Friday, May 22, 2020

Gimme Shelter: Classics for Comfort

The Classic Movie Blog Association is hosting its annual spring blogathon from May 19 – 22. This year’s theme is “Classics for Comfort,” about films that soothe us in difficult times. Click here for more info and links to participating blogs.
When we first began to shelter-in-place in my area two months ago, I pulled a Marilyn Monroe collection from the shelf. What could lighten the heart more than frolicking through Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, How to Marry a Millionaire, The Seven Year Itch and Some Like it Hot? Not much. And so I did. Seems a very long time and lots of movies ago now. Among the films I’ve watched since then that have given solace or relief in different ways are these. 

Sullivan’s Travels (1941), directed by Preston Sturges, starring Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake, with William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn, Porter Hall and many others. You can always count on Preston Sturges for laughs – along with much wit - and Sullivan’s Travels provides plenty of both. The story is set during in the depths of the Great Depression, making it an apt choice and a real tonic for the times we’re in right now.

Joel McCrea is John “Sully” Sullivan, a relatively successful Hollywood director. Though his filmography seems to consist mostly of light musicals and slapstick comedies, he has become obsessed with making a film that will “hold up a mirror,” a film about the “problems of the average man,” a sociological film about the suffering of humanity. “Something like Capra,” perhaps.  However, Sully went to boarding school, is a college grad and as is pointed out to him by all who know him, he knows zero about hard luck. But he’s determined to make his serious film, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”,  and so ends up going on the road to learn more about the down-and-out life. Sully gets more than one lesson on his road trip and eventually ends up mistaken for one of the “forgotten men,” the tramps and hobos who roamed the country, out of work and “on the bum” during the Depression. I have a soft spot for The Lady Eve, my sentimental favorite from Sturges, but there’s no denying that Sullivan’s Travels, a beautifully constructed comedy that also reflects, without a heavy hand, on harsh reality, may  be his best. Preston Sturges dedicated the movie “To the memory of those who made us laugh…” Bless them. And bless him. 

I Know Where I’m Going! (1945) is from the British production company The Archers, headed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, that produced Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948). This film, unlike those two better known classics, is a less “epic” - though no less magical - sort of film, a black and white romance starring Wendy Hiller and Roger Livesey.

The story follows an ambitious young woman, Joan Webster (Hiller), a white collar factory employee, as she travels from Manchester to the exotic Scottish Hebrides where she will marry a much older wealthy man, the owner of the factory where she works. She is a modern young woman, very stylish and quite determined. But nature, in the form of a heavy storm, will prevent her from embarking on the last leg of her journey. There is also a man (Livesey) of her own age she has just met who poses another kind of obstacle. While Joan waits for the weather to clear, she will enter a world that is not modern at all, in fact there is powerful evidence of the ancient and the primal everywhere around her.

What I love about I Know Where I’m Going! is the reverie that takes hold as the film becomes more and more removed from modern day. As time passes, Joan encounters not only wild nature but also longstanding tradition and the bond between neighbors in an antique out-of-the-way little village.  Cinematographer Erwin Hillier creates a rich and evocative world of bewitching shadows and shapes. The interiors, from a smart Manchester nightclub to the character-drenched homes, inns and shops of the Hebrides, are the inspired work of Alfred Junge who would go on to win an art direction Oscar for Black Narcissus. And there is Wendy Hiller who seamlessly portrays Joan’s transition from stubborn determination and certainty to rising confusion, an upsurge of bullheadedness and, finally, liberation. This is a special film, lyrical and fierce at the same time, and ideal for a time when spirits needs lifting. 

