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Tea for Two (1950)
Early 50s musical enhanced by Gene Nelson and Eve Arden
Two for Tea is a standard musical from the early 1950s enhanced by Gene Nelson's dancing and Eve Arden's characteristic wisecracks. Doris Day and Gordon MacRae are obviously fine singers and work well together. But I prefer Day in the musical western Calamity Jane and in her mid-decade dramatic turns in Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much and the Ruth Etting biopic Love Me or Leave Me. MacRae always seemed wooden to me but that may have been what was required during the period. I haven't seen him in other roles which demanded more from him other than to stand up and sing. The dancing gives the film life as in the Charleston number. Nelson shines when the film becomes his in the Crazy Rhythm jungle sequence and the solo dance on the staircase. I wonder what might have happened if he had been under contract to MGM instead of Warner Bros. Would two Genes at MGM have been one Gene too many? Who can say now, but it's pleasurable to imagine Nelson in a film directed by Stanley Donen.
Girls Under 21 (1940)
Girls under 21 in 1940
I saw "Girls Under 21" at the Guild Cinema in Albuquerque as part of a Noir festival. I went with low expectations but the film surprised me. It moved at a brisk pace, had many snappy, funny, irreverent lines, and its ending seemed socially progressive rather than one artificially moralistic to satisfy the Production Code. Paul Kelly, Rochelle Hudson, and the young actresses who played the delinquents all gave good performances. Bruce Cabot, although good, really had nothing more to do than to advance the plot. The film is worth viewing.
The IMDb plot description indicates Frances, the Rochelle Hudson character, had been the wife of Smiley Ryan (Bruce Cabot) before she spent time in prison as a result of his illegal activities. This piece of information was lost on me. I don't remember any mention of a divorce or of Frances still being Smiley's wife which should have come up given her friendship with the high school teacher (Paul Kelly) -- and his interest in her -- and all the gossip and disapproving looks she receives from the women in the neighborhood. I assumed Frances and Smiley had had a less formal relationship, but one he wanted to continue given his 'your my woman' attitude. Of course, it may have been brushed over quickly in the sequence when Frances returns to her old neighborhood, spectacularly well dressed and looking so healthy after her time in jail that I was puzzled attempting to figure out why this beautiful, articulate, and stylish woman was on the steps of a tenement talking to a group of delinquent teenage girls while a multitude of dowdy women looked on with disapproval. But this was Hollywood in 1940.
Cafe Hostess (1940)
Another chance to see Ann Dvorak
"Cafe Hostess" seemed promising because of its star, Ann Dvorak, an intriguing actress whom Hollywood didn't seem to know what to do with. The film begins stylistically but immediately slows down. It's not until about midway that the drama engaged me mainly because it gives Dvorak something to do other than schmooze with potential johns while picking their pockets. Preston Foster's romantic lead performance is good even though his character is poorly written, presenting him more as a romantic ideal than a real person. I was waiting for a surprise about him that didn't happen. Wynne Gibson is fine as an aging "hostess" even though the script telegraphs early on how she will save the day. Douglas Fowley as the misogynistic gangster is properly menacing and despicable, an interesting surprise since he played the comical, exasperated film director in "Singin' in the Rain" twelve years later. I saw this film as part of a Noir festival at the Guild Cinema in Albuquerque.
When Joanna Loved Me
Joanna is a campy but enjoyable look at Mod Swingin' London. Coming near the end of 1968, it was probably the last of its genre and, as such, was ready to camp it up even if its filmmakers were not entirely conscious of this. To a certain extent, Joanna may even anticipate the nostalgia fad for the 30s and 40s that was to fully flower in the early 70s. Its self-consciousness as a film lacks the sharpness of the French New Wave and is instead more 70s self-indulgent. This is not a bad thing, however, since a benign self-indulgence is probably the film's main theme and its main virtue for those viewers who don't totally dismiss it.
