Friday, September 16, 2022

Marlo Brando and Jean Simmons Find Their Rhythm in Guys and Dolls

         Offering a perfect example of what a big-budget, all-star cinematic production constituted circa 1955, Samuel Goldwyn’s opulent rendering of the smash 1950 Broadway musical Guys and Dolls manages the stage-to-screen translation with ample assets helping to outweigh an overgenerous running time and the omission a few key songs for the memorable Frank Loesser score. Given his unfamiliarity with helming a major musical production, director Joseph L. Mankiewicz pulls off his challenging assignment with skill, not only providing the screenplay of the Jo Swerling/Abe Burrows book (based on the work of Damon Runyon), but also showcasing performers possessing various levels of song and dance experience to their most advantageous, especially in the case of his prime star quartet, who put over the Loesser numbers with style and individuality. Mankiewicz also sagely allows Michael Kidd’s inventive, lively choreography to take the Cinemascope center stage at frequent intervals, which helps to move the lengthy venture along.

         Goldwyn took a substantial risk in hiring leads who, similar to their director, had no prior experience in the musical comedy field. However, this is one example wherein star names possibility used to bolster box-office chances also happened to possess the talent to rise to their change-of-pace material and richly add to a film’s success instead of hampering proceedings. The charm and conviction Marlon Brando and Jean Simmons bring to their assignments, along with the easy rapport they first established in the previous year’s Desiree, remains among the film’s chief assets. It’s easy to see how, upon the film’s release, any doubts regarding their unorthodox casting was quickly silenced, as both Brando and Simmons glide through their numbers in a beguiling manner, and provide a touching earnestness to their roles that make gambler Sky Masterson and his prim conquest, missionary Sarah Brown, compelling figures who fully earn the audience’s interest and support.

       By 1955 Marlon Brando had conquered both Broadway and Hollywood in revolutionary fashion with his explosive-yet-thoughtful, uncompromisingly realistic approach to acting, resulting in major stardom, first onstage via his electrifying work in Truckline Café and, specifically, his peerless Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, then with a terrific film debut at the decades’ outset in the fine, moving drama The Men, directed by Fred Zinnemann. Brando continued to fulfill his promise as the finest young actor of his generation and maybe ever, gaining four consecutive Oscar nominations for enthralling, dedicated performances in the adaptation of Streetcar, followed by Viva Zapata!, Julius Caesar and On the Waterfront, which finally gained him a well-deserved win for his compassionate, complex Terry Malloy, confirming his status as an A-list star with plenty of box-office pull, even with Brando firmly upholding a fearlessly anti-establishment approach in opposition to the rules governing the Hollywood Studio system, and clearly determined to march to his own rhythm regarding his career and how it transpired.

        It would have been fitting for Brando to follow up an Oscar win for great dramatic work with another film rife with serious overtones, but it’s possible after several years of handling stark material he found the switch to a more playful role refreshing, even if he’d never before attempted to sing and dance onscreen. In any case, Brando slips into the role of the handsome, suave, somewhat mischievous Sky Masterson ideally, and especially shines while utilizing a sweet, light, romantic vocal style while singing “I’ll Know” and “A Woman in Love” to the attentive Simmons; Brando commented the recording sessions were done in note-by-note manner, as he couldn’t stay in tune for an entire verse, but the final product plays seamlessly onscreen, both in the aforementioned numbers and in his more lively and most famous number, the extravagantly-staged “Luck be a Lady.” The effortless tone Brando maintains throughout the movie is fascinating to watch, given how much was riding on such a large-scale production, and the likely pitfalls a star untried in musicals should have encountered via such a daring undertaking. However, in Brando’s confident hands Sky becomes yet another indelible addition to the actor’s long list of outstanding credits.

         Jean Simmons was also at an early career high during this period, following her 1948 breakthrough as an Ophelia for the ages in Laurence Oliver’s Hamlet, which garnered Simmons an Oscar nod as well as the Venice Film Festival Best Actress prize, with stellar, diverse work in So Long at the Fair, Angel Face, and The Actress mixed in with higher-profile fare such as The Robe and The Egyptian assuring Simmons a place among the top leading ladies of the 1950’s. As with her co-star, Simmons had developed a reputation as one of the finest young talents in the movies, but not one known to possess any aptitude in the musical field; however, Simmons carries off her big number, “If I Were a Bell” with a breezy comic flair, and also believably depicts Sister Sarah’s intriguing character arc, wherein she makes an abrupt switch from Sky’s stern adversary to his willing romantic partner in short order during a rendezvous in Cuba. Simmons would go on to continued success with The Big Country, Spartacus, possibly her best dramatic work in Elmer Gantry, a second Oscar nod for The Happy Ending, then a late-career Emmy for a mammoth t.v. mini-series hit, The Thorn Birds, but her diverting performance in Guys and Dolls remains a unique triumph in her career cannon, which gained her a well-deserved Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Musical/Comedy and endures as a fine example of how well Simmons could deliver first-rate work in a lighter genre.  

        As the third top name in the cast, Frank Sinatra brings a wealth of assurance to his role as the hustling-yet-casual Nathan Detroit, and clearly displays his exceptional musical abilities honed over decades, which found Sinatra achieving great fame as the preeminent male vocalist of his era (and the bobbysoxers’ delight during his 1940’s heyday), while gaining substantial success in films, partially when partnered with Gene Kelly in Anchors Aweigh, Take Me Out to the Ball Game and On the Town. After witnessing a career slump in the early 1950’s, Sinatra was in the midst of an incredible comeback following his Oscar win for 1953’s From Here to Eternity, and 1955 would prove to be a banner year in his resurgence, with Sinatra once again finding recording success (“Learning the Blues” and “Love and Marriage” were two big 1955 Sinatra hits) to match his movie hits, as in addition to Guys and Dolls Sinatra did nice work in Not as a Stranger, which cleaned up at the box office if not with critics, and was spectacular as a drug addict trying to kick the habit in The Man with the Golden Arm, which earned Sinatra a well-warranted Best Actor nomination for possibly his most committed dramatic performance. As Nathan, Sinatra is completely in his comfort zone, to the degree that upon the film’s release he received some criticism by those (Stephen Sondheim among them) who had advocated for Sam Levene (the original Nathan Detroit on Broadway) to play the part that Sinatra was too relaxed in the role. However, it’s hard to see how Levine or anyone else could equal peak-form Sinatra (both vocally and as a star presence), whether he’s beautifully putting over his solo, “Adelaide,” or partaking of the Runyon-flavored dialogue with verve; simply put, Guys and Dolls and Frank Sinatra suit each other to a “T.”

