Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986)

“I ate garbage for dinner last night, Barbara — and I liked it!”

Down and Out in Beverly Hills Poster

Synopsis:
A suicidal homeless man (Nick Nolte) befriends a wealthy hanger manufacturer (Richard Dreyfuss) and eventually becomes a part of his Beverly Hills household, consisting of his neurotic wife (Bette Midler), his cross-dressing son (Evan Richards), his eating-challenged daughter (Tracy Nelson), and his sexy maid (Elizabeth Pena).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary writes, Paul Mazursky’s “remake of Jean Renoir’s 1932 classic Boudu Saved From Drowning” (based on René Fauchois‘ 1919 play) has been updated, transplanted, and “injected [with] many ingredients”, including “the nice but screwy family from My Man Godfrey“. He argues that while “the acting by Nolte, Dreyfuss, and Midler is the picture’s main plus”, the “humor is so erratic that Mazursky repeatedly cuts to dog reaction shots to get easy laughs”. He adds that while “the entire family is obnoxious at the beginning”, “Mazursky obviously likes them and simply assumes that we’ll soon share his warm feelings just because they grow more tolerant of each other and Nolte”. Indeed, the film’s narrative trajectory depends upon each member of Dreyfuss’s household becoming humanized and/or liberated due to Nolte’s influence — and the running message seems to be that a caring outside perspective is often enough to function as a catalyst for personal growth and increased self-confidence.

I agree with Peary that the film’s humor is often overly broad (those dog shots definitely feel gratuitous and repetitive) — but overall I find this to be a rare example of a (mostly) successful updated remake. There are quite a few scenes that ring true, and seem to respectfully highlight important nuances in class relations. In one scene, for instance, a cleaned-up Nolte is having lunch with Dreyfuss at a swanky Beverly Hills restaurant and notices his homeless buddy Al (Felton Perry) walking