Category: 1947


ADoubleLife1

Muddled films with a ferocious lead performance are perhaps the most disappointing films on the planet. When the audience finds itself so lost in the transformative bravado of the star only to be pulled out of the magic by a weak script or cockeyed direction, it seems to burn more than other lesser films. Sadly, it’s a common thread on this blog and throughout Hollywood. Great performances in otherwise “meh” films stand out and then draw attention to the rest of the film’s weaknesses. George Cukor’s 1947 psychological drama A Double Life falls prey to this problem though thankfully not as badly as other pictures (*cough* The Help *cough*). Star Ronald Colman gives a career-defining performance as the mentally deteriorating leading man but the script often takes a turn for the silly and much of the material has aged in an almost comically poor manner.

Anthony Johns (Ronald Colman) is the ultimate method actor. One of the most celebrated stage performers of his day, he completely loses himself in the characters he brings to life in the theatre. The catch is that Johns can’t leave the characters on stage when the curtains rise each not. If he’s making a comedy, he’s jovial and friendly. If he’s in a drama, he’s moody and petulant. His dedication to his characters cost him his marriage to the beautiful Brita (Signe Hasso), though they maintain a friendship and are frequent stage partners. When Johns’ manager decides to put on a production of Othello, Johns finally begins to lose it once and for all as his grip on reality and his acting begins to disappear. When he believes that his ex-wife is romantically involved with her press agent, the only question left is will their love story end like the Moor of Venice and Desdemona… in murder.

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This is Ronald Colman’s film and (with a few notable exceptions) every second he’s on screen, he is truly riveting. His performance in this film actually reminded me quite a bit of a more theatrical version of Laura Dern in Inland Empire. It is an “actor’s” performance. You find yourself drawn to the intensity with which he prepares for a role and the struggles he faces trying to escape it. There’s a truly brilliant moment early in the film where he discusses his stage preparations with Brita where you can simply feel his intensity mounting and he plants the seeds of his future mania. And when it is time for the menacing to begin, he flips a switch and the mild-mannered Anthony Johns becomes the brooding, hulking jealous husband egged on not by a scheming Iago but by his own insecurities and mental instability. It is a classic performance. Shelley Winters also stands Add Mediaout in a smaller role.

The film’s other fine selling point is the classic film noir cinematography. It is a moody, disturbed film (particularly for the late 1940s. I can imagine that quite a bit of the film was simply sordid) and Milton Krasner’s photography was delicious. The shadow work is as classic as the all-time greats like Double Indemnity or Pickup on South Street. Even when the film’s scripts takes things into the absurd, the movie looks right. And in film noir, it is not an understatement to say that look and mood are just as important as a fine script. And when George Cukor combines a muttering or stalking Ronald Colman, whether that’s in his Othello get-up or as regular Anthony Johns, with Milton Krasner’s striking cinematography, the film hits on all fronts and you’re allowed to think for a few fleeting minutes that you might be watching a true classic.

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Sadly, that feeling won’t last. Rather than allowing us to get lost visually in the mania that is consuming Roger Colman (which Bergman and Aranofsky have taught me is the best way to do things), we get absurd audio clues and we regularly hear lines from Othello as Anthony Johns loses himself in this part. That could have worked if were done well, but it’s overwrought in this picture and although Colman himself was terrifying because of the sheer difference between his usual persona and that of his crazy alter-ego, the film’s direction rarely seemed to elicit the goosebumps because things were either far too obvious or downright silly. And leave it to the ending to be a total anti-climax.

Despite those major substantive complaints, when the movie worked, it worked. Before I finally got a feel for what I diagnosed as the film’s structural problems, my overall opinion of what score it deserved swung as high as an “A-” at one point. But, sadly George Cukor doesn’t bring the consistency to this film that he brought to true classics like My Fair Lady or The Philadelphia Story. For fans of one of the earliest “psychological thrillers” that I can think of as well as fans of “A+” acting, A Double Life deserves your time. Ronald Colman will make it worth your while. His Academy Award was well-deserved. For everyone else, you can make your mind up on your own. It isn’t going to be for everyone.

