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.

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Marilyn: mysterious girl

Interest in Marilyn Monroe never ceases, her films are on television a lot here, the BFI is starting a new season on her, and there are more features on her in the papers. Its been interesting to finally get around to NIAGARA again:

NIAGARA, 1953. Rose Loomis, a Technicolor femme fatale and Monroe's first star billing, is young and highly sensual. Her marriage to the jealous and depressed George (Joseph Cotten) plays out in front of honeymooning couple Polly and Ray, including the unveiling of Rose's many secrets. Unlike Monroe's later roles exploring playful and innocent sexuality, this noir portrays sex as deadly ...
So says the BFI in their notes on Henry Hathaway's lurid 1953 thriller, a delicious noir in lurid color.

Marilyn is the most striking thing here, Cotten seems sadly diminished, Jean Peters is adequate but Max Showalter is gratingly annoying as the doofus husband. The publicity at the time of course had MM competing with the majestic waterfalls, it is certainly interestingly worked out as Rose and her lover scheme to kill her husband (perhaps he has a large insurance policy?) but the jealous husband soon cottons on, as Rose finds out when she goes to the morgue to identify the body she expects to be her husband's .... soon, she is trapped as he follows her around town, it was unwise of her to climb those stairs up to where those bells ring .... After MM's exit, what remains is a routine timefiller.
She has some stunning moments here, in that tight blue suit as she walks past the honeymoon couple teetering on those "fuck me" shoes, and then in that lurid pink dress for the "Kiss" sequence ...
1953 was certainly Marilyn's year - after those small roles that got her noticed in 1950 in THE ASPHALT JUNGLE and ALL ABOUT EVE (as well as that comic western TICKET TO TOMAHAWK), by 1952 she was in WE'RE NOT MARRIED, Lang's CLASH BY NIGHT, Hawks' MONKEY BUSINESS as Miss Laurel the secretary who cannot type, and her hypnotic role as the disturbed babysitter in DON'T BOTHER TO KNOCK. Then, NIAGARA in 1953 followed by GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES and HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE. She was still working for peanuts though for Fox, who only saw her in dumb blonde roles - as in 1954's RIVER OF NO RETURN (where she makes an interesting character of her standard saloon girl role) and she certainly lights up the screen in THERE'S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS with those three sizzling numbers - apparantly she did this to get the SEVEN YEAR ITCH role. But soon she was leaving Fox for New York and the Actors' Studio, returning under new terms for BUS STOP. Then her most interesting films were made away from Fox: England for THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL, for her own production company, SOME LIKE IT HOT in 1959 and 1961's THE MISFITS. Her last two films for Fox were the dreary comedy LETS MAKE LOVE where she sparkled in a few numbers, and looked marvellous in the fragments of SOMETHING'S GOTTA GIVE ... a new slimmed down Marilyn for the 1960s .... but it was not to be.

What did they think about her at the time? Here is an interesting piece by author (INSIDE DAISY CLOVER), screenwriter and one time editor of "Sight & Sound" Gavin Lambert, written in 1953, who perceives her special qualities:
"This well-formed but rather mysterious girl ... does not fit in any of the cinema's established categories for blondes. Her acting can at best be described as reluctant, she is too passive to be a vamp, she is no menace because so easily frightened; and she is certainly no bombshell because she never bursts.
She walks - only that can account for the curious swaying of her hips - as if the whole earth were a tightrope on which she has to balance. Her face, with its eyes inclined to pop and mouth perpetually parted for a kiss, looks vaguely drugged. For all the wolf calls that she gets and deserves, there is something oddly mournful about Miss Monroe. She doesn't look happy. She lacks the pinup's cheerful grin. She seems to have lost something or to be waking up from a bad dream."
Quite perceptive. Wonder what he thought of her as the decade wore on as the critics discovered that comedy was her forte, she could sing as well, and wanted to try dramatic roles. It was this underlying melancholy that gave her comedy its special flavour - there was always something forlorn in it, a pathos barely concealed. She was so extraordinary and so exciting then - on endless magazine covers, she and Elizabeth Taylor being the two polar screen opposites, the blond and the brunette. 
Both Carroll Baker and Mitzi Gaynor have written about the electric effect Marilyn had on men, and on their husbands in particular, when she focused on them saying their name with that special emphasis of hers ....

