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Summer Holiday (1963)
In the late fifties and early sixties Cliff Richard was widely regarded, at least in Britain itself, as our answer to Elvis Presley. Both were handsome, dark-haired rock-and-rollers who also ventured into acting, generally in lighthearted musicals designed to showcase their music. There was, however, one major difference. In the early part of his career Elvis was a surprisingly controversial figure whose overt sexuality meant that he was widely denounced in the media and from the pulpit as a degenerate influence on the nation's youth. Nobody ever denounced Cliff; even before he publicly came out as a born-again Christian in 1964 he was widely regarded as a wholesome, clean-cut young man who appealed not just to Britain's youth but also to their parents. (And, in my case, even to my grandmother who ranked "Congratulations" as her all-time favourite pop song).
"Summer Holiday" was one of a number of musical comedies from this period starring Cliff and his backing group, The Shadows. Cliff plays Don, one of four young London Transport bus mechanics who persuade their employers to lend them a double-decker bus which they convert into a holiday caravan. They set off for the continent, originally intending to holiday somewhere in the South of France. They change their plans, however, when they meet a trio of young female singers who are trying to make their way to a gig in Athens. Realising that the girls' clapped-out old car will never make it that far, the boys chivalrously agree to change their plans and to take the girls to Greece. They are also joined by a teenaged American boy named Bobby.
Five boys and three girls seems a rather uneasy recipe for a romantic comedy, even if Don seems uninterested in love and romance, declaring in song his intention to remain a "bachelor boy until my dying day". The odds are evened, however, when Bobby (real name Barbara) is revealed to be a girl in disguise. It turns out that Barbara is a successful pop singer who is running away from her overbearing mother, and this revelation is enough to make Don rethink his commitment to lifelong bachelorhood. The film then follows the four boys and four girls on their journey from France to Greece, via Switzerland, Austria and Yugoslavia, singing appropriate songs at each stop. 1960s Yugoslavia would, on the evidence of this film, seem to have been a rather primitive place, a backward peasant society which had not changed much since the 1360s.
The music is mostly cheerful sixties Britpop, although there are occasional ventures into other genres. "Bachelor Boy" shows the influence of folk music, "Really Waltzing" is a parody of Viennese operetta and "Foot Tapper" the sort of instrumental number in which The Shadows specialised. In "Let Us Take You for a Ride" the lyricist achieved the difficult feat of turning a report on the mechanical condition of a motor-car into a witty number. "The Next Time" is a wistful ballad which, like "Foot Tapper" and the title song, got to number one in the British charts, although today it is less well known than "Bachelor Boy" which was released as its B-side.
The film was a major hit in Britain, grossing more at the British box office than any other film of 1963 except the Bond film "From Russia with Love". It was not, however, a success in America, partly because it opened there two days after the Kennedy assassination but also because the "British Invasion" of American pop culture did not really start until the following year. That invasion was very much spearheaded by the Beatles, and Cliff, along with the other leading figures of the pre-Beatles British rock scene, was never really part of it. Even after 1964 he only had one big American hit, "Living Doll".
Today, "Summer Holiday" might seem to be of historical interest only except for those old enough to remember Cliff Richard in his heyday, for whom it will also have nostalgic value. I must admit that I am not quite old enough to fall into this group, but even so I found a lot to enjoy in it; it is good-natured, tuneful and often amusing. Quite honestly, I found that it stands up better today than do a lot of those Elvis musicals from around the same period. 7/10
The Lion King (2019)
Will delight the children and give their parents something to think about
Like most children growing up in the sixties and seventies I was very familiar with Disney cartoons, and some of them, especially "The Jungle Book" and "101 Dalmatians" were among my childhood favourites. Not having any children of my own, however, I never took the same interest in the company's later offerings, including those made during the so-called "Disney Renaissance" of the nineties. I must therefore admit that I have never seen the original cartoon version of "The Lion King" from 1994.
In recent years Disney have had a policy of making live-action remakes of some of their classic cartoons, including "101 Dalmatians", "Cinderella", and "Beauty and the Beast". I understand that a remake of "Mulan" is in the offing. The 2019 version of "The Lion King" is not really a live action remake, something that would not have been possible in a film where all the characters are wild animals. Like the remade "Jungle Book" it is a photorealistic computer-animated version of the story.
The plot is similar to that of Shakespeare's "Hamlet". A king is murdered by his evil younger brother who usurps the throne which by right should have gone to his young nephew. (Shakespeare borrowed this story from an old Danish legend, but he may have been influenced by English history; he had earlier dramatised the stories of two English kings, John and Richard III, who both usurped the throne from their young nephews). The difference is that the royal family involved here are not human but a family of lions who rule over a kingdom known as the "Pride Lands" on the African savannahs; all the animals who live there, not only the lions, are regarded as their subjects. The film follows the efforts of the young prince Simba (Swahili for "lion") to recover his kingdom and to avenge the death of his father, Mufasa, at the hands of his uncle, Scar. There is also a love story involving Simba and the young lioness Nala. Two other important characters are the carefree meerkat Timon and his warthog friend Pumbaa, responsible for introducing the Swahili phrase "hakuna matata" (no worries) into English. Apart from Scar, the main villains are a gang of hyaenas.
Although the film will doubtless be popular with younger audiences, it is more than just a "children's film". Parts of it, in fact, are surprisingly deep, with political, psychological and even religious overtones. Although the story is ostensibly about animals, it falls within the literary tradition of the beast-fable in which the animal characters represent human characteristics. Simba may be a lion, but he is also the hero of a coming-of-age story about a boy's growth to manhood in difficult circumstances.
Mufasa is portrayed as an enlightened philosopher king, whose philosophy is that a true king always seeks to know what he can give to his people, not what he can take from them. Scar's political ideology, by contrast, is essentially a fascist one, based upon exalting the desire for power above all moral considerations. He presents himself as a strong leader, but paradoxically his worship of strength is rooted in a sense of his own weakness and in envy of his brother, who is stronger than him, both physically and morally. The most domineering leaders are often those who secretly believe themselves to be inferior. Simba also needs to overcome a sense of his own inferiority and unworthiness if he is to live up to his father's example. The religious element comes from the concept of the "circle of life" or interconnectedness of all living things, a concept which here is treated both as an environmental one and as a spiritual one.
I also liked the musical score; most of the songs were taken from the original film with a few new ones mixed in. I was able to add another to my list of "songs you never knew were actually from a film"; I was familiar enough with Elton John's "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?", having often heard it on the radio, but did not know it was first written for the 1994 film where it is used (as it is here) as the soundtrack to the scene where Simba and Nala realise their love for one another.
The main criticism I have heard of the 2019 "Lion King" is that it is "unoriginal". Apparently it follows the plot of the 1994 version fairly closely, but never having seen that version I was not too worried about this. It is one of those family films which will not only delight the children but also give their parents something to think about. 8/10
The Girl from Missouri (1934)
Two Strikes against It from the Start
I have never really got the point of "gold-digger" movies. Such films do not, as one might think, deal with the adventures of prospectors in the California Gold Rush of 1849 or the Yukon Gold Rush of the 1890s. At one time "gold-digger" was a slang term for a young woman hoping to ensnare a wealthy man.
Neither have I ever really got the point of Jean Harlow. I know that she is frequently cited as the first great sex symbol of the sound era, but I have never thought her particularly beautiful, certainly not when compared to slightly older contemporaries such as Louise Brooks or Katharine Hepburn, or slightly younger ones such as Ingrid Bergman or Rita Hayworth. Her main attributes seemed to be her masses of peroxided hair and her brazenly sexy screen persona, although her brazenness had to be toned down a bit after the Production Code came into force in 1934.
Well, "The Girl from Missouri" is a gold-digger movie starring Jean Harlow, so it has two strikes against it from the start. Edith "Eadie" Chapman is a young dancer who leaves her home state and moves to New York. You might think from the title that her home state is Missouri, but later in the film there is a reference to her being from Kansas. The scriptwriter Anita Loos presumably could not be bothered to read the title of the film for which she was writing the script. Or possibly she was bunking off school on the day when the geography teacher was covering the Midwestern states.
Eadie is drawn to the Big Apple partly because it offers more opportunities for professional dancers, but more importantly because it offers more opportunities for professional gold-diggers. She thinks that she has hit paydirt when she receives a marriage proposal from millionaire Frank Cousins within a few minutes of meeting him. Unfortunately, Frank turns out to be a millionaire on the debit rather than the credit side of the ledger, owing rather than owning millions, and a few minutes later, faced with financial ruin, he shoots himself, but not before he has given Eadie some expensive gifts (which will play an important part in later plot developments). This episode strikes a very sour note; the film is (or at least aims to be) a light-hearted romantic comedy, so a scene in which a man commits suicide out of despair seems horribly out of place. Eadie, however, sheds no tears for Frank, treating his death as no more than a temporary setback to her gold-digging ambitions.
Eadie has more luck with Thomas Randall Paige junior. Tom junior is young and handsome, and his family's extensive assets are undoubtedly all on the right side of the balance sheet. The problem here is that Thomas Randall Paige senior does not welcome the prospect of a chorus girl as his daughter-in-law; the plot tells of how he is eventually persuaded to relent. To keep the Hays Office happy, Loos's script emphasises that Eadie refuses to have sex until she has got that wedding ring safely on her finger. (This was one of the first post-Code movies, Certificate No. 91). In this, however, she reminded me of Samuel Richardson's heroine Pamela, using her virginity as a bargaining chip to secure an advantageous marriage rather than staying chaste out of moral principle.
Films about gold-diggers were a popular comedy sub-genre in the 1930s- very popular, despite (or possibly because of) the fact that their heroines were generally portrayed as hard-bitten and materialistic. Harlow's Eadie is no exception to this general rule, coming across as a selfish little minx with no thought in her head for anyone other than herself or for anything other than her own financial prospects and how she might improve them. In the Depression era such single-minded pursuit of one's own self-interest might have seemed admirable, at least to some people. Today, the underlying message- that a man's worth is to be measured by the size of his bank balance, and a woman's by the size of her husband's bank balance- makes the film look horribly dated. 3/10
Torn Curtain (1966)
More was expected of Hitchcock than this
"Torn Curtain" was one of two films made on an espionage theme by Alfred Hitchcock in the late sixties, the other being "Topaz". Michael Armstrong, an American physicist, apparently defects to East Germany. In fact, he is secretly working for US intelligence and his apparent defection is a ruse to enable the West to find out how much the East Germans and the Soviet Bloc know about anti-missile systems (which are Armstrong's area of expertise). A complicating factor is that Armstrong's assistant and fiancée, Sarah Sherman, has followed him to East Berlin without knowing about his plans. Armstrong has made plans to return to the West with the assistance of a clandestine anti-Communist resistance movement known as Pi. (Probably an invention of the scriptwriters). This being a suspense thriller, however, things do not always work out as planned, especially after two Pi agents are forced to kill an East German security officer who was starting to become suspicious.