Final Score: B

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Life With Father

Films whose sole purpose seems to be displaying a specific slice of family life as seen through their own cultural and historical lens do not often age well. Older films are almost without fail so optimistic and idealistic that modern cynical audiences have trouble suspending their disbelief over “perfect” family units. Even families of older cinema who were supposed to be semi-disfunctional seem downright Leave It to Beaver to modern viewers. Clarence Day Jr.’s Life With Father (I believe) still holds the record for longest running non-musical play on Broadway and 1947’s film adaptation was a massive box office draw. But for this modern viewer, not even the direction of Casablanca‘s Michael Curtiz could save this film from being overly-long, overly sentimental drivel with easily the worst Film-to-DVD transfer job that I’ve ever seen in my entire life.

Based on the playwrights memories of his childhood, Life With Father is a sentimental tale of the domineering (but ultimately loveable) Clarence Day Sr. (How to Marry a Millionaire‘s William Powell). As the patriarch of the massive Day brood, he’s a penny-pinching, sermon-delivering curmudgeon. Tended to by his loving wife Vinnie (My Favorite Wife‘s Irene Dunne) and beset upon by his four children, Clarence tries to assert his authority over his family and his life even when it quickly becomes apparent that his wife and kids have the real say. After the family is visited by a cousin and her young friend (Giant‘s Elizabeth Taylor) who catches the eye of Clarence Jr., Clarence Sr.’s life is only thrown into more upheaval when it’s discovered that he’s never been baptized.

William Powell and Irene Dunne are serviceable as the hen-pecked husband and the one doing the pecking, and between those two and an astonishingly young (but always beautiful) Elizabeth Taylor, they are the only reasons to watch the film. The exceedingly rare occasions where I actually laughed out loud during the film all involved Powell’s spot-on turn as the gruff father. At one point, his eldest son and Elizabeth Taylor’s character have an argument where the son makes Elizabeth Taylor cry. When Powell tells Clarence Jr. that he’s glad to see his own held his own in the argument, I nearly spit Dr. Pepper all over my television screen. It was the perfect response. And watching Irene Dunne fast-talk her away around Clarence Sr. to convince him that impossible math adds up was consistently charming.

Sadly, the writing didn’t live up to the potential chemistry of the stars. Although William Powell was able to make me laugh, I probably laughed out loud less than five times the entire film and that counts slight chuckles. The only big laugh came from the aforementioned incident with Elizabeth Taylor. The film would set up long, meandering scenes where William Powell would go on seemingly endless monologues. There were few jokes, puns, sight gags, or inherently funny situations. The comedy was meant to arise by the subversion of expectations between what Clarence Sr. thought about his family and what was really going on, but let’s be honest. That was never actually all that funny. The best moments came when they played Clarence Sr.’s stubborness and total obliviousness to the world around him for maximum comedic value such as him trying to figure out how his wife returning a pug meant he could  now afford to buy his son an expensive suit.

This isn’t something I usually harp on (because I’m not an expert on film transfer), but as I mentioned earlier, this was one of the worst transfer jobs I’ve ever seen. This looked worse than a VHS copy of a film (unless I simply don’t remember how bad VHS looked which is possible). The resolution of the image was worse than 480p (probably around 270p), the color would fade in and out (although that’s semi-common in early Technicolor films which this definitely was), you would see the sorts of lines and static that you associate with ancient VHS cassettes, and the audio was atrocious. The film is in the public domain which means that any Tom, Dick, and Harry can release it on DVD if they wish, and because of that cheapness, the film looks horrendous (which is a shame because it’s obvious that the original color scheme for the film was extraordinarily vibrant).

