Lejink

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The Color of Money
(1986)

Re-do The Hustle
I deliberately watched this after "The Hustler" and it probably didn't help my appreciation of "The Color Of Money". In fact I'd say that if the principals here were movie directors that only the been-there-and-lived-it Eddie Felson could have directed "The Hustler", while it would take someone like a brash, flashy Vincent Lauria to come up with "The Color Of Money".

There's lots of technique in Scorsese's feature with countless showy examples of imaginative editing and camera set-ups but the film is weak on story and characterisation and no amount of stylised high-end cinematography can mask or change that. The film really is a more of a homage to Newman who finally won his lead actor Oscar on his sixth nomination for his work here but the great man isn't much more than a show-horse.

Cruise is okay as the young hustler Newman takes under his wing, all nervous energy and callowness but of course watching him work you're reminded of Newman's own performance when he was the new kid on the block twenty five years before and there's little comparison. Scorcese tries to work the women into the narrative but both Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Helen Shaver only come off as peripheral. Elsewhere, you'll see Iggy Pop in a pointless cameo which could only have been inserted for some wannabe street-cred.

The soundtrack produced by Robbie Robertson, late of The Band, for whom Scorsese of course made "The Last Waltz" ten years before, likewise comes over as incongruous and mannered with a blues-heavy selection of tunes and background music which again only heightens the artificiality of the overall film.

There's no real emotional core or climax to the film and certainly not the tension that Robert Rossen created in black and white, in fact it seems to me that the narrative got lost somewhere in between some deliberately Oscar-baiting acting and show-off direction. I wanted to like this movie but it came across ultimately as empty and pointless.

This was the second of Scorcese's two big-budget, high-profile remakes of classic black and white Hollywood features of the early 60's, the other being "Cape Fear" but here again he comes off second best compared to the originals.

A bit of a miscue all round for this one unfortunately.

A Christmas Carol
(1984)

Three Nightmares Before Christmas
Made for TV version of Dickens' evergreen seasonal tale, starring George C Scott as that old Christmas humbug, Ebenezer Scrooge, supported by a cast of mostly English actors.

I've read the story so many times and likewise seen several filmed versions of it and while this rendition was pleasant to watch, especially at this time of year, it probably wasn't the most compelling of them.

Scott is good in the main role, mutton chops plastered onto his face, while most prominent behind him are Frank Finlay, almost literally overacting his head off as Jacob Marley, Roger Rees, late of the RSC's famous eight hour version of "Nicholas Nickleby" as Scrooge's understanding but long-suffering nephew and Edward Woodward, got up in a curly wig and badly fitted beard as the ghost of Christmas present.

Shot more realistically than fantastically by British new-wave director Clive Donner, I liked the location shots on the snowbound streets of Shrewsbury, standing in for London. The special effects are okay for the time and budget considering it's a TV movie, although the three ghosts which come to haunt Scrooge are all odd in appearance, Christmas Past has the look of a Disney-type Fairy Godmother, Woodward lacks the large physical presence I always picture Christmas past having while Christmas yet-to-be seems to move about on wheels for its sins, rather than float.

Scott's performance is satisfactory, his best scene being when he happily throws himself backwards onto his bed on Christmas morning as he finally changes his spots. I would have to say though that its TV movie origins are fairly obvious from its set-bound camerawork, rushed-looking editing and occasionally some under-rehearsed looking actors.

Still, no one could really go wrong filming this wonderful tale and the depiction appeared to stay true to the key dialogue and plot-points of the story. I didn't much care for the over-intrusive orchestral music which seemed to get too obviously louder whenever a spooky scene came up. Perhaps I was expecting a little more excitement and action from director Donner, but this was still a serviceable if more earthbound adaptation of Dickens' great story.

It Happened One Night
(1934)

Alright on the Night
I've lately been watching a number of films made in the early 30's and it just strikes me watching "It Happened One Night" how unlike all the others it was, good as they sometimes were. I know it was the first screwball comedy, something in itself, but it's Capra's moving camera, the snappy dialogue and the credible acting even in unlikely situations that make you feel less like you're watching something staged. In all those senses, it plays like the first modern movie. Crazy as they sometimes are, Gable and Colbert's characters feel like real people, talking and acting naturally as they go. It's also a film made for adults to enjoy, the for-the-times risqué humour concerning the erection (no pun intended) of the symbolic Walls of Jericho between the thrown together couple, Gable's undressing to his bare torso, Colbert's hitching a ride for them by provocatively hitching her skirt and the closing consummation scene where the walls come tumbling down are all knowingly and winningly rendered.

Gable is great in the role that elevated him to his unchallenged status as the King Of Hollywood, the personification of contemporary masculinity, handsome, confident and honourable and yet not without sensitivity or good manners. Colbert is equally good as the spoiled brat who is brought down to earth on the road with Gable. She's sexy, sassy and chic and every bit the match of Gable, a prototype for the smart-talking female characters to be played in succeeding Hollywood comedies starring the likes of Rosalind Russell, Katharine Hepburn, Jean Arthur, Barbra Stanwyck, Carole Lombard and others. The starring couple's interaction and comic timing is perfect, a model for all those initially-warring-couple features for years to come.

With a witty script by Robert Ruskin, an able supporting cast and a succession of humorous situations, the film flows beautifully from the off, never letting up, directed energetically and at times almost instinctively by Capra in the movie that really made his name. There are no lingering close-ups, static scene-setting or slow dissolves here, it's all pace and movement as befits the plight of the runaway couple.

Capra's social commentary is still evident and doesn't gloss over its Depression Era setting, manifest in the scene when Gable salutes the everyday folk riding the top of the train which crosses his path. Capra didn't really return to screwball comedy after making this, instead going on in later years to further exercise his conscience by employing Messrs Deeds, Smith and Doe, but he didn't need to, he nailed it forever with this marvellous one-off collective collaboration, almost unbelievably shot in only four weeks.

It Happened on Fifth Avenue
(1947)

When the fat cat's away...
The story goes that Frank Capra passed on this story to make "It's A Wonderful Life". It's easy to imagine why he considered it, indeed it too has links to Christmas, but in the end I think he made the correct choice. It's possible to think that Capra might have elevated the material here into another holiday classic but for me it falls short.

