"The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of" ... Bogart, Shakespeare, The Maltese Falcon, Those Great Movies

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmas With One of the Great Voices of Our Time

I want to share with you my favorite Christmas song as done by the honeyed voice of the great Nat King Cole.  MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL MY FRIENDS!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Censorship Has Come To Classic Films

I usually do a lot of research and re-writing for my posts here on my blog.  This is not one of those posts.  It is off the cuff, about an issue I just ran into on American Movie Classics channel.  AMC started out as a purely classic film channel, with no editing or commercials, much like Turner Classic Movies still is.  After a few years, AMC turned into a commercial channel, no longer showed just classic films, and generally started a downward spiral in terms of its programming.  Frankly, I don't often watch AMC unless there is something special I want to see.

AMC showed Holiday Inn with Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby just the other day.  It has become a Christmas classic, and I set it to save on the DVR.  I figured that way I could zip through the commercials and see the film without much distraction.  I sat down to watch it tonight.  Most classic film buffs know that the story is of a country inn, which the owner (Crosby) decides to open only on holidays.  Each holiday would be celebrated with dinner, dancing and special musical numbers in honor of the particular day (Astaire is featured in many of those).  As the movie went on, Lincoln's birthday was celebrated.  The actors were preparing for the big number, and then suddenly the movie jumped to after the number, completely deleting the number itself. 

Yes, the number was "Abraham" and it was done in blackface, like a minstrel show.  Many of the old musicals included minstrel numbers.  It was a different time with different perspectives.  Fortunately, we have evolved as a culture and have a better understanding of how these musical number affected black Americans.  No one would dream of resurrecting this type of musical racism, and, to paraphrase another movie that brings up similar arguments, blackface has "gone with the wind."    And rightly so.

However, it is a part of history, and a lot of history is unpleasant.  The struggle of a culture to rise above bigotry and stupidity is a long and painful process, and we have come a long way from our beginnings.  In our day now, political correctness is used to justify many revisions of history, and our classic films are just beginning to come under fire.  We have seen great books like Huckleberry Finn banned from schools because of language, with no understanding of the book as a piece of literature that was anti-racism.  Other books have met the same fate.  Now it is beginning to show up in film.  I remember not too long ago seeing Mel Brooks' Robin Hood, Men in Tights on a cable station.  Certainly not a great movie classic, but it was cut to pieces.  Someone with a gay agenda decided to remove all semblance of gay jokes in editing it.  If you have seen the movie, you know that resulted in the movie being shredded to pieces since so much of it was a spoof on that particular issue. 

Holiday Inn is the first well-loved classic film of which I am aware that has been censored so blatantly, this time by AMC.  This is a disturbing and dangerous precedent.  There are so many agendas from so many groups, where will it end up?  Can classic films weather this upcoming storm?  There is already a movement beginning to remove all smoking from all films.  How on earth could you ever have a Bette Davis or Humphrey Bogart movie with such restrictions?  A few years ago, the post office designed a stamp to honor the great blues guitarist Robert Johnson.  They used his most famous picture, holding his guitar with a cigarette.  They erased all traces of the cigarette.  Now it is their idea of what Robert Johnson should be, not what he was.  It is no longer Robert Johnson -- it is what a censor allowed.

Who is the censor?  It could be anybody, somebody's friend, an elected official, an appointed bureaucrat -- what does it matter?  And you can bet that the people looking for the politically incorrect will not be the least bit interested in the fact that they are altering another person's work, taking over a writer's brain or a director's vision -- none of that will matter.  Classic film could end up being either butchered or not allowed to be shown at all.  Don't laugh -- it could very well happen.  It has already begun.  If you have not read George Orwell's 1984, do it now.  It is a brilliant portrayal of the ease with which history can be revised and eventually erased at the whim of a government.

The real message of censorship is that we, the people, are too stupid to experience history, that we cannot determine right from wrong, that we cannot learn from what was, and wost of all, that there was nothing to love that does not conform to current culture.  Even with the blackface numbers, the musicals were still good movies and a true picture of an era.  Are we to pretend it never happened?  Are we to lose all beauty and goodness from that era just because there are some things that were bad?
If Turner Classic Movies ever gives in to this, I give up.  In the meantime, I am squirreling away all of the favorites I can get my hands on in case this awful trend continues to its natural conclusion.  I am very fearful of what I see as a movement of censorship that rivals any in history.  It must be fought down -- there is so much to lose. 

Friday, October 29, 2010

Tony Curtis as The Boston Strangler -- His Greatest Performance

I am writing  this short post to announce the showing of what is to me the best dramatic performance of the career of Tony Curtis.  The recent death of Curtis is a loss that affected many classic movie lovers.  He was known for good looks and charm, as a wonderful comedian, and a good dramatic actor.  His best dramatic role, in my opinion, was his portrayal of Albert DiSalvo in the true story of The Boston Strangler.  Henry Fonda also gives a wonderful performance as a detective obsessed with finding the strangler.  The movie was released in 1968, not long after the murders of this vicious killer terrorized the women of Boston.  For reasons unknown to me it is not often shown as part of classic film repertoire.

Fox Movie Channel is showing The Boston Strangler on November 6th at 4:00 p.m. Indianapolis time.   For any fan of Tony Curtis, it is an essential piece of his legacy as an actor.  Watch it, tape it, DVR it, but don't miss it.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

How To Scare Your Grandchildren With Classic Movies

Some Grandmas bake cookies and pot roasts for the grandkids.  Some knit sweaters and scarves.  I like to scare my grandchildren.  It's not as bad as it sounds...I do it with classic movies.  It's almost Halloween, so it's respectable.  Tonight the kids are spending the night with Grandma, and it was scary movie night.  (I'm a very young grandmother -- really, I was 11 when I had my son, and he was 11 when he had his -- not buying it, huh?)

