Friday, November 27, 2009

December Countdown

It wouldn't be December without a top 10 list.

As everyone prepares to name the year's best, I've decided to put my own twist on a year-end countdown. As the 12 days of Christmas approach, I'll be counting down my top 12 favorite actresses of the 1940s.

And it wasn't easy whittling my list down to 12! My "short" list contained 23 names, and I managed to round it out to 30 before chopping. When I got to 15, I realized I was in trouble and have been going back and forth on who would stay.

As always, any list like this is subjective. Plus, I'm looking just at this 1940s. Many actresses have careers that spanned multiple decades, and if considering their entire careers, some would rank high on my all-time list. But their output during the 1940s may put them below others whose sole decade of success was the 1940s.

Anyway, too much chatting for me. Hope you have as much fun with this as I am. So, next week, let the countdown begin!

Monday, November 23, 2009

'Song' to Forget

"A Song to Remember" is a routine biopic about the life of pianist and composer Frederic Chopin. Released in 1945, this big, colorful film features a few good moments here and there but otherwise offers nothing new about Chopin or excites in its storytelling.

In fact, I wondered whether I should even write about it. Sometimes the hardest films to review are ones that are mediocre -- not good, not bad. I even misplaced my notes about this film, which I saw a few months ago. But I decided to forge ahead, as not every old film is a classic.

The film traces the life of Chopin (Cornel Wilde), his teacher Joseph Elsner (Paul Muni) and his love George Sand (Merle Oberon). The story itself never goes beyond any standard biography of Chopin that can be found in an encyclopedia or online. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, but the movie isn't made with any flair. Oddly enough, the director, Charles Vidor, made "Gilda" the very next year, and that film I liked much more and blogged about recently.

Because the film is made in color, it sometimes feels like the sets and costumes take precedence. There's one scene early on when Chopin plays background music for a large state dinner party. The camera swoops around the lavishishly dressed guests and opulent table setting one too many times before showing how the guests begin to appreciate the wonderful music being played. The scene lasts too long. And with a standard script, the pacing needs to move more quickly.
Despite the lavishness of certain scenes, there are times when the sets look too much like the back lot rather than Europe.

As for the actors, they present contrasting styles, and this works against the movie. If you look at the poster, it appears that Muni and Oberon are the stars, when in fact it's Wilde who has the central role and romance. His good looks were snapped up by audiences of the time, even if the performance is little more than competent. But he did receive an Oscar nomination, and it was a breakthrough that moved him up from B movies to the A list. Oberon is surprisingly good here as the woman who wields influence over Chopin. Muni seems to be in a different movie altogether, very mannered and blustery. He's a better actor than the other two, but in trying to find a deeper characterization, he seems out of step.

At nearly two hours, "Song" feels long. I kept my finger poised on the Tivo fast forward at several points but resisted temptation to do so. I can't say that I disliked the film, but I hesitate at recommending it unless you know what to expect.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Audrey of the Month

I love this shot from the 1950s. Sigh. And, since Thanksgiving is right around the corner, I'll give thanks to Audrey for what she gave us!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

'Bridge' Worth Traveling

When most people refer to the film "Waterloo Bridge," they are thinking about the 1940 version with Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor.

But there's a lovely 1931 version that few people have seen, directed by James Whale -- yes, that James Whale, the man who directed "Frankenstein" and "Bride of Frankenstein." This is no monster story. It's a very good melodrama. In fact, one thing that distinguishes this version from its more famous remake is that it was made during the pre-Code (aka pre-censorship) era.

The story is straightforward: Myra (Mae Clarke) is an American in London, a chorus girl who can no longer find work and is now a prostitute. Roy (Kent Douglass) is a World War I soldier on leave in London. They meet one night on Waterloo Bridge during a bombing raid. They fall in love, but he doesn't know what she does for a living. His respectable family lives in the English countryside, and he wants her to meet them. She likes Roy but is ashamed of who she is.

In these early days of talking films, the action is fairly confined, with some longs scenes that take place in Myra's apartment. For Whale, a former set designer, this is one of his first films, and despite the limitations, he makes an elegant little gem. This may not be as stylish as "Frankenstein," released the same year, but this mainly two-person drama feels intimate rather than claustrophobic. Without the constraints of the Production Code that would be implemented in 1934, Whale can make Myra both a prostitute and a good person, even if she loathes her position and desperately wishes she were a better person for Roy. Compare this film's frankness to the 1940 version, made after the Code was in place. While the 1940 film is fine, this one is grittier.

