Category: 50’s


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If your romance doesn’t break new ground or provide deep and true insight into the relations between man & woman (or whatever your romantic pairings are), your only hope of a watchable film is the spark of real chemistry between your stars. Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing is a fairly conventional “forbidden love” romantic drama, but the chemistry between William Holden and Jennifer Jones was sizzling and it made the film enjoyable despite the melodrama. Similarly, Penny Serenade is typical 1940s romance, but Irene Dunne made you wholly believe her love for Cary Grant (I’ve never believed Cary Grant’s interest in any woman on screen because he’s seemingly incapable of even pretending to be attracted to a woman). The African Queen transcends it’s dime-novel source material thanks to the fierce chemistry of leads Humphrey Bogart (To Have and Have Not) and Katharine Hepburn (Bringing Up Baby).

Director John Huston (perfect as the villain of Chinatown) brings a standard boy’s adventure tale to the big screen but, through sheer technical prowess and wonderful performances all around, pulls a gorgeous, almost lyrical tale of class, romance, and will from such meager starts. With one of the best performances of Bogie’s career (and the one that he would win his Oscar for) and an archetypal Hepburn turn, The African Queen isn’t a great film, but in the world of classic adventure movies, it’s hard to find one with more heart and sheer fun.

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After her minister brother is murdered by German soldiers during the early days of World War 1 outside of their African church, British missionary Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn) is forced to seek passage back to England with the help of rough-edged steamboat captain Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart) on the titular African Queen. But, getting back to England will be more difficult than navigating the already dangerous rapids of the African river. Their only path back into British territory involves crossing a lake guarded by one of the most powerful gunboats in the German fleet.

There is nothing exceptional in the storytelling of The African Queen. The central romance hinges on the classic “rough and uncultured man is tamed by the strong-willed high class Lady” theme, and The African Queen plays zero games with that set-up throughout. The adventure is a series of set pieces where our hero and heroine almost lose their life but persevere, and the film doesn’t take many breaks to really allow these characters to breathe though a bit in the middle where Rose finally pours out all of Charlie’s gin that the movie lets you see some of the bite beneath Bogart’s  bark.

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But, The African Queen has to be a textbook example of how sheer filmcraft can overcome a conventional story (that also happens to be well-told despite its familiarity). The Technicolor photography still looks vibrant and beautiful 63 years later. It’s possible that you’ve never truly experienced the color green until you see this film in all of its remastered HD glory. The film’s major action set-pieces are something of a mixed bag because the sections that actually look like they were shot in Africa (much of the film was) make the green screen segments that much more embarrassingly dated and fake looking.

And, of course, Bogart and Hepburn make the most out of roles that are more caricature than character. As Rose Sayer, Hepburn crafts the type of character that I think of when I envision Hepburn (even if I had never seen this film before): strong-willed, middle-aged, spinster-ish with a romantic heart, and fiercer than any man on screen. Hepburn tends to bowl over her male leads with the strength of her personality, but in Bogart’s Allnut, she finally found a man as crazy and stubborn as her, and the emotional pyrotechnics as they match wits made the entire film worthwhile.

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Bogart didn’t live long past the shooting of this film. The African Queen was released in 1951 and he passed away from esophageal cancer in 1957, and part of me suspects that the rough, lean look Bogie has in this film can be attributed to the onset of his illness, and as one of the last great performances from one of Hollywood’s most iconic stars, The African Queen simply can’t be missed. At the end of the day, it never stops being a rousing adventure, but in an era where action movies had artistry, who can rightly complain?

Final Score: B+

 

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The moral spectrum of pre-Clint Eastwood Westerns (High Noon being a notable exception) is fairly easy to delineate. The criminals wear black hats; the heroes wear white hats; and all is right at the end of the day. If there are Indians, they are the bad guys as well. 1953’s Hondo attempts to be a thematically complex film in the vein of High Noon, and while what it believes to be its own enlightened attitude is actually dated and somewhat offensive by today’s standards, Hondo‘s take on the eternal Western conflict between white settles and Native Americans is years ahead of its time. With a constantly surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of the Apache, despite their place as the film’s villains, Hondo is a frustrating film that makes steps forward in Native American portrayal in American cinema while also still indulging in racist Hollywood stereotypes.

John Wayne (The Searchers) plays “Hondo” Lane, a half-Apache loner making a living riding dispatch for the United States army in the Western territories as the peace treaty between the U.S. and the Apache has fallen apart because the U.S. broke the treaty and killed Apache without cause. After being ambushed by an Apache patrol, Hondo loses his horse and wanders on foot with his loyal dog Sam into the ranch of abandoned wife Angie Lowe (The Pope of Greenwich Village‘s Geraldine Page) and her young son Johnny (Lee Aaker). Angie’s husband is a worthless layabout and months ago he left Angie and Johnny behind to drink and gamble away his days in a nearby town, leaving Angie to the mercy of any natives who would happen upon her ranch.

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Despite Hondo’s warnings to abandon their ranch because the Apache are on the warpath, Angie and her son stay and Hondo rides off to continue his job. In his absence, an Apache war party led by the noble Vittorio (Michael Pate) invades the Lowe ranch. Angie tries to invoke the friendly relationship her family has had with the Apache in the past but it is to no avail. She and her son are only saved when her son tries to kill one of the Apache warriors to save his mother. Vittorio recognizes the courage of the young boy and makes him an official Apache warrior and leaves mother and son in peace though he tells Angie that she has until the next planting season to choose an Apache husband. And when Hondo realizes that the Lowe’s are in the path of the Apache, he makes his way back towards their ranch with Angie’s jealous husband in his wake.

