Thursday, July 30, 2009

'Alibi': A Public Enemy Speaks

The recent release of "Public Enemies" starring Johnny Depp brings back memories of an earlier era when gangster movies were the rage.

Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney created memorable characters in "Little Caesar" (1930) and "The Public Enemy" (1931), respectively, and the genre remained healthy throughout the rest of the decade and helped define Warner Brothers during this time. However, while most people today regard the release of "Caesar" as the beginning of this trend, it was a movie the year before that captured the attention of moviegoers and critics.

"Alibi" is largely forgotten today due to its stale, uneven story. But in 1929, at a time when studios were rushing to make sound movies in the wake of "The Jazz Singer," and learning how to do so at the same time, "Alibi" contains some effective scenes that must have dazzled audiences 80 years ago.

The plot is simple: Chick Williams (played by Chester Morris, above), recently released from jail, has the perfect alibi for a warehouse robbery during which a police officer was murdered when shot in the back. Williams' wife, Daisy (Mae Busch), happens to be the daughter of a police officer who is convinced of Williams' involvement in the robbery.

For such a straightforward story, it makes some ridiculous plot choices, and the worst involve Daisy. She's not portrayed as rebellious, so you wonder how she ended up with Chick and his gang in the first place. Then, as someone who grew up in an atmosphere of law and order, she lacks sharp wits and instincts. Instead, she's portrayed as the "good woman led astray," a fairly typical characterization found during the silent era. And not once but twice does she unwittingly provide information that first helps her husband's gang and then helps the law. It's cruel that the story forces her to do this, because she ends up as a well-meaning zero lacking personality rather than the damsel in distress who gains audience sympathy. Sadly, Busch does nothing to make her interesting.

But it's important to understand when this film was made, an era in which the results were often uneven and could combine elements of both silent and sound movies. Writers were frantically trying to learn how to write for the screen, and dialogue sometimes came off sounding like a silent movie title card, which was never meant to reflect a conversational style. Studio talent scouts were scouring the country for stage actors who knew how to speak lines, while movie makers were grasping the use of the sound technology, which often meant cameramen couldn't move their equipment with the freedom they once had due to restrictive microphone placement.

What does work in "Alibi" manages to combine sound and visuals that make the most of the situation. For example, the opening sequence starts off in a jail with the clanging of the jail bell. This is followed by the footsteps of the prisoners marching to their cells, with an officer keeping time by beating his nightstick against the wall. There's no dialogue yet, but it's a super use of sound effects that we take for granted today.

The next sequence is visual, as the camera winds its way through the highly stylized lobby of a nightclub (above) on its way to the floor show. Then comes the singing and dancing -- remember, the musical was a genre born in this new sound era, so seeing and hearing musical numbers were a treat. Unfortunately, "Alibi" has four numbers in it, two too many, and none imaginatively shot.

The robbery sequence uses sound to its fullest effect -- car engines, whistles and nightsticks. The gunshots fired that kill the officer provides a punctuation point to a powerful segment. Later, an interrogation sequence uses light and shadows to add intensity and create a sense of foreboding, proving that a static setting could be filmed imaginatively.

Still, these are intertwined with static scenes with poorly-written dialogue. For example, Daisy and a detective who loves her share ridiculously cliched thoughts, and at one point the sound level drops as they move out of range from the microphone!

At least the man playing Chick provides some excitement. Although Morris could be hammy at times, it's clear why he became a star. He'd appeared in the occasional film during the 1920s, but Morris forged a name for himself on Broadway. His deep, strong voice and good looks made him a natural in the sound era, and this film put him on the map. His appearances the next year in "The Big House" and "The Divorcee" solidified his popularity. By the end of the decade it appeared his career was over. Then he made a comeback playing Boston Blackie in a series of successful movies during the 1940s.

Although "Alibi" isn't the first gangster movie made in Hollywood, its influence as a sound film certainly led to the popularity of the genre. It was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Actor. Granted, this was only the second year of the awards, but the recognition reflects how highly people regarded this movie.

Still, be forewarned that watching the film will lead to conflicting moments -- intrigue, disbelief and a temptation to hit the fast forward button. (At least the climax provides a nifty plot twist.) In the end, "Alibi" is watchable but not compelling, of merit for film buffs who want to explore this era when technology changed the way movies were made.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Mourning Glory

Just mention the word "opera" and you'll know immediately how someone feels about it. A wrinkle of the nose and a rolling of the eyes means "let the fat lady sing without me," or a brightening of the eyes means "did I just find an opera soul mate? Let's talk cabalettas and bel cantos."

