in love with Milland herself. Thankfully Rogers doesn't look even remotely twelve, so watching her prance around as baby-voiced "Su-Su," cooing and smiling and calling Milland "Uncle Phil" isn't nearly as unbearable as it could have been. But the true saving grace of the film is Diana Lynn, as the smart and snarky kid sister of Milland's fiancee. She takes one look at Rogers' Baby Snooks routine and tells her, "Oh stop that baby talk, you're not twelve. " The way Lynn's eyes light up with pure glee as she then offers Rogers a cigarette is unforgettable. Lynn is a blessed dash of cold water in all the movie's silliness; as all the other characters are falling for Rogers' machinations like cartoon lemmings, Lynn sees through it. She forges an alliance with Rogers that is undoubtedly the film's only healthy relationship. And because of that, she becomes the film's greatest ally as well.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Movie Review: The Pirate

The Pirate (1948) 
directed by Vincente Minnelli, starring Judy Garland, Gene Kelly

(Note: This post is an entry in the Gene Kelly Centennial Blogathon, hosted by the Classic Movie Blogs Association.)

In a small village named Calvados, a young orphan named Manuela (Judy Garland) daydreams about the famed pirate known as Macoco, the terror of the seas and the delight of women. But her aunt (Gladys Cooper) has other plans for her niece. Namely, marriage to Don Pedro (Walter Slezak), the town's pompous and thoroughly unexciting mayor. Being a dutiful girl, Manuela does her best to bury her hopes of romance. 

But as fate would have it, a dashing actor, Serafin (Gene Kelly), and his troupe of players happen to be traveling through a nearby town. And when Serafin claps eyes on Manuela, he knows she's the only one for him. After trying and failing to win her heart through words alone, he hypnotizes her at the troupe's performance. Under the spell, Manuela literally lets down her hair and sings about her passion for the pirate "Mack the Black" Macoco, astounding all with her performance. The next day, Manuela prepares to get married, with no memory of the night before. However, the lovesick Serafin is determined to win her and seizes upon a chance to impersonate the pirate. His plan turns out to have consequences he didn't expect, as the deceptions begin to pile up on each other. Lying is just another kind of performance, after all...

The Pirate is a film that is easy to summarize but hard to explain. On the surface, it's a straight-up musical parody of the old swashbuckler films, with music and dance substituted for swordplay. The romantic, valiant pirate of movies like Captain Blood and The Black Swan is ground to dust and glitter by Kelly and company. Kelly flashes a Barrymore-like profile as he romances Garland, but for most of the film, his Serafin is a clowning show-off whose flirtations play a bit like Errol Flynn on speed skates. "Senorita, don't marry that pumpkin...any man who lets you out of his sight is a pumpkin," he tells Garland, who looks back at him in pure disbelief. As for Garland, her hyperventilating responses to Kelly could be taken as a parody of all those bosom-heaving, "How-dare-you-ing" ladies of the adventure films. But on the other hand, for all its camp and silliness, the movie finds a very stylized but powerful sexuality in its two leads, giving Kelly and Garland an opportunity to heat things up to a level you don't expect from an MGM musical. It's mesmerizing. It's also kind of a mess.

This was the second film for Garland and Kelly, between the wartime musical For Me and My Gal in 1942 and the nostalgic Summer Stock in 1950. Behind the scenes was a warm working relationship that eerily mirrored A Star is Born. In 1942, Judy Garland was the experienced movie star who took the theater-trained Gene Kelly and taught him everything about film acting, how to move, how to emote, how to kiss. In the words of his widow Patricia Kelly, "(Gene) said she was the sexiest woman in Hollywood for him." Kelly never forgot the help.  When The Pirate went into production, however, Garland's personal problems were overtaking her talent, sending her into a drug-fueled nervous breakdown while her marriage to Minnelli fell apart. By 1950, Garland was an emotional wreck, who pulled herself through Summer Stock (and an immortal performance of "Get Happy") by sheer force of will. And the help of friends like Gene Kelly. Kelly, who could be a bullying, relentless taskmaster in the quest for perfection, was endlessly patient with Garland, enduring constant filming delays. In the words of Summer Stock's director Charles Walters, "Gene took her left arm and I took her right one, and between us, we literally tried to keep her on her feet." So The Pirate becomes the strange halfway point, before Kelly had reached the very pinnacle of his career and just as Garland was starting her descent. It's perhaps the closest they got to meeting onscreen as equals.