        As Nathan’s loyal, very long-term intended, Miss Adelaide, Vivian Blaine witnesses a triumphant return to the screen after scoring a smash success originating the role on Broadway. Starting her career on stage as a teen, Blaine had paid her cinematic dues throughout the 1940’s as 20th Century-Fox’s go-to, capable musical-comedy female lead, when Betty Grable or Alice Faye weren’t available, but outside of making a nice impact in possibly her best and most popular film of this period, 1945’s State Fair, most of her Fox output consisted of enjoyable yet standard, second tier offerings. The career-defining role of Adelaide finally gained Blaine the major stardom she warranted, and after many performances on Broadway, London and in Las Vegas, she was allowed to commitment her singular performance to film, thereby providing the blueprint for the scores of Adelaides that have followed. Blaine pulls off the rare feat of maintaining a fresh, spontaneous delivery style, even while it’s clear she has expertly fined-tuned the role and every indelible Adelaide inflection based on her years of experience with the part; she’s clearly in sync with the role and determined to leave every entertaining aspect of Adelaide’s makeup on the screen. This is especially apparent in Blaine’s ingenious execution of Guys comedic highlight, the brilliantly-penned “Adelaide’s Lament,” wherein the good-natured showgirl both forlornly and animatedly rues her predicament with the marriage-adverse Nathan, much to the audience’s delight. Blaine also does a wonderful job working with the Goldwyn Girls on two expertly-staged numbers, “Pet Me Poppa” and the clever, tasteful striptease, “Take Back Your Mink”; her lively, skillful contribution to Guys and Dolls adds immeasurably to the film’s value and supplies the signature performance Blaine will be remembered for. 

        Among the rest of the cast, Robert Keith and Sheldon Leonard make good impressions and Vera Ann Borg gets a few wisecracks in playing one of her trademark sassy, knowing showgirls. However, Stubby Kaye, allowed to transfer his stage success as Nicely-Nicely Johnson to the screen, gets the opportunity to shine brightest with one of the film’s last and liveliest numbers, “Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat,” which must have killed them on Broadway and is exactly the pick-me-up the movie needs as it enters its third hour. Kaye performs the number and also recites his Runyanesque lines in a calm, matter-of-fact manner, and puts an original stamp on the colorful role that would guarantee further career success, specifically as the similar-in-character “Marryin’ Sam” on stage and screen in Li’l Abner and as Nat King Cole’s wandering, singing cohort in 1965’s Cat Ballou.

        Upon its release in early November 1955, Guys and Dolls proved to find great favor with moviegoers, becoming one of the year’s biggest hits, with eventual U.S. and Canadian film rentals tallying $9,000,000 (according to Variety), while also receiving a good share of critical praise, culminating in a Golden Globe win for Best Musical or Comedy Picture along with Simmons’ honor, and Marlon Brando also gaining a Globe that year for World Film Favorite, which the huge success of the movie certainly factored into, along with it being his only film released in 1955. Although Guys and Dolls has not maintained a place along the likes of Singin’ in the Rain and The Bandwagon at the forefront of the general public and critics’ perception of what constitutes the top 1950’s movie musicals, the strong, unique and sometimes surprising contributions of four stars at the peak of their talents, as well as the adept staging of a score of great numbers still adds up to quite a show, one that should guarantee fans of the genre and the major players involved (both in front and behind the camera) a rich, gratifying viewing experience.

        I recently finished a YouTube tribute video to Marlon Brando, using clips from many of his films. Reviewing the movies to obtain clips to edit the tribute together provided the opportunity to once again marvel at the prodigious talent of Brando, and how he fearlessly took risks in role after role- even in many of lesser films, he’s still in their doing interesting and often brilliant work, and you can’t take your eyes off him. The tribute can be viewed here:

Sunday, August 07, 2022

Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney Find Romance and Intrigue in the Incomparable Laura

One of the 1940’s most enduring and entertaining studio offerings, Twentieth-Century Fox’s Laura provides viewers with a key film classic for both the murder mystery and the film noir genres. The 1944 production offered director Otto Preminger (replacing Rouben Mamoulain) the chance for a major breakthrough, and he adeptly helms the adaptation of the ingenious Vera Caspary novel with solid pacing, class, and abundant skill, while the invaluable score by David Raksin’s and beautiful lensing by Joseph LaShelle invaluably assist in creating and maintaining a simultaneously romantic and rivetingly tense mood. Armed with an irreplaceable cast offering distinct performances and top-quality production values in every department, Laura stands a cut above the majority of cinematic output, both in its era and today.

Headlining the list of A-1 players, Dana Andrews makes an indelible mark as Mark McPherson, the NYPD detective attempting to solve the film’s central whodunit. Starting his film career in 1940, Andrews worked his way up the ranks at Fox playing bits, then co-leads and, following wonderful, vivid work as one of the victim’s in another landmark film, 1943’s The Ox-Bow Incident, found himself joining the top ranks of stars after the success of Laura. As McPherson, Andrews conveys an air of unperturbed, placid practicability, yet also suggests a compassionate demeanor lies underneath his exterior, as Mark finds himself falling for the title character’s portrait, much to his bewilderment, which only intensifies as the story progresses. Andrews has a unique manner of bringing both vulnerability and cool detachment to his signature heroes, gaining an audience’s full support in the process; therefore, even as Mark uses some unorthodox methods during his investigation, the sincerity Andrews exudes assures the viewer will trust McPherson’s motives and stay firmly on his side until the movie’s denouement is reached. Andrews continued to flourish throughout the 1940’s as he maintained a string of fine performances in quality films, including a terrific noir reunion with Preminger for 1945’s engrossing Fallen Angel, along with hits such as State Fair, A Walk in the Sun, Boomerang and excellent work in the decade’s biggest smash, 1946’s Oscar-winning The Best Years of Our Lives. Although his post-1940’s cinematic output witnessed an inevitable drop, Andrews’ highly individualistic work in Laura and other significant 1940’s roles allows him a permanent place among the most talented and remarkable leading men of his era.

