Monday, July 15, 2024

Gable and Leigh Torridly Pair in Selznick's Sweeping Wind

                As any movie buff can tell you, 1939 proved to be a banner year for Hollywood, with the studio system releasing a huge number of classic films, including Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Jesse James, Midnight, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz and The Women. However, one film stood tall among the most anticipated offerings, as filmgoers mused over producer Davis O. Selznick’s adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 bestseller, Gone with the Wind. Much publicity surrounded the making of the movie, particularly concerning casting of the book’s fascinating anti-heroine, the beautiful, scheming, courageous Scarlett O’Hara. Upon release in December of 1939, all doubts relating to Selznick’s vision and the lengthy shooting process were cast aside, in favor of rave reviews and record-breaking box-office. Although some modern-day critics have pointed to the film’s outdated stereotypes as dragging the merits of the movie down to the level wherein it doesn’t even warrant a viewing, Wind still remains one of the top entertainments produced during the Classic Hollywood era, providing some of the most enthralling sequences and performances to be found in movies, as the epic tale involving Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara and her complicated-but-riveting romance with the dashing Rhett Butler hypnotically unfolds against the backdrop of the Civil War.

                Entering the family business in the mid-1920s after a tenure at Columbia University, David Selznick worked at several studios, including MGM, Paramount and RKO, eventually finding success as a producer in the 1930’s with such MGM hits as Dinner at Eight, David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities, before creating Selznick International Pictures to independently produce his films. With its famous opening shot of the Selznick Building (which can still be seen in Culver City, looking much the same), the young movie maverick released a string of classics, including The Garden of Allah, A Star is Born and Nothing Sacred, gearing him up to undertake what became his passion project. The book Memo from David O. Selznick and David Hinton’s excellent making-of documentary on Wind are just two reference points illustrating the focus, drive and maddening attention to detail Selznick employed to ensure Wind would exceed all audience expectations and be one of Hollywood’s biggest triumphs. Although Selznick maintained a firm grip on the production, after initial work by George Cukor and later contributions by others (including Sam Wood), Victor Fleming largely took over the helm with a flourish, thereby possibly achieving the biggest one-two directorial punch ever (he had just finished The Wizard of Oz). Aided invaluably by Sidney Howard’s prodigious adaptation of the book, Fleming’s strong, sure hand allows Wind to artfully represent the multitude of storylines and characters, while wisely keeping the riveting Leigh front-and-center as the film’s most consistent, unifying element. Although Selznick would continue as a top producer for the rest of his career with varying degrees of success, including the following year’s Rebecca, Wind would remain the project most closely associated with him, guaranteeing his status as one of Classic Hollywood’s greatest showmen.

                The fortuitous casting of Vivien Leigh as Scarlett is one of the most perfect fusions of performer and role ever seen on screen. A last-minute contender when Paulette Goddard appeared to have the part sewn up, viewing Leigh’s screen test justifies her casting as the ideal Scarlett. With passion and precision, Leigh makes Scarlett come wholly alive in a manner unmatched by her competition, and her focused, powerful work illustrates she possessed the talent, charisma and drive needed to pull off the dynamic assignment. Invaluably giving her all in Wind, Leigh offers one of the most indelible, spellbinding examples of acting ever put on film. Importantly, not only does she fearlessly portray Scarlett’s worst traits with no plea for audience sympathy, Leigh appears to thrive on each opportunity to emphasize Scarlett’s unashamed nature as she goes about getting whatever she wants at any cost. However, Leigh also gains a viewer to her side as the movie progresses and Scarlett bravely faces one traumatic situation after another, making one believe Scarlett has the fortitude to survive and “Never go hungry again.” Leigh also slyly and colorfully demonstrates the vixen’s impish nature and hypocrisy, specifically in her scenes with the frequently bemused Rhett.

                With confidence and focus, Leigh vibrantly enacts Scarlett, making every motive and action crystal clear with the finesse of a veteran performer. Making a 1935 debut, both in film and on stage, wherein she met Laurence Olivier and become his frequent costar (mainly on stage) and eventual wife, Leigh was little-known in America before Wind, having only appeared in MGM’s A Yank at Oxford in 1938. A trip to the U.S. while accompanying Olivier for the filming of Wuthering Heights led to Selznick’s brother Myron presenting Leigh to David at the burning of Atlanta sequence and the rest was history, to the gratitude of movie-lovers everywhere held in awestruck admiration by the imposing feat Leigh, who must have felt immense pressure to fulfill the challenges of the demanding role, pulls off in Wind, creating an honest, pitch-perfect depiction of Scarlett when the public sought nothing less from the British “outsider,” after winning the part over so many American-based female stars and starlets. Establishing her rightful place in movie history via Wind, Leigh limited her film output for the rest of her career, but nevertheless contributed much to the screen prior to her passing in 1967, including beautiful work the following year in Waterloo Bridge, and then offering another one of the greatest performances with her shattering Blanche DuBois in the sanitized-but-overwhelming 1951 screen adaptation of Tennessee William’s landmark play.

                Unlike the prolonged search for Scarlett, from the time of the book’s release the public made it clear only one star was ideally suited to play Rhett onscreen, and the reigning King of Hollywood, Clark Gable, was indeed penciled in for the role after a few other names (Errol Flynn chief among them) were bandied about. Gable was then at the peak of popularity at the tail end of a decade that saw Gable’s swift rise to the top after a breakthrough 1931 (with A Free Soul gaining Gable particularly strong notice), followed by a string of critical and commercial hits, including Red Dust, Dancing Lady, his Oscar-winner, It Happened One Night, Mutiny on the Bounty and San Francisco. Wind appeared to be the perfect vehicle to top off a decade of astounding successes but Gable, understanding the phenomenally high profile of the material, recognized anything less than a faultless match with Rhett would bring public scorn, and possibly irreparable damage to his image.