When she died in 1962 everyone tried to explain her. Her canonisation was so sudden then after she had spent so much time getting people to take her seriously. But she was no joke, as she studied to improve herself and into the company of America's great sporting hero and playwright, not to mention the White House ...
One only has to see how marvellous she looked here in 1953, and then in her final summer 1962, a mere nine years later on that Malibu beach, in those timeless George Barris pictures. 
Click label Marilyn-1 for my 2010 appreciation on her. 

Saturday, 30 May 2015

Maggie's and Vanessa's first movies, in 1958

Venerable thespians Maggie Smith and Vanessa Redgrave both made their movie debuts, when they were promising young stage actresses, back in 1958. Its quite fascinating catching them now.

NOWHERE TO GO is a low-budget B-movie (not quite a Trash Classic) by the enterprising Seth Holt (and an ucredited Basil Dearden, according to IMDB), with a script by no less than Kenneth Tynan, featuring '50s London in crisp black and white. It stars American import George Nadar - usually wooden, but not bad here actually. Its sole point of interest now of course is that Maggie Smith walks in to it, about the half-way mark, as the rather snooty girlfriend of the guy whose apartment Nadar, a convict sprung from prison, is hiding out in. We see earlier how he cons his way into the affections of wealthy widow Bessie Love in order to get his hands on her late husband's valuable collection of coins, which he places in a safe deposit box before the law catches up with him. 
His partner in crime, Bernard Lee, turns nasty and George soon has to depend on Maggie for assistance as they leave the city and head for her family's ancestral pile in the country with its remote shepherd's hut, where he can lie low, but of course, in B-movie fashion, things fall apart and our man on the run faces a bleak end, accompanied by the appropriate jazzy music score. So, it ticks all the B-movie boxes, and I rather liked it. It does not linger too long too, all wrapped up in 85 minutes. Maggie is fascinating here, with the distinctive voice already in place. Nader (who was gay and later became an author) who was ok in AWAY ALL BOATSFOUR GIRLS IN TOWNTHE FEMALE ANIMALCARNIVAL STORY etc - see Trash label) - so its more of the same here. If there is such a genre as 'British Noir' this qualifies. 
BEHIND THE MASK, also 1958, is a solid hospital drama by the ever reliable Brian Desmond Hurst, less soapy than NO TIME FOR TEARS or LIFE IN EMERGENCY WARD TEN, it focuses on the surgeons and their problems, it doesn't quite though turn out as one imagines ...
Michael Redgrave is in his element here as the rather pompous senior surgeon, with Niall MacGinnis as his rival eager to trip him up; Tony Britton is suave new doctor whom Redgrave wants on his team and who is almost engaged to Pamela, Redgrave's daughter: a porcelain beauty Vanessa - suitably patrician and Sir Michael's real daughter making her debut here. Carl Mohner - that interesting Austrian actor - is also new to the hospital as he fights a drug problem which was have repercussions on an operation going wrong leading to the death of the patient and the subsequent investigation. 
So the story is a bit soapy, but its the cast that fascinate here: Margaret Tyzack, Joan Hickson, Ann Firbank, Lionel Jeffries, Miles Malleson, even William Roach (TV's Ken Barlow in CORONATION STREET), Ian Bannen, Brenda Bruce excellent as ever for a few minutes (as she would be the near year as the first victim of PEEPING TOM) - I didn't even catch Victor Spinetti, also listed. 
It is a hospital tale of jealously, suspicion, ambition, and features a fascinating operation sequence. This was made at that late 50s time when hospital dramas were in vogue, with EMERGENCY WARD TEN on the telly, and CARRY ON NURSE was in production.  The colours are washed out on the dvd. Apart from television work, Vanessa did not film again until MORGAN and BLOW-UP in 1966 ...

