Magnificent Obsession (1954)

When arrogant playboy Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson) crashes his speedboat on a lake one sunny afternoon, the emergency services are forced to bring the town's only respirator to the scene, meaning the equipment is unavailable to save the life of beloved local doctor and eminent surgeon Wayne Phillips, who happens to have suffered a coronary at the same moment. The churlish, directionless and deeply unpopular Merrick is guilt-ridden when he learns of the tragedy later and is persuaded to adopt a new philosophy of anonymous philanthropy by artist Edward Randolph (Otto Kruger), a friend of the deceased. Pursuing Phillips' attractive widow Helen (Jane Wyman) to apologise, Merrick accidentally causes her to be hit by a car after which she permanently loses her sight. Merrick, who has fallen in love with Helen, arranges for her to visit a trio of specialists in Switzerland but they prove unable to cure her blindness. After an idyllic evening together in the Alps, Merrick proposes to Helen but she instead disappears with her nurse, Nancy (Agnes Moorhead), apparently never to be seen again. Heartbroken, Merrick re-enrols in medical school and trains to become a neurologist, whereupon Helen unexpectedly re-enters his life and the older, wiser Merrick finally finds himself presented with an opportunity to right his many wrongs.

A former UFA director turned Hollywood journeyman, Douglas Sirk certainly made a silk purse out of a sow's ear when he adapted Lloyd C. Douglas's soapy 1929 novel for Universal-International. Working within the confines of the studio system, Sirk would soon carve out a niche for himself as the king of the American Melodrama with such superior weepies as All That Heaven Allows (1955), Written On The Wind (1956) and Imitation Of Life (1959), but it all began here. A Dane by background, Sirk lived and worked in Germany until 1937 when he was forced to emigrate in order to protect his Jewish wife. The director never forgot the lessons of Nazism and made films that analysed the manners and moors of the middle class in America, a social demographic he deeply distrusted as “the soil in which dictatorships take root”. Magnificent Obsession can be read as an example of this attitude in action. Shot in a dreamy pastel palette by cinematographer Russell Metty, Sirk presents the town of Brightwood as a Rockwellian idyll, a consumer-capitalist utopia lined with gleaming automobiles, blooming gardens and domestic ease, the product of Madison Avenue's persuasive imagination and as unreal as the world of Father Knows Best (1954-60) on television. Hudson's wealthy Bob Merrick is the fruit of this seemingly perfect landscape and is profoundly unfulfilled as a result of its superficiality, his actions causing destruction all around him. If Merrick stands for his class in microcosm, he is in dire need of correction for society's greater good. Fortunately, he gets it, courtesy of Kruger's interventionist creator, a man who preaches a selfless, karmic code of personal conduct that he traces back to Christ. Given a new mission, Merrick sets out to redeem himself, although the fact remains that it has still taken two tragedies to shake this Good Samaritan out of his cruddy complacency, a rot attributed to luxury and entitlement. This savage social critique, with its heavily Christian subtext, runs beneath the surface of what might otherwise have been an empty chocolate box romance with an embarrassingly conventional plot. Herein lies Sirk's greatness, balancing crowd-pleasing aesthetics and emotion with pressing social concerns.


The Adventures Of Robin Hood (1938)

When I was a kid, Kevin Costner's Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves (1991) was wildly popular, despite the horrid power ballad from Bryan Adams that accompanied it and the utterly implausible inclusion of Morgan Freeman among the cast as a very token Moor. Although it was a pretty serviceable modern take on the well-worn folk hero and benefited enormously from Alan Rickman's delightfully hissy performance as the Sheriff of Nottingham, I always preferred Mel Brooks's zany spoof, Robin Hood: Men In Tights (tagline: "The legend had it coming"), which appeared two years later to send up the unlikely early nineties revival of interest in all things Sherwood Forest sparked by the Costner hit. That film starred Cary Elwes doing an excellent imitation of Errol Flynn in his most famous swashbuckling role, so it was great to finally see the man himself don the Lincoln green leggings in this lusty, primary-coloured medieval romp from Warner Brothers. 