My favorite part of the film occurs somewhere in the middle. Joanna, in bed with a man she picked up the night before, is forced to depart early when the man's wife unexpectedly returns home and enters the bedroom. Joanna gets out of bed nude, steps into a long, shocking pink 1930s-style gown, and leaves without saying a word. For the next several minutes of screen time, she walks through London while Rod McKuen's music plays on the soundtrack. When you think this can't go on for any longer, a male singer begins singing "When Joanna Loved Me", a song from earlier in the 60s. Now, instead of walking, we see Joanna smiling, chasing pigeons in a park, re-embracing life. Not quite the final moments of Fellini's Nights of Cabiria, but it works and it's worth at least one viewing.
White Christmas (1954)
Powerful Rosemary Clooney
White Christmas is based on or influenced by at least two Paramount films from the 1940s. Holiday Inn (1942) introduced Irving Berlin's "White Christmas", which won the Oscar for Best Song. It also plotted the story of a country inn only open on holidays, and, of course, starred Bing Crosby with his pipe and Fred Astaire as his dancing co-star. The non-singing though not bad dancing Marjorie Reynolds was cast as the female lead in what seemed to be Paramount's attempt to make a star of her in the same style that had recently failed with Mary Martin, who returned to Broadway to made show biz history.
Another film, Here Come the Waves (1944), had twin sisters (played by Betty Hutton) who were a singing act and who each got respectively paired with the film's male stars Crosby, as a successful crooner, and Sonny Tufts, as, well, Sonny Tufts, as all of them go off to win World War II. The twin sisters element gave Betty Hutton the opportunity to play one sister as serious and the other in Hutton's popular bombastic style.
These elements more or less combine in White Christmas, a typical movie musical enhanced by Technicolor and the new widescreen process VistaVision, which I believe Paramount initiated with this film. White Christmas never really interested me much, but I always liked the number, "The Best Things Happen When You're Dancing," danced by Vera-Ellen and Danny Kaye.
Rosemary Clooney's performance, however, grew more and more interesting with each viewing. This woman was not only strong but angry. About what is not so clear, but can be read as pre-women's movement discontent that somehow had seeped into a mainstream Hollywood musical, and may have been one of the reasons Clooney's film career lasted only several years. (Audiences' growing dissatisfaction with traditional movie musicals was also a factor.) Clooney and Crosby perfectly balance each other and I find it interesting to imagine them in a more serious film attempt at mid-1950s male/female relationships, although sometimes these unexpected subtexts play more successfully than a feature film which is often cursed by having to be serious drama. Still, I liked Crosby in the lesser known drama Little Boy Lost from this period while I've never been able to sit through The Country Girl, even with William Holden.
A Letter to Three Wives (1949)
An American town verging on the 1950s
"A Letter to Three Wives" was released in early 1949 as America was heading toward the conformist suburban culture of the 1950s. "Three Wives" takes place just before that turning point and, perhaps for this reason, has an innocence about it since the film has no knowledge of what will follow or where the culture was going. For me, this innocence is infused with a feeling of tenderness for a post-World War II America that might have gone in a different direction had it made other choices.
No tract houses or strip malls are here yet. It still has its "plain" Main Street. The town is close enough to New York City to commute, but still maintains its integrity as a town, and one small enough to give someone the opportunity of 'leaving town'. Television is briefly mentioned in relationship to the money that can be made from advertising on it, although the town's one TV set sits idle because the town is too far away to receive a signal. Ann Sothern's Rita is earning her substantial income writing for radio, not television as she most likely will do within a year or two.
Of the three couples, I have a soft spot for Lora Mae and Porter. I've wondered a number of times how their lives progressed after the film ended. Were they able to build a more stable relationship from what they learned about themselves after the incident with Addie, or did their marriage fall apart from other issues they were unable to resolve? In spite of the games they played, they seemed to have something real going on. I've always liked them and wished them well.