So what makes The Pirate such a strange film? I could point you to this little number (starting at 2:30) in which, Manuela, now convinced that Serafin is Macoco, watches him play around with a donkey. This for some reason, sets her imagination spiraling into a fantasy of him in tight black shorts, dancing a ballet in the flames and dominating a woman in a white headscarf. And well, just look at the imagery.

So Manuela thinks of herself as...oh, dear. Or how about the climax of the film in which Kelly escapes hanging by putting on a show? Granted this is a musical and putting on a show is the solution to every problem, but it's rare to see a plot-based musical throw character so completely out the window as The Pirate does when it chooses to end with its two lovers reprising "Be A Clown." I mean, is this the final image you would expect from a movie called The Pirate?

I suspect the reason The Pirate failed with the audiences of 1948 is because they came in expecting it to be a joke, but couldn't figure out just who was being kidded. Is director Vincente Minnelli just trying to make a parody swashbuckler? Or is he deliberately ragging on the audience, turning a familiar Hollywood fantasy into an arch meta-narrative of two stars ridiculing their own sexual roleplay before reminding us that they are, in fact, just actors? Or maybe it's a commentary on Minnelli's own obsession with performance and artifice? Honestly, I'm not sure myself. The film's intentions are so diverse that it's difficult to categorize.

Take the scene where Manuela is hypnotized by Serafin into telling the audience her deepest desires. Serafin believes she will reveal her love for him and he is dumbstruck when she confesses, in the song "Mack the Black" that she's got the hots for the pirate Macoco. It's Garland's best moment in the film as she lets down her auburn hair, swinging her hips and leading the troupe in song. In essence, she turns the tables on Kelly, taking his fantasy of a helpless, "pure" maiden and turning it into a lusty anthem of her own desires. But even then, the Cole Porter lyrics ("Macoco leads a flaming trail of masculinity") are enough to make you wonder just whose fantasies are being recorded here. And then Kelly swings it back around again by passionately kissing the unaware Manuela, the placement of his hands dangerously skirting the MGM code of conduct. 

As Manuela, Judy Garland is sometimes brilliant, sometimes far-too hectic. Garland was a lovely comedienne with great timing, but I have to say that the fists-beating, foot-stamping, I'm-angry-routine should, nine times out of ten, only be done by Carole Lombard. Garland's greatest strength as an actress was that phenomenal voice, which she could use to heartbreaking affect in drama but could also throb quite effectively in comedy. In a scene where she mockingly insults Serafin, I had to rewind the DVD three times just to listen to Garland's delivery of the line, "I can't believe I thought you were nothing but a common actor...How unspeakably drab." For the most part, Garland's personal problems are invisible on screen and she's obviously relishing the chance to reveal a passionate, desirable woman underneath all that innocence, rattling the bars of her MGM persona. I did find it hard to get over the schizophrenic nature of Garland's costuming in this film, which at times makes her look ravishing, as in the above "Mack the Black" number.

Or makes her look like a mushroom, as per this inexplicable ensemble:

Minnelli usually had a peerless eye for what would make Garland look good on camera so unless he approved this one during one of their marital spats, I don't get it.

However, the film ultimately belongs more to Gene Kelly than it does to Judy Garland. He indulges in too much eye-popping in his early scenes but otherwise, he comes off as much more relaxed and in control than either his director or costar. It's worth the rental price just to watch the scene where he dips a woman, swallows his cigarette for a kiss and then chews it back up to exhale the smoke. It's the true test of a leading man: when you can make blowing smoke into a woman's face into something hilariously funny. He pitches the comedy to the point where you can get all the Barrymore and Fairbanks in-jokes and still enjoy him as a sexy lead in his own right.

