Friday, November 25, 2016

South Pacific (1958)

Fox’s ace up its sleeve in the 50s was their license to adapt Rodgers and Hammerstein’s oeuvre to the big screen – previous examples Oklahoma! and The King and I (also in this collection) were smash hits, so it was a no-brainer to launch South Pacific accordingly, and they did so for the Spring of 1958. The film was big, sure, but even bigger was the film’s soundtrack, which stayed at the top of Billboard’s album chart for a then-record 31 weeks. Critics genuflected too, although that year’s Best Picture went to the better-reviewed Gigi.

And me? I’ve never been completely familiar wit the show, despite my great love and admiration for anything R&H. My first indirect exposure came at the ripe old age of 13, when I played Lil’ Jake at a local theater’s presentation of Annie Get Your Gun, and all I heard about durug rehearsals was how high the bar was set by the previous year’s offering – South Pacific. It was hammered into our skulls, by some as a motivating tactic, by others who loved the show and wished a better choice were made than the admittedly stale Annie Get Your Gun. Most of the folk in the latter category were middle-aged men, and, as I’ve later deduced, either WWII veterans or men in their prime during that era, helping to account for their affinity. It could also very well account for the huge popularity of the film – one of the first lightweight films about the war, despite a lengthy battle sequence in the final act.

Set just before the tide turned for the Americans in the PTO during WWII, South Pacific introduces us to the Naval personal currently occupying a small Polynesian island. There’s Luther (Ray Walston), a salty ensign bemoaning the lack of dames at their post, yearning wistfully to steal sway to the idyllic isle “Bali Ha’i,” at the suggestion of zaftig native Bloody Mary. There’s newly-arrived lieutenant Joseph Cable (John Kerr) of the Marines, assigned to the island to undertake a special mission. And then there’s nurse Nellie (Mitzi Gaynor), who’s recently been spending a lotta time at he estate of Emile de Becque, a wealthy planter of whom very little is know, aside from the fact that he left his native France in an awful hurry.

Details emerge about Cable’s big mission – a covert attack on Japanese boats near a strategically located island. It’s risky, though, and the likelihood of success could be elevated were it to involve de Becque, who kniws the area inside-out. When approached, however, he declines to participate, citing his general distrust these days toward the outside world, particularly bullies, such as the type he was force to murder back in Frace, hence his quick departure. Oh, and yes, there’s his love for nurse Nellie, which seems to be going back and forth like a seesaw – the latest breakup seems to be caused by the Frenchman’s admission of his recent widowhood, and two half-Asian children from the ill-fated marriage.

But now, with his love love in shambles, de Becque goes along. Lt. Cable’s a bit down in the mouth recently too; after a spur-of-the-moment romp in Bali Ha’i, he falls in love with a beautiful island girl, who just happens to be Bloody’s daughter, but he stops just short of marriage, leaving the jilted girl to exchange vows with an older man. De Becque and Cable embark on the perilous mission with great success, and word among the wounded is highly complimentary – word that is pickd p by the ear-pricking Nellie, who now preys intently for her beau to stay alive so she can accept his marriage offer. He does (Cable doesn’t) and she does, and they embrace once again, just in time for one last song.

And sing they do, but that’s a good thing, because the music, along with the gorgeous locales, is the best part of South Pacific. (Lush fitfully describes both elements.) I was already familiar with most of the songs, including “Bali Hai,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man,” “There is Nothing Like a Dame,” “Happy Talk” and “I’m In Love With a Wonderful Guy,” but hearing them in contexts adds a greater level of appreciation. Now I can understand the intense, plaintive strains of “Some Enchanted Evening,” particularly as they echo to a heartsick Mitzi Gaynor at the end of Act I. (Yes, the intermission is entirely retained in this edition, entr’acte and all)

And the other surprisingly effective element? Mitzi Gaynor – no question. In addition to her triple-threat talent of acting/dancing/singing (required of all entertainers back then, regardless of medium), she’s engaging on so many levels. She’s both sprite-like and sexy (especially I the hair-washing number), and can run the gamut from serious melodrama to lighthearted fancy. And all the while ya just wanna take her home with you, and remind her that everything will be okay, if if you don’t land that French guy (whom I kinda thought was a drip anyway). Definition of star power, right there in a nutshell.