Soon: More British '50s B-movie dramas and Trash Classics like Cliff Richard singing "Living Doll" in SERIOUS CHARGE, Jayne Mansfield in THE CHALLENGE, Ava Gardner in TAM LIN, Oliver Reed in THE PARTY'S OVERTHAT KIND OF GIRL and more .... 

Nina: "I want more and more and then some ..."

BBC4 just showed a tantalisingly brief programme, just half an hour, featuring marvellous Laura Mvula discussing Nina Simone and visiting people who knew her in New York. These kind of music programmes frustrate us by playing a snatch of a great music track, and then the talking heads come on, talking over it - but at least it whets our appetite to get back to the originals.

Nina (1933-2003) of course was one of the biggest divas and legends around, a fascinating, complex woman, with that incredible voice, who left a wonderful legacy of recordings. I particularly liked her 1959 album "Nina At Town Hall" where she plays piano a lot - her playing is as distinctive as her vocals. She was classically trained of course but had to play in the clubs and cabaret rooms to get noticed. Some of my favourite Nina songs include "Dont Let Me Be Misunderstood", "I Put A Spell On You", "Seeline Woman", "Be My Husband", "Four Women", "Trouble In Mind", "The Other Woman", "More and more and then some"  and that "My Baby Just Cares For Me" and "Feeling Good" which were everywhere, and used in adverts, which was annoying as Nina herself never sold her music to commercial interests. She covered some Billie Holiday songs too like "Strange Fruit" and "Fine and Mellow". I love her "Wild is the Wind", and course there's "Mississippi Goddam". Nina could do it all: classical, jazz, blues, pop, R&B, gospel. Nina was a 'fierce' diva long before Grace Jones; and I don't imagine she will be portrayed by Beyonce in a biopic, like Etta James was. 
I saw her live in concert once, it must have been late Seventies or early Eighties, the most odd concert I have ever been to. Maybe she was in a bad mood that day, but she was uncommunicative, didn't want to play or sing much, and had a bag of shopping with her. Like Eartha Kitt from the same era, she had a troubled life, and was a civil rights activist in the Sixties, causing more problems for her. But she was popular in the late Sixties with songs from HAIR like "I ain't got no - I got life" and "Young, Gifted and Black". For a while there she was as popular as fellow piano players Aretha Franklin and Roberta Flack. She had moved to France, where she died in her sleep. Thankfully, Nina goes on gaining new admirers and there are lots of compilations out there. Viva Nina - and thanks, Laura. 

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Paul McCartney: "the finest back catalogue in music"?

A surprisingly rave review on a new Paul McCartney concert at London's 02, by James Hall in the "Daily Telegraph". Let me just quote the first paragraph or two:
"Rarely these days, given high ticket prices and soulless venues, does it feel like an unalloyed privilege to go to a rock show. Too often one feels short-changed by something, but watching Paul McCartney play for almost three hours at the O2 was a complete honour. 
Aged 72 and with the finest back catalogue in music, McCartney could be forgiven for coasting with a prefunctory review-style show. But the pensioner drilled deep into his musical vault .... and he handed out gem after gem to the audience over an astonishing 38-song set that left no part of his Beatles, Wings or solo repertoire untouched."

"Another Girl" - HELP!
So, has Paul got the finest back catalogue in music? Who else is there ? - Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan have their devotees, as do Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin and David Bowie, The Rolling Stones of course and, er - thats about it, plus maybe The Eurythmics, Pet Shop Boys, Talking Heads, Blondie, Elton John, George Michael .... so maybe, yes, he has, going back after all to those early '60s with The Beatles.