I say that this film is progressive for the early 1950s but still terribly offensive by modern standards because it gives context for the Apache being pissed off and murdering people as well as creating an almost heroic Apache figure, but it also indulges in many of the worst “noble savage” stereotypes of Western storytelling and once Vittorio disappears from the film, the Apache devolve into a crazed murderous horde with seemingly no direction. But, when Vittorio is around and he’s testing both the Lowe family as well as the values of the half-Apache Hondo, the film seems like it actually has something to say. That thematic energy not only disappears upon his second act death, but the film loses any sense of context or meaning.

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Geraldine Page was nominated for an Academy Award for this film, and although I don’t know if I thought there was anything particularly Oscar-worthy about her performance, she was certainly a better performer than John Wayne. The only thing John Wayne’s ever had going for him was presence, and unlike The Searchers, he doesn’t get the opportunity to put his presence to a more subversive effect. The film also has Gunsmoke‘s James Arness in a smaller bit part, and it was clear just from his few lines that he was going to be somebody later on. John Wayne’s status as one of Hollywood’s most enduring icons has always been something that’s confused me. He’s not a great actor or even a particularly good one, and Hondo most certainly doesn’t rank in the top tier of Wayne roles.

Hondo starts off ponderously slow although it does thankfully take that time to establish the details of life on the Lowe farm as well as Hondo’s past living with the Apache. The action does eventually kick up once Hondo leaves the farm for the first time and realizes that Angie and Johnny being in danger isn’t something he can turn his back on (especially since her husband won’t be doing anything to help them). And for a while, Hondo becomes a surprisingly enjoyable old-fashioned oater. But, it sadly falls apart by the film’s end and the progressive stances it was trying to make early on become merely an interesting afterthought in the story of Hondo. For fans of Westerns, it’s worth a watch. Everybody else can skip out.

Final Score: B-

 

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One evening in New York City, after a wonderful romantic evening with a girl I was seeing, I walked her to the subway, and on my walk back to my apartment in the primarily Caribbean Crown Heights, I softly sang and subtly danced to “I Could Have Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady. As one of the few Caucasians in the mostly Caribbean neighborhood, I didn’t have to do much to stand out, and singing a show-tune as I walked down the street didn’t help matters. But, I was so happy and so content that I didn’t care who saw or who laughed. When people in old musicals are so overcome with happiness or sorrow that they simply burst into song, I get it. It happens to me in real life. I just don’t have an array of back-up singers (or actual musical talent) and lavish dance routines.

I’ve discussed at length on this blog the special place that musicals hold in my heart and the complicated feelings I’ve developed for them as I’ve gotten older and my tastes have gotten more sophisticated (and my critical skills grew sharper). Grease was one of the first non-children’s movies that I can remember watching, and there’s always been something about theatrical song and dance numbers that have appealed to me on a deep and personal level ever since. Unfortunately, I also recognize that a lot of these “classic” musicals are also sort of hilariously bad in the actual storytelling department. 1954’s There’s No Business Like Show Business is no exception to that rule. It’s gorgeous production and sublime Irving Berlin score make it worth every musical lover’s time, but it’s story borders on non-existent.

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The Donahue clan, led by matriarch Molly (Ethel Merman) and Terry (Dan Dailey), are a struggling vaudeville family act. Though the group finds great success when the parents are joined by their children, Tim (Singing in the Rain‘s Donald O’Connor), Katie (Mitzi Gaynor), and Steve (Johnnie Ray), it isn’t long before the family act starts to fall apart. Steve wants to become a priest, and Tim falls head over heels in love with coat-check girl (and aspiring singer), Vicky Parker (How to Marry a Millionaire‘s Marilyn Monroe). And when Vicky’s career begins to take off, and she brings Tim and Katie along to be part of her new Broadway revue, it spells the beginning of the end of the Five Donahues as a performing act. Throw in Tim’s suspicion that Vicky is having an affair with her manager, and the family is set on a path towards disaster.

I love Donald O’Connor. I doubt that’s a controversial statement. He’s clearly the best part of Singing in the Rain. The title track of that film is great, but “Make ‘Em Laugh” is the best number of that whole film. And he does not disappoint in There’s No Business Like Show Business. The man can dance and he can sing, and he delivers a snappy one-liner with the best of them, and it’s always puzzled me that he wasn’t a bigger star (though I get it. He didn’t have leading man looks). Although I suspect the film would have been enjoyable without him, I also know for a fact that I wouldn’t have liked There’s No Business Like Show Business nearly as much without O’Connor’s presence. There’s a number after Tim kisses Vicky for the first time that has quickly become one of my favorite set pieces from a classic musical.

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Marilyn Monroe on the other hand… she really isn’t a great actress, but unlike How to Marry a Millionaire, this film shows off an area where Monroe is actually startlingly talented: burlesque-adjacent numbers. Whenever Monroe has to deliver actual dialogue, she’s more stiff and unnatural on screen than even the non-professional cast of Steven Soderbergh’s disastrous Bubble. But, when she’s performing her musical numbers in the film, which give her a chance to show off her sultry and simmering sexuality, it’s like watching an entirely different performer. The only other actresses from that era who seem to be as aware and in control of their sexuality were Liz Taylor and Lauren Bacall. And, Monroe’s confidence and presence sell every second of her musical numbers. For an actress that we’ve come to know (from historical records) as suffering from crippling self-esteem issues, it is surprising how well she carries herself in the film’s sizzling musical numbers from Miss Monroe.