Viewing his performance, Gable need have suffered no qualms as to his ability to fulfill the demands of the role as, similar to the case of Leigh as Scarlett, in look and temperament seldom has an actor fit a part so flawlessly. Gable utilities his trademark virility and sly good humor to make an immediately impact after a terrific intro shot of Rhett suggesting an impish, handsome rouge has just entered the movie from directly out of the novel. His scenes with Leigh are both funny and exciting, laced with a great sexual chemistry as Rhett and Scarlett’s relationship develops, then alternately rises and falls over the course of many eventful incidents befitting a grandiose entertainment. However, in perhaps the richest, most indelible work of his career, in addition to his familiar charm and masculinity, Gable pushes his acting talents far as Rhett is faced with a series of trials and regrets, imbuing the role with a sensitivity and complexity not often found in the macho mode that’s an essential part of many signature Gable characters. During the later stages of the film wherein tragedy strikes, the star handles the vulnerable, melancholy aspects of Rhett’s nature with a fine dexterity and a dedication to the role that assures a fully rounded portrait of Rhett is translated from page to the screen. Gable would remain a leading figure in film until ending his career with beautiful work in 1961’s posthumously released The Misfits, but for most Rhett Butler would remain his most identifiable accomplishment.

Olivia de Havilland’s turn as Melaine Hamilton, the gracious, benevolent counter to Scarlett, provided the young but already-established star a chance to increase her acting reputation considerably. Debuting in films in 1935, de Havilland had immediately success as an ingenue of beauty and charm, specifically opposite Flynn after their first teaming, Captain Blood, then reaching their apex in 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, still the definitive screen rendering of the Robin Hood legend. Unlike many of her contemporaries, de Havilland felt the less-sought-after role of Melanie was a plum, granting an opportunity for her to add depth and individuality to what could have come across as a one-dimensional, fey role. de Havilland does a remarkable job of highlighting Melaine’s high moral character, without ever appearing to pander in schmaltz- she handles the part with a full belief in Melaine’s basic goodness and modesty, making Melanie worthy of Rhett’s (and others) high estimation of her. The young, talented star would build on her sublime Wind contribution to attain one of the most rewarding screen careers, specifically during the next decade, wherein de Havilland gained an Oscar for 1946’s To Each His Own and closed out the decade with perhaps her finest work in The Heiress, leading to Oscar number two in early 1950 while, with each hit revival of Wind, her meticulous portrayal of Melanie served as a reminder of the mature skill and ability she displayed so impressively early in her career.

As Ashley Wilkes, Leslie Howard has often been deemed the last and least of the four major players. The dimensions of the role are certainly less colorful when compared to those of the other three leads, with the virtuous, self-possessed Ashley placing first in Scarlett’s affections for the majority of the movie, but a distance second for most viewers in judging the merits of Rhett/Gable in comparison to Howard’s work. Howard was indeed reluctant to take the part, understanding the somewhat wane tenor of Ashley’s make-up, but he brings a great deal of professionalism and a dreamy affection in his scenes with de Havilland that fortifies Ashley and Melanie’s romance and loyalty to each other. He also does well opposite Leigh, displaying Ashley’s compassion and tolerance in regard to Scarlett’s forthright attempts to seduce him away from the altruistic Melaine. Wind did provide Howard with his most enduring screen assignment for the mass public, a few years before his death in 1943 while doing work in support of the British war effort, but to see him at his best, one need look no further than his Oscar-nominated, masterful depiction of Henry Higgins in the previous year’s Pygmalion, a superior screen adaptation of the George Bernard Shaw play, which Howard co-directed with Anthony Asquith.

After debuting in 1932 and becoming a mainstay in films, standing out in such classics as I’m No Angel and Alice Adams, Hattie McDaniel reached her career apex with her funny, vivid and very moving work of subscene in Gone with the Wind. Although her portrayal of Mammy has been a starting point for much of the later-day criticism of the racial stereotypes found in Wind, McDaniel’s superior performance rises above the standard, tired depiction of a dimwitted servant used for comic relief. In McDaniel’s skillful hands, Mammy becomes one of the strongest, wisest and most compassionate characters in the film. She’s the only one who understands Scarlett’s every deception and makes no bones in telling her exactly what she thinks, leading to some of Wind’s most amusing moments. She also directly lets Rhett know how much she does or doesn’t care for him, before displaying an aptitude for top-tier dramatic playing in one of the most emotionally impactful scenes, wherein a bereft Mammy explains to Melaine the dire state of affairs that have befallen Rhett and Scarlett. In this tour-de-force sequence, McDaniel unforgettably illustrates Mammy’s tormented state with hypnotic conviction, making her later historic Best Supporting Actress Oscar win seem a foregone conclusion. McDaniel would continue to shine in movies throughout the 1940’s (albeit often in domestic roles- she once stated she would rather play a maid than be one) such as In This Our Life and Since You Went Away, and also achieve success on radio and television in Beulah before her passing in 1952. Her rich, marvelous rendering of one of the most substantial, independent-minded figures in Gone with the Wind assures Hattie McDaniel her eminent place among Classic Hollywood’s best players.

Among the truly imposing list of supporting players Thomas Mitchell, in the midst of a career year on film rarely matched, with an Oscar to come for Stagecoach and plum roles in The Hunchback of Norte Dame, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Only Angels Have Wings also among his 1939 filmography, has the right bombastic touch as Scarlett’s fiery father, Gerald, allowing a viewer to believe Scarlett strongly takes after the family’s patriarch. In contrast, as Mrs. O’Hara Barbara O’Neil lends grace and dignity to her role, while Evelyn Keyes and Ann Rutherford ideally fit the bill as Scarlett’s sisters, the spirited Suellen and the younger, more naïve Carreen, with Keyes in particular adding nice comic flair to Suellen’s (ultimately justifiable) indignant attitude towards Scarlett. Butterfly McQueen’s florid playing as Prissy has also faced criticism but McQueen, while clearly generating some of the biggest laughs in the film as the overwrought Prissy runs amok during the siege of Atlanta, also indicates Prissy’s strong sense of self-regard and confidence in calmer moments, allowing audiences to admire the character and laugh with McQueen, not at her in Prissy’s more amusing moments. Laura Hope Crews is also all-aflutter and comical as Aunt Pitty-Pat, while Henry Davenport adds both humor and empathy to his fine, sage work as Dr. Meade. As Belle Watling, the “Hostess” who frequently entertains Rhett, Ona Munson brings a great deal of warmth and wisdom to the screen and does a great job conveying her unrequited love for Rhett, and how well Belle understands the situation regarding his love/hate relationship with Scarlett. In smaller roles, such names as George Reeves, Eddie Anderson, Jane Darwell, Victor Jory and Isabel Jewell also make maximum impacts in brief but choice assignments.