For Kelly fans, The Pirate might count as one of the star's most homoerotic films as well. Minnelli's camerawork, Cole Porter's lyrics, and even the dialogue lavish attention on the man's physicality and appeal. When his character Serafin is caught by the Viceroy, who believes him to be Macoco, he looks him over with open interest. "I must say Macoco, you're very satisfying! The other members of your profession whom I've met officially looked more like bookkeepers than pirates, but you - ooo hooo hooo - you fill the eye." It's an assessment that Minnelli seems to agree with because while he films Garland romantically, as usual, Kelly is always the fantasy figure. He is always the centerpiece of attention.

The Pirate is a film whose greatness lies in its strangeness as much as in its two stars. It's never mediocre but it can be frustratingly flawed. The plot, such as it is, completely falls apart in the third act when characters just stop the story altogether so they can have sporadic musical numbers. If the songs were Cole Porter's best...but they're not. And yet, I can guarantee that you will be remembering this one long after other and better films have faded. It's a passionate, freewheeling bit of escapism and if its intentions are a little muddled, well, the ambition is strong. And that's something worth singing about.

Favorite Quote:

"You know, it's not essential to love me to be in the troupe. It helps but it's not essential."

Favorite Scene:

The "Nina" dance number. "Mack the Black" is a catchier song and "Be a Clown" has the Nicholas Brothers but "Nina" is the film's most complete and fully realized routine. Minnelli's camera follows Kelly's acrobatics around the village as he declares his love for every woman he meets, kissing them, dancing with them, and calling all of them by the name, "Nina." "Nina, Nina, I'll be having neurasthenia 'til I make you mine," croons Kelly, dipping one girl even as he's eying the next one. On an aesthetic level, it's a great-looking number, one of the few times the film's comic energy feels relaxed and fluid. But the true genius comes from the realization that even as Kelly is busily parodying the Don Juan-style swashbuckling of Barrymore, Fairbanks, and Flynn, the sexualization is not of the many gorgeous "Ninas" but of him. The song celebrates the desirability of women all while shamelessly offering you Kelly in the world's tightest pants (and his legs never looked better) in a celebration of himself that's so playfully narcissistic it begins to feel oddly generous. In his willingness to embrace the camp of the Fairbanks part, Kelly finds a very real honesty and sexiness. It's one of the reasons that this film, for all its flaws, is a must for Kelly fans.

Final Six Words

Swashbuckler sent up as carnival entertainment

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Blogs Rising from the Dead, Liebster Awards, Mass Hysteria

If you hear the sound of creaking hinges, that's because my poor, dear blog hasn't been open for over a month. I feel a bit like Christopher Lee up there (except less stylish, naturally), rising up out of my coffin. I have a good excuse for my absence in that I was using my summer vacation to travel in Malaysia. Most of my computer access was through my smartphone which is wonderful but not exactly conducive to blogging. I have no regrets because it was an excellent trip, full of sun, sights, and good food. But still, it's a relief to get back to this blog and the world of cinema.

While I was away, however, two lovely, gifted, and brilliant bloggers, Natalie from In the Mood and Laura from Who Can Turn the World Off With Her Smile? generously bestowed a Liebster Award on Me. You guys. Your kindness makes me want to rend my garments and vow, Scarlett-O'Hara-style, to never let this blog go hungry again. Alright, that was hardly a great metaphor, but you know what I mean. And if anyone out there isn't following these two great ladies' blogs, well, what are you waiting for? Natalie is a great blogger, funny, original, and a Barbara Stanwyck fan to put all others to shame. Laura is one of the most engaging writers I know; she has the ability to leap on pretty much any topic and pull at least ten different insights out of it.

Now, the Liebster has apparently had a makeover since the last time I saw it. They've expanded the rules to the following:
1. Tell 11 things about yourself.
2. Answer 11 questions from the person who nominated you.
3. Tag 11 bloggers.
4. And ask them 11 questions thought up by you.

The problem for me is, since I've been away, most of the people I might tag have already been honored. And trying to track down who has and hasn't been tagged...if I do that, this post might get postponed to next week and I'd rather not do that. So I'm just going to treat this like a regular meme and respond to parts 1 and 2.

Thanks again, guys and it's great to be back!