And the rest of the cast is full of established musical talent. Ethel Merman is a Broadway legend, and although her performance is about as campy as they get, it fits the silly and fun mood of this film far better than a more serious take would have. Dan Dailey was appropriately lecherous but loveable as the beleaguered family patriarch although it was probably in the film’s best interest that he was involved in as few of the musical numbers as he was. Johnnie Ray shone during what little screen time he had, at least from a singing perspective (his acting wasn’t phenomenal), and I more or less immediately fell in love with the beautiful Mitzi Gaynor who played the sister. Looking at her IMDB page, she appears to have mostly done musicals and never had much of a career which is a shame because she was both gorgeous and talented.

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The costume work and set design and general composition of this film is a glorious exercise in excess. Early in the film, the Donahue’s perform a deliciously over-the-top take on the old Irving Berlin standard “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” that is far more complex and expensive than they should be able to afford, but I loved every second of its multi-national ridiculousness. And, as mentioned earlier, there’s a glorious performance of “A Man Chases a Girl (Until She Catches Him)” performed with fountains and back-up dancers disguised as statues from Donald O’Connor. That was the moment when I surrendered myself to the silly fun of There’s No Business Like Show Business. As someone who’s danced down the streets of Brooklyn after a wonderful evening with a girl, it spoke to me.

There’s No Business Like Show Business isn’t ever going to stand in the pantheon of great movie musicals, and the performance of “Heat Wave,” which featured what I’ll refer to as blackface-adjacent backup dancers, was a little offensive, but like Babes in Arms before it, there’s something just undeniably fun about this film despite (actually probably because of) its ridiculous nature. The songs are great, and not even the sight of Ethel Merman with absurd mutton-chop sideburns during “A Sailor’s Not a Sailor (Until a Sailor’s Been Tattooed” should deter you from watching this film if you have a soft spot in your heart for old musicals. If you aren’t a fan of musicals, I can’t imagine that There’s No Business Like Show Business will convert you, but for those in the fold, it’s worth the two hours of your time.

Final Score: B

 

Vertigo1It is one of my great hopes for this blog that I watch an established Hollywood classic that I had seen for the first time when I was younger and didn’t particularly enjoy and suddenly find myself transformed by the film’s power upon this viewing where my tastes have matured after three years of reviewing films. Sadly, it hasn’t happened yet. Although I’ve watched films like Lawrence of Arabia or 2001: A Space Odyssey which I loathed as a teenager but appreciated their technical merits as an adult, I’ve yet to find a film that I’ve completely changed my mind about. 1958’s Vertigo, long considered to be one of the greatest films of all time, is the closest one of these films has come yet, but it, too, falls short.

Vertigo is the easy answer for most critics when asked to name Alfred Hitchcock’s best film (my money is on Rear Window or North by Northwest), and it was recently named the greatest film of all time in a Sight & Sound critic and director’s poll. When I first saw it as a kid, I thought it was an almost irredeemable bore, and now, a month shy of being 25, I still think that’s true. For the first hour and forty minutes. Then, the film’s major twist is revealed and Vertigo starts picking up momentum. And it closes out on one of the best final sequences of any film ever (the only ending that immediately springs to mind as being better is Cinema Paradiso). I just wish the first hour and forty minutes weren’t slower than Jordan Belfort on one too many Quaaludes.

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John “Scottie” Ferguson (Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation‘s James Stewart) is a retired police detective who has developed a crippling case of acrophobia, the fear of heights, after he is indirectly responsible for the falling death of a fellow policeman. Scottie’s acrophobia has developed itself as a dizzying vertigo that appears any time he’s near heights. After Scottie’s retirement from the police force, he is asked by an old college friend, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), to shadow the friend’s wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), because Gavin believes that Madeleine has been possessed by the spirit of a deceased Spanish countess. But the truth is far stranger as Scottie begins to fall in love with the woman he’s meant to follow.

I won’t ruin any more of the plot of Vertigo for those who have somehow managed to not see this film over the years. Not that Vertigo goes out of its way to hide the film’s most famous plot twist. Viewers know what’s really going on half an hour before Scottie finds out. But, the transformations, both real and imagined, that occur in the film’s closing acts make up for the turgid spell that comes before. And if you don’t know what’s really happening with Madeleine, Scottie, and a new friend Scottie makes later on, I don’t want to be the one to spoil it for you.

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Vertigo is a Hitchcock film, and from beginning to end, it looks it which makes the film soporific first half a little easier to swallow. Hitchcock’s camera is light and fluid (much credit must be given to cinematographer, Robert Burks), and there are extended sections of the film with little to no dialogue where Hitchcock lets the story unfold through the sheer power of image. It’s fascinating and, for technically minded viewers, a treat to watch a film-maker who understood the value of composition better than any director since Sergei Eisenstein. But, somewhere along the lines, the pretty camera work grows stale, and you keep waiting for the story to finally kick in.

And therein lies Vertigo‘s most fatal sin. It’s opening stretch is vital to establishing the film’s powerful pay-off, but it all unfolds at such a languid pace. Scenes last too long. Hitchcock floods the scenes with so much compositional detail, and they certainly invite the viewer into Vertigo‘s world, but they are just bandages masking weak storytelling. Scottie is a flat character for 60% of the film, until he isn’t and that leads to the film’s astounding denouement. Unfortunately, Hitchcock doesn’t give the audience any glimpses of the darkness simmering beneath his surface beforehand.

