26/12/2013

The Bishop's Wife (1947)


Happy Christmas! Here's a nicely festive feature for the holiday season in which Cary Grant stars as an angel sent to earth to aid Henry Brougham (David Niven), a newly elected bishop charged with raising the funds to build a new cathedral. Brougham is under pressure from his snooty sponsors and in danger of losing sight of what's really important in his life.

Comparisons with the previous year's It's A Wonderful Life* are inevitable, but Henry Koster's film proves to be a much lighter confection, with Grant's impish, pleasingly ambiguous Dudley setting out to woo the neglected Julia Brougham (Loretta Young) in order to spark her husband's jealousy and thereby lift him out of his personal and professional rut. Although Brougham has become obsessed with the construction of a monumental white elephant, he is no Fitzcarraldo or Colonel Nicholson and his crisis of faith is only lightly touched upon. Really, The Bishop's Wife is a safely chaste romance, with precisely no chance of Grant and Young's rapport ever boiling over into a torrid affair and Brougham only needing a gentle nudge to lure him out of his depression. The screenplay by Leonardo Bercovici and Robert E. Sherwood (later spruced up by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett) also struck me as something of a conservative cautionary fable, warning against unrealistic ambition and overreaching beyond your basic level of competence: Henry was obviously a much happier, more fulfilled and useful person conducting the boy's choir in his previous incarnation as pastor of St. Timothy's and is not at all suited to the business of buttering up socialites required of him as bishop.


Cinematographer Gregg Toland does a superb job of capturing the snowy grandeur of the American winter, echoing his work on Orson Welles's Citizen Kane (1941), while Grant and Young make for a charming pair, both proving themselves to be excellent ice skaters. Niven does well as the crestfallen cleric and displays enormous dignity in the scene in which he realises that Dudley has magically glued the seat of his trousers to a parlour chair in front of the fierce Mrs Hamilton (Gladys Cooper). Her melting when Grant plays a harp melody composed by her long-dead lover is another exquisitely played interlude, while elsewhere there's robust support from Elsa Lanchester as a nervous maid and from Monty Woolley as a sherry-swilling professor perennially putting off writing his magnum opus on the fall of Ancient Rome. However, one question remains: how the hell does Sylvester the cab driver (James Gleason) pay the rent if he never accepts fares?

*In addition to both carrying a divine intervention plot, both films feature child actor Bobby Anderson, the young George Bailey in the earlier film and here billed as the "Attack Captain" in the snow fight scene. Clearly something of a specialist.

23/12/2013

If I Had A Million (1932)


This excellent Depression-era  fantasy from Paramount revolves around dying industrialist John Glidden (Richard Bennett), who decides against leaving his fortune to grasping relatives and hangers-on and instead elects to hand out million dollar cheques to strangers chosen at random from the phone book. This premise provides the pretext for an anthology of eight different stories recounting how each recipient dealt with their unexpected handout. Extremely varied in tone, with segments directed by the likes of Ernst Lubitsch, Norman Z. McLeod, Norman Taurog and William A. Seiter and written by a mob of studio hacks gathered together by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, If I Had A Million proves to be a fascinating little chocolate box of goodies. 



The opening story, in which Charlie Ruggles is freed from his unhappy job in a china shop, only to return dressed in an immaculate suit and accompanied by a new pet rabbit in order to trash the place, sets the mood expertly. The next, in which a tavern whore (Wynne Gibson) treats herself to a luxury hotel suite, brings a touch of Viennese melancholy to proceedings, which is capitalised upon in the following caper. Warner Brothers gangster icon George Raft here plays a career criminal wanted for forgery who cannot enter a bank to cash in his bounty without risking arrest, ending up a hysterical derelict. Darker still is the tale of a death row convict, brilliantly played by Gene Raymond, who can at last afford a decent lawyer to argue his case, but is dragged to the chair before he can reach a payphone. 


