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.