During the 1930s, opera on film was in vogue. The coming of the sound era in the late 1920s gave birth to the movie musical, and opera was one subgenre that both the studios and audiences embraced. It was during this time that Maurice Chevalier was brought to Hollywood and became a star at Paramount in a series of operettas and light musicals.

Then the great MGM producer Irving Thalberg signed Chevalier to the studio and decided to remake "The Merry Widow," which is based upon Franz Lehar's operetta. Oddly enough, the material was made as a silent film, which was weird enough, and then add in the freak factor of the notorious Erich von Stroheim, bad-boy director, who gave the prince a foot fetish and wanted to depict the depravity of European society. It was an early MGM film released in 1925, and it did well at the box office despite von Stroheim's clashes with everyone involved. (It would be his last film directed at MGM.)

The 1934 version is anything but depraved. Directed by the marvelous Ernst Lubitsch, the film stars Jeanette MacDonald as the title character and Chevalier as Count Danilo, who live in the small kingdom of Marshovia. The widow, the richest woman in the land and whose taxes keep the kingdom afloat, decides that she's mourned enough and leaves on an extended vacation to Paris, only to be wooed by men from around the globe. The king of Marshovia sends the dashing Danilo to Paris to marry her and, more importantly, keep her money firmly in the kingdom.

If you saw my post on "The Barretts of Wimpole Street," you read a little about Thalberg and his career. If "Barretts" was his first triumph after returning from illness, "Widow" was his second. But remember that MGM was the number one studio in Hollywood during this time, and both its films and stars had a rich, sumptuous look that surpassed all others. When you watch "Widow," you can see where the money was spent -- every frame is lavish and gorgeous (thank you to Cedric Gibbons, the MGM art department and Adrian's gowns). If it comes off this way today, you can only imagine how audiences during the Depression reacted to it.

Thankfully, the film excels in all other areas. In directing, Lubitsch brings his famed "touch." I've read varying descriptions of "the Lubitsch touch," and frankly I find it hard to pinpoint, much less describe. You get a feel for it after watching several of his films. He is able to keep a film from becoming mired in subplot or drama. He knows how to keep the wit and comedy light and airy without losing any potency in the story. The sex is there but not overt, and MacDonald said Lubitsch could suggest more with a closed door than showing exactly what's happening.

One of my favorite scenes is a combination of Lubitsch's ability to tell the story and the amazing art direction. At the beginning, when the widow returns to her bedroom for the evening, the black of her mourning attire contrast with the white of the room, and Lubitsch amusingly shows closets neatly arranged with all black accessories, including her dog. A series of entries in a lavishly designed journal follow. And then, when she decides enough is enough, the black is replaced -- even the dog changes colors. These wonderful wordless montages perfectly capture the Widow's changing moods in an amusing way that uses imagery to full advantage.

Chevalier was thrilled to be working at MGM, but he was less than thrilled to be working with MacDonald. The had made several films together at Paramount, including "Love Parade," "One Hour with You" and the wonderful "Love Me Tonight." He wanted opera star Grace Moore for "Widow," but Thalberg and Lubitsch refused. Moore had a weight problem, and her previous MGM contract had a weight clause that she violated. Thalberg and Lubitsch agreed on the strong-willed MacDonald, even though there was no love loss between the two stars. Still, their chemistry works.

Chevalier was a decent actor but an even better film personality. He brought a rogue-ish charm to his films, with a constant twinkle in his eyes toward the women. Danilo is a perfect fit for that persona, as all the women swoon whenever Danilo appears.

Ironically enough, after being passed over for this film, Moore landed the starring role in Columbia's opera hit "One Night of Love," and Thalberg proposed starring Chevalier and Moore together -- but with Moore receiving top billing. Chevalier balked, asked to be released from his MGM contract, and he returned to Europe until after World War II.
MacDonald went on to become a popular star for MGM. Film fans today most likely associate her with Nelson Eddy, with whom she first made "Naughty Marietta," released in 1935. This was followed by a series of films, including "Rose Marie," "Maytime" and "Rosalie." They were "America's Sweethearts" or "the Singing Sweethearts," the number one film duo of the late 1930s (eclipsing the popularity of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, who still were a top draw). Unfortunately, their films weren't as rich as "The Merry Widow" or as energetic as the Astaire and Rogers musicals, and today's audiences equate MacDonald and Eddy with "Indian Love Call," a song mocked and parodied all these years later. It didn't help that Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM, wanted to keep MacDonald's image squeaky-clean, so the films have a forced innocence that doesn't hold up well today.