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But, when Jimmy Stewart is finally given real material to work with, he pulls one of cinema’s all time “against type” performances out of it. Dark, possessive, angry, paranoid. These aren’t adjectives we ever use to describe Stewart who is one of the definitive All-American movie stars. But Scottie takes a tumble down a well of pitch-black, misogynistic darkness, and Jimmie Stewart’s performance is rightfully one of the truly iconic performances in Hollywood’s history. Kim Novak is also marvelous as the mysterious Madeleine, and Madeleine is certainly one of Hitchcock’s greatest female creations.

I would talk about what makes the final sequence so brilliant (and so deliciously subversive of the feminine identity roles of Hollywood’s Golden Age as well as the traditional values of masculine heroes), but I don’t want to spoil what happens in the film’s closing moments. Had the first half of the film been half as good as it’s second half, this would clearly be one of the true greatest movies of all time. As it is, it finishes on a note of absolute perfection that few films have since touched, but it isn’t enough to excuse the film’s unfortunately dull start.

Final Score: B+

 

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When I think of Billy Wilder, his legacy is divided firmly into two categories. The dark and moody noir like Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard and then his later comedies such as Some Like It Hot and The Apartment. At least one of those four films come up on virtually every list of the greatest films ever made (and usually there are several). The Austrian turned American become of the most beloved directors of the 1940s through the 1960s, and list of the greatest directors of Hollywood’s golden age is complete without him near the top. And though his direction is stunning per usual, perhaps it’s the lionized ideal of his works that I hold in my head which caused me to find his 1954 romantic comedy, Sabrina, so lightweight and insubstantial.

No one would ever accuse the light-hearted farce of Some Like It Hot as being cerebral or challenging material, but the lightning-fast nature of its script and the manic energy of Lemmon and Matthau make up for the fact that it lacks the dark overtones that made Wilder so famous in the first place. But, in Sabrina, there’s much to love but almost as much to remove us from the experience. From the lack of any real romantic chemistry between Hepburn and Bogart to a turgid script that feels as if it never wants to get off the ground to some material the feels blatantly misogynistic and condescending to women in a modern viewing, Sabrina is a truly enjoyable film but not nearly one of Wilder’s best works.

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Sabrina is a modern spin on the classic Cinderella “rags-to-riches” tale. In 1950s New York, the Larrabees are a family whose wealth seems to rival the Rockefeller. The daughter of the family chauffeur, Sabrina Fairchild (Audrey Hepburn), is in love with the youngest of the Larrabee men, David (Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing‘s William Holden), a rakish skirt-chaser who’s been divorced three times and is set to be married yet again. Though his current engagement has been set up by his brother Linus (To Have and Have Not‘s Humphrey Bogart), the mature and responsible member of the family. When Sabrina sees David seducing a floozy in the tennis court, she tries to kill herself but is rescued by Linus who pretends to be unaware of her original intentions.

Afterwards, Sabrina heads off to Paris to learn to be a cook so she can continue the family tradition of serving wealthier families in the New York area, but when she befriends a wealthy baron, Sabrina returns from Paris a woman fully grown and confident in her own beauty and value to men. David picks her up at a train station and she is so transformed that he doesn’t even recognize her until he brings her back home. Linus, too, falls in love with Sabrina, and both men begin to compete for her affections. Though at first, Linus simply wants to remove Sabrina from the family’s affairs as she threatens David’s new engagement which is holding together a priceless business deal, but sooner or late,r Linus discovers he has to confront his own feelings for Sabrina.

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To the film’s credit, the black and white photography by Charles Lang is beautiful in the way that only black and white films from the period could be. We go back and watch movies like Double Indemnity or Pickup on South Street, and for many movie lovers, you long for films with such crisp and clear visual ambition. Sabrina may not look quite that good, but when Wilder has the camera glide in and out of parties and into subtle close-ups which frame the sexual yearning between David and Sabrina and Linus and Sabrina, it’s accomplished with a grace and ease that few film-makers today could hope to match.

But sadly, the film’s story isn’t as good as its direction (which is the case, I feel, for so many of the films before the 1960s). Audrey Hepburn is more or less emotionally manipulated and abused by both David and Linus for the entire film, and though David suffers his fair share of hilarious mishaps as punishment (a broken champagne glass providing one of the film’s funnier moments), Linus only gets a happy ending with no personal cost. He constantly tries to ignore, buy off, and exile Sabrina, but at the end, they still fall madly in love (I can’t imagine that obvious ending being a major spoiler). He treats her mostly like a nuisance, but she never seems offended by it. My sister and I were both rooting by the end of the film for her to say “Fuck it!” and abandon both men.

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Most damning for the film is that the romance between Hepburn and Bogart (which is the very core of the film) carried about as much sizzle and heat as a snowman. The much older Bogart (he was thirty years older than Hepburn at the time of filming) had been in a passionate love affair with Lauren Bacall for ten years in 1954, and it is clear that he had almost no attraction to Hepburn, and subsequently, he couldn’t make it seem like Linus did either. The only romantic scenes which seem to work involve the pouting and long-suffering Sabrina lusting after the elusive and roguish David, if for no other reason than Hepburn’s beautifully expressive face captures the depth of Sabrina’s longing and pain.

All those complaints aside, Sabrina is a lovely and very enjoyable film. It just seems so… light and shallow compared to the greatest films in Wilder’s library. Of course, my sister expressed a most Philistine of opinions when, after the credits rolled, she turned to me and said she enjoyed Sabrina more than Casablanca. I may have to disown her for such heresy, but perhaps my indifference to the romantic whimsies of this film are rooted in the fact that I am an often cynical male and not the type easily swayed and romanticized by the fantasy of this tale. For Bogie and Hepburn fans, Sabrina may not be their best work, but it’s still a must-see film.

