Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Quality Street (1937)

A few years ago I was up in Duluth, Minnesota looking for someplace quiet, to grab a bite when we suddenly the perfect place: a small restaurant, with a kitschy, pseudo Russian theme that served custom-made burritos named after Rasputin and the like. It was as if the universe had reached into my brain and conjured up exactly what I needed to make me perfectly happy. I've treasured that memory, odd as it may seem, because I felt like it was evidence that of the interconnectedness of all things.

I was content to live my life with just that one instance of planetary alignment, but the other day it happened again. I was home sick, feeling very much in need of a cinematic pick-me-up, something light and frothy with just a touch of screwball. I needed one of those rare tonic films. To complicate matters, I was also feeling very Jane Austen-y since watching The Young Mr. Pitt had reminded me of the early 19th century and, inevitably, of Austen. I picked disconsolately through my Austen DVDs. Sense and Sensibility was too sad. (I always, always cry like a baby when Marianne almost dies). Pride and Prejudice was just too long, Emma was not quite right and Bridget Jones was definitely not on the bill. I scanned my Tivo and alighted randomly on the description of Quality Street: a young woman (Katharine Hepburn) becomes an old maid waiting for a young man (Franchot Tone) to return from the Napoleonic Wars. OK, Kate Hepburn and Franchot Tone--I'm there already. Throw in Napoleonic Wars and you've definitely got me intrigued. And doesn't this outline sound just a little bit like...PERSUASION?! Oh, Universe, you've done it again. You've reached into my brain and provided me with exactly what I wanted, when I wanted it.

What a fun discovery this movie was. It IS a screwball version of Persuasion. Take out Louisa's head injury and add in Anne Elliott posing as her own coquettish, young niece, and you more or less have Quality Street. This film has all the tea-swilling, pelisse-wearing, repressed-sexual-smoldering of a Jane Austen adaptation and all the chaotic misunderstandings and physical gags of 1930s RKO comedies. The story is based a play by Edwardian playwright, James M. Barrie, best known for his novel Peter Pan. The ever-competent George Stevens directs.

Franchot Tone, whom I've liked ever since he took my attention, however briefly, away from Cary Grant in Suzy, is really great here. I've rarely seen him in comedies, and he definitely shines in the part of the cocky young man who is humbled when he actually has to pursue a woman. Even while he chases "niece" Olivia, hoping to reign her in as a favor to spinster aunt Phoebe, he tips his hand in just the right places to show the audience that it's Phoebe he really loves. Hepburn, is excellent as well, belying the old story that she learned everything she knew about comic timing from Walter Catlett in Bringing Up Baby (1938).

If it's so great, why doesn't Quality Street top the list of Hepburn films from this her infamous "box office poison" period---a list that includes such gems as Sylvia Scarlet, Stage Door and Bringing Up Baby? Maybe it's the 19th century setting that puts people off. We think of Hepburn as a modern actress and prefer her comedies edgy and hip. There's nothing particularly edgy about Quality Street,--none of the cross-dressing deviance of Scarlet, or the risque undercurrents to Baby's fast-moving mayhem. (My bone! It's rare! It's precious!) Quality Street has remained quietly buried, dug up once a year when TCM does a Katharine Hepburn tribute; I captured it only through exhaustive Tivo-ing. But if you have any interest in Katharine Hepburn, Franchot Tone, 1930s comedy, or Jane Austen, I'd say you definitely want to make the effort to watch this one.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Young Mr. Pitt (1942)

Certain Robert Donat films so deserve a DVD release that I feel compelled to do some kind of civil disobedience on their behalf. That's it: I'm going to lie down in the middle of the street until The Young Mr. Pitt comes out on DVD. Not only is it one of Donat's most important performances, it's directed by Carol Reed for Pete's Sake. Carol Reed! You've heard of the The Third Man, right?

I apologize for the poor quality of the screencaps and their limited number. The DVD I obtained was a bootleg made when the movie was shown on TV in England. My computer didn't like this particular DVD very much so I only have captions from the first 40 minutes of the film. Grrrr. But yeah, we really need a DVD of this wonderful film.