Georgy Girl (1966)
60s London well worth a (re)visit
I enjoyed "Georgy Girl" at the time of its original release, but hadn't thought about it until I recently viewed the DVD version. This revisit was well worth it: "Georgy Girl" is a delightful film.
Charlotte Rampling's Meredith is my favorite of the four main characters. Rampling has always been physically stunning, but it's her moody intellect within that keeps Meredith modern rather than a 60s icon who looks sensational in Mary Quant mini-dresses, a darker version of Julie Christie in "Darling" (a character who didn't have too much of a light side herself). Meredith is cool, in control, self-serving, brutal, and surprisingly honest about who she is. "You take me as me," she tells Jos (Alan Bates) as she cajoles him into marrying her, not so much because she's pregnant but because she's bored. It seems in Meredith's view, you can easily get rid of a pregnancy, but boredom requires more skill and is potentially a worse situation in which to find yourself. Other actresses could have successfully made Meredith a bitch, but Rampling makes her fascinating and thus strangely likable. When she exits the film, things go a bit limp, but then there's little left than to move the story to its inevitable conclusion.
Alan Bates plays Jos with such high physical and verbal energy he seems to be all the Marx Brothers rolled into one. His facial expression at the culmination of his strip during the 'I Love You' sequence suggested to me a nod to the great Harpo.
Lynn Redgrave made the role of Georgy so much her own it's difficult to believe the story that Vanessa Redgrave had been originally intended for it -- and even more difficult to imagine Vanessa playing scenes with Rampling.
The title song became a big hit at the time. In the film, the lyrics vary somewhat from the pop version, serving to set up the plot during the opening credits and then comment on its resolution at the end. In between, the song politely vanishes, leaving the classically influenced score by Alexander Faris to take over with its harpsichord riffs and its subtle playfulness. I especially liked the violin solo that accompanies the transition from orgasm to morning sickness.
The dialogue is often fast, overlapping, thrown away, or contains obscure (to me) cultural references, so it's worth enabling the English subtitles for DVD viewing. You wouldn't want to miss "Moss Bros", or Alan Bates' rapid-fire disrobing monologue, or Meredith's contempt for the concert at which she has just played violin: "Beethoven night. They're like animals."
Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965)
I saw "Bunny Lake Is Missing" for the second time last night at San Francisco's Castro Theatre. The first time was also at the Castro twelve years ago during an Otto Preminger festival. Preminger made a number of better films "Laura" and "Anatomy of a Murder" come to mind but I have a special fondness for "Bunny Lake" even though at times it drags and is overly talky.
Among the merits of casting Carol Lynley and Keir Dullea, it can be successfully argued that they look like siblings often not the case in films which works very well for this film, as does their ethereal out-of-body quality.
Criticism has been made that the role of Ann Lake was written one dimensionally and therefore offered Lynley little to do but weep and whine; but this may have been Preminger's intention to support that part of the plot that suggests Ann may not have a daughter and that Ann herself may be more than a bit unbalanced.
Dullea is an unusual looking actor who can photograph good looking or simply strange. Preminger used this well early in the film, although he seemed to lose subtlety as the narrative headed towards its denouement.
The film's superior black-and-white widescreen photography is one of its strengths. London locations and interiors are effective and impressive. I especially liked the doll hospital cellar sequence with Lynley holding an oil lamp as she moves about, the high angle shot of the backyard the begins the final sequence, and several sequences when characters pass quickly from one room to another.
The sexual subtext is not as hidden as it would have been in the 50s, but subtler, say, than after 1970; its ambiguity adds to the film's texture without getting in the way.
In fact, 1965 seems a perfect time for this film to have appeared since the cinematic fulcrum was still well placed to balance a filmmaker from older Hollywood who also enjoyed pushing the envelope. A little bit later, color photography would have been mandatory, and the characterizations would have moved into a much more bizarre, psychedelic arena.