11 Things About Me

1. I find it impossible to travel without packing at least two books. Possibly three. Doesn't matter if the trip is two days or two weeks, I need my reading material. There's an 80%  chance that even then I will find an excuse to visit a bookstore while I'm abroad, regardless of whether said bookstore has English-language books or not.

2. I was an obsessive Tetris player as a kid and I still pine for my old-school Nintendo.

3. I am twenty years younger than my brother. We're not half-siblings.

4. Every year I tell myself that I will enter the Bulwer-Lytton Contest and every year I forget to send in an entry on time.

5. My favorite color is green.

6. If someone asked me which Hollywood star I would most want to look like, it would be Maureen O'Hara, no question. I've been hankering after that gorgeous flaming hair since I was seven.

7. Sometimes my taste in fictional men can be a little...offbeat. Louis Renault may be a corrupt captain who blackmails women into sex and is hopelessly in love with Humphrey Bogart--but I still find him madly attractive. Same goes for alcoholic James Mason in A Star is Born, who had my heart from the moment he wiped off Judy Garland's makeup. Oh and Orson Welles for the brief stretch of Citizen Kane where he's lounging around in his chair and joking about how to run a newspaper. I would chalk it up to an attraction to gorgeous voices but then, Alan Rickman does nothing for me.

8. I can't whistle.

9. I'm an early riser by choice. Sleeping in makes me feel uneasy, like I've been missing out on all the fun.

10. My favorite season is winter. Favorite kind of weather is the day after a snowfall when all the ice is melting off the tree branches and the sun is shining but the air is cold. It's the kind of weather that makes me feel anything is possible.

11. I love watching old clips of What's My Line on Youtube. And damn do I love Arlene Francis.

11 Questions from Natalie

1. In film do you prefer black&white or color?

Rather than state my answer in words, I will let these images speak for themselves.

2. In photographs do you prefer black&white or color?

I cannot imagine seeing the Aurora Borealis in black and white or the photos of Dorothea Lange in color so yeah, my answer is the same as before.

3. Your favorite era in music?

‘Fraid I don’t have one. I pick a little from each one.

4. Do you have a tumblr?

Nope. Sometimes I wish I did, but then, tumblr isn’t great for comments and I love the back-and-forth discussions on sites like Blogger and Livejournal.

5. Your second favorite actress?

Wow. Barbara Stanwyck is so obviously my number one that my other favorites are clustered pretty closely together. So, erm, I’ll say Joan Bennett, to pick one at random.

6. Your favorite movie starring your second favorite actress?

The Reckless Moment.

7. Your second favorite actor?

Life’s full of tough choices…I’ll pick Humphrey Bogart.

8. Your favorite movie starring your second favorite actor?

The Maltese Falcon.

9. Favorite foreign film?

Currently it’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

10. Ice cream or French fries?

Finally an easy question! Ice cream.

11. If you could see your favorite actress in any movie role [real or imagined] what would it be?

I’m going to combine two of my answers here and say that I would love to have seen how Barbara Stanwyck would have tackled the Brigid O’Shaughnessy role in The Maltese Falcon. Just as an alternate version since I would never want to lose Mary Astor’s superb performance.

Questions by Laura

1. Ever written about something you changed your mind about later?

Oh sure. I don't know if I've ever had a direct 180 on a movie or performer. More often, I'll make a flippant comment on somebody else's blog and then think later, "Man, I was way too hard on Stanley Kramer." I usually agonize so long over my blog posts that it gives me time to tear apart my opinions and see what they're made of. But of course I'm going to rewatch films and change my mind, that's what it's all about. I think I did mention in one post that I change my mind about Marnie every single time I watch it.

2. Favorite photograph of your favorite actor/actress?

3. Favorite film critic?

The Self-Styled Siren.

4. Least favorite film by favorite director?

I’ve actually managed to put off seeing a large number of Alfred Hitchcock’s misfires. And what’s the point really in picking on a minor little film like Jamaica Inn? Or a film I can barely remember like The Paradine Case? So I’ll say the one that actually manages to irritate me the most: Torn Curtain. I’d love to play contrarian on that one but here’s the thing. That movie managed to make Paul Newman dull. Some things should not be forgiven.