The plot is sort of "Trading Places" meets "You Can't Take It With You" as wandering tramp Aloysius T McKeever (Victor Moore) alights on a boarded-up but fully furnished and unaccountably fully-stocked 5th Avenue mansion and makes it his home while its owner, multi-millionaire financier Michael O'Connor (Charlie Ruggles) is absent for the season. McKeever soon meets ex-serviceman Jim Bullock (Don DeFore), himself indirectly made homeless by the self-same O'Connor whose company has just bought the building which contained the apartment where he lived. From there the O'Connor place attracts people to it like iron shavings to a magnet, comprising DeFore's army chums and their families, plus inadvertently, O'Connor's rebellious 18 year old daughter Trudy (Gale Storm).

Indeed, it's not long before O'Connor himself has entered the household, also in disguise as a vagrant, ostensibly to prise Trudy from Jim to whom she's quickly grown attached, but when the daughter turns for help to her mother, O'Connor's four years divorced wife and she too enters the house under false pretences, we're soon enough pointed towards a seasonal happy ending for all, under the beatific gaze and general beneficence of the venerable vagabond McKeever.

Although I quite liked the film, I ultimately wasn't completely charmed by it. It took me some time to warm to McKeever's Christmas squatter and I found the plotting just too contrived, meandering and sweeping, before O'Connor's inevitable conversion from capitalism to philanthropy is complete.

DelRuth's direction is also staid and lacking in flair, making too obvious use of back projections for the exterior New York scenes, all the more odd considering the grand interiors of the O'Connor mansion. The humour, what there is of it, is somewhat forced while I found the acting to be largely second-rate too.

In the end, the film comes over as B-movie Capra, which isn't to say it's bad, but it does appear to lack the sparkle and emotional resonance that a more capable director not to say cast might have given it.

The Hustler
(1961)

Right on Cue
I recently bought a house where the previous owner left amongst a whole bunch of other old furniture a dilapidated pool table. It was the only item we kept and after upgrading it, it now gets used a lot. Along with it he left a battered old slim paperback book called "Minnesota Fats Plays Pool" and even as I appreciate now that the real Fats appropriated the name of Jackie Gleason's character for his own ends, I feel a connection to this movie.

I've also been listening lately to podcasts on the fall-out from the Hollywood Blacklist of the late 1940's and 50's and am aware of co-writer and director Robert Rossen's less than stellar role in that particular shark-pool. It might be too easy a read-across to contemporary Hollywood but here he posits Paul Newman's fast-cuing Eddie Felson as an ordinary guy with a particular talent in a sink or swim scenario in the seamy world of high-stakes pool. However for Eddie to survive and thrive, he has to decide the price on his soul and whether it's worth hanging onto. Rossen made his own choice when he named names to the H.U.A.C. and I couldn't help wondering whether this was his shot at personal redemption. The film was successful and was recognised by the Academy but still begs the question if it was worth it for the man behind the camera.

Putting the politics on one side, it's undeniably a good movie. Fuelled by a cool, atmospheric jazz soundtrack and fittingly shot in monochrome, Newman is the cue ball on the table trying to call the shots not realising until too late that the real shot-maker is George C Scott's heartless, money-grabbing professional gambler who ends up managing him. Piper Laurie is the eight-ball Eddie finds himself behind. A pretty but lonely lush, living off her estranged daddy's pay-checks, her and Eddie somehow connect through the alcoholic haze as two out-of-control self-haters seeking solace in one another but their stormy relationship (he actually hits her at one point) is doomed from the start and when Scott seeks to exercise a 75% share of her too, the outcome is inevitable.

At least by the movie's close Fast Eddie has revenged himself against the Fat man and purged himself of Scott's pernicious control, but in the end what sort of future has he bought himself and is he any better off at the end of the film than at the start?

Newman, in one of his favourite roles, occasionally too obviously shows us the Method, but mostly convinces as the self-possessed hustler who learns too late that winners don't always win. Laurie is very good as the shopworn Sara battling her alcoholism and self-esteem in her fight to save Eddie from Scott and indeed himself. Scott also shines as the biggest shark in the pool, the conniving high-roller who wants to control everything and everyone in his orbit. However, you can't always tell which way the balls will fall as he finally learns in the elegiac final scenes.

As a pretend pool-player I enjoyed the trick-shot set-ups and both Newman and Jackie Gleason as the inscrutable Fats seem natural and able behind their sticks, while as a film-buff I equally appreciated the gritty depiction of this unglamorous profession and its two-bit players.

There's Always Tomorrow
(1934)

Keep The Home Fire Burning
I was curious to see this early talkie by dint of recently watching Douglas Sirk's 1955 remake with Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in the two lead roles taken here by Frank Morgan and Binnie Barnes.

Morgan is the seemingly happily married, prosperous family man Joseph White, father to five mostly grown up children, the oldest of whom is Robert Taylor in his first major role. We're immediately made aware that he's the forgotten man in his own family with everyone from his wife on down taking him for granted. Hoping to take his wife out on their anniversary, he returns home to find his house given over to a party for the children, leaving him banished to his perennial duty it seems of symbolically stoking the furnace which heats the property to keep his family comfortable. With nowhere inside to go to read his paper he's reduced to sitting on the outside porch when along comes his old flame from before he was married, the stylish and attractive Barnes who's passing through town and couldn't resist looking him up.

He immediately responds to her and it's not long before he's secretly visiting her at her place on Thursday nights when he's meant to be at his club, until one night all his grown-up children, plus Taylor's long-standing girlfriend, accidentally catch him out.

This is a pleasant enough if hardly gripping film directed in the old fashioned manner with fairly static camera work, long takes, lots of interior set-ups and my biggest bug-bear, pointless incidental music playing in the background of almost every scene. The acting is a little mannered too with everyone talking very prim and proper and of course the drama is handled very chastely with no suggestion about what Morgan and Barnes might be getting up to at her place.

It all ends happily of course, if a little too easily, with Barnes making the grand sacrifice and Morgan's family, his wife included, finally coming round to appreciating him again. The big anticipated scene between the scandalised oldest son Taylor and his errant dad never happens and it's surprising to see Barnes pretty much confess her life story and past love for the children's father when she takes them into her house after their car breaks down outside while they're snooping on dad.