As Laura Hunt, Gene Tierney also found herself gaining enriched career status following a fruitful early period at Fox, with a lovely 1940 debut in Technicolor opposite Henry Fonda in The Return of Frank James and endearing work in a 1943 Fox classic of her own, Ernst Lubitsch’s appealing Heaven Can Wait. Although Tierney wrote in her compelling autobiography how she felt her performance in Laura was competent but nothing special, her calm passiveness is in beautiful synch with Andrews’ low-key playing, and she suggests an enigmatic quality that is extremely well-suited to the idea of Laura possibly owning a dubious moral character. Tierney, of course, also possesses an otherworldly beauty that is in keeping with the idea of Laura as a supreme goddesses in addition to being a top-flight advertising executive, doing justice to the famous portrait’s depiction of Laura as a vision for the ages. As her career burgeoned subsequent to Laura, Tierney appeared to blossom dramatically when given roles with sinister aspects, such as in The Razor’s Edge, The Egyptian and, especially, via iconic, Oscar-nominated work in her biggest hit, 1945’s definitive color noir Leave Her to Heaven; however, Tierney’s earnest playing as Laura Hunt provides a prime example of the special qualities Tierney could bring to the table while adopting a more romantic persona (see also Dragonwyck and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir for other top Tierney roles in this mode), and her serene presence and engaging interplay with Andrews and their costars allows Laura Hunt to prevail as one of cinema’s most memorable and haunting leading ladies of the period.

Clifton Webb witnessed one of Hollywood’s greatest late-career arrivals via his portrayal of the acerbic, self-absorbed newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker. A veteran of stage and a few films during the silent era, Webb found himself becoming a top character actor in his mid-50’s after his phenomenal impact in Laura. Armed with an imposing walking cane and many of the film’s best lines (“I write with a goose quill, dipped in venom” comes to mind as I type this without any venom in hand, darn it) Webb effortlessly nabs the spotlight with the confident aplomb of one who had made movies for years, rather than coming across as a novice in the industry (abet one with a substantial list of theatrical successes behind him). Although Webb appropriately emphasizes Lydecker’s egocentric, snobbish demeanor, he also allows audiences to clearly see the strong attachment he establishes with Laura as he aids her climb to the top of her profession, thereby lending a sympathetic aspect to exist within Waldo amid his more obvious arrogant behavior. Following Laura, Webb worked consistently during his final twenty years in other top Fox offerings, with a peak being his fine, emotionally-driven Oscar-nominated wok in 1946’s The Razor’s Edge, just before his biggest career success as Mr. Belvedere in Sitting Pretty (also Oscar-nominated) and its sequels, while the 1950’s saw Webb headlining hits such as Cheaper By the Dozen (which allowed him to place in the Quiqley poll of Top Ten Box Office Stars of 1950, so make that a star character actor), as John Phillip Sousa in Stars and Stripes Forever, and Three Coins in the Fountain, before his final appearance opposite William Holden in 1962’s Satan Never Sleeps. While Webb’s continuing success post-Laura accounts for one of the more improbable and exceptional runs for a major movie star of a certain age, his reputation rests largely on his work as the difficult-yet-magnetic Waldo Lydecker, as it is the Webb characterization most recognizable to modern-day lovers of classic film.

Vincent Price brings a genial, relaxed manner to his role as Shelby Carpenter, Laura’s intended who nevertheless possesses a roving eye and becomes a prime suspect in the case McPherson’s attempting to unravel. Similar to his costars, as a relative newcomer to films Price’s status took a beneficial upswing with the release of Laura, with his work in the previous year’s prestige Fox offering, The Song of Bernadette, being his main screen credit of note. Price would follow-up by costarring twice again with Tierney in short order, via Leave Her to Heaven and a meatier role in 1946’s Dragonwyck, then continue as a reliable lead and second lead until the mammoth success of 1953’s House of Wax completely changed the dynamics of Price’s screen image, switching him from a handsome, good-natured leading man to the Master of the Macabre, a role he played with relish in countless films until his wonderful swansong in Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands. As Ann Treadwell, the chic, modernistic, wealthy matron who only has eyes for Shelby, Judith Anderson gets a chance at a nice change-of-pace role, far from her most famous part as the diabolical Miss Danvers in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, and she has a wonderful moment in a powder room wherein she relates to Laura why Ann and Shelby are ideally suited for each other, as they are both rotten and therefore a perfect match. Finally, Dorothy Adams also makes a nice impact as Laura’s beguilingly loyal maid, Bessie, who takes no guff from Mark or anyone else as she defends Laura’s moral character, come what may. Also, look fast for a young Cara Williams, as a coworker who wishes Laura good luck as the latter arises from their luncheon table to meet Waldo for the first time (Williams can also be seen behind Webb and Tierney in a later scene wherein Lydecker visits Laura at her workplace, hence the “coworker” label).

Upon release, Laura gained popular acclaim from both audiences and critics, leading to five Oscar nominations, including ones for Preminger, Webb and for the witty, sophisticated screenplay by Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein and Betty Reinhardt, and a win for LaShelle’s lush, atmospheric black and white cinematography, thereby granting Laura the “Academy Award-winning” moniker it richly deserves. Although somehow Raksin’s unforgettable score was overlooked come Oscar time, it has maintained its stature as one of Hollywood’s best, with several versions of the theme song hitting the top ten in 1945, on the way to the tune becoming a standard, and the score placing at #7 on the AFI’s 2005 poll for “100 Years of Film Scores.” The film itself also placed highly (at #4) on the AFI’s 2008 list of Top Ten Mystery films, following its 1999 inclusion in the prestigious National Film Registry’s archives. In addition to major accolades, Laura also is assured to uphold its place among the top movies of its era due to the durable nature of the film, as repeated viewings only serve to heighten audiences’ admiration and enjoyment of one of classic cinema’s most impeccable and involving works.