5. Do you prefer foreign films dubbed or subtitled?

Subtitled, of course.

6. What common feature in classic Hollywood films would you have changed? (Racism, sexism, all the smoking, etc.)

Well, if you’re giving me the option, naturally I’d want to dismantle the racism and sexism.  But then, doesn’t that imply that I think racism and sexism aren’t still running rampant in current Hollywood film? Which, no, I don’t. So I guess I’d go after the Production Code, one of the single greatest factors in ensuring that Hollywood stuck to those eye-rolling black servants, tragic mulattos, unhappy career women, and sloppy, forced endings.

7. Most misleading trailer/poster/overall marketing for a movie?

I'm sure there are much more egregious examples out there but posters like this and trailers like this, along with critics calling it "the feel-good movie of the year," had me telling my friends, "Oh let's go see Slumdog Millionaire, that'll be a nice one." And after two hours of poverty, cruelty, child abuse, mutilation, rape, and torture, my friends turned around and solemnly informed me that I would not get to pick the next movie.

8. Which actors around today (if any) do you think will be considered true immortals fifty years from now, in the tradition of Garbo or Bogart?

I think we do have some acting immortals although the ones that come to mind are mostly longtime legends like Meryl Streep and Michael Caine. But I find it hard to imagine the same kind of actor cults and glamor that follow someone like Garbo. I just think that kind of aloof, semi-divine celebrity has been replaced with a more casual yet even more invasive popularity.

9. Have you ever been put off by an actor, director, or producer's work by their obnoxious or offensive offscreen shenanigans, or do you think that's irrelevant to their body of work?

I'd like to say it's irrelevant, but no, I do think that real life can infect the work. Mel Gibson comes to mind as the most obvious example. But then, if I really loved, loved Gibson's work as an actor, would I feel differently? I can still enjoy Rex Harrison's acting even if the real man was egocentric, anti-Semitic, and a supremely obnoxious personality. Of course Harrison has the advantage over Gibson in that his screen personality never depended on being liked.

10. Marry, boff, or kill (men): Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart?

I guess I’d kill Clark Gable on the condition that this would immediately send him to a happy afterlife with Carole Lombard. I can’t wrap my head around the idea of marrying Bogart (there is only Lauren Bacall) so I guess I’d nip into my time machine and boff Bogie while he was still in his “Tennis, anyone?” stage. And then I’d tie the knot with Cary Grant, asking him to teach me the proper way to drink cocktails, lounge in chairs, and do backward somersaults. Then we’d amicably divorce.

( ladies): Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Louise Brooks?

I can’t imagine killing Hepburn or Monroe so sorry, Louise Brooks gets it. But then, she’s tough and smart, maybe she’ll find a way out of the situation. Then I guess I’d have to be friends with benefits with Marilyn for a short, happy interlude before I married Audrey.

11. Pet obscure actor/actress?

I have a wellspring of love in my heart for Theresa Harris, Helen Walker, Doris Dowling, and Florence Bates. And others, besides.

And on that note of love, this is Rachel (who really should have taken her own advice and carried a parasol in Malaysia).

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Movie Review: The Collector

The Collector (1965)
directed by William Wyler, starring Terence Stamp, Samantha Eggar

(Note: This is my entry for the The Best Hitchcock Movies (That Hitchcock Never Made) Blogathon, hosted by Dorian from Tales of the Easily Distracted and Becky from ClassicBecky's Brain Food)

This is the tale of Miranda Grey, the art student, (Samantha Eggar) and Freddie Clegg (Terence Stamp), the butterfly collector. She's beautiful, ambitious, and naive. Freddie is shy, poor, and utterly obsessed with her. When Freddie wins a fortune in the football pools, he devises the perfect use for his newfound wealth. He buys a remote house and converts the basement into a comfortable prison for Miranda. He furnishes it with everything she could possibly want: art supplies, books, clothes, and cosmetics. Surely if he brings her here and keeps her for awhile, she will learn to love him. Freddie follows through by chloroforming Miranda and dragging her to the basement. When Miranda wakes she discovers, not a brave new world, but a strange, servile man. He apologizes for the use of force, promises to respect her boundaries, but refuses to let her go. Baffled and angry, Miranda soon realizes that escape won't be easy. She strikes a bargain with Freddie, promising to stay a month. At the end of a month, he must let her go. Freddie agrees, confident that she will soon love him. But Miranda's imprisonment will end up changing them both, in strange and brutal ways.