Robert Donat plays Pitt the Younger, an obscure, idealist, reform-minded MP in late 18th century England who is suddenly thrust into the premiership as part of a complicated back room deal between the outgoing government and the King. William Pitt was the youngest Prime Minister in British history and his administration was dubbed the "mince pie government" because everyone assumed it would be over by the end of the Christmas season. Of course, if the guy is a subject of a biopic he must have lasted longer than that. He sees Britain through the dark early days of the Napoleonic Wars promoting a then-obscure young seaman named Horatio Nelson to leader of the navy. Nelson's triumph over the French fleet in Egypt suddenly turns the tide of the war and Pitt's popularity skyrockets. All this from a man who promised his father that he'd never seek fame in war.

The ever-fickle public call for peace, though Pitt is sure that Napoleon has no plans to retire anytime soon. He is sure they will be called to defend themselves and their allies again and again. Pitt is in love with the daughter (Phyllis Calvert) of one of his powerful constituents and they become secretly engaged, which was quite the scandalous thing back in the day. His health is wavering as well, so he plans to step down as Prime Minister as soon as he can groom a successor. It looks like the anti-slavery activist William Wilberforce would be the perfect candidate. Fate begs to differ, Pitt is trapped at the helm and money troubles eventually force him to relinquish his dream of marrying.

Donat is very good here, doing his usual schtick of playing a character from late twenties into middle age. Early in the film he plays Pitt the Elder as well. I guess Old Mr. Pitt isn't as good a movie title. It's pretty remarkable that he does manage the young part so well, and I love that he allows his middle-aged face to show through when appropriate. I think that in real life, Donat felt fairly older than his years, so I guess it's not a surprise that he plays a tired, middle-aged man with such delicate poignancy.

My favorite scene in the film involves Donat joining in a pillow fight with a bunch of little kids while Calvert looks on lovingly. His hair gets mussed up. It's all good. Of course, none of this is remotely historically accurate. In real life, Pitt was never romantically linked to any one. The filmmakers did a good job of sneaking the romance in at the edges of Pitt's life and of making the inevitable break-up reasonably believable. Of course in real-life Regency England it would have been perfectly acceptable for a Prime Minister, no matter how beleaguered by bills, to marry a rich young woman. But no matter--it all makes for some lovely angst on Donat's part.

Worth mentioning are the excellent supporting players. Robert Morley is brilliant as Pitt's rival, Charles James Fox and Raymond Lovell makes a hilarious, bumbling King George III. I think it was actually a fairly bold wartime an English monarch as so utterly incompetent. Here, the king is more concerned with his latest turnip crop than with affairs of state. Since the real King George was declared mad only a few years later, it's not such a stretch although it was his grandfather, though who was turnip-obsessed.

Parts of the film are unintentionally funny. As a Big, Important sweeping biopic it keeps reminding us of the march of history in corny ways. As Pitt the Elder watches his son sleep, the screen goes fuzzy at the edges and we cut across the Channel to baby's baptism. "Congratulations Mrs. Bonaparte," an off-screen voice intones. Later we check in on young Napoleon pwning his examination at military school. I guess this is what Robert Donat's biographer, J.C. Trewin meant when he called The Young Mr. Pitt "dated." But what does it really mean to say an old movie is dated? To me, it means that the values it espouses are irrelevant or antithetical to the modern viewer. Gone with the Wind is dated in its portrayal of happy-go-lucky slaves, for example. Still a great film, though, no? The Young Mr. Pitt must have seemed a bit fusty in 1968 when Trewin wrote Donat's biography. Give it another forty years or so and it's just fine: a nice example of British war-time filmmaking that managed to get its message across without beating you over the head with it. There is a whole sub-genre of war films that use past conflicts to make a point about the current political situation. In this case, the Napoleon=Hitler analogy works alright if you don't think about it too much. The point is that having a politician, not a king or a strongman at the wheel is bound to be complicated, but preferable to the alternatives. Some politicians, like the corrupt Fox will be a hawk or a dove depending on the prevailing winds. Actually trying to lead from one's principals is far more difficult. It's Mr. Pitt goes to Whitehall with a downer ending.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Jupiter's Darling (1955)

This was my first Esther Williams movie. I'm always amazed by the movies I think I know because I've seen lots of clips or satires of them. It's easy to sell a movie like Jupiter's Darling short. Williams plays Amytis, a Greek woman who lives in Rome around the time of Hannibal's invasion. She is trying to squirm out of a protracted engagement with Fabius, Dictator of Rome (George Sanders), when she stumbles onto Hannibal himself (Howard Keel). Amytis and her slave Meta (Marge Champion) are taken prisoner and, of course, find love as a result. Singing, dancing and flimsy excuses for underwater ballet ensue. One of the most enjoyable things about an Esther Williams movie is that almost anything is a pretext for a swimming sequence. She always wears a bathing suit under her clothes, just in case she needs to throw down. In one scene she jumps her horse off a huge cliff, leading a pack of Hannibal's men on an underwater chase that is exciting as it is graceful.