Perhaps because of how its strengths and weaknesses combine, the film has a seductive, haunting integrity for me. As the film began with the Saul Bass titles and Paul Glass's score, I felt a pleasurable sensation of awe which I used to feel more often when seeing a movie, and which reoccurred a number of times in "Bunny Lake".
Try to see this film on a large theater screen to experience the full power of the black-and-white widescreen cinematography. Otherwise, view the letterbox DVD on a screen large enough to allow you to see details. There is much to enjoy in "Bunny Lake Is Missing", so don't miss out.
Torch Singer (1933)
A neglected Claudette Colbert gem
"Torch Singer" is a modest pre-Code gem that showcases Claudette Colbert's fine performance as a Good Woman who, after having a baby out of wedlock, becomes a pretty good Bad Woman.
Pre-Code films often offer powerful glimpses into women's lives, even in melodramas, and "Torch Singer" is no exception. I especially like the frank manner in which the pregnancy is presented, and also the relationship that develops between Sally and Dora, two young mothers in the same situation who befriend each other.
We are introduced to Sally Trent (Colbert) as she enters a charity hospital to have her baby after an affair with Michael Gardner (David Manners), a wealthy Bostonian who has left for China. In the hospital, Sally meets Dora (Lyda Roberti), another mother without a husband. The two women join together as a family of four until Dora is forced to leave after quitting her job because of sexual harassment from her boss. Alone, Sally struggles unsuccessfully to provide for herself and daughter, whose name is also Sally. In desperation, she visits the wealthy aunt of her child's father, pleading with her to take her daughter, even offering never to see the girl again. When the aunt refuses, Sally gives up her child for adoption at the charity hospital, relinquishing all rights, only asking that the Mother Superior keep Sally as the girl's name.
After several rough years, Sally Trent emerges at Mimi Benton, a notorious but successful torch singer, hardened by life but financially well-off and in control of the many men who desire her. By accident she also becomes Aunt Jenny, the hostess of a children's radio program sponsored by Pure Foods. As Aunt Jenny, Mimi tells bedtime stories filtered through her personal experiences and sings torch-inspired lullabies while encouraging the children to keep healthy by drinking Pure Food's Ovaltine-like Oltina.
During an inspired transition in character, which Colbert manages exquisitely, Mimi realizes that her daughter may be one of the many children who listen to Aunt Jenny on the radio, prompting her to encourage girls named Sally to write to Aunt Jenny. When she receives a letter from a Sally who may indeed be her daughter, Mimi rushes to meet her. The little girl turns out to be African American, not the Caucasian child of the Sally/Michael union. I braced myself, expecting a moment of condescension, but it didn't happen. Colbert brilliantly underplays, staying in character as Aunt Jenny, betraying none of Mimi's deeply felt disappointment at not finding Sally. Mimi gives the little girl a fancy box of chocolates, sits down next to her, and warmly begins telling her one of Aunt Jenny's stories as the scene ends. The unexpected integrity of this sequence surprised and gratified me, as did its subtlety, a quality sometimes lacking from more serious films exploring racial issues a couple of decades later.
The pre-Code ethic provides another refreshing element. Sally/Mimi is never forced to apologize for the life she leads. If she suffers, it's part of the situation, not because she has to be punished.
"Torch Singer" is one of the few films in which Colbert had the opportunity to show off her not-too-bad contralto. She sings several songs including "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Love," suggesting that even voices got cleaned up after the enforcement of the Production Code.
Like many of her contemporaries, Colbert could be sexy in pre-Code films in a way she rarely could in '30s films made under the constraints of the Code. In the scene in her dressing room where Mimi tells her wealthy Bostonian about having gone through hell ("It's a nice place, you must go there someday."), dressed in a shimmering Travis Banton gown and wearing dangling earrings, Colbert is a knockout.
Le brasier ardent (1923)
Go out of your way to see this film!