As a P.S., I just completed a video tribute to Queens of classic film noir, which of course includes Tierney (with Andrews in one shot) along with many other ladies of the night, both of the femme fatale persuasion and those harboring a more noble character. The "Talking in Your Sleep- Classic Film Noir Style" tribute can be viewed on YouTube here:

Monday, July 11, 2022

Holden Woos Novak via a Steamy, Involving Picnic

                One of the most successful studio offerings of its era, Columbia Pictures’ Picnic provides a rich, atmosphere story detailing the various characters and conflicts involved in an annual Labor Day picnic set in a small Kansas town. The 1955 screen adaptation of William Inge’s 1953 Broadway hit offers the play’s director, Joshua Logan, the chance for a first-rate cinematic debut and, armed with a top-flight cast and wonderful on-location filming in Kansas (lensed by ace cinematographer James Wong Howe), Logan manages to creatively blend florid dramatic and comedic situations and performances within a naturalistic setting as the film follows the exploits of Hal Carter, an aimless drifter who looks to find himself in a new setting, and instead causes a good degree of restlessness among the community, particularly in the case of one Owens household, which includes the town’s prettiest girl, Madge, and with Hal’s college chum Alan Benson, who happens to be Madge’s intended. The tempering of theatrical aspects tied to the material’s stage origins via a more realistic milieu brought about by the Kansas locales help the movie maintain a compelling freshness over 65 years after its general release, specifically during the centerpiece picnic, wherein a variety of activities and townsfolk are intermeshed with the main characters (Picnic must rank among the best examples of “opening up” a stage work for the screen, as in the original play no picnic is to be found; Daniel Taradash’s crafty screenplay does a fantastic job of moving the action frequently to different parts of town).

                As the magnetic, hunky Hal, William Holden offers another in his line of no-nonsense, All-American heroes and anti-heroes, which allowed for him to reach his leading man apex in the 1950’s. After a strong start in 1939’s Golden Boy, followed by his perfect, gentle work as a George for the ages in Our Town, Holden slowly progressed through the 1940’s in standard fare before, armed with a new cynicism which provided a fascinating contract to his more agreeable, boyish demeanor, he broke through to another level as a star and actor in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard and Stalag 17, which brought Holden the 1953 Best Actor Oscar over stiff competition, specially Montgomery Clift in From Here to Eternity. Although some commented Holden (at about 37) might have been too mature for the roving, sexy Hal, Holden’s earnest, energetic playing and confident ease are well-suited to the role and, also in line with Hal, he reveals himself to have possibly the best male physique going in Hollywood. Holden’s string of box-office hits during the decade, including the huge success of Picnic, led him to being named the #1 box-office star of 1956 (according to the industry’s standard-bearer, Quigley Publications), followed by Holden immediately thereafter offering forceful work headlining one of the decades biggest blockbusters and critical hits, The Bridge on the River Kwai.

 Kim Novak gained major headway as Columbia’s resident star-on-the-rise as the ethereal, beautiful Madge. Possessing a uniquely introverted camera presence to match her loveliness, Novak’s halting, sensitive delivery and forlorn, subtle demeanor stands in nice contrast to the more overt playing of most of the cast, and she generates plenty of erotic chemistry with Holden during the film’s most iconic moment, wherein Hal and Madge’s romance takes full bloom as they dance at the picnic to the lush strains of George Duning’s wonderful theme music, which is perfectly meshed with the standard “Moonglow.” With the one-two punch of Picnic and Novak’s possibly even-better work as the girl who tries to set Frank Sinatra straight in Man with the Golden Arm (also released in late-1955), Novak found herself rapidly rise to the top of the Hollywood pack, with Life and Time covers to come during the following year, along with her own placement with Holden among Quigley’s Top Ten Stars of 1956.

As Millie, Madge’s bookworm younger sister, Susan Strasberg fully commits to her role and offers one of the movie’s most vivid, emotionally-driven performances. Adeptly handling lighter moments as well as displays of the more stark emoting seen at the Actor’s Studio helmed by her father, Lee, the young star illustrates why she was considered one of the most talented newcomers of the time, following her film debut earlier in 1955 via The Cobweb, and after also making a major impact the same year on Broadway as the title character in The Diary of Anne Frank. Although a solid career in films (check out 1961’s Scream of Fear for another top Strasburg effort) and as an author followed, Picnic remained Strasburg’s biggest screen success, and her mature-beyond-her years dramatic prowess and fine interplay with each of her costars adds richly to the movie’s overall effectiveness. Also, although some commented Strasburg was too attractive to play the tomboyish Millie, Strasburg does a great job conveying Millie’s independent spirt as a driving force in her not playing into conventional norms regarding beauty and how she should behave as a girl or woman (Strasburg does an intelligent, skillful job of illustrating how Millie is transitioning into adulthood), while also suggesting Millie doesn’t view herself as desirable even if she is lovely; when Strasburg moans “Madge is the pretty one” in heartbreaking fashion during one of the film’s most riveting scenes, you believe in Millie’s torment at placing second to her beauty queen sister’s appeal with men (specifically Hal), and the vulnerable Strasburg makes the moment one of the film’s most moving.

Concerning the film’s major sub-plot, Rosalind Russell dives into her meaty role as Rosemary, a repressed-yet-colorful middle-aged schoolteacher desperate to find marital bliss, or at least security with her easy-going but set-in-his-ways businessman boyfriend Howard, who’s not as enthused with the prospect of settling down. Russell is interesting to watch as she alternates from broad comedy early on to a more strident, melodramatic approach once Rosemary, drawn to Hal’s overt masculinity, becomes progressively more restless, until she finally has an angry outburst regarding Hal’s attraction to Madge, then leaves the picnic for a tryst with Howard. Russell certainly throws herself into this big scene with abandon, but it veers into over-the-top territory, even given the emotionally-fraught circumstances. However, Russell then has a touching, delicately handled post-rendezvous moment with Howard, wherein she pushes hard for marriage, and one admires the commitment and understatement Russell brings to the emotionally-charged scene. As Rosemary’s intended (whether he likes it or not), Arthur O’Connell deftly recreates his stage role, making the sensible Howard both funny and endearing as he struggles to do the right thing by Rosemary. O’Connell, who had spent years in small and bit parts (including popping up as a reporter in Citizen Kane) prior to his breakout role as Howard, scores so heavily in Picnic he garnered an Oscar-nomination, then subsequent success as a reliable character actor in a string of high-profile films, ending the decade with Anatomy of a Murder (another Oscar nod) and the smash Operation Petticoat.

