Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Thursday, 30 December 2010

New year's eve at the movies: Party Girl

PARTY GIRL - Nick Ray's 1958 melodrama plays like a '40s noir made in the '50s in colour and Cinemascope. It is full of striking images and vivid colours showing how the mobs in Chicago in the '30s operate. Lee J Cobb is of course terrific as Rico, the mobster with everyone in his pay, including Robert Taylor as the lawyer who gets his hoods acquitted and who long ago sold out for big bucks. Taylor is crippled and uses his limp to work the jury. He and Rico grew up as tough kids but their paths diverged and then Taylor ends up working for Rico....

Showgirl Vicki Gaye is also crippled, emotionally - she never lets men get too close and they eventually go away as she tells another showgirl. She though turns up as escort at various mob functions and collects a hundred dollars a time. One of Rico's underlings though, John Ireland, is taking too unhealthy an interest in her - and she uses Taylor to escort her out of one party. They get to know each other and start to fall in love. He uses his influence with Rico to get her a featured spot at the nightclub, so we get to see two Charisse numbers - where, as Pauline Kael once memorably put it, "Cyd Charisse is benumbed until she unhinges those legs". - though these are not in the '30 style but in that of the hip '50s!

The plot twists and turns, Taylor goes to Europe to have operations on his legs, the police are trying to finish the mobs who are busy on killing each other - Corey Allen (whose car went over the cliff in Ray's REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE) is a vicious hood here. Taylor and Charisse realise that selling their pride to the mob costs too high a price. Will they get out in time before Rico turns on them, or Ireland whom Taylor got off on a murder rap turns nasty?

It all climaxes at New Year's Eve at a party were Rico has Taylor and Charisse in his power. His threats to have Taylor's new leg damaged with a crowbar have not worked, but what if acid gets thrown in the face of the lovely Vicki? He demonstrates what acid does to a red paper decoration. The police arrive as Ireland grabs the bottle of acid and closes in on Vicki. Then Rico himself gets the bottle before spilling it on himself and exiting through the plate glass window. The sirens screech as our leads walk away ... That is the plot in a nutshell but it looks good, the colours and images are striking. Cobb has a field day chomping the scenery, Taylor has another good late '50s role (like his QUENTIN DURWARD and ROGUE COP) playing a man discovering his inner strength and Charisse as ever looks and sounds sensational. I enjoyed all this when I saw it as a kid, the acid melting the christmas decoration was very impressive!

Ray had his best era in the '50s what with JOHNNY GUITAR with Crawford, the endlessly iconic classic REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE with Dean, BIGGER THAN LIFE with James Mason, his Jesse James film with Robert Wagner and Jeff Hunter and this MGM melodrama with its bright vivid colours. But for Charisse those big musicals she made her name in (SINGING IN THE RAIN, THE BANDWAGON, BRIGADOON, ITS ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER, SILK STOCKINGS) were on the wane so she featured in dramas like this and TWILIGHT FOR THE GODS with Rock Hudson. The 60s brought some further acting roles in films like MAROC 7 and THE SILENCERS and back with Minnelli for the stylish TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN. She featured in lots of live shows and appeared in London in the 80s in a revival of CHARLEY GIRL - one simply had to go and see the divine Cyd dance on stage ...

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Fall of the Roman Empire

A perfect movie to while away a snowy afternoon with! Nice to catch up with Anthony Mann's 1964 epic THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE once again - its perfectly cast with that first hour or so focusing on those frozen wastes in the German forests at that outpost of the Roman Empire as Marcus Aurelius mediates on his impending mortality (aided by a poisoned apple) as his son Commodus plots to take over the Empire. Alec Guinness is perfect here as the ailing emperor with his friend Timonides who is James Mason. Both actors are always a pleasure to see and here we have Sophia Loren as the emperor's daughter Lucilla - framed by Mann in lots of fascinating shots swathed in furs and against imposing backgrounds. Stephen Boyd fills out the hero role and Christopher Plummer makes for a devious rather insane imposter to the throne, as it turns out he is not the son of Aurelius at all! Mel Ferrer, John Ireland, Omar Sharif and Anthony Quayle fill out the other leading roles as the empire is lost as Rome is conquered from within. It is interestingly done and is probably the last of the big epics of the early '60s, following SPARTACUS and CLEOPATRA. Anthony Mann also directed EL CID and this is more of the same, also from producer Samuel Bronston. Further "epics" like 55 DAYS AT PEKING or the rather tatty GENGHIS KHAN were just not in the same league. So, the last of the big ones then - and the starting point for the later GLADIATOR, though CGI spectacles are just not the same (see TROY for instance!). It must have been an important movie for Loren - she had started off 14 years earlier as an extra in QUO VADIS in 1950, and now here she was headlining her own roadshow epic!