Final Score: B

 

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It is one of the great tragedies of the modern age that an entire generation of children will grow up with their primary knowledge of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass coming from the abysmal Tim Burton adaptation from 2010. That film fails to capture, even for a second, the wit, magic, and surrealism that has made Alice in Wonderland one of the most enduring children’s tales of all time. And while nothing will ever quite compare to the original source novel, Disney’s 1951 musical adaptation of the two books remains one of the most simply enjoyable films of Disney’s Golden age, and even as a 24 year old man, slipping back into this magical world and it’s colorful cast of characters was an undeniable delight.

I find it almost astounding that this film predates the psychedelic movement and isn’t, instead, a product of a bunch of completely stoned animators. The hippie movement, and especially the acid-fueled subset of that group, took so many of the symbols and motifs of the book and film and incorporated them into the hippie iconography, and it’s not difficult to see why. There’s a moment early in the film where Alice is falling down the proverbial rabbit-hole where, for no discernible reason, the screen swiftly changes tints and hues in total disorientation. Grace Slick directly quotes the film in “White Rabbit” which is one of the most beloved songs of the psychedelic era. Though it makes sense within the context of the film, Alice in Wonderland‘s dedication to absurdity and constantly surreal overtones is present in every scene, and it’s easy to see why the “heads” of the 60s and 70s loved this movie so much.

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For those who have somehow never seen the film or read the book, Alice in Wonderland is the story of the adventures of young Alice (Kathryn Beaumont) and her journey into the insane, magical, incomprehensible Wonderland. After growing bored with her studies, Alice spies a talking White Rabbit muttering about being late and follows him into a rabbit hole where she falls down to Wonderland. And there, she stumbles upon an increasingly bizarre cast of characters ranging from the homicidal Queen of Hearts, the positively insane Mad Hatter and March Hare, and the obfuscating Cheshire Cat. And, she finds herself in one misadventure after another usually involving food that makes her grow or shrink depending on the side she eats, and before long, it’s clear that all Alice wants to do is get home.

The animation in Alice in Wonderland is truly superb, and although I love pretty much the entirety of the Pixar canon (there are one or two exceptions), I do find myself missing the type of hand-drawn cartoons that I grew up on, and part of me thinks that’s one of the reasons why I enjoy anime so much. Alice in Wonderland is just stunning to look at from beginning to end, and it’s sad that movies that look like this are almost never made anymore. From the way that the film regularly plays with perspective to the imaginative creatures that inhabit Wonderland (such as a rocking horse fly and a dandelion that is half lion and many others) to constant kinetic action and animations, Alice in Wonderland is one of the Golden age animated films that should set the standard for what hand-drawn animation should look like .

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Not only is this film the introduction many kids my age (and for the thirty eight years before I was born) had to post-modernism, it was also likely our first introduction to weird, antiquated political satire that we were too young to understand (and are now too far removed from the people and figures being satirized to comprehend as adults either). It pokes fun at the comedy of manners and class snobbery (the scenes with the flowers) but it also pokes fun at the political establishment and the futility of certain promises of political elites (the moments with the Dodo where they all run in circles) and also how the rich exploit the poor (the Walrus and the Carpenter). Those aren’t the types of things that kids watching the movie would notice (or even enjoy) but it adds another layer to what was already one of Disney’s best films.

If there’s any legitimate complaint to make about Alice in Wonderland, it’s that the musical numbers aren’t up to the par set by the Tim Rice era of the late 80s and early 90s, but let’s face it, Tim Rice is in a class all his own as a songwriter for children’s movies. The songs aren’t bad (and a couple are memorable enough), but as a musical, it lacks a stand-out hit tune. It’s a minor flaw in an otherwise timeless Disney classic. If I ever have children some day (which seems unlikely cause I don’t like kids), it is a certainty that this will be one of the films from my childhood that I foist upon them, and it is my sincerest hope that there’s never a day where this movie isn’t considered a wonderful delight.

Final Score: A

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I have a confession to make. I am a Westerns junkie. I obviously don’t think it’s the best film genre, but whether I can intellectually rationalize it or not, Westerns are my ultimate guilty pleasure genre. The elegant simplicity of the Old West mixed with gorgeous on-location shooting and the most mythic of American heroes, the Western gunslinger, make for a reassuring and consistently enjoyable experience. Even when it’s a by the books “oater,” I still find myself able to sit down and enjoy a movie and turn off the critical faculties that I’ve trained myself to have on at every juncture with other films. 1957’s Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is very much a traditional and conventional Western with virtually no regard for historical accuracy, but as far as classic Westerns go, it’s a fun take on the Wyatt Earp/Doc Holliday legend.

I really can’t overstate enough just how little historical accuracy is portrayed in this film. It’s virtually non-existent. Other than the fact that Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp were real people (as well as Wyatt’s brothers) and the fact that there was indeed a gunfight at the O.K. Corral with the Clanton brothers, I’m pretty sure that most of the stuff that happened in this movie was totally made up. That didn’t actually bother me any when I was watching it because at the end of the day, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is a fun little “oater.” But, if you want a little historical accuracy in your films about real people, you should probably keep that in mind if you sit down to watch this movie.

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In the late 1800s, lawman Wyatt Earp (Burt Lancaster) finds his way into the town of Fort Griffin chasing criminal rustler Ike Clanton. While there, Earp saves gambler/gunman Doc Holliday (Kirk Douglas) from a lynch mob after Holliday kills a man in self-defense. Later, Earp settles down in Dodge City, Kansas where becomes the town Marshall and it isn’t long before Doc Holliday makes his way there as well. Doc Holliday feels he owes Wyatt Earp his life, and he repays his debt by becoming Earp’s deputy and saving Wyatt’s neck on more than one occasion. After catching wind the Clantons have set up shop outside of Tombstone, Arizona, Earp and Holliday make their way to Tombstone which sets up the titular gunfight that serves as the film’s historical climax.