Should you watch this film? Not if you like good movies. Perhaps, if you don’t find Leave It to Beaver or Father Knows Best to be sickeningly idealized, then you could enjoy this film. For anyone who demands even the most remote semblance of reality to their portrayal of family life will find this film to be as much fantasy as Lord of the Rings. Still, it has its moments. I may not have so much as grinned for the first half of the film, but once it began to find it’s footing, I found myself finding the film less unbearable and more simply unfortunate and ill-constructed. Perhaps, I’m just too much of a jaded, modern cynic to appreciate something innocent like this, but that is what it is.

Final Score: C-

During one of my earlier posts, I pondered on the reasons for why I was able to enjoy comedies from all eras but I couldn’t find myself appreciating dramas from before 1960 (with some exceptions here and there obviously). I decided that the basic reason was comedy is essentially timeless. Barring heavily era-centric referential humor, funny is funny no matter what time period you’re from. With dramas however, things that may seem poignant and fresh for their time really don’t age well and they seem hopelessly naive and idealistic sometimes as short as ten to twenty years down the road. Hence, there’s a reason why, on the whole, comedies have a much better median score on this site than dramas. Less of them get the elusive score of “A” or “A+” (only one comedy thus far has received an A+, The Big Lebowski), but with the exception of the train-wreck that was Gentlemen Broncos, they are also less likely to get terribly low scores. I bring all of this up because I just finished a so-called “classic” comedy, 1947’s Road to Rio, and I feel that it aged terribly. What may have worked for audiences back in the 1940’s instead delivers a film for modern audiences that seemed terribly slow and unclever and survived on the angelic voice of Bing Crosby alone.

In Road to Rio, the fifth of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby’s Road to… films, Crosby plays Scat Sweeney to Hope’s Hot Lips Barton (I was forgiven for picturing Loretta Swit every time someone said his name), a pair of vaudeville performers and musicians who flee onto a steam liner headed for Rio de Janeiro after they accidentally burn down the circus at which they were performing. Perpetually penniless (because of Scat’s inability to turn down a beautiful woman), the two board the ship as stow-aways. They quickly meet the beautiful Lucia (Dorothy Lamour) who is about to commit suicide because he evil aunt is forcing her to marry against her will. Scat is quickly smitten with Lucia, and the two hit it off soon after Scat saves her life. However, we soon learn that Lucia’s aunt is capable of using hypnotism to control Lucia’s actions. This leads to a series of screwball adventures in which Scat and Hot Lips have to hide from the ship’s crew and even get the hypnotism turned on themselves.

I could probably count on one hand the number of times this film made me laugh out loud (and it wouldn’t require the rest of my other digits to count the light chuckles). Despite the fact that he was probably the least valuable member of the team, almost all of the big laughs came from Bob Hope whose delivery was so deadpan it often took me a second or two to realize he had even made a joke in the first place, and his slapstick chemistry with Crosby was fantastic. However, the real star of the show (just like in Going My Way) was Crosby. He has an absolutely gorgeous singing voice, and it’s put to full use in several different musical numbers here though perhaps the best were his duet with the Andrews Sisters and the first time that he sings to Lucia. I don’t actually know the names of these songs or whether they were original numbers or standards (and a lot of that has to do with the fact that the film is 54 years old). He was also able to elicit a laugh or two and that relates to the fact that his comedic style was even dryer than Hope’s.

I’m going to keep this review short because I honestly don’t have a lot to say about the film. At only a little over an hour and a half, this film seemed to drag to eternity and that’s pretty unforgivable for such a short running time. While there was certainly a fantastic comedic chemistry between Hope and Crosby, that unfortunately didn’t result in the film actually being all that funny. When it finally was funny, it just served to remind you of how boring the rest of the film was. Outside of hardcore movie buffs who understand the historic value that this film has or for those of you who are big fans of Bob Hope or Bing Crosby, I simply can’t find it in me to recommend this movie.

Final Score: C+