Sunday, March 25, 2012

Powell & Pressburger: "One of Our Aircraft Is Missing"

“One of Our Aircraft Is Missing” is a terrific World War II film about a missing RAF crew after a bombing raid.

The film comes from the great Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell – Pressburger wrote the story, the two co-wrote the screenplay and Powell directed. It’s a film that works as a drama, an adventure and as propaganda for anyone who was fighting.

The movie begins with the report of five Dutchmen who were executed by the Germans for helping in the escape of a British air crew. While this is an unrelated detail to the forthcoming drama, it does set up the danger that the occupied Dutch underground movement faced.

Next comes a report that crew “B” for “Bertie” has not returned after a bombing raid. Then we see an empty aircraft before it spectacularly crashes. So what happened to the crew?

The story flashes back to the camaraderie of the airmen before their next mission, which will take them on a raid of Stuttgart, Germany. The six men of “Bertie” board their plane and head across the English Channel. Although the raid goes well, the plane is hit, and it is soon apparent that it won’t make the return trip back to England. So the men parachute out, one by one, landing in the Dutch countryside as the empty plane eventually meets its fate.

Five of the men reconvene on the ground, with one missing, and they begin to plot their uncertain journey. However, several children discover them, taking them to their parents and beginning a series of events that move the men through the occupied country toward the channel.

The Powell/Pressburger films have a distinctive feel to them that is unlike films being produced in Hollywood at this time. There’s a melding of drama, intelligent dialogue and British wit that keeps each film from being typecast within one genre. It would be easy to categorize “Aircraft” as an exciting adventure, yet it also works as a war drama with elements of comedy sprinkled throughout. In fact, one of the most effective sequences comes in the plane as the crew heads toward Germany. Powell provides only the sights and sounds that the crew would experience, from the beauty of the clouds and sea to the flashes of the antiaircraft fire that’s both lovely and terrifying. Even the dialogue is a bit muffled as the men are in full gear, adding to the realism. Instead of being intense, it’s experiential, which is just as fascinating.

It’s this type of realism that sets the film apart from its Hollywood counterparts. This is not a criticism of Hollywood, which produced a number of quality war-time films like “Sahara” and “Bataan.” It’s the unique style of Powell/Pressburger. Even the opening is distinctive – rather than rolling the credits, “Aircraft” sets up the story first before “introducing” the cast and crew.

And it’s a distinctive cast and crew, with so many fine English actors – Godfrey Tearle, Eric Portman, Hugh Williams, Bernard Miles, Hugh Burden and Emrys Jones as the crew; Peter Ustinov and Robert Helpmann in small roles; and Googie Withers (above, with Burden and Miles) as a standout playing a Dutch woman unafraid of helping these men. In fact, it’s her speeches that are the most rousing.

These messages were aimed at a wartime audience, reminding people to never stop fighting, no matter what the odds or the dangers being faced. It didn’t matter if the audience was British or American – it was rousing and it worked.

The film was well-received in the U.S. both by critics and audiences. The movie was released in 1942, the same year that saw a second World War II film from Powell/Pressburger called “The Invaders” (U.S. title). The latter garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Picture and won Pressburger an Oscar for Best Story. “Aircraft” was nominated for Best Screenplay for the team.

It’s worth noting that the film editor on “Aircraft” was the soon-to-be-great David Lean. His directorial debut with Noel Coward, “In Which We Serve,” a World War II British drama coming out later that year, would have a similar feel to the Powell/Pressburger films and garner even more praise.

“One of Our Aircraft Is Missing” holds up exceedingly well today on all fronts – a World War II drama, a propaganda film and an intriguing adventure. Powell and Pressburger demonstrate confidence in both storytelling and style. This would serve them well for many years to come.

Rick at Classic Film and TV Cafe is hosting this Powell & Pressburger blogathon. I apologize for my delayed post today. I hope you check out all of the posts in this tribute to a great filmmaking team.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Powell/Pressberger Blogathon Begins Tomorrow!