Tony is 14.  Sometimes I have each grandchild alone, and I have brought out the big guns for him, like The Haunting (the good one, the original) and The Changeling with George C. Scott.  Pretty scary stuff.  He loves them as much as I.  But tonight both the kids are over.  Eileen is 10, and she is more easily scared.  So I brought out good old Vincent Price.  Couldn't be too bad, could it?  The kids snuggled into the beds we made on the living room rug, I got comfortable in my big chair, and we all settled back with snacks.

We started with Vincent in The Pit and the Pendulum.  I told them about the great Edgar Allan Poe and his wonderful body of work.  Educational material, you see.  Fifteen minutes into the movie, I had Eileen on my lap hiding her face and peeking through her fingers, needing Grandma's arm around her when she was unable to stop herself from looking.  Let's see....harpsichord playing by itself, ghostly voice behind the walls, an old torture chamber, a creepy crypt in the cellar, a giant razor-sharp pendulum whooshing down toward a guy's stomach....I don't know why she got scared.  I said maybe we should watch something else.  "No," she declared.  "I like this one."  But she stayed on my lap.  Tony was loving it.

We took a bathroom break, and I put on The House of Wax, Vincent again of course.  I told them about the original 1930's version with Lionel Atwill, the popularity of wax museums long ago.  More education.  10 minutes into this one, Eileen was back on my lap. Hmmm.....wax figures melting in a fire, faces dissolving, eyes popping out, bodies being stolen from the morgue, a creepy wax museum with tableaus of famous murders, Vincent trying to coat the heroine in boiling wax.....  Again I said maybe we should watch something else  Tony protested strongly.  Eileen said "No, I want to see what happens."  On my lap, of course.

So I decided that our third and last feature would be one that couldn't possibly scare anybody, could it?  It's so bad!  Night of the Lepus, certainly not a classic except among cult lovers of really bad movies.  No opportunity for education here.  OK....cute little bunnies made to look huge by camera angles and slow-motion, shadows of the bunnies on a cave wall, bunnies with giant sharp teeth, screaming people....fortunately Eileen fell sound asleep before the screaming and blood, and Tony and I had a good laugh together with this one.

Many people today think children should not see scary movies.  I know a couple of people who think that the fabulous "Night on Bald Mountain" scene in Fantasia is awful, and would never let their kids see it.  I don't agree with them.  When I was a kid at a re-release of Fantasia, the theatre was full of kids and parents, and we loved it.  We're not talking toddlers here -- certainly very small tots would be too scared by this, I think.  Many parents of older children probably don't realize that their kids have spent the night at friends' houses and watched Saw I, Saw II, Saw XXV, or seen the ghastly creative deaths in Final Destination movies.  With classic scary films, parents have a chance to at least educate their children about the difference between good scary and bad grossness.

I like to show my grandkids the good stuff, experience it with them, and show them the quality scary as opposed to some of the sicko gore shown today.  Some of my most treasured memories involve all 7 of us kids going to the movies with Dad and Mom and being scared together.  My Dad would usually do something to scare us after we got home and went to bed, just to make sure we would remember the experience.  We did, and it was great.

Tonight we had a wonderful time, and I feel good that my grandkids know who Vincent Price is, want to see more Poe stories, and enjoy scary movie night with Grandma.  I'll make cookies tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Leo Genn -- A Movie Staple

I watched John Huston’s marvelous movie Moby Dick (1956) today, and feel that a tribute to actor Leo Genn is in order. Genn played first mate Starbuck, about whom the narrator Ishmael said “He was one of the great staples of the ship, like beef or flour, there when needed and not to be foolishly wasted.”

This description of this character applies in a special way to Leo Genn as an actor. He was indeed a great staple of the movies in which he appeared. Genn’s career included many movies and TV appearances in later years, but his real place in movie history comes from three important movies – The Snake Pit (1948), Quo Vadis (1941), and Moby Dick (1956). His dignified good looks, presence, and mesmerizing voice with British accent were a large part of his success on stage and screen. Born in England in 1905, Genn first attended law school and became a barrister. Fortunately for us, he turned to the stage and eventually movies as an actor.

The Snake Pit features Genn as a psychiatrist who treats patient Olivia deHavilland in a mental institution. Lauded for its portrayal of mental illness, The Snake Pit was a movie that has taken its place as one of the important classic films. Genn plays Dr. Kik, dubbed so because his full name is too long for anyone to pronounce. As deHavilland’s doctor, he is kind, probing and determined to be allowed enough time to get to the root of the patient’s problem, a difficult goal in the crowded, under-funded hospital. As many patients do, deHavilland has feelings of love for her doctor during treatment, and indeed, who wouldn’t? Genn is the calming hand of care and reasoning in the midst of madness, and plays his part to perfection.

In his next major movie, Genn plays Petronius in Quo Vadis, a major epic of Rome and the mad emperor Nero (Peter Ustinov). His character, the unwilling but interested courtier of Nero, looks upon the corruption of tyranny with a cool, removed sense of irony. In contrast to Robert Taylor’s testosterone-loaded hero, Genn is the symbol of intelligence and prophecy about the future of Rome. His humor is biting, and goes right over the head of the arrogant Nero who believes that Petronius is his admiring follower. Genn’s final scene, in which he writes a note to Nero expressing his true feelings about the tyrant, is unforgettable, as is Nero’s reaction to the note. In a movie which I believe to be somewhat pompous and flawed, Genn stands out in his part.