The unprecedented success of Wind after its December 15, 1939 Atlanta premiere found the monumental hit playing its first run for several years, ending up at the top of the Variety list of “All-Time Top Grossers” until finally being displaced by 1965’s The Sound of Music. Viewing the Variety lists are intriguing, as it makes clear just how successful the film was in several re-releases, with the January 5, 1949 list showing $22,000,000 in U.S./Canada rentals, the 1954 list showing a $26,000,000 total, the 1955 list witnessing a jump to $33,500,000 and (after a 1961 reissue that has Wind placing sixth for the year with $6,000,000) the 1963 and 1965 lists showing $41,200,000 in rentals. A big 1968 reissue had Wind placing third for the year, amassing $23,000,000 more in rentals according to the January 8, 1969 issue of Variety. On the 1977 Variety list, Wind was still in the top ten films of all time (at #9), with a $76,700,000 total. Currently, Box Office Mojo shows a gross of $200,882,193 for Wind, and an adjusted for inflation amount of $1,850,581,586, placing Wind back on top as the biggest hit of all time. Wind also conquered television with its two-part network premiere in November of 1976, with the 1980 edition of Film Facts by Cobbett Steinberg showing Part 1 in first place among the most popular films ever shown on television, with a 47.7 rating and a 65 share, and Part 2 in second with a 47.4 rating and a 64 share.

Wind also fared importantly in the 1940 award season, taking home eight competitive awards from 13 nominations (a record at the time) and two special awards, which included Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Score (for Max Steiner most famous orchestrations) and one of the most richly deserved Best Actress wins ever. Leigh also won the New York Film Critics Bets Actress prize, and also placed among the Best Acting for the 1940 (due to a later release of Wind in some areas) National Board of Review awards, wherein Wind also placed in the top ten films of the year. The film’s ongoing status as one of Hollywood’s most enduring productions found it placing at #4 on the American Film Institute’s 1998 list of the 100 best American movies, and at #6 on the 2007 updated list. The film also placed among the 25 films included for preservation in the Library of Congress’ first selection of National Film Registry titles in 1989. Wind has also gained large audiences and profits through various physical media formats over the years, as well as the occasional re-release. Today, reassessments of Wind, specifically concerning its racial stereotypes, have caused some to take a pass on viewing the film or rating it alongside other, less controversial classics. Those willing to grant immunity to Wind based on the period it was made will be treated to a rare Hollywood blockbuster that offers stellar work in each department and provides a consistently enthralling watch over its nearly four-hour running time, making it difficult by the final frame to not give a damn about Selznick’s greatest achievement. 

Friday, July 12, 2024

Shelley Duvall, a Shining Star in 1980, as Olive Oyl and Beyond

              Hearing the sad news of Shelley Duvall’s passing on July 11th at 75 immediately evoked memories of what, as a young moviegoer, struck me as one of the great years for a performer I’d witnessed. I wasn’t allowed to view her dedicated, vivid work in The Shining upon its 1980 release, but certainly heard plenty about her terrific contributions to that film, which was a sizeable hit, whose reputation and praise for Duvall’s great work therein only grew over time, but I was exactly at the right age to stand in awe later that year over her magnificently on-point portrayal of the quirky Olive Oyl in Robert Altman’s oddball film version of Popeye, which a recent viewing after decades only served to confirm Duvall’s singular greatness as the Olive Oyl for the Ages. 

                Long before the internet, I first became excited about Popeye when my cousin, who had already seen the film, offered prime “buzz” for the movie by mentioning how perfect Duvall was as Olive Oyl, I believe even stating “she should get the Oscar,” which really got me going. Robert Williams’ foray into movies after scoring huge via television’s Mork & Mindy was the initial selling point for me, and for probably most of the general audience, and while he brings plenty of razzmatazz to the title role Duvall, once seen ambling around the creative sets as a cartoon-come-to-life, proves herself to be the beating heart of the movie in rather unforgettable fashion. With every “Oh Popeye!” and rolling of those ultra-expressive eyes, Duvall is in beautiful synch with each Olive idiosyncrasy, uniquely meshing her own talent with Oyl’s firmly-established persona. Although I left the theater with mixed feelings concerning the overall merits of the film, I was floored by how completely Duvall gave herself over to the part, and convinced I’d just seen one of the most strikingly original performances ever.

                It took me several years to grown up enough to finally view The Shining, wherein I once again stood in wonder over Duvall’s dedication to her craft, and the remarkable results it produced. In a very different manner than her work in Popeye, Duvall is again the most human element in The Shining, with the audience fully pulling for her Wendy Torrance’s safety once Jack Nicholson, as her rattled husband Jack, goes around the bend and into another, horrific dimension. Duvall movingly expresses Wendy’s mounting uneasiness, then terror-ridden state as she tries to fend off her demented spouse while being confined in the eerie, snowbound “Overlook Hotel,”; with complete conviction and riveting emotionalism, Duvall allows the movie to reach frightful levels of tenseness that should have made director Stanley Kubrick, who reportedly drove Duvall to distraction during filming, proud.

                As an adult, I also finally viewed Duvall in one of the great roles and performances of the 1970’s, as “Millie” the seemingly confident, somewhat isolated eccentric who views herself as popular before more morose facets are revealed in her character, in Altman’s fascinatingly oblique 1977 masterpiece Three Women. Altman had originally discovered Duvall in 1970 and, taken by her one-of-a-kind look and personality, immediately cast her in Brewster McCloud, before continuing to use Duvall to great advantage in other prime Altman works, such as McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Thieves Like Us and Nashville, while also being seen to ideal advantage on television as the title character in the ace 1976 PBS adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1920 short story “Bernie Bobs Her Hair.” With Three Women, Duvall reached a cinematic peak, as her Millie represents a heroine unlike any seen onscreen. Millie comes across as an ideal visual representation of the outcast Janis Ian summons in her hit “At Seventeen,” but with a tantalizing twist: outwardly at least, the calm, self-assured Millie doesn’t initially view herself as anything less than perfect. How Millie convincingly evolves throughout the film is a testament to Duvall’s terrific skills as a performer, with her ultimately heartbreaking work making one feel both pity and protectiveness towards Millie. Although Duvall never received the Oscar nomination she warranted based on her astounding work in Women (or for Popeye or The Shining, for that matter), she did gain the Cannes Best Actress Award and Los Angeles Film Critics prize for her very moving, multi-dimensional and uncanny work as Millie, one of the most individual and indelible figures found in an Altman work, or in movies, period.