Nice to see that he included an early favourite of mine: "Another Girl" from the HELP! album, and of course BAND ON THE RUN and VENUS AND MARS are essential Seventies albums. Merseybeat was served with "Eight Days A Week", "Listen to what the man said", and for the first time live he played "Temporary Secretary" from his 1980 solo album. Its "wonky electronics" puzzled at the time, but now seem part of the synth-pop that gave us Hot Chip. The hits continued: "Blackbird" and "Lady Madonna", "Eleanor Rigby" along with moving tributes to Lennon, Linda and George Harrison. Maybe I'm Amazed at all the Silly Love Songs ..

McCartney has often been criticised for running away with The Beatles' glory, and was always trundled out at all those benefits and galas to lead the guests and audience into yet another "Long and Winding Road", "All You Need Is Love" or "Let It Be" or "Hey Jude" .... and the dyed hair did not help either. But here he is, better than ever ...

The hits continued with "Band on The Run", "Back in the USSR", "Let it Be", "Live and Let Die" and "Hey Jude". 
My 1964 Beatle look
THEN, he was joined by Dave Grohl for a raucous "I Saw Her Standing There" - I loved that track, the first one on the first album, a cracking young man's song: "Well, she was just 17, you know what I mean" - I was 17 myself then, but singing it in one's 70s with dyed hair, seems a bit "off" somehow.
They finished with "Yesterday" and "Helter Skelter" before closing with the "Golden Slumbers" medley from ABBEY ROAD. An exhilerating masterclass then from one of music's great innovators, as a 17 year old Beatles fan, I wish I had been there - its almost like my glory days of seeing The Doors The Who, The Band, Joni, Aretha etc  ... good to see the old guys still have it, like Paul Simon's and Sting's recent-double act at the O2 as well. Of course touring is where the big money is these days, not that Paul needs to earn of course!

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

RIP, Twinkle

One of the odder 1960s pop careers ended recently with the death of Twinkle (1948-2015). Who? you may ask ..... Twinkle was a 60s dolly bird who had a brief pop career in 1964 - just the one hit actually: "Terry" a mawkish lament to a dead motorcycle boyfriend.
 I can vaguely remember it, it reached Number 4 in December 1964, when I was 18. 

Like Marianne Faithfull or Joanna Lumley, Twinkle was actually a posh bird (real name Lynn Ripley) and enjoyed her fleeting fame, touring with the young Rolling Stones, she wrote "Terry" when she was 14 - her boyfriend was Des Cluskey, one of The Bachelors (don't ask), who helped her secure a contract with Decca. Soon, she was on THANK YOUR LUCKY STARS and other pop vehicles. She later married Graham Rogers (who was The Milk Tray Man in the TV adverts) and she later performed on the 60s nostalgia circuit. RIP Twinkle. 

Grant & Stewart -v- Cooper & Gable ...

Cary Grant and James Stewart now seem the most popular and timeless of the classic male stars – maybe each having done 4 films with Hitchcock, which are always on show somewhere, helps? (NOTORIOUS, REAR WINDOW, VERTIGO, NORTH BY NORTHWEST are certainly timeless classics). Whereas Clark Gable and Gary Cooper seem not as popular now and did not leave any late classics for us to mull over –well, apart from the elegaic THE MISFITS for Gable …

Both Grant and Stewart also had runs of popular films in the second half of the Fiftes; Grant squiring the likes of Kelly, Kerr, Bergman, Loren and continuing into the Sixties with the tailormade hit CHARADE, before bowing out in 1966; whereas Stewart also had that good run of Anthony Mann westerns and popular hits like THE GLENN MILLER STORY and ANATOMY OF A MURDER, he too continued into the Sixties playing bumbling fathers in Fox comedies and still busy in westerns.

Gable and Cooper though had gone by the dawn of the Sixties – Gable dying at 59 in 1960, and Cooper aged 60 in 1961. Like Spencer Tracy they seem to have aged rapidly, perhaps after years of hard living. Their later films, while entertaining and popular enough at the time, do not get much exposure these days ... 

