Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Count of Monte Cristo (1934)

This poster image is bad ass, isn't it? Robert's all like, "Yo my sword is sharper than yours!" Also colorization is quaint and good fun when it was contemporaneous to the film. (But so annoying when it's tacked on later!) They need you to know that his shirt is baby blue. Cool!

This movie has everything I could want: sword fighting, lost treasure, a prison break, elaborate revenge plots involving calf bound books and Robert Donat in a Regency era naval uniform. I've pretty much died and gone to heaven folks and they were playing Count of Monte Cristo.

It's well known that Robert Donat turned down the lead role in Captain Blood, leaving the door open for Errol Flynn to make his name synonymous with swashbuckling. But it wasn't until I watched the Count of Monte Cristo, that I saw why he was Hollywood's first choice for the part. Donat transforms from "unsophisticated" young Navy man, into a somewhat crazed prisoner with a HUGE beard, then into the sleek, calculating, seemingly-hard-hearted Count all within two hours.

Elissa Landi plays his lady love, who if not entirely faithful at least has the good sense to feel bad about marrying his rival after she believe Edmund dead. Landi has some great scenes when Donat returns to her life, first in silent recognition, then breaking down at his seeming indifference to her. I love scenes where people are emotionally gutted but they have to play it cool. Guess that's why I like Jane Austen adaptations so much. I'd previously only known Landi from the Cary Grant movie "Enter Madame" for which I've always had a soft spot. Donat and Landi also have some nice love scenes together up in a tree, a device entirely invented for the movie, I think. It's a great trick though, if you can get a girl in period costume up a tree she pretty much has to accept your proposal of marriage or face a really awkward time getting down.

There are some memorable supporting performances from perpetual villain Louis Calhern and O.P Heggie as the prisoner/scholar/saint Abbe Faria. Heggie had a whole career out of playing crazed hermit types, as he played the memorable Hermit in James Whale's Bride of Frankenstein.

On the whole, Count of Monte Cristo is good swashbuckling fun. It sticks pretty close to the novel and moves at an efficient pace. After a bit of googling I see that the movie was referenced in V for Vendetta. You'd think having a clip being shown in a disappointing adaptation of an Alan Moore comic would guarantee DVD sales, right? Apparently not, as this movie is mighty hard to find. (Thanks to awesome KDA who sent me a copy.) This film really deserves a big shiny, new DVD release and a big shiny new audience to appreciate it.

Bonus Eye Candy: That Diabolical Disguise

This still allows you to see the incredible disguise that Edmund Dantes worked out for his Count of Monte Cristo revenge plot: Gray hair and a mustache! Seeing Robert Donat here in regency era fancy man's clothes is really making me wish Jane Austen adaptations would have been more popular in the 1930s. Oh time machine, where are you when I need you!? Also this picture has gone straight to my boots and shirtsleeves screensaver. If you adjust the contrast you can see the boots, though, really you will loose the face detail. All this nattering just proves my earlier point that the movie needs a better DVD release so I can make screen caps.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Mad About Music (1938) versus What A Girl Wants (2003)

I was watching this Herbert Marshall movie recently (I'm shocked, SHOCKED, you say) and it really reminded me of this Colin Firth movie, I may or may not have taped off the Disney channel. (I admit NOTHING.) If either Herbert Marshall or Colin Firth interest you, you may find it amusing to know that they made pretty much the same movie about 60 years apart: Mad about Music and What a Girl Wants.

Both films were vehicles for their teen idol female ingenues. Mad About Music showcases the singing and acting of young Deanna Durbin and What a Girl Wants showcases the talents of Nickolodeon-spawned singer/actress Amanda Bynes. Both movies feature a teenage girl getting to know her father, though in the case of Mad About Music, Marshall's character isn't really her father, but a composer at rest in the small Swiss town where Durbin is at boarding school. She randomly picks him up from the train hoping to prove to her friends that her made-up safari hunting daddy is real. The deceit causes confusion, some rather thin laughs and is an excuse at one point for Durbin to fake-yodel (Faux-dell?) In What a Girl Wants Colin Firth is a British politician whose newly discovered teenage daughter could cost him an election. Naturally the deceit causes confusion, some rather thin laughs and excuses for musical interludes. I may be tipping my hand toward the past a bit, but the music in What A Girl Wants made me positively pine for the fauxdelling.