And when the MacDonald-Eddy partnership ended in the early 1940s, the opera film vogue died, too. That's not to say opera and operettas never made it onto film again. But opera has never enjoyed a period on film again as robust as the 1930s. It's a real shame that "One Night of Love," the Moore film for Columbia, was hailed as such a great film when it's not nearly as good as "The Merry Widow." Even the Academy nominated "One Night of Love" for best picture and Moore for best actress when "Widow" and "MacDonald" are better.

But that's just me. Besides, "Widow" also represents the best of what MGM could offer during this era, and perhaps there was a feeling that the other studios deserved recognition for a job well done. And, if you watch "The Barretts of Wimpole Street" and "The Merry Widow" back-to-back, you can see the genius of Thalberg: two different types of movies, each with a seamless storytelling style that was one of his trademarks.

One final note: I'm not an opera lover, but "Widow" charmed me from beginning to end. So grab some popcorm and let the arias begin.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Going 10

The big news in June (right before I started my blog ... curses for not being timely!) was the announcement by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that this year's Oscar race would have 10 Best Picture nominees instead of the traditional five.

Academy President Sid Ganis said the reason came from a way for the Academy to expand the race to allow a comedy or documentary into the top five.

It was also mentioned that this is a throwback to Oscar's history to the 1930s and '40s when this was the norm.

However, I find the reasoning a little sketchy. It's no coincidence that last year's race saw the animated "WallE" and the Batman adventure "The Dark Knight" miss the cut for Best Picture. Their exclusion drew cries of "foul!" from their respective passionate fans. But the underlying notion here is that these were box office hits that appealed to a younger crowd, and in my opinion the Academy wants to court this demographic and boost television ratings -- which leads to ad revenue.

Which brings up several questions:

1) What is the goal of the Oscars? In a perfect world, they honor excellence on film. But since the 1920s, the award has been coveted and chased after, regardless of whether the term "best" applies or not. Still, the point is to give it the old college try and hope that the passage of time will prove that they got it right or at least were in the ballpark. I've always felt that the Oscar is at least a starting point for people who know little about films.

2) What is the purpose of categories like Best Foreign Film, Best Animated Film and Best Documentary? If the reason for expanding to 10 nominees is to include movies from these categories, then why not have one "Best Picture" category for all feature-length films and get rid of these specific film-type categories? The categories were created because these films rarely made it into the big race. So decide what's best, but stop trying to have it both ways.

3) Should TV ratings really count? Frankly, no. In 50 years, no one will know or care about the overnight numbers.

4) Should popularity count? Yes and no. It certainly doesn't hurt for a great movie to be a success at the box office. But success doesn't mean a film is great. I always point to "The Greatest Show on Earth," the most popular film of 1952 and the Oscar winner as Best Picture. (Have you seen it lately? I have -- trust me on this.) Even then people were scratching their heads over its win, and today it's downright ludicrous that it bested "High Noon" or "The Quiet Man" or that "Singing in the Rain" wasn't even nominated. Yet if the race were today, and "Greatest Show" and "Ivanhoe" were left out, there'd be an outcry about why popular films are always snubbed.

My thought: If you focus on quality, then deal with the criticism, and in the end you'll have people's respect, which should be more important that wanting them to really really like you.

Now, let's look at history, as this was a lesser reason for the Academy to "go 10. " First, as an aside: In its early years, the Oscar "year" was similar to a fiscal calendar, starting mid-year and lasting 12 months, which would go into the next year, hence the hyphenated Oscar year designation through 1932-33, when the "year" lasted 18 months to get the race on a calendar year.

For whatever reason, back in 1931-32, eight movies were allowed into the Best Picture category, rather than the five nominees that had comprised the category during the Academy's first four years of existence. The next year, the category expanded to ten nominees, which continued through 1943.

Except for two years, 1934 and 1935, when twelve nominees filled the Best Picture category. Who knows the reasoning -- my guess is due to ties in voting for nominees, which occurred in the 1935 acting races. Anyway, let's look at 1934: twelve nominees, and still films like "The Merry Widow," "Sons of the Desert" and "Twentieth Century" were glaring omissions from the list, in favor of "The White Parade," a film about nursing that I've never seen and wonder if it even exists anymore, and lesser filmes like "Here Comes the Navy" and "Flirtation Walk."