                Duvall would achieve additional fame during 1982-1987 with her very successful, Peabody Award-winning Faerie Tale Theatre, which aired on Showtime and featured 27 reworkings of classic children's fables. After costarring with Steve Martin in 1987’s charming Roxanne, Duvall would continue to lend her offbeat presence through intermittent work in films and television in a variety of character roles. However, her place as a leading figure in 1970’s and 1980’s film rests largely on her peerless work with Altman (and Three Women most notably), her understandably petrified Wendy in The Shining and Popeye, with the sweet memory of Duvall, supremely in her element as Olive Oyl, somehow simultaneously dancing and lolling around while poignantly singing “He Needs Me” looming large in a viewer’s mind, perhaps decades after seeing the movie. R.I.P. to Shelley Duvall, a true free spirit, both onscreen and off.

Monday, July 01, 2024

Bob Hope and Eva Marie Saint Convey That Certain Feeling in a Paramount Gem

With the 100th birthday of the exquisite, talented and legendary leading lady Eva Marie Saint (born on July 4, 1024) at hand, the issue of which movie from her impressive filmography to review offered plenty of options, including her Oscar-winning debut in On the Waterfront, as one of Hitchcock’s most notable blondes in North by Northwest, her moving, remarkable work in 1957’s A Hatful of Rain, or singular performances in lesser-known entries such as All Fall Down or Loving. However, one little-known Saint title of merit deserving a much higher profile is Paramount’s 1956 comedy-drama, That Certain Feeling, which charmingly teams Bob Hope and Saint in a lively story involving the exploits of a ghost-writing cartoonist, and the complications that ensue when he achieves greater success than the comic strip’s actual writer, who is also engaged to his successor’s former wife. With outstanding production values, including VistaVision and Technicolor, nicely paced tandem direction by Norma Panama and Melvin Frank (both of whom, along with William Altman and I.A.L. Diamond, also co-wrote the entertaining screenplay, based on the play King of Hearts by Jean Kerr and Eleanor Brooke) and a perfectly selected cast that put over the funny, touching material with considerable brio, Feeling offers viewers a prime opportunity to discover a beguiling, enduring entertainment that rates comparison with more widely known and acclaimed films of the era.

The film marked Saint’s second foray into cinema, after honing her craft for years in live television prior to her 1954 breakthrough in Waterfront. As sophisticated New Yorker Duneath Henry, who serves as private secretary and fiancée to Larry Larkin (George Sanders), creator of a ‘Snips and Runty” comic panel, Saint comes on looking like a million bucks and lends an assured, cosmopolitan air to the role, working beautifully together with Hope (as her former husband, the down-on-his-luck artist Francis X. Dignan) specifically in their funniest scene, wherein a tipsy Duneath lets her hair down and starts dancing in uninhibited fashion with Dignan. Regarding her look in the film, Saint is gowned impeccably via an Edith Head wardrobe, and groomed in a manner that strongly suggests she and Grace Kelly could have easily played twin sisters during this period (one wonders if Alfred Hitchcock got a glimpse of Feeling before collaborating with Saint on North). Although Saint would go on to have a rich career spanning the next seven decades as one of filmdom’s most intelligence and skillful dramatic female stars, give or take a The Russians Are Coming the Russians are Coming, she seldom was granted a chance to test her comedic abilities, making her light-hearted scenes in Feeling all the more valuable when contemplating Saint’s exceptional body of work.

For Bob Hope, Feeling presented a fine opportunity to expand his talents outside the zany work he’d built his phenomenal successful movie career on, since his major film debut nearly twenty years before in The Big Broadcast of 1938, then through his teaming with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour as they traversed down a series of profitable Roads, and individual hit comedies that would result in Hope’s placement as the #1 box-office draw of 1949 (according to the standard-bearer, Quigley Publications). Although Hope has ample space in Feeling to put over some sly lines using his patented sarcasm and zest, Dignan also has a lot of insecurities and regrets, and it’s admirable to see Hope bring honesty and substance to the serious aspects of the role. Unlike many top comedians who take on dramatic assignments, then lose sight of the actual dynamics of the part in an effort to go big and lay on the mawkishness to win acclaim for a change-of-pace role, Hope tackles the hefty part of Dignan with professionalism and even grace, perfectly balancing the comedic and dramatic facets of the part. He is wonderful with Saint as the exes explore their current relationship and ponder a future together, working with his costar to add creditability and poignancy to the often-breezy goings-on. Based on his stellar Feeling work, one wishes Hope was bestowed similar parts of the same ilk among standard fare, although 1960’s The Facts of Life offered Hope a final chance to shine in a comedy-drama opposite an ideal costar, in this case Lucille Ball.

As Larry Larkin, urbane George Sanders has a nice change-of-pace role, spiritedly and adeptly putting over the sometimes slapstick situations Larry is ensnared in, while still suggesting the casual wit and devil-may-care attitude that were signature elements in Sanders’ most famous roles. As Larkin’s housekeeper, Gussie, Pearl Bailey makes a major impact from the movie’s opening sequence, wherein she puts over the tile song (written in 1925 by no less than George and Ira Gershwin) with style and verve, and thereafter offers plenty of chief comedic moments. Lastly, tiny Jerry Mathers, after a 1952 screen debut via another top Hope venture, Son of Paleface and standing out the prior year in Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry, has perhaps his best role in Feeling before becoming a Baby Boomer icon the following year on television as “The Beav.” As the young orphan charge, Norman, whom Duneath and Dignan establish a firm bond with, Mathers is very winning without overplaying the part in the cutesy manner often found in child performances of the time, instead bringing off Norman’s sensitive, innocence nature with plausibility and skill. In addition, “Happy,” an enormous (and hugely amusing) dog and a brief appearance by Li’l Abner creator Al Capp also factor into the film’s genial tone.