OK so I admit 90% of writing this post was the needing an excuse to post this picture of Colin Firth barefoot. In very high resolution. Right-click save, my foot fetish friends. Right Click Save.

In many way Firth and Marshall have similar career trajectories. They both played leading men (and the occasional stock Brit villain) in romantic comedies. They always seem to be mid-thirties, somehow, in these films, though Marshall didn't become a movie star until he was forty. He played young, until one day, he started finally playing middle-age. At a certain point the leading man roles became thin on the ground so they switched to playing cuckolds, married playboys and dads. Both these movies are early entries in the "dads" ouevres for both actors. Firth still manages the occasional romantic comedy lead, but really his fans should get used to seeing him playing father to precocious teenage girls. Try not to vomit. It's Colin Firth. He's totally worth enduring the likes of What a Girl Wants. Oh hey speaking of Colin Firth, Mick LaSalle named Bridget Jones Diary the best romantic Comedy of the decade. So yay! And there's some talk that he might win an Oscar or something, in which case I may have to break my decade of indifference to the ceremony.

It's an encouraging thought that movie musicals tend to still be made for young people. I may not like the music, but then I'm not really supposed to. One fun thing about Mad about Music is the appearance of a harmonica band in the final scene. I just watched the movie a week or so ago, but already I've forgotten the preposterous plot excuse for a harmonica band turning up at a girl's school in Switzerland. I've always had a soft spot for harmonica bands ever since I found that Jerry and the Harmonicats record in a dumpster. (I mean really, how could you throw something like that away. The cover alone is priceless, but I digress...). If I gave stars to movies, I'd give an extra star to Mad about Music for Cappy Barra.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Thunder Rock (1942)

I must begin this post with a confession. I love Michael Redgrave. He's near the tops in my own personal League of Obscure British Actors. The particular era of Michael Redgrave that I love, is his matinee idol period (1936-1952). I've gone to great lengths to obtain some of the more obscure titles from this time in his filmography, so it is always exciting when a new one turns up, as was the case with Thunder Rock. I was further delighted when I realized that this movie was all Michael. It's practically a one-man show, though James Mason does turn up briefly in a small supporting role. (I love James mason, too, by the way). The rest of the cast play imaginary characters born out of the imagination of David Charleston, failed writer, light-house keeper and professional daydreamer. So much relies on Michael and he does an admirable job of carrying the weight of the story. Why then, was I disappointed with the movie? Perhaps its just that it was too much Michael Redgrave, the great actor and not enough Michael Redgrave the matinee idol. Where was the irrepressible, plucky charm of Gilbert in The Lady Vanishes? Where was the shy romantic of The Remarkable Mr. Kipps? They were gone and in their place was an angry, depressed man who was on the verge of a complete mental break. There were shades of the disillusioned middle-aged characters he played in The Browning Version, Time Without Pity and The Quiet American. There was even a little bit of Maxwell Frere the psychotic ventriloquist from Dead of Night.

The story of Thunder Rock unfolds as a bit of mystery. We learn that a lighthouse keeper hasn't been cashing paychecks. He is acting strangely and we see him drinking a lot and arguing with his only real friend, the pilot, Streeter (James Mason). When Streeter leaves David becomes surrounded by a group of people. He interacts with them and though they interact with him, they seem strangely different. Here lighting and expressionist camera angles go a long way toward giving the feeling that something isn't right. An eerie, tense mood predominates throughout the film, which keeps its secrets as long as possible. It's competently put together, well-acted and memorable in the twists and turns of the thriller plot.