Then, in 1944, the year the number was reduced back to five, omissions included "Laura" and "Meet Me in St. Louis"!

In the ends, hundreds of films are released every year, and only a handful are nominated. Something will be left out, plain and simple. It's the nature of any awards race.

Will going 10 achieve the Academy's goal, or will it become a free-for-all? Will the show attract a big TV audience, or will it remain a giant catwalk with some awards thrown in for good measure? Will going 10 last for more than one year?

What do you think? Answer the poll or leave a comment.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Audrey of the Month

Well, you might as well know this about me right off the bat: I love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love Audrey Hepburn.

Anyone still unsure about my feelings for Audrey?

So, since this is my blog, I pledge to post one photo every month of Audrey. Until the end of time or until blogging becomes boring. This month: In honor of the first posting, a photo from the first Audrey Hepburn film I ever watched -- "Breakfast at Tiffany's." (Everyone must now hum "Moon River.")

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Mary, Mary: Two Versions So Contrary

First things first: I am a Disney fan. Always have been, always will be. You can write angry letters pointing out all of Disney's flaws, but I don't care. And super fans, regardless of whether it's for movies, sports teams or celebrities, usually fall into two categories: indiscriminently loving everything or casting an overly critical eye.

I fall into the latter category. I expect a high level of excellence from Disney, and I wanted to see "Mary Poppins" on stage because it seems like such a no-brainer for the company: taking its most successful live-action film ever -- a musical, no less -- and adapting it for Broadway.

So, a few weeks ago, I bought three marked-down tickets through HotTix, and a trio of us trotted off to the gorgeous Cadillac Palace Theater in downtown Chicago (any excuse to visit this restored movie palace is worth it). While glad I saw it, let's just say "Mary Poppins" fell short of Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (c'mon, you knew that was coming!).

At the end, one of our group remarked that he had never seen the film version, so I arranged a screening for comparison.

Released in 1964, "Mary Poppins" is based upon P.L. Travers' popular children's book about a magical nanny who takes the unruly Banks children on a series of adventures and wins their affections. It remains a delightful film from start to finish, and after the screening it was remarked that the movie was so much more cohesive and enjoyable than the stage show.

"Mary Poppins" remains Disney's biggest live-action film hit to date -- according to the web site Box Office Mojo, which lists all-time box office winners adjusted for inflaction, "Mary Poppins" logs in at #23 (as of July 11) with a whopping $561 million in today's dollars. Why it took the Disney company so long to create a stage musical is a mystery (and why there's no Mary Poppins attracting at one of the theme parks is also odd). But after seeing the stage production, I wish they had spent more time on the story.

It's not like I saw a second-rate show. In fact, the stars in Chicago -- Ashely Brown (right) as Mary and Gavin Lee as Bert -- originated their roles on Broadway. But the show isn't magical, not in the way Disney can make it. Only two moments took full advantage of Disney's imagination and the nature of live theater. One was the "Step in Time" number involving a high-flying dance sequence featuring Bert, which appropriately wowed the crowd, and the second was the final moments of Mary saying goodbye to the audience.

I had several people tell me that the stage version was more like the book, which they felt explained why I didn't care for it. Since I still have the first book from my childhood, I pulled it down from the shelf and thumbed through it. In short, this is what I discoverd: The Banks had four children instead of two, which made a more plausible case for the family having a nanny in the first place; the parents only appear in chapter one; and Bert only appears in a single chapter as well. Some episodes from the book are in both the movie and stage musical; some are in one or the other; and some don't appear in either. It's really a draw, so this argument doesn't hold up.

After days of thinking about it, I decided it's the story that really falters on stage. But let's compare the two.

The movie's central conflict involves the father and children: Mr. Banks lives his life with precision. Everything in its place, including his children, who are less flesh-and-blood and more cogs in the giant wheel of his day-to-day existence. This explains why young Jane and Michael are a handful, to say the least, and more than one nanny have left the Banks' employ because of them.

It's Mary Poppins who arrives as their next nanny. She takes charge of them and turns them from little monsters into adorable youngsters who win everyone over -- except for their father. And the rest of the film is spent repairing that relationship, plain and simple, with some musical numbers and magical scenes thrown in for good measure.

The stage version seems intent on throwing in more conflict than necessary, including Mr. Banks losing his job; his former nanny, a tyrant names Miss Andrew, returning to rile up household; and Mrs. Banks struggling to find her position in life. All of these are unecessary. For example, do we really need Mary Poppins going mano a mano with Miss Andrew? You know the outcome long before it occurs.