Flaws? Certainly a few, the most notorious being he use of those color filters, which critics absolutely hated back then. Now, they’re not so bad, given our gradual acceptance of visual manipulations in film, and besides they’re pretty much limited to the film’s first half. But to me, far worse than that is a final battle sequence involving that mission – obviously not in the Broadway version – that was probably thrown in to appeal to male audiences. It was like they were saying, “Here’s your reward, gus, for sitting through all those musical numbers – a good ol’, red-blooded American war scene!” Didn’t need it, and it definitely slowed things down.

So plot-wise, we’re not left with a lot, but it is a musical after all, and at 2 hours, 37 minutes, you get tons of it, and it’s all spaced pretty evenly across. Pay heed also to some good comic relief by one of my favorite character actors, Ray Walston, and soak up the beautiful cinematography, the first in this collection to be presented in Todd-AO (the competitor to Cinemascope). Two other collection firsts: the first opening credits over moving picture (as opposed to title cards), and the first actual closing credits (as opposed to just “The End”), owing to the need to list the entire cast. 

Beautiful, affectionately made, and a product of the sort of talent rarely seen anymore. Go watch, and have a Mai Tai at Bali Ha’i for me. 

Rating:  ****

Monday, November 21, 2016

An Affair To Remember (1957)

Back in 1993, the sleeper hit of the summer was Sleepless in Seattle, a fantastic rom com starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, who would go on to become America’s Sweethearts of the 90s. It was a throwback to the grand old weepers of a generation hence, like An Affair to Remember, and to drive the point home, it even featured references and film clips to that old chestnut. I’d seen parts of it, thought it completely boring and dated, and scoffed at the revitalization the film enjoyed as a result of its inclusion in Sleepless.

Now, having seen it years later for its being a part of the Fox Film Collection, I now have to eat crow. An Affair To Remember is a splendid work, an archetype of its genre, and, for its first hour at least, it’s an almost perfect example of the sort of product Hollywood’s Golden Age was best known for: a witty, tightly wound script, served magnificently by a lush score and set, and the greatest star power the industry has ever known. When they say they don’t make them like this anymore, I have to sigh. It’s no longer a trite, pithy expression – it’s all too true. Too sadly, profoundly true.

Cary Grant is Nickie Ferrante, an Italian, womanizing playboy about to marry an American heiress and thus receive a huge fortune, but on the boat over he meets Terry McKay (Deborah Kerr), a singer, and immediately they hit it off. The gossip-mongering media, of course, has a field day (busybodies were a common trope in the 50s), but the two lovebirds don’t care – they become so smitten that they make a mutual pact to meet at the top of the Empire State Building six months later to marry – enough time to break off their respective engagements, and allow a resultingly penniless Nickie to forge a living.

Nickie turns to painting, his great passion, to make ends meet, while Terry’s eyes tell her fiancĂ© all he needs to know, and he accepts their breakup. But six months later, at the moment of the lovebirds’ long-awaited reunion, Terry gets hit by a car, and is rendered incapacitated, leaving Nickie to wait all night long for his absentee beloved. She refuses to make contact with him until she can walk, occupying herself with a new job as a children’s music teacher. But when they accidentally meet at her apartment, a still confused Nickie guilts her for her rebuff, until he notices her wheelchair. The two repledge their solemn, mutual love, she vowing to walk again as long as he will be by her side. 

