Friday, August 24, 2012

Gene Kelly Blogathon: 'Invitation to the Dance'

“Invitation to the Dance” is a curious piece from Gene Kelly

The 1956 film is clearly a labor of love, as he choreographs, directs and stars. The film consists of three unrelated segments, each told through dance and music – no dialogue, no singing. I’ve always admired that Kelly and counterpart Fred Astaire never relied on their expected personas as they tried to push what could be accomplished within the movie musical genre. 

“Invitation to the Dance” follows up on ideas introduced in other Kelly films, such as “Anchors Aweigh” and “An American in Paris,” and throws in a dash of “Fantasia,” which is taking classical pieces and providing a narrative for each. But the results are uneven, an idea that is more admired than enjoyed. 

The first segment is “Circus,” and the story is simple: Pierrot the clown (Kelly) is in love with a fellow performer (Claire Sombert) who is partnered with a different performer (Igor Youskevitch). Nothing is unexpected, so the presentation needs to be exceptional. Unfortunately, the lovely Sombert is given nothing to do but look pretty and dance. It’s a role that requires an expressive and enchanting presence for an emotional payoff. She then has the misfortune of having her dancing overshadowed by Youskevitch, one of the greatest male ballet stars of his era, and Kelly. The two are such powerful dancers that the accomplished Sombert pales in comparison. 

Kelly’s best dance is with his fellow circus performers, but as director he must have been influenced by the ballet sequence in “The Red Shoes.” Sadly, “Circus” isn’t nearly as cinematic, and the piece has an almost dreary feel. 

Thankfully, the tempo picks up for the film’s second segment, “Ring Around the Rosey.” In fact, the segment begins at a party in which the film speed is increased to convey to the event’s mayhem.  The general theme revolves around a bracelet that travels from husband to wife to artist to model to boyfriend and on and on until it returns to the husband. 

Don’t worry about the details of who’s giving it to whom or for what reasons. Just go with it and enjoy the energy of the segment. The sets are more abstract that the first piece, which adds a dream-like quality to what could be called a romantic fable. Each exchange of the bracelet has its own personality and dance – especially fun is one involving a crooner, and remember there are no words in this movie. The segment nicely culminates with a terrific number between Kelly and Tamara Toumanova (above), a steamy street dance between a Marine and a streetwalker. 

The final segment is “Sinbad the Sailor,” with Kelly as a sailor who ends up with a lantern. As expected, he rubs the lantern and out comes a boy genie, played by David Kasday. The two become fast friends, and once the genie adopts his own sailor suit, the two perform perhaps the most endearing dance of the entire movie, with Kasday perfectly in synch with Kelly.

Sadly, the genie leads Kelly into an animated segment and leaves. Then, like Kelly dancing with Jerry the mouse in “Anchors Aweigh,” Kelly finds himself opposite two animated Arabs chasing him and finally Scheherazade (modeled after Carol Haney), with whom he frolics through an animated landscape. Unfortunately, the cartoon Scheherazade has even less personality than Sombert from the first segment, and the piece feels amateurish and flat. It makes you wish young Kasday had remained and the segment built around him. 

“Invitation to the Dance” should have been better, but the film never reaches the same level as the “American in Paris” ballet or even the Jerry the mouse segment. The lasting effect is one of familiarity. 

But it does have some fine moments throughout. And Kelly should be commended for trying something different at a point in his career when he could have but did not want to do the same old thing.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Gene Kelly Blogathon

The Classic Movie Blog Association is hosting the Gene Kelly blogathon in celebration of the 100th anniversary of his birth. The event begins tomorrow and runs through Saturday, so please stop by and read all of the wonderful posts. I will post my review of "Invitation to the Dance" this Friday.

Click here for the Gene Kelly Blogathon lineup!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

World War II: 'A Walk in the Sun'

“A Walk in the Sun” is a pensive, ultimately engrossing look at a group of soldiers on a mission to take out an Italian country home occupied by Nazis.

What’s unusual about this drama, written by Robert Rossen from a book by Hank Brown, is that it explores the mindset of this group of soldiers. Rather than focus on the action, it focuses on their reactions. And while this may be disorienting at first, as you keep waiting for something more to happen, the film does fall into its own rhythm as the soldiers get closer to the house and the tension slowly mounts.

The beginning of the movie is a bit confusing if you aren’t familiar with the film’s focus. The men are on a boat, waiting to hit the beach in Italy. The lighting is low, so you don’t see much, and it’s difficult identifying who is who. The dialogue centers around the upcoming battle, day and war in general.

The next time we see the men, they are sitting in the sand, waiting to move inland. Their dialogue explains how the landing went, and it’s in this section we get a good look at this group, headed by Sgt. Eddie Porter (Herbert Rudley), who is thrown into the role of leading this mission yet is slowly cracking under the strain of doing so.  Sgt. Bill Tyne (Dana Andrews), Porter’s right-hand man, helps guide Porter through important decisions.

You also have actors Richard Conte, Norman Lloyd, John Ireland, Lloyd Bridges, Sterling Holloway, George Tyne, Richard Benedict and numerous others sharing their thoughts, whether it’s Ireland’s point of view as a writer to Lloyd’s pessimistic attitude to Conte’s cocky boasts.  