The film ends by explaining that Charleston decided to exile himself in his lighthouse prison because he was a passionate journalist who campaigned against the policy of appeasement in the Second World War. Perhaps this was an attempt to bring some wartime relevance to a popular stage role which Redgrave had already played successfully in the theater. I think that his plucky Gilbert from the Lady Vanishes is a far more useful propaganda tool and is far more entertaining to boot. Thunder Rock is great performance from Redgrave, though, and while it is stagey because it's based on a play and bound to a single location set, it still absorbs. That I would even prefer to see the inferior Remarkable Mr. Kipps to Thunder Rock, is one of the many, many reasons I should never be a real film critic. Yes, it's a good movie and he's a great actor, but he's just so much cuter in this other movie. What am I like 12? I have no defense for this logically, so the best I can do is post the following wholly gratuitous eye candy which proves, if nothing else, the man could rock a chunky knit.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Random Harvest (1942)

Random Harvest is over-blown, terribly long, hokey and strangled by an over-wrought score of high-pitched violins that kick in whenever anything even remotely important is about to happen. So yeah, you know, I loved it!

Greer Garson and Ronald Colman could literally read the phone book for two hours and a half and I would be into it. I just switched my critical faculties off after the first twenty minutes and coasted on pure star power. I'm pretty sure that was what MGM was counting on when put this turkey together. Based on a novel by James Hilton (Good-bye Mr. Chips), the story follows the life of an amnesiac who meets a show girl, gets married, has a baby and then get's hit on the head and forgets everything that happened since the "reset" button got hit last, but remembers his original life. He returns home, inherits a fortune, become an MP, hires his wife as his secretary without recognizing her (like ya do) and almost marries a much younger woman. To which I say, I don't care how bad you've got amnesia, you don't forget Greer Garson in a mini kilt.

The film begins promisingly enough with a moody atmosphere. I wouldn't be surprised if Hitchcock had seen this and decided to build Spellbound around the premise of a beautiful, vulnerable woman who falls in love with a psychologically damaged man. The first third of the film has a nice taught quality of which even Hitchcock would be proud, and it's not really until the hero's second amnesia that I began to loose patience with the premise. "Just whack him over the head with a big old mallet to restore his memory. Have you not seen Looney Toons? Sheesh."

Coleman won best actor for his performance as the man with the double life and had Greer Garson not won that year for Mrs. Miniver, she probably would have been at least nominated for her performance as well. Both are excellent. It's great to see Coleman, normally so suave and be-ascoted reduced to stuttering, and disheveled paranoia. It's totally plausible that he might meet someone as composed, caring and gorgeous as Garson and not only fall in love but more or less cure himself as an act of seduction. Spellbound is about a woman looking at a man and trying to figure him out (which makes it unique and even radical for its day) and Random Harvest is about a man looking at a woman and trying to remember what it is about her that he loves. It is also unique and radical because it proposes the idea that love might go deeper than attraction, or even sentiment and be related to a capacity for joy. Break that capacity for joy and you could put the same girl in front of you and not feel a thing. While I'm not sure I buy this psychological mumbo jumbo any more than I buy Salvidore Dali's overly obvious dream sequence in Spellbound, I still was greatly entertained watching both these actors marking through these emotions and felt all the relief and warmth you could hope for when they finally worked it out. Still, though, really, a mallet would have been quicker!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Chemistry 101

What is meant when people talk about actors having chemistry? I'll start off by telling you what I DON'T mean by chemistry. The phrase has become a kind of lazy shorthand to describe either acting quality or likability of an actor. If two actors are not managing to convey that they are in love when they are supposed to be, it is not because of a "lack of chemistry" but generally a lack of acting. Take for example The Proposal. Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds utterly failed to convince me that they were in love by the end of the movie. Part of the problem was a script which substituted movie cliche's for any kind of original take on romance. Even with a cliched script, I've seen plenty of romantic movies that still managed to convince me of the underlying conceit that the two main characters are in love. About half the story lines in Love Actually would serve as an example. We believe the couple is in love because the actors have conveyed that to us in some way either through body language, their ease and rapport with one another or through good timing in the pacing of their dialog. The way people use words in a romantic movie should be like the way Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers use bodily movement in their films.