Mrs. Banks' role is a real puzzle. In the movie, she's a crusader for women's rights, which is a source of amusement, because whenever Mr. Banks barks orders at her, she becomes docile and obedient. Anyway, she is so busy with her causes that she needs a nanny. Apparently the folks at Disney decided that today's audience members big and small wouldn't know what a "suffragist" was (the term used in the movie), so they change Mrs. Banks into ... a former actress. Ouch. That seems like a step backward.

So now she sits around all day, married to a rich banker, in need of a nanny for her children, and we're asked to feel sorry for her lot in life. It doesn't quite work. The Mrs. Banks of the film (the wonderful Glynis Johns) would slap some sense in to the stage Mrs. Banks (now there's a smackdown worth seeing). Plus, a century ago, being an actress was one step up from being a prostitute. It's not like today, where D-list starlets are dated by every high-flying sports star/celebrity, and a banker would probably strut like a peacock if he married one. Yes, when Mrs. Banks throws a luncheon and no one comes, the show presents this as some sort of jealousy toward her, when it would be something else. It just doesn't work. (Thinking of prostitutes, how long will it take for Disney to stage a musical version of 1990's popular "Pretty Woman," which it released through its Touchstone banner? Hmmmm.) Mrs. Banks' struggle is unecessary, and what little time is spent on it makes it that much of an afterthought. Such a subplot, if pursued, should be done in a way that really deals with the topic.

Also, there are head-scratching moments all over the stage story. The maid, who makes it clear she detests doing more housework than necessary, has read all of the RSVPs for the above-mentioned party and knows no one will show. Yet there's a whole bit about her getting ready for it, when she most likely would have shown the RSVPs to Mrs. Banks right away so she could get out of all the prep work. It's a minor point, but these minor story hiccups occur throughout the show and add up to a major detriment.

At times, Mary Poppins goes about her work like she's Samantha Stevens on "Bewitched," snapping her fingers to turn lights on or move things about, or popping into the household and shocking everyone at her sudden appearance. The book and movie version clearly create a dividing line in terms of who sees Mary's magic at work -- the children do, and Bert does, but it's not that evident to anyone else.

As for the movie, it's still terrific. It's shocking to think this was the first film for Julie Andrews. She already earned Broadway fame in "My Fair Lady" and "Camelot," and a popular TV special called "Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall" with Carol Burnett aired in 1962.

Time magazine famously said of her in "Mary Poppins": "If she did nothing but stand there smiling for a few hours, she would cast her radiance. It would be enough." In fact, if you think about Mary Poppins as a film's title character, she doesn't have a character arc -- no romance, no struggle to overcome an obstacle, no life lesson learned. She pretty much stands there, smiling, singing and teaching life lessons. So for Andrews to make this character as memorable as she does, it's certainly an accomplishment.

To today's audiences, Andrews is the big name in the cast. But in 1964, that honor belonged to Dick Van Dyke. He was three years into the five-year run of his self-named TV sitcom and an Emmy winner for his work when "Poppins" was released. And his performance as Bert comes off as Rob Petrie, the character from his TV show, playing an English man-of-all-trades with a broad Cockney accent. Today his performance veers toward being over the top, while in 1964 it fit into who he was at the time and what audiences excpected of him.

Never underestimate the power of child stars, and in the film Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber are charming.

The other aspect of "Mary Poppins" that could not be transferred to stage is when Mary, Bert and the children jump into the sidewalk drawing and are transported into an animated world. Today it's one of the film's highlights, a sequence filled with charm and fun. Audiences may not realize that this brought Disney's career full circle, as his first successes as an animator were his Alice comedies in the 1920s, in which a live-action girl named Alice found herself in an animated world encountering a variety of adventures. (This wasn't just a Disney thing, either. MGM famously paired Gene Kelly and Jerry the cartoon mouse for a dance number in 1945's "Anchors Aweigh.")

But even with this roadblock, the stage show could have employed that ol' Disney magic in other ways. Perhaps the creative folks didn't want to mess too much with the familiar "Mary Poppins" from the movie, still a strong influence after 45 years. And, when a musical like this costs millions to stage, Disney couldn't afford not to have a hit.

People applauded wildly when the show ended. More, I think, out of a love of the film and the familiarity of the piece than as judgment of the stage show on its own terms.