The film stars two actors whom one would not normally associate with Hitchcock, Paul Newman and Julie Andrews, and both appear to have been cast against the director's wishes on the insistence of the studio bosses. (Hitch himself would have preferred Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint). Newman in particular had a very different style of acting to such Hitchcock stalwarts as Grant or James Stewart, but he might have caught the studio's eye because he had earlier starred in "The Prize", which concerns an American Nobel Prize winner who gets caught up in a spy intrigue while in Stockholm for the prize ceremony. "The Prize" was directed by Mark Robson, but clearly shows Hitchcock's influence. Some of this influence might have been reflected back into "Torn Curtain", where the opening scenes take place in another Scandinavian capital, Copenhagen, and the closing ones in Sweden.
Armstrong might not be a professional spy, but he has clearly volunteered for his mission, something which sets "Torn Curtain" apart from most of Hitchcock's earlier films about espionage, such as "The 39 Steps", "The Lady Vanishes", "Foreign Correspondent", "North by North-West" and the two versions of "The Man Who Knew Too Much", all of which are about ordinary people who get caught up in international intrigue by accident. The main exception is "Notorious", in which Cary Grant's character is a professional intelligence officer and Ingrid Bergman's is a volunteer like Armstrong.
The film was not particularly well-received when it first came out in 1966, possibly because more was expected of Hitchcock than this. He had, not too long before, produced three great masterpieces in three years, "Vertigo", "North by North-West" and "Psycho", and his last film before "Torn Curtain", "Marnie", can be regarded as a near-masterpiece. "Torn Curtain" lacks many Hitchcock touches, including the sly humour of many of his films. There are suspense scenes, particularly near the end, but no really notable ones. I doubt if many film buff conventions involve ardent Hitchcockians asking each other another "Do you remember that great scene in "Torn Curtain" where.....?" Above all it lacks the psychological depth and moral ambiguity which are the hallmarks of many of his greatest films, such as "Notorious", "Strangers on a Train", "Vertigo", "Psycho" and "Marnie". "Torn Curtain" is a competently made Cold War spy thriller, but not much else. 6/10
Separate Tables (1958)
The only Hollywood movie I know set in a boarding-house in Bournemouth.
This is the only Hollywood movie I know of which is set in a boarding-house in Bournemouth. It is also the only Hollywood movie I know of based upon the work of Terence Rattigan, although several of his plays (such as "The Winslow Boy" and "The Browning Version") were filmed in Britain. "Separate Tables" was originally the collective title for two of Rattigan's one-act stage plays, both set in the Hotel Beauregard, Bournemouth. The two plays were designed to be acted together on the same evening as part of the same theatrical bill, with the same characters playing the leading roles in both.
Rattigan was one of the screenwriters for this film, which keeps his basic storylines but changes his structure. The two separate plays are joined into a single film, which made it impractical to keep the idea of having the same actors playing two different parts. The major characters in one story, John and Anne, were originally British but here become American. (John's surname is also changed from Martin to Malcolm). They are a divorced couple who meet again by chance and realise that they are still attracted to each other, despite the failure of their marriage.
The other storyline involves Major David Pollock, a former Army officer, who may not be all that he seems. The supposed "Major" is disgraced when it is revealed that he has been convicted of sexually assaulting several young women in a theatre. Some of the other residents, led by the formidable Mrs Railton-Bell, insist that the hotel manager expel Major Pollock from the hotel, while others take a more lenient approach. The other main character in this story is Mrs Railton-Bell's daughter Sibyl.
As with most of Rattigan's plays there is little physical action in "Separate Tables", but there is plenty of emotional drama, and several roles for top actors, and this is doubtless what attracted not only the film-makers but also several big-name stars, including Burt Lancaster, Rita Hayworth, Deborah Kerr and David Niven. Lancaster and Hayworth play the main roles in the "John and Anne" storyline, a couple who cannot live together but who cannot live without each other either. John is from a working-class background- in the original play he was a former Labour MP, but in the film no mention is made of his having had a political career. Anne is an aristocratic beauty- John believes that she married outside her own social class because she believed that a working-class husband would be easier for her to dominate who is worried that her looks, and with them her power over men, are fading. This was a brave role for Hayworth to take on; she was approaching forty when the film was made and, having started her career as a Hollywood glamour girl, must have wondered how the public would react to the idea of a forty-something sex symbol.
Rattigan wrote an alternative version of the play in which Major Pollock was gay and the offence for which he was arrested was that of importuning young men. In the event, he decided not to have this version of the story staged, and in 1958 there was no way in which such a story could have been filmed. In the story we actually have, Pollock's problem is a lack of self-confidence. Embarrassed by his working-class origins, the fact that he never achieved a higher rank in the Army than Lieutenant, his undistinguished war record and his lack of success with women, he reinvents himself as an upper-class, public-school-educated war hero. David Niven would have had no difficulty in conveying Pollock's bogus persona; he was himself an upper-class, public-school-educated war hero and a successful ladies' man. What Niven was also required to do was to show the real, vulnerable character underlying this mask, and he succeeded so well that he won his only Oscar for this role. Wendy Hiller also won an Oscar for her role as Pat Cooper, the landlady of the boarding-house who is secretly engaged to John Malcolm.
The biggest surprise for me, however, was Kerr's Sibyl, a character so unlike her normal screen persona that at first I did not recognise her. Gone is the beautiful, confident heroine of "The King and I". Sibyl is instinctively drawn to Pollock because she has even less self-confidence than him. The shy, mousy, unattractive Sibyl, dominated by her overbearing mother, would never dare to deliberately construct a false personality for herself in the way that he has done. It is possible, however, that Sibyl has subconsciously constructed a false personality for herself in order to fit in with her mother's expectations and that the meek, submissive young woman we see may not be the real Sibyl.
Rattigan had been one of Britain's most successful playwrights in the forties and early fifties, but by 1958 his reputation was in decline. The first production of John Osborne's "Look Back in Anger" in 1956 had been a watershed in the history of the British theatre, and in the age of Osborne and his fellow "Angry Young Men" Rattigan (along with the likes of Noel Coward and J B Priestley) belonged to an older generation that suddenly seemed very out-of-date. This film, however, shows what a fine writer with a deep understanding of human psychology he could be at his best. It explains why there has been something of a Rattigan revival in the theatre since the author's death in 1977. 8/10
The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015)
Teenage Coming-of-Age Film for Adults Only
Minnie is a 15-year-old schoolgirl in the San Francisco of 1976. She is not particularly interested in her schoolwork, because her long-term ambition is to become a professional cartoonist. Her short-term ambition, however, is to have sex. With as many people as possible, regardless of gender, but in particular with her mother's handsome live-in boyfriend Monroe. Lovers of films about fifteen-year-old girls having sex will be delighted to learn that Minnie fulfils this ambition in spades. Besides the sex, she also dabbles in drugs.
Those reviewers who described "The Diary of a Teenage Girl" as a touching coming-of-age story and praised the quality of the acting do not appear to have seen the same film as I did. It's more like softcore porn masquerading as a touching coming-of-age story. As for the acting, I could never for one minute accept Bel Powley as a fifteen-year-old girl. But then, I probably wasn't meant to. If this film had been made with an actual fifteen-year-old actress, the director would have gone to jail. Had it been made with a young-looking eighteen-year-old actress who could pass for fifteen, that might have satisfied the law's demands, but the result would still have been hugely controversial. So the solution was to make it with a twenty-three-year-old actress who in a good light could pass for twenty-two.
It is, in fact, quite possible to make a good film about the relationship between an adult man and an underage girl- Kubrick's "Lolita" is a case in point. In that film, however, as in the novel by Vladimir Nabokov on which it is based, the relationship is portrayed as something exploitative and the man as predatory and lacking in moral judgement. Those misguided enough to believe that Nabokov sympathises with Humbert should think again; his relationship with Lolita ends disastrously not only for her but also for himself. In "The Diary of a Teenage Girl", by contrast, the relationship between Minnie and Monroe is portrayed in a much more positive light, as an important if temporary stage in her sexual and emotional development. There is no sense that he is a predator or an exploiter in the same way as Humbert, and nobody seems particularly worried by the fact that he is cheating on Minnie's mother Charlotte. (The same Christian name, incidentally, as Lolita's mother? Was this done deliberately to suggest a link between the two films?)
According to Wikipedia, the film was the subject of some controversy in the UK because of the decision of the BBFC to give it an '18' rating. Given the explicit sex scenes, I am not sure how they could have given it any other rating, but this of course meant that young people of fifteen, the same age as the film's heroine, were not permitted to see it. The great thing about coming-of-age dramas, whether in the cinema or in literature, is that they can appeal not only to adults but also to the age group about whom they were written. When I came of age in the seventies films like "American Graffiti" were part of my formative experiences, as were books like "The Catcher in the Rye" and "A Kind of Loving". "The Diary of a Teenage Girl", by contrast, is a coming-of-age film made for adults only. Which seems like a contradiction in terms. 4/10
Star 80 (1983)
Says Something of Importance
Dorothy Stratten (nee Dorothy Ruth Hoogstraten) was a working-class girl from Vancouver, British Columbia who became a model and, at the age of nineteen, was chosen as the Playboy Playmate of the Month for August 1979. She became Playmate of the Year the following year. Most Playmates disappear from sight after their month in the spotlight, but Dorothy was widely regarded as being far more than just a pretty face. She was also regarded as a promising up-and-coming actress and had appeared in three films when, in August 1980, she was murdered by her estranged husband Paul Snider who was jealous of her relationship with the film director Peter Bogdanovich. (Snider committed suicide immediately after killing Dorothy).