Morgan seems a little too bumptious as the invisible dad and you can't really imagine him and Barnes ever having the hots for one another although Barnes is better in the slightly meatier part but is given overly prosaic dialogue to spout, while Taylor doesn't get to do much other than to project his petted lip in indignation over the looming scandal. It was interesting to see Morgan's later Wizard Of Oz co-star Margaret Hamilton in a supporting role as a lippy maid.

Sirk's remake ups the ante considerably in playing up the sexual tension between MacMurray and Stanwyck and making you almost will him to go ahead and get a better life away from his undeserving family but here there's never much doubt about what the outcome will be which weakens the drama considerably.

If you can only watch one telling of this story, certainly go to the Sirk version, but this mildly diverting earlier version is still worth viewing even if only for comparative reasons.

Imitation of Life
(1934)

Mothers' Pride
I've recently been watching and considering the respective merits of the two John M Stahl 1930's era black and white movies "Magnificent Obsession" and this, with their 1950's colour remakes by Douglas Sirk. For the first pairing I much preferred Sirk's film, but as regards "Imitation Of Life", I thought the original was the better movie.

For one thing, it's much less sensationalist than its successor, with no rape scene, suggestion of prostitution or the excruciating sequence where the pale-skinned daughter of her black mother acts exaggeratedly like her "mammy" in front of white house-guests. It also has better and more credible central performances in the lead roles by Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers as the white and black women who come together through their young children and then become business partners but who each define themselves through their relationships with their rebellious daughters as they grow up.

Like the 1960 film this 1935 version is still difficult to watch from today's perspective in terms of the blatant inequality shown to the black characters. When Beavers' Delilah character's secret recipe for pancakes combines with Colbert's Bea character's home-made maple syrup to make them both a fortune, the former is granted only a 20% share of the profits. In addition, rather than set herself up with a home of her own from this money, she refuses to do so and instead continues as Bea's live-in maid, never happier it seems than when she's rubbing her mistress's tired feet after the latter has had a hard day.

Director Stahl is more subtle than Sirk at demonstrating the class difference and racial tensions between his characters, such as when Delilah accidentally exposes her then infant daughter Peola's blackness to her white-skinned classmates at school or later when the two women part at the end of the day in Bea's mansion, Bea going upstairs to her no-doubt luxurious bedroom and Delilah downstairs to servants' accommodation.

The secondary story here, concerning Bea's daughter Jessie becoming infatuated with her mum's handsome, mature icthiologist boyfriend, Steven Archer, played by the suave Warren William, gets rather lost behind the Delilah / Peola axis although the point is made by the end that there is no sacrifice these two successful mothers won't make for their daughters' future welfare.

I was critical of the rather stolid direction by Stahl in his "Magnificent Obsession" with its long, static, talky scenes and while it's the same here, I can more easily accept that this film was made when talkies were still in their infancy. I much preferred his underplaying of the lurid drama here. There is still some unnecessary comedy present in the form of Ned Sparks' Mr Magoo-voiced business partner Elmer Smith (his name is silly too) and the film undoubtedly ends with the dumbest finishing line ever but overall I do think this is the better film of the two mentioned in conveying this awkward but compelling story.

Magnificent Obsession
(1935)

Good Sight Irene
Out of curiosity, I chose to look out this movie immediately after viewing the Douglas Sirk-directed 1950's remake to contrast and compare different obsessions you might say. I have to say right at the outset that it's really no contest. With his flair for composition, narrative flow and ability to coax the best out of his actors Sirk wins hands down.

It probably doesn't help that I'm no fan of Robert Taylor which no doubt stems from my perception of his part in the Hollywood blacklist hearings of the 1940s and '50s (c.f. John Wayne, Adolphe Menjou, Ronald Reagan and others) but for the first half of the movie his acting is so highly mannered and gauche to the point of being look-away bad. Irene Dunne on the other hand attempts to sail serenely through in her part of the grieving widow and later blinded victim of Taylor's Bob Merrick's ham-fisted attempt to woo her, but she comes across as too cold and privileged to make you care much for her character. As for her daughter-in-law and her hapless older husband, they appear hopelessly mismatched with the latter in particular appearing to be cast purely for some misguided comic relief.

I found the direction to be slow and laboured with lots of slow dissolves, lingering close-ups, overt religiosity and forced humour, while, as indicated, most of the acting seems stagey and overplayed. Once Taylor settles down to his magnificent obsession the film does play a bit better but without someone like Sirk to recognise the story for the glorified, at times sanctified soap opera that it really is and treat it accordingly with velvet gloves, the story in director John M Stahl's hands, plods along somewhat aimlessly rather like Dunne with her affliction.

For my sins I'm going to look out director Stahl's other Sirk-reworked movie "Imitation Of Life", also starring Dunne, but with some trepidation after enduring this rather stiff and hackneyed production.

Magnificent Obsession
(1954)

Doc Rock Against The Clock
This sumptuously shot tear-jerker from Douglas Sirk, starring Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman, out-soaps anything on TV in terms of its over-the-top storyline and most of Hollywood in terms of its set composition. The story has been derided for its implausibility but with Sirk you have to decide whether to throw up your hands in horror at its kitschy unbelievability or cast up your eyes to the screen at the masterly cinematography and narrative expertise of the director.

Hudson is the selfish and reckless millionaire playboy Bob Merrick (we can safely assume with inherited wealth) with a penchant for speed and women who comes a cropper when his attempt at a speed record on water goes wrong necessitating the use of a heart defibrillator borrowed from the local doctor, who wouldn't you know it, expires just when the absent machine might have saved him. When Wyman's grieving widow, only six months married and the deceased man's grown up daughter learn this, they're naturally not at all pleased with Hudson especially as he crassly tries to pick up Wyman after she comes to his aid when he discharges himself too early from the private hospital where she and her late husband worked. Then Merrick inserts his second foot by writing her a big cheque to pay for his care, shallowly assuming that this will square things with her for him. Oh and did I mention that in his younger days, Merrick used to study as a surgeon before he started his wanton ways...just bear that in mind for later. We also discover that the late doctor has made no provision for his wife, instead selflessly doling out all his money to every deserving person who comes into his view and so is generally sanctified in the eyes of everyone who knew him.