The third major movie in which Genn plays a central character is Moby Dick. Huston’s extraordinary screenplay, in which he collaborated with writer Ray Bradbury, brings to full life the character of Starbuck. In contrast to the obsessed, unswerving desire for revenge of Ahab (Gregory Peck), Starbuck tries without success to bring his mad Captain back to reality and clarity of thought. In his loyalty and habit of obedience to his Captain, Starbuck reflects upon his dilemma – “Oh I see plainly my miserable office, to obey rebelling.” Starbuck is a beloved character, and his fate difficult to accept.

In all three of these movies, Genn plays the character who is the conscience of the stories. His physical presence and the soothing tone of his voice made him a natural for this type of role. Even in a later role in a TV version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with Jack Palance in the title role, Genn plays Dr. Lanyon, the friend and conscience of the tortured doctor. This was the character type he played so flawlessly.

Leo Genn deserves to be remembered as a significant element in movies that continue to be watched and admired so many years after their initial release. His movies, particularly the three discussed above, would not have been as good as they were without him.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Of Mice And Men - John Steinbeck's Masterpiece On Film

Some works of stage and screen are sad and bring us to tears. Others come under the category of the tragedy, a form of literature that is not so common. That is not to say that the whole story is laden with sorrow. On the contrary, the central and supporting characters are people we grow to care for, laugh with and love. An authentic tragedy receives this designation because it describes conflict between the central characters and a superior, unstoppable force, eg. destiny, resulting in devastating consequences. Shakespeare, for instance, is famous for his tragedies. Our great American author, John Steinbeck, has written two of the greatest tragedies in literature. The Grapes of Wrath is one. The other is the subject of this article, his 1937 novel Of Mice and Men, and the 1939 adaptation of the book to film. The title is taken from a poem by Scotland’s great poet, Robert Burns. The English translation of the verse is: “The best laid plans of mice and men oft go astray, and leave us naught but grief and pain for promised joy.”

Directed by Lewis Milestone (also known for All Quiet on the Western Front, Rain, Front Page and the 1962 version of Mutiny on the Bounty), Of Mice and Men had a rocky start. Due to contractual problems with Hal Roach Studio, Milestone was forced to sue the studio to win the right to film Of Mice and Men. Many well-known Hollywood stars were eager to be cast, but Milestone chose three relatively new movie actors, Burgess Meredith, Lon Chaney Jr., and  Betty Field for his main characters. Perhaps the greatest coup of all was the score written by classical composer Aaron Copeland. The fact that such a movie was made at Hal Roach Studios at all is rather unusual, since 99.9% of its films were slapstick comedies. In later years, Hal Roach was to say about Of Mice and Men: “It could have used a few laughs.” Well, thank heaven he didn’t produce or direct it.

Burgess Meredith

Lon Chaney, Jr.

Betty Field

Steinbeck’s novel is not a difficult one to adapt to the screen. It is spare with narrative, utilizing the technique of the simple and concise sentence structure. The majority of the novel is dialogue, making it as easy as any novel could be to turn into a screenplay. It is the story of George and Lenny, two men who travel the road together looking for work during the Great Depression. George is a small man, intelligent and with a testy bite to his personality that masks the depth of a loving heart. The main object of his love, annoyance and protection is Lenny, a giant of a man who has the mind of a child. (As an interesting aside, although Chaney was already a big man, he wore specially built shoes that added 6 inches to his height.)  Lenny depends upon George for everything, and George complains all the time about what a good life he could have if not for Lenny. Lenny loves to hear George complain. It is comforting to him somehow, since he also knows George would never leave him.

When the story begins, George and Lenny have been forced to leave a job in another town. Lenny’s child-like mind has caused a serious problem. Lenny loves to feel soft things, and had become fascinated with the fabric of a girl’s dress. He had reached out to feel the dress, the girl screamed, and in a panic Lenny held on tighter, unable to decide what to do. Townspeople became convinced that Lenny had tried to rape the girl, and George and Lenny had to flee by night. They are on their way to a job at a ranch, and stop at a stream in the woods to rest before arriving at the ranch.  While the two men heat beans on a fire, George notices Lenny has taken something out of his pocket and is holding it. George demands to see what it is, and Lenny sheepishly shows him a little dead mouse. “Jus’ a dead mouse, George. I didn’ kill it. Honest! I found it dead.” George takes the mouse and throws it across the stream. Lenny wistfully says “I could pet it with my thumb while we walked along.” George reminds Lenny of what just happened the last time he wanted to feel something soft. The two men eat and talk and then Lenny asks George to tell him about the rabbits. George and Lenny have a dream. They want to save up enough of a stake to buy a little farm George knows about. They almost have enough saved, and their dream is beginning to look like a reality. A little farm, with chickens and a garden, “…and rabbits, George! Don’t forget I get to tend the rabbits!” George tells the well-worn story as if he were reading a book, and Lenny reminds him of parts he has left out, just like a child who knows a well-loved story by heart.

When the two men arrive at the ranch to work, they are sent to the bunkhouse to settle in for work. They meet Slim, the mule skinner, sensible and kind (Charles Bickford); Candy (Roman Bohnen), a man with one arm who works as a swamper and keeps his beloved old dog by his side; Crooks, the exiled black man (Leigh Whipper) who must live by himself in a little room off the barn, and the other men who work the ranch. The job looks pretty good, the men seem amiable enough. Then the boss’s son, Curley (Bob Steele), comes to the bunkhouse looking for his wife. Curley is a sullen little bully, a short man who resents anyone bigger than himself. He is also insanely jealous of anyone who may have seen her or talked to her. Curley spots the massive Lenny, who gives Curley a happy smile. Curley instantly targets Lenny and turns his hostility on him. Lenny is confused and scared, and the situation is finally defused by the other men, who tell George and Lenny to steer clear of Curley and his pretty young wife.