Robert Wise's 1955 HELEN OF TROY is also a pleasure and must more interesting than, well, TROY. The ancient city is nicely evoked, the crowd scenes work, the leads may be a bit bland but Rosanna Podesta is quite charming and lovely and the likes of Stanley Baker, Harry Andrews, Cedric Hardwick as Priam and Janette Scott as Cassandra all impress, and there is Brigitte Bardot as Helen's handmaiden, just before her Vadim sensations!

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Autumn Sonata

I find Ingmar Bergman a very polarising director - while I yield to no-one in my admiration for a dozen or so of his films, a lot of his other ones I simply had no interest in seeing at all! So for all those favourites like THE SEVENTH SEAL, WILD STRAWBERRIES, SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT, THE SILENCE, PERSONA, CRIES AND WHISPERS, AUTUMN SONATA or FANNY AND ALEXANDER there are others like THE SERPENT'S EGG or those Liv Ullmann psychodramas like FACE TO FACE or SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE that I just did not want to see, (highly regarded though they were), not even his one with Elliott Gould THE TOUCH! His opera film of THE MAGIC FLUTE is sheer delight though, one I liked a lot, and it was also good to see THE MAGICIAN from '58 recently (as per review on that), and I keep meaning to catch up with those other early '60s ones THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY and WINTER LIGHT (which with THE SILENCE - which I first saw aged 18 when new in London in 1964 - form a trilogy). Then of course there are his earlier ones from the early '50s of which I have only seen SUMMER WITH MONIKA. Ingmar certainly had a prodigious output. One stage production of his which I saw in 1970 (in fact I went to it twice) was his HEDDA GABLER with Maggie Smith at her most intense, set as it was in red rooms with black dressed characters - very austere.

I also remember going to see AUTUMN SONATA twice during its initial run in 1978, as I found it endlessly fascinating. This of course sees Ingrid Bergman back in Sweden and it provides her with a last great cinema role - I felt at the time that she and Liv Ullmann should have jointly won the best actress Oscar as they are both mesmerising and give towering performances. Bergman at this stage was already battling cancer. Her last performance was as Golda Meir for television in 1980, where she had no vanity at all as the Israeli leader.

Here she is Charlotte a well-known musician endlessly on tour who deigns to spend a few days with the daughter she has not seen in 7 years. Both women are initially uneasy in each other's company as Charlotte settles in and is horrified to discover that her other, severely disabled daughter whom she had consigned to an institution and forgotten about is also at the house as Eva (Ullmann) has taken her in and is caring for her.

Charlotte is a very talented, but completely self-absorbed woman. Eva has in her wretched state turned herself into a frump and does not seem to realise how much her pastor husband loves her. We now come to the stunning sequence where Charlotte asks her daughter to play for her and we watch mesmerised as every emotion, from pain to acceptance and maternal love, flickers over the mother's face as the daughter plays badly - then the artist in Charlotte takes over and she has to demonstrate how the Chopin piece should be played while we focus of Eva in closeup seething with rage and hated at her once adored mother, highlighting her own painful shame of inadequacy and mediocrity . A long night of the soul follows as mother and daugher accuse and lash out at each other - while the other unloved disabled daughter (Lena Nyman) also cries out in her pain and distress. It's Liv's cruelty toward her mother in that unforgettable late night diatribe that grips as the film unfolds to a kind of resolution. (It must have been harrowing for Ingrid Bergman, having the comparisions as it does with her first failed marriage and her leaving her daughter Pia, during her Rossellini period, though mother and daughter were later reconciled).

It all adds up to a beautiful and devastating film that I admire, and in the Bergman canon seems closest to CRIES AND WHISPERS in it's textures, the warm reds and the close-ups of the faces of wounded souls, as photographed by Bergman regular Sven Nykvyst (who went on to Woody Allen's rather similar INTERIORS next). The film is bleak (obviously) but not depressing and the resolution is slightly hopeful as Eva walks in the local cemetry loving observed by her husband, and Charlotte - her composure and public facade restored - continues on her tour, chatting to her agent (Gunnar Bjornstrand) on the train about those ordindary people going about their evening tasks, preparing meals etc in the houses they pass, as she goes to her next concert engagement, but perhaps she and Eva can get closer now and know more about each other, or will they never see each other again? It could be a hopeful optimistic conclusion, and a key '70s film.