Kirk Douglas was fantastic as Doc Holliday. I’m not sure if his performance was as great as Val Kilmer’s almost effete take on the character in Tombstone (which became arguably the finest performance of Kilmer’s career), and it’s weird to me (as a kid bred on Tombstone) to never hear anybody say “I’ll be your huckleberry,” but Kirk Douglas finds the darker and mercurial side of the Holliday character. As opposed to Wyatt Earp’s more moralistic traditional hero, Kirk Douglas plays up how much of an anti-hero Doc Holliday really was. And there are scenes where he allows himself to become angry with his prostitute girlfriend Kate (Jo Van Fleet) where Douglas becomes legitimately menacing. It’s easy to see where his son Michael got his acting chops. Burt Lancaster was good as well although the part of Wyatt Earp required much less.

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I’ll keep this review short because I want to maybe try to finish Season 1 of Star Trek: The Next Generation today and I honestly don’t have much more to say about this movie than I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it a lot although I also recognize that there’s nothing special or unique about it (other than Kirk Douglas’s performance). So, if you’re a fan of classic Westerns and white hats versus black hats (though ironically enough, Wyatt Earp wears a black hat the entire film), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral doesn’t break any new ground, but it’s a fun way to pass two hours. And on one last side note, I just did some quick research about the actual events leading up to and surrounding the titular fight, and it’s kind of hilarious just how inaccurate this film is.

Final Score: B

 

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The reader of this review needs to imagine a long and deep sigh to preface these proceedings. You do it? Good. I’ve watched my fair share of lengthy films for this blog. Lawrence of Arabia, Das Boot, and (more recently) Django Unchained spring to mind. And while occasionally films can make perfect use of their length from beginning to end (The Tree of Life or Margaret), the previously mentioned films all lost some points for their bloated states. Not everything needed to be there. But still (with the exception of Lawrence of Arabia which had a plethora of problems in addition to its length), the interminable length of some movies was usually a minor price to pay for an otherwise great picture. 1957’s Civil War epic, Raintree County is not a great film by any stretch, and it’s near three hour run time is torturous. The movie has its share of moments though, and Liz Taylor is truly phenomenal. It’s a shame then that a good half of the film could probably have been excised for the better.

Set in the years leading up to the American Civil War, Raintree County is a romantic melodrama cut from the distinct 1950s mold with Gone With the Wind ambitions lacking the Gone With the Wind spectacle (not that I actually think Gone With the Wind is that great of a movie either). John Shawnessy (Montgomery Clift) has just graduated high school and is deeply in love with his high school sweetheart, Nell Gaither (Eva Marie Saint). After falling under the spell of vixenish Susanna Drake (Giant‘s Elizabeth Taylor) and winning an important foot race (it makes sense in context), John accidentally impregnates Susanna after a one night stand and marries her from his sense of honor. And, it isn’t long after marrying Susanna that John discovers that she is… unstable and that the secrets from her past may come back to haunt him as the spectre of the Civil War begins to weigh over the entire nation.

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The performances in the film were actually very good. This was the first Monty Clift film I had ever seen, and he was very impressive (especially when I learned that he nearly died during principal photography and his face was terribly scarred in a car accident). One of the first big “Method” film stars, Monty Clift turned John into a wounded and sensitive young hero that went against the mold of many of the ultra-masculine film stars of the era. In fact, I also read that he was James Dean’s favorite actor, and you can see the influence he would have on James Dean in every line of his face. Every facial expression Dean used in Rebel Without a Cause is also on full display with Monty Clift in this film and apparently Monty Clift was doing it first (although this film is newer than Rebel). Also, for one of Hollywood’s most famous early homosexuals, he still had a sizzling sexual chemistry with co-star Elizabeth Taylor (although I’ve since read that he was bisexual).

And, speaking of miss Liz Taylor, she kind of blew me away in this movie. I was a big fan of her work in Giant (one of her only really high profile roles I think I’ve watched for this blog. Well, that and Life With Father, but I hated that movie), but I was not prepared for her performance in this film. She received an Academy Award nomination (she lost to Joanne Woodward for The Three Faces of Eve which I’ve never seen), and it was well deserved. Similar to Monty Clift, Liz Taylor’s acting style was light years ahead of its time. She wasn’t quite a Method actress, but her raw sexuality and ferocity as her mental illness takes over was a type of commitment to the part that was rarely seen from female actresses of that era. I wasn’t as impressed with Eva Marie Saint, although her role was slighter, and I know from On the Waterfront that she’s a great actress in her own right.

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Sadly, good acting does not a three hour long film make. And that’s where the film’s problems arise. When the electric personality of Susanna was there to create a sense of intrigue, tension, and, ultimately, danger, Raintree County become surprisingly enjoyable. Although John is perhaps, finally, too noble of a figure, his descent into the seduction of Susanna and then the price he has to pay because of how psychotic she is makes for great drama, and for a film set in the 1950s, there was clearly a slight message of civil rights written into the film (all of the “villains” opposed abolition). But, when the film turned its attention to the romantic tensions between John and Nell, I honestly couldn’t give a shit. And the film’s opening drags and drags until you finally get a feel for the characters and what the dramatic conflict of the film may be. Raintree County is not a shining example of a well-paced script and just as the beginning drags so does the end until it suddenly and swiftly closes in an absurd manner.