This was the second of two films from the early eighties based on Dorothy's story, the first being the 1981 TV movie "Death of a Centerfold" with Jamie Lee Curtis and Bruce Weitz. It was based upon the non-fiction article "Death of a Playmate" by Teresa Carpenter in "Village Voice", but did not use this title, possibly because it was too close to that of the earlier film. The title "Star 80" was taken from the vanity licence plates on Snider's car. Both films make a few changes to the story, largely for legal reasons; for example the Peter Bogdanovich character is referred to as "David Palmer" in "Death of a Centerfold" and here as "Aram Nicholas". One major difference is that Dorothy's actual murder is depicted in "Star 80" but not in "Death of a Centerfold".
Although the two films tell essentially the same story, they are very different in quality, "Star 80" being the better by a considerable margin. Most of the difference lies in the acting. Weitz's one-dimensional Snider was convincingly villainous, but not much else; there is little to explain why Dorothy might have fallen for him in the first place. Eric Roberts's character is a more complicated figure. His Snider might be a bad man- vain, arrogant, dishonest, manipulative, bad-tempered, unfaithful, jealous and a "hustler and a pimp" as Hefner called him- and yet Roberts never allows us to lose sight of the fact that he is a man and not a monster. Roger Ebert, who greatly admired the film, said that Roberts should have been nominated for an Oscar but that "Hollywood will not nominate an actor for portraying a creep, no matter how good the performance is". (Ebert made this statement several years before Anthony Hopkins won "Best Actor" for his portrayal of Hannibal Lecter).
Jamie Lee Curtis was never convincing as Dorothy, partly because she bears so little physical resemblance to the woman she was portraying, and partly because she was never able to suggest her character's vulnerability. Mariel Hemingway is much better in this regard, and not only because she looks a lot more like the real Dorothy. There are occasions when two actors combine so well together that they seem to be giving a joint performance in which the whole is even better than either of its constituent parts, and I think that that is what happens here with Hemingway and Roberts. They combine to give a portrayal of a tragically doomed marriage which is much more plausible than the one we see in "Death of a Centrefold".
In this interpretation, the relationship between Dorothy and Paul was doomed from the start, even though each, in a way, loved the other. Paul's jealous, possessive love for Dorothy, however, was love of the most selfish kind, whereas her love for him was rooted in her naivety and in that strange lack of self-confidence which can afflict many beautiful women. As portrayed by Hemingway, she comes across as needing "someone older and wiser, telling you what to do", and mistakenly sees Paul in this role. When Aram comes along, she transfers her affections to him because he is so evidently a better protector-figure than her husband. (Bogdanovich had already made a major star of his previous girlfriend, Cybill Shepherd, and Dorothy was doubtless hoping he could do the same for her). Unlike "Death of a Centrefold", this film does not shy away from the fact that Peter/David/Aram was exploiting Dorothy, even if his was a kinder, gentler form of exploitation than Paul's.
Ebert described the film as an "important movie", but not everyone agreed with him. The Washington Post, for example, called it "Bob Fosse's latest stylish stinker". Roberts was not the only one who missed out at the Academy Awards; the film did not receive a single Oscar nomination, although Roberts was nominated for a Golden Globe. Few people today would rank this among the great films of the early eighties. This comparative neglect may owe something to a perception that films based on a recent newsworthy event are rarely any good. If that event involved a tragic death such films can also seem exploitative. This perception is not always an inaccurate one; we can all think of mediocre films (usually, but not always, TV movies) rushed out to tell the "true story" behind last month or year's headlines- indeed, I would say that "Death of a Centrefold" falls into this category. "Star 80", however, does not. Fosse (who acted as both director and scriptwriter) and his leading actors take a true story and use it to say something of importance about human nature and about relationships between men and women. 8/10
The Perils of Pauline (1947)
Larger-than-life and over-the-top
The original "Perils of Pauline" was one of the great successes of the silent cinema of the 1910s. Like a number of films from that period, it was made as a serial, shown in weekly episodes of around 20 minutes each. Each episode ended with the heroine, played by Pearl White, in mortal peril from the villains. The idea was to keep the audience coming back week after week to see how she would escape. Contrary to popular belief (and to the saying "Comes the day when even Pearl White is run over by the train") the serial never actually showed Pauline tied to the railroad tracks.
There have been two remakes of "The Perils of Pauline", in each case as a feature film rather than a serial, one from 1933 and one from 1967, neither of which I have seen. This 1947 film, however, is not a remake but a fictionalised biography of Pearl White. It was officially made in Technicolor, but the colours in the version I saw on television recently were so faded and washed out that it might as well have been in black-and-white, or at least back-and-white with a few pinks and pale greens and blues. We cannot, however, blame the film-makers for this, as the prints have apparently faded over time.
I said that the film was fictionalised. Make that "heavily fictionalised". There are many discrepancies between the facts of the real Pearl White's biography and the facts as presented in the film. The real White was originally from Missouri and began her career in showbiz as a child; here she is portrayed as a New York garment factory worker who becomes an actress as an adult. Much of the plot deals with her romance with Mike Farrington, a handsome theatrical actor-manager, who becomes her lover, her leading man and eventually her husband. Farrington appears to be an entirely fictitious character; White was twice married, but neither of her husbands had this name. The film shows "The Perils of Pauline" as running for several years, with new episodes still being made at the time of America's entry into the First World War in 1917. In fact, only twenty episodes were made, all of them in 1914 before the outbreak of war.
I would not, however, count the above inaccuracies as goofs because Paramount Pictures clearly had no intention of making a factually accurate biopic. They were trying to make an entertaining comedy set against the early days of the silent cinema, calling their heroine "Pearl White" because many older people would still have fond memories of her. (The real Pearl had died in 1938, so was in no position to complain about the liberties taken with her life story). Much of the comedy comes at the expense of the silent form itself. Although the silent era only lay twenty years in the past when this film was made, the film-makers of the period tended to look back on it with as much embarrassment as nostalgia. Part of the joke here is that Pearl succeeds as a silent star not despite but precisely because of the fact that she is such a bad actress. Her melodramatic gestures, which look so embarrassing and hammy in the theatre, are just what is needed in the brave new silent world of the "flickers". Something of the same attitude is to be found in two well-known films from the early fifties, "Singin' in the Rain", where Lina, the silent star struggling to adapt to the coming of sound, is played as both unpleasant and ridiculous, and "Sunset Boulevard", in which it is implied that nostalgia for the silent era is confined to washed-up old has-beens like Norma Desmond.
Today, of course, we tend to take a more generous view of the silent movie industry, recognising that the acting skills needed to succeed in it were just as valid as those used in the theatre or in the "talkies"- neither better nor worse, just different. The view taken of that industry by "The Perils of Pauline" can seem a bit patronising.
This is, however, not altogether a bad film. I previously knew Betty Hutton best as the girl who made herself unpopular in Hollywood by agreeing to take over the lead in "Annie Get Your Gun" after Judy Garland was controversially sacked. Here, however, she reveals a gift for comedy, portraying Pearl as splendidly larger-than-life and over-the-top, but always a funny and likeable heroine. If the real Pearl White was anything like this, her rise to fame must have been inevitable. 6/10
One of the best romantic comedies of the fifties
Hollywood has never really bought into the idea of America as a classless society, largely because if it did it would have to say goodbye to two of its most cherished plotlines. These are "poor boy (or girl) makes good" and "poor boy loves rich girl" (or vice versa). In Audrey Hepburn's first Hollywood film, "Roman Holiday", she played a rich girl (a Princess no less) in love with a poor boy. (Poor, that is, in comparison to his royal sweetheart, if not in any absolute sense of the term).
In Audrey's second Hollywood film, "Sabrina", the tables are turned. She is now the poor girl in love with a rich boy. Her character, Sabrina Fairchild, is the daughter of Thomas Fairchild, the chauffeur to the immensely wealthy old-money Larrabee family, who live in a Long Island mansion. The object of her affections is David Larrabee, the younger son of the family. He has never paid much attention to Sabrina in the past, but when she returns from Paris, where she has been attending a cookery school, as a beautiful, stylish and sophisticated young woman, David falls in love. There are, however, two problems. David is already engaged to someone else, and Sabrina has also come to the attention of his older brother, Linus.
The two brothers are very different in character. Linus, seemingly a confirmed bachelor, is a steady, sober workaholic who spends most of his time running the very profitable family business. David is an irresponsible, workshy playboy who already has three marriages and three divorces behind him. His main pastimes are driving fast cars, drinking heavily and spending the money which Linus makes. No prizes for guessing which one Sabrina ends up with.
The film is based upon a once successful but now largely forgotten stage play called "Sabrina Fair". (The film was originally released under that title in the United Kingdom, although today it is more commonly referred to by its American title "Sabrina". It has also been known as "La Vie en Rose" after the Edith Piaf song which we hear several times and which becomes Sabrina's personal anthem). The script, although at times witty, is nothing out of the ordinary, and the film could have ended up as little more than just another mediocre rom-com. Instead, in the capable hands of Billy Wilder, it ended up as one of the best romantic comedies of the fifties.
That it did so is even more remarkable when one considers the problems which faced Wilder on set. Hepburn and William Holden, who plays David, had fallen in love in real life and, although their relationship was to be a brief one and to end unhappily, it was intense and passionate while it lasted. Humphrey Bogart, who plays Linus, quarrelled with Wilder, Holden and Hepburn. He was also put out to discover that he had not been the first choice for the role- that had been Cary Grant, who had turned it down- and disappointed that he had failed in his efforts to get his wife Lauren Bacall cast as Sabrina.. Bogart, in fact, who specialised in playing the tough, hard-bitten heroes of films noirs and other action dramas, was cast against type as a romantic lead. One would have thought that in these circumstances there would have been too little chemistry between Hepburn and Bogart, and too much between Hepburn and Holden.
For some reason this does not happen. All three principals were evidently professional enough to leave their personal likes and dislikes in the playground and they do not carry over into the finished film. Holden, who had worked with Wilder before on "Sunset Boulevard" and "Stalag 17", had something in common with his character; like David he was a heavy drinker and something of a playboy. The one difference is that Holden only had one failed marriage behind him and zero divorces; it is said that Hepburn ended their relationship when she discovered that he was still legally married to Brenda Marshall.
Bogart's lack of experience in romantic comedy may, paradoxically, have worked to his advantage because Linus is not a naturally romantic character but a seemingly confirmed middle-aged bachelor who unexpectedly finds himself falling in love, for the first time in his life, with a much younger woman. (Hollywood seemed to love pairing Hepburn with older men. Gregory Peck in "Roman Holiday" had been fifteen years older than her, but with Bogart the age difference was thirty years. He was not, however, Hepburn's oldest leading man; that was to be Fred Astaire in "Funny Face").