Among the rest of the cast, Cliff Robertson makes a proficient screen debut as Alan, adeptly managing the character’s behavioral switch from outgoing and pleasant to a more complex, sinister mood once he discovers the strong attraction between Hal and Madge is placing Alan a distant third, relationship-wise. As Flo, Madge and Millie’s concerned mother, Betty Field adds a nervous edginess to her role as Flo pushes Madge to consider a marriage of convenience with Alan; this mother-daughter conflict fits right in with the generation gap themes found in films of the era, but Field also exhibits how Flo carries an understanding nature towards her girls, and is willing to listen to them, as opposed to the cinematic depictions gaining in popularity at the time of parents as one-dimensional control freaks or morons. Finally, Verna Felton, whose voice will be immediately recognizable to fans of Disney animated hits such as Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, gives a warm, very likable performance as the Owens kind, sage next-door neighbor, Helen Potts, who first encounters Hal at the movie’s outset, and she shares a couple of lovely moments in particular with Field.

Picnic had much going for it upon its December 1955 release, with a star at the peak of his popularity and another ascending to the top of the cinematic heap in remarkable fashion, as well as quality, proven source material, a top-grade cast and crew, and a strong romantic angle that did nothing to harm the movie’s advertising campaign, as well as covers of Life (with Strasburg) and Time (in an article centered around Holden) further raising the film’s profile. Excellent critical and public reaction to the film found it gaining six Oscar nominations (including Best Picture and Director) and two wins for Film Editing and Best Art Direction- Color, as well as a Golden Globe for Logan. Regarding the movie’s popular reception, Picnic earned $6,300,000 in domestic rentals to place at #6 on the list of top 1956 earners (according to Variety), while Columbia’s resident Musical Director Morris Stoloff’s lush recording of “Moonglow and Theme from “Picnic”” heard in the film found its way to the top ten of the Billboard charts in mid-1956, and #1 on the Jockey chart. Over the years the film has maintained its rightful place among the top screen romances of the 1950’s and, with its ample mix of comedy, drama, and arresting performances unfolding in a sublimely captured specific place and time, Picnic offers an ideal summertime viewing experience for classic, or any, movie-lovers. 

Saturday, June 18, 2022

Audrey Hepburn Faithfully Serves The Nun’s Story

          One of the most absorbing and moving dramas of the 1950’s, director Fred Zinnemann’s The Nun’s Story avoids the sensationalism often found in films presenting a “behind the scenes” look into convent life, instead detailing, in a tasteful-yet-riveting manner, the challenging process involved in a young woman seeking to find faith in her chosen calling. Anchored by subtle, sublime work by Audrey Hepburn, Zinnemann vividly brings the insightful Robert Anderson screenplay (based on the 1956 Kathryn C. Hulme best-selling novel) to life with his characteristic solid craftsmanship and fine attention-to-detail, while gaining distinct, striking performances by each member of his impressive cast. Franz Waxman’s lush score also does much to set the proper tone throughout the movie, whether it be somber, uplifting or, as is frequently the case, ambiguously somewhere in-between. Although the film runs 2.5 hours, Zinnemann and company ensure the rapt attention of audiences is upheld throughout, as each intriguing plot element, including an enthralling sequence set in the Belgian Congo, smoothly builds towards the film’s poignant denouement.

In the demanding lead role of Sister Luke, who faces many internal faith-based conflicts as she pursues a religious life among the sisterhood, Audrey Hepburn possibly reaches her apex as a dramatic star. Beautifully illustrating each trial Sister Luke faces, Hepburn utilizes her natural gifts as an instinctive screen performer in striking fashion. Hepburn’s trademark charm and grace are in evidence, but there’s also a stark tenseness and emotional depth to her work that is stunning. In several passages Sister Luke is overwhelmed by pressures placed on her faith, and Hepburn does an extraordinary job in illustrating these moments in a quiet-yet-powerful manner that is unlike the emoting normally seen in big dramatic scenes. Hepburn is so in tune with the character that, with impressive force and skill, she simultaneously demonstrates a controlled demeanor befitting the role, while still vividly depicting the turmoil Sister Luke is facing as she tacitly breaks down from the profuse stress brought on by her duties and religious calling. It’s fascinating to watch the dichotomy Hepburn maintains between calm repose and passionate emotion at play in these scenes, and the adeptness Hepburn utilizes to covey all of Sister Luke’s varying moods in an authentic, magnificent manner.

Peter Finch brings magnetism and force to his role of Dr. Fortunati, who shows both toughness and compassion towards Sister Luke as she attempts to perform her duties as his nurse while adapting to life in the Congo. Finch suggests an intriguing sexual undercurrent during his exchanges with Hepburn, which heightens the mood in their confrontational scenes, which finds Sister Luke battling her feelings towards the doctor, along with her professional and faith-driven problems. In the only other substantial male role, Dean Jagger offers a sympathetic portrayal of Sister Luke’s understanding father, Hubert, who is both supportive of and conflicted by his daughter’s choice to enter the convent.

An imposing ensemble cast adds richly to the film’s effectiveness, with several stand-out Mothers making memorable impressions. Edith Evans bestows a strong authoritative presence as the Rev. Mother Emmanuel, who provides sage leadership to the novices, and adds great dramatic potency to her final, moving meeting with Sister Luke. Mildred Dunnock is also seen to noticeable advantage, bringing her typical warmth and earnestness to her role as the placid Mother Margharita, who Sister Luke encounters upon her introduction to the order.  

On the other side of the spectrum from these firm-but-understanding, largely benevolent figures, Colleen Dewhurst is seen briefly and unforgettably as a dangerous, unpredictable patient (known as the “Archangel”) Sister Luke faces while working in a sanatorium. Dewhurst’s exciting, ominous work momentarily places the film on a dark, unnerving level, to the point that afterwards some audience members might carry a more apprehensive manner as subsequent elements unfold, being unsure exactly when another shocking plot point might come along to jolt them and Sister Luke out of their seats.

Ruth White, as the ambiguous Mother Marcella, adopts a calm, imperceptive demeanor, and makes a major impact sharing possibly the most fascinating scene with Hepburn, wherein she presents Sister Luke with a dilemma concerning an upcoming oral medical test, which has both Sister Luke and the audience questioning how far the Reverend Mother is going, and if her request really has to do with a humility-based “sacrifice for God” she suggests, or if some ulterior motive is at work. White maintains a controlled, poker-faced countenance throughout this episode and during a later, brief interaction with Sister Luke, leaving it unclear exactly what her agenda is; the enigmatic nature of these scenes (expertly delineated by Zinnemann) and White’s performance are hard to forget, as days later a viewer may still be wondering, “What was the deal with that Mother, anyway?” Among a remarkable list of other well-known performers doing exceptional work are Peggy Ashcroft, Beatrice Straight, Barbara O’Neil, Patricia Collinge and Patricia Bosworth.