Ingrid Bergman appeared several times on the London stage (A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY in '65 was an enormous hit, and I also saw CAPTAIN BRASSBOUND'S CONVERSION) and she was always very pleasant to meet and chat to, and I also saw her at a screening of CASABLANCA at the National Film Theatre where she was very informative on the film's production and answered everyone's questions. Despite the dramatics her sense of humour is also there in AUTUMN SONATA. Ullmann remains the best known of the Bergman actresses (Thulin, Harriet and Bibi Andersson etc) but her English speaking films are woefully dismal (POPE JOAN, THE ABDICATION, the widely derided remake of LOST HORIZON etc).

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Showpeople (8): when we were young (2)


(after the holidays:
Nick Ray's PARTY GIRL for New Year,
the best of 2010 (new and discoveries),
and first looks at
Mike Leigh's ANOTHER YEAR)

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

1940: Margaret Sullavan and The Shop Around The Corner

Here is a treat for Christmas - a new release of the 1940 Ernest Lubitsch classic THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER from the London British Film Institute. This much loved film (and a prime early romcom) makes a nice change from the perennial IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE. It is though, I fear, safe to say that of the 1930s stars I have been commenting on here, that it's star Margaret Sullavan is the least known today to the general public.

As the BFI blurb puts it: "Set in a lovingly evoked pre-war Budapest in the run-up to Christmas, Lubitsch's wondrous THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER displays his fabled 'touch' at its lightest. The film focuses on the various obstacles – including their own pride, prejudice and anxieties about unemployment – blocking the path to happiness for Alfred Kralik (Stewart) and Klara Novak (Sullavan). Sales assistants at the emporium owned by the irascibly paternal Mr Matuschek (Morgan), the pair are so distracted by professional rivalry and dreams of a better life that they're yet to realise they’ve started courting one another in an anonymous correspondence by mail.

Superb performances, lustrous camerawork and Samson Raphaelson's deft script – which miraculously mines comedy from an otherwise serious, often deeply moving account of loneliness, insecurity and the fear of seeming 'ordinary' – contribute to Hollywood’s most exquisitely romantic depiction of an old Europe about to vanish forever. Perfect seasonal fare."
I couldn't put it better myself!

Sullavan [1909-1960] did not make that many films, 22 in all, being primarily a Broadway actress. Her story is told in her daughter Brooke Hayward's book HAYWIRE (which was filmed with Lee Remick as Sullavan]. Though from a wealthy background her personal life was dogged with increasing deafness and mental problems, causing her accidental overdose in 1960 (two years before Monroe's similar ending). She had already worked with James Stewart in THE SHOPWORN ANGEL in 1938, the year she also starred in THREE COMRADES for Frank Borzage which is "one of the most memorable films of the 1930s" (Daryl Chin's comment om IMDb), from the Remarque story and scripted by F Scott Fitzgerald which with Borzage's romanticism makes for a very moving classic.

1940 was probably her peak year (like it also was for James Stewart - not only the 2 with Sullavan but also with Hepburn and Grant in THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, for which he won the Academy Award) as she and Stewart were also teamed in the terrific Frank Borzage film THE MORTAL STORM about the rise of Nazis in Germany, with her and Stewart escaping over the border on skis at the thrilling climax. I had never seen Sullavan before but saw this film on afternoon television when I was in my twenties and it was just one of those films that, even on television, makes a tremendous impresson on one so one never forgets it. Nice to have it on disk now [along with Borzage's equally great MAN'S CASTLE from '34 with Tracy and Loretta Young]. One could say the same about THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER - later romcoms like YOU'VE GOT MAIL shamelessly plagarised it.

Sullavan had several tempestuous relationships - a two month marriage to Henry Fonda, followed by marriages to director William Wyler and agent Leland Heyward, plus a fourth marriage. She and James Stewart were also close but politically poles apart.....

Margaret Sullavan's last film was NO SAD SONGS FOR ME in 1950, which it was a pleasure to catch up with a while ago (thanks to a friend in New York). Here she plays an ordinary suburban wife who finds out she has terminal cancer and it is about how she comes to terms with it and ensures her husband (Wendall Corey - dull as ever) and daughter (young Natalie Wood) will be looked after, after she has gone, by new girl Viveca Lindfors. It is a superior weepie.