Curley’s wife Mae (Betty Field) is an unhappy and lonely girl. Her husband is a bully, her father-in-law a harsh man, and she has no one to talk to. In Steinbeck’s novel, she is referred to only as “Curley’s wife”, but was given the name Mae for the movie. Mae was a name with a slightly unsavory tone to it in the 1930’s, and indeed Mae is a bit of a tramp, but only in dress and manner. None of the men will have anything to do with her because of Curley, and only Lenny, who has been warned by George to leave Mae alone, is enough of a child to forget the warning and be kind to her.

Despite George’s repeated command to tell no one of their plan for the farm, Lenny talks with Candy and Crooks. The men, hungry for a home of their own, ask if they can put in their own money and join in. At first George is angry and wants the farm only for Lenny and himself, but then realizes that with all their money together, the farm could be bought with another month’s pay. These homeless, drifting men talk about the place that will soon be theirs, a real home, and excitedly make plans for the purchase.

Curley makes another visit to the bunkhouse looking for Mae, certain that she is with Slim, who has earned Curley’s hatred by being a strong, confident man who does not pay any attention to Curley’s boasting and strutting. Poor Lenny again becomes Curley’s target, only this time Curley begins to hit and beat him. Lenny puts his arms up to protect himself and calls for George to help him. The men all shout at Lenny to stop Curley, protect himself. Then Lenny grabs Curley’s hand and begins to squeeze. Curley screams and goes down on his knees, his hand in Lenny’s relentless grasp. George is forced to shout and hit Lenny to make him stop. Lenny is in a sort of trance, and continues to squeeze. Lenny finally hears George and lets go with a gasp, unable to understand what has happened. Curley’s hand is squeezed to pulp. The men warn Curley that if he says anything, they will spread it all over that he was beaten and crying. Curley, always fearful of humiliation, agrees to keep quiet about Lenny, but his hatred for Lenny is dangerously inflamed.

For those who have not read the book or seen the movie, that is as much of the story as I plan to tell. The cast of Of Mice and Men is ensemble acting at its best. The lovely Betty Field breaks your heart as Mae, Bob Steele’s performance makes you despise Curley, Charles Bickford is solid and strong as Slim, and the great character actor Roman Bohnen gives his usual first-rate performance as Candy, a man who thinks he has lost everything but finds hope with George and Lenny. Burgess Meredith did one of his finest pieces of work as George, and went on to do many good movies and television shows. Betty Field's career included fine performances in King's Row, Picnic and Bus Stop.  Lon Chaney Jr’s movie career was spotty, doing well in another good part, The Wolfman, but being offered and taking increasingly bad parts in second-rate movies. But if Chaney had only played one part, Lenny, it would be remembered as one of the screen’s finest performances.

Of Mice and Men has been filmed two other times, once in 1981 as a made-for-TV movie with Robert Blake as George and Randy Quaid as Lenny. I cannot speak to this one, as I did not see it, but I have to say I am not a Robert Blake fan and, much as I like Randy Quaid, I’m not sure he would have the acting range to do justice to Lenny. Perhaps some of you have seen this version and could shed some light on it.

In 1992, Gary Sinise produced, directed and acted as George in a theatrical release. John Malkovich was Lenny, with Sherilynn Fenn as Curley’s wife. It did not do well at the box office, but in my opinion it was an excellent movie. Sinise and Malkovich were wonderful as George and Lenny. John Malkovich is not a big man, and the costume designer did an all-out job designing his clothes with padding and built-up shoes to make Malkovich look large-muscled and strong. The movie also features veteran actor Lew Ayres as Candy.  Classic movie buffs will remember Lew Ayres from his role in the 1930's serial Dr. Kildare.  Sinise's version is well worth seeing.

My first pick, however, is the original. My son says I never like remakes as much, and that is often the case, usually with good reason. 1939’s Of Mice and Men had everything, and it had two things that Sinise’s version, good as it was, did not.  One was the incredible music of Aaron Copeland.  I have always thought that a score can make a good movie great and a great movie a classic.  The second is a personal preference, a particular love of mine, the magic of black and white cinematography, in this case brought to life by Norbert Brodine.

Of Mice and Men was released December 30, 1939. Gone With the Wind swept the Oscars in that year, which has come to be known as the golden year of classic Hollywood. The 9 other Best Picture-nominated classics were Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Wuthering Heights, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Dark Victory, Love Affair, Ninotchka and the little film with no name stars, Of Mice and Men. It was lauded over other greats that were not nominated, including The Women, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Drums Along the Mohawk, The Roaring Twenties, Beau Geste, Golden Boy and Young Mr. Lincoln. Truly an incredible year, and an incredible testament to the power that was Lewis Milestone’s vision, Of Mice and Men.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Victorian Beauty and Futuristic Horror -- The Time Machine

All of us have certain movies that capture something that speaks to our dreams. Usually I suppose they are the great dramas, but I have found that isn’t always the case. The Time Machine, released by MGM in 1960, mesmerized me as it began, even before the credits. It begins with silence, then the tiny ticking of a clock that moves across the screen. Then more clocks pass by, each with their own cadence, becoming a little larger and a little louder until finally London’s Big Ben gives its thunderous toll and the music crashes in to begin the title and credits. The Time Machine pulls you along from the picturesque, quiet Victorian age of great beauty, to excitement and action, and on to horrific futuristic events as the time traveler takes his journey.