As for Audrey, she shows that her stellar, Oscar-winning performance in "Roman Holiday" was not just a one-off and that she was destined to become a major force in Hollywood. She brings to her role here not just her acting skills, which were considerable, but also her unique personality and charisma, which is the factor which turns "Sabrina" from a merely good film into a great one. Bacall would probably not have been able to do that, and Julia Ormond failed to do it in that nineties remake which, although it was not particularly bad, never lived up to the standard of its illustrious predecessor.
The film only won one Academy Award, Edith Head for Best Costume Design, although there were rumours that most of Hepburn's dresses had in fact been designed by the French couturier Hubert de Givenchy. It did, however, receive several more nominations, including "Best Director" for Wilder and "Best Actress" for Hepburn. Strangely, it missed out on "Best Picture". It is perhaps not the best film of 1954- I have always been happy with the Academy's decision to go with "On the Waterfront"- but I would certainly regard it as the runner-up. 9/10
You'll Never Get Rich (1941)
Martin Cortland, a womanising theatre owner, gets into trouble when his wife Julia discovers that he has bought a diamond bracelet for a beautiful young dancer named Sheila Winthrop. In a desperate bid to save his marriage, Martin persuades his choreographer, Robert Curtis, to pretend to be Sheila's boyfriend, allowing him to claim that he bought the bracelet for Robert to give to Sheila. To further this deception, Robert asks Sheila out on a date to the same restaurant where Martin and Julia are dining together. This being a romantic comedy, Robert and Sheila end up falling for one another, but there is a further complication in that Sheila has another admirer, Army Captain Tom Barton. Things get even more complicated when Robert is drafted into the Army and finds that Tom is now his commanding officer. The title "You'll Never Get Rich" has nothing to do with the difficulties involved in accumulating wealth; it is a line from an old Army song.
This was the film which first made a major star of Rita Hayworth, cast because Columbia Pictures were looking for a replacement for Ginger Rogers as Fred Astaire's dance partner. The pairing was a successful one. Astaire was an unusual Hollywood star. He was neither particularly handsome nor particularly talented as an actor, but his abilities on the dance floor were enough to ensure that he retained his leading man status throughout the thirties, forties and fifties, playing opposite a succession of ever-younger dancing partners. (Rogers, Hayworth, Cyd Charisse, Audrey Hepburn...). As for Hayworth, this film shows what a great find she was, showcasing her beauty, her skill as a dancer and her charisma.
The plot of this film is a pretty thin one, and does not always make a lot of sense. If one examines it too closely, Sheila's treatment of both Robert and Tom would make her seem like a heartless flirt, and I doubt whether in real life the Army would have been quite so relaxed about Robert's attempt to impersonate an officer. The supposed "marriage" between Robert and Sheila would certainly not have been legally binding. This, however, is the sort of musical comedy where one should not take the plot too seriously because it only exists as a flimsy framework to support a succession of song-and-dance routines. And those routines are all very slick and professional. Yes, from a modern perspective they would have looked better in colour, but I doubt if too many people complained in 1941 when black-and-white was the rule and colour the exception, even for spectacular dance shows.
The film was very successful at the box office, which might suggest that audiences of this period did not have the same expectations of a musical as did those of the succeeding generation. The great musicals from the fifties, sixties and seventies- "Show Boat", "The King and I", "West Side Story", "South Pacific", "The Sound of Music", "Fiddler on the Roof", "Cabaret" and so on- offered audiences a coherent plot, often built around a serious theme (racism, gang violence, war or the rise of the Nazis), and a greater sense of emotional involvement with the characters.
The old-school musicals of the thirties and forties, by contrast, tended to be much more escapist, with farcical plots like this one and plenty of song-and-dance. They were intended to offer people a relief from the hardships of the depression and the dangers of wartime, so serious themes were out. It would not have been possible to make a musical about the rise of Nazism until the Nazis had not only risen but also fallen and been safely consigned to the rubbish bin of history. Despite the military theme of "You'll Never Get Rich", and despite the fact that it was made in 1941, not long before America's entry into World War II, there is no real suggestion that Robert, Tom and their comrades in uniform might soon have to go and fight for their country.
The changes which were later to affect the musical genre mean that today it is difficult to judge a film like this objectively. There is plenty of talent involved; Astaire and Hayworth were excellent dancers, Cole Porter a great songwriter and Robert Alton a very capable choreographer. And yet a film like "You'll Never Get Rich", popular though it was in its day, tends to strike us as today as dated and artificial. We just have to remember that that was not how it would have struck the audience for whom it was intended. 6/10
Affair in Trinidad (1952)
Too Much Information
In 1948 Rita Hayworth, then at the height of her fame, gave up acting to marry Prince Aly Khan, the son of the Aga Khan, but returned to the screen four years later after the breakdown of her marriage. "Affair in Trinidad" was the film that marked her comeback. It is a film noir which reunited her with Glenn Ford, her co-star in "Gilda", another noir regarded by many as Hayworth's best film.
Steve Emery, an American, arrives in Trinidad, at the time still a British colony, to visit his artist brother Neil, who has written to him about a job on the island. On arrival, Steve is shocked to learn that his brother is dead, apparently a victim of suicide, and unable to accept the official verdict decides to investigate matters on his own. He meets Neil's wife Chris, a nightclub singer and dancer, and Neil's wealthy friend Max Fabian, who at first seems friendly and affable but who may have something to hide, especially as regards the suspicious characters who are staying in a guesthouse on his property. An added complication is that both Steve and Max find themselves becoming attracted to the beautiful Chris.
In writing the above synopsis I have cheated a bit by telling the story from Steve's viewpoint. The audience, in fact, know quite a lot more than Steve does because of a conversation early on between Chris and Inspector Smythe, a local detective. Smythe tells Chris that Neil was in fact murdered, that Max is the main suspect in his murder and that Max is also suspected of being a spy in the pay of a foreign state. (The country involved is never explicitly named, but in 1952, in the early years of the Cold War, audiences would have assumed it to be the Soviet Union. There is talk of this state planning to attack the United States with missiles based in the Caribbean- a plotline which anticipates the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis by ten years). Chris, who realises that Max is attracted to her, agrees to work with the police to investigate Max's crimes, but obviously cannot tell Steve about this.
The reason why I told the story from Steve's viewpoint is because I felt that this could have been a better film had the producers and scriptwriters told it in this way. A key element in many of the best noirs was a sense of moral ambiguity, and "Affair in Trinidad" might have had this had the audience been allowed to believe, along with Steve, that the recently-widowed Chris was acting most inappropriately by flirting quite openly with her husband's friend who might, or might not, be involved in his murder and if the truth were to be revealed only gradually. The film that we actually have is a cinematic case of "too much information". The fact that the audience know, almost from the beginning, that Max is a villain and that Chris is helping the police to entrap him, means that the film loses not only its moral ambiguity but also a lot of the tension which it might otherwise have had.
Hayworth performs two seductive dance numbers, recalling the one she did in "Gilda" and demonstrating that four years away from the screen had not diminished her sex appeal. (As in most of her films, however, her singing voice is dubbed). She and Ford try their best, but they can never make the film anything more than a routine crime drama. It is strange to think that in 1952 "Affair in Trinidad" actually performed better than did "Gilda" at the box office. Today it just looks like an inferior copy of the earlier film. 6/10
So Long at the Fair (1950)
One night in 1889 a young Englishman named Johnny Barton mysteriously vanishes from his hotel room in Paris, where he has travelled with his sister Vicky to see the Exposition Universelle. And it's not just Johnny who vanishes. His hotel room, No. 19, appears to have vanished as well, with just a blank wall where it used to be. When a distraught Vicky questions the hotel management she is told that they have never heard of a person named Johnny Barton and that Vicky arrived at the hotel alone; as evidence they show her the hotel register, which contains Vicky's signature but not Johnny's.
In desperation Vicky, who believes that her brother must have been either murdered or kidnapped, goes to see first the British consul and then the police. They are sympathetic, but warn Vicky that they cannot investigate until she has some hard evidence to back up her story. The hotel proprietors hint that Vicky is either mad or has invented a story about her brother to avoid paying her hotel bill. Her luck turns when she meets an English painter named George Hathaway who remembers speaking to Johnny, who lent him 50 francs to pay a cab fare, in the hotel bar the previous evening. George resolves to help Vicky solve the mystery.
I remember reading in a magazine once that this film was based upon a true story, but the truth appears to be that it was never more than a 19th-century urban legend. There have been several other treatments of the legend in film and fiction, but in most of these it is the young woman's mother rather than her brother who disappears. The best-known treatment is probably Alfred Hitchcock's "The Lady Vanishes", although Hitchcock makes some important changes to the story. In his version the older woman and the younger one are not mother and daughter, the action takes place not in a Parisian hotel but on board a train passing through an unnamed country and the final solution to the mystery is very different. Hitchcock's aim was to alert the British public to the dangers of Nazism, even if for political reasons Germany could not be explicitly named. In the same year, 1938 the Germans produced their own, much more traditional, film of the legend under the title "Verwehte Spuren" ("Vanished Tracks").
"So Long at the Fair", in fact, is a thriller with a lot in common with Hitchcock's work. The reviewer who said that it was not violent enough for Hitch was wide of the mark- by no means all of Hitchcock's films contain explicit violence. The Master might have made a few changes to the story- he would probably have had Vicky played by a blonde rather than the brunette Jean Simmons and would probably have written out George's girlfriend Rhoda in order to introduce a romance between George and Vicky. He might also have updated the action to the present day, as period drama was never his forte. ("Under Capricorn" is not one of his best films, and "Jamaica Inn" one of his worst).
Nevertheless, the atmosphere of paranoia and suspicion and the theme of a young woman trying to prove her own sanity and to uncover what she believes to be a sinister conspiracy both seem very Hitchcockian. The "balloon" scene when Vicky and the consul go in search of a waitress who might be able to prove her story is a classic piece of suspense. The luminously beautiful Simmons is wonderful as Vicky, and she receives good support from Dirk Bogarde as the resolute and chivalrous George and from Cathleen Nesbitt as the plausible but sinister hotel owner Madame Hervé. Even after Hitchcock departed these shores for Hollywood, something of his spirit remained in Britain. 7/10
Down to Earth (1947)
Terpsichore and the Psychopomp
Hollywood's most beautiful leading ladies are often referred to as "goddesses", and in "Down to Earth" one of those ladies, Rita Hayworth, gets a chance to play a goddess in the literal sense. Her contemporary Ava Gardner was also to play a goddess in "One Touch of Venus" from the following year.