Max Ophuls' La Ronde
La Ronde (1950). This French classic directed by Max Ophuls is an adaptation of a famously naughty work by German playwright Arthur Schnitzler. Set in Old Vienna, La Ronde reflects the opulence and festive atmosphere of the fin de siècle era in that city. Ten interconnected vignettes depict a series of seductions with each episode (except one) depicting a romantic liaison that connects to the next. Oscar Straus's waltz theme weaves through La Ronde reflecting mood and tone - and cuing the lovemaking about to begin or coming to an end. The rhythmic pattern of the film gives Ophuls an ideal framework in which to showcase his virtuosity with the camera. The combined effect of revolving stories and characters and a camera ever in motion conjures a dance, a scrupulously synchronized and choreographed Viennese waltz. 

La Ronde features some of the great stars of mid-century European cinema. From France there is Simone Signoret, Simone Simon, Daniel Gelin, Danielle Darrieux, Fernand Gravey, Odette Joyeux, Jean-Louis Barrault and Gerard Philipe. From Italy, Isa Miranda, and in the pivotal role of master of ceremonies, Anton Walbrook of Austria. Those who desire an escape from the grueling news of the day will find considerable merriment and urbane humor in Max Ophuls' La Ronde.

Hitchcock is always a reliable go-to for me when I need a cinematic hug. He understood better than most how to sweep viewers into a tale and hold them there to be thrilled, terrified or mesmerized at his mercy.

Much as I bow at the altar of Vertigo and Psycho, I haven't either of those two yet, for each in its own way seems a little too jarring for times as tense and anxious as these have been so far. But I have watched Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, North by Northwest, Dial M for Murder, Notorious and wonderful Rebecca. 

Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much
A few days ago I found myself streaming The Man Who Knew Too Much, the 1956 remake of Hitchcock’s 1934 original. I’ve never thought of it as top-tier Hitch, but it has its attractions.  There’s the lure of faraway locations, in this case Morocco early in the film and London later on, a compelling story line involving international intrigue, a kidnapping and the portentous crash of cymbals. Of course, the film’s top-billed stars are two of the most easy-going, comfortable actors you could ask for, Doris Day and James Stewart. They are joined by a first-rate international supporting cast including Britain’s  Brenda de Banzie, Daniel Gelin from France, and Austrian Reggie Nalder as a most sinister assassin. And the film boasts an outright hilarious final scene that passes so quickly you almost miss it. My only complaint is that at least a minute or two of Doris Day singing “Que Sera, Sera” could’ve been cut without hurting a thing. 

Moonstruck (1987). I couldn’t leave this modern classic off my list since it is one of the first films I turned to once we were directed to stay at home. Along with a few other memorable romantic comedies – The Shop Around the Corner and Breakfast at Tiffany’s come to mind - this is a most consoling and satisfying film. To begin with, it’s the best romcom of the ‘80s (and there were some good ones in that decade).  And, as much as it is a charming romantic comedy, it is also an amusing and insightful family story. Alla famiglia!

Cher is a widowed young-ish accountant, Loretta Castorini, in South Brooklyn’s Italian-American enclave. She lives at home with her mother, a housewife, her father, a prosperous plumber, and her paternal grandfather (and his five or six dogs). Loretta, who fixates on the bad luck surrounding her first marriage, will become engaged to middle-aged mama’s boy Johnny Camareri (Danny Aiello). Before the wedding, though, he must travel to Sicily and tell his dying mother of his coming marriage. But things will happen while he’s away. Directed by Norman Jewison with a script by John Patrick Shanley and starring Cher, Olympia Dukakis, Nicolas Cage, Danny Aiello, Vincent Gardenia and John Mahoney, Moonstruck could hardly miss. Nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, it won three – Cher’s best actress, Dukakis’s best supporting and Shanley’s screenplay. I love this film for all of this and…the Brooklyn setting, the working class Italian-American milieu, the quirky evolution of romance between Cher and Cage. Actually, everything. That’s amore!


Along with my hope that you will watch and enjoy these films, My greater hope is that all of you and your families and friends and neighbors will remain safe and healthy.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

6 from the '60s for National Classic Movie Day

It's May 16, National Classic Movie Day, and Rick over at the Classic Film & TV Cafe is hosting his annual blogathon to celebrate the occasion. This year the subject is 6 from the '60s, in which each participating blogger puts the spotlight on six films of that decade. Click here to find out more and for links to all participating blogs.