Wyler’s FRIENDLY PERSUASION may be Coop’s last big hit, in 1956, we like it a lot and he is perfect in it.. He followed this with LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON which - despite Audrey Hepburn -  was a lesser-seen Wilder (which did not work for me at all), then a Jerry Wald literary adaptation (from O’Hara) for Fox: TEN NORTH FREDERICK, and two tough westerns: Mann’s MAN OF THE WEST and Daves’ THE HANGING TREE, in Rossen’s turgid THEY CAME TO CORDURA in 1959 he and Rita Hayworth are both touching – two beauties ravaged by time (what a difference 20 years makes), and he finished with two Michael Anderson thrillers made in England: he is effective in THE WRECK OF THE MARY DEARE with Heston, but ill-at-ease as the murder suspect (as if he would kill Deborah Kerr!) in the weak THE NAKED EDGE in 1961.

Gable after some routine westerns scored with Doris Day in TEACHER’S PET, and guyed his older image in the delightful BUT NOT FOR ME with Lilli Palmer and Carroll Baker in 1959, and was then off to romance Sophia Loren (30 years younger than him) in the popular IT STARTED IN NAPLES (left) before returning to the States for the tough shoot of THE MISFITS for Huston. Did all the delays and doing those stunts with the horses bring on his early demise? He certainly looked sadly aged here.

Perhaps if they – Coop and Gable – had the longevity of Grant and Stewart we may have seen more from them and maybe some more classics – not from Hitchcock though, by the Sixties he was using younger actors: Rod Taylor, Connery, Newman. 

Perhaps the Grant and Stewart personas with their constant sense of humour (even in serious roles)  fitted in better with suit-and-tie mid-century America, and those Hitchcocks certainly helped, Gable and Coop seemed more at home at war or out west. Gable used to finish at 5.00pm every day regardless and seemed happy doing mainly routine fare, cast with the likes of Lana Turner, Jane Russell or Ava Gardner. At least his later films got him Doris Day, Sophia Loren and Marilyn Monroe, and of course he had those constant revivals of GONE WITH THE WIND to keep his brand alive. 

Monday, 25 May 2015

Cannes 2015

An email from the BFI on the Cannes Prize winners. 
French director Jacques Audiard has won this year’s Palme d’Or for his drama Dheepan, the story of a Tamil refugee trying to make a new life in France. A Cannes veteran, Audiard previously competed for the top prize with his 2012 film Rust and Bone and won the Grand Prix for A Prophet in 2010.
This year’s Grand Prix was awarded to the Holocaust drama Son of Saul, the acclaimed debut film by Hungarian director László Nemes, while the festival’s Jury Prize went to The Lobster, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos and backed by the BFI Film Fund (above: John C. Reilly, Ben Whishaw and a nicely maturing Colin Farrell in THE LOBSTER).  
Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien took best director for his venture into the martial arts genre with The Assassin, with best screenplay going to Mexican writer-director Michel Franco for the emotional Chronic, starring Tim Roth.
Many people’s favourite for the best actor prize, Roth lost out to Vincent Lindon for The Measure of a Man (La Loi du marche). The best actress award was shared between Rooney Mara for Todd Haynes’s much-heralded Patricia Highsmith adaptation, Carol, and Emmanuelle Bercot for Maïwenn’s Mon roi.

Left: Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard in Justin Kurzel's pared down MACBETH - marvellojus reports on this, we cannot wait to see it, seems its up there with the Polanski and Welles versions. HAMLET may be my most-seen Shakespeare (6 films and 6 stage productions to write about..) but I have always loved the wild poetry and imagery of 'The Scottish Play; ...(I also have the Nicol Williamson and Ian McKellen filmed theatre versions to report on). 

French new wave veteran Agnès Varda, director of classics such as Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962), was honoured with a special lifetime achievement Palme.
It is the first time the coveted award goes to a woman and has only been given out three times before -- to Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood and Bernardo Bertolucci. It recognises "renowned directors whose works have achieved a global impact but who have nevertheless never won the Palme d’Or".
We have liked Varda, now 86  - right, ever since her CLEO 5 TO 7 and LE BONHEUR and her film about her husband Jacques Demy JACQUOT DE NANTES, and her later BEACHES OF AGNES. She has also been honoured this year at Brighton where she has had an exhibition. 
Cannes remains a byword for fashion and glamour, its been amusing seeing people with no movie to promote still posing on the red carpet as though they are important ... 