It is though good to see THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER back in circulation and Sullavan's reputation can only grow. It was also remade by MGM in '47 as IN THE GOOD OLD SUMMERTIME as a vehicle for Judy Garland.

Monday, 20 December 2010

1930s: Kate and Sylvia Scarlett

SYLVIA SCARLETT has the reputation of being one of the oddest films of the '30s and was such a disaster on its release that its perpetuators Cukor, Hepburn and producer Pandro S Berman never experimented on such a scale again. They must have thought they were being very clever at the time, but Hepburn was soon on that "box office poison" list along with the likes of Dietrich and others. Also odd to think that the sublime BRINGING UP BABY was also not popular initially, as Howard Hawks himself admitted it was just too screwy with everyone around the bend in it! Hepburn re-established herself with Cukor's witty HOLIDAY from the Philip Barry play, again with Grant, and in La Cava's STAGE DOOR, playing to her patrician persona, as she initially refused to rehearse with the other stage door gals Ginger Rogers et al. She then cleverly got Barry to create a new play for her which was a success on Broadway and she then sold the package to Louis B Mayer placing herself back at the top of the pile for the 1940s. That was of course PHILADELPHIA STORY, which to me is rather over-rated. Then of course came the first of those with Tracy, WOMAN OF THE YEAR in '42. (Below, Cary going gay in BRINGING UP BABY)

It was good to finally catch up with 1932's CHRISTOPHER STRONG a while back where she is the dashing aviatrix, but a lot of her other early films like QUALITY STREET, SPITFIRE or even Ford's MARY OF SCOTLAND are not really much on view these days (I am not even sure if they are on dvd) [it was of this era that Dorothy Parker famously said that Hepburn "ran the gamut of emotions from A to B", but she was certainly different from those other prettier ingenues, her Jo in the first LITTLE WOMEN was certainly well regarded]. But back to SYLVIA SCARLETT - this was an important movie for Cary Grant too, he and Hepburn strike sparks off each other and she looks amazing as a male - rather like a young David Bowie sometimes.

She was certainly lucky in always being financially independent - no cheap horror movies for her! Also in being off the screen since 1959's SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER to 67's GUESS WHO... only added to her legend. The 1962 LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT may have been among her best performances and won the cast acting awards at Venice, but it was an independent release not widely shown at the time, but thankfully is on dvd now. The very names of Hepburn's characters sum her up: Tracy Lord, Tess Harding, Susan Vance, Linda Seton, Rose Sawyer, Jane Hudson (no, not that one but in SUMMERTIME) Lean's 1955 film set in Venice was another hit, along with THE AFRICAN QUEEN, THE RAINMAKER and those late Tracys PAT AND MIKE and DESK SET and of course Violet Venable in SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER. She had a nice line in the '50s of these quivering spinsters on the brink of finding love.

We revered Hepburn all over again back in the 60s when I was in my early 20s - GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER had been the most enormous success (even if its sadly dated today) with Hepburn re-discovered for a new generation, being on the cover of LIFE magazine etc, and then the even bigger success of THE LION IN WINTER, a key film for 1968 where she is Eleanor of Aquitaine to the manner born, with as another best actress award, even if was shared with Streisand in that other big hit of '68 FUNNY GIRL. THE MADWOMAN OF CHAILLOT which followed was less successful and I am going to catch up with THE TROJAN WOMEN shortly. Hepburn, like Davis, was now a living legend and soon teamed with the likes of Laurence Oliver and John Wayne, as well as that nice remake of THE CORN IN GREEN in Wales with Cukor in '78. Later television movies included pleasant enough fare like LAURA LANSING SLEPT HERE and MRS DELLAFIELD WANTS TO GET MARRIED as she got older. Suddenly Hepburn was everywhere, giving interviews in various documentaries - always with that red pullover over her shoulders - burnishing her legend giving us her version of her life and that romance with Tracy, including her own book "Me" a very selective view of herself. Lots of interesting new books on her too incuding some good picture books.The later Scot Berg and William K Mann books on her, after her death, painted other versions of her life and romances but only added to her legend and lustre. There was simply no-one else like her. Of American actresses perhaps only Davis had a comparable career - shame they could never agree to team up for at least a photoshoot. (Bette was willing, but Hepburn wouldn't). Another actress Hepburn did not get along with was Margaret Sullavan, subject of my next post .... Kate being perhaps too competitive with a rival? I got to see Bette up close in '72 but it must have been marvellous to have seen or met Hepburn - I love those '50s/60s shots of her striding on and off planes or dodging through hotel lobbies in her macs and khakis. At least New Yorkers got to see her on stage several times. She even did a musical: COCO (though Chanel thought they had meant Audrey to play her!)