Rick at Classic Film and TV Cafe is hosting a Powell & Pressberger blogathon that begins tomorrow. I am thrilled to be participating and will post my entry tomorrow as well -- probably in the afternoon. It should be a great event!

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Cruel 'Summer'

"Last Summer" is a terrific coming-of-age drama from 1969 about the dynamic of a quartet of teens.

The director is Frank Perry, whose small yet intriguing filmography includes 1962's "David and Lisa," which deals with problems that confine the teens to a mental institution, "Last Summer's" teens are more freewheeling yet no less troubled.

"Last Summer" opens with Peter (Richard Thomas) and Dan (Bruce Davison) wandering by themselves along an Eastern seaboard beach carrying a radio under the hot sun. They come upon the beautiful Sandy (Barbara Hershey), who is trying to save an injured seagull. They think she's hot, but she's more interested in enlisting their help. The three save the bird and become fast friends.

Beer becomes their truth serum. Peter and Dan want to bed Sandy, and she teases them with her sexuality. Sandy knows she holds the power and becomes a ringleader to these two willing followers. Her ever-present bikini becomes one of her most powerful weapons, and she enjoys keeping Peter and Dan keenly interested without giving in to them.

One afternoon on the beach with the seagull, the three are approached by Rhoda (Catherine Burns), who assumes they are hurting the bird. They ridicule her and send her off, but Rhoda returns again. She's the opposite of Sandy - not a beauty, with braces and a frumpy swimming suit. But while Sandy boasts of her high IQ, it's Rhoda who's the smart one. The three allow Rhoda to stay although at times verbally abuse her.
I like how there are few others around in "Last Summer." It reminded me of "Lord of the Flies" and how a hierarchy evolves without adults present. It's as if these four are on their own island, trying to act like adults but not fully comprehending the consequences of their decisions. At one point Dan says "We're not kids here," but they aren't yet adults, either.

Unfortunately, their parents are not the best role models. Sandy's divorced mother is sleeping with a man who once fondled Sandy; Dan's parents smoke marijuana and party and do a poor job of hiding this from their son; and Peter's parents fight so much that he just wants to get away from them.

Rhoda replaces the seagull as a project for the other three. But the level-headed Rhoda brings an unsettling reality to this group, and Sandy in particular feels threatened, especially when Peter begins to show a protective interest in Rhoda. However, Rhoda's weakness is a need to belong, and Sandy uses this to her advantage, leading to a shockingly cruel climax.

Perry clearly can tap into the emotions facing teens, starting with "David and Lisa." At that time, it was independent films or the British new wave that treated teens seriously while studios equated teens and summertime to bubble-headed beach films. But moviemaking changed so much that by the late 1960s, "Last Summer's" emotional openness was more in line with a new wave of storytelling, from "Midnight Cowboy" to "Easy Rider."

The actors are amazing. This was Davison's and Burns' first big-screen film, and it was one of the first for Thomas and Hershey. Burns earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination for her efforts.

"Last Summer" surprised me with its emotional impact. While it may not be as shocking as it must have been in 1969, the story still feels fresh. Director Perry (who also made "Diary of a Mad Housewife" and "Mommie Dearest") and screenwriter Eleanor Perry (Frank's first wife), adapting from Evan Hunter's novel, deserve credit for giving 1960s teens something beyond endless beach parties.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Six Degrees of Separation -- Round 5

Page at My Love of Old Hollywood has come up with the Six Degrees of Separation game, and this is my first invite to play.

So, Michael at I Shoot The Pictures started this 5th round of our game. The object of Round 5 is to connect Asta the dog (also known as Skippy) with Desmond Llewellyn. Great one, Michael!

Page connected Asta to Topper Takes A Trip with Billie Burke.

ClassicBecky connected Billie Burke to A Bill of Divorcement with John Barrymore.

So, I'm connecting John Barrymore to Grand Hotel with Joan Crawford.

Now it's time for me to pick the next victim -- Dawn at Noir and Chick Flicks, it's on the way to you!