Fortunately, Alison Skipworth and W.C. Fields lighten the load in 'Road Hogs' as a pair of retired circus turns running a tea room who lavish all their savings on a brand new automobile, only to suffer a bad smash on its maiden voyage. Broken but not beaten, the pair use Glidden's cash to buy a whole convoy of new vehicles and stunt drivers, patrolling the highway in formation looking for bad drivers to deliberately run into for revenge (an amazingly unlikely precursor to J.G. Ballard's 1973 novel Crash). Equally surprising is the brief use of Charles Laughton in Lubitsch's entry as a put-upon clerk, who simply rises from his desk impassively upon receiving notification of his windfall, ambles up the stairs to announce his resignation before knocking on the company president's door to blow a violent and triumphant raspberry, all with hardly a word said. Gary Cooper, Jack Oakie and Roscoe Karns follow this as three marines competing to take a pretty waitress out on a date to a carnival, dismissing the cheque's arrival as an April Fool and signing it over to a cafe owner to pay off their burger debts, only to see the girl walk off with the latter, newly minted. Ending on a truly touching note, May Robson stars in 'Grandma' as a bored, lonely and frustrated old dear who uses the money to improve the lives of her friends at a retirement home, ordering the institution's patronising staff to take their place in rocking chairs while the gals bake biscuits and dance, an investment that particularly gladdens old Glidden's heart.

21/12/2013

No Room At The Inn (1948)

Many thanks to my friends Mike and Celia for introducing me to this rarely seen but utterly superb drama from British National Films about the mistreatment and neglect of child evacuees during WWII. An adaptation of Joan Temple's play by producer Ivan Foxwell and the legendary Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, No Room At The Inn sees Freda Jackson reprise her stage role as the vicious Mrs Voray, an unscrupulous widow in an unnamed northern industrial town who offers a temporary foster home to children from the bomb-blasted cities in order to pilfer their allowances and bankroll her pub crawls with the proceeds.

Jackson is absolutely outstanding, attractive and humorous when it comes to the (numerous) men in her life, but a fearsome witch to the children she stockpiles and imprisons in her outdoor coal shed. Vain, frankly promiscuous, drink-sodden and deeply cunning, Mrs Voray deserves to be recognised as one of the great screen villains, while Joy Shelton provides a strong and necessary counterpoint as Judith Drave, a concerned teacher campaigning on the children's behalf. Mrs Draves' encounters with hypocritical middle class curtain-twitchers and an ineffectual clergyman are all too plausible and a scene in which she has Mrs Voray hauled before a meeting of bickering town councillors, only for her case to fall down for want of evidence and her enemy's "influence" with a lecherous butcher among their number, is particularly devastating. The child actors are all excellent too, with Ann Stephens and Joan Dowling (below left, with Hermione Baddeley) leading by example.


No Room At The Inn failed to find favour during its original theatrical run, which, with the benefit of hindsight, is perhaps unsurprising. In the aftermath of the jubilation and euphoria surrounding V.E. Day, the Great British public was understandably determined to put the horrific experiences and deprivation of the war years behind it and to face the future with a renewed sense of optimism. A screen entertainment earnestly seeking to revisit and expose the problem of child abuse on the home front, an inconvenient truth if ever there was one, was arguably doomed to fail at a time when cinema audiences wanted spectacle, romance and escapism, a little light relief from the grim, ration book austerity they encountered daily. Nevertheless, No Room At The Inn had a powerful impact on many who did see it at the time and has continued to resonate whenever it's been shown over the proceeding decades, typically with adults who themselves endured similarly unhappy experiences to those depicted in Daniel Birt's film, a far cry from the jolly adventures evacuees enjoyed in the likes of The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe (1950). Never shown on television because of its distressing subject matter and long unavailable in any format, No Room At The Inn has fortunately resurfaced on YouTube in recent times and can be seen in full here. Needless to say, it's highly recommended: an entertaining and haunting drama that dared to discuss a national scandal that's still rarely addressed outside of university history faculties to this day.

20/12/2013

The Young One (1960)

This was the great Spanish surrealist Luis Buñuel's second and last American film following a crack at Robinson Crusoe in 1954. Dismissed upon release and little seen since, The Young One has much in common with Harper Lee's novel To Kill A Mockingbird, which was published the same year, especially in terms of theme and mood, but was actually based on 'Travelin' Man', a 1957 short story by Peter Matthiessen. In its opening scenes, we're introduced to Traver (Bernie Hamilton), a black jazz musician, hepcat and war veteran falsely accused of rape by a wealthy white woman, who flees a lynch mob in a purloined motor boat before taking refuge on a remote island off the Carolinas. There he blunders into bigoted game warden Miller (Zachary Scott), who has recently assumed the guardianship of young Evvie (Key Meersman) after the death of her alcoholic grandfather. Miller is a native racist and an enthusiastic trapper of prey, but his real sport just now is the innocent, barely pubescent Evvie, whose developing feminine form has become an unhealthy fascination for him. 


Buñuel's primary interest here is in Miller's queasy sexual designs on his pretty young ward, rather than the racism and injustice suffered by Traver (reflected in the shift away from Matthiessen's title). The director successfully and uncomfortably involves the viewer in Miller's lust for his swampland Lolita - which this hawk seeks to legitimise by supplying the girl with adult dresses and high heeled shoes - by having Gabriel Figueroa's camera linger over Evvie's slender adolescent limbs, notably during a shower scene. The island setting feels both boldly unfamiliar and artificial, but its balmy climate serves to echo and exacerbate the feverish emotional conditions of its inhabitants, a trick borrowed from the Southern Gothic writers Buñuel is imitating, primarily William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams. An unexpected shot of a raccoon slaying and devouring a live hen reveals another key genre influence, Charles Laughton's masterly The Night Of The Hunter (1955), a film with which Buñuel was unwise to invite comparisons.

After a tense opening, the director and his co-scribe Hugo Butler (then blacklisted and credited under the pseudonym "H.B. Addis", a name taken from the spine of his pencil) later stray into odd territory by attempting to excuse the partially reformed Miller, who is, after all, the tale's real rapist, by having him come around to Traver and by providing him with an even more menacing doppelganger in the person of Jackson (Crahan Denton), a racist so die-hard he believes black men are not wholly human because they are born without souls. This goes against Miller's deliciously nasty taunting of Traver about the behaviour of predatory black G.I.'s in Italy during WWII or his jealously tossing a "souvenir" grenade to frighten his nemesis when the latter presumes to play his phallic "black liquorice" clarinet to please Evvie. Traver meanwhile turns out to be the product of good intentions and lazy writing, a streetwise black character more upstanding, cultured and moral than all of his white tormentors put together. Muddying the waters might have been a better idea. Claudio Brook's kindly reverend, who arrives to rescue Evvie from Miller and cast doubt on Traver's guilt, is similarly two-dimensional and, in flipping a mattress Traver has slept on before using it himself, inadvertently but predictably unmasks himself as a hypocrite. Overall, The Young One is an interesting rediscovery but only minor Buñuel and hardly the unjustly forgotten masterpiece some would have you believe.

14/12/2013

The Phantom Carriage (1921)


The great Swedish silent director Victor Sjöström is probably best remembered by modern audiences, if at all, for his acting performance as the ageing academic Isak Borg in Ingmar Bergman's beautiful road movie Wild Strawberries (1957). That film opens with a surreal dream sequence that provides Borg with a timely memento mori: his unconscious mind places him on an empty street in time to see a sinister horse-drawn hearse arrive and let slip its coffin into the road, only for the professor to investigate and encounter his own cadaver staring back at him. This famous scene is in part a tribute to The Phantom Carriage, Sjöström's inventive adaptation of Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness!, a 1912 novel by the Nobel prizewinning Swedish novelist Selma Lagerlöf.

In the earlier film, Sjöström both directs and stars as David Holm, a cruel, misanthropic drunk suffering from tuberculosis who dies during a brawl in a graveyard on the stroke of midnight one New Year's Eve and is thus required to drive death's chariot for a full calendar year, harvesting the souls of the dead and delivering them to the hereafter as penance for a life ill-lived. Holm, however, is reluctant to serve his time behind the reins, whereupon the current driver, Georges (Tore Svennberg), a drinker who died exactly one year earlier, invites him to confront his past and redeem himself in the eyes of those he has wronged. These include Holm's estranged wife (Hilda Borgström) and children, his late brother (Einar Axelsson) and a dying Salvation Army sister (Astrid Holm) who tried to save him from himself before being struck down with consumption herself.


Lagerlöf's morality tale may owe a debt to Dickens's hardy seasonal ghost story A Christmas Carol (1843) and share her precursor's concern for the poor and downtrodden, but its true theme proves to be the toxic consequences of alcoholism for both society and the individual. Something of a temperance lecture, The Phantom Carriage presents a startling case study of man busily tearing himself and the lives of those around him apart under the influence of the devil's brew. "David Holm is as possessed by drink as a vampire is by blood", critic Paul Mayersberg has said. The motivation behind the character's love for the bottle and bitter hatred of his fellow man is never explicitly stated, but his actions are shocking enough. Sjöström's Holm is not averse to coughing in the faces of strangers or even his own children in the hope that they too catch his disease, behaving like a destructive agent of pestilence, a plague-bearer determined to bring the whole world crashing down with him. At one point he smashes his way through a locked bathroom door with an axe in order to attack his wife in a scene that clearly inspired Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980), another film that dealt with a drinker's descent into psychosis. Holm's redemption saves this Gothic polemic from outright horror, but it's a close run thing.


Sjöström's film is also astonishing for its experimentation with double exposure, a trick for conjuring transparent spectres as old as photography itself brilliantly pulled off by cinematographer Julius Jaenzon and lab technician Eugén Hellman. This ingenious effect is used extensively throughout, capturing whole conversations, showing the Grim Reaper going about his business and even driving his carriage down to the seabed to retrieve the soul of a drowned sailor lying beneath the waves.

13/12/2013

Hoots Mon! (1940)


This rather unsuccessful British caper from the early days of the war was the 13th and penultimate attempt to make a movie star out of legendary British music hall comic Max Miller, but the first to have the bright idea of casting him as a comedian. As such, Hoots Mon! contains the only surviving visual record of the Cheeky Chappie's stage act (albeit slightly watered down for a family audience) so remains a valuable relic of a lost era, even if the film itself is more than a little slight. A specialist in rapid-fire wordplay and suggestive storytelling, famed for his ability to manipulate an audience, Max is quite something in his floral silk suit, fat tie and golf socks and his craft is there for all to see. 



Hoots Mon!, made by Warner Brothers' UK subsidiary at their studios in Teddington, appears to have been modeled on the zany American screwball pictures of the thirties, which makes a good deal of sense. Perhaps surprisingly, Miller's tongue-twisting repartee and scenes racing around a hospital causing chaos in a nightshirt actually call to mind the Marx Brothers and Groucho in particular. Max stars as Harry Hawkins, "England's funniest comedian", who takes exception to sharing a bill with "the Bluebelle of Scotland", Jenny MacTavish (Florence Desmond), after the lassie upstages him at the Empire Tottenham with a spot-on impersonation. Arguing backstage, MacTavish challenges Hawkins to take his act north of the border, where she insists he'll die a death. He accepts and duly does. Later Harry is duped into performing for a group of rabid, thistle-munching Scottish Nationalists, a gig that ends with him waking up in a children's ward with a black eye, before ultimately being reconciled with his rival. Desmond makes for a good foil, also impersonating Bette Davis among others, while Miller works tirelessly to win us over, but the finished feature from Max's regular director Roy William Neill lacks structure, character and plot, I'm afraid to say.

06/12/2013

Gone With The Wind (1939)

The new 4K digital restoration of David O. Selznick's blockbusting MGM Civil War romance Gone With The Wind, released to mark the centenary of star Vivien Leigh's birth, is magnificent and successfully restores the film to its full Technicolor glory. Seeing this hard-wearing classic on the big screen with a new lick of paint enables you to experience anew the meticulous costume and set design by Walter Plunkett, William Cameron Menzies and Lyle Wheeler and reacquaint yourself with the lavish scale of this truly epic production. It's positively dizzying, for instance, when director Victor Fleming has his camera rear up over Atlanta, the city devastated by Yankee cannon fire, before pulling back to reveal more and more wounded Confederate soldiers laid out in agony across its main street, zooming out until the shot finally takes in well over a hundred extras.


Selznick's famous publicity stunt, in which he sent out talent scouts across the southern states and auditioned the entire female population of Hollywood in search of the ideal leading lady, testing everyone from Joan Crawford to Lana Turner in the process, certainly paid off when it ended with Leigh (although, really, this largely unknown British actress had friends in high places: her lover, Laurence Olivier, and, more to the point, his agent, one Myron Selznick). Leigh's performance as the hot-headed, spoilt but surprisingly resilient Scarlett O'Hara continued to get laughs in the screening I saw, although the audience ultimately became exasperated with her obsessive pursuit of Leslie Howard's insipid Ashley Wilkes, especially after the much more appealing Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) had finally talked her into marriage. Legendary British film critic Dilys Powell always insisted that Gone With The Wind was overblown rubbish and that Gable was the only good thing in it, but I can't agree: although the man oozes star quality, Leigh is also superb and develops a marvelous double act with Hattie McDaniel as her long-suffering maid Mammy, the latter an expert straightwoman and as deserving of her groundbreaking Oscar as Leigh. Olivia De Haviland is also a major asset, her saintly Melanie Hamilton a much more vital part than I'd remembered and one supremely well played. You also get Thomas Mitchell for your money playing his usual red-faced Irishman, Ward Bond as his usual affable captain, future TV Superman George Reeves as one of Scarlett's suitors plus enjoyable turns from Harry Davenport, Jane Darwell and Ona Munson, to name just a few of the extraordinary supporting cast.


Tiresomely, debates about the film's depiction of black servants and field slaves have been reignited (largely by lazy journalists desperate to fill column inches) in response to this festive re-release, which might otherwise have been cause for unbridled celebration. A film whose opening titles announce it as a piece nostalgic for the Antebellum South, apparently a golden age of chivalry where black cotton pickers were unanimously happy in their work and well treated by their masters, was always going to be a sitting duck for modern naysayers. John Patterson of The Guardian is one such, but he is at least right to condemn other American films of the period, notably High Sierra and Sullivan's Travels (both 1941), for the racist clowning they include. Audiences today may well snigger at the repeated use of the word "darkies" in Gone With The Wind and find Butterfly McQueen's shrill performance as Scarlett's maid Prissy unpalatable, but overall the presentation of black characters is highly positive, if patronising. Mammy, Prissy and Pork (Oscar Poke) are treated with warmth throughout and fleshed out into plausible human beings, much more than the cowardly, bug-eyed comic relief we've been offered elsewhere. A racist film would also have no use for the scenes in which Rhett speaks admiringly of Mammy and jokingly flirts with her about her new red petticoat or in which Big Sam (Everett Brown) heroically races to Scarlett's rescue when her buggy is held up by predatory carpet baggers. Scarlett is even allowed to openly criticise Ashley for his pre-war ownership of slaves at one point. As Patterson concedes, Selznick's production deserves credit for addressing the question of race at all in the unenlightened times in which it was made. Its whitewashing of the realities behind slavery is unfortunate but hardly unexpected given its vintage and a long way from D.W. Griffith glorifying the Ku Klux Klan in Birth Of A Nation (1915). Expressing disdain on the grounds that Gone With The Wind is not a bold war cry for the Civil Rights Movement seems to me to miss the point entirely and expect too much from a commercial mass-market love story made to sell cinema tickets in the 1930s. Why not put this unsavoury issue to bed and simply immerse yourself in one of the finest spectacles Hollywood has ever put before the public?