If you’re a fan of Civil War melodramas like Gone With the Wind, you’ll probably enjoy Raintree County much more than I did. I was actually leaning towards a “B-” for this film because despite its egregious flaws, the good stuff was actually keeping me attentive. But the aforementioned ending, which made me go from feeling like it was dragging immensely to suddenly ending without much warning (which seems as impossible as it sounds), dropped it down a grade. I think for fans of older romantic dramas (of which I usually am not), this movie’s good sides will outweigh its bad sides. For everybody else, I’m sure you can find a better way to spend three hours.

Final Score: C+

P.S. The video transfer of the copy of this film that I got from Netflix is arguably one of the worst I’ve ever seen in my entire life. This looked like a VHS copy of a film. Not a DVD copy.

 

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Careers that are blown out too soon create an aura of legend around many young stars that were taken from us in their prime. Kurt Cobain, Heath Ledger, Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse, etc. Fresh faces with all of the talent in the world are snuffed out and the world is left with the question, “What could have been?” This sad fate and the speculation surrounding future “what ifs?” is perhaps no better personified than by James Dean. Dead at the age of 24, with only three credited roles to his name, James Dean’s star still burns bright today despite how little we ever got to see of him. Ever since I first saw the film ten years ago, Rebel Without a Cause has always been a personal favorite of mine. And on this particular viewing (particularly having now seen Giant in recent years), the sense of tragedy over the loss of such an immense talent became almost overwhelming, as this film remains simply one of the best of the 1950s.

I honestly feel like this has to be one of the least understood films I’ve ever watched because critical explanations of its themes and messages are all over the place, and if anyone tries to tell me that it’s a film about the moral decay of American youth, they’re missing the forest for the trees. Rebel Without a Cause is as thematically complex a film from the 1950s that America could have possibly hoped to produce, and the subtle homosexual content was just light years ahead of its time. A film about family, our notions of masculine identity (and where said notions come from), the way that the failings and neglects of our loved ones lead to neurosis and dysfunction, and the painful confusions of youth, Rebel Without a Cause is a timeless classic, and while something indefinable about the film keeps it from perfection (perhaps an intentional emotional distance the film creates), it still set the bar for all future teenage dramas to come.

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(side note. This film’s in color but I had trouble finding color stills from the film.)

After moving to a new school because of problems with fighting, Jim Stark (James Dean) doesn’t take long before his emotional baggage gets him in trouble yet again. The film opens with a heavily intoxicated Jim playing with a toy monkey he found in the streets before being dragged to juvenile hall where it becomes readily apparent that his “don’t give a damn” demeanor is a front for dealing with the conflict between his hen-pecked, weak father and his over-bearing, oppressive mother. Though they don’t really interact yet, Jim is joined at juvenile hall by the runaway Judy (Gypsy‘s Natalie Wood), whose father has simply stopped showing her affection as she’s gotten older, as well as by the angry and abandoned Plato (Giant‘s Sal Mineo), whose parents have left hm alone in the care of a nanny. And over the course of one day, these wayward souls are drawn together.

Jim has one fear in life, and it’s to be a “chicken.” This stems from the cowardly nature of his father and the lack of an assertive masculine role model in his life. And although Jim desperately wants to fit in, his sensitive demeanor and foreign nature make him an immediate target for the school’s tougher crowd, which Judy runs with. After a fateful trip to the Los Angeles planetarium, Jim’s honor is called into question by Buzz (Corey Allen), and the pair have a non-fatal knife fight. And that night, when Jim’s dad is unable to muster up a reasonable explanation to Jim, Jim then faces Buzz in a distastrous game of chicken amid a high bluff that changes Jim, Judy, and Plato’s life forever.

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This particular interpretation of the film has gotten more popular in recent years, but I don’t know how anyone can watch the film and not realize it. Sal Mineo’s Plato is a homosexual and develops an almost immediate crush on Jim from the moment they first meet. Sal Mineo was gay in real life and James Dean has long been rumored to be bisexual. And, the homoerotic overtones in this movie are even more through the roof than they were in Giant. The longing glances that Plato shoots at Jim are more sexually charges than the ones shared between Jim and Judy. I obviously don’t think that Plato’s repressed homosexuality are at the root of his tragic fall (that lends itself to his parental abandonment), but Rebel Without a Cause has to be applauded for being a film from the 1950s that made a character as gay as possible without ever coming right out and saying he was gay.

Plato’s homosexuality is interesting within the context of the film itself though because Rebel Without a Cause is so interested in what it means to be a man. Not only what it means to be a man, but how men define ourselves in relation to women and our relationships with women. Jim is so angry and confused because society has told him what it means to be a man. To have honor and machismo. But, his role model is his father, who at one point we see in a frilly gown subservient to his domineering mother. And so, Jim is sensitive and gentle, but he nearly rebels against that side of his personality because it isn’t what he feels he needs to be. All of the characters are products of these psychic crises where there personalities are being torn apart from their own personal emotional needs, the failings of their parents, and the molds they feel society wants them to fill.

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It’s not just the thematic complexity of the film or its maturity for the era which birthed it that makes Rebel Without a Cause such a classic. It’s the fact that teenage angst and ennui had never been portrayed with such stark realism before. James Dean’s performance in this film is just legendary. I’m yet to see East of Eden (don’t worry. It’s on the list for this blog), but between Giant and this film, it’s painfully clear that James Dean would have been one of the biggest stars to ever live had he not died. Whether it’s his painful cry of “They’re tearing me apart!” as his parents bicker or the innocent way he plays with the monkey he found in the street, James Dean captures the perfect balance between youthful innocence and the driftlessness that defines Jim. And, much like his contemporary Marlon Brando, it never feels like Dean is acting. His performance remains perfectly natural throughout.