The energetic Tasmanian inherited the role of Robin of Locksley from Douglas Fairbanks after James Cagney dropped out (!) and his take on the character presents "the best-loved bandit of all-time" as a puckish nature boy, a hearty and cheerful presence equally at ease chewing venison haunches with the peasantry as he is lightly leaping from the castle walls or swinging from the chandeliers, certain in his opposition to unfair taxation and tyranny. Flynn's Robin is clearly the right man to unite Merrie England against Claude Rains' fey usurper Prince John and his prissy henchman Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone) and his defiant speech to rally the Saxon villagers against their Norman oppressors is suitably stirring and patriotic (not to mention timely in 1938). Olivia de Haviland meanwhile makes for a strong, questioning Maid Marian but is soon won over, although one can't help but wonder if Robin might not really prefer the attentions of Will Scarlet (Patric Knowles), an interestingly passive figure more often seen dishing out thoughtful one-liners and strumming his lute than firing arrows or engaging in daring-do. Elsewhere, screwball comedy hero Eugene Palette pops up as Friar Tuck, doing battle with the rebel outlaw waist-high in river water for the sake of a stolen leg of mutton. The secondary romance between Merry Man Mutch (Herbert Mundin) and Marion's nurse Bess (Una O'Conner) also provides some agreeably earthy background shading. Mostly directed by William Keighley but completed by Michael Curtiz, this Technicolor beauty stages the mass brawls well and cracks through all of the story's key events - Robin's staff battle with Little John (Alan Hale), the archery contest, the escape from the gallows - at a fair old pace and remains highly entertaining.


Modern Times (1936)

This evening I was lucky enough to catch a screening of Charlie Chaplin's immortal satire Modern Times at London's Royal Festival Hall featuring live accompaniment by the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Carl Davis. The film was showing as part of the 'America 1900-1950' strand of the Southbank Centre's monumentally ambitious year-long festival of programmes addressing the evolution of 20th century classical music, The Rest Is Noise, inspired by critic Alex Ross's 2007 book of the same name. Chaplin famously composed his own scores, although he had a little help this time from Alfred Newman and a young David Raksin (best known for his theme to Otto Preminger's Laura, 1944). His original music for Modern Times, which included the hit song 'Smile', has recently been restored and revised by Timothy Brock and it was this version that so delighted the audience tonight.

I'd forgotten quite how packed Modern Times is with event and invention, from Charlie's mad rampage around the Electro Steel Corp. factory frantically tightening the buttons, nipples and noses of his colleagues to his accidental arrest as a union agitator and the extraordinary scene at the jailhouse in which he liberally peppers his lunch with cocaine by mistake, a scene that makes inspired use of the comedian's expressive features. His romance with Paulette Goddard's barefoot wharf rat is as lovely as I'd remembered and the scenes in which he fantasises about their setting up house together and entertains her by roller skating blindfolded around a department store at night are hard to beat for sheer romantic enchantment. This latter interlude actually got the biggest reaction out of the Festival Hall audience tonight - a collective intake of breath as Charlie skates perilously close to a ledge several times without even knowing it. A staggering feat of bravery from an auteur truly committed to his art.

Chaplin's comedy was, of course, entirely serious in its intention, namely to boost national morale during the breadlines and turmoil of the Great Depression by providing cheer, solace and sympathy to the downtrodden. This is cinema  as public service. The optimistic ending in which he and Goddard link arms and march on along the highway and into the sunrise together brilliantly encapsulates his message but also preempts Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation in stressing the promise of freedom and a brighter tomorrow represented by the open road. Modern Times is also an inspired and enduring workplace satire - the depiction of the steel company's president sitting in his office doing jigsaw puzzles and reading the funny pages before spying on his employees via closed circuit television, ordering them back to work, is as pleasing today as it must have been in 1936 and anticipates Orwell's Big Brother 12 years before Nineteen Eighty-Four was written. Chaplin also winningly asks, "What price progress?", and decries the dehumanising process of the industrial age. The production line leads to the madhouse, he tells us. The iconic image of Charlie trapped among the cogs of The Machine stands for all time. However, for me, it's the prototype force-feeding machine that really hits home, lampooning an era obsessed with maximising productivity and anticipating the star's barracking of "machine men with machine minds and machine hearts" in his powerful closing speech to The Great Dictator in 1940. 