Cannes as usual as highlighted some fascinating films coming our way, even if, as in the case of CAROL (see Highsmith label) we will have to wait till end of the year to see them, during the next Award Season buildup .... Then there is THE LOBSTER and that new Deneuve STANDING TALL, and again, MACBETH ...

Saturday, 23 May 2015

A Yes vote for Eurovision

Its the annual campfest of Eurovision again, now in its 60th year, and coming live tonight from Vienna. Somehow, though its a laughable show people do not take seriously, Eurovision seems to be bigger than ever. Tonight 27 countries are competing (which makes it a marathon slog) to out-sing, out-camp and out-glitter each other - including Australia ! - don't ask, but the show is very popular there, so if they win will it be from Sydney next year? The odds though are on Sweden, with a great modern song and a hunky guy (Mans Zermerlow and "Heroes" - though Russia, Israel and Italy are also strong this year. Pity Ireland did not, once again, make the final cut (but it was a dull song, dully staged).

Here I am (below, left) on Eurovision night 1970 - ok, 45 years ago ... with best pal Stan, and his Italian friend Giorgio. Irish singer Dana won that night. Of course back then in that pre-internet world it was an achievement by the BBC to get all these European countries connected by television, and Katie Boyle would announce the results on those old scoreboards. In those days Eurovision was ruled by France, Italy, Monaco and Ireland. Abba, Celine Dion and others were launched on the show. Then it became a byword for kitsch, as people held Eurovision themed parties, and then once Eastern Europe joined they all began voting for each other - the best part of the show is often the results as one sees who has voted for who. It will all be forgotten of course by tomorrow, until next time. 
Other excitements in Ireland though, as they are counting the results on yesterday's referendum on same sex marriage, and the it seems it will be a YES, though by what majority we are not sure yet .... its actually quite emotional seeing much Ireland has changed since the country I left in 1964 when 18 .... (62%),
Yes, it was a win for Sweden as 40 counties voted - Sweden, Russia and Italy were soon the top three, leap-frogging over each other until Sweden had a clear untoppable lead. Maybe the video projections incorporated into the song swung it -or hunky Mans in his leather trousers? Poor UK, bottom of the league again with just 5 points least not down to Zero like Germany or Poland. 

Winchester '73 in 1950

I remembered seeing WINCHESTER '73 as a kid, at one of those Sunday matinees, when us '50s kids saw revivals of older movies (the 1942 costumer, Tyrone Power's SON OF FURY was another favourte), but had not seen it since. Catching it this week it is indeed a classic western, full of great moments and Anthony Mann certainly keeps us watching, as that gun is passed on from owner to owner and back to James Stewart, who won it initially. Stewart and Mann made a great series of westerns, some of which are classics of the genre: THE MAN FROM LARAMIE, THE FAR COUNTRY, THE NAKED SPUR, BEND OF THE RIVER etc. (I like Stewart's 1957 NIGHT PASSAGE too, though it not by Mann). Like Randolph Scott and Budd Boetticher they were a great time, and not just in westerns. (Mann also did that delicious Trash Classic I love: SERENADE in 1956 with Mario Lanza and Joan Fontaine, as well of course as epics like EL CID and FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE, he created some great widescreen images.) 

In a marksmanship contest, Lin McAdam wins a prized Winchester rifle, which is immediately stolen by the runner-up, Dutch Henry Brown. This "story of a rifle" then follows McAdams' pursuit, and the rifle as it changes hands, until a final showdown and shoot-out on a rocky mountain precipice. 