A major critical and financial success upon its release, with eight Oscar nominations and New York Film Critics Awards for Zinnemann and Hepburn (who also garnered the British Academy Award), as well as a place among the top-five grossing films of the year with $6,000,000 in rentals (according to Variety), The Nun’s Story somehow hasn’t attained the staying power and renown of other top Hepburn films such as Roman Holiday and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It’s unfortunate, as fans who fully embrace Hepburn in her role as an enduring fashion icon and classic romantic screen leading lady from Hollywood’s Golden Era might be missing out on possibly her finest dramatic hour onscreen, as well as one of the most engrossing dramas of the 1950’s. Whereas the ideal, most recognizable Hepburn “look” might be found onscreen in Holiday, Sabrina, Funny Face and Tiffany’s, those wishing to see a fully-committed Hepburn offer a complex, mesmerizing example of her substantial, intuitive dramatic gifts as a first-class screen artist will find a richly satisfying experience awaits them via the divine Nun’s Story.

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Mae West Earns Her Halo in I'm No Angel

As one of the chief films to both pull Paramount Studios out of bankruptcy and bring about the creation of the restrictive Production Code, 1933’s I’m No Angel provided new screen sensation Mae West a worthy follow-up to her first starring vehicle, She Done Him Wrong (an adaptation of one of her biggest stage successes, Diamond Lil), which offered sexy, sassy entertainment to Depression-era masses hungry for light diversion and a offered a perfect vehicle to introduce West’s major talents, carefully honed over years of stage work in vaudeville and on Broadway, to a much wider public. Director Wesley Ruggles helped West solidify her previous success by keeping Angel’s pace steady at a brisk running time of 87 minutes, while properly showcasing West as Tira, a foxy circus beauty with prime undulating skills, keeping her and her ample charms and wisecracks front-and-center throughout the movie as Mae ambles her way through her own wry, sagely written screenplay in consistently diverting fashion.

Radiating supreme confidence and earthy good humor while provocatively singing and sashaying her way around every man in sight, Mae West puts on a memorable one-woman show as Tira, a circus beauty with “Big Bill Barton’s Wonder Show” who, when not undulating and “oohing” to bring the crowds in, keeps them rapt with her daring lion-taming act. West also keeps things lively by slipping out of one terrific outfit into another, and the striking wardrobe created for West provide one indicator of the first-class production values Paramount wisely poured into Angel, with one spider web-designed gown in particular perfectly befitting the star’s seductive persona as first one beau then another potential mate pay Mae a call. West has such a grand time playing up her sexuality and suggestively tossing off one innuendo after another one might feel sorry for the Production Codes advocates who clearly were missing out on the fun, except for the fact that after Angel, they stepped in to make sure West wasn’t allowed to move about as freely ever again during her 1930’s heyday. Fortunately, by that point West had firmly established her public persona as a screen siren quite unlike any other, with the audience in on the joke as West made fun of sex in an unashamed, sly manner, which allowed her to keep her career going on stage and in films for the next several decades, achieving living legend status long before her passing in 1980.

After gaining a major career boost opposite West in She Done Him Wrong, Cary Grant once again proves an ideal leading object of desire for West to ogle and vamp around upon first sight. As the affluent, attractive Jack Clayton, who quickly becomes West primary conquest, it’s interesting to see Grant in this early leading man mode. He’s classy, very handsome and has an easy rapport with West (they share a wonderful sequence bantering at a piano), but the charismatic spark found in his breakthrough Sylvia Scarlett performance and in just about every subsequent role hadn’t taken root yet. However, even in a more standard leading man guise, Grant has a great, carefree manner with West in Angel as the two impishly trade suggestive dialogue, and the audience can tell Mae clearly enjoys working with and eying her magnetic co-star (upon first seeing Grant walking around the Paramount lot, West famously stated “If he can talk, I'll take him.”). Years later West quickly named Grant when asked who her favorite male lead was, and Angel clearly justifies her conviction, as the two are admirably in-synch on screen, whether playfully toying with each other or romancing in a more arousing manner.

The rest of the cast do well enough, although this is clearly West’s show all the way, as it should be and as her snappy script intended. As Big Bill, Edward Arnold and his forceful, gruff acting style is well-suited to his role, and he gets to set up one of West’s best Angel retorts after he tells Mae “I changed my mind.” Nat Pendleton makes a brief impression as circus man Harry and Gregory Ratoff lends his distinct vocal delivery style as Tira’s supportive lawyer. Gertrude Michaels is properly terse as a jealous would-be rival (West had no true rivals when it came to the men in her films), while Walter Walker scores perhaps the strongest of these players as the cooperative judge clearly open to West’s flirtatious byplay during the terrific climatic courtroom scene, wherein West takes on all lawyers, jurors and witnesses with aplomb. Also look quick for Hattie McDaniel as a manicurist who briefly banters with West humorously and is introduced telling Mae to “sing it, honey.”

Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray offers a sterling print which sufficiently presents Leo Tover’s bright cinematography. For West, the success of Angel cemented her place among the top box-office draws of the era, with placement in the top ten in 1933 and 1934. The film stands as the last opportunity for West in her prime to perform on-screen at her sauciest and most suggestive until, in 1968, the production code was lifted in favor of the MPAA ratings system, and West was finally permitted to entertainingly add her famous saucy retorts to the otherwise-woeful Myra Breckinridge. With Angel allowing West to bemusedly partake of witty, sexy interplay with a variety of handsome suitors in her trademark beguilingly uninhibited fashion, the film maintains a fresh appeal nearly 90 years after its initial smash release and offers perhaps the best example of West in her most iconic mode as the smart, funny, vamping, original cinematic luminary for the ages.  