Incredibly, Merrick then finds a third foot to shoot himself in, so far as Wyman is concerned, by causing her to go blind in a road accident at which point he abandons his wicked, wicked ways and chastely pursues her under a pseudonym only for her to jilt him so as not to place too great a burden on him. This causes Merrick, boosted by a pep-talk from friend of the family Otto Kruger, to pursue the path to his own righteousness by returning to the surgical studies of his youth and duly becoming a brain surgeon. From there, you would think it really would take a matter of life and death to reunite the parted lovers and guess what, that's just what we get, barely in time for the near-miraculous ending you can't help but see (no pun intended) coming around the corner.

With this crowd-pleasing film, Sirk duly sucked in his target audience who were no doubt attracted by the high melodrama, superb cinematography and the beautiful people who populated his movies, not to mention the heavenly choir who seem to sing up every time there is a big emotional moment. In later films like "Written On The Wind", "All Heaven Will Allow", "There's Always Tomorrow" and of course his final movie, the polarising "Imitation Of Life", he would introduce his subtle, subversive observations of those bastions of 50's American life such as family, marriage and consumerism. Such barbs are barely present here, this is really just a big old-fashioned weepie and practically all artifice.

But what magnificent artifice.

Twentieth Century
(1934)

Crazy Train
An early, indeed pre-Code rollicking screwball comedy directed by one of the masters of the art Howard Hawks scripted by two of the sharpest pens in Hollywood, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, adopted from a hit play of the day.

It features now recognisable Hawksian tropes such as a warring couple at the heart of the action, an unusual location setting and a cast of eccentric characters on the sidelines. Leading the troupe are veteran John Barrymore and relative newcomer Carole Lombard. I love the story about how Hawks attracted Barrymore to the part of the tyrannical but wheedling theatrical impresario Oscar Jaffe by telling his lead he wanted a big ham to play a big ham and sure enough old John's performance has enough for a herd of pigs. We're asked to accept the appreciably younger Lombard as his love interest although this is given some credence by his initial star-making Svengali-like grooming of her till-then unknown Mildred Plotka into the radiant leading lady Lily Garland she becomes under his tutelage.

When later she goes all "Don't You Want Me" on him by unreasonably leaving him for her to become a big movie star in Hollywood and him to languish in a string of failed theatrical productions, they coincidentally meet with their respective entourages on an overnight train journey from Chicago to New York (on the train of the title) where in true screwball fashion, they are put in connecting rooms. From this set-up, their paths inevitably criss-cross, he wanting her to star in his epic comeback production of the Passion Play, as Mary Magdalen no less, as well as hopefully getting her to fall back into his jealous clutches while she just wants nothing at all to do with him. Throw into the mix a pair of Russian theatricals looking for some crowd-funding of their own and an eccentric escapee from the local lunatic asylum trying to pass bad cheques in between sticking "Repent" labels on everyone and everything he can like he was at a modern-day major golfing event and you have a recipe, in the right hands of course, for a highly entertaining movie. And of course, the right hands is right where we are!

The dialogue is rapid fire and humorous, with some withering attacks on the acting profession and amusing running gags involving chalk-marked floors and iron-doors. Barrymore is great fun as the over-the-top producer while Lombard lets herself go too at times but is otherwise mostly radiant and sexy as the cheese in the trap trying to escape the mouse.

With a neat circular ending too, this early screwball comedy still stands up well today and is definitely worth bracketing alongside other Hawks' masterpieces of the same ilk such as "His Girl Friday", "Bringing Up Baby" and "Ball Of Fire" to name but three.

Theodora Goes Wild
(1936)

Whistler's Lover
With this movie, Irene Dunne stepped out as a more than capable screen comedienne which persona bore further fruit for her in ensuing years, particularly when she was paired with Cary Grant in two rollicking screwball comedies "My Favourite Wife" and "The Awful Truth". Here, you can see her loosening up for these parts as the staid small town niece living with her two spinster aunts who dutifully does the tea-making duties for the town's literary society and plays the piano at Sunday school. What the townsfolk don't know is that Dunne, under a pseudonym, has penned a racy "Fifty Shades"-type novel which has become a scandalous best-seller and drummed up media interest in its mysterious author's identity and background.

Then along comes romantic interest Melvyn Douglas, the well-connected lieutenant-governor's son, who photobombs Dunne's little world, unconventionally romancing and eventually scandalising her into declaring her love for him, only for him to promptly desert her as skeletons reveal themselves in his own closet. That's when Theodora promptly goes wild as she turns the tables on Douglas by going public with her identity, courting publicity everywhere she goes as she attempts to shame Douglas out into the open and into her arms.

It's nicely played and capably directed if lacking a little of the fire that makes for the very best screwball classics. The clash of the censorious women of the town's literary society, headed by the waspish but hypocritical Spring Byington and the rebellious editor of the local newspaper, Thomas Mitchell, is entertainingly played out and Dunne's later gate-crashing of the State Governor's ball to box Douglas into a corner as he did her makes for an entertaining "turnabout is fair play" conclusion. You do wonder at times though if Douglas's character, an irritatingly persistent whistler who then refuses to break up his own loveless marriage just to protect his father's political reputation, is actually worthy of Dunne's attention.

A nice, fun movie which probably just needed an infusion of Sturges or Hawks-type fire, Hecht or Wilder-esque rapid-fire dialogue and maybe a more likeable rogue like say Grant or William Powell than Douglas to really make it fly but Dunne is well worth watching in the lead and the film mostly delivers on it its scatty, carefree brief, if it could only have been a little wilder.

The Twilight Zone: The Purple Testament
(1960)
Episode 19, Season 1

White light, white heat
Taking its title from a Shakespearean quotation, this "Twilight Zone" episode, written by series creator Rod Serling, is one of the darker ones I have seen. Set In the American campaign in the Far Eastern theatre of the Second World War, a young army lieutenant starts getting premonitions of the impending death of his platoon members. This takes the form to him of a light shining in the face of the doomed individual or individuals. When he takes his troubles to his friend and commanding officer the latter naturally thinks he is suffering from battle fatigue and refers him to the medics. However when another apparently recovering colleague expires in his hospital bed just after the lieutenant has visited him, he unsurprisingly starts to become paranoid about his condition.

The show continues unflinchingly until its conclusion as we learn the identities of the next-in-line, in so doing strongly asserting its anti-war message.