The Collector, based on John Fowles' novel, came to the screen in 1965, during the last years of the studio era. Standards had started to loosen up though, and this darkly twisted tale, which surely would have given Mayer or Goldwyn heart palpitations, was kept faithful to the book, right up to the diabolical ending. William Wyler turned down The Sound of Music to make this film, intrigued by the subject matter. It was really the first proper suspense thriller he'd ever done.

Comparing this film to Wyler's others give it an interest factor beyond the original story. Wyler had tackled dark obsession and villainy before (The Letter, The Little Foxes) but this was more visceral and explicitly sexual. Now, the distinctive mood in a Wyler film is compassion, but at a distance. He will bring you close to characters and then let the camera stand back, as we helplessly watch them suffer, love, self-destruct, or redeem themselves. Wyler invites sympathy for these people and yet there's a conscious restraint, as if he's allowing us to only see so much. So you take that Wyler quality and then look at The Collector. For example, in a scene where Miranda and Freddie struggle in the rain, Wyler holds the camera back from them, letting us see their fight as if from far away, as if we were witnesses to a crime. Then the camera goes down low and we see the tactile reality of the fight, their bodies slipping on the wet grass, the blood mixing in with the rain. The camera is at that same low angle when they return to the basement, Miranda's body flung brutally on the floor. The two gasp for breath, exhausted from the effort and because we are kept so close to them, we can feel it as if we were part of it. Anyone who wants to accuse Wyler of being staid should take a look at that moment again.

When I think about a word to describe Terence Stamp, the first one that always comes to mind is "presence." The man just has remarkable confidence onscreen and he had it right from the beginning. Billy Budd was his screen debut. Stamp took the role of a young man whose sensual beauty and angelic goodness is enough to drive men to destruction and tragedy. And he portrayed it so completely that I can't imagine any other actor in the part.  

The Collector was his third film and it's almost a photo-negative reversal of Billy Budd. Instead of a pure-hearted Christ figure, he's a cold, kidnapping psychopath. Instead of being the object of desire, he's a prudish, probably-impotent loner who obsesses over a woman he can't have. Where Billy is the innocent center in a chaotic world, Freddie is that chaos unleashed. That Stamp was able to take two such disparate roles at the beginning of his career and inhabit them, with no self-consciousness, is amazing. Try as I might, I never catch the man trying to protect himself. As Billy, the otherworldly ideal, Stamp offers himself up for the camera's gaze in a way that makes the villain's obsession with him clear. But for the role of Freddie, Stamp closes himself up, shutting out any hint of charm, slyness, or campy appeal. It's as deliberately uncharismatic a villain as you can get.

In the annals of cinematic psychopaths, you'd think Freddie Clegg would have a thriving fanbase. I mean, he's lonely, despised, romantic, and kidnaps a woman to make her love him. Surely, the fans who obsess over the Phantom of the Opera and Frollo would adore this guy. But nope, in spite of a few Youtube videos. While that can partly be attributed to the relative obscurity of this film, I think it has a lot to do with Stamp's performance. He's awkward onscreen, in a way that evokes discomfort rather than sympathy. He wears his suits like the coat hanger was still inside. His gaze is flat, even when professing love. We've all met people who gave off that same unnerving dissonance. These are the people we move away from on the subway, the people we look away from even if we don't know why. Stamp's performance gives the film that extra shudder of plausibility.