Great set-pieces include the Indians attacking the cavalry troop (Tony Curtis, left, has a few moments here as a young trooper) while a pre-hunk Rock Hudson (above) is the Indian chief intent of warfare and getting those new guns for himself. 
Dan Duryea is splendidly repellent as usual, and Steve McNally provides a good final shoot-out with Stewart. Venal Charles Drake is travelling with saloon girl Shelley Winters and they have some good moments too, particularly when the Redskins attack.  Jay C. Flippen and John McIntrye are good support too. 
This remains one western one can enjoy anytime, it would probably get shown more often if it had been in colour. 

Friday, 22 May 2015

Its a penny serenade in 1941

George Stevens' PENNY SERENADE from 1941 is one Cary Grant-Irene Dunne film I had not seen before, I love them in THE AWFUL TRUTH in 1937 and quite liked them (with Cary's pal Randolph Scott) in MY FAVOURITE WIFE in 1940, but this 1941 I never somehow got around to and it did have a sort of mawkish reputation .... so here it is, and I am rather amazed by it.

As Julie prepares to leave her husband Roger, she begins to play through a stack of recordings, which reminds her of events in their marriage. One is the song that was playing when she and Roger first met in a music store. Other songs remind her of their courtship, their marriage, their desire for a child, and the joys and sorrows that they have shared. A flood of memories comes back as she ponders their present problems and how they arose ....

Grant is a surprise here with his family man role, quite different from the sophisticated characters he usually played, and has a great scene when the judge is going to take their child back because of his lack of income. Irene Dunne is natural and warm and often quietly funny as she is in many of those movies of hers that we like, like Margaret Sullavan she should be a lot better appreciated now - they never play a false note. George Stevens, as in GIANT and others, creates marvellous moments as we follow our leads through the ups and downs of family life and the sadness which is part of the whole damn thing, as she has a miscarriage.due to an earthquake (well-staged) when they are in Japan - and one knows something awful is going to happen to their adopted girl at that Christmas play, which teeters on the edge of mawkish sentimentality. It is a bittersweet story dealing with infant death and possible divorce, and how some couples just have to have children to be complete, and the ending seems quite far-fetched but I suppose believeable for that Forties audience. Edgar Buchanan and Beulah Bondi provide solid support. 

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Stella, 1955

Melina Mercouri's first film (at the age of 35) STELLA, directed by Michael Cacoyannis, is an astonishing drama, a Greek version of CARMEN .... one watches fascinated as this tale of love and revenge builds to a stunning crescendo. 

Stella is a taverna singer who has romances but doesn't want to compromise and settle down. She hates the idea of marriage, particularly to a man who wants her to stay at home with babies and in fact lock her up. She is a restless, rebellious Greek woman who plays with men and enjoys her life as much as she can. But when she meets a young football player Mitso, things get complicated. He forces her to agree to their marriage and he and his mother fix the date, but Stella realises she cannot go through with it, despite knowing how the jealous Mitso will react. The stage is set for a Greek tragedy.

Melina is marvellous in the early scenes, fascinating all the men, whom we see doing those Greek dances and enjoying their masculine culture in the bars and taverns. Women are very much subordinate here - apart from free-living Stella. 
She tires of her current beau - Aleko - despite he having bought a piano for her; he later kills himself.. Once she and the sporty Mitso set eyes on each other, their passions erupt ...... We also get to know Stella's pals at the tavern, the girl who is jealous of her success with men and the older woman who tries to protect her. There is also a pertinent scene with Mitso's mother who makes it clear what her son expects in a wife and how it is best not to thwart him ... but Stella, like CARMEN will face her own destiny. Instead of going to her wedding she goes dancing with that 19 year old admirer dancing into a frenzy, as does Mitso back at the taverna .... 