I don't know if the battlefield settings at the start were from stock footage, but if not, they were convincingly realised and belied the normal budget limitations you see on the show. The acting too was convincing especially William Reynolds as the haunted soldier and a pre-"Bewitched" Dick "Darren" York as the C.O. to whom Reynolds turns for help.

Yet another strong episode from this high quality series.

Lost Horizon
(1937)

Trouble In Paradise
Quite unlike his other major films in his run of great movies from 1935 to 1946, Frank Capra's "Lost Horizon" is something of an epic which ran way over budget and actually failed to make money on first release. There's no denying its ambition though especially with the elaborate sets used to recreate Capra's vision of author James Hilton's Utopian Shangri La mountain village to where British foreign diplomat and coming man Ronald Colman and a small group of disparate passengers, including his brother, are abducted by plane at the start of the film.

Once there they all react differently to the perfect gilded cage in which they find themselves so that by the end only one of the original five actually still wants to return back to "civilisation" and leave their new surroundings. As for Colman, the ancient High Lama of the place has special plans for him. Will this formerly ambitious man, with important work to do in his home country as it prepares for war, be tempted to stay in this idyllic setting with a pretty young girl now at his side, well, what would you do?

While the allegory of blissful communal living in a self-sufficient bountiful land protected from the elements, without care or responsibility as compared to the hurly-burly realism of life in contemporary London is perhaps over-simplified and possibly not the best example to set for movie-goers with war clouds on the horizon (sorry!) remembering it is only a movie, I was rather charmed with the fairy-tale-like scenario Capra presents.

He certainly picked the right man with the required gravitas as his lead actor in the form of Ronald Colman who is excellent throughout. There's light humour among the supporting cast with Thomas Mitchell and Edward Everett Horton bantering with each other and romantic interest supplied by Jane Wyatt and the enigmatically named Margo who separately attract the disharmonious brothers, while H.B Warner and Sam Jaffe come across all inscrutable, zen-like and benevolent as the Yoda-like leaders of the lamasery community.

The Art Deco sets and exterior location work featuring a spectacular air crash and a torrid trek through Arctic-like snowstorms are well rendered and while the film does lapse occasionally into recognisable Capra-esque sentimentality and naivety, looked at from the relative calm of today, I certainly enjoyed being transported to this magical mystical other-world for an hour or two.

Random Harvest
(1942)

I'll Never Forget What's-Her-Name...
Classic Golden-Age tear-jerker starring Ronald Colman and Greer Garson in the third big Hollywood adaptation of a James Hilton novel. With "Lost Horizon" having previously starred Colman and "Goodbye Mr Chips" having previously featured Garson. I guess this pairing was something which was meant to be...which coincidentally brings us to the plot of this particular feature, directed by Mervyn LeRoy.

Colman is the hospitalised First World War army officer suffering from amnesia and who one day just walks out of the countryside asylum where his condition was being treated by a kindly doctor. He wanders into the local town of Melbridge where he crosses paths with Garson's song and dance girl who duly takes him under her wing to prevent him being taken back to the asylum. While there's a noticeable age gap between the two, they fall in love and have a child, basing themselves in an idyllic country cottage where Colman discovers he has a bent for writing. Three years on, while visiting Liverpool to apply for a newspaper job as a reporter, he's involved in a minor road accident, the outcome of which is that he recovers his memory and learns that he's from gentrified stock and the heir to a country pile and thriving family business in all of which he now immerses himself, completely forgetting, or so it seems, the more modest, but happier wife and life he has unwittingly left behind. The question is how will this obviously doting couple ever get back together, especially when his adoring, pretty niece can't wait to grow up to marry him.

You have to swallow a whole lot of coincidences and unlikely occurrences along the way before getting to the expected big-kiss happy ending, like when Colman still doesn't twig Garson as his previous wife and mother of his child even after she's worked full-time for him and then married him, (I suppose that should be remarried him, although she did get their first marriage annulled, believing him dead) or how they both separately end up at the small countryside town where they first met, but it's all so skilfully directed and acted that you're rooting for them both all the way.

There's definite chemistry between Colman and Garson, age-difference notwithstanding, although the middle-aged Colman does seem noticeably more awkward in his scenes with the ill-fated Susan Peters, where she seems very young indeed.

A big hit during the Second World War, with its celebrations of love, family, duty and honour understandably connecting with its wartime audience, it's an easy film to like if you can suspend your disbelief as it goes.

Saturday Night Fever
(1977)

I'll Bet He Looks Good On The Dance Floor
Timing as they say is everything. The confluence of rising director John Balham, new face John Travolta in the lead role and the insertion of a soundtrack powered by the newly discofied Bee Gees saw the high watermark of disco music as both movie and soundtrack broke box office and chart records at the time.

That said, I wonder what the teenage audience who flocked to the cinema made of what is actually at times a pretty gritty urban drama set in contemporary New York. It gets off to a great start with the now-iconic image of Travolta's Tony Manero cruising down the streets, hair perfectly coiffured, dressed to kill, checking his appearance in every mirror, his step in perfect syncopation with the anthemic "Stayin' Alive" booming out in the background. From there we're introduced to Tony's world, well-liked shop boy by day, troublesome young adult at home to his Italian parents, dad a feckless do-nothing and mum hung up on religion, lionising her other son who's already joined the priesthood to Tony's comparative detriment. However it's outside shop hours and home time that he really comes alive, running about with his similarly sharp-dressed teenage gang boys but in particular coming alive at the local disco where he takes as much care over his dance moves as he does his personal appearance.

Sub-plots involving other characters also happen by, like the rivalry with another gang in the neighbourhood, his regular girl dancing partner who wants more than that and the return of his brother who has summarily given up his religious calling much to the disappointment of both parents who seem to somehow blame Tony's influence for this family catastrophe. The main story is Tony's interest in the hot new girl who comes to the disco and catches his eye with her slick dance moves. Mix in a little Sharks and Jets turf war and a dash of the tragedy born of bravado from "Rebel Without A Cause" and you arrive at a fairly downbeat ending, with just the hope that Tony has now matured and is ready to grow up and face his adult responsibilities.