My suggestion: Watch the film version again (or for the first time, if you haven't alerady done so) and save your money for the next Disney stage musical (could it be "Pretty Woman: A Spoonful of Sugar"? Let's hope not.)

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

TCM Tribute to Karl Malden Friday, July 10

Turner Classic Movies will present a three-film tribute to Karl Malden, who died on July 1, 2009.

In all the hubbub over Michael Jackson, who's death has pushed all other headlines off front pages everywhere, it's nice to see TCM giving Malden his due and waiting until the Jackson festival passed to do so.

Many people may remember Malden best from his role on the 1970s TV series "The Streets of San Francisco" with co-star Michael Douglas. However, he had a fine big-screen career as a character actor, playing characters who looked like us and acted like us. He played common men with uncommon skill.

I found this on the web site, which describes the time when he was nominated for an Oscar for "A Streetcar Named Desire":

"The story is told that he was making another movie and had not planned to be at the ceremony in 1952 which was not televised in those days. But he was informed only a short time before that he had to be there; and was told to go to wardrobe and get him a tuxedo. Since his family could not be there, he went alone.

"He was so embarrassed by the old car he was driving in comparison to the many fine limousines, he parked several blocks away and walked to the theater. He sat down next to Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. ... When Malden’s name was called, he rose put his coat in his seat and asked Lauren Bacall to watch his coat. This seems to be the pattern of his life – humbleness."

Most people don't realize that he played the role of Mitch in the original Broadway cast of "Streetcar." You can catch the movie version and two other films on TCM Friday night (all times Central):

7 p.m. On the Waterfront (Oscar nomination)
9 p.m. A Streetcar Named Desire (Oscar)
11:15 Birdman of Alcatraz

If you have a chance, catch some of his other fine performances in films like "Baby Doll," "Gypsy" and "Patton."

More about TCM's tribute

Sunday, July 5, 2009

'The Heiress': Catherine, Plain and Tall

Ahhh ... "The Heiress." Olivia de Havilland in the role that is arguably her best. A drama of depth and intelligence. And yet not widely popular upon its release.

I recently presented this film at the Aurora Public Library and was pleased that not only did people really like this movie but also were passionate in the post-film discussion. Much centered on the ending -- which I won't give away because I hate doing that.

Released in 1949, "The Heiress" is set in New York's Washington Square in the 1850s. Well-to-do Dr. Sloper and his daughter, Catherine, live in a fine brownstone. A widower, Sloper keeps an eye out for his daughter, who he admits is shy and plain. Still, he wishes that she would interact more with people, develop friendships and perhaps even find a man to marry.

But the irony is that the good doctor is also mindful that such a prospect may also be interested in Catherine only for her money.

This is exactly what happens when handsome young Morris Townsend begins a whirlwind courtship with Catherine. Like a schoolgirl, she laps up this offering of love like a thirsty man crossing the desert and finding a small pond. Yes, he may be handsome, and yes, her aunts argue, he may be after her money, but why not allow her to experience the feeling of being desired? Morris openly declares that he has no prospects, which is all Dr. Sloper needs to know to openly disapprove of the young man.

The psychological clash between father and daughter is what fascinates in this piece, as Catherine, so devoted to her father, now begins to doubt whether he ever had her best interests in mind. The father, both wanting the best for his daughter but feeling the need to protect and be honest with her, risks losing her love.

It's a brilliant film, coming at the end of the 1940s, at a time when post-World War II films were willing to be serious, whether it was through film noir, social issue stories or a strong drama.

The material is based upon Henry James' "Washington Square." It was brought to the London stage first, then to Broadway, where de Havilland apparently saw it and convinced director William Wyler to do the same. The film rights were bought and the film was released by Paramount.

Catherine is played superbly by de Havilland, who was willing to deglam for the role -- although, in director William Wyler's opinion, she didn't do so enough. His efforts to make her even more plain were rebuffed by de Havilland, who felt her fans needed at least some of her personal beauty to be evident, even if most of it was stripped away. Still, she is convincing as an innocent, lovelorn woman dazzled by the charming, handsome man courting her, but perhaps she's best when she begins to "grow up" and realize what her father has done to her -- and been doing to her since she was a girl.

Ralph Richardson (pictured above, right) brilliantly plays the father, a role he originated on the London stage. He had resisted coming to Hollywood but could not pass up this material. Wyler, known for multiple takes, was delighted with Richardson's ability to slightly alter his performance for each take.