Danny Miller is a Broadway producer putting on a musical called "Swingin' the Muses". Yes, it's just as bad as it sounds. The plot revolves around a pair of Air Force pilots who crash on Mount Parnassus, the legendary home of the Nine Muses, the Ancient Greek goddesses of the arts. Now theatrical productions can occasionally cause offence to various sections of the population, but Miller's does so in a quite unexpected quarter. The offended party is the Muse Terpsichore herself, the goddess of dance, who is annoyed that Miller's story depicts her as a "man-hungry trollop". She descends to Earth in order to put him right.
Now descending to Earth is not as easy for a goddess as one might think. In order to do so Terpsichore needs assistance from a being known as Mr. Jordan, originally a character in a play called "Heaven Can Wait" which had been adapted for the cinema as "Here Comes Mr. Jordan". (There is no connection with Ernst Lubitsch's film "Heaven Can Wait"). Although he is not referred to as such in the film, Jordan is a psychopomp, a spirit charged with ushering the souls of the dead into the next world, in this case by flying them there in an airliner. He can also ferry immortal beings in the opposite direction, and it is through his good offices that Terpsichore arrives in New York. Once there, using the name Kitty Pendleton, she auditions for, and wins, the star part in Miller's show.
The next development is pretty predictable; Danny falls in love with the supposed "Kitty", never suspecting that she is anything other than a beautiful young actress. Terpsichore takes advantage of his infatuation to rewrite his show, turning it from a vulgar piece of razzamatazz into a highbrow ballet. This proves to be a disaster. The only people who like the new production are a group of pretentious "longhairs"; everyone else loathes it. (The word "longhair" appears to have been an American expression for an intellectual culture-vulture, and could be used even about people who did not literally have long hair). This means that Danny has serious problems. If the show is a failure, he stands to lose more than his money. His main backer is a gangster who has threatened to kill him if the show flops. So how can he bring his show back "down to earth", win back the public and retain "Kitty's" affections, all without getting himself shot?
With a nonsensical plot, a weak leading man in Larry Parks and so-so song and dance numbers, "Down to Earth" could have been an even bigger flop than Danny's production threatens to be. The one thing that saves it is the presence of the lovely Rita. I don't mean that she gives her greatest acting performance; great acting demands a good script, something which this film conspicuously lacks. What Rita brings to the film is not technical acting skills but something rather different, that indefinable star quality which she possessed in spades, combined with her undoubted talent as a dancer. (Like some other dancing actresses- Cyd Charisse is another who comes to mind- was less talented as a singer, and her singing voice was here dubbed). There is also a decent contribution from Roland Culver as Jordan.
The film's take on culture, namely that lowbrow kitsch is always preferable in the eyes of the Great American Public to anything with cultural pretensions, reminded me of another film from a few years later, namely the Fred Astaire vehicle "The Band Wagon". Personally, I found that the ballet sequences were about the only interesting part of "Down to Earth", but that probably means that I am an incorrigible longhair. Without Hayworth, the rest of the film would have been virtually unbearable. As it is, it serves as a record of one of Hollywood's greatest goddesses, and also of what lowbrow kitsch looked like seventy-odd years ago. 5/10
The Honorary Consul (1983)
Pitiably Small Beer
"The Honorary Consul", based on a novel by Graham Greene, is set in and around the Argentine city of Corrientes, in the far north of the country on the border with Paraguay, but in fact the film was actually shot in Mexico. Doubtless in 1983, only a year after the Falklands War, British film crews would not have been welcome in Argentina.
The main character is Eduardo Plarr, a half-English, half-Paraguayan doctor, who is in exile from Paraguay where his father is being held prisoner because of his opposition to the Stroessner regime. Plarr is approached by Leon, an old friend from Paraguay. Leon, a former priest, is now a member of a guerrilla group fighting against the Paraguayan government, and asks for Plarr's assistance in a plot to kidnap the American Ambassador and to use him as a hostage to secure the release of political prisoners. Although Plarr has tried to keep out of politics since arriving in Argentina, he agrees to assist the group in return for a promise that his father will be one of the prisoners whose release they will demand.
Unfortunately, the incompetent guerrillas mistakenly kidnap the British Consul Charley Fortnum, whom they have confused with the Ambassador. This puts Plarr in a difficult position as Fortnum has always regarded him as a friend. Their friendship, however, has not prevented Plarr from conducting an affair with Fortnum's Argentine wife Clara. Plarr travels to Buenos Aires to ask the British Ambassador to assist, but without success. Fortnum, a heavy drinker, is no good at his job, and has displeased the British authorities by his marriage to Clara, whom they do not regard as a suitable wife for a British diplomat. (She is a former prostitute). The British government, therefore, are not prepared to intercede with the Paraguayan regime on his behalf.
Richard Gere was not the most obvious choice to play a doctor of mixed British and Paraguayan heritage, but the producers evidently wanted a big-name American star to appeal to the American market. He is not as bad as some of his detractors on this board make out, but he struck me as making his character too laid-back. This is perhaps appropriate in the early scenes- although he has never been to Britain, Plarr likes to stress on his British heritage and to see himself as a calm, solid, unemotional Englishman. In the later scenes, however, where Plarr becomes more emotionally involved, Gere did not seem really convincing.
The real star of the film is Michael Caine, an actor whose work can be uneven but who here is at his best, which means that he is very good indeed. Fortnum, an alcoholic and a professional failure, may be, as the British Ambassador sarcastically describes him, "pitiably small beer", yet Caine manages to make him someone we can care about. Fortnum has married a beautiful younger woman, whom he loves deeply, but faces the awful prospect of losing her to a younger, better-looking friend who does not really love her. To make matters worse he is kidnapped and held hostage by a gang of bungling but nevertheless lethal terrorists, and yet somehow he manages to keep an impressive dignity throughout.
Two other good performances come from the lovely Mexican actress Elpidia Carrillo, whom I have not seen in any other film, as Clara, and Bob Hoskins as the local police chief, Colonel Perez. Hoskins, best known in Britain for playing Cockneys, might again not seem the most natural choice to play a Latin American character, but here he is excellent. Perez is a man in a difficult position; he believes in upholding the law, but he also believes in doing so with humanity and fairness, a task which is becoming difficult given the deteriorating political situation. Greene's novel was written in 1973, before the coup of 1976 which brought the military junta to power, when Argentina was still nominally a democracy, but in practice retained many authoritarian features.
I also liked the restrained, sombre photography, appropriate for a film dealing with serious topics and which has a plot which is in many ways tragic. I am always surprised that this film, based on the work of one of Britain's leading twentieth-century writers and starring actors as well-known as Caine, Gere and Hoskins, should have attracted so little notice. Mine is only the 13th review it has received on this board. I feel, however, that it deserves to be better known, not only because of the performances of Caine, Hoskins and Carrillo but also because of the sensitive and intelligent way it deals with such perennial topics as justice, love, friendship and the nature of violence. 8/10
Little Women (2019)
The only version of "Little Women" in which Beth not only dies but also comes back from the dead
I won't set out the plot of this film. This is only partly because the plot of Louisa May Alcott's novel is so well known. It's also because the film is so confusing that I couldn't actually understand a lot of it. Writer/director Greta Gerwig has chosen to tell the story in a peculiarly non-linear way, with flashbacks, flash-forwards, flashbacks within a flash-forward, flash-forwards within a flashback, and...you get the general idea. The only way I could make any sense of it was from my knowledge of the novel itself and of previous film and TV adaptations. This must be the only version of "Little Women" in which Beth not only dies but also comes back from the dead. (At least once and possibly twice). I don't think this was intended as a Lazarus-type resurrection, merely a side-effect of non-linear narration.
The film differs from earlier versions of the story in a number of ways. Jo's admirer, Professor Friedrich Bhaer, is, in the book and in most previous films, considerably older than her, but here he is a young man of around the same age, more undergrad than professor. At one time older man/younger woman romances were common currency in Hollywood, possibly because the average Hollywood producer is an elderly or middle-aged male with a much younger trophy wife, but the effects of the #Metoo movement may have made film-makers uneasy about depicting relationships of this sort. The March family are normally described as living in "genteel poverty", but here they seem pretty well heeled, especially when compared to a genuinely poor family like the Hummels. They are, admittedly, poor when compared to their wealthy aunt, but only in the way that a millionaire is poor when compared to a billionaire.
I am, in a way, sorry to have to be so critical about the film because there are some good things about it. It is, for example, visually attractive, reminiscent of a British "heritage cinema" period drama, and I liked Alexandre Desplat's musical score. There are some good acting performances. Pride of place in this respect must go to Saoirse Ronan as the determined, independent-minded and feisty Jo, but I was also struck by Timothée Chalamet as Jo's other admirer Laurie and Meryl Streep in a cameo as Aunt March. Ronan and Chalamet also appeared together in Gerwig's previous film, "Lady Bird", like this one a coming-of-age film but with a modern setting. Ronan is the only one of the four actresses playing the March sisters to have been born in America, and even she has spent more of her life in her parents' native Ireland; Emma Watson (Meg) and Florence Pugh (Amy) are British and Eliza Scanlen (Beth) Australian.
My favourite screen adaptation of "Little Women" probably remains the one from the early nineties, but I will not make direct comparisons as it is a long time since I last saw that film. Greta Gerwig's film is in some respects better than the 1949 version with Elizabeth Taylor; it is, for example, better acted. (That film contained some strange examples of miscasting). Gerwig's narrative style, however, meant that her take on the story never moved fluently and never really held my attention. 5/10
Hitchcock's Last Great Movie
Even after his move to Hollywood in 1939, Alfred Hitchcock liked to stay in touch with his native Britain. "Rebecca" and parts of "Foreign Correspondent" are ostensibly set in Britain, even though they were filmed in America, and several other films ("Rope", "The Birds" and "Marnie") are based on works by British authors, but with the action transferred to America. "Frenzy" was the third and final film that he made in Britain during this period, the others being "Under Capricorn" and "Stage Fright", both from 1949/1950. It was his penultimate film; his last was to be "Family Plot" from four years later.