An Affair to Remember certainly passes the ultimate romance’s litmus test: do you want to see the two leads end up together? It passes it with flying colors – you want to see Grant and Kerr together so desperately, that if they don’t, you’re inclined to dispel the notion of love once and for all, as if it were a folly as insignificant as Santa Claus. (Nah, strike that. I just saw Miracle on 34th Street.) Ok, perhaps I’m overdramatizing, but I really was worked by the film, hook line and sinker. At least for the film’s first half – the boat half, a setting that always seems to facilitate romance (see a previous Fox entry, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, or any given episode of The Love Boat, one of my favorite 70s shows). And I love the way the chemistry is so relaxed, so casual – these characters are adults, spouting adult dialogue, not like today’s adults, who strain for as many clever, quippy, reference-laden lines they can muster, all in a neurotic frenzy of insecurity, immaturity and overall insufferability.

But, as I alluded to earlier, there’s a problem. After the inevitable separation, and the succeeding trial term, I was getting all set for the grand finale: the reunion at the top of the Empire. They’ve paid their dues, and they’re all set for the Famous Final Scene, closed-lips smooch and all, and then the orchestra swell and end title card.

But then I looked at my DVD time counter. There was still thirty-three minutes left to go.

And that’s when Deborah Kerr gets out of her taxi and gets hit by a car.

Oh, snap!

This, of course, was a plot development symptomatic of those 50s tearjerkers, particularly of the Douglas Sirk ilk: just when you think all is right and well in Romanceville, some eleventh-hour impediment arises to either delay, frustrate or completely obstruct the consummation we assumed would occur. But damnit, why did it have to invade this film, with dapper Grant and elegant Kerr, who were all set to live the rest of their lives in each other’s arms?

Even worse, the delay period after the tragic accident is easily the worst part of the film. We have to suffer through not one but two unbearable children’s musical numbers (she’s now a teacher, remember), and all the while we want her, desperately, to just tell Nickie that’s SHE CAN’T WALK but will GET BETTER and WHY DON’T THEY JUST GET MARRIED IN THE MEANTIME?

Because then they won’t have that achy, unrequited feeling. You know how I said I was manipulated during the first half on the film but didn’t mind? Well, now I’m manipulated in the second half and I do mind.

Yeah, I suppose I should be happy that at least they’re together in the end, under different circumstances, but why couldn’t it have been the way I expected. Perhaps the Rolling Stones were right – “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.”

But I could definitely have done without the kids singing.

Overall, a minor demerit doesn’t detract too much from a rating of: 

                       Rating:  ***1/2

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Love Me Tender (1956)

Elvis Presley did one film for Fox before moving on to other studios, notably Paramount, where he signed a contract and starred in most of his movies. It was his debut – 1956’s Love Me Tender – and it was an auspicious beginning. A commercial and critical success, it eschewed all notions that the King of Rock ‘N Roll was a one-trick pony. The dude could sing, sure, but he could act? The answer – a resounding “yes.”

And in a supporting role, no less, although it is easily the emotionally meatiest in the film. And even more surprising (to me, at least): a Civil War-era Western! That’s right, the greasy-haired, pelvis-shaking 50s icon actually does what he does best in a milieu nearly a hundred years outside his comfort zone. But, despite a couple of up-tempo numbers, it’s not as anachronistic as you think. After all, the title song, “Love Me Tender,” was adapted from a Civil War ballad. But when I stared to watch, with no Elvis for the first twenty minutes and a plot about Confederate soldiers stealing payroll money, I thought I had rented the wrong film.

The soldiers are comprised mainly of the three Reno brothers; they rob a train’s cash load for the Confederate cause, but are completely unaware that the war had just ended. Once they get the news, and after some moral soul-searching, they agree to split up the money evenly. The bros return home to the farmstead where the eldest, Vance (whom everyone thought dead), realizes his sweetheart, Cathy, had just married the youngest, Clint. Awkward!