And Sal Mineo and Natalie Wood are nearly as good. Sal Mineo’s bravery in bringing such a feminine but in absolutely no way campy male hero to life is astounding, and he layers Plato with so much anger but a dark sensitivity that watching his emotional progression (and then his frightening regression by film’s end) is a masterclass of screen acting. Much like James Dean (and Natalie Wood for that matter), Mineo was a talent that was robbed from us far too soon. And Natalie Wood… The lustful sexual undertones that she plays with during the scenes with her father (where she simply wants chaste male affection but her father refuses because he’s afraid of his own sexual feelings for his daughter) are lightning. And like the other two leads, Natalie Wood bares his soul in a way completely uncommon for the era to speak truths about the painful realities of being a teenager.

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There was something about this film that maybe didn’t ultimately click with me, but nearly 24 hours removed from my most recent viewing, I still can’t put my finger on what it was. Just a vague feeling that something at the peripheral of the film was keeping me from totally immersing myself in this world. Still, that microscopic quibble aside, if you have even the most passing interest in cinema and have somehow managed to not see Rebel Without a Cause yet, drop whatever you’re doing and watch it. Without question, it remains one of the defining films of the 1950s and one of the most important films concerning what it means to be a teenager that’s ever been produced. And, if, when the credits roll, you don’t find yourself mourning the loss of James Dean’s monumental talent, you are unable to grasp one of the most exciting talents to ever hit the big screen.

Final Score: A

 

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I love it when I think I’m going to seriously dislike a movie and I end up enjoying it quite a bit. That happens every now and then on this blog. The pattern seems to involve me watching a romantic drama from the 1950s or 1940s and expecting to find it to be overbearingly melodramatic (which is often the case, though films like Giant and Penny Serenade are very enjoyable films .They’re also both George Stevens films so maybe it’s related). I have a rule about the order I watch films for this blog. Movies that have been nominated for Best Picture at the most recent Academy Awards take precedence over everything else (Right now, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Argo, and Zero Dark Thirty are the only three that have been released on Netflix and the latter two are at the very top of my queue right now) and then films that won any of the major Oscar categories if it’s not a Best Picture nominee (so Best Documentary, Best Animated Feature, etc.). Then, I usually just let my list I’ve created for this blog do the work. However, if a movie is available to watch instantly on Netflix (and in my Instant queue) but is about to be removed from the Watch Instant service, I usually shoot it to the top of my list. And that’s how Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing became the last thing I watched for this blog, and it was a wonderful surprise if not actually a great film.

I’m going to try to keep this review short since I’d like to watch Rebel Without a Cause tonight (it’s one of my all-time favorite films that I haven’t seen in years). Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing is the film adaptation of the autobiographical novel, A Many-Splendoured Thing. In 1949, Eurasian widowed doctor Han Suyin (Jennifer Jones) is dealing with the flood of refugees and injured immigrants entering British Hong Kong in the wake of the Communist uprising in China. While in residency there, she falls in love with married (but separated) charmer Mark Elliott (William Holden), an American journalist on assignment in Hong Kong. Despite Han’s best attempts, she falls fast for the dashing Mark, but the deep-rooted anti-miscegenation traditions of her Chinese heritage threaten to keep the pair apart and they are pressured to keep their love a secret.

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I was kind of overwhelmed by what I thought was the intense sexual chemistry between William Holden and Jennifer Jones in this film, although it turned out that in real life, the pair could hardly stand one another. These two could accomplish more with a lustful glance and a heaving bosom than many modern films could with graphic, explicit sexuality. You have to give old-style romances credit for something .They understand that there is as much pay-off in the wait and the subtle implication as there is in straight Fatal Attraction-style eroticism. I’m not knocking well-done eroticism, but I’m not sure if I can name many moments in cinema that were more sexually charged than the scene on the beach where Han and Mark light each other’s cigarettes by pressing them together (which was symbolic of the consummation of their sexual relationship).

And the film (which won the Best Cinematography – Color Oscar in 1955) is gorgeous to look at in the way that few modern films care about achieving. Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing is an achievement of cohesive and gorgeous mise-en-scene. From the costume work (which the film also won an Oscar for) to the on-location shooting (which was rare for the time) to just the general visual feel of the film, Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing has the grandeur and spectacle that you don’t get enough of any more from people whose names aren’t Steven Spielberg or Woody Allen. Do I wish that they had cast an actual Eurasian as Han instead of just putting Jennifer Jones in (maybe you call it this?) yellow-face? Sure, but for the most part, the film struck a tone of legitimacy except for the scenes set in actual China where Han’s family for some reason spoke English with perfect American accents.

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Unlike other topical race films from the era (Imitation of Life i.e.), this movie rarely felt preachy and it just had a sincerity in its themes of forbidden love (which was ultimately what the film was about more than just being a morality play about the stupidity of anti-miscegenation laws). That’s not to say that the film didn’t slip up on occasion. The beginning sequence, set at a lavish party, felt dull and especially expository. When the film focuses on the sizzling romance between Han and Mark it soars, but virtually any other parts of the film failed to hold my attention. And even parts of Han and Mark’s relationship seemed odd to me, especially how quickly Mark used words like “destiny” to describe his feelings toward Han. If you like classic romances, I highly recommend Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing. It’s not perfect, but it’s a deeply enjoyable classic gem.

Final Score: B

Side note. I couldn’t find an actual trailer for this film. This is just stills from the film set to the movie’s now iconic title track.