So, a coming-of-age contemporary musical drama with a new, young cast which might have disappeared without trace if it wasn't for those great Bee Gees songs and Travolta's star turn, particularly when he's dancing to their music. I personally could have done without the misogynistic treatment of women with some of the sexual encounters with females bordering on rape and the casual racism in some of the dialogue but director Badham certainly seems to capture the authenticity of late 70's street life in the poorer backstreets of NYC and like I said obviously recognised the benefits of centring the film round Travolta's electric performance and those hit songs of the Brothers Gibb.

Mrs. Miniver
(1942)

Middle Class War
I've watched two films in the last month which in different ways caught the attention of Winston Churchill during World War Two. The first was Powell and Pressberger's caustic "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp" to which old Winnie took exception at the way it seemed to attack old-fashioned and out of touch military values and the second was this, which the old man apparently loved, demonstrating as it did the celebrated British stiff upper lip that the country would need to endure the war in which it was then deeply embroiled.

Well, I'm going to go against the legendary prime minister by saying that I much preferred the former to the latter, that despite being a big fan of director William Wyler a number of whose films I have also recently seen. The film relates a simple everyday story of the Minivers, a middle-class British family, well probably more accurately upper middle-class family, given that they have permanent household staff catering to their needs, and how they cope when the war breaks in on them and their peaceful, blissful existence. Their oldest son, just returned from college and full of radical political idealism on the class system in Britain, initially crosses swords with but is soon exchanging rings with the pretty but perky granddaughter of the titled lady of the parish to whom everyone it seems has to kow-tow and pay due homage. The only other major event on the horizon for everyone is the upcoming annual flower show where the stuffy old dear is expecting another shoo-in first prize, which she herself sponsors, for producing the best rose of the year but who this time experiences some serious competition from the elderly railway-station master who has dared to grow his own variation and who has named it after Mrs Miniver, his favourite passenger.

These peaceable minor news items are however sharply contrasted with the outbreak of war as Mr Miniver and his small cruiser boat are called into the flotilla of little boats hastily arranged by the British government to assist with the relief of the troops at Dunkirk and Mrs Miniver herself has to contend with an escaped German airman who pulls a gun on her. By the end, after a particularly heavy bombing run by the German airforce on the village, death has reached the parishioners and the film ends with a rousing speech to his congregation by the vicar standing in his ruined church reminding the viewers that they all have a part to play if the war is to be won.

I personally found the mix of the mundane with the maudlin a little uneven and also think the story would have been more interesting if the Miniver family hadn't seemed quite so privileged. I note that the film received separate nominations for all the main lead and supporting male and female acting awards but in truth didn't see much justification for any of them.

Whilst I appreciate the film gathered some momentum as it went on, the first hour or so pretty much passed me by and stirring as it was, the vicar's grandstanding speech at the end seemed somewhat artificial to me.

A big commercial success on initial release, besides the acting and directing nods it got from the Academy, I yet found it difficult to fully engage with the comfortably well-off Minivers although I fully accept that rich and poor alike were all affected by the terrible war.

Sorry Mr Churchill!

The Twilight Zone: The Last Flight
(1960)
Episode 18, Season 1

One of our planes is missing...
One of the best "Twilight Zone" episodes I have seen as I work my way through series 1, this one is an airborne variation on the old ghost ship storyline, throwing in a bit of time travel for good measure and a very satisfying ending which ties up all the loose ends very neatly indeed.

Kenneth Haigh, the original Jimmy Porter in John Osborne's epochal play "Look Back In Angerl" and later well known to U.K. TV viewers for his lead role in the early 1970's ITV drama "Man At The Top" series, is the lost planet airman from the Royal Flying Corps who disappears with his plane from the First World War skies over Germany only to then inexplicably come back to earth at the present-day U.S. Lafayette airbase in France. By coincidence, said airbase is receiving a visit that very day from a senior British Air Vice Marshall, himself a veteran of the First World War who also served in the R.F.C.

As we learn of the connection between these two men and in particular more about Haigh's character's background, the skies are cleared for a circular time conclusion which tidily brings this particular show to a safe and smooth landing.

Definitely a high-flying episode which certainly takes the viewer on a rewarding journey.

The Song of Bernadette
(1943)

Didn't Lourdes her faith
I must have first seen this film when I was only an infant as I remember my childhood self being really unnerved and unable to sleep for days after seeing the supernatural visitations of the Virgin Mary to the young French peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous in early 19th Century France. That said, I have grown up an atheist but was curious to see the movie again and judge it as a mature adult.

One thing you have to say about Henry King's direction is that he definitely is on the side of the angels in that he leaves the viewer in no doubt as to whether or not he believes the young girl truly did see the holy visions she said she did. Along with Bernadette and unlike anyone else in the film, we the viewers clearly see an other-wordly female figure silently communicating with her at their every encounter, the Virgin's entrance each time announced by soaring strings and heavenly voices in the background with a bright shining light picking out her features. Perhaps today, their meetings might at least have been made more ambiguous, as while I still found these scenes moving, I was equally aware that I had been manipulated into quiescence by cinematic devices.

After she first sees the lady, as she calls her, Bernadette's modest demeanour and later physical suffering in silence see her one by one overturn the disbelieving convictions of all who doubt her, starting with her poor parents, then the parish dean and right at the end, the State Prosecutor and senior nun who are separately led to contrition for their cold treatment of the honest, unassuming girl.

In a long film like this with no great amount of actual on-screen action, conviction direction and sensitive acting are prerequisites if the film is to succeed. Jennifer Jones as Bernadette in her breakthrough role, in truth isn't required to do much other than talk quietly and demonstrate piety and pain. Charles Bickford as the initially doubtful but later devout Father Peyramale and Vincent Price as the vindictive prosecutor are the pick of the supporting cast. Along the way, director King appreciably takes time to highlight the ever-topical petty motives of the town's mayor who sees the commercial possibilities of a miracle in his midst.

This time after viewing, I won't have the nightmares I had as a child over the projected images of the Immaculate Conception and no, I wasn't persuaded myself to look for religion immediately afterwards either. I'm aware of the significance of the timing of the film's original release, during the Second World War, in providing an uplifting "With God On Our Side" affirmation for armies fighting the Allied cause. Maybe I'm still just a bit too cynical in my older years to really enter fully into the spirit of the film but in truth once I decided to surrender myself to the movie's narrative sweep, so my appreciation of it improved. By the time the final scene is reached, you wonder the mayor hasn't also set up a franchise on handkerchief sales as Bernadette nears her end but I have to concede that this is a well-made Golden Age Hollywood classic and can well understand why it was recognised by the Academy as such.