Montgomery Clift, new to films just the year before, has the requisite charm for Morris. It's clear why Catherine so willingly falls for him. Miriam Hopkins, not a favorite actress of mine, perfectly plays Catherine's Aunt Lavinia, a willing participant in the pairing of Morris and Catherine. What I really like about Hopkins here is that while Lavinia may come off as addle-brained, she is not stupid, and Hopkins gives her depth. It's clear that she, more than her brother, realizes what is at stake for her niece.

I loved the discussion that took place at the library, particularly the father/daughter battle of wills. It became clear that several interpretations can be made of this dynamic -- was the father aware of what he was doing to her? What was the father's motivation -- love or selfishness? What does the future hold for Catherine? One woman and I differed greatly on this, because I felt she was looking at this last question through the eyes of a modern-day woman and not seeing it through the historical context of the 1850s. (I would share more but it involves the film's ending.) Still, her points were well-made and valid, and that's what makes the film a classic -- discussions can still take place today over what occurred in the story.

BTW, the great William Wyler was contining to turn out one classic film after another. Look at his resume from the 1940s, which includes "The Letter," "The Little Foxes," "Mrs. Miniver" and "The Best Years of Our Lives." Wyler was terrific at composing shots, trying to keep the take going rather than moving from one closeup to another. You see this in "The Heiress," where characters are positioned close to the camera while others move in and out of the frame in the background. It's hard to explain without showing a scene, but it's effective and a technique he continued to master.

The film was nominated for eight Oscars, including best picture, best director, actress and supporting actor for Richardson. Winners include de Havilland, who was a free agent in the late 1940s. Without a lengthy explanation, her lawsuit in the mid-1940s against Warner Brothers successfully gained her release and was a landmark in Hollywood (another discussion later). Starting with the release of "To Each His Own" and "The Dark Mirror," both in 1946, she sought the best roles and is arguably the best actress of the late 1940s, with "The Snake Pit" also on her resume.

The great composer Aaron Copland lent his musical talents to the rich score. Composer of such classics as "Billy the Kid" and "Rodeo," music almost everyone would recognize even if they're not familiar with the names of the pieces, Copland wrote few film scores, but you can hear familiar elements in "The Heiress." His work received an Oscar.

My friend Dan Pal runs his own web site and a series of terrific podcasts. We did one together counting down the top 10 films of the 1940s. "The Heiress" was just out of the range, but having seen this brilliant film on a big screen recently, I'd possibly need to amend that list to fit this in. Then again, I love so many films from the 1940s that the list is always changing.

One final note: Perhaps the film wasn't more popular because of its seriousness. Some claim Paramount was more interested in pushing "Samson and Delilah," which ended up being the year's top box office draw. Go figure. Regardless, make a point to see "The Heiress" -- put it on your Netfix queue NOW (and I mean NOW!).

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Happy Birthday, Olivia!

Happy Birthday, Olivia! OK, I'm a few days late -- she celebrated birthday #93 on July 1, but even late it's worth the shout out to one of the greats of her era, and one of the last remaining cast members from "Gone With the Wind." (Is there anyone else alive outside of the girl who played Rhett and Scarlett's daughter? Let me know.) On this holiday weekend, honor the living legend by watching one of her great performances -- "To Each His Own" (Oscar #1), "The Snake Pit" (Oscar nomination), "The Heiress" (Oscar #2 -- both with Olivia above, reverently on the mantle -- do you think she's gloating that she has one more than her sister, Joan Fontaine? Or by using the mirror to make four she can pretend to have more than Bette Davis? I digress). I just led a discussion on "The Heiress" recently, and watching it for the first time on the big screen was a treat. I'll share more thoughts on that movie tomorrow, as Scarlett might say -- provided my Breakfast at Wimbledon with Roger Federer and Andy Roddick doesn't wear me out. Last year's final between Rog and Rafa Nadal did. Anyway, happy birthday Olivia!

Friday, July 3, 2009

The Barretts of Wimpole Street: Poetry in Motionless Emotion

Lately I've been trying to figure out why I've always crushed on Norma Shearer. Yes, she was lovely; yes, she was married to Irving Thalberg, in my opinion the greatest producer from the studio era; yes, she had a pleasing on-screen persona. But her acting ... a style that was born in the silent era and was modified in the sound era in a way that made many performances of that time an odd combination of woodeness and casualness. I'll write more about Norma soon, but recently I watched "The Barretts of Wimple Street," one of her films that surprised me in several ways: it's a literary movie that actually kept me a bit on the edge of my seat, thanks to a sadistic Charles Laughton. Plus you add in the fact that the film takes place mostly in one room in which action is kept at a minimum and it's a wonder at how nicely everything flows together.