Theatre Of Blood (1973)

Following on from The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971) and its sequel, Vincent Price once more plays a ritualistic serial killer in a camp British horror filled with comedy stars of yesteryear. This time out, Price appears as classically-trained stage thesp Edward Lionheart, a honey-glazed ham who refuses to appear in anything other than Shakespeare. Monomaniacally obsessed with winning the Best Actor statuette from the London Critics Circle, Lionheart is mortified when he loses the 1970 gong to an inexperienced d├ębutante, the nomination an obvious stitch-up contrived by the leading lights of the theatrical press in order to humiliate him. The tormented tragedian flips his wig, confronting the reviewers and subjecting them to a laboured performance of Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy on a Lambeth apartment balcony before casting himself into the Thames in the manner of Ophelia. Assumed dead, Lionheart is actually rescued by a gang of meths-swilling vagrants and returns three years later to pick-off the writers who wronged him one-by-one, devising intricate deaths inspired by the Shakespeare plays he was performing in during his final repertory season.

As ever, the plummy Price is having a ball, relishing the opportunity to live out an actor's gory Grand Guignol fantasy of doing away with the poison penmen of the review section. Ably supported by Diana Rigg as his ruthless daughter Edwina, Price dons all sorts of cartoonish disguises to carry out his mad revenge plot, appearing as a French chef, a Scottish masseur, a gay disco hairdresser named Butch and a fencer to duel on trampolines with Ian Hendry. Barking. His victims this time include the likes of Michael Hordern, Dennis Price, Robert Morley, Jack Hawkins, Diana Dors and Arthur Lowe, all attracted by the production's witty and literate script from Anthony Greville-Bell. An effeminate, bequiffed Morley in a pink and peach suit being force-fed his own beloved poodles baked in a pie in the style of Titus Andronicus (above) is perhaps the film's calling card, but it's hard to forget the image of Price sawing off the head of Captain Mainwaring (below) and spiking it on top of a milk bottle for Hendry to find the next morning, a murder echoing the end of Cymbeline.

The screening I saw at London's BFI Southbank was introduced by Reece Shearsmith, one of the culprits behind macabre comedy troupe the League of Gentlemen, as part of the institute's "Screen Epiphanies" series. Shearsmith cited the film as a major tonal influence behind the League's work and a key shared reference point between its founding members. Most amazingly, the actor pointed out that you can buy Edward Lionheart action figurines online and indeed it is so. Some of late director Douglas Hickox's family were also in attendance and visibly delighted to see the film entertain an audience on the big screen once again.


A Star Is Born (1954)

A Technicolor musical remake of the 1937 William A. Wellman melodrama starring Fredric March and Janet Gaynor, George Cukor's take promises James Mason and Judy Garland in the leads, a script by Moss Hart and songs by Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin. The story concerns fresh-faced singer Esther Blodgett (Garland) and her discovery by fading movie star Norman Maine (Mason), the latter helping rebrand her as starlet "Vicki Lester", launching her movie career and marrying her, only for his own world to crumble around him into jealousy, alcoholism and despair. Maine and Lester's lives are heading in opposite directions - she is on the ascent, he is in decline - and Hart's screenplay finds a terrible poignancy in allowing their respective trajectories to intersect, a phenomenon that presents them with a few months of perfect happiness together that cannot last. This structuring and theme of the unstoppable pull of destiny called to mind David Fincher's The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button (2008) in which Brad Pitt's character, who ages backwards, finally reaches the right physical age to commence a relationship with his sweetheart Daisy (Cate Blanchett), only for his body to dwindle into infancy as she passes naturally into seniority. Another more obvious recent parallel with A Star Is Born is Michael Hazanavicius's overly praised silent homage The Artist (2011), which borrowed much of the plot of this already thrice-told tale and nevertheless proved popular among fickle mass market audiences with short memories (the two leads and Uggy the dog were, admittedly, utterly charming).

Although the boyish, doe-eyed Judy Garland is rightly celebrated for her touching and expressive performance here - few could do what she does - the real strength of Cukor's near-three hour showbiz epic is the decision to pair her brand of cheerily self-mocking musical comedy with Mason's sad and affecting theatrical approach. The Englishman is as impressive here as a bi-polar drunk as he would be in Nicholas Ray's later Bigger Than Life (1956). The chemistry between Garland and Mason is considerable and both give each other space to work. She gets to showcase her vocal versatility with a selection of show tunes, he gets to walk forlornly into the ocean, never to return. Indeed, so even is the focus on Mason's doomed Norman Maine, whose demise dominates the picture's second-half, it could easily have been called A Star Dies. Other noteworthy performances include those from Charles Bickford as sympathetic studio boss Oliver Niles and Jack Carson as his cynical chief of publicity Matt Libby, a shrewd media manipulator embittered by years of having to conceal Maine's morose drinking binges from a scandal-hungry tabloid press.

