Thursday, September 30, 2010

Broadway Melody (1929)

Broadway Melody, or as I call it "the kissing everyone on the lips movie" is a great achievement in the movement of talking pictures. Released just 2 years after the first talking picture, The Jazz Singer, it sets great steps forward for musical films.

This film surrounds 2 lovely sisters who find their way to Manhattan to make it big in cabaret with the help of a hometown friend. How typical, right? Seems to be the standard plot-line for the majority of musical pictures of this time; the quest for stardom. However, this film is pre-code Hollywood, a time before censorship reigned supreme. I believe this adds much more of an element of interest than all the broadway/Berkley films post-1934 where everything had to be neat and tidy.

Immediately I noticed more nudity, freedom of expression (the kissing of everyone on the lips, no seriously) and more obvious sexual interactions. This spiced up the content and made, what would otherwise be a bland formulaic broadway musical film into something a little more "fun".

The two female leads, Bessie Love and Anita Page were prominant stars of pre-code Hollywood. While some of the dramatic scenes were a stretch on their acting talents, in ways they made up for it with their quirky musical numbers. The two eventually secure placements with "Mr. Zanfield's" broadway company. Both fall for the lead actor and a division is set between the sisters that threatens to tear their bond apart.

Overall it was a surprisingly enjoyable experience and it's one that is making me seek to see more pre-Hollywood code talking films.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Johnny Guitar (1954)

Let's devote today to another brilliant actress, Joan Crawford. Now I will admit, if I was alive during her time (let's say the 50s) and alone with her in a room, I might be terrified. Perhaps not all the rumours and talk is true, but when I think of Miss Crawford, immediately I am full of images from the film Mommie Dearest. You know, like this one:
Although, I do know and appreciate her work in acting to be superior to most, I cannot think of her and not think "NO MORE WIRE HANGERS". Im sorry Joan Crawford. I admire you, but you are one scary broad!

Moving along...
The movie of the day, a great achievement in both films portraying women and westerns is 1954's Johnny Guitar. Up until this point in film, westerns were a man's game. Men, the buff heros/villians of the gun-slinging wild west. Johnny Guitar came out and changed all of this. While, yes, the film's title is the name of a man, the movie is really about Crawford's character Vienna.

Vienna is a tough, gun totting, manager of a gambling saloon. She is in complete contrast to the helpless damsel in distress so often being the types of women portrayed in westerns. She wears the pants, but at the same time holds this feminine charm over the main men in the movie.

Now if this wasn't enough powerful estrogen, we have another tough lady, Emma Small played by Mercedes McCambridge. Before watching the movie, there was a little introduction done by TCM. Robert Osbourne mentions the tensions and feud that arose between McCambridge and Crawford while filming. Crawford was said to need to be "the queen bee" on all her films. She desired to be the only star and the centre of attention. McCambridge did not like this at all, she even quoted saying how she doesn't like "bees" or "queens". The tension is clearly evident in the character interaction and adds some fire and realism to the end product. It is truly a thing to behold.

The film goes on as most westerns do, there is a town struggle and violence errupts. Confusion about a hold-up and murder of Emma's brother. Vienna being in the centre of this and blamed by Emma and the authorities for something that she had nothing to do with. Her only fault was for having a sort relationship with a man caught in the kafuffle, the Dancin' Kid, whom Emma desires.

Johnny Guitar arrives on the scene, a long-lost lover of Vienna's and too becomes caught in the middle. Will love flourish again? When there is a showdown between the 2 top tough ladies of the town, who will come out on top? The ending is really everything you want it to be.
The most interesting and impressive thing about this film, to me, is how old Crawford is in this film...49! I had to reread that a few times when I calculated it all. It's almost hard to believe that at that time, with the stunts and moves she pulls in this movie that she is that age. While at this point in her career, it's difficult to say she's a "beauty" like in her youth, she is certainly handsome. One has to look very closely for any signs of age in this film because at most, my guess who have been that she looks to be in her mid 30s. Perhaps Crawford's obsession with health and beauty routines truly paid off! I hope to look that great when I almost reach 50!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Mr. Skeffington (1944)

