Category: 1951


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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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AliceInWonderland1951-1

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

It’s always interesting to look at artifact’s from our species past that, while considered entertainment during their times, would be considered horrendously brutal and inhumane in modern society. I will always remember the first time I visited the Colosseum in Rome (not to be confused with Morgantown’s basketball stadium) that I was struck with this overwhelming dichotomy of the ancient beauty of the structure and that sense that I was being transported 2000 years into humanity’s past against how much unnecessary violence and bloodshed occurred at that structure daily. Similarly, public executions were a mainstay of 18th and 17th century cultures, yet virtually the entire civilized world (the U.S. sadly excepted) no longer has capital punishment at all, let alone as a form of social entertainment. Bullfighting is one of the most recent crazes that while considered a noble sport for centuries has finally been recognized as unnecessarily cruel and inhumane by most modern societies. The film I just finished, 1951’s The Bullfighter and the Lady, is both a celebration of the bullfighting culture and a stark portrayal of how violent it can be. While it had its moments (and was shockingly violent for its time), the film was ultimately far too satisfied to tell a simple love story and a simple sports story to truly be great.

The Bullfighter and the Lady is the story of a young American movie producer named Johnny Regan (Robert Stack, the TV version of The Untouchables) who becomes enamored with the traditional Mexican sport of bullfighting. After witnessing a day of bullfighting at packed plaza, Johnny approaches legendary torrero Manolo Estrada (Gilbert Roland) and wants to learn how to bullfight. He also meets the beautiful Mexican señorita, Anita de la Vega (Joy Page). Switching back and forth between the blooming romance of Johnny and Anita as well as Johnny’s training in the art of bullfighting from Manolo, The Bullfighter and the Lady gives a detailed (and one would assume realistic) portrayal of the harsh and unforgiving realm of the matador. While Johnny quickly finds that he has a knack for bullfighting, it doesn’t take long before he is given a brutal introduction to what the costs are if you screw up for just one second and a rabid bull has the chance to gore you.

This film did not shy away from violence and brutality that had to be absolutely shocking in the 1950’s. While many of the film’s most brutal scenes may be considered tame by today’s standards, I was still disturbed by quite a few of the gorings and other injuries that the torreros in this film received. You can tell that Budd Boetticher (the director) knew quite a bit about the sport as the camera and the script have a considerable eye for detail. The film can be incredibly slow and boring, especially in the beginning (the end really ratchets things up though), but that is because the film wants to dispel certain preconceptions that American viewers and other non-initiated might have about bullfighting. It wants to create an elaborately detailed and constructed world so that by the end of the film, the audience will know quite a bit more than it did when it began. In that regard, the film is a success though that doesn’t really make it any more entertaining or engaging.

Outside of the surprisingly charismatic Gilbert Roland as Manolo Estrada, the acting in this film was disappointingly wooden and unemotional. The film’s final moments were actually scripted quite well but Robert Stack was able to evoke as much genuine emotion as Keanu Reeves in Speed, which is to say not any. Similarly, there was virtually no romantic chemistry between Johnny and Anita that Stack simply made Johnny come off as a creepy stalker and Anita came off as an attention deficit lover who always changed her mind but never her on-screen face. Also, with the exception of Roland’s Estrada (who was charming and heroic and likeable in a way no one else in the cast could match), all of the Mexican characters seemed unfortunately stereotypical. At one point, Estrada’s wife tells Johnny that she knows what Anita is thinking because she and Anita are both Mexican and all Mexicans think alike. It was sort of offensive, and I’m not Hispanic at all.

The romantic plot of the film was unnecessary and distracted from time that could have been spent on making the bullfighting more emotionally charged and character driven (though the last quarter of the film corrects that problem considerably). I’ve never understood why Hollywood has always felt the need to stick artificial romances onto stories that were fine on their own. Also, the version of this film that I watched was the one on Netflix to “watch instantly” because it had no DVD copy available. This is a “restored” director’s cut of the film which adds another 30 minutes to the production. I only bring this up because you can instantly tell which scenes were in the original and which were added later because the scene’s added later A) contribute nothing to the film and B ) the actual quality of the shot is much worse and more distorted. All in all, this film has some good moments. While bullfighting is brutal and horrific, it is strangely compelling to watch. Sadly, the rest of the film can’t give you a reason to be invested in the fights in the first place.

Final Score: B-