"Frenzy" is perhaps Hitchcock's most British post-1939 film. Although many of the cast were well-known members of the British acting profession, none of them really counted as major international stars, whereas in both "Under Capricorn" (which is set in Australia) and "Stage Fright" Hitchcock recruited a famous international actress, Ingrid Bergman in the first and Marlene Dietrich in the second. Despite that opening panorama of the River Thames accompanied by some grand, quasi-Elgarian theme music, the London depicted here is neither the tourist London of majestic buildings and pageantry nor the "swinging London" of contemporary cliché but a gritty, workaday city.
As with "The Lodger", one of Hitchcock's early British films from the 1920s, the plot centres on a serial killer in contemporary London. The murderer becomes known as the "necktie killer" because he strangles his female victims with a tie after raping them. When Brenda Blaney, the owner of a matchmaking bureau, becomes one of his victims, suspicion falls upon her ex-husband Richard, a former RAF officer, who was seen arguing with her shortly before her murder. When Richard Blaney's new girlfriend, a pub barmaid named Barbara, becomes the killer's next victim, the police are sure that he is the culprit. He is arrested, found guilty and jailed.
This is an obvious miscarriage of justice, because it has been established early on that the real killer is an acquaintance of Blaney's, a greengrocer named Bob Rusk. Despite a lifelong fascination with crime and the criminal mind, Hitchcock was not really interested in Agatha Christie-type whodunits or in courtroom dramas, so we see virtually nothing of Blaney's trial. "Frenzy" instead deals with one of Hitchcock's favourite subjects, a wrongly accused or suspected man's fight to prove his innocence. This is the theme of "The Lodger" and of several of the director's later films, including "Young and Innocent", "Strangers on a Train", "I Confess", "To Catch a Thief" and "The Wrong Man". In this fight Blaney has a surprising ally- Chief Inspector Timothy Oxford, the Scotland Yard detective responsible for investigating the "necktie" killings but who has subsequently become convinced of Blaney's innocence.
The heroes of films like "The Lodger", "Young and Innocent" and "The Wrong Man" were all in reality decent, respectable citizens; Cary Grant's character in "To Catch a Thief" was a reformed criminal going straight and doing his best to become a decent, respectable citizen. It would be hard to see Richard Blaney in the same light. He is in many ways unsympathetic; since leaving the RAF he has found it hard to hold down a steady job, and when we first meet him he is being sacked from his latest job (as a barman in the same pub as Barbara) for petty dishonesty. He has a fiery temper, and can be quick to threaten physical violence. We learn that Brenda divorced him on the grounds of extreme cruelty, and although Blaney claims that this was simply a legal manoeuvre to bring the marriage to a quick end, we see enough of his demeanour to make us think that there may have been more truth in the divorce petition than he is willing to admit.
And yet Blaney is undoubtedly the hero of the film. Hitchcock may have been trying to make the point that it is not just decent, respectable citizens who deserve the protection of the law. Justice demands a fair trial even for those whom society does not consider decent and respectable, and what happens to Blaney is far from being justice. There is a fine central performance from Jon Finch who brings out the less attractive features of Blaney's personality but never emphasises them to the extent that we lose all sympathy with his character.
Barry Foster is also good as Rusk, although I felt that Anthony Shaffer's script could have done more to explore the psychological roots of Rusk's evil, as is done with Norman Bates in "Psycho". Although the script mentions two actual serial killers, Jack the Ripper and John Christie, Foster said that his character was based upon a third murderer, Neville Heath, like Rusk something of a dandy and ladies' man. (Ironically, Foster is perhaps best remembered today for playing a policeman, the Dutch detective Van der Valk, in the TV series of that name). There are also good supporting contributions from the likes of Alec McCowen as Oxford, Anna Massey as Barbara and Bernard Cribbins as Blaney's irascible employer. There is a running joke about the attempts of Oxford's wife to provide him with gourmet cooking, something he does not always appreciate because he prefers plainer fare.
Hitchcock's career had seemed to go into something of a decline in the late sixties; his two films from this period, "Torn Curtain" and "Topaz", both with a Cold War espionage theme, are not among his best. "Frenzy", by contrast, is an exciting, gripping thriller which asks some pertinent questions about the justice system. It can be seen as a welcome return to form and Hitchcock's last great movie. 8/10
Surprised by Joy
"Shadowlands" is a biographical drama about the relationship between the writer and philosopher C. S. Lewis and his wife Joy Gresham. When the film opens in the early 1950s, the middle-aged Lewis is enjoying a comfortable bachelor existence as a don at Oxford University, sharing a cottage with his brother Warnie, when he meets Gresham, an American poet who has travelled to England with the express purpose of meeting him. A friendship grows up between them, but at this stage this can only be platonic because Gresham is already married, although unknown to Lewis this marriage is an unhappy one.
Gresham is subsequently divorced from her husband, and on a later visit she and Lewis are married, although initially this is only a marriage of convenience designed to allow Gresham to remain in Britain. When she is diagnosed with cancer, however, Gresham and Lewis realise how deep their feelings for one another have become and their marriage becomes a real one. Lewis finds that his Christian faith is tested by the imminent prospect of his wife's death, yet realises that their relationship is the most important thing that has ever happened to him. (He was later to call his autobiography "Surprised by Joy").
Although Lewis and Gresham have similar religious beliefs, in other respects they are very different. He is quiet, reserved and conservative and fits in well with the traditional world of Magdalen College. She is outspoken, uninhibited and unconventional. This is a film which called for superb acting performances in order to bring out the contrasting personalities of the two main characters, and such performances are supplied by Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger. Winger first came to public notice as Wonder Girl, the younger sister of Lynda Carter's Wonder Woman in the 1970s TV series, but later developed into a sensitive, serious-minded actress, and this is one of her best films. She was nominated for a "Best Actress" Oscar, but lost out to Holly Hunter in "The Piano".
Hopkins was not eligible for an Oscar nomination, as he had already been nominated that year for "The Remains of the Day". The film reunited him with Richard Attenborough who fifteen years earlier had directed him in "Magic", one of his first great screen performances; the two had also worked together in "Chaplin" in 1992. Hopkins has been excellent performances in so many films that there is not room to mention them all here, but the early nineties were a particularly fertile period for him. This was the period of "The Silence of the Lambs", "Howards End" and "The Remains of the Day", all among his best performances, and the one he gives in "Shadowlands" is in the same class. Hopkins does not bear much resemblance to the historical C. S. Lewis, but ever since I first saw this film it is Hopkins who comes to mind whenever I think of the author of The Chronicles of Narnia.
The contributions of Hopkins and Winger combine with Attenborough's direction, the subdued but evocative photography of Oxford and the English countryside and William Nicholson's intelligent, literate script to make this what Roger Ebert called an "intelligent, moving and beautifully acted film". 8/10
One Spy Too Many (1966)
Two Different Media
"The Man from U.N.C.L.E." was a popular American television series from the 1960s. Like a number of series and film franchises from this period, it was inspired by the success of the James Bond films which made anything with an espionage theme very popular. The acronym U.N.C.L.E. stood for "United Network Command for Law and Enforcement", an international law enforcement agency. (The "N" was originally supposed to stand for "Nations", but the real-life UN objected to their name being used in this way). The series should really have been called "The Men from U.N.C.L.E." because it features two U.N.C.L.E. agents, the American Napoleon Solo and the Russian Ilya Kuryakin. At the height of the Cold War there was an obvious appeal to a series which showed the Americans and Russians working together to preserve world peace.
This was the third feature film to be based upon the "Man from U.N.C.L.E." franchise. Like its two predecessors it is based upon a story which was originally broadcast on television and most of the footage consists of re-edited material from one or more episodes of the series. The only additional material used here is the subplot featuring Yvonne Craig as Solo's love interest Maude, a character who never appeared on television. Maude, a sort of Monypenny figure, turns out to be the niece of Solo and Kuryakin's British boss Waverly.
As in many of the Bond films, the main villain is a ruthless tycoon with ambitions of world domination. This tycoon, largely because his name is Alexander, sees himself as a modern-day Alexander the Great and has similar ambitions to conquer the world. He starts stealing a top-secret chemical weapon from an American military base and intends to bankroll a military coup against the President of an unnamed Asian country. He is also obsessed with the Ten Commandments, believing that as a superior being he has a licence to break them which is denied to lesser mortals. The task of foiling Alexander's evil schemes falls, of course, to Solo and Kuryakin. In doing so they have the assistance of Alexander's his estranged wife Tracey who is trying to track him down so that she can serve him with divorce papers.
A comparison between "One Spy Too Many"- the precise relevance of this title is never made clear- and the Bond movies illustrates some of the differences between the cinema and television in the 1960s. In 1966 the Production code was on its last legs- it was to be abolished the following year- and film-makers were quick to take advantage of a climate of growing permissiveness as regards both sex and violence. Television producers, who needed to pursue the family audience and to keep their advertisers and sponsors happy, did not have the same licence. Although Robert Vaughn's Solo, another suave, debonair charmer, had certain things in common with Sean Connery's Bond, he was decidedly less promiscuous. Here his romance with Maude, although flirtatious, always remains within the bounds of decency, and there is no indication that they have been to bed together. Bond, who regularly bedded several girls per film, would never have missed such an opportunity. About the only thing that might have upset TV producers is a shot of the lovely Maude in a bikini.
The film is also less violent than the Bond franchise. Solo and Kuryakin might occasionally brandish their pistols, but they rarely if ever use them to lethal effect. The death toll is markedly lower than in most Bond films, and most of the killings we see are carried out by the bad guys. It is notable that Alexander himself dies at the hands not of an U.N.C.L.E. agent but of one of his own renegade henchmen.
Not only is "One Spy Too Many" less sexy and less violent than the Standard Average Bond, it is also less exciting. There are few action sequences apart from a not very well-done car chase and little tension is generated, even when one or other of our heroes has been captured by the bad guys. Rip Torn as Alexander cannot compare with the great Bond villains such as Gerd Frobe's Goldfinger, Donald Pleasence's Blofeld or Michael Lonsdale's Drax. If I had to compare it with a Bond film, it would be with one of the lesser entries in that franchise such as "A View to a Kill" or "Licence to Kill". Television and the cinema are two different media, and you cannot make a successful feature film simply by re-editing a television programme, even a successful one. 5/10
Lady of Burlesque (1943)
If the Razzies had existed in 1943 this would have been a prime candidate for "worst movie"
Some reviewers have wondered how a film about burlesque could ever have slipped past the Hays Office in the days when it was enforcing the Production Code with puritanical rigour. The answer is that there is not a lot they could have objected to. I had always thought of "burlesque" as being an American term for what in the UK would be known as "striptease", but in this film the burlesque artistes are not so much strippers as singers, dancers and comediennes. Admittedly, they wear what might be called rather informal dress when going through their routines, but there is very little bare flesh on display, no toplessness and certainly no nudity.