I recently had a lot of fun putting together a tribute video to West using her 1932-1940 screen output, including a handful of famous Mae quips to start the proceedings, before getting to the song tribute involving Elle King's "Ex's & Oh's" (Elle comes on like Mae's great-granddaughter, both in her vocal style and her demeanor seen in the playful video for King's 2014 hit). Reviewing the films demonstrated what a daring, one-of-a-kind performer West was- she marched to her own tune with apologizes to no one, writing her own material with great wit and aplomb. The tribute can be viewed over here at YouTube:

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Cary Grant and Grace Kelly Perfectly Team To Catch a Thief

Offering a prime example of a 1950’s studio-era commercial property featuring a perfect blend of director, stars, location and story, Paramount’s To Catch a Thief affords Alfred Hitchcock and mega-stars Cary Grant and Grace Kelly the chance to showcase their talents via a diverting caper set amid beautiful French Riviera vistas filmed in VistaVision and Technicolor. Although Thief is considered one of Hitchcock’s lighter entertainments, it can also be labeled one of his most irresistible works, with two stars at the height of their abilities giving charismatic performances, which includes an abundance of playful, sexy chemistry. Hitchcock is also aided by a crafty, breezy screenplay by frequent collaborator John Michael Hayes and Robert Burks’ ace, Oscar-winning photography, which allows viewers to get lost in the ample scenic wonders on display, and make them want to plan a trip to say, Monte Carlo as soon as the film concludes. Wisely forgoing tense suspense to utilize his deft cinematic touch in showcasing comic and romantic elements via a more casual whodunit format, Hitchcock and his stars create the type of enjoyable, carefree diversion movies were made for.

Portraying John Robie, a retired cat burglar of 15 years who suddenly finds himself at the top of the suspect list due to a series of new robberies, Cary Grant was lured back to movies after a couple years’ retirement by his persistent director, and effortlessly dominates the film with his matchless charm and skill. Sleek, tan and debonair, Grant makes 50 look very fine, and he is so confident and relaxed one hardly cares if Robie actually committed the crimes as he works with others to find an alternate culprit. Thief finds Grant at a career peak, with the suave, sly Robie a superb match to Grant’s self-assured screen persona; it’s easy to see how in the aftermath of the film’s success he would go on to an eventful final decade in films, rarely missing the mark as one smash hit followed another (these included An Affair to Remember, Houseboat, Operation Petticoat, That Touch of Mink, Charade and his signature late-career role as Roger Thornhill in the follow-up and final teaming with Hitchcock, North By Northwest) as the audiences’ love affair continued unabated with Grant until his for-real screen retirement in 1966 via Walk, Don’t Run.

Reuniting after fruitful associations via Dial M for Murder and Rear Window, Hitchcock once again brings out the best in Grace Kelly’s cool, regal bearing, and she’s possibly even more slyly bemused and alluring than in her iconic role as the adventurous Lisa Fremont in Window. As the headstrong, bold Frances Stevens, a wealthy traveler who initially encounters Robie due to her mother’s expensive jewelry collection, Kelly is in beautiful synch with Grant during their double-entendre exchanges, specifically during the film’s most famous sequences, first at a roadside picnic, and then during the expertly-staged hotel room seduction, with cross-cutting to a blazing fireworks display in case the simultaneous fireworks the star couple is creating leaves any doubt what’s transpiring. In addition, she and Grant look so sensational together it seems perfectly natural guests gawk as one of the screen’s classiest couples walk through the Carlton hotel lobby, instead of cliché and unbelievable. Also, along with Kelly’s great alliance with Hitchcock, To Catch offers another cinematic match made in Heaven, as Kelly once again wears chic Edith Head creations with breathtaking style (Head also gets a chance to illustrate her awesome gifts during the elaborate costume ball at the film’s climax, and received one of her many Oscar nominations for her notable efforts).

In support of the stars, Jessie Royce Landis is intensely likable as the aptly named Jessie, Frances’ straightforward, sage mother, who has plenty to say regarding her daughter’s aloof behavior towards what Jessie views as an ideal mate. Landis’ earthy good humor scores so dynamically that, along with her adeptness in performing banter engagingly with Grant, Hitchcock found it suitable to peg her for an even more iconic role in North By Northwest as Grant’s wryly bemused mother, even though she only predated Grant’s birth by about seven years. John Williams is a welcome urbane presence as the wry insurance agent working with Robie, and he has a great scene with Grant wherein they discuss what constitutes a thief, and how most people fall into the category. Rounding out the principle players, Charles Vanel and Brigitte Auber lend some continental flavor as French allies of Robie, who are both highly intrigued by the robberies and Robie’s role in the crimes.

Upon its release in the summer of 1955, To Catch a Thief provided audiences with the kind of escapism perfectly suited for summertime movie fare. The film continued the trend of popular Grant-Hitchcock and Kelly-Hitchcock pairings, as well as the incredible run of screen successes Kelly had during her brief reign as a top star in the mid-1950’s (with an Oscar on her mantle to boot a few months prior to the release of Thief), taking in $4.5 million in rentals according to Variety, to place among the top 20 box-office hits of the year. Although Thief is seldom mentioned among the Master of Suspense’s chief works, it warrants more valuable consideration, as it takes considerable talent to pull off a refreshing, beguiling comedy-mystery as successfully and Hitchcock and company manage to do here. Possessing first-rate production values and a peerless star-director combo (or two), viewers looking for a palatable, colorful excursion arising in a glamourous locale won’t feel cheated by the substantial charms on display in this stylish Thief.

On a side note, I recently created a video tribute to Grant at YouTube, using clips from over 30 top Grant films. It can be viewed here: Reviewing the films while compiling the clips, it was clear how impressively Grant handled so many diverse roles with conviction and spontaneity, shifting from drama to comedy (whether it be sophisticated, broad or physical) with remarkable dexterity. He also created a wonderful comradery while working with children, whom he appeared to adore, as witnessed by Houseboat, Father Goose and the funny, touching and underrated Room for One More, wherein he co-stars with then-wife Betsy Drake. Unfortunately, Grant’s easy professionalism and lack of pretension left him generally ignored by the Academy, with Grant scoring two nominations (for Penny Serenade and None but the Lonely Heart) before finally being given an overdue and career Oscar in 1970. I think Grant warranted the Oscar for his deeply felt, moving work in Serenade, and I’d also grant Grant at least one other statute for one of his roles during his phenomenal run of classics from 1937-1941, say The Awful Truth.