How do you convey love? Well, I think it starts by portraying physical attraction. In many cases it is enough to portray lust. And this is where it gets tricky and the viewer's own feelings get tangled up in their assessment. Many female viewers have a hard time buying Scarlett's preference for Ashley Wilkes over Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind. Maybe it's just that we're not Victorian Ladies, but modern women, trained by year of viewing movies in which the "bad boy" is redeemed to be the ultimate catch. It doesn't help that Clark Gable was the prototype bad boy. This is a tricky one for me as well, and I have had to put aside my personal indifference to the charms of Leslie Howard on numerous occasions. When it comes to same sex assessment (and I do apologize for the hetro normative bias here, people) I think we have a tendency to like those actors whom we can imagine portray some facet of ourselves or whom we would like to be. I can't exactly relate to Ingrid Bergman because well, she is a Goddess, but I can relate to the insecurity that she frequently hides beneath a barrier of coolness or deflective humor. Cause, like I totally do that too! I love Bette Davis because she conveys qualities such as strength, courage and self-sufficiency that I wish I had in greater quantities.

So when I see an actress whom I like (Ingrid Bergman) paired with an actor whom I don't find particularly attractive (Humphrey Bogart) what is the result? Well if they are good actors, the result is Casablanca. It should still be a fantastic movie if all the other pieces are in place. Bogart and Lauren Becall had great chemistry together on screen. They should. They were sleeping together in real life. But Bogart has equally convincing chemistry with Ingrid Bergman. You really believe that they were lovers once and that they have been greatly effected by their brief affair and that the whole thing is about to come to an explosive conclusion at Rick's Cafe American. And yet, I find Paul Henreid more attractive and think that Ingrid's fate of returning to him would be a no-brainer for me. It doesn't matter what I think though, because good acting can overcome taste.

Sometimes though, good acting is not enough and neither is personal attraction. Take the example of Laurence Olivier and Vivian Leigh in Fire Over England. This is a screen couple who should have incendiary chemistry on screen. They were married in real life. Olivier is beautiful and Vivian Leigh is an actress I've always admired for her ability to maintain her dignity in undignified situations. And yet, Olivier and Leigh are completely blah together on screen. Olivier does better in scenes with May Robson and Tamara Desni. What the...? I think it is because Leigh and Olivier are both such big actors that they weren't giving the other person enough space on screen. And that is really the only logical explanation because in That Hamilton Woman, a later performance, they are terrific.

This brings up an important thing that I've observed over the years, that chemistry, whatever it is, is not necessarily created instantly, but is often the product of years of working together. Cary Grant and Irene Dunne are wonderful together in The Awful Truth. And yet, by their third film together, their comic timing and their ease with one another was so great that in comparison they seem a bit awkward in the earlier performance. They hide it well with lots of hostility, which is in the language of screwball comedy, a byword for love and attraction. But their love scenes together are flat in comparison to Penny Serenade, or My Favorite Wife, both of which are far more effective at convincing the audience that this is a married couple. Though these later films are vastly inferior to The Awful Truth in many respects I still enjoy watching them because of the chemistry between Dunne and Grant.

Sometimes dislike photographs as "like" and accounts for chemistry. In Wuthering Heights Olivier and his co-star Merle Oberon famously hated one another. They fought on set and Oberon told people that Olivier was repulsive with bad breath and a habit of spitting when he spoke. This fed perfectly into the underlying theme of movie which is the blurring of the lines between love and hate. After the Production Code came into force in 1934, sex became sublimated as hostility. It is to the point now that when we see a couple who argues or dislikes each other in the first five minutes of the movie, we are perfectly correct in guessing that they will wind up together. Now this is an old trope, that goes back to Much Ado About Nothing (and probably further-- if I were any student of the Classics at all, I could think of a decent pre-Shakespeare example), but it has come to so dominate the genre of Romantic Comedy that there is almost no other pattern of putting people together in contemporary American Movies. And you know what? I'm totally fine with that. I loved Bridget Jones Diary and I'm looking forward to seeing that new movie with Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin. Opposites still attract, and chemistry, whatever it is, is still king.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Blonde Venus (1932)

I cringed, I cried like I was chopping a great big sweet vadalia and gosh darn it, if I didn't enjoy myself thoroughly. That's my one sentence, Gene Shallit-zed review of Blonde Venus.