As a satire of the Hollywood dream factory, A Star Is Born is far less critical of the industry and its personalities than Sunset Boulevard (1950) or The Bad & The Beautiful, directed by Garland's ex-husband Vincente Minnelli two years before. Niles may always be business-minded but he remains friends with his stars and is concerned for their welfare while Libby is faultlessly professional for just as long as he needs to be. The studio's frantic costume and make-up departments and the occasional sleazy producer are rightly sent up but these are easy targets and overall the filmmaking community is not the real villain here: people's personal demons are their own and stars bring joy to millions. A sappy conclusion from Warner Brothers that lets down the film's otherwise sharp insights into the nature of fame. Maine prostituting himself by exchanging photographs for drinks is much more like it. 


The Patchwork Girl Of Oz (1914)

With Sam Raimi's 3D spectacular Oz The Great & Powerful due out in cinemas imminently, the BFI is currently running a retrospective of films based around L. Frank Baum's well loved series of children's books, Returning To Oz. Naturally, any discussion of the subject has to begin with the Judy Garland version, which is so iconic and enduring that stills and clips from it are frequently used today to encapsulate the very idea of Hollywood studio filmmaking (among other things). However, the MGM musical was by no means the first attempt to bring Baum's work to the silver screen, the author himself having founded the Oz Film Manufacturing Company in 1914 for the express purpose of adapting his stories for what was then a novel new medium. However, the company only issued three features before folding after just a year: The Patchwork Girl Of Oz, The Magic Cloak Of Oz and His Majesty, The Scarecrow Of Oz. Tonight I saw the first of these as part of a double bill with an even earlier effort, a 13 minute short of The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz produced by the Selig Polyscope Company in 1910. This latter project came about after producer William Selig acquired the rights to Baum's original and still best-remembered Oz tale after helping to bankroll the author's disastrous 1908 theatrical folly, The Fairylogue & Radio-Plays, a touring multimedia stage show that dramatized the writer's work by combining a lecture and slide show with film and live performances, a hit with audiences but a financial debacle.

Presented at the BFI Southbank with brilliant live accompaniment by Stephen Horne, playing piano, accordion and flute (occasionally in combination), both of these early films owed a clear debt to pantomime stage craft, leaving the camera stationary and often relying on painted cloth backdrops. Both featured inspired harlequin costumes, capering slapstick, actors in animal suits and frankly rather frightening Scarecrows, probably better off fronting Slipknot or actually deterring buzzards than befriending lost damsels. The Selig short, directed by Otis Turner, offers us a Dorothy of the right age in nine year-old Bebe Daniels but spins through the story at a cyclonic pace. You can check it out for yourself below:

The Patchwork Girl Of Oz, directed by J. Farrell MacDonald (who was subsequently blamed for its failings and fired), has much more time at its disposal but makes a good deal less sense. Baum's script introduces us to Munchkin boy Ojo (confusingly, he's played by Violet MacMillan, a girl) who lives with Unc Nunkie (Frank Moore), his impoverished uncle. The pair are starving because their bread tree won't blossom, so they head off to the Emerald City, stopping off at the home of magician Dr Pipt (Raymond Russell) on the way, wherein the Patchwork Girl is brought to life and Unc Nunkie and others are accidentally petrified into marble, prompting Ojo to set out on a quest to gather the ingredients for an antidote, running into a Woozy (a large cardboard cat), a green bearded city guard, a lonesome beast named Zoop, savage Tottenhots and a townful of malicious Hoppers, who sever a leg from anyone with the audacity to walk around with two. In another case of oddball gender bending, Scraps, the titular servant girl, is played by a man, French acrobat Pierre Couderic, who flops and tumbles like a rag doll magnificently but is also utterly terrifying, worse even than the Scarecrow. Despite this, and the narrative suffering as a result of lost footage, The Patchwork Girl Of Oz manages to sprinkle the Powder of Life onto some inventive characters and must have appeared a marvel in its day. It also contains one other particular point of interest for film historians. Just as Oliver Hardy would appear in an early role as the Tin Man in Larry Semon's 1925 version of The Wizard Of Oz, so another silent great, Harold Lloyd, appears here. Admittedly, he's hard to recognise beneath his Cowardly Lion costume but apparently that is indeed him.