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Hayley Mills Breaks Through to Stardom at Tiger Bay

One of the most enjoyable and touching dramas of its period, J. Lee Thompson’s Tiger Bay mixes elements of the burgeoning “kitchen sink” British dramas and an exciting chase adventure. Anchored by a truly remarkable debut by 13-year-old Hayley Mills, the 1959 film traces the exploits of tomboy Gillie Evans, whose curious, mischievous nature finds her abetting a young seafarer, Bronislav, who is on-the-run from the law. Adeptly visualizing the John Hawkesworth and Shelley Smith screenplay (from a short story by Noel Calef), Thompson does a fantastic job moving the story along while showcasing Mills and a host of fine performers to their best advantage and, as he would demonstrate post-Bay with hits such as The Guns of Navarone and Cape Fear, utilizes his second-to-none ability to slowly build suspense towards a powerful climax. Eric Cross’ evocative black and white cinematography immeasurably assists Thompson in setting the proper rural tone for the film, as his vivid camerawork fully brings to life the Cardiff and Wales locales, beautifully capturing a specific time and place.

Hayley Mills’ compelling, naturalistic work as Gillie completely captivates the viewer from first scene to last. Thompson visited John Mills prior to filming, and upon meeting Mills’ strikingly individual daughter decided to change the lead from a young boy to a girl. Thompson’s intuition paid off as, although untried as an actor prior to Bay, Hayley Mills effortlessly holds the screen in one of the best film debuts and child performances ever, displaying an innate understanding of the demanding role and how to illustrate Gillie’s every conflicting mood in an unforced manner (Thompson makes excellent use of close-ups to showcase Mills’ guileless approach in front of the camera). Sustaining a relaxed, beguiling performance style as she admirably reacts to her costars in a focused, believable fashion, Mills’ full investment in the character and each scenes draws the audience into Gillie’s plight quickly, then keeps viewers attentive as she faces a series of misadventures in and around the title location.

As Gillie, Mills can also be counted among the greatest liars in movies, never telegraphing to the audience she’s lying, or doing cute gestures or pauses to emphasize the fibbing; as Gillie, she simply and calmly lies, offering a masterclass in how to effectively be deceitful onscreen. Mills is especially gifted in this area during a couple cat-and-mouse interrogation scenes with her father, portraying Graham, the sly police superintendent intent on capturing Bronislav, but hindered in his efforts by Gillie’s misrepresentation of key facts. Hayley Mills does an expert job in appearing nonplussed as Gillie casually keeps denying any association with Bronislav, to the increasing frustration of Graham. For her original, outstanding efforts, Mills won the BAFTA award for Most Promising Newcomer to Film, a special award at the Berlin Film Festival and, significantly, the attention of Walt Disney who, after getting a look at the precocious teen in Bay offered her Pollyanna, leading to the last juvenile Oscar given to her, major stardom and a long tenure with the Disney Studios.

 In his first English-language film, the handsome, magnetic Horst Buchholz was at the outset of an impressive run of classics, following Bay with The Magnificent Seven, Fanny and One, Two, Three in 1960 and 1961. His youthful energy and earnest, sympathetic work allows him to create an irresistible figure in Bronislav, resulting in audiences being right with the anti-hero as he frantically attempts to uphold his freedom throughout the movie. In delineating the film’s central relationship, Buchholz maintains a beautiful chemistry with Mills, conveying a protective big-brother demeanor as their alliance deepens, along with a playfulness which provides some lighter moments amid the general tension befitting the storyline, while Laurie Johnson’s lush recurring theme music helps underscore the touching nature of this atypical relationship. There’s a wonderful scene early on wherein Gillie sings a choir solo to Bronislav in a lovely manner and, smiling, he responses “You’ve got a terrible voice” when it’s clear he’s very moved by her song, and Gillie grins right back at him, then proceeds to talk to him in an open, innocent manner, thereby displaying her trustworthy nature as their friendship is established. In addition to more endearing moments, Buchholz also aids the film’s dramatic essence by adeptly suggesting the conflict Bronislav faces in possibly ridding himself of the young charge who is making it more difficult for him to gain his freedom, with the audience wondering at times if Bronislav is capable of maintaining the loyalty Gillie clearly holds towards him. 

John Mills is properly intense and determined as Graham, becoming disarmingly fiercer as he narrows his search for Bronislav, while Meg Jenkins does nice work as Gillie’s first preoccupied, then progressively more concerned aunt. Yvonne Mitchell, one of British films’ top leading ladies of the era, scores strongly in her brief role as Bronislav’s mistress, Anya, conveying in a few moments both her attraction to the wayward lover who’s drawn to the sea, and the guilt and anger she holds towards him as she seeks out a more stable life for herself. Lastly, as in his most famous work in Dial M for Murder, Anthony Dawson does an effortless job in suggesting a jittery, unreliable nature at every moment as Anya’s new lover, Barclay, and it’s great fun to watch the lanky, sweaty suspect apprehensively interact with Graham as the case develops. In a couple of probing scenes, a viewer gets the impression that, even if Barclay is innocent of the crime central to the story then surely, based on Dawson’s slick interpretation, he must have done something in his past to justify a conviction.

A success upon release, the film gained, in addition to accolades for its young star, nominations for Best British Film and Best Film from Any Source by the British Academy. However, over the years Bay has been eclipsed by Hayley Mills’ higher-profile Disney output, specifically 1961’s smash hit The Parent Trap, which single-handedly made Mills a baby boomer icon. Attending a TCM Film Festival screening of Trap with a packed audience several years ago, with Mills in attendance for an interview prior to the screening, the crowd eagerly awaited Mills onscreen once more singing “Let’s Get Together” as Trap’s calculating twins, but reacted in lukewarm fashion when Bay clips were included as part of a Mills tribute TCM presented, as if most didn’t recognize the film, and while one viewer found it curious Mills was being justly celebrated at a class event as the key child star of her era, with only a passing acknowledgement given to her best role and performance. Fortunately, a subsequent screening a year or two later of Bay at the New Beverly Cienma revival house demonstrated plenty of film aficionados did exist to appreciate the merits of Bay, as the movie was warmly received by a large audience fully invested in Gillie’s adventures, from her early encounters with Bronislav until their moving final scenes together, based on the strong efforts of Thompson and a first-rate cast and crew. As for the film’s leading lady, outside of her more renowned successes, Hayley Mills is assured her place as one of the most gifted child actors in movies based on her singular, memorable work as Bay’s bold, contemplative heroine.