This is one of many early Cary Grant films that I watched mainly for Cary and more or less forgot about. Grant has a smallish part as Nick Townsend the millionaire playboy who gets entangled with married showgirl Helen "Jones" Faraday (Marlene Dietrich.)

The next time I watched the movie, I was keeping an eye out for Herbert Marshall plays Dietrich's husband, a chemist, who is dying of radium poisoning. He needs $1,500 for the cure. His wife goes back to work on the stage, but decides she can make the money more quickly by shacking up with Nick Townsend. While her husband is in Germany being cured, she and Townsend have a long fling that includes some speedboat riding--one of Hollywood's favorite visual codes to represent free love.

It's clear that Dietrich has feelings for Townsend but decides to return to her husband. Unfortunately, he gets cured a few days early and comes home to an empty apartment and the unopened telegram, explaining his early return. Not exactly overwhelmed with gratitude when he finds out just how his wife raised the money to save his life, he threatens to divorce her and take custody of their son, Johnny. Dietrich kidnaps Johnny, played by professional toe-head Dickie Moore, and spends the next two reels hiding from her husband and the various private detectives he hires. When poverty, starvation and exhaustion catch up with her, she reluctantly returns the boy to his father. Dietrich is devastating here, looking every inch the hungry bag lady with torn clothes and hollow cheeks. You can see she's sacrificed for her kid who is returned to daddy looking a bit disheveled but the picture of ruddy health. Audiences were used to seeing Dietrich as the vamp, but here she plays a devoted wife and mother, albeit with her own peculiar spin on the institution. Of course, director Joseph Von Sternberg would never let her look dowdy and for my money Dietrich is never sexier than she is riding in a hay wagon with Johny singing him a German lullaby.

Speaking of lullabies, what makes Blonde Venus rise above the typical melodrama, are the three numbers Dietrich performs: I Couldn't Be Annoyed in her trademark tuxedo, the charmingly unintelligible You So and So and Hot Voodoo, a production number that you have to see to believe. When I saw Blonde Venus in a theater about a decade ago, this scene drew audible gasps from the audience. Dietrich arrives on stage in a fairly realistic gorilla costume with a back up chorus of black dancers in "native African" (in a 1930s nightclubby kind of way) costume. She pulls off the gorilla head to reveal a blond afro wig with rhinestone studded arrows poking out. Can you say "racially insensitive" boys and girls? But dang if it ain't also highly entertaining.

After the music, the thing I appreciated most was the complex nature of this love triangle. Dietrich is torn between two men, both of whom she cares for; and two lifestyles, both of which have attraction. There are no villains or heroes here. I won't go so far as to say it's realistic. Remember the radium poisoning, the gorilla suits and the speed boat. It's just that the decision to return to her husband isn't as pat and pre-figured as it would be if it were made a few years later.

Blonde Venus humanizes Dietrich's image one minute and immortalizes it the next with plenty of lavish costumes and Sternberg-ian lighting set-ups. Dietrich is an icon today in part because her irony and her androgynous and sophisticated sexuality still resonate with modern audiences. She has a unique style of singing, talking, even walking that is undeniably fascinating. And yet, I don't think she would be as popular today if she had not proven time and time again that she really could act. Blonde Venus is some of her strongest work. Though I watched it for her co-stars, they are little more than arm candy. It is Dietrich who owns the film and captures every second of the audience's attention.