That Certain Feeling gained some nice notices upon its July 1956 release but did not place on the list of box-office films put out yearly by Variety, nor gain mention by any awards body. Feeling rates a better fate, but at least one of its primary players aptly values the work as, on a personal note, I can vouch that Saint holds That Certain Feeling in high regard. She requested the film be shown at the Egyptian Theater during a 2018 film festival, which was mentioned by Saint during an interview prior to a screening of the movie, with the star also stating how much she loved working with Bob Hope, and telling the rapt audience she was looking forward to watching the film with the packed audience, as she had not been able to see the movie in years. Her husband, Jeffrey Hayden, had passed on in 2016, and Saint also reflected on their long marriage of 65 years and their fruitful careers. I had seen them both together at several film events, and it was touching to watch Hayden act protective towards his wife as a multitude of fans gathered around for autographs and pictures. The film went over like gangbusters with an attentive, fully appreciative audience, and it was wonderful to experience this showing with Ms. Saint in attendance. I wrote a brief letter to her afterwards, and received a nice card with a note wherein she wrote how much she enjoyed watching the movie with the “terrific” audience, and again gave props to Bob Hope’s talents. That Certain Feeling provides the comedian with a truly grand showcase, while the lovely Saint brings both class and whimsy to the proceedings, and a superior group of costars also add an abundance of vitality to the movie. As Saint referenced at the festival, the film is indeed hard to track down, with no official release on VHS, DVD or Blu-Ray. The film can be found via a YouTube search, while at least one classic movie buff awaits (possibly in vain) for a much better rendering of the movie on physical media, in hopes that That Certain Feeling, with ace work across the board, might gain the reputation is warrants as a key film in the cinematic repertories of all the talented artists involved, and 1950’s movies in general.

As a P.S., on YouTube last year I created a tribute to Ms. Saint and her films, which can be viewed here. Happy Birthday to you, Eva Marie Saint!

Maurice Chevalier Shines Bright in Love Me Tonight

At the top of the heap when considering impressive, endearing films of the early “Talkie” era, 1932’s Love Me Tonight provides a landmark for both movie musicals and sound films. Rouben Mamoulian, among Hollywood’s most gifted and inventive directors of this (or any) period, oversees the proceedings with great skill and a sly humor, resulting in one of the most sparkling light-hearted entertainments ever to come out of Hollywood. Blessed with a remarkably original, sophisticated script by Samuel Hoffenstein, George Martin Jr. and Waldermar Young, which seamlessly incorporates several instant standards by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart into the fanciful tale covering the exploits of Maurice, a cheerful tailor who finds himself mingling with the elite at the elegant d’Artelines chateau, in the process falling in love with a princess while becoming mistaken by her and others as a member of the aristocracy himself. Mamoulian deftly utilizes such cinematic tools as split-screens, slo-mo, fade-ins/outs, tracking shots, on-location filming, zoom-ins, cross-cutting and quick edits (the revolutionary Mamoulian also served as the film’s co-editor with William Shea) to create a fresh, singular musical that maintains a modern feel, and allows the top-flight, bemused cast to be seen and heard to their best advantage.

After early success on Broadway, by 1932 Rouben Mamoulian had already staked his claim as an extremely innovative director via his helming of a superior early talkie, 1929’s Applause, followed by two big 1931 hits, City Streets and, specifically, possibly the best screen adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, featuring transformation special effects that still impress in “How did they do that?” fashion. With his creative juices peaking, Mamoulian’s willingness to explore various venues available through the new medium of sound is evident throughout Tonight, starting with the opening scene, wherein Paris and its inhabitants are shown waking up to the day, with an array of sounds amusingly accompanying them. Rhyming patter, combined with sound effects, is frequently adopted to move from scene-to-scene and introduce a song, then used within the song to forward the action. In the most famous example of this, and one of the most endearing sequences to be found in a musical, star Maurice Chevalier (as Maurice) introduces the peerless “Isn’t it Romantic” at his shop in patter fashion to a customer, who leaves humming the tune and transferring it to a songwriter hailing a cab, who by turn passes it off to a group of soldiers on a train, until after traveling through the countryside via a group of gypsies the tune finally introduces Princess Jeanette at the chateau, who hears, then finishes the song. The spellbinding, trailblazing manner in which the number is structured and photographed has rarely been equaled in musical film, and deserves many viewings to catch all the details Mamoulian includes in this unforgettable passage. A later deer hunt and the film’s exciting finale also showcase the director/editor’s adroitness in masterfully crafting fast-paced, beguiling, original scenes that stay with a viewer. Mamoulian’s later career would include such top-grade fair as Queen Christina, The Mark of Zorro and Blood and Sand, but it’s possible Tonight represents this exceptional artist’s most definitive work.

The event of talkies brought the affable, singular talents of Maurice Chevalier to the forefront of American cinema, and Tonight presents him with possibly the most durable, memorable role during his peak stardom; armed with (alternately) his signature straw hat or beret, Chevalier attains the perfect vehicle in which to showcase his rare continental charm. After years as a major star in France, Chevalier scored heavily with American audiences with Ernst Lubitsch’s 1929 The Love Parade, followed by The Big Pond (Chevalier received Best Actor Oscar nominations for both films), The Smiling Lieutenant and One Hour with You. In Tonight as carefree, ultra-romantic and expert tailor Maurice, he has joie de vivre to spare, a magnetism that is astoundingly vivid (particularly during his musical numbers), and a touching sincerity during his romantic interludes with the princess that helps lend believability to the rich, whimsical tale. The confident breeziness he carries throughout the whole enterprise could be off-putting in less able hands, but Chevalier’s high spirits always come across as skillful, genuine, and phenomenally entertaining. He would go on to many other career highlights, ending with major late-career hits via Love in the Afternoon, Fanny and, especially, Chevalier’s indelible work in 1958’s Gigi, wherein his appeal remained intact as he memorably put over “Thank Heaven for Litle Girls” and (with Hermoine Gingold) “I Remember it Well.”