The tensions continue and Vance realizes he must leave, lest the others catch on to his still strong feelings for Cathy. But the Yanks are hot on their trail and decide to bring the boys in for trial, while sealing off the farm so no money can leave the premises. Vance artfully, and honestly, arranges to return the money, but his ex-cohorts break the brothers free from captivity, and soon grow to doubt Vince’s honest intentions. Even worse, they coerce Clint into believing he’s gonna steal away Cathy, and it all comes to head in a shootout, where Clint gullibly shoots and wounds Vince, instantly regrets it, and is in turn shot and killed by the incoming Yanks. Mother Reno is comforted by Vince, who is now ostensibly allowed to marry Cathy.

All right, an all-too convenient resolution for Vince, but of course, he is the film’s lead. It’s really Presley who takes the greater chance here, playing an unlikeable character in the film’s beginning, when he steals away the hero’s true love, and in the final third, when he avariciously hunts down big brother. Of course, it’s all redeemed in his final act of self-sacrifice, but still, it’s certainly not the easy way out. And the Pelvis handles such a balancing act with great aplomb, being careful not to appear either too saintly or too monstrous. And he even works in four songs to boot!

Is this a great film? No, but it’s certainly a good one. Even if its dialogue is not as crisp as it could be, and its acting, despite Presley’s nuances, suffers from the era’s trademark over-theatrics, the story is pretty solid. After all, they are borrowing from some of the greatest literary archetypes of all time: East of Eden, Othello, The Great Train Robbery… I found myself quite involved in this melodrama, and quite frankly had no idea how it was going to wind up. Hey, and let’s credit some darn fine B&W cinematography while we’re at it, looking good in yet another Cinemascope presentation. (Clearly Fox’s trademark)

Oh, and my starlet lusting for the day – Debra Paget, who plays Cathy. Quite the looker, I gotta say, and Elvis himself agreed: he proposed to her, but she had already given her heart to… Howard Hughes (WTF?). But so far in this collection no one could sport a three-buttoned open blouse like she. Her other big hit: a little film called The Ten Commandments. Maybe we’ll see her in that when I do the Paramount collection.

On balance, fun, riveting, you’ll laugh, you’ll cry. Aw, hell, you’ll watch.

                               Rating:  ***

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The King and I (1956)

So here we go: The King and I. God, where do I even begin?

Well, I guess a good place to start would be around 32 years ago – the fall of 1985. I had just been granted parole from an all-boys preparatory high school, rigidly focused on athletics and academics, and was about to begin my sophomore year at Sacred Heart, a co-ed high school more arts and drama-driven. The director of that year’s school musical was a good friend of mine, and he had saved me a part. The part – Prince Chululongkorn, and the musical – The King and I. 

It was my third Rodgers and Hammerstein show, after having done Oklahoma! and The Sound of Music at a local community theater, and in many ways was the most challenging. Everyone except Anna and Louis had to wear that skin-bronzing makeup, and don some pretty elaborate costumes, stitched together with all the time-consuming labor our art department could manage (and then some). And let’s not mention the scenery and set design, the dancing, the Siamese accents (some were better than others) and some pretty hefty acting chores, heaped primarily on the shoulders of the two leads. And ours were pretty damned good.

But we had a pretty great time. And now, looking back on my experience after viewing the film version (which I hadn’t seen since that time), I can now declare a greater appreciation for the work. Sure, I loved the music, liked the story, but now I have an increased awareness of its themes – which now, for better or worse, are timelier than ever. And knowing more about history than I did during my callow teen years has enabled me to view the story more contextually, and thus more profoundly. In short, it’s a great film, if only for the reason that a great film evolves, and changes, just as its audience does.

Set in 1862, The King and I loosely adapts the true story of Englishwoman Anna Leonowens, who arrives at Siam to teach the children of the country’s king (Yul Brynner), a leader who realizes the need for greater civility in an era of ever-increasing Westernization. From the very start the relation is dicey: Anna resents her new boss’s oppression of women, tolerance of slavery, and failure to live up to his promise of providing her a suitable residence for her, while he is resistant to her lack of obedience and traditional respect for his title. Nevertheless, he is pleased with her affinity for the children, and realizes he needs her help now more than ever.