George Pal produced and directed The Time Machine, based on H.G. Wells’ novel of the same name. The screenplay takes many liberties with Wells’ original novel, but then when has that ever been a problem for Hollywood? Pal’s other well-known movies include The War of the Worlds (1953), Houdini (1953) and Conquest of Space (1955). Pal had been an animator for most of his career, and his best movies carry his stamp of thrilling, larger-than-life story telling, with dynamic music and vivid, eye-popping color. However, with The Time Machine, Pal created more than just an action sci-fi movie. A great deal of the credit for the feel of this movie must include composer Russell Garcia, who set the stage for the Victorian age with lilting, Irish-sounding music of great sentimentality, and also created an electrifying, frightening score for the action sequences.  Cinematographer Paul Vogel brought the screen to dazzling life, and make-up artist William Tuttle, working on George Pal’s own design, helped to create one of the most famous monster tribes in sci-fi history, the dreaded Morlocks. The Time Machine was awarded an Oscar, for its special effects, considered groundbreaking for its time.

The story is that of H. George Wells (sound familiar?), played by one of my favorites, Rod Taylor. (Pal originally wanted Paul Scofield for the part of George, a role that doesn’t seem to be at all suitable for the great British stage actor. I believe that Rod Taylor, with his young and vigorous talent and singular mannerisms, fit the bill.) George is an inventor, a dreamer, unhappy with the world he lives in. He is preoccupied with the concept of time, and his house is filled with the most beautiful clocks you’ll ever see. George has invited a group of his friends to dinner, mostly practical businessmen, one a doctor who has little sense of humor (played by Sebastian Cabot in a wonderful harrumphing, stolid British manner), none of whom are the dreamer type, and one who is always happily soused. Then there is one of my most beloved best friend characters, a Scot named David Filby, played sweetly by Alan Young. (Sad to say, Alan Young is best remembered for his role in the TV series Mr. Ed as the owner of a talking horse.) George has not arrived for his own dinner, and his faithful housekeeper, Mrs. Watchett (Doris Lloyd) announces that George left instructions to serve dinner if he was detained. The men settle comfortably at the dining room table, when suddenly George appears in the doorway, disheveled, wounded, exhausted. He sits down and asks for food and wine. His friend the pleasant drunk pours a large glass of wine with shaking hands and unintentionally drinks it himself. Then George begins to tell his story.

George reminds the men of their dinner the week before, when he announced that he had built a machine that could move through time. The friends of course don’t believe it, and George brings out his miniature model. It is a small, exquisitely crafted little machine that looks somewhat like a sled with a sphere-shaped circle behind the traveler’s seat. George asks the doctor to give him a cigar to represent a time traveler, which he bends to fit in a seated position. He explains that if his experiment works, they will never see the machine again, as it will forever speed forward in time. He asks the doctor to use his own finger to throw the tiny switch. The little machine begins to hum, the sphere begins to twirl, and the chandelier above their heads tinkles and shakes. The humming grows louder, the sphere twirls until it blurs, then suddenly the machine is gone with a final whistling echo.

George is exhilarated with the success, but even having seen with their own eyes, his friends refuse to believe it could have happened. They leave in a group, thanking George for an interesting evening. George, angry and dismayed at their reaction, goes to his desk to write a note. Then David peeks around at him from one of the large chairs in front of the fire. “I thought I should stay,” he says. He tells George he is worried about him and wants to help. He learns that George is not interested in going into the past, but into the future. “I don’t much like the time I was born in,” George says. He thanks David for his concern, but says he would rather be alone.

After David leaves, George goes to his laboratory. The door opens, the music swells and there is the full-size Time Machine. What an exciting moment. The machine is absolutely stunning in every way. It is just like the miniature, incredibly crafted with brass engravings, velvet seat and gorgeous colors, a real thing of beauty. The camera follows George around the machine so that the audience can see its exquisite nature. The machine was designed by MGM art director Bill Ferrari, with George Pal’s direction that since he had loved his sled as a child, he wanted it to be sled-like. George climbs onto the seat, pulls the handle and begins his voyage into the future.

His journey is fascinating. He stops at different points in time, is able to see what becomes of his home and his friend, watches his city grow and sees its destruction and much more. The techniques used to show the passage of time, both slow and fast, are very clever and interesting. One of the most memorable is a store mannequin that George can see from his lab window. As time passes, the lady mannequin’s clothes change, going from chaste Victorian to modern short skirts and bathing suits. George feels a kinship with the mannequin because, like himself inside the Time Machine, she never ages. Cataclysmic events begin to occur, and George finally has to speed his way through time at a blurring rate. He stops in the 802nd century. There he finds a world that looks wonderfully evolved. Young beautiful people called the Eloi play and swim and somehow are fed without any work. (The word “eloi” means “My God” in Aramaic.) George notices that there are no old people, and also that the Eloi are strangely ignorant and uninterested in what goes on around them. Yvette Mimieux, only age 17, plays Weena, a young girl who does find interest in this strange man who has appeared from nowhere. Soon, George is to learn the true nature of the Eloi when he is made aware of the horror in that seemingly lovely world, another group that lives underground, the Morlocks.

That is as much of the story as you need to whet your appetite. I did not describe many of the exciting events of George’s journey so as to avoid spoiling everything for those who have not seen it. I would LOVE to tell the ending because it is one of my favorite movie endings, but I am restraining myself. Suffice it to say that The Time Machine does not disappoint. As an interesting note, George Pal kept the miniature time machine in his home until it was destroyed by a fire. The larger model was found years later in a thrift shop in California, covered with dust and in pieces. However, the lucky finder bought and restored it. What I wouldn’t give to have that beautiful thing – it would be the centerpiece of my living room!