Jeanette MacDonald had also established herself as a top star in early musical films, which included several costarring features with Chevalier after their huge success in The Love Parade. As Princess Jeanette, the lovely MacDonald was still honing her acting skills onscreen but brings her supreme soprano vocal talent to the fore. After offering a beautiful rendition of “Lover” while riding a carriage through the woods in another innovative moment, she meets Maurice and has perhaps her best moment shown in close-up and clearly bemused as Chevalier’s starts to serenade her to the strains of “Mimi” in unsurpassably charismatic fashion, before she switches to an indignant stance as Maurice becomes bolder with her. Although sometimes grandiose gestures date her playing, MacDonald combines this theatricality with a sereneness that works in beautiful tandem with Chevalier, whom she shares an easy, friendly chemistry with. She also suggests an intriguing baby-doll quality in voice and manner as the princess becomes more open to Maurice’s advances, adding convincingly to the notion this princess could suddenly give in to her attraction to Maurice after initially keeping her distance. After Tonight MacDonald’s career just kept rising, culminating in a series of hit films with Nelson Eddy, as well as putting over the title song with verve as the Clark Gable’s interest in San Francisco, one of the 1930’s top smashes.

A distinctive supporting cast stays in perfect sync with Tonight’s genial comedic tone. C. Aubrey Smith mixes a towering physical presence and his famously gruff voice with endearing bafflement as Duc d’Artelines, the head of the manor who takes a liking to Maurice, mistakenly thinking he’s “Baron Courtelin.” Smith is at his most entertaining starting an amusing reprise of “Mimi,” which other members of the household then pick up in another bravura musical sequence. Charlie Ruggles as a ne’er-the-well who doesn’t believe in paying for anything, to the chagrin of Maurice, is his jovial self, while Charles Butterworth is supremely nonplussed as the princess’ hapless suitor.

Myrna Loy has one of her key early roles as the saucy, man-hungry Comtesse Valentine, looking sensational in a series of gowns- and in Marie Antoinette mode at a costume ball- while smoothly throwing off some nice zingers with knowing flair (in the manner of her soon-to-come legendary work as Nora Charles) as the Comtesse lazes and ambles around the chateau commenting on the action, in the process taking a lively interest in Maurice and men in general. Finally, as the princess’ three elderly aunts, who serve as a Greek chorus, Elizabeth Patterson, Ethel Griffies and Blanche Frideric animatedly flit around in an often-agitated state, what with all the intrigue accompanying Maurice’s arrival and attachment to the princess.

One of Hollywood’s preeminent Golden Age musicals, Love Me Tonight’s substantial merits and power to entrance audiences remain undiminished over 90 years after its release. The unique style and appeal brought off by the virtuoso Mamoulian and his incomparable cast and crew ensure the film sustains its light, flavorful tone as assuredly as any other top entertainment, and through repeated viewings, regardless of how many they may be. The extraordinary quality of the movie has been recognized via its 1990 inclusion into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, guaranteeing Love Me Tonight its warranted place among the cream of Classic Cinema’s crop. Lovers of classic film, musicals, and movies in general will discover an evening’s rendezvous with the uncommonly captivating Tonight with its ultra-romantic, funny and ingenious delights an arresting experience worth savoring and repeating.

And a fond farewell Anouk Aimée, who passed away on June 18th at 92. A major figure in international cinema, after ten years in movies Aimée found herself starring in some of the key films of the 1960’s, working with Federico Fellini in La Dolce Vita and 8 ½, and at her most beautiful and captivating in Jacques Demy 1961’s Lola. She reached a peak in 1966 with the world-wide success of A Man and a Woman, which brought her Best Actress honors from the Golden Globes and British Academy Awards, as well as her sole Oscar nomination. She would continue in films until 2019, with 1969 a particularly strong year, working again with Demy (Model Shop), George Cukor (Justine) and Sidney Lumet (The Appointment). Sequels to A Man and a Woman would follow in 1986 and via 2019’s The Best Years of a Life (her final film), as well as a fourth marriage to no less than Albert Finney. One of the loveliest and most elegant of stars, Aimée’s touching-yet-colorful presence in Lola lingers largest in the memory for this viewer.

Saturday, June 01, 2024

William Holden Negotiates Superstardom via Stalag 17

One of the most diverting films of the 1950’s and possibly the best WWII comedy/drama ever produced, 1953’s Stalag 17 details the trials and hijinks surrounding a group of POW American soldiers held in the German title camp circa 1944. With masterful writer/director Billy Wilder re-teaming with Sunset Boulevard star William Holden and featuring a great assemble cast, Stalag provides gripping entertainment, with Wilder and co-writer Edwin Blum’s carefully-crafted script (based on the 1951 Broadway success by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski) providing an abundance of light-hearted moments which mesh perfectly with the central plot’s more dramatic, suspenseful elements. Expanding the play to feature more of the action occurring outside the key locale of Barracks 4 allows audiences to gather a full sense of the dire circumstances the men find themselves in, and admire the creative methods they use to keep their spirit and motivation up as they attempt to outwit the Nazis on their own turf.

Wilder, who had phenomenal success as a director from his 1942 debut, The Major and the Minor, including all-timers Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend and Boulevard, is clearly in his element throughout his helming of Stalag, holding the viewer’s attention from the first scene featuring a couple of prisoners attempting to escape the camp, to the richly-satisfying, exciting final moments of the film nearly two hours later. His sure touch with actors is evident throughout, with the majority of the cast offered opportunities to stand out in distinctive fashion, while simultaneously building a sense of comradeship among the prisoners. Wilder also maintains a perfect blend of comedy and drama, assuring the tone of the film stays consistently engrossing without becoming too frivolous or stark. Finally, as mentioned Wilder avoids the stage bound origins of the play by frequently shifting the action out of Barracks 4 into the surrounding environs, resulting in one of the best and least-forced ”opening ups” involved in a stage-to-screen translation. Wilder would garner many more successes during the 1950’s and 1960’s (Some Like it Hot and The Apartment chief among these), with Stalag remaining among the greatest efforts of the esteemed writer-director.

