Category: 1955


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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.

(Quick aside before my actual review. As always. Yes, I realize that my last three films have been from the 1950s now. I was supposed to review Woody Allen’s 1990s movie Crimes and Misdemeanors but the copy of it that I got sent from Netflix was cracked so there was no dice there. If I review a film tomorrow [which I may not because I’m going to be working on the new Ariel Pink’s Haunted Grafitti album for my NYC job and I also have to see my academic adviser for Morgantown school life], it’s going to be the more modern Like Water for Chocolate. So for those of you who have grown tired of me reviewing so many older films, that should change shortly.)

It’s one of the rare pleasures of watching an absurd number of movies that you get to see when future directors lift entire scenes from older films to suit their homage/genre feature purposes. Quentin Tarantino is notorious for it, almost to the point that he’s been accused of plagiarism (although I’ll let it slide for Tarantino since they are such loving [and usually awesome] scenes that are better remembered than the films he cribbed from). One can put in the Indiana Jones films and go back and look at old adventure serials to see exactly which scenes Lucas and Spielberg took from to make the movie. The 1955 World War II “classic”, The Dam Busters, was liberally stolen from in Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope for the Death Star sequences. An interesting and surprisingly science-driven look at one of the lesser known aspects of World War II, The Dam Busters is an educating film if not quite an entertaining one.


In the waning months of the European campaign of World War II, British military scientist Doctor Wallis (Michael Redgrave) believes he has come up with a way to cripple the German industrial machine. Most of German’s steel manufacturing at the time was reliant on power generated by hydro-electric dams, and if one were to knock those dams out, the German’s ability to continue to arm themselves would be crippled. Doctor Wallis devises a “bouncing” bomb to be delivered by highly trained fighter pilots to breach the German defenses and blow up the dams. After much fighting with the British government, his plan is eventually approved, and with the help of ace pilot Wing Commander Guy Gibson (Richard Todd), the Brits train an elite cadre of pilots to fly behind German lines and lay the groundwork for the ultimate Allied victory.

Much like The Longest Day (but without suffering that film’s interminable length), The Dam Busters works more as a history lesson than a dramatic film. Roughly the only character traits developed in this film is Commander Gibson’s love of his dog (whose racist name I will not be printing in this review). Other than that, everyone from the top down is a bland mix of archetypal World War II caricatures. Even when the flyboys let off some steam by getting into a playful fight with another group of airmen, you feel like you’re watching more a bland representation of a historical occurrence than a moment which could have shown the boiling tension these men are facing before they go off on a possible suicide mission. The only times when the film’s History Channel presentation has any life (besides the climactic final mission) are the small science moments where Michael Redgrave delights over his own ingenuity.

However, during the bombing missions themselves, I must admit that I let out some mild squeals of glee when I saw just how many images from the iconic Death Star scenes were taken from this movie. Whether it’s the turret run, trying to hit an almost impossible target, the sights on Luke’s Tie-Fighter (or do the Rebels use X-Wings? I can never remember. I’m sure some nerd will correct me), or even some of the dialogue on how their voices sound on the comm systems, it really was just a real life version of the big battle in A New Hope. The film was nominated for a Visual Effects Oscar, and while some of the artillery fire and flak may seem really fake looking today, it’s obvious that The Dam Busters was a major technical achievement when it was first released. There is just something inherently thrilling about dogfights, and The Dam Busters delivers the goods.

For those who don’t find themselves enamored with the minutiae of history, The Dam Busters may come off as a terrible bore. The characters are all instantly forgettable, and it isn’t until the final thirty minutes or so of the film that any action ever actually happens. However, for World War II buffs and those interested in the lesser-explored sides of military history, it has its moments. It’s one of the only military dramas I can think of where a scientist was one of the primary heroes. That has to count for something. Peter Jackson has long been rumored to be working on a remake of the film. If that ever comes to fruition (after the three Hobbit films [serious overkill]), I could find myself getting very excited for the direction he could take this compelling story.

Final Score: B-

Summertime

I call myself a cinephile, but my knowledge of cinema prior to 1960 or so is spotty and incomplete at best. There’s a reason for this though. Generally speaking, I don’t enjoy movies that old. It’s something about the style or content. They just generally aren’t dark enough or un-conventional in their story-telling techniques. Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of “classic” films that I love. Casablanca, On the Waterfront, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, or A Streetcar Named Desire. These are all great films that deserve their constant love and adoration. However, for every one of those, there’s a “classic” movie I hate. Citzen Kane, Lawrence of Arabia, Gone With the Wind. I think they’re as over-rated as humanly possible. Well, I think I found a film that falls somewhere inbetween. David Lean’s Summertime isn’t a great classic movie but I also actually still liked it a lot, and it gave me hope that maybe this blog will expose to some more “classics” that I might enjoy.

Summertime tells the story of Jane Hudson (Katherine Hepburn) who is an American tourist spending some time in Venice, Italy. Jane is an aging spinster who is lonely and doesn’t really have anyone in her life. While on her trip, she meets an antiques dealer named Renato (Rossano Brazzi), and they begin a romance. However, conflict arises when Jane learns that Renato is married (although for purposes, separated). The story itself is simple enough and not particularly that interesting, but in what is David Lean’s love letter to the city of Venezia, the beauty of the city combined with the film’s wry humor and the spectacular performances of the leads, the film manages to keep its hooks in you (at least until its extremely rushed ending).

Before this film, I never understood what the hell the big deal was with Katherine Hepburn. My familiarity with her was clips I’d seen from On Golden Pond during old episodes of I Love the 80’s. I just never understood why she was so popular and beloved. I totally get it now. In the role of Jane, she was feisty, witty, intelligent, passionate, and often, hilarious. Her voice sort of irritates the hell out of me and I don’t find her physically attractive in the slightest, but by the end of the film, I just loved Katherine Hepburn. With one performance in one movie that I’m sure isn’t near the top of her best, she won me over. I’m excited to see more. Rossano Brazzi was a gem as well. You can see how he charmed his way into this closed woman’s life. Also in the role of a street urchin who becomes Jane’s guide, Gaetano Autiero, a child, was a riot.

This film’s not great, but it was a cute, romantic love story shot on location in one of the most beautiful cities in the world and it was kept afloat by great performances from its two leads. I want to be in Venice right now, among the beautiful canals and to stare up at San Marco’s Cathedral in wonder. I also want to watch more Katherine Hepburn films as soon as humanly possible and see if she can continue to impress me. She was just a delight.

Final Score: B