The action begins with Amytis and Meta on a shopping trip that ends with Meta buying a boyfriend, Varius (played by her real-life husband, Gower Champion), in one of several terrific numbers choreographed by Herme's Pan. Meta and Varius take turning owning one another through a plot twist or two which providies a comic foil for the mondo battle of the sexes going on between the leads. A lot of people getting tied up in this movie. I'm just sayin.

The most interesting water scene is "I have a Dream." It begins with a forgettable musical number that Esther sings while feeling up the muscle-bound statues around her pool. Then she dives under water and the statues become dudes in body paint swimming around with her. This is how shallow I am: I think a scene where a woman gets to fondle a bunch of silent guys is feminist. Heck, it's the same principle behind Jane Campion's The Piano except that I was actually entertained by Jupiter's Darling.

I admit that I watched this movie because it starred George Sanders. His character doesn't get much screen time, but he makes the most of it. Fabius has mother issues. He also wears yellow all the time. I'm not sure what this means, but Sanders gets some priceless scenes of being a ruthless dictator completely controlled by his mom. He gets to "simper" in about a dozen different ways. C'est magnifique.

So after Esther hooks up with Hannibal, of course, the first thing she does is get him in the water. He doesn't swim so she drags his whining, baritone ass along with her. I've never been a big Howard Keel fan, but I like him in this movie, because he has nice legs and he doesn't ever wear pants. Not even once. Way to go, Howard. One of my informants tells me that Keel and Sanders got along on set and spent a lot of time giggling during their scenes, which instantly makes me like Keel even more.
I heartily recommend Jupiter's Darling for the sparkling, mindless entertainment that it is. I look forward to more Esther Williams in future.

Friday, October 15, 2010

A Farewell to Arms (1932) picspam

As usual, I started off making a few caps to illustrate my review and went crazy. Warning: spoilers within.

Director Frank Borzage leaves out star Gary Cooper's face in many scenes, including a fairly long point of view sequence. I like this screen cap because it shows how skinny Coop's legs were.

I watched A Farewell to Arms fairly early in my Gary Cooper fandom. The verdict: young Gary Cooper is brain-meltingly attractive.

This scene introduces the playful relationship between Renaldi (Adolphe Menjou) and Lt. Henry. Renaldi calls him "baby" all the time which has the unintended effect of making him sound like a 1970s record producer.

Menjou is really wonderful in his role. He had been one of the biggest stars on Paramount's lot until Cooper came along, which makes the whole friendship/jealousy theme in the movie a bit more interesting, I think. Also, I love how awkwardly tall Gary Cooper must have been to act with.

Henry and Renaldi enjoy one of the "new girls" at Villa Rosa, the town brothel. Borzage never shows us any more of the girl or the brothel than this framing, which sets up the "meet cute" in the next scene. In the novel, Hemingway also describes the Villa Rosa obliquely. Henry's numerous interactions with prostitutes are summed up in a single long paragraph of verbal pastiche with snippets of dialogue and snatches of description. This book works so well as a film in part because paragraphs like that read almost like a screenplay description of a montage.

An air raid breaks up the fun at the Villa Rosa. Henry goes to a shelter and grabs the nearest naked foot he sees, thinking it must belong to the "new girl." In a wonderful reverse-Cinderella moment, the shoe doesn't fit, and Henry is embarrassed to find himself with English nurse, Catherine Barkley (Helen Hayes). None of this beautiful nonsense is in the book, but I like it because it's just so movie-ish, and because it introduces the romance in a way that's less jarring than the way it's presented in the book, where the lovers meet and immediately begin discussing the most intimate details of their lives.