George Foundas is Mitso - he was also in Cacoyannis's ZORBA THE GREEK where he also stabs the Greek widow (Irene Papas) whom his son killed himself over. 
STELLA was at the Cannes Film Festival in 1955 where Mercouri met Jules Dassin whom she married - their NEVER ON SUNDAY was that sensation in 1960 and all their work was at least interesting. The vivid music score here is by Manos Hadjidakis. Cacoyannis went on to several other fascinating movies like THE TROJAN WOMEN and odd misfires like THE DAY THE FISH CAME OUT in 1967 (Trash label), and of course the huge hit of ZORBA ...
This was the mercurial Mercouri's first cinema role and Melina (1920-1994) mesmerises here, as indeed she did in most of her roles: in NEVER ON SUNDAY, PHAEDRA, Dassin's LA LOI, TOPKAPI, 10.30 PM SUMMER and the rest. Check the Melina label for more reviews. 

As I mentioned in other posts, I had an afternoon with Melina back in 1968 when she led a march and demonstration in Trafalgar Square in London protesting about poverty in Biafra, Africa. I was an idealistic 22 year old and Melina led the march, resplendent in a long red dress and lots of gold chains. She of course became a Greek MP and campaigned for the return of those Elgin Marbles in the British Museum. 

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Mary Renault: the history woman (and Nancy too...)

How nice to come across a full page feature on Mary Renault in the weekend papers .... as the writer of the article, Bettany Hughes, will be discussing Renault at the Hay Literary Festival (here in the UK) later this month. 

Renault (1905-1983), maybe rather forgotten now, was the author of those great historical novels which my generation grew up on: THE CHARIOTEER (an early 'gay interest' title, about two gay servicemen in the 1940s, it could not be published in America until 1959), THE KING MUST DIE, THE BULL FROM THE SEA, THE MASK OF APOLLO, THE PRAISE SINGER and in particular those novels about Alexander The Great, which I loved and read several times: FIRE FROM HEAVEN about the young Alexander and THE PERSIAN BOY ("one of the greatest historical novels ever written" capturing the ancient world completely) about when Alexander was Great and conquering the known world as he ventured into Persia and beyond. There was also a third novel FUNERAL GAMES about the aftermath of Alexander' death in 323 BC. She also wrote a non-fiction account of Alexander: THE NATURE OF ALEXANDER.

Renault herself was a fascinating character - one of those great novelists of my era, along with Patricia Highsmith, Iris Murdoch, Edna O'Brien and Muriel Spark. Renault was that rare thing: a happy lesbian with a lifelong relationship (with Julie Mullard - they moved to South Africa in 1949 where Renault wrote her novels, in a beach house called Delos)  - unlike Highsmith and her solitary life ending up alone in Europe. Renault died of cancer aged 78 in 1983. 
Mary Renault was a global best-seller with 8 Greek-themed historical novels, and six contemporary ones. Her real name was Eileen Mary Challans, born in 1905, in the London suburb of Forest Gate. How she developed that love and interest in the ancient world is astonishing. Luckily she got to Oxford where she was taught by JRR Tolkien.  She trained as a nurse and treated casualties in the Second World War where the sheltered graduate quickly learned of man's capacity for war and inhumanity.   
Her novels on same sex love are bold and dignified at a time when this kind of stuff was kept under wraps, and the certainly opened our eyes to the wonders of the ancient world, for which we thank her. 

Renault reminds me of that other well-known 1950s lesbian: journalist and writer Nancy Spain (1917-1964), a Roedean girl who became a prominent writer for the Sunday papers, was on TV a lot, and was friends with Marlene Dietrich among others. She was also pals with fellow broadcaster and "What's My Line?" game show veteran, that gruff 'confirmed bachelor' Gilbert Harding. Nancy and her girlfriend were killed when their plane crashed near Aintree racecourse on their way to the races in 1964, pity she didn't get to comment on the rest of the '60s. She was a high-living gal and was a lot of fun and just 46. Her pal Noel Coward wrote in his diary: "It is cruel that all that gaiety, intelligence and vitality should be snuffed out when so many bores and horrors are left living." I've just had to splurge out on Rose Collis's book "A Trouser Wearing Character" on Nancy and her era. Collis also wrote that delicious bography of Coral Brown: "This Effing Lady". One can read more about Nancy here: