19/12/2015

Holiday Inn (1942)


The picture that gave the world Irving Berlin's 'White Christmas', this musical caper starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire is actually a far more erratic and frankly odd affair than you may remember.

Crooner Jim Hardy (Crosby) is heart broken when his fiancée Lila Dixon (Virginia Dale) ditches him for their co-star Ted Hanover (Astaire), preferring to carry on with her career rather than retire with Hardy to the isolated Connecticut farm he's just acquired. Hardy himself quickly becomes overwhelmed by the workload at his new ranch and decides to reinvent the venue as a nightclub, open only 15 times a year on public holidays. Meanwhile, Hanover is in turn dumped by Lila and follows Hardy to the Holiday Inn, where he encounters the latter's new protégé Linda Mason (Marjorie Reynolds) and duly falls for her too, much to Jim's horror. The pair bicker over Linda, the competition escalating from Valentine's Day to Easter to Independence Day, before matters come to a head when Hanover finds himself in a position to advance Linda's career in Hollywood.



The Berlin songs are solid - from the aforementioned signature theme to 'You're Easy To Dance With' - the staging is charming and the leads are on fine form. I particularly enjoyed Crosby's bebop patois approach to slang: "Take a slug from the mug", he advises a hungover Astaire, brandishing a coffee pot. Walter Abel also makes an impression as the duo's cheerily manic manager Danny Reed.

However, there's something weird going on with Holiday Inn. Firstly, there's the ill-judged blackface number for Lincoln's Birthday, which is often scrapped from modern television broadcasts of the film despite its necessity to the plot - the greasepaint providing a ruse to disguise Linda and thus keep her out of Ted's clutches. Like any minstrel bit in old musicals, the scene is patronising and irredeemably ugly to modern eyes but would have been recognised as a common vaudeville trope at the time. Equally jarring is the July 4th fireworks party in which Crosby, dressed as Uncle Sam, introduces a montage of stock footage illustrating US military-industrial might. This may have been made in wartime, but the decision to include such brazen patriotic tub-thumping is surely at odds with the otherwise dreamy, escapist tone of the piece.


Perhaps the biggest problem with Mark Sandrich's film though is that it casts Astaire in a rather unflattering, predatory light, his Ted Hanover a disloyal and self-interested wolf who routinely trashes the romantic life of his best friend and business partner without a thought for the latter's welfare. A New Year's Eve duet with Mason in which Astaire dances blind drunk to the delight of his fellow revellers falls flat, unsettling and unfunny because it's depression that's driven him to this boozy stupor. The dynamic Astaire's character establishes in turn forces Crosby to play the melancholy loser, a creative sadly noodling away at his piano while his showbiz pals and rivals make off with the spoils. Not a good look for the less naturally starry of the leads.



For all that, Holiday Inn creates a toasty wintry mood and is an altogether pithier and breezier enterprise than White Christmas (1954), Michael Curtiz's Technicolor remake again starring Crosby, this time joined by Danny Kaye, which is probably the more often revived. That Holiday Inn's most enduring legacy should be giving its name to an international franchise of affordable hotels is an appropriately peculiar coda for this all-year-round Christmas comedy.

16/12/2015

Remember The Night (1940)


Before Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray became embroiled in murderous insurance fraud, they were paired together in this pleasing seasonal screwball scripted by Preston Sturges.

Stanwyck plays Lee Leander, a shoplifter arrested in the run-up to Christmas for filching a $5,000 bangle. MacMurray is John Sargent, the prosecutor at her trial who realises that juries are prone to be more forgiving than usual around the holidays so connives to get her case postponed until the new year. Feeling guilty about his actions condemning Lee to Christmas in jail, Sargent secures her bail and befriends the girl, learning that she too hails from Indiana and offering to drive her home to restore relations with her estranged mother. When this venture proves a disaster, Sargent invites her to spend the season with his own family where, naturally enough, they fall in love. But what to do about her legal battle?


Sturges' script - his last to be directed by someone else, Mitchell Leisen in this case - follows the screwball comedy playbook to the letter, sending a mismatched pair out on the road as in It Happened One Night (1934) and revolving around a very Capraesque romantic thawing, as Stanwyck's tough gal learns to put aside her well-worn cynicism and believe in the simple homespun decency of her foil. The Indiana Christmas scenes around the Sargent hearth are especially heart-warming, however, and nicely contrasted with the grim Gothic melodrama of Lee's unhappy return to the cruel matriarch she deserted years before. There's also some lovely interplay between Beulah Bondi and Elizabeth Patterson as Sargent's gently sparring mother and maiden aunt respectively, the pair bickering over burnt biscuits and quietly conspiring to bring the young lovers together. There's something oddly moving about these women awaiting the return of their adored golden boy, the absence of Sargent's late father never mentioned but still clearly felt around the dinner table.



Other nice character business comes from Willard Robinson as Lee's attorney, a frustrated thespian quite spellbound by his own rhetorical brilliance, and from John Wray as a mean Midwestern dairy farmer who takes exception to the travellers parking in his cow pasture and embarks on a citizen's arrest. Not all country folk are sweet, it seems: some are every bit as venal, resentful and vindictive as New Yorkers, a fine lesson from the inimitable and deeply wise Sturges. His own pithy summary of the film? "Love reformed her and corrupted him."

15/12/2015

The Holly & The Ivy (1952)


This unjustly forgotten British Christmas picture from Alexander Korda's London Films proves to be astonishingly fresh 63 years on - thematically speaking, at least - and well worth a revisit.

Directed by George More O'Ferrall from a hit West End play by Wynyard Browne, the film tells of Norfolk parson Martin Gregory (the great Sir Ralph Richardson), whose brood of disgruntled children return home for the festive season. Alcoholic fashion journalist Margaret (Margaret Deighton) and wayward soldier Michael (Denholm Elliott) privately resent their father's neglect in favour of his parishioners and the years they've spent shielding him from the complications of their adult lives. They also blame the widower for failing to look after himself, requiring their self-sacrificing old maid of a sister Jenny (Celia Johnson) to stay on at the vicarage as his unofficial housekeeper at the expense of her own happiness. The siblings, however, underestimate the old man's capacity to understand their respective angsts, the latter proving to be a great deal more worldly than the hapless, irrelevant, bookish caricature they treat him as.

Hardly like to win favour with a generation who insist on Die Hard (1988) as their go-to Christmas classic, The Holly & The Ivy may be genteel and fustily old fashioned but nevertheless has much to say about veiled resentment and its corrosive impact on grown families that should chime with audiences today. Adapted by Russian writer Anatole de Grunewald to bring a Chekovian psychological rigour to Browne's original, there's a proto-Kitchen Sink grit about Margaret's backstory concerning the death of a child born (shockingly for the period) out of wedlock, the reason for her morose drinking bouts. The success of this bold and unflinching scenario is due to the considerable emotional pull of Margaret Deighton's tough performance, down but not out. As with the recently revived Brief Encounter (1945), the fate of Celia Johnson hangs in the balance and again we fall for it thanks to the actress's understated loveliness.

It's Richardson though who really sells the thing, giving a typically affecting performance of enormous charm and subtly. His misunderstood man of god railing against the vulgar commercialisation of Yuletide and expression of profound doubts over whether or not he's valued by his community or has succeeded at all in making a meaningful contribution to their lives ensure that The Holly & The Ivy remains prescient and interesting, even if the world it seeks to depict has largely vanished.

Sure, O'Ferrall's film is a more than a little creaky and stagebound in its execution and the snowy rural England it depicts the preserve of cards and chocolate box lids only, but it's a lovely bit of work all the same. I'd put it right up there with It's A Wonderful Life (1946), The Bishop's Wife (1947) and Scrooge (1951) among seasonal comforts.

25/07/2015

Stalag 17 (1953)


Billy Wilder's inspired POW comedy Stalag 17 is being spruced up and given the Masters of Cinema treatment by Eureka for its Blu-ray debut next week, which is splendid news for fans of this sorely underrated masterpiece. The fact that a film as funny, humane and self-evidently important should so often be overlooked just speaks to the quality of Wilder's overall body of work. Following in the wake of Double Indemnity (1944), The Lost Weekend (1945), Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Ace In The Hole (1951), and with The Seven Year Itch (1955), Some Like It Hot (1959) and The Apartment (1960) still to come, it's no wonder it gets forgotten.

Taken from a Broadway play by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski, Stalag 17 concerns the antics of a gang of US airmen held in a Nazi prison camp on the Danube and is an astonishingly light-hearted film for Wilder to have made on the subject. The director, an Austrian Jewish émigré to the States, knew the reality of Europe's concentration camps intimately having shot Death Mills in 1945, a shockingly matter-of-fact documentary about their liberation following the Allied victory. For the public good, Death Mills presents the bare facts of the Holocaust and doesn't flinch from showing footage of bulldozers ploughing heaps of human corpses into mass graves. It remains a gruelling film to sit through, even with a running time of just 22 minutes.

There's nothing quite so stark in Stalag 17, which is after all concerned with the detainment of American combatants - nominally protected by the Geneva Convention - rather than European civilians rounded up for genocide, but that's not to say it doesn't have its horrors.

Less interested in the mechanics of breaking out than The Great Escape (1963), which seems utterly infantile by comparison, Stalag 17 deals primarily with the captives' attempts to keep up their spirits by improvising entertainments where they can and dreaming of their lives back home. The likes of Shaprio (Harvey Lembeck), a savvy Brooklynite, and Stanislas "Animal" Kuzawa (Robert Strauss), a wild-eyed horndog with the hots for Betty Grable, spend their days betting on the outcome of mice races, playing volleyball, listening to the radio and spying on the Russian girls' bathing hut next door.


The gang's horseplay is tolerated by the sinister Colonel von Scherbach (played by noir director Otto Preminger) and positively indulged by the fatherly Bavarian guard Johann Sebastian Schultz, (Sig Ruman, a specialist in comic Germans and a veteran of Lubitsch and the Marx Brothers). Their games are amusing but always freighted with sadness. Wilder never lets us forget that these poor devils are desperately contriving distractions for themselves in order to avoid having to face the grim reality of their plight. The film's opening, in which two US sergeants are viciously gunned down after worming their way under the compound's barbwire fencing, remains lodged in our thoughts.

That incident proved beyond doubt that the Yanks have a spy in their midst and the search for the identity of this double-agent drives the narrative. The group quickly singles out one J.J. Sefton (William Holden) for the stool pigeon, accusing Sefton of passing notes to the Germans in exchange for preferential treatment. Sefton is a wheeler-dealer, a Bogartian cynic embittered by his experiences and grown selfish, concerned only with his own welfare. Like Bogie's Rick Blaine in Casablanca (1942), Sefton must be persuaded to step back into the spotlight, rejoin the cause and fight the good fight - and only does so after he's been wrongly accused and his hand forced.

His eventual escape and entrapment of the guilty party is a cause for celebration, not least because it hails Sefton's own moral rejuvenation, even if it means the villain meets the same grizzly fate as the men he betrayed. This is the brutal world of war, Wilder reminds us, the perfect end note to this most sensitively judged of black comedies.

05/06/2015

Desert Fury (1947)


In Lewis Allen's decidedly queer Technicolor noir Desert Fury, Lizabeth's Scott's Paula Haller quits school and returns home to the "cactus graveyard" of Chuckawalla, Nevada where her mother Fitzi (Mary Astor) rules the roost. Fitzi runs The Purple Sage, the town's premier roulette joint, which has just attracted an unwelcome visit from spivy gambler Eddie Bendix (John Hodiak) and his overly protective right-hand man Johnny (Wendell Corey). Despite her outward independence, Paula is naive and directionless, unsure what the future holds. The only attraction this second-tier mining town has to offer is square-jawed traffic cop Tom Hanson (Burt Lancaster), a "broken down cowboy" like Gay Langland in The Misfits (1961), no longer able to ride the rodeo but who shares Paula's love of the open range and hopes to retire to a ranch. Tom is Fitzi's preferred candidate for Paula's hand, but the girl resists. She's taken a shine to bad boy Bendix and won't be talked out of it. Disaster beckons.

Desert Fury marries the big skies of John Ford's great Westerns with Sirkian melodrama. Taken from a serialised novel by Ramona Stewart, the script by Robert Rossen and an uncredited A.L. Bezzerides is more interested in the emotional lives of its pulp protagonists than Eddie and Johnny's gangster ploys or Fitzi's criminal past. While the ostensible plot is as old as time - an innocent must choose between two suitors, picks the rotten egg and comes to rue her mistake before order is restored - Desert Fury's real concerns are the rocky relations between Fitzi and her mother and Eddie and Johnny.


Fitzi loves her daughter dearly. She has framed keepsakes of Paula scattered across her office and allows her every freedom, never begrudging her spending money or allowing her to go without. Fitzi has had a hard life and grafted for a living on both sides of the law, hardening in the process. She envisions a better future for her progeny, hence her mortification when Paula becomes involved with Eddie. Paula's is a natural reaction against her parent's controlling influence and the women otherwise behave like bickering sisters. Or even lovers, kissing passionately on the lips at the film's denouement.

While the presence of such an outré subtext may be a matter of conjecture in the case of Fitzi and Paula, it is laughably overt between Eddie and Johnny. More than just a henchman or gunsel, Johnny cooks and cleans for his boss, repeatedly describes him as "good looking" and is openly jealous and hostile to Paula's intrusion. After she's walked in on the men sunbathing shirtless together, even Paula starts making fun of their living arrangements ("Johnny's a little behind with the dishes"). You don't need a copy of Vito Russo's Celluloid Closet (1981) to hand to work out that things between them are serious when Eddie slaps Johnny across the puss with a telltale glove, itself a kitsch echo of Othello discovering Desdemona's handkerchief. Eddie's account of their first meeting practically spells it out:

“It was in the automat off Times Square at two in the morning. I was broke. He had a couple of dollars. We got to talking. He ended up paying for my ham and eggs. I went home with him that night. We were together from then on.”

With lines like that, Desert Fury was always doomed to remain a camp curiosity, a cult oddity rather than a truly top notch noir despite its fine cast, genuinely glorious Technicolor cinematography from Charles Lang and Miklós Rózsa score.

03/04/2015

The Red House (1947)

What's eating Edward G? As gentleman farmer Pete Morgan, he's first seen doting on his adopted daughter Meg (Allene Roberts) and making a generous offer to his new hand Nath Storm (Lon McCallister), hired to help around the place on account of Pete's increasing years. But when the boy announces his plan to return home from his first day on the job via a shortcut through Oxhead Woods, Morgan wigs out and frantically warns Nath to stay out of this haunted land. The mystery appears to have something to do with the titular red house, standing neglected and lost somewhere amidst the trees. Nath and Meg set out to uncover the truth behind Pete's torment, despite his warnings not to.

An interesting example of the rural noir sub-genre* from the underrated Delmer Daves, director of Dark Passage (1947) and 3.10 To Yuma (1957), which finds its star essaying another troubled neurotic after his turns in The Woman In The Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945) for Fritz Lang, all roles that offered counterpoints to the grandstanding gangsters that made Robinson's name. Pete Morgan, a once vigorous and independent specimen of American masculinity now reduced to limping on a wooden leg, stands for a generation of returning U.S. soldiers scarred by their experiences of war.


The Red House has a lot going for it. Its juvenile leads are good, as is the support from the brilliant Judith Anderson (Mrs. Danvers in Hitch's Rebecca, 1940) as Morgan's self-sacrificing sister, pop star Julie London as Nath's sultry love interest Tibby and Rory Calhoun as a feral gamekeeper whose middle name is presumably "Danger". However, the talky, Freudian resolution to the kids' detective work is anti-climactic and would perhaps have been better presented as an atmospheric flashback.

*I'm not altogether sure what else we could include in this grouping without stealing from the Southern Gothic canon. Winter's Bone (2010) at least.

31/01/2015

The Queen Of Spades (1949)

Despite a modest recent revival of interest in his work, Thorold Dickinson (1903-84) remains one of British cinema's most unjustly neglected directorial talents. He is best known for the gloomy Victorian mystery Gaslight (1940) starring Anton Walbrook, copies of which were bought up, suppressed and destroyed by MGM when the American studio sought to promote its own version of Patrick Hamilton's play four years later. Dickinson's masterpiece only narrowly survived this ordeal and we are lucky to be able to see it today, an incident typical of the chequered and frustrating career the man endured.

Perhaps the biggest mark Dickinson made was actually on academia, not the business of making movies. He established a pioneering film studies department at the Slade School of Fine Art, UCL, in 1960 and became Britain's first-ever Professor of Film Studies in 1967, having fought a gallant battle for cinema to be taken seriously by scholars.


As such, I was delighted to have the opportunity to take in The Queen Of Spades at the BFI Southbank this week. Dickinson had been hired to direct this adaptation of Pushkin's famous short story at just three days' notice after Rodney Auckland dropped out, making ingenious use of a small budget to produce a truly frightening study in madness and the supernatural despite coming to the project cold, being entirely unfamiliar with the tale. Pushkin's 'Queen Of Spades' (1833), also repurposed for an opera by Tchaikovsky in 1890, tells of Suvorin, a dashing Russian army officer, and his growing obsession with learning "the secret of the cards" from a dying countess so that he may gamble his way to wealth and glory.


With a cast led by Walbrook (again) and the great stage actress Edith Evans already in place, Dickinson and producer Anatole de Grunwald were forced to work frantically by night rewriting the original screenplay by Auckland and Arthur Boys to suit their purposes in time for the next day's'shooting. Their shoe-string production was hindered not only by financial constraints but also by the limited amount of space available at the studios in Welwyn Garden City, where the cast and crew found themselves on a lot too small to accommodate a horse-drawn carriage. Dickinson nevertheless managed to turn adversity to his advantage, positioning his roving camera at such angles as to mask the difficulty and using minimal lighting and candles to cast long shadows and build atmosphere in the manner of German Expressionism.


Dickinson's Queen Of Spades further benefits from some fabulous costumes and sets by Oliver Messel and appropriately theatrical turns from Walbrook, Evans and Yvonne Mitchell. It also retains a pleasingly British flavour, in amongst the onion domes of St. Petersburg, thanks to its choice selection of Dickensian supporting players, with the likes of Miles Malleson and Athene Seyler cropping up as a notary and exasperated princess respectively. The result is a Gothic horror to rival Murnau's Faust (1926) or Cocteau's La Belle Et La Bête (1946).