Back in 1935 she and Cary and Brian Aherne etc were young and having fun playing games as they shot the quaint SYLVIA SCARLETT along the California coast, with their Cockney accents ... let's slip it into the projector and have another look.
SYLVIA SCARLETT is actually an intriguing failure due to its uneven tone - comedy or melodrama? - mixing in its crooked characters, travelling players, Hepburn posing as a boy, that odd relationship with Aherne and the other girl who fancies her/him, but Grant is maturing into "Cary Grant" and Hepburn is clearly having a field day, and her and Cary's pal Howard Hughes used to fly in to join them for lunch! but it is easy to see now why, in 1935, it would be such a failure: it's just too anomalous, too strange, too ambiguous.

Next: Margaret Sullavan and a Christmas treat: THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER

Sunday, 19 December 2010

1930s: Norma - queen of the Lot

Norma Shearer [1902-1983] is another fascinating example of those '30s stars not that well known today. Her biggest hits were of course as Mary Haines in 1939's hit THE WOMEN, and as MARIE ANTOINETTE in 1938 where she is tremendously affecting at the climax (but Bette's JEZEBEL was unstoppable that year!) She is perfect as the calm lead in Cukor's classic while the others like Crawford's Crystal and Rosalind Russell's Sylvia Fowler (below) make the most of those delicious lines. Add in the Jungle Red saleslady and the model walking around the salon intoning "our new one piece foundation garment, zips up the back and no bones" and that '30s fashion show in colour! Bliss, then. Norma's confrontation scene with Crawford still zings.

Norma was another early starter, winning a beauty contest at 14 and soon in the movies where she came to the attention of hot shot producer Irving Thalberg at MGM. Marrying him made her queen of the lot, getting the choice plum roles before the likes of upstarts like Joan Crawford. Her early popular movies like A FREE SOUL, THE DIVORCEE or LET US BE GAY are not really known now, but those prestige Thalberg productions like THE BARRETTS OF WIMPOLE STREET and ROMEO AND JULIET in '36 still endure (odd seeing this one now, she and Leslie Howard are really too mature for the roles). Thalberg died in 1937 as Norma scored her biggest hits as Marie Antoinette and Mary Haines, and she is funny in that blonde wig in IDIOT'S DELIGHT with Clark Gable, One of her last was ESCAPE in '42 with Robert Taylor, a gripping drama where they are escaping from the Nazis (already reviewed here, 1940s label).

Norma retired in 1942 marrying a ski instructor ten years her junior - her last gift to the cinema was discovering young Janet Leigh, whose photo she spotted at the ski lodge where Janet's parents worked. Gavin Lambert wrote an interesting biography of Shearer a while back. Below: that '30s version of MARIE ANTOINETTE, perhaps more opulent than the real Versailles?

One can see now that these ladies who retired early so were not on public display or did not become revered as living legends in their old age like the Davises and Crawfords and Stanwycks who kept working, often in lesser vehicles. Irene Dunne, Loretta Young and Margaret Sullavan all were in retirement by the early '50s (Young having transferred to television) as was Jean Arthur who returned for SHANE.

Shearer retired in '42 as did Garbo and Lombard died in that plane crash. Hepburn continued to be the pre-eminent star of the era having a whole new lease of life with Tracy in the '40s and in the late '60s when Bette and Joan were mired in their grand guignol phase .... Norma was no doubt happier away from it all on the ski slopes.

By 1939 though the next raft of stars who would dominate the '40s had emerged: Vivien Leigh was Scarlett O'Hara, Ingrid Bergman was imported from Sweden for INTERMEZZO and Greer Garson was in GOODBYE MR CHIPS, as sisters Olivia De Havilland and Joan Fontaine also reached the top, with those '40s gals (Lana, Rita, Hedy, Jennifer, Judy, Gene, Linda etc) waiting in the wings.

Next: Hepburn and SYLVIA SCARLETT.