Sunday, March 4, 2012

A 'Walk' on the Not-So-Wild Side

"Flirtation Walk" is a 1934 musical with Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell. It's the popular duo's fifth movie in two years, coming on the heels of "Footlight Parade," "Gold Diggers of 1933," "42nd Street" and "Dames."

These four films are so much fun, thanks to the crazy imagination of director/choreographer Busby Berkeley. I was prepared to enjoy yet another romp, and I desperately wanted to like "Flirtation Walk." But it was like setting your heart on ice cream only to be served a six-month-old Popsicle with freezer burn.

Released by First National, a division of Warner Brothers, the film is directed by Frank Borzage, known best for sentimental romances and sensitive dramas. In other words, he's no Busby Berkeley. But I like some of Borzage's films, so I kept an open mind.

The title refers to a place near West Point where cadets take dates for a stroll and more. The movie is dedicated to West Point, where most of the story is set, although it all begins in Hawaii.
The characters have cute nicknames like Kit, Scrapper, the Canary, Sugar Lips and Sweet Cheeks (OK, I made up the last two, but you get the idea). Powell plays Dick, aka Dickie Boy, aka Canary. He's a private stationed in Hawaii, harangued by Sgt. Thornhill (Pat O'Brien), aka Scrapper. Dick meets Kathleen Fitts (Keeler), aka Kit, the general's daughter, as her chauffeur.

Dick drives Kit out to a spot on the island where a giant luau number occurs (which supposedly was filmed on the biggest set that Warners had ever built up to this point). The number lacks excitement, but Dick and Kit (Ditts? Think Brangelina) fall in love under the moonlight.

However, since he's a private and she's the engaged daughter of a general, they can't fall in love or else it will cause a scandal for some unexplained reason. He's told that he's not an officer or a gentleman, so he enlists at West Point to become an officer and hopefully a gentleman.

Off he travels across the country to spend years studying at West Point. Kit disappears for half the film, and quite frankly, while Keeler has her charms, I'm not sure I'd spend several years changing my life after one lame luau under a full moon. For Rita Hayworth, yes. Ruby Keeler? Not so much.

But after several years and lots of marching - there's definitely a drinking game for every time a group of men marches, which you would need to stay awake - Kit inexplicably shows up and recognizes Dick immediately as he's marching on a field with hundreds of men dressed alike. Talk about 20-20 vision! But he ignores her for some reason, and the film sadly continues.

Now there's a big show, the "Hundreth Night Show," and Kit is the envy of every guy. They want her in the show, although she's shown no reason for them to think she has any talent. Since Dick, aka the Canary and show director, says "no," she says "sure" as the other guys veto Dick.

Somehow, Ditts suddenly mend their ways to take a walk along Flirtation Walk, but per this script, they are nowhere ready to get together. And, after several years, she's still engaged to the same guy, whose facial expression never changes. Isn't this reason enough for Kit to ditch the fiancé and marry the Canary?

The "Hundreth Night Show" is a total bore, and there's another drinking game whenever the camera shows Ruby's parents clapping in the audience.

For all of their movies together, Powell and Keeler don't really click in "Flirtation Walk" Instead, it's O'Brien and Powell who have the chemistry, and decades before "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," you really have to wonder about their relationship (perhaps they could be called Scrapanary?) Just check the jealous look on O'Brien's face in the above photo. There's a tender, teary farewell between the two when Dick leaves Hawaii for West Point. Dick's constantly writing to Scrapper, and when Scrapper makes his way to West Point, he's more emotional about seeing his friend than Kit. Scrapper really cares about what happens to Dick, and he's not engaged to someone with an immovable face. But alas, this is the 1930s, the Production Code was in place, and besides Edward Everett Horton is over at RKO with Fred and Ginger.

Shockingly, "Flirtation Walk" was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in 1934, along with 11 other films. It's by no means a horrible movie, but it's far from good. As a lover of many corny but fun 1930s musicals, this one is dull. Check out the other Keeler/Powell musicals instead.