As J.J. Sefton, a cynical, on-the-make prisoner willing to trade with his colleagues and the Germans, in addition to running several profitable enterprises, in order to maintain the best possible lifestyle throughout his duration at the camp, William Holden found himself moving into the top echelon of film stars with this trenchant, striking turn. The forthright actor had offered years of solid work in a juvenile vein after gaining stardom via his 1939 debut in Golden Boy, including terrific, touching work as a George for the ages in the following year’s Our Town, before Holden’s status was enhanced by his mature, Oscar-nominated work in 1950’s Boulevard, wherein his subtle, intelligent playing marked him as one of the more adept cinematic leading men of his era. However, standard fare followed this significant breakthrough until Wilder came to the rescue with Stalag. Holden rewarded his loyal director by bringing a sardonic, shrewd awareness to his tense, energetic performance, while still suggesting the idealized All-American guy persona that helped make Holden an audience favorite, which plays a significant role in allowing viewers to empathize with the self-serving Sefton, even if one isn’t sure of his true motives throughout much of the film.

After his huge success in Stalag, which culminated in a Best Actor Oscar win over formidable competition, including Marlon Brando in Julius Caesar and both Burt Lancaster and Montgomery Clift (in perhaps his best performance) in the year’s biggest WWII smash, From Here to Eternity, Holden went from strength-to-strength for the remainer of the decade, with stellar work in hits such as Sabrina (yet another Wilder project), The Country Girl, 1955’s smash Picnic (which landed Holden a Time magazine cover) and The Bridge on the River Kwai, one of the 1950’s prime critical and commercial successes which, due to a percentage deal, kept Holden financially solvent for the rest of his life. Holden hit #1 as the Top Box-Office draw (according to the yearly Quigley Publications poll) in 1956, then after the Kwai peak experienced mixed reactions to his movie output for the next two decades (with 1960’s The World of Suzie Wong and 1969’s The Wild Bunch his chief hits), before scoring a major career comeback with an Emmy on television for The Blue Knight, then Oscar-nominated work in Network, just before another reunion with Wilder for 1978’s Fedora, a few years before his untimely passing at 63 in 1981.

Factoring heavily into the proceedings as the chief comedic relief, Harvey Lembeck and Robert Strauss match up ideally as the quick, wisecracking Harry Shapiro and his hulking, gravel-voiced, somewhat dim friend, aptly named “Animal.” Strauss in particular is given many chances to shine, with Animal’s deep devotion to Betty Grable and heartbreak over her marriage to Harry James serving as prime comedic fodder- it’s hard to not laugh when recalling Strauss’ “Betty!! Betty!!” breakdown even decades after viewing the movie. Strauss also adds some touching moments to his role via interactions with the shell-shocked Joey, illustrating a caring, protective side to Animal. Lembeck nimbly and sagely works in fine tandem with Strauss, allowing them to put over just about every gag thrown their way, however broad the jokes may sometimes be.

Among the rest of the imposing cast, maverick director Otto Preminger displays a deft touch in front of the camera as the cold, sarcastic Colonel von Scherbach, who oversees Stalag 17 in a calm, imperious manner and nails his terrific dialogue in tremendous fashion. Sig Ruman also does wonders with the role of Schulz, the seemingly affable Barracks 4 guard who harbors a lot more guile than he reveals, while telling the prisoners he is their “best friend.” Don Taylor is characteristically earnest as a lieutenant who incurs the wrath of von Scherbach, while the stoic Peter Graves and brash Neville Brand both raise their career profiles considerably via standout Stalag work. Richard Erdman offers a fine account of Hoffy, the strong, no-nonsense leader of Barracks 4, with one great moment wherein Hoffy challenges von Scherbach for one of his most ignoble actions, and Gil Stratton also does nice work as Cookie, who serves both as Sefton’s closest ally and the movie’s narrator. Finally, future “Witch Doctor” and Chipmunks creator Ross Bagdasarian can be seen as a singing POW, a year before he showed up as a frustrated songwriter at his piano in another classic, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window.

Stalag 17 was a major success upon its release in June of 1953, gaining a wealth of critical praise while amassing $3,300,000 in U.S./Canadian film rentals (according to Variety), thereby landing in the top twenty box-office hits of 1953. The film was listed among the top ten of the year by both The New York Times and the National Board of Review, while Wilder gained notice as a quarterly winner from the Screen Director’s Guild and (with Blum) a Screen Writers Guild nomination for Best Written Comedy. At the Academy Awards, along with Holden’s win Wilder was nominated for Best Director and Strauss found himself among the Best Supporting Actor lineup, with Eternity’s Fred Zinnemann and Frank Sinatra taking home the gold, respectively. In addition to these plaudits, the film served as an inspiration for many comedy/drama war films to come, and was the obvious blueprint for one of the 1960’s most durable television comedies, Hogan’s Heroes. However, as multiple viewings can attest, the charm and riveting nature of Stalag is singular, allowing this classic to uphold its status as one of the most memorable and entertaining films of its era, or any other.

P.S.: I first viewed Stalag 17 as a teen in the 1980’s, when VHS was coming into wide popularity. My drama teacher was something of a classic movie buff and would treat the class to a top film during a special two-hour period at the end of each semester. In the case of Stalag 17, the movie ran over the school period time but no one left, resulting in a long walk home after I missed my bus, but one with no regrets as I pondered the truly awesome viewing experience I’d just had. Watching the film anew over the years on VHS, DVD, Blu-Ray and most recently via the wonderful 4K-Blu-Ray combo pack recently released by Kino Lorber only solidifies the notion I’ve always carried since that first look at Stalag 17 that the movie is one of the most richly satisfying productions ever committed to celluloid.