In the preface to his detailed tour of the decade, The Fifties, Pulitzer Prize winning reporter/author David Halberstam begins with, "The fifties were captured in black and contrast, the decade that followed was, more often than not, caught in living color." Even so, most of the '60s movies featured in this post were shot in black and white (though the two shot in color made brilliant use of their palettes), and the first film on my '60s list won an Oscar for its black and white art direction...

1. The Apartment (1960), directed by Billy Wilder, written by Wilder and Izzy Diamond, starring Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine and Fred MacMurray. This is one of Billy's very best and the film of his most honored by the Academy. Nominated for 10 Oscars, it won five: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Art Direction and Best Editing. The film's other nominations were for Lemmon and MacLaine's lead performances, Jack Kruschen's supporting role, and for cinematography and sound.

Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine

Contemporary director Cameron Crowe has called The Apartment a "potent martini of a movie." Yes, and a martini with more flavor than most, from its then-racy subject of infidelity and hanky-panky in the corporate workplace to its sharp and witty script, the dazzling performances of Lemmon and MacLaine, its superb production design (Alexandre Trauner) and musical theme (Charles Williams). This is the film that launched Jack Lemmon as an enduring lead actor, made Shirley MacLaine a star, and proved - as Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944) had already plainly illustrated - that Fred MacMurray's range as an actor was much broader than most recognize. MacLaine deserved the "actress in a leading role" Oscar for 1960, but the Academy happened to be voting just at the moment Elizabeth Taylor barely survived life-saving emergency surgery on her windpipe. Taylor, whose death was prematurely - if only momentarily - reported worldwide, would ultimately take Best Actress for her performance in the third-rate melodrama, Butterfield 8. MacLaine later joked, "I lost to a tracheotomy." 

2. Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), directed by Blake Edwards, screenplay by George Axelrod based on Truman Capote's novella, starring Audrey Hepburn, with George Peppard, Patricia Neal, Martin Balsam and Mickey Rooney. Academy Awards for score and song ("Moon River"), nominations for Best Actress, art direction and screenplay.

George Peppard, Audrey Hepburn and Patricia Neal

Set in vibrant Manhattan during the late '50s/early '60s, the film features effervescent Audrey Hepburn gowned impeccably and enviably by Hubert de Givenchy, her hair swept into a never-to-be-surpassed updo called the "beehive,"  bedecked in jewels, hats and shoes to die for. The story is based on a short Truman Capote piece about a nomadic young woman, Holly Golightly, stylishly afloat in the big city's fast lane. Neither a prostitute nor a call girl, she is a rudderless beauty, a sometime model, who has fallen into the life of what was once known as a "party girl." These ladies did not exactly have a set price tag, but there was the unspoken understanding that if the escort of an evening provided the requisite dinner, drinks, entertainment and a reasonable amount of "powder room" cash, he would likely spend the night with her. This is Holly's "madcap" lifestyle when a young writer (Peppard) moves into her building and a relationship begins to develop between them. The romcom of the 1960s.

3. Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962), directed and written by Agnes Varda, starring Corrine Marchand. French with English subtitles. Varda was nominated for the 1962 Palme d'Or at Cannes for this film.

Corrine Marchand

Marchand portrays Cleo, a popular French pop singer who hasn't been well and will soon - today - get the results of a biopsy that will either provide great relief or deliver very bad news. As she awaits her diagnosis, the camera follows her in near-real time - from 5 to 7 - as she wanders the iconic Parisian streetscape of the early 1960s. This French New Wave groundbreaker was shot entirely on location in Paris and features a score by Michel Legrand (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg). The film also features José Luis de Vilallonga as Cleo's lover. Villalonga, some will remember, portrayed Holly's Brazilian lover in Breakfast at Tiffany's.

3. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), directed by John Ford, screenplay by James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck, starring John Wayne, James Stewart, Vera Miles and Lee Marvin. One Oscar nomination, for Edith Head's costume design.

James Stewart and John Wayne

"This is the West...When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." That famously oft-quoted line comes at the end of Liberty Valance underscoring how, as the Old West died and the new was born, fiction would become fact.

James Stewart portrays a U.S. senator returning to the west, the town of Shinbone where his reputation was made many years earlier, for a funeral. The senator and his wife (Miles) are greeted with much ado, but the town folk just can't understand why they've come all this way from the east to attend the funeral of a man (Wayne) no one knows. The reason unfolds in Stewart's long flashback and it turns out to be a bittersweet, legend-busting tale.

Liberty Valance would be the last of the Ford/Wayne Western classics, and a masterful final entry it is. 

4. A Hard Day's Night (1964), directed by Richard Lester, written by Alun Owen and starring The Beatles. Oscar nominations for screenplay and music.

Anyone who was ever a Beatlemaniac, not to mention the many millions who arrived in the world and became fans later on, will understand why I picked A Hard Day's Night. The band was still new to the U.S. and in the first blush of international uber-fame when the film was released in the summer of 1964. This music-packed, cinema verite-style romp gave the world a fictional - and very funny - glimpse into a day (plus) in the life of the biggest rock stars who ever lived. It was a joy then and still is. Here's the trailer, with 💓 John singing lead on the title song 💓...

6. Rosemary's Baby (1968), directed by Roman Polanski who also adapted Ira Levin's bestselling novel for the screen, starring Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes and Ruth Gordon. Oscar win for supporting actress (Gordon) and a nomination for Polanski's screenplay.

Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes
I once read that Roman Polanski went to see Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) several times in the days following its release. What he learned from the older master's most horrific work is evident in his first American film. But I also believe Polanski, like Hitchcock, has a natural genius for visual storytelling. When Rosemary's Baby came out I saw it several times early on. I was fascinated by how I'd been so thoroughly drawn into this yarn about witchcraft on Manhattan's Upper West Side, how my own point of view seemed to coincide so precisely with Rosemary's as her life became increasingly confusing and frightening. Years later I would understand that Polanski had utilized artful point-of-view camera work and imaginative framing to maneuver viewers into seeing through Rosemary's eyes and identifying with her deepening fear, anxiety and paranoia.

Rosemary's Baby, a tale of marriage and pregnancy gone wickedly off the rails, was a box office smash that opened the gate for every big-budget horror film to come - The Exorcist, The Omen and all the rest. 


Click here to read the rest of the entries in this year's National Classic Movie Day at The Classic Movie & TV Cafe. All good stuff!

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Film Series Alert! "Simenon 2020" Launch Spotlights "Inspector Maigret"

Great noir news! Midcentury Productions, the brilliant and groundbreaking little company that has so far staged six terrific French film noir festivals at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater over the past several years, is about to launch a new, unique series, Simenon 2020. The program begins with a double bill this weekend, on Sunday the 23rd at the Roxie, and will run ‘til October. Here’s what it’s all about…

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The Many Loves of Elizabeth Taylor

This is my entry for "The Wedding Bells Blogathon" hosted by Hometowns to Hollywood


She exchanged wedding vows for the first time at age 18 in 1950 and married for the eighth and final time in 1991 at 59. Of her apparent proclivity for collecting husbands, actor/composer/raconteur Oscar Levant would razz Elizabeth Taylor with the quip, "Always a bride, never a bridesmaid!"

Friday, January 10, 2020

Celebrating "The Shop Around the Corner" on its 80th Birthday

Today marks the 80th anniversary of the premiere of what has been called Ernst Lubitsch’s “most discreet tour de force of art concealing art,” The Shop Around the Corner (1940).