I saw "Le brasier ardent" in Paris last fall on the Cine Cinema Classic channel on French cable television. This intriguing film combines several genres including romantic comedy, surrealism, and the secret society serials that were popular at the time. Produced in Paris, the film offers some great location shots of the city in the early 20s, including a car chase along the Champs-Elysées. Directed and starring Ivan Mosjoukine as a detective simply named Z, the plot involves an investigation to return an emotionally drifting young wife to her older husband. The film expertly uses the physical agility of the three stars, particularly the male leads, who jump, run, slide, and fall as the plot demands. The story continually surprised and delighted me with its plot turns and its forays into surrealism and breakneck comedy. Do yourself a favor and see it.
Me and My Gal (1932)
Ingratiating pre-Code fun
"Me and My Gal" is an ingratiating pre-Code comedy-drama enhanced by spirited banter between Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett who play two young people feeling each other out as potential mates. Bennett is surprisingly good as a wise-cracking, down-to-earth waitress who speaks her mind and can easily hold her own against Tracy's New York City cop. The pre-Code era's lack of pretense about sexuality makes their impassioned kiss in the diner -- as the two knock over items on the lunch counter -- all the more humorous. Bennett, both impressed and amused by Tracy's kiss, responds: "If you're gonna kiss me like that, you're gonna have to marry me." It's a magical little moment that caused the passage of time since 1932 to drop away and left me there with them to enjoy the fun.
A sub-plot involves Bennett's newly married sister, a good girl who nevertheless can't resist her bad boy gangster ex-boyfriend. When he needs to hide from the police, she installs him in a spare bedroom, under the nose of her disabled father-in-law who is confined to a wheelchair, can't speak a word and communicates only by blinking his eyes in Morse code. Later, when everything gets resolved, Tracy tells the father-in-law that the daughter-in-law is a good kid at heart in spite of what she did, expressing pre-Code generosity for forgiveness and tolerance, even in sexual transgressions with gangsters.
Melody Cruise (1933)
Innovative editing and pre-Code sensibility
"Melody Cruise" is a breezy RKO musical made just before the beginning of the Astaire-Rogers series. Directed by Mark Sandrich (who directed five of the Astaire-Rogers films), it is still easy viewing today because of its innovative editing style and its pre-Code sensibility.
I believe this is one of the films that established the use of the playback system for musical numbers, giving filmmakers more freedom for visual creativity. Only one of its songs is presented in a traditional way of having a performer sing while another listens, and even this progresses into a sequence of invention. Other songs are often spoken by various members of the chorus, each saying one line -- at one point, just a single word -- as the musical narrative proceeds. The song, "He's Not the Marrying Kind," perfectly illustrates this.
The musical numbers play energetically with the editing and seem to enjoy their own inventiveness. The opening sequence shows how movies can create an engaging musical number out of such non-musical elements like someone pushing a broom, a man blowing at his hands to keep warm, a shop sign swinging in the wind. Only the ice skating ballet disappoints as a limp Busby Berkeley imitation.
Many transitions are done by using a wipe, a popular editing device of the period. The film editors and effects team seem to have had fun creating wipes that visually comment on the story. (The great Linwood Dunn was one of the special effects artists.) A shot of the cruise ship in rough sea with high waves wipes to a shot of Charles Ruggles feeling seasick in his stateroom by using the visual effect of water washing down the screen. A flower vase falls and "breaks" onto a cymbal in the ship's dance band just as the drummer hits it. A love dialogue between Phil Harris and Helen Mack is protracted over a number of scenic California locations, first through diagonal wipes and then jump cuts.
Naughty pre-Code elements are embodied, literally, in the presence of Vera and Zoe (Shirley Chambers and June Brewster), two party girls who pass out in Ruggles' cabin after the bon voyage party instead of leaving the ship. When told their clothes have been thrown overboard, Vera reminds Zoe: "It's possible, Zoe. You know whenever you get a few drinks in you, you always want to take your clothes off."
The film offers an early version of the driver's license/marriage license scene the ended George Cukor's version of "Born Yesterday".