Deborah Hoople, better known by her stage name Dixie Daisy, is the leading lady at a New York burlesque theatre. Dixie is popular with audiences but less so with her jealous, catty colleagues, and when her rival Lolita La Verne is found murdered Dixie becomes the main suspect. (Lolita has been strangled with her own G-string, a detail which the censors did object to. Their objection was studiously ignored by the film-makers). Dixie has to clear her name and unmask the real killer, a task which becomes all the more urgent when a second artiste, who goes by the name of The Princess Nirvena, is killed.
The film's only major star is Barbara Stanwyck as Dixie. I had previously associated Stanwyck with more serious fare such as the famous film noir "Double Indemnity", but here she shows that she also possessed comedic skills; Dixie's stage act is based around a comic, wisecracking persona. A comedienne, however, is only as good as her material, and the material Stanwyck has to work with here is very low-grade stuff, lacking in wit or humour. The song-and-dance numbers are no more entertaining, and led me to think that if a real Broadway theatre had offered such poor fare to its audiences it would have been forced to close very quickly.
The murder mystery story arouses little interest. It is based around the hackneyed plot device of presenting us with numerous suspects with a motive to commit the murder. The Lolita and the arrogant, self-obsessed Nirvena had a talent for alienating everyone they met, and Dixie was far from being their only enemy. The real killer turns out, of course, to be the one person whom nobody suspected, if only because his or her motive was concealed from the audience. Had the Razzies existed in 1943 "Lady of Burlesque" would have been a prime candidate for "worst movie". It is as well that the Nazis never managed to obtain a copy of the print. Goebbels would have had a field day holding it up to the German public as a fine example of the decadence and corruption of American culture. 3/10
Gycklarnas afton (1953)
Melancholy, depression and emotional suffering
This film has become known in English as "Sawdust and Tinsel", although that is not a literal translation of its Swedish title, which means "The Evening of the Jesters". It is about a circus in early twentieth-century Sweden, but this is no "Greatest Show on Earth". There is no spectacle about it. There are no plotlines about fires, train crashes, escaping lions or artistes at risk of falling from the trapeze or high wire. Apart from the horses used to pull the wagons the only animal the circus possesses is an elderly bear who has definitely seen better days. About the only cliché the film shares with the standard American circus movie is the one about the clown who, beneath his smiling make-up, is deeply miserable. But then, everyone else in the film (including the bear) is deeply miserable so he's in good company.
The plot deals with a love-triangle between Albert, the circus owner and ringmaster, his young mistress Anne and Albert's estranged wife Agda. The circus arrives in the town where Agda is living, and Albert wonders whether he should give up circus life and reconcile with Agda, who is running a shop. Although Agda's business is a small one, it seems to offer Albert greater financial security than life with the circus, which has been losing money. The triangle becomes a quadrangle when Anne is pursued by local boulevardier Frans.
Unlike Hollywood circus movies, which were generally shot in Technicolor Ingmar Bergman made "Sawdust and Tinsel" in a gloomy monochrome. There is no attempt to capture the pageantry and spectacle of the Big Top. It might be about a circus ringmaster, but it might just as well have been made about the provincial shopkeeper which Albert would have become had he stayed with Agda. Although the film deals with people's emotional problems, none of them are very likeable, and neither Bergman nor his cast manage to arouse either sympathy for or interest in his characters.
Bergman is regarded as a virtual cinematic god by many professionals within the film industry, including film-makers like Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen who rank among my own personal cultural heroes, and so I consider it my duty to try and familiarise myself with his films. The trouble is that when I do they all too often strike me as gloomy dramas about miserable people who have problems relating to one another. He is almost single-handedly responsible for that well-established stereotype of the Swedes as being prone to melancholy, depression and emotional suffering. 4/10
Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969)
Lust, Sweet Lust; the Gospel According to Bob and Carol
"Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice", which came out in 1969, is one of those movies which belong to a very specific period of time. At any time before the Summer of Love in 1967 a storyline like this would have run into trouble with either the American censors, or with strait-laced studio executives, or both. And at any time after the mid-seventies it would have been dismissed as a dated throwback to the hippie era, probably accompanied by mocking shouts of "Fab! Groovy! Love and peace, man!"
Bob and Carol Sanders are a young, trendy middle-class couple from Los Angeles who go on a retreat run by a cult-like organisation preaching a gospel of free love and emotional honesty. They return completely converted to this new philosophy, which they want to share with their relatively small-c conservative friends Ted and Alice Henderson. When Bob has a one-night stand with an attractive young woman and confesses it to Carol, she, in accordance with the group's philosophy, accepts the situation. It would not be quite correct to say that she forgives Bob; rather, she takes the position that as the affair was "purely physical" he has done nothing wrong and there is nothing to forgive. Moreover, she reveals details of Bob's infidelity to Ted and Alice, who are shocked, not just by Bob's behaviour but also by Carol's blasé attitude to it. Later, however, Ted and Alice begin to be won over towards their friends' new lifestyle.
I recently saw the film again for the first time in many years and must admit that I enjoyed it more than I did on the first occasion. (I probably watched it then because it starred Natalie Wood as Carol; I had been in love with the lovely Natalie ever since seeing "West Side Story" as a teenager). I was part of that generation who came of age in the late seventies and eighties, and our attitude to the counter-culture of the sixties was often one of a scornful wonder (in the words of the hymn). It was not so much their idealism that we objected to- even the most hardened cynic must admit that "love and peace!" is a nobler sentiment than "hate and war, man!"- as their dated aesthetics, their tendency to see every moral issue in black-and-white and their over-simplistic views on political and social matters. After the AIDS crisis struck in the eighties their ethos of "free love" (i.e. unbridled promiscuity) began to look not just outdated but positively dangerous.
In the late 2010s, however, we can look back with greater objectivity than we could in the eighties and nineties at both the sixties counter-culture and at films like this one. The problem with the gospel according to Bob and Carol is that it does not make allowances for the complexity and diversity of human nature. The question of whether total emotional honesty is a good thing or not has been debated by writers and thinkers going back at least as far as Moliere in "The Misanthrope", and probably a lot further back even than that. The fact that all those writers and thinkers have not been able to come up with a definitive answer to that question might suggest that there is no definitive answer; Moliere certainly did not come up with one.
It is notable that when Bob discovers Carol in flagrante with a handsome young man he is, initially at least, far less comfortable with her adultery than she was with his. Carol's German boyfriend Horst, whom we see briefly, seems happy with the idea that their relationship is "purely physical", but we never learn how Bob's one-night girlfriend feels about being dismissed in the same offhand way. For all we know, she might have been deeply hurt, but neither Bob nor Carol give any thought to her feelings.
The ending of the film is famously ambiguous; Bob and Carol appear to have converted Ted and Alice to their point of view and arrange a wife-swapping foursome, but the action suddenly stops with the four of them in bed, leaving it unclear as to whether they actually go through with making love. Have Tend and Alice embraced their friends' lifestyle? Or are they having second thoughts? The theme song heard over the closing credits, "What the world needs now is love," is equally ambiguous. Does it mean that what the world needs is lust, sweet lust? Or is it a genuine call for more emotional commitment?
All four leads- Wood, Robert Culp, Elliott Gould, and Dyan Cannon- play their parts well, and the dialogue is effective, sharp and witty. Moreover, having seen the film again it strikes me that Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker, who between them acted as director, producer and co-writers, were not actually celebrating the counter-culture but were using the techniques of comedy to question its underlying assumptions. It is not heavy-handed satire, but you can demolish a structure just as effectively by undermining its foundations as you can by going straight in with a wrecking ball. 8/10
Quality Street (1937)
Box Office Poison
Does anyone know how Quality Street, a popular brand of confectionary here in Britain, got its name? Or why for many years the brand was advertised using a picture of a dashing soldier and his pretty sweetheart, both dressed in the costumes of the early 19th century? The reason (and I only discovered this recently) is that "Quality Street" is the name of a play by J M Barrie (of "Peter Pan" fame) and that the soldier and the girl are based upon characters in the play, which was still popular in the British theatre when the brand was first launched in 1936. "The Quality" was a now-obsolete term for the wealthy classes, and "Quality Street" referred to those parts of a town where such people lived.
The play also seems to have been popular in the American theatre, and it was made into two Hollywood films, a silent one from 1927 with Marion Davies in the leading role (which I have never seen) and this one from 1937, made by RKO Radio Pictures. In 1805 Phoebe Throssel, an inhabitant of Quality Street, is a beautiful young woman of twenty. She has set her heart upon the handsome Dr. Valentine Brown, and when he tells her that he has something important to say to her she assumes this will be a proposal of marriage. All he has to say, however, is that he has enlisted in the army to fight against Napoleon.
Fast forward to 1815. The Napoleonic Wars are over. Phoebe, still unmarried and helping her older sister Susan to run a school, is now a beautiful young woman of thirty. Did I say Phoebe is beautiful? Yes, of course she is. She is, after all, played by Katharine Hepburn, perhaps the loveliest star of the period, herself thirty years old at the time the film was made. Well, perhaps the role was originally intended for another actress, or perhaps the film-makers did not notice just how beautiful Katharine was, because the plot revolves around the idea that Phoebe has lost her looks in the intervening ten years and is no longer attractive. When Dr Brown, now a captain in the Army, returns to Quality Street Phoebe (whose heart is still set on him) passes herself off as her own (non-existent) niece Olivia ("Livvy"). As Phoebe endows the supposed "Livvy" with an outgoing, flirtatious personality quite unlike her own, this act of deception leads to various complications.
I have never seen a performance of Barrie's play, so have no idea how this scenario might work out on stage. (It is almost never staged today; it might still have been popular in the thirties, but in more recent years it has, like most Edwardian dramas, vanished into obscurity). In the film, however, it just does not work at all. Katharine Hepburn as the 20-year-old Phoebe looks very much the same as she does as the 30-year-old Phoebe or as "Livvy", so it seems incredible that Captain Brown, or anyone else, is taken in by her ruse. The film is set in England, but not all the cast sound English. Hepburn's English accent is a good one, but Franchot Tone as Brown makes no effort to hide his American accent, and no effort is made by the scriptwriters to explain it away (e.g. by making his character Canadian).