Now prior to this film, the only Samantha Eggar film I knew was Doctor Dolittle, in which she's about as obligatory a female character as you can get. In the scenes where Eggar has to regard Rex Harrison with romantic yearning, Eggar mostly looks puzzled or irritated by turn (which, knowing what an utter debacle the making of that film was, you can hardly blame her). But in The Collector, Eggar is wonderful, taking the naive but resourceful Miranda and making her someone to root for. She's so innocently pretentious at times that you cringe for her (for example, telling Freddie that his obsession is "the kind of dream young boys have once they hit puberty"), but underneath it, you can see a woman fighting tooth and nail to keep her sense of self. When Eggar crumples to the ground at one point, sobbing, "Let me be free," your heart truly aches for her. Actually, considering all that Eggar has to undergo in this film, from nude shots to violent struggles with Stamp, I did wonder if Cronenberg saw The Collector and thought, "Now how could I torture this woman more?"

The worst flaw in The Collector is Maurice Jarre's harpsichord-driven, aggressively-quirky score. Now, readers of my blog might point out that I just finished trashing the music in Wyler's Friendly Persuasion. But that film's music was just sentimental. The Collector score on the other hand, is downright horrible, knocking the mood askew in nearly every scene. It's tinkly, dischordant, and whimsical. Inviting whimsy into your tale of dark romantic obsession is like inviting Christopher Walken into Ophelia's mad scene. I was happy to find out that the author John Fowles was on my side about the music, saying, "Surely silence would be better."

Now, when I listed The Collector among my "fascination films," I also put Hitchock's Marnie on that list. And when you think of it, these two films are close cinematic cousins. Released with a year of each other, they both tell the story of men who wish to posses women, whatever the cost. When Sean Connery mockingly talks about his interest in taming wildlife to Tippi Hedren, it's hard not to think of Terence Stamp showing his butterfly collection to Samantha Eggar, saying, "What difference does one specimen make to a whole species?" But where Marnie was lurid, messy, and deeply personal, The Collector is polished, cool, and cerebral. While certain scenes in The Collector feel like they could have come straight out of the Hitchcock playbook (for example, a moment where Miranda tries to alert an oblivious neighbor by overflowing the bathtub), the overall mood is entirely different. Wyler's matter-of-fact approach to The Collector is both a strength and a weakness. It makes the film consistently uncomfortable to watch; Wyler refuses to make moral judgments or tell us what to think. But at the same time, while The Collector has ample chills and surprises, it's never obsessive or romantic in the way that Marnie was.

And yet I keep coming back to The Collector. Its characters, its direction, its strange, steady-handed storytelling. And the look in Terence Stamp's eyes when his last vestige of sanity snaps and he tells Miranda, "I can do what I like!"

Favorite Quote:

"Marry me. Please marry me. I don't expect anything. I don't expect you to do anything you don't want. You can do what you like...study art...I won't ask anything. Anything of you. Except you live in the same house and be my wife in name. You can have your own bedroom. You can lock it every night."

Favorite Scene:

For me, the film crystallizes in a single perfect scene where Miranda and Freddie discuss The Catcher in the Rye. Freddie's frustration with Miranda and her "la-dee-da" ways has begun to boil over. Angry at what he considers her class superiority, he insists on reading her favorite book and finding out why she thinks it special. When he returns, he tells her flatly that he didn't see much point in it. Miranda tries haltingly to explain, describing her love for Holden Caulfield's character. "The boy, he's so aware...the way he hates everything that's false." Freddie responds, "He sounds a mess to me." The tension builds unbearably as Freddie grows angrier and the increasingly terrified Miranda blunders on. Finally, frustrated with Freddie's determined incomprehension of the book, she snaps, "You don't understand, you're not trying to see how much like... like all of us he is." Freddie immediately knows the meaning of her stumble and says icily, "Like me? That's what you meant, isn't it?" And he's right. 

It's a brilliant moment that turns over our expectations as well as Miranda's. Because we might have believed, as Miranda does, that this awkward loner will gravitate to Holden Caulfield, but when Freddie turns the tables on her, it makes perfect sense. Of course this man, with his suits and class consciousness and "proper respect" would think that Caulfield was a spoiled whiner. On top of that, the scene just works perfectly as the moment in which we can see Freddie finally tipping over the edge into murderous rage, as Miranda tries frantically to say or do the right thing. But there is no right thing. She's alone with a madman. And this time, he's got her pegged.

Final Six Words:

Cold and clammy tale of obsession