Lately I've been on this Betty Davis and Joan Crawford kick! Now even saying those two names in the same sentence seems like a betrayal to each actress because as you see, they both violently hated each other. Their feud was one of the biggest Hollywood has ever known. Reading the quotes that each made of the other, I find to be wildly humourous. So thus begins 2 days, 1 devoted to each actress. Today I begin with Betty Davis and her masterpiece Mr. Skeffington.
I had known nothing of this film prior to watching; I did not know the subject matter or even that it's based on a novel. I always enjoy this; it as if you are going in to see something with a fresh pair of eyes.
The picture starts out just at the break of World War 1. Davis' character Miss. Fanny Trellis is a social belle of the city in which she lives (Manhattan). Being a social butterfly has its great advantages, money and the ever growing interest of elligible men. Fanny isn't truly interested in any of them, in fact Fanny's sole interest is really herself...well that and one for her troubled and complicated brother Trippy. Life for Fanny changes forever once she meets Mr. Skeffington played by the immensely talented Claude Rains. Mr. Skeffington instantly falls in love with the charming and beautiful Fanny.
But does Fanny fall in love with Mr. Skeffington? How can one fall for someone else when they are so intently devoted to another? This of course being Fanny's love, obsession for herself. Fanny is not crudely selfish, just so self-absorbed that her life's employment is one that involves displaying, enhancing and fretting about her youthful looks and beauty. Not even when Fanny gives birth to a young daughter, does she stray from her love for herself.
Time goes by, new decades emerge and we slowly see the transformation of Fanny's looks. Her behaviours change little from her time as a young girl. Her marriage to Skeffington and the relationship she has with her daughter eventually deteriorates because of it, if it was even really there to begin with. Fanny's life as she knows it becomes greatly challenged and what she holds most dear (her looks) is compromised. The way Davis portrays this is simply brilliant; her acting talents shine through and as the viewer, you cannot help but be captivated with her performance in every scene. Now without giving away any more, we see a transformation in Fanny and a new direction taken at the film's conclusion. Its a movie that will stick with me as I grow and age in this world.
The acting overall is so very well done. Rains and Davis have this interesting chemistry that just seems to work. In fact, when asked later on in her life, Davis exclaimed that Claude Rains was her favourite actor she ever worked with. Mr. Skeffington, I believe should be a staple in the collection of any classic film fan.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Picnic (1955)

So here we have a picture based on a highly successul play by William Inge in 1953. Starring some big heavy weights (Rosalind Russell and William Holden), and also highlighting new up and coming stars like Kim Novak.

The picture circles around a small town in Kansas on Labour Day. A stranger (Holden) arrives off a freight train to meet an old school friend. His arrival to this town causes quite a stir; exciting the women, and throwing a wrench into the men's plans. Holden's character thinks of himself as no good, growing up on the wrong side of the tracks and also spending a bit of time in prison.

When he is reunited with the fellow ex-school chum, he seeks employment and a chance for a new start in a new town. What will happen though when he sets his sights on the town's beauty? Who also happens to be practically engaged to his friend? The results, are of course highly dramatic...almost nauseatingly so! Novak is supposed to be the town prize, the most beautiful woman in the county. Well, I tend to disagree. While she is indeed pretty, I think this picture with the costuming and styling does not assist in making her this beauty we are all supposed to see her as being. Her character is also quite whiny and at times, utterly annoying. The men who are drawn to her, after a time, begin to bore and carry on.

There are a few characters that save the picture. One of course being Russell as the "old maid" school teacher. She is spicy, not afraid to be who she is and be bold in the community, no matter the consequences. The other is Novak's character's younger sister played by Susan Strasberg, daughter of the famous acting coach Lee Strasberg. A bit tom-boy, a bit of an intellectual, she is a girl trying to find her place in the adult world learning about boys and vices. Strasberg's portrayl of Millie is one of the more captivating performances in this film.

The most fun to be had in this film is through watching the scenes of the actual picnic. It deeply portrays this sense of Americana and 1950s views and mentalities; purity, and "good clean fun". It has everything from a pie eating contest to an outdoor dance. While the end is not exactly a predictable one, I found overall the film was less than satisfying. I could not get over how much Novak's character annoyed me. Tis a shame too because only a few short years later, her role in Hitchcock's Vertigo is a complete favourite of mine.