But elements arise to threaten the delicate balance of their already strained union. A “gift” from Burma arrives in the form of a new wife for the king, a scared young girl named Tuptim, torn from the arms of the man she loves, her escort to this new land. Kralahome, the king’s right hand man, is skeptical of Anna’s presence, fearing her influence will split and confuse the monarch with needless new ideas. Only Lady Thiang, the king’s head wife, seems to be the sole source of succor, helping Anna by getting her to understand that the king does indeed need her help, but is limited by his title in demonstrating it

Things come to a head at the arrival of the ambassador from Britain, who wants to determine the king’s level of barbarity in deciding whether or not to take over his country as a protectorate. Things go well, despite Tuptim’s Hamlet-esque presentation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a protest against the king’s enslavement of her, as well as a romantic overture by the ambassador’s escort and Anna’s old flame, Sir Edward. But the new world clashing with the old gets to be too much for the king, and his frustratingly platonic affections for Anna don’t help much either. He dies, but is pleased by Anna’s last-minute change of mind to stay in Siam as a teacher, and the notion that his country will now be in good hands under his open-mined, inquisitive successor, Prince Chululongkorn. 

The King and I, despite lacking traditional romantic elements, fits the Rodgers and Hammerstein formula almost perfectly – a man and a woman, coming from two totally different worlds, meet, fight, sing and fall in love. But ultimately, those worlds come back to threaten their idyllic romance, which either dissolves or is strengthened by the trial. Both Brynner and Ker are positively spellbinding in their role, and I was surprised to remember just how much talking is going on here. Sure, there are musical numbers aplenty, but they’re far less frequent than scenes of the two stats simply verbalizing. That, too, is a R&H hallmark, and perhaps that’s why their shows are so immortal.

Also immortal – the themes, particularly as the necessity for globalization is more pressing than ever before. With NATO, SEATO, the UN, and trade orgs like NAFTA and TPP, alliances are a way of life, and any nation opting for an isolationist policy is generally classified as backward. And the king’s oppression of women? Look no further than the current GOP candidate, or even he GOP mantra for that matter. Sex slavery and polygamy is alive and well in much of the world, and so is nativism here in America. So the king, looking downright primal in 1862, might just fit in pretty well now in 2016.

I daresay the only element that might date the picture just a bit is its depiction of Asians (back then: Orientals). You can hardly fault the film for that; in he 50s, Eastern racial stereotypes was the norm in the media, and actually King was far more progressive than others of its kind. Still, it’s hard to imagine a Hispanic actress like Rita Moreno getting cast as an Asian nowadays (although between her youth and makeup, she’s hardly recognizable), and even a Swiss/German/Russian like Brynner might have a hard time getting cast in what would become his signature role.

But those are quibbles – this is a musical masterpiece. A film for the ages, and for all ages (let’s not let the American movie musical fade into obscurity). If you haven’t already, see it. It truly is “Something Wonderful.” 

                         Rating:  **** 

P.S: Oh, and BTW, this film is the first in the collection to feature the now always-used extended Fox fanfare. At the time, they needed it to be longer to cover the “Filmed in CinemaScope” notification.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The Seven Year Itch (1955)

So the Fox Collection decided to add this title when they already have a Marilyn Monroe selection, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and you probably can’t help but wonder why (like me). Well, it has some degree of artistic merit, being a talky comedy directed by none other than Billy Wilder. And the film’s title added a commonly used phrase to the world of psychology, not to mention marriage counseling. And then there’s the matter of a brief scene, occurring about ¾ of the way through, in which Monroe steps over a subway grate and lets the hot air billow up her white dress as she futilely tries to hold it down. Oh, right… that. The defense rests.