George Pal hoped to make a sequel to the movie, and Rod Taylor was interested as well, but MGM rejected the idea. Perhaps that is just as well. This movie is unique and its reputation would likely only be tainted by what might be an inadequate sequel. I remember seeing a showing of The Time Machine on TV around 1995 that was hosted by Rod Taylor. He was of course 35 years older than when he played George, and with a wistful grin he said “It’s very strange to see myself so young as I find myself becoming more aged.” He loved being part of The Time Machine, and with good reason. It’s a damn good movie. (Well, if Rhett Butler can say damn, I guess I can too!)

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir - Reflections

It's 5:30 a.m., and I did not go to bed until 1:30 a.m.  I did not have to get up early this morning, but here I am, wide awake.  It is completely dark outside, the crickets are singing, my neighborhood is silent, and that is the time that I start to think and worry about anything difficult that is going on in my life.  At the moment, there is plenty to fret about.  Instead of just letting those thoughts whirl through my brain, I decided to write some thoughts  about a movie I have always loved, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947, starring Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison). I watched it just last night, and it had its usual effect on me - I sighed and cried a lot.  It is beautifully filmed, incredibly romantic, and emotionally moving.  Composer Bernard Herrmann believed the score to be his best work, and even taking into consideration the incredible body of his marvelous work, I agree completely. 

The story of Mrs. Lucy Muir, a widow who rents a house by the English seaside and the ghost of Captain Daniel Gregg who haunts his house is fantasy at its best.  They fall in love, but Mrs. Muir becomes impoverished and in danger of losing her beloved house.  Captain Gregg helps Lucy write a book, his autobiography, the unvarnished tale of a seaman's life.  The book is published, Mrs. Muir is able to buy the house and all seems secure.  Captain Gregg, however, knows there can be no future for Mrs. Muir with him, despite their love, and he vanishes from her life, telling her as she sleeps that it has all just been a dream - "...and it will die, as all dreams must die upon waking."  I think I need another handkerchief.  Mrs. Muir meets a dashing scoundrel (George Sanders, the most charming scoundrel of all), and ends up alone in her house with her only family in the world, little daughter Anna (young Natalie Wood) and faithful servant Martha (the wonderful Edna Best).  The years pass, with the rolling ocean as the symbol of time, and Mrs. Muir grows old.  One night she dies quietly in her chair, and Captain Gregg comes back for her.  She takes his hands and stands up, young and beautiful again.  They walk side by side into the mist to the incredible music of Bernard Hermann.  How can you help sobbing like a child?

So I called my sister Amy, certainly a sucker for romance herself, but more pragmatic than I.  I wanted to know why this widow, with no apparent income except the royalties from one book, was able to keep her beautiful cottage by the sea for 50 years until her death.  Considering the life changes I am going through right now, it just didn't seem fair.  Amy said simply, "Becky, it's a movie."  Uh oh, reality came crashing down.  Our conversation had me laughing until my throat hurt.  We talked about how on earth she could have kept an old house by the sea, with wood that would warp, large lawn to mow, a servant that logically should be paid a salary (although you got the impression that Martha did all that work just for love), and a growing daughter to feed and send through school.  Not to mention that the kid was never around to bother her or get under her feet while the romances were going on.  All of that upkeep had to be done by someone, and they had to be paid, right?  How? Can one book finance an entire life?  Then the final blow -- the beauty of the love she always remembered as a dream and the reunion of the two lovers at the end.  Amy said, "Becky, that woman spent her life standing on a balcony looking at the sea for 50 years!"  She has a good point.  In the movie, 50 years goes by in about 5 minutes with the technique of the rolling sea.  In reality, it would be pretty boring.  My sister Amy was just what I needed last night!

Now, movie-lovers, don't descend upon me like an angry mob with torches and pitchforks for this little reflection.  I have loved The Ghost and Mrs. Muir all of my life and know it by heart.  I will always love it and cry every time with the wistful wish that life was really like that.  But as I wrote in my introduction to my site, movies have been a big part of who I am, for good or ill.  Sometimes it can have a negative side if you dive too deeply into the fantasy of it all.  I'm not worried though.  I will always have my sister to understand and pull me back down from the clouds when I float too high up.  I consider that to be the best of both worlds.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Ann Sheridan -- A Classy Lady With Earthy Style

The Lovely Ann Sheridan

Today is Ann Sheridan day on Turner Classic Movies. I thought it would be appropriate to do a tribute to one of my favorite actresses.  Throughout most of her career, Ann played women who were direct and earthy, with common sense and a subtle sensuality that never crossed the line to open sexuality. She was associated for most of her career with Warner Brothers, and played opposite many of their most prominent male stars such as Humphrey Bogart, George Raft, James Cagney and Errol Flynn. She became great friends with Humphrey Bogart after they starred together as brother and sister in San Quentin. After that movie, Ann and Bogart starting calling each other “Sister Annie” and “Brother Bogie.”(1)  Some of my favorite movies with Ann in her prime are Angels With Dirty Faces and City for Conquest with Cagney, They Drive By Night with Raft and Bogart, and Dodge City, Edge of Darkness and Silver River with Errol Flynn. Ann said of Flynn: “He was one of the wild characters of the world, but he had a strange, quiet side. He camouflaged himself completely. In all the years I knew him, I never really knew what lay underneath and I doubt if many people did.” (2)

Two films showed Ann’s real flair for comedy. She played wife to Jack Benny in George Washington Slept Here, a little different type for Ann as a rather ditzy but adorable wife. Later in her career, she played opposite Cary Grant in the comedy I Was A Male War Bride, where both Ann and Grant showed their comedic talents.