"We seem to be fated to run into one another in the dark," Catherine says, in one of the screenplay's cheesiest attempts to improve on Hemingway's spare and elegant dialogue. Luckily, most of the dialogue in the film is cribbed right from the book. The film deservedly won the Oscar for cinematography. These gorgeous and romantic night scenes are part of the reason. In the novel, the meetings in the garden are awkward, closely supervised, but in the movie the lovers are free to have sex twenty minutes after they've been introduced.

I forgot my review-based excuse for making this screen cap.

This is one of the most romantic scenes in the book, and in the movie it's played in a wonderfully low-key fashion that mirrors the book. Henry is sent to the front, but he turns his ambulance back to town so that he can say good bye to Catherine. "I really wish I could kiss you, right now."

"I got blown up eating cheese," Lt. Henry answers when asked if he did anything heroic to get his war wounds. That's probably my favorite line in all of Hemingway. It's nice that the filmakers left in details like the ambulance drivers eating cold spaghetti with their fingers. In the 1950s version of the film, Lt. Henry is a lot more dashing and heroic in the battle scenes. There's nothing about cheese in the dialogue of that version.

Henry is sent to Milan, where Catherine is working as a nurse in a new hospital. This is the point in the book where Catherine and Henry have sex for the first time, after which they decide they are married, though they are not. I'm not sure why the filmmakers moved the sex scene to the beginning of the story. Although the code was not enforced at the time, A Farewell to Arms nearly failed to get a release because of the frankly sexual nature of the relationship. My guess is that the producers thought sex occuring in a fit of passion would seem more palatable to the censors than rather than a pre-meditated encounter. At any rate, this scene is still pretty hot.

Another invention for the movie: Catherine and Lt. Henry are secretly married by the priest. While they do talk as if they are married, and the priest does visit the lieutenant in the hospital, in the book they never marry.

The couple on their "wedding night." This scene is peppered with bizarre, supposedly sexy dialogue about castor oil. Borzage's camera cuts away to the search lights on the balcony, a detail taken right from the book.

Lt. Henry is sent back to the front but spends his last night in Milan with Catherine, in the classiest hotel they can find. "Darling, I wish we could do something truly sinful," Catherine opines, "but everything we do feel so innocent."
"I hate the rain. Sometimes I see me dead in it." This is one of Hemingway's most difficult lines of dialogue, I think. It's very difficult to make a statement like that and not seem completely overwrought. Hayes does a wonderful job of making Catherine seem a touch neurotic, but not as crazy or annoying as she could easily become in the hands of the wrong actor (e.g. Jennifer Jones in the 1950s remake).

The good-bye in the hotel is one of the most romantic and sad moments in the movie. Gary Cooper's height comes into play again as he picks her up, kisses her and carries her a few feet to the chair.
She looks so small when he puts her down. I think it's the simple, every day details that make this scene so powerful, the way one remembers every bitter sweet second of a parting like this. In a way, for me as a viewer, it's the end of the story because, after this moment, the movie goes off the rails, covering five chapters in five minutes of montage and, most painfully, cutting Catherine and Henry's brief period of happiness in Switzerland.

Some of the expressionistic images from Borzage's montage which collapses a great deal of the book into a five minute silent film, featuring sound effects and music. As much as I'm annoyed by this part of the movie which boils all the heart-ache and complexity of Lt. Henry down to "he deserts because his letters to Catherine come back unopened," I can't help but admire its unique beauty.

The llieutenant hops a freight train to Milan. Meanwhile, Catherine, who is pregnant, has gone to Switzerland. In the book , she goes to a town near the Swiss border, where they are reunited, make a daring escape to Switzerland in a row boat where they live happily ever after, until Catherine dies in childbirth.

Lt. Henry arrives at the hospital to find Catherine moments away from a c-section to save her life and deliver their stillborn child. This image could be Alvin York, Lou Gehrig or Longfellow Deeds-- it is such a classic Gary Cooper moment. Though he's better known for those later roles, this performance could stand alongside the best of his work from the forties.

I swear William Wyler copied this entire death scene for Wuthering Heights. I often wonder if the censors would have released this film at all if Catherine hadn't died at the end, effectively punished for her wanton ways. The studio filmed an alternative ending in which she lived; Hemingway hated it. In fact, it is said that Hemingway really disliked the entire movie with one exception: Gary Cooper. He admired Cooper so much that he insisted he be cast as the hero of For Whom the Bell Tolls.