Actually, that scene isn’t at all the way we remember it (it’s not shot wide, so that full, iconic image isn’t really in the film), and, despite a few scenes at an office and some outside fantasy sequences, it’s really just  a filmed play, set almost entirely inside the NY apartment of Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell). Not necessarily a bad thing, though; the play was written by George Axelrod and is chock full of witty banter, running one-liners, and some surprisingly poignant observations about the male libido and the challenges of a monogamous relationship.

But Richard is anything but the stereotypical, libidinous male. In fact, he’s a mess of insecurities, exacerbated by a wildly active imagination that borders on extreme paranoia. When his wife and son lave NYC for the summer to go to camp, he considers sowing a few wild oats – after all, summer is a long time. But then, his conscience takes over, and he trades in his martinis and cigarettes for visits to the vegetarian restaurant and 9:30 bedtimes.

All that changes when he lays eyes on the “Girl” upstairs, a temp tenant who couldn’t be nicer – and that’s the problem. When she accidentally knocks a tomato plant onto his porch, he uses the happy accident as an entre for conversation, a drink and perhaps, something else? The night wears on, with lots of talking and soul-bearing, until Richard propositions her on a piano bench. She innocently brushes it off, but he is wracked with guilt, even confessing his near-sin to a psychiatrist. But he imagines the Mrs, doing precisely he same thing up in Maine, and so he invites the Girl out to the movies – more guilt, more paranoia. By now he is so torn apart that he spends the night taping up a paddle to his son, practically spilling out all his secrets to his wife’s imagined lover, and finally confiding to the Girl that he loves his betrothed wholly and completely, and will get on the next bus north to be with her immediately.

Of course, it was a no-brainer to cast Monroe in the key part of “The Girl,” continuing her run of dumb-blonde roles that would continue for the duration of her career. But as good as she is, Itch is really Richard’s story – at times it’s practically a one-man show – as we listen to his thoughts, memories and interior monologues, and laugh in recognition of his manic neuroses. Tom Ewell reprises his role from the Broadway run, and he is pitch perfect. As a non-movie star he brings credibility to the role; his everyman looks and demeanor function as a fitting entry point for the (male) audience, but he still manages to score empathy and compassion just as effectively as any seasoned star.

And then there’s director Billy Wilder, who surely deserves credit for keeping the proceedings light and bouncy, despite the potentially dark topic matter. But the director was not entirely satisfied with the angle. As you figured out from the synopsis, Richard does not have an affair, a necessary outcome given the Hays Code constraints which were in full effect in 1955. Wilder, in a 70s interview, stated that such censorship turned the film “superficial,” essentially emasculating and sapping it of any potential import.

I’m not so sure. Sure, actually boinked Bo Derek in 10, but that film was more of a serio-comedy. Generally speaking, successfully infidelity tends to be disastrous for light fare, as it was for The Woman In Red and Blame It On Rio. But the bumbling attempts at it tend to be far funnier, as it was in one of my favorite Neil Simon films, Last of the Red Hot Lovers, a film that actually improves upon Itch’s idea simply by multiplying it threefold, thereby reducing the claustrophobia just a bit.

Mentioning Simon, I can discern how much of this must have been a heavy influence on the playwright’s early works. Itch makes great use of the recurring comedic motif (“Hair was longer then,” “Wish I was dead”), which would become a Wilder staple, particularly in The Apartment, and it explores the fundamental differences in the relationship needs between men and women, something Simon does, can only do, through comedy. Side splitting, raucous comedy.

On balance, entertaining and often thoughtful. Come for Marilyn, stay for Ewell. And laugh regardless.

                       Rating:  ***1/2


[Oh, and there are also a few funny inside jokes, such as Mrs. Sherman’s claim that her husband dreams in Cinemascope (what the film was shot in), a scene which parodies the beach lovemaking in From Here to Eternity (probably the first), and the line that the Girl in the shower looks like Marilyn Monroe. Oh, no they didn’t!]

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