Ann had been seriously considered for the part of Ilsa in Casablanca, but lost out to Ingrid Bergman. Ann’s beauty put her into the pin-up girl category along with Betty Grable. She was given the nickname “The Oomph Girl”, and as she said: “…I loathe that nickname. Just being known by a nickname indicates that you are not thought of as a true actress … It’s just crap! If you call an actress by her looks or a reaction, then that’s all she’ll ever be thought of as.” (3)

Ann’s fear of being overlooked for her acting talent was certainly put to rest by what I consider to be her greatest role, that of Randy in King’s Row, with Robert Cummings and Ronald Reagan. The range of emotions she revealed in this difficult role took her from a teasing girl to a wise woman to a devoted wife forced to deal with horrifying events that required her to face her own feelings about love and the future. She was just marvelous in the part and in my opinion her extraordinary performance made this movie one of the great classics.

When Ann’s movie career began to decline as she got older, she tried her hand at television, where she appeared for a time on the soap opera “Another World.” She was beginning to work on another TV show when she fell ill.  Ann died of cancer in 1967 – she was only 51.

TCM is playing several of Ann Sheridan’s good movies today. My favorites coming up are City for Conquest at 4:30 EST, George Washington Slept Here at 6:15 and King’s Row at 9:45. Set your DVR to tape if you are not able to watch them today. You’ll love them!

(Footnotes extend credit to IMDb website.)

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Richard III -- A Villain For The Ages

If you are not familiar with William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of King Richard the Third, you are missing the greatest villain of stage and screen. To quote my own post announcing my intention to write about this monstrous man, "...Shakespeare puts most teenagers into a comatose state.” I don’t believe this would happen if people were introduced to Shakespeare not with sweet love stories or comedies, but with plays like Richard III.  As I also said, “If you like bloody battles, lustful seduction, raging jealousy ... dire prophecies ... and villainy, you will like Richard III."  Richard was so monstrous that no heir to the English throne has ever been given that name since his death.

Even Richard's coat of arms is ugly, a white boar with the translated motto "Loyalty binds me." Richard's loyalty was all to himself, and he never wavered in his obsession to grab the crown. He mowed down everyone in his path, be it brother, wife, friends, court advisors or two innocent children. He surrounded himself with men like himself, ambitious, without conscience and willing to murder in hideous ways at his behest. The best known of Richard’s murderers is James Tyrrel, a name almost as famous as Richard’s in the annals of villains of English history. Richard lived from October, 1452 to August, 1485. He only reigned for less than 2 years as king, from 1483-1485. His family, the House of York, had been at war with the House of Lancaster for 100 years, known as the War of the Roses. Richard was the last of the Plantagenet line which started in 1154 with King Henry II, father of Richard the Lionheart. After Richard III's defeat at the Battle of Bosworth, the House of Tudor reigned, beginning with Henry VII, father of the most infamous of that house, Henry the Eighth. Richard was also the last English king to be killed in battle.

As a point of history, there are two schools of thought about Richard. One is that he was indeed the great villain described in Shakespeare’s play as well as in memoirs of Thomas More and other sources. The other is that he was a much-maligned, decent man whose history was re-written by the people who defeated him, the House of Tudor. If you are interested in this argument, just pull up the websites for Richard III Society and Society of Friends of King Richard III. It is a very interesting debate. For our purposes here, however, I am writing about the Richard of Shakespeare’s incomparable play. The first, titled Richard III, was released in 1956 with Sir Laurence Olivier, the second by the same name in 1995 with Sir Ian McKellan. These are two movies of different eras, each brilliant in their own unique ways.

Laurence Olivier had produced and acted in movies of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Henry V, all to great acclaim. Richard III was greatly anticipated, and it was released in 1955. Filmed in Technicolor, it was a cinematically beautiful movie. Olivier did take some license with Shakespeare’s play, particularly in opening the movie with some of Richard’s speeches in the previous play, King Henry IV, Part II. Olivier felt that this would give some clarity to the story as well as Richard’s personality, and though I tend to be a purist about Shakespeare, I agree that this enhanced the movie. As the court celebrates the triumph and crowning of Richard’s brother, Edward IV (Sir Cedric Hardwicke), Richard goes off by himself to bemoan the end of war and beginning of “…this weak, piping time of peace.”

Richard was born hunchbacked, with a withered arm and a lame leg, with fierce ambition and love of war. He was a bitter man who, in his words, was “cheated of feature by dissembling nature, deformed, unfinished, sent before my time into this breathing world scarce half made up, and that so lamely and unfashionable that dogs bark at me as I halt by them.” In an inspired style of film-making, Olivier delivers his lines directly to the audience, pulling them into his world and creating a bond with them. He acts with a raised eyebrow and subtle sarcasm, truly fantastic. As part of this scene, Olivier inserts from Henry IV, Part II, Richard’s hatred of his deformed body and ferocious determination to seize the crown: “What other pleasure can the world afford?...love forswore me in my mother’s womb…and am I then a man to be beloved?...I’ll make my heaven to dream upon the crown, and whiles I live to account this world but hell until my mis-shaped trunk that bears this head be round impaled with a glorious crown….many lives stand between me and home…And I, like one lost in a thorny wood, that rends the thorns and is rent with the thorns, seeking a way….toiling desperately to find it out, torment myself to catch the English crown, and from that torment will free myself or hew my way out with a bloody axe! Why, I can smile and murder whiles I smile…and wet my cheeks with artificial tears, and frame my face to all occasions….can I do this, and cannot get a crown? Tut, were it farther off, I’ll pluck it down!”