Wednesday, May 01, 2024

Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn Beguile with Style in Charade

One of the 1960’s most entertaining and classy whodunnits, Universal’s Charade offers up the ideal one-time pairing of two of the cinema’s most indomitable, singular and attractive talents, Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. This romantic comedy/thriller has often been compared to the similarly-themed works of Alfred Hitchcock (such as Rear Window and North by Northwest), but with Stanley Donen helming the production with vitality and skill, Charade maintains a breezy, adult sophistication all its own, aided by Henry Mancini’s ear-catching score and title song, and an ingenious screenplay by Peter Stone and Marc Behm (based on their 1961 short story The Unsuspecting Wife) detailing the adventures a young widow, Regina Lampert, encounters after the untimely death of her mysterious husband, Charles, with the equally-impenetrable Peter Joshua entering the scene to assist Regina as they try to discover the whereabouts of $250,000 supposedly left by Charles. Armed with the film’s considerable assets and on-location shooting in Paris, the combo of Grant and Hepburn draw audiences into the movie from the film’s opening scene, wherein the easy chemistry between the stars as they meet at a posh ski report indicates viewers are in for a riveting, highly enjoyable scenario for the film’s exceptionally paced 113-minute running time.

Prior to Charade, Stanley Donen had established himself as a top director of light musical comedies, both in tandem with Gene Kelly (On the Town, Singin’ in the Rain) and George Abbott (The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees) and solo (Royal Wedding, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Funny Face) Charade marked Donen’s biggest hit as a director since Brides, and the amiable, lively tone so important to the film owes much to Donen’s experience behind the camera in the musical/comedy domain. Donen smoothly mixes the romantic and comic aspects of the story with the starker material, which allows a more mature tenor to the film than found in most of his previous work. Donen would build on Charade’s success with Arabesque and a re-teaming with Hepburn for 1967’s Two for the Road, one of the best movies for both artists, before his career ebbed thereafter. However, Donen would have a final late-career highlight in 1998, singing and dancing to “Cheek to Cheek” on the Oscars after receiving Honorary Academy Award.

Cary Grant, in the midst of a great run of late-career hits (Houseboat, North by Northwest, Operation Petticoat, That Touch of Mink), finished his career as Filmdom’s ultimate romantic leading in sublime fashion via Charade (only his change-of-pace role in Father Goose and Walk, Don’t Run were to follow). One of Charade’s chief assets is the unpretentious nature of the film, which makes repeat viewing of the film very easy to take. Although the plot at times may seem far-fetched, nothing comes across as forced or too cute, thanks to Grant’s casual, spontaneous interplay with Hepburn and the manner in which Donen keeps their great teaming front-and-center throughout much of the film. Grant had built his indelible screen persona over three decades, and plays in Charade with the ease, confidence and charisma of a star in full control of his substantial gifts. His frequently low-key, deadpan delivery opposite Hepburn’s spry playing has great appeal, and also leads to a bigger payoff when Peter suddenly displays a more colorful side (such as an impromptu shower in one of the movie’s most animated moments). Few stars have had such a meritorious late-career surge, and it’s richly satisfying to watch Grant enact Peter with his star power and talent undiminished.

Audrey Hepburn, looking typically sensational in an array of Givenchy, is clearly on her A game in one of the best roles of her career. She’s also allowed to be sexier than in possibly any other film, with Regina on-the-make with Peter immediately after she lays eyes on him at the film’s outset. It’s a lot of fun to see the normally much reserved Hepburn spiritedly perform with verve and wit, while also simultaneously demonstrating her keen dramatic skills when needed (in one of the film’s more intriguing moments, Regina simply states “I’m very cold” when asked if she loved her husband, and Hepburn adeptly coveys the conflicting emotions the character is feeling at this key moment). With Grant, the script allows her to be forthright in showing Regina’s clear interest in Peter (it’s reported that, due to their age difference, Grant wanted Regina to put the moves on Peter), and Hepburn is funny and endearing in depicting Regina’s boldness in trying to form stronger relations with Peter. Hepburn clearly enjoys working with Grant, allowing them to sell the romantic elements with a relaxed, effervescent elegance (they both have terrific moments complementing each other's perfection), and pulling off a possible error in a scene involving ice cream without missing a beat. With Regina at the forefront of the plot throughout the film, Hepburn adeptly dives into each facet of the meaty part with compelling sincerity and focus, fully pulling the audience into Regina’s plight along the way. 

Walter Matthau, in the chief supporting role of Carson Dyle, a former WWII colleague of Charles now very interested in finding the $250,000, had a nice success following a Tony Award on Broadway and before his bigger impact with a second Tony for The Odd Couple, then Billy Wilder’s The Fortune Cookie in 1966, which brought Matthau an Oscar, then leading roles in movies. As three henchmen also formerly associated with Charles during WWII, a trio of actors make very strong impressions. James Coburn shows great individuality in portraying Tex with a suave seediness that would come in handy a few years later with his breakout success as Derek Flint. After a 1961 film debut, the physically imposing George Kennedy establishes himself as a character actor of note as Herman, the muscle of the group who spars vividly with Grant in the film’s most exciting action sequence. Ned Glass also brings a sense of threat to the movie as the sneezing, seemingly weak-but-disturbingly-ominous member of the group. Finally, Jacques Marin valuably adds humor and a terse air to his scenes to as the befuddled inspector trying to uncover the mystery surrounding the missing $250,000.

Released in late 1963, Charade proved to be perfect escapist entertainment for masses seeking a star-powered vehicle created with cleverness and charm, with the film ultimately gaining $6,150,000 in U.S./Canadian film rentals (according to Variety), placing it among the top five box-office hits of 1964. The film was an important hit for Hepburn, helping to solidify her position as one of the decade’s chief female stars after her Breakfast at Tiffany’s success allowed her to thrive in more mature roles, with a win as Best Actress at the British Academy Awards and a Golden Globe nomination also coming her way. Grant was cited at the Globes as well, while Stone and Behm were by the Writers Guild of America and Mancini and Johnny Mercer scored the movie’s sole Oscar nomination for the movie’s lovely title song. Enduringly droll, suspenseful and surprising, the scintillating, distinctive Charade remains a top-notch example of how a well-crafted mystery/comedy, perfectly cast, directed and produced, can persist in delighting and mesmerizing audiences decades after its release. For Grant and Hepburn, the movie and their striking work therein serves as a reminder of why each are essential, cherished stars of classic cinema.

As a P.S., I've done a few dozen tribute videos of my favorite classic movie genres and stars, including ones for Grant and Hepburn. The Cary Grant tribute can be view here and the Audrey Hepburn homage here.