But first things first: Released in 1934 by MGM, the movie is taken from the stage version of real-life poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning before she met and married poet Robert Browning. Convalescing from a long illness, Elizabeth meets Robert, an admirer, whose frequent visits help lift her spirits and aid her recovery. However, Elizabeth's father keeps a stern watch on his daughter and rules his family with an iron fist. His clashes with the family lead up to the central conflicts: Robert vs. Mr. Barrett, Elizabeth vs. father, Robert and Elizabeth vs. freedom from father.

Fredric March and Norma Shearer (pictured) deal with the literate, flowery language with ease and skill. March has always been one of my favorite actors -- often overlooked from his era in favor of Gable or Tracy or Bogart, yet March was as natural an actor as you can find, particularly in the 1930s when acting styles often veered into ACTING. Watch a film with March and you know at least one thing about it will be worth seeing.

As for lovely Norma, it's clear with this role she's growing as an actress. Hubby Thalberg had been away from MGM for nine months, dealing with the death of friend Paul Bern, dealing the the tyrrany of Louis B. Mayer and trying to increase his own net worth based upon his invaluable contribution to MGM's success. Upon return from a long trip to Europe, Thalberg discovered the presence of producer David O. Selznick (another great producer of the studio era) at the studio as well as the way of making films changing as well. Eager to re-establish his stature and to continue finding the right roles for his wife, he charged in with a film called "Riptide," which I have not seen but hear is not the best. However, "Barretts" clearly showed that his powers for shepharding projects that could be both prestigious and popular hits had not diminished.

And, in these early days of the enforced production code, he still managed to convey an incestuous overtone to the father/daughter relationship. In fact, Charles Laughton, who plays the father (he relishes every evil line reading -- you can hear him ripping into such a simple line as "I am most displeased" in a way that can make your hairs stand on end), said that while the production code might be in effect, they couldn't take the gleam out of his eye whenever he saw his daughter. Laughton's performance ranks high on the list of evil daddies.

Plus, you gotta love films that include the pet in the credits, but that's the world of 1930s films (thank you, Asta).

But I digress. For Norma, she's growing as an actress. Despite her own nervousness at playing a role that was performed on stage with great effectiveness by Katharine Cornell, she seems at ease with the dialogue and more relaxed throughout than she had been in the past. For me, I'm really seeing her as an actress rather than a star with an alluring screen persona. (The fact that I was engaged from beginning to end is a testament to her as well as her costars, the screenwriter and Thalberg's impeccable instincts.)

And lovely Norma, backed by proud hubby and the power of MGM, found herself in another hit and with another Oscar nomination for best actress. And what a best actress race that was ... but I'll save that one for another time. Plus, with March as her costar, she had to be good. I think of the half-baked "The Dark Angel" with Merle Oberon, released the next year, in which March acts rings around Oberon, who landed an Oscar nomation for her work, for crying out loud. Shearer is so much better in "Barretts," with that odd acting style of just a few years before, on display in "The Divorcee," nearly gone. I bet Shearer could have played this role on stage and been quite effective. Her scenes with March are natural and unforced.

Still ... what is her allure? And why are so few people aware of her today? I'll explore that in another posting.

Fasten your seatbelts ... it's going to be a bumpy blog ...

Welcome to my blog! Good grief ... I never thought I'd jump into the blogesphere, but here I am. And I want to share my love of classic films with anyone who wants to learn more about them. There's something about old Hollywood -- from the silent era through the end of the studio system in the 1960s -- that fascinates me. And it drives me nuts when people cannot recognize the great films that were made before the latest releases that fill their Netflix queues.

Yet the more information that's out there, the more difficult it becomes to navigate through it and truly learn about old Hollywood. In my film classes, what I try to do is very simple: I provide a context, which results in a basic blueprint of classic film. Beyond that, I urge my students to go and discover what's there.

I ramble :) Is that an endearing quality or a maddening one? You decide and let me know!

So, without further delay, here's my ode to classic films everywhere. As an extra bonus, you may hear about my other loves -- books, tennis, the Olympics, food, and some modern film musings, particularly as we head into Oscar season.

I'll probably post once or twice a week while I get the hang of this. So I hope you enjoy what I have to say. And let me know if you have comments or questions. Would love to hear from you!