The Twilight Zone: The Fever
(1960)
Episode 17, Season 1

Weaker Las Vegas
One of the lesser episodes I've watched from the first series of "The Twilight Zone", despite being written and directed by main man Rod Serling. As can be deduced from the title, a straight-laced, penny-pinching middle-aged man, who arrives in Vegas for a short stay he and his more adventurous wife have won in a competition, succumbs to the gambling bug in the form of a one-armed-bandit machine with which he makes a weird connection.

After brow-beating his wife against the danger of inserting even one nickel into the machine, he himself rather predictably and all too quickly gets hooked on the potential $10000 jackpot the puggy determinedly refuses to pay out to him despite hours of trying. It all gets very silly as he imagines the machine itself calling out to him and in his fevered imagination, actually pursuing him to play it, resulting in a too obvious moralistic conclusion.

Veteran Hollywood actor Everett Sloane tries hard with the hackneyed material but really this cliched and rather unexciting instalment, with no discernible twist at the end, is rather like the machine at the centre of the story in that it too fails to deliver.

Thriller: Lady Killer
(1973)
Episode 1, Season 1

Poor Jenny
The first episode of "The Avengers" and later "The Professionals" chief writer Brian Clemens 1973 anthology TV series "Thriller" which had us all tuned in for murderous suspense on Saturday nights. With a great doom-laden theme tune by Laurie Johnson, especially that two note piano motif which took you into the advert breaks, it rarely failed to deliver on its brief.

Written by Clemens himself, able now to give free rein to writing darker material, "Lady Killer" got things off to a strong start with a young Robert Powell as the handsome and suave individual who strikes up a conversation with a shy and bookish young American woman, Jenny, spending a holiday in England. Before she knows it, she's swept up in a whirlwind romance and within days married to him. He takes her to a secluded cottage in the country close to a high cliff-top just right for romantic walks but of course accidents have been known to happen up there...and just who is the mysterious person the doting husband regularly checks in with by phone and then there's the mysterious man who comes around to visit the new wife claiming to know the husband and asking after his very similar-looking, previous wife.

There are certainly plot-holes and amazing coincidences a-plenty in this re-hash of the old Hitchcock movie "Suspicion", but it's held together by good direction and performances by Powell and Barbara Feldon (late of "Get Smart") which whilst occasionally verging on the overdone, convincingly take the viewer through to the just desserts conclusion. Nice to see Clemens finding a part for Steed's last companion in "The Avengers", Linda Thomson too.

I personally remember other episodes as being stronger and more coherently plotted but still enjoyed going back in time to revisit one of the better TV series of the early 70"s which if it doesn't quite hold up today, can still stir good memories of when Saturday night TV wasn't awash with inane reality shows and endless talent programmes.

Bedazzled
(1967)

The Devil Went Down To Dudley
I came to "Bedazzled" with some trepidation, fearing an inconsistent, incoherent, over-indulgent sixties romp but was pleased at how well structured and directed it was. Seasoned Hollywood practicioner Stanley Donen taking on Britain's Anarchic Duo Pete and Dud looked from the outside a risky proposition but Donen does a fine job of guiding Cook's barbed, witty and funny screenplay into an enjoyable film entertainment.

Cleverly adapting the Faustian legend to modern day London it takes swipes at the convention of marriage, pop stardom, morality, religion (of course) and sex (also, of course) along the way. Framed by the device of the lovelorn Moore character's Stanley Moon's seven wishes, all to help him gain the heart of the remote Eleanor Bron character who works with him at the same greasy-spoon cafe, as granted by Cook's very chummy but always-one-step-ahead-of-him personification of the Devil, resplendent in his red socks, the film cleverly falls into a series of sketches like their TV series, taking in along the way personifications of the seven deadly sins for good (or bad) measure.

Most prominent amongst the latter of course as Lillian Lust is the new sex-bomb of the time, Miss Raquel Welch, who gets to flaunt her ample charms in a state of extreme undress in her barely (no pun intended) seven minute part. It being the swinging 60's and all, the sexism exhibited to females is pretty blatant and gratuitous which some today may find objectionable. Whilst I could have done without this cheap-thrill titillation, I found the rest of the film to be sharp, witty and amusing. Cook as the writer naturally gives himself the best lines, in particular his pop star spoof where he invents Neil Tennant twenty years in advance or when he topically sinks the Torrey Canyon oil tanker which was one of the main news stories in the U.K. that year, although the most memorable scene has to be Moore as a nun bouncing on a trampoline with a bunch of bopping Sisters behind him.

The chemistry between Cook and Moore is obvious but there's little sign of the spontaneous improvisation which sometimes prevailed in their TV shows ("Greta, Greta!") but it's no bad thing here as it keeps their performances sharp and to the point.

It's a pity there wasn't a follow-up to this film or indeed or any other film collaboration between the two which is a shame because not only did I enjoy this outing but also I'm sure they could have repeated the success they enjoyed here (see what I did there!).

The Twilight Zone: The Hitch-Hiker
(1960)
Episode 16, Season 1

Road to nowhere
It's only natural I suppose with a show like this to attempt to second guess the twist at the end and just occasionally I guess it right. So it was with this episode starring the sadly ill-fated Inger Stevens as a young woman on a road trip across America, who after a roadside recovery man repairs a tyre blow-out for her, telling her in passing just how lucky she was, then keeps seeing a shabbily dressed old man beckoning her to give him a ride. The funny thing is no one else can see him and no matter how far she gets in her journey, he's always there, thumb-raised, waiting for her at the next stop.

I doubt I was the only one to predict the outcome here but even if the rest of it did seem a little padded at times, especially her encounter with a young sailor whom she unnecessarily attempts to proposition just to keep her company, it was still spookily entertaining most of the way through.

Miss Stevens makes for a credible damsel in distress in what was pretty much a one-hander in an episode which made me think of later films like Spielberg's "Duel" or "The Vanishing" which inhabit similar territory. A well up-to-standard episode.