Katharine Hepburn is today widely regarded as one of the greatest screen actresses of all time; her record of four "Best Actress" Oscars has never been equalled, let alone beaten, by another actress. (Only one, Meryl Streep, has won three). It therefore comes as a surprise to learn that she was not always held in such high esteem and that in 1938 she was one of a group of actors labelled "box office poison". "Quality Street", which was a financial flop when released in 1937, was one of several films which contributed to this label. Hepburn's own reputation was to recover, especially after she appeared in the highly successful "The Philadelphia Story", but that of this film continued to languish, and today it has deservedly joined Barrie's play in obscurity. 4/10
I have been faithful to thee, Frida! in my fashion
At the age of 18 the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo suffered serious injuries in a road accident. She survived, and made a partial recovery, but was in pain for the rest of her life and always walked with a limp. She was forced to give up her ambition to go to medical school and took up painting during her convalescence. The film starts with this accident and then follows Frida's artistic career and her private life, particularly her marriage to a fellow artist, the muralist Diego Rivera.
Frida's relationship with Rivera was never an easy one as he was an inveterate womaniser, and marriage did nothing to moderate his sexual appetites. In the film we see Frida telling him that she expected his loyalty if not his fidelity. This phrase put me in mind of Ernest Dowson's protest (in "Non Sum Qualis Eram") that he had been faithful to his lover Cynara "in my fashion", but Frida was nevertheless able to turn Rivera's rather liberal interpretation of "loyalty" to her own advantage. It enabled her to take both male and female lovers- she was bisexual- with a clear conscience. In the film these lovers include Leon Trotsky during his exile in Mexico and Josephine Baker. At least, I presume that the black singer whom Frida meets in Paris is supposed to be Baker, although the cast list only names her as "Parisian chanteuse". (According to Salma Hayek, the explicit love scene between Frida and Josephine was included at the insistence of Harvey Weinstein as the price of his financial support for the project. Salma's experience of working with Weinstein does not appear to have been a happy one).
Although Hayek, like Kahlo, is from Mexico, she was perhaps not the most obvious choice to play her. Hayek is Lebanese-Mexican whereas Kahlo was of German descent. If a Lebanese- American actress were to be cast as a German-American character, or vice-versa, it would certainly raise a few eyebrows, but that sort of political correctness does not seem to apply with as much force south of the Rio Grande as it does on its northern bank.
Salma, one of the world's loveliest actresses, does not bear a great resemblance to Frida, who was, at best, belle-laide. The early 2000s saw an increase in cinematic uglification, with beautiful actresses like Charlize Theron ("Monster") and Nicole Kidman ("The Hours") hiding their beauty beneath their make-up, but here little attempt is made to alter Salma's looks. She represents her character by using Frida's trademark unibrow and centre parting as a sort of visual shorthand.
Despite (or perhaps because of) their many arguments, and multiple infidelities on both sides, Frida's marriage to Rivera lasted for 25 years until her death in 1954, with one brief interruption. (They were divorced in 1939, but remarried a year later). Because Rivera was both a larger-than-life personality and a famous painter in his own right, this is to some extent a dual biography and a portrait of a marriage.
The difficulty with dual biographies is that they require powerful performances from both leading actors, but fortunately director Julie Taymor is able to draw on precisely that from Hayek and from Alfred Molina. Molina's performance as Rivera, at the same time a genius, a Don Juan and something of a ruffian, is comparable in quality to the one he gave in the British drama "Prick Up Your Ears". In both films he portrays the life-partner of a real-life artistic figure, in that case Kenneth Halliwell, the lover of the playwright Joe Orton. Hayek has appeared in some rubbish, "Wild, Wild West" being a particularly egregious example, but here she is at her best. She might not look much like Frida Kahlo, but she portrays a brilliant, mercurial, courageous and passionate creative spirit to great effect. Unusually for a Hollywood movie this one does not attempt to play down the left-wing politics of its heroine and hero; both were avid supporters of the Mexican Communist Party and saw their artistic endeavours as inseparable from their political beliefs. (Rivera suffered the indignity of seeing the mural he had painted for the Rockefeller Center in New York destroyed when he offended his capitalist patrons by refusing to remove a portrait of Lenin).
Although I am an art lover, I must admit that I am not familiar, except at second hand, with the works of either Kahlo or Rivera; Rivera's, for obvious reasons, are unable to travel outside Mexico, a country I have visited only once. This film, therefore, was something of an education for me, enlightening me about two artists I had previously taken only a passing interest in. 8/10
The Aeronauts (2019)
Don't Go to See It If You Are Afraid of Heights
"The Aeronauts" is very loosely based on the career of the scientist James Glaisher who in 1862 was one of two men who set a new world record of 39,000 feet for the greatest height ever achieved in a balloon. Glaisher's aim in ascending to that height, however, was not simply to set a record for its own sake. He believed that by studying conditions in the upper atmosphere he could make an important contribution to scientific knowledge, particularly to the then young science of meteorology.
The film departs from historical fact in a number of ways, some of them minor, others more substantial. It has the balloon taking off in London, whereas in fact the ascent took place from Wolverhampton. Glaisher's father was also named James, but in the film he is referred to as Arthur. More seriously, when Glaisher refers to his belief that one day it will be possible to predict the weather, his fellow-scientists, almost to a man, ridicule him. In fact, the idea that the weather can be predicted was starting to gain scientific credibility in the 1860s; the forerunner of today's Met Office had been founded (by Darwin's friend Captain Robert Fitzroy of "Beagle" fame) in 1854.
The most significant change from the historical record concerns Glaisher's pilot. In real life this was Henry Tracey Coxwell who, despite that feminine-looking middle name, was definitely male. Coxwell, however, is written out of this story and is replaced by Amelia Rennes, a fictitious character based upon real-life female balloonists such as Sophie Blanchard and Margaret Graham. For some reason her surname is spelt in the cast-list as "Wren", but this must be an error as Amelia is the English-born widow of a French balloonist named Pierre Rennes, who met his death in a ballooning accident.
So what is the point of turning Coxwell into an attractive young woman? I initially assumed that the intention was to turn the story into a Victorian rom-com, especially as Glaisher here becomes a young bachelor played by the handsome Eddie Redmayne. (In real life, in 1862 he was a married man of 53). I was, however, to be proved wrong; no romance develops and the relationship between Glaisher and Amelia remains platonic.
Part of the answer, I think, is to make a feminist statement by providing us with a strong, capable and courageous female character, something of a rarity in period dramas. The heritage cinema genre has its merits, but it has never quite been able to shake off the accusation that it has perpetuated the stereotype of 18th and 19th century ladies as passive figures who spent most of their time sitting around in drawing rooms while the men did all the work. This sort of figure is caricatured here by Amelia's more conservative sister Antonia, who cannot understand why her sibling insists on messing about in balloons instead of settling down to domestic bliss with some nice young man. That is not, however, the whole answer; there are other reasons, connected with the circumstances of Pierre's death, why this particular story would not have worked with two male protagonists.
The film is more of an adventure-thriller than a rom-com. The central question is not "Will they fall in love?" but "Will they survive when things go wrong?" And, of course, things do go wrong; nobody is going to make a film about a balloon which takes off safely and then lands safely about an hour-and-a-half later after an uneventful flight. (The main action, the balloon flight itself, is shown in real time, with occasional flashbacks detailing the earlier lives of the protagonists).
If I had one criticism it would be that Amelia's feats of derring-do as she climbs out of the basket and clambers all over the balloon, several miles above the ground, to save the flight from disaster seem a bit exaggerated, even though the special effects involved are impressive. Could anyone really have done that without plunging to her death? I know that James Bond performs several similarly improbable feats in every episode of his adventures, but then the Bond movies are supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, whereas "The Aeronauts" wants us to take it seriously in every other respect.
There are, however, good performances from Felicity Jones as the gutsy Amelia and from Redmayne as Glaisher. He rather reminded me of Newt Scamander, his character from the "Fantastic Beasts" movies, another young, earnest and slightly bumbling scientist. (I have never seen his portrayal of another real-life scientist, Stephen Hawking in "The Theory of Everything"). Overall, "The Aeronauts" is not just an enjoyable period adventure; it also asks some serious questions about whether it is worth risking one's life in pursuit of fame, glory or scientific knowledge. Just don't go to see it if you are afraid of heights.
A goof. Glaisher's mother is here given the name Ethel. This is an unlikely name for an elderly lady who was probably born around 1790, as the name did not come into general use until the mid-19th century. Anyone called Ethel in 1862 would have been either a child or a much younger woman than old Mrs Glaisher.
His New Profession (1914)
What Mattered Was Slapstick
In 1914 Charlie Chaplin made no fewer than 36 silent comedy shorts. "The Good for Nothing", also known as "His New Profession", is one of them, released in late August just after the outbreak of World War I. Europe may have had more serious matters on its mind, but in America what mattered was slapstick.
Here Charlie is hired by a man to wheel his elderly, wheelchair-bound uncle around a seaside park. Dissatisfied with the amount he is being paid, however, he puts a beggar's sign and tin on the wheelchair while the old man is asleep. Further complications ensure, involving a real beggar and those two stock comic figures from Chaplin comedies, a pretty girl and a policeman. When the uncle's wheelchair rolls on to the pier we think we know what is coming. Or is it?
We are lucky that so many of Chaplin's films have survived, given that many films from the 1910s are now lost, although today some of them are of little more than historical interest. What strikes the modern viewer is how cruel some of them are. "The Good for Nothing" is not quite as bad in this respect as something like "In the Park", but even so it struck me as trying to get laughs at the expense of the elderly and disabled. The uncle is not treated as a human being in his own right, more like an item of property on whom virtually any indignity can be inflicted provided that it helps to get laughs.
Motion Picture News described the film as "a laugh throughout", which suggests that both audiences and critics in 1914 were more easily pleased than modern ones. This was, however, a period during which both Chaplin, and the cinema in general, were on an upward learning curve and needed to work out what worked and what didn't. And, although films like this one may seem a bit crude by modern standards, and indeed by the standards of any period alter than about 1930, the general consensus at the time seemed to be that they did work. They just don't make very interesting watching 100 years on.