That is Richard. Everything he does stems from this description of himself and his desires. As fourth in line of succession, the King’s two very young sons and Richard’s own brother, the Duke of Clarence (Sir John Gielgud), stand in the way. Gielgud gives a remarkable performance of Clarence, particularly when he describes his prophetic dream about his own death while imprisoned in the Tower of London. Richard is also determined to marry the Lady Anne (Claire Bloom), of Lancaster royal blood, partly from lust, partly from desire for a further royal alliance to strengthen his aim. The fact that Richard had just killed Anne's husband in battle did not sway him from seducing Anne right by the coffin of her dead husband. Anne, a devastated wife and frightened, weak woman, allowed herself to be seduced by Richard's "honeyed words." This tells us that despite his appearance and villainy, Richard could charm like a snake. Richard even goes so far later in the story as to try to marry his own niece for further royal affiliation. As he moves inexorably toward his ultimate aim, Richard is assisted by the Duke of Buckingham (Sir Ralph Richardson) and the aforementioned murderer Tyrell. Horrific events abound, and the story is told superbly to its bloody end.

Olivier’s Richard III, with its stellar cast, superb performances and stirring music by Sir William Walton, was delivered to the public in a most unusual way. It was released in the United States on afternoon TV and at movie theatres simultaneously. An unfortunate effect of this first-ever type of release was that the box office revenue at theatres was dismal. It is hard to believe, but Olivier was then unable to get his next project off the ground, filming of Macbeth, because of the bad revenues and because his only backer, producer Mike Todd (husband of Elizabeth Taylor), was killed in a plane crash. However, when Richard III was re-released in 1966, it topped box office records in most major American cities, and today it is considered a masterpiece. Richard III was nominated for only one award, unbelievably, which was best actor for Olivier, but he lost to Yul Brynner in The King and I.

In 1995, Sir Ian McKellan, known to younger audiences from his role in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, decided to make his own Richard III. McKellan is a classically trained actor of stage and screen, and added his own unique touches to Richard. He also used the technique of speaking directly to the audience. However, McKellan’s Richard is put into a modern setting, bringing it to life in the 1930’s with a suggestion of Richard and his cohorts in Nazi-type uniforms, and the Tudor heroes in British-style uniforms. The costumes, particularly those of the women, are gorgeous, and the music is jazzy and contemporary with the 1930’s. Shakespeare’s language is intact, thank heaven, and is strangely unmarred by the modern setting. Perhaps this is because we have seen in the 20th century many monstrous rulers like Richard, particularly Hitler. It is familiar territory to modern audiences.

McKellan’s Richard is viciously gleeful, acting the atrocious events with laughter and a twinkle in his eye. He is simply marvelous. Some of the updated scenes are humorous, such as the beginning speech which takes place in the men’s bathroom. He does not insert the scenes from Henry IV, Part II, as Olivier did, except for the lines about being able to murder while he smiles. He grins and says “Plots have I laid”, then crooks his finger at the audience, compelling us to follow along. Another witty update portrays one of the most famous lines from the movie -- “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!” --- which here is Richard’s broken-down jeep in the midst of battle. The palaces are lovely, but the main setting for the film is dark and bleak, with strange buildings and landscape that create a chilling atmosphere.

The cast, which does not boast of as many “Sirs” as Olivier’s version, is sometimes unusual and works beautifully. Annette Benning plays Elizabeth, Edward IV’s wretched widow queen trying to protect her 2 sons, with great elegance and style, showing real acting chops. Jim Broadbent as the evil Duke of Buckingham is a cigar-chomping, pot-bellied businessman who helps Richard with a smile and a wink. Nigel Hawthorne as Clarence is pitiable, and performs the famous soliloquy in the Tower of London with subtlety and grace. Kristin Scott Thomas is the Lady Anne, devastated by her husband’s death, seduced by Richard, and pitifully aware of her downfall. Robert Downy, Jr. is a surprise as Elizabeth’s brother, Lord Rivers. Downey apparently wanted the part so much that he cleared his calendar after the offer from McKellan. He does well playing the part of Rivers as a loving brother and appealing drunk. I must say that one of my favorites of this great cast is Adrian Dunbar, who plays the murdering Tyrrel. In Olivier’s film, Tyrrel was willing to do the deeds, but seemed much more reluctant and sensitive about it, particularly with the little princes. But Dunbar’s Tyrrel is not reluctant or sensitive. Richard, having been told Tyrrel is the kind of man he is looking for, meets him in a hog barn where Tyrrel is feeding apple pieces to the pigs. Richard asks him “Darest thou resolve to kill a friend of mine?” to which Tyrrel answers in a blasé tone “Ay, my lord, but I had rather kill two enemies.” (It is plain Richard means the two little princes.) Richard then throws a piece of  apple into the pen, hits a hog with an apple hard enough to make him squeal, and the two men smile.   The ending of the film is done with dark humor, as we see Richard for the last time, going to his death laughing, to the strains of an old recording of Al Jolson's "I'm Sittin' on Top of the World."  Marvelous.

McKellan’s Richard III won two Academy Awards, for costume design and art direction. McKellan was not even nominated for best actor, in my opinion an inordinately brainless decision on the part of Academy members. As movie lovers know, that wasn’t the first Academy blunder, nor will it be the last. It is really shameful that McKellan’s performance was not given the kudos it deserved.

As for the historical arguments about Richard, well, we may never know if he was an ordinary guy or the nasty scoundrel of Shakespeare. And that is just as well. I would hate to lose Richard, the greatest villain of all.