Yesterday
(2019)

While My Guitar Gently Sleeps
Listen, I'm a huge Beatles fan and have been since I was a boy, so I really wanted to love this film. That said, I have found Richard Curtis's film screenplays in the past to be too sentimental and slight and I'm afraid this homage to the music of the Beatles found me in familiar territory again, even if it was directed by Danny Boyle.

The basic idea of struggling musician Himesh Patel wakening up after an accident to find he's (almost) the only person who knows the songs of the Fab Four makes for an interesting concept and Curtis gets some good little jokes in referencing some of the group's famous song titles. However when he brings in Ed Sheeran, about whose music I know practically nothing, for one of the biggest cameo roles you'll probably ever see a real life celebrity make in pictures, then gets Patel involved with a cliched portrayal of a high-powered American female manager and worst of all, tries to weave a love story between Patel and long-time roadie / agent Lily James, it starts to flounder and go nowhere, pretty slowly.

I also didn't get the reason for the other random examples of world history and culture (Coca Cola, Harry Potter) dropping out of the timeline although I did like that in this alternative universe, John Lennon got to live well into his old age, but why not George Harrison too, who only got to 59 himself. I was expecting more humour too, remembering that Curtis co-wrote two of the funniest ever British TV comedies, "Black Adder" and "The Vicar Of Dibley", although I appreciate those were many years ago.

Of course I enjoyed hearing the many Beatles songs which naturally proliferate the soundtrack even if I thought the material chosen was a bit Paul-heavy.

Overall though, I found it a bit overlong, lacking in punch and without a really strong narrative, all descriptions that rarely applied to the songs of the Beatles the film was trying to commemorate.

The Heiress
(1949)

Money can buy you hate
Superior period melodrama directed by William Wyler starring Olivia de Havilland as the dutiful but dull spinster daughter of wealthy New York widower doctor Ralph Richardson. We're quickly made aware that De Haviland's Catherine is unlike her now deceased mother, Richardson's late wife being plain and lacking in wit and is an obvious disappointment to her father, the two of them living in their big New York mansion along with Richardson's widowed sister, played by Miriam Hopkins and a phalanx of household staff.

Everyone in society however knows that Catherine will inherit a great fortune when her father dies but still it seems that not one eligible single male is prepared to overlook her failings even for this future bounty. That is until young, handsome but penniless adventurer Montgomery Clift seems to take an immediate shine to her at a ball where she's yet again playing wallflower. Within no time at all, he's confessing his ardent love for her and proposing marriage. But is he marrying her for money or love? And how will he get around the domineering, cynical father, even with the help of the pliant, supportive aunt?

This is vintage Hollywood movie making of the highest standard. Masterfully directed by Wyler and beautifully played by at least three of the main leads, it leaves you with just enough doubt at the conclusion to make the great closing scenes resonate all the more . De Havilland won the Best Actress Oscar as the cloistered Catherine and convinces both as first the gauche, nervous young woman who can't believe her luck over seemingly landing such a catch as the attractive Clift and then as the confident, hardened older woman in later life. Richardson is excellent as usual as the cold-hearted patriarch who thinks he can see through Clift's facade and Hopkins equally so in her part as the interfering but well-meaning kept aunt of the household. Her part in fact reminded me of that played by Agnes Moorhead in Orson Welles' "The Magnificent Ambersons" from earlier in the decade.

Clift apparently hated himself in this, his big screen debut and I do think you can see some nerviness in his performance especially playing opposite the three experienced and accomplished main actors around him. I also just think he's too young-looking to really portray his man-on-the-make character. Apparently director Wyler wanted Errol Flynn for Clift's part and quite apart from the dynamic of reuniting him with his long-time screen-partner De Havilland, can you really think of anyone who could better play a potential cad?

That apart, this is top-drawer stuff which I see was nominated for and went on to win more Oscars that year. besides that obtained for the Lead Actress. And deservedly so.

How Green Was My Valley
(1941)

Not the coal truth
The film that beat "Citizen Kane" to the Best Picture Oscar in 1941 even although Welles himself was a big fan of John Ford. A clear case of out with the new and in with the old by the Academy, this dramatisation of the popular contemporary novel by Richard Llewelyn was reportedly Ford's favourite of all his movies.

I have to confess though that while I often enjoy Ford's movies, this one I found too episodic and sentimental for my taste, especially given the subject matter. At the start I thought it was going to be a stark and realistic depiction of the struggle of trade unionism in a poor, hardworking but downtrodden mining community in turn of the century Wales. Centring on the household of strict patriarch Donald Crisp's Papa Morgan, he's shaken by the rebellion of his four adult sons to the union cause after the mine owners cut the workforce wages, but this ends with a whimper when they dutifully return home after their doting mother and infant brother have to recuperate from falling into a freezing cold stream on their way home after she has charged out on a winter's night to scold the justifiably agitated workforce. Ironically, Hollywood in 1941 was suffering a craftsman's strike at around this time with one of the main charges ranged at the strikers being that of socialism and it's noticeable that the subject barely raises its head again in the film.

From there in fact, melodrama, romance and sentimentality carry the day. The pretty Morgan daughter, Maureen O'Hara is smitten by the handsome and loquacious but poor parish priest Walter Pidgeon but ma and pa farm her off to the cold son of one of the rich mine owners in an arranged loveless marriage. Their young son, played by Roddy McDowall, has a Tom Brown's Schooldays episode his first day at school, there's the heartless expulsion of a fallen woman from the community, able scholar Huw turns down a life of academia to follow his family down the mine, the other sons emigrate to the four corners of the globe looking for work and there are not one but two mining disasters for the family to contend with. It's something of a soot-opera in other words.

Ford attempts to leaven the doom and gloom of life down t'pit with his usual insertions of broad humour particularly when two old family friends go to young Huw's school to literally teach his bullying teacher a lesson, while elsewhere it seems that the collierymen will raise their voices to sing at the drop of a hat in true Welsh stereotypical fashion and yet not one of the main cast was Welsh-born. Personally I rather suspect that miners and their families of the time had it a good deal harder than this and was disappointed that Ford didn't dig deeper, no pun intended, to make a grittier and more realistic film than the rather too obvious crowd-pleasing and multiple Oscar winning feature we have here.

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