Clarke is wonderful. Her best scene comes after she first invites Roy to her apartment and sends him off. She sits in front of her mirror, and her face registers sadness, disgust and resilience as she prepares to go back out into the night and earn her keep. This was a banner year for Clarke, as she had roles in three other major films: "Frankenstein," as Molly Malloy in "The Front Page," and most famously on the receiving end of a grapefruit in the face thanks to James Cagney in his career-defining "The Public Enemy." Unfortunately, her career faltered and she was reduced to bit parts by the end of the decade.

Douglass is a fine match for Clarke. His youthful good looks and naive manner are effective, and the two make a fine couple.

Also of note is the actress in a small role playing Roy's sister. It's Bette Davis in just her third film as a contract player at Universal before she moved to Warners and became a star.

Outside of a melodramatic finale that adds a morality tale mentality to an otherwise lovely dramatic romance, "Waterloo Bridge" is a terrific find during this early-talkie period and one worth seeing.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Who to Blame? Not Rita

I recently fixed a gaping hole in my classic film education. "Gilda," one of Rita Hayworth's best movies, is infamous for her simulated strip-tease to "Put the Blame on Mame" and is considered one of the sexiest musical numbers put on film during the 1940s.

But I had never seen this movie until recently. While it lived up to its notoriety, what struck me was how Hayworth owns this character. In short, this actress had talent beyond her breathtaking looks. And her chemistry with co-star Glenn Ford is so hot it nearly ignited the TV.

Plus, you can't discount the third actor who comprises the plot's love triangle. George Macready provides his own heat as Ballin Mundson, a sinister South American casino owner with a gorgeous new wife, Gilda. He hires Johnny Farrell (Ford) as his new right-hand man and is surprised to find out Johnny and Gilda know each other. In fact, they have a past together, one they are trying to hide from the powerful Ballin.

That's the short of it. There's the shady business dealings of Ballin, which I found detracted from the love triangle. In addition, the fact that Johnny and Gilda landed in the same South American casino is a stretch, so you must be willing to believe or ignore the various coincidences that occur within the plot.

Still, all three actors are tops, and the psychological battles -- particularly between Johnny and Gilda -- are fascinating to watch as they play out.

I'm not happy with the climax, and since I hate to give away endings, I'll be general and blunt. It was a cop-out, particularly with how dark the story is and how tangled the romantic triangle becomes. Still, I like the fact that this film isn't the standard romantic triangle. As film noir was firmly in place as a genre, I like how edgy it feels and how it taps into a dark seriousness that was more common in films during the first years of the post-WWII era.

The joy in "Gilda" is watching the two stars together. Released by Columbia Pictures in 1946, it is arguably the pinnacle of Hayworth's success on film. She came to Hollywood as Margarita Carmen Cansino, who had danced professionally since the age of 12. Upon signing with Columbia, her name was changed -- her first name is simply shortened from her real first name, and her last is a variation on her mother's maiden name. Her hairline also was changed to make it more attractive.

She made her first mark in a supporting role in 1939's "Only Angels Have Wings" opposite Cary Grant and Jean Arthur. Harry Cohn, boss of Columbia Pictures, had taken an immediate liking to Hayworth and, since he despised Arthur, saw her potential as a top star for his company. After proceeding cautiously, her first starring role was opposite Fred Astaire, who hadn't done well in the two years since he last danced with Ginger Rogers. Their 1941 film together, "You'll Never Get Rich," was a hit, and the two made a terrific pair -- in fact, I think she's one of Fred's best partners.

Hayworth's success continued to build, and during World War II, she became one of the major pin-up girls of the men overseas. "Gilda" solidified her status as a sex goddess when it was released. But I think it's unfair to slap that label on her when she could do so much more. She's not just an object of desire in this movie, nor is she simply a calculating golddigger. When Johnny begins to treat her cruelly in the latter half, Hayworth nails the combination of fury and resignation she feels at this point. It's a terrific performance.

As for the always dependable Ford, he was newly returned from World War II, in which he served in the Marines. His success in "Gilda" was followed by more than two decades of dependable work.

Their potent combination gives "Gilda" a memorable jolt. Even if I disagree with the ending, it's still a movie to recommend, because the star power is mesmerizing to watch.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

This and That ...

Hello my movie friends. Been a busy two weeks, and I feel guilty for not posting. However, that will change soon. Have plenty of movies to discuss, plus I'm working up a big December feature that I think will be exciting.

As for my latest poll, just two of you voted? Do you not want me to feel loved? My two voters split between "Vivacious Lady" and "Stage Door" as the best film Ginger Rogers made during her break from the Astaire/Rogers films.

I obviously need better polls. I'll work on that.

Stay tuned for more ...