Again, there’s no action to accompany the dialogue. But if the audience is waiting for more, so are the characters, and slowly the narrative provides an appreciation for what these men must do. They are a bit disoriented by the unknown of what lies ahead, and yet they must react and hope their decisions are the correct ones.

In a way, “A Walk in the Sun” unfolds like a series of one-act plays. While it looks like it was made on a shoestring budget – the first 45 minutes features only a few changes of scenery – it ultimately doesn’t feel that way. But I also like the film’s honesty. If the talkative narrative is too much at times (toward the tense climax, one character begins speaking about a leaf), the story also displays the doubts and courage of these men.

The character of Porter is especially telling for a film made during this time. He’s not a coward, but it’s clear he’s not up to leading this mission, and watching him slowly crack is startling and sobering. Tyne, who makes decisions not with a swagger but with common sense, faces his own crisis as the men realize they have a nearly impossible task to carry out.  

The acting is uniformly excellent, headed by Andrews, who was so good at playing seemingly tough men and showing their vulnerabilities. Frankly, the entire cast is top-notch, working together as a true ensemble.   

Directed by Lewis Milestone as an independent production released by 20th Century Fox, the movie doesn’t have the studio sheen, which is a plus. You can also pick up on Milestone’s anti-war sentiments. After all, he made the brilliant “All Quiet on the Western Front,” the 1930 World War I anti-war film.

“A Walk in the Sun” was a film that stayed with me long after I finished watching it. While the narrative may be a bit surprising, it ultimately succeeds as a testament to the bravery of men who must battle their own thoughts and emotions while heading into a battle against the enemy.  

This is a film that dares to examine a soldier’s fears. During World War II, films were either focused on defeating the enemy or showing our fighting forces in as positive light as possible, so this must have been a bit shocking.

“A Walk in the Sun” was released at the end of 1945, and while critically well-received, it was not a box office success. With the end of the war, the battle film genre quickly died at the box office, and no one thought it would be revived. But by the end of the decade, MGM’s “Battleground” and 20th Century Fox’s “12 O’Clock High,” both released in 1949, proved that the World War II battle film could be a reliable genre. Even today, films about World War II have a certain appeal.

Looking back at films made about and released during World War II, we can see a progression from ones that celebrated heroics to more realistic fare like “The Story of G.I. Joe,” “They Were Expendable” and “A Walk in the Sun,” with filmmakers like John Huston applying what they learned to their future films. If audiences then were tiring of the war, today we can appreciate their realistic approach as Hollywood moved into the post-war era, where realism would find its way into more and more product.

Monday, August 6, 2012

World War II: 'Battle of San Pietro'

“The Battle of San Pietro” is an exciting World War II documentary made by famed director John Huston.

Huston was among many esteemed Hollywood directors who made gripping documentaries during World War II, including Frank Capra, William Wyler, John Ford and George Stevens. However, among this group, Huston was the youngest and, having started as a screenwriter, had directed only three movies before heading overseas. He was a captain in the Army and later was promoted to major before returning to Hollywood.

His first documentary effort was “Report from the Aleutians” in 1943. His second was “San Pietro,” a film so stunning that it puts many Hollywood war movies to shame.

San Pietro was a nondescript town, population 1,400, and was mainly a farming community. But in December 1943, for more than a week, it was the location of intense fighting between the Germans against the Allies, which had invaded Sicily in July of that year. The town was located along one of the best roads south of Rome, and yet it was bordered by mountains. Its possession would be key to controlling the region, and yet it would be one of many areas that would be essential for the Allies to gain footing in Italy. In short, San Pietro was important and yet typical of other battles taking place throughout Europe.  

The opening narration – written and delivered by Huston – describes this town’s history as the viewer sees its ruin at the hands of war. Then the film turns toward the battle, and it’s tense, grim and fascinating. The casualties are heavy, as the Allies meet heavy resistance from the Germans. It was a near-impossible battle, and the death toll costly. Yet the movie ends in victory, and the people of the town come out of hiding and return to the village.

Huston produces brilliant contrasts in this film – from the opening narration to the images of the dead, to the simple joy on the faces of adults and children as they greet the Allies.

Huston did take a few liberties in making the film. While the combat footage is real, with a handheld camera look associated with modern films, he did flip the negative on some of the sequences so that the Allies were always attacking from right to left.

The results were stunning – and too powerful. When Huston screened a rough cut for the Army in 1944, they were shocked. A few officers left, and edits were ordered. Several voiced opinions that this film could be viewed as anti-war.

Huston himself agreed some sequences were too strong and changes were made. Still, the film was held from release until after victory in Europe was achieved.

James Agee, writing for “Nation,” named “San Pietro” one of the year’s best films (along with “The Story of G.I. Joe”). Describing Huston’s narration, Agee wrote, “For once wordiness in a film more than earns its way.”

Huston manages to show the horrors and humanity that occur during a war. For a battle that was important yet not monumental, reflective of so many others like it, “San Pietro” is like a slap in the face when compared with what Hollywood was releasing about the war. It also has a look and feel that distinguishes itself from other World War II documentaries. 

If the theme of my series was realism in World War II films, this documentary is a terrific complement to the others that I am reviewing, because both “The Story of G.I. Joe” and “They Were Expendable,” within the confines of Hollywood, did not shy away from the horrors of war. Next week I’ll look at “A Walk in the Sun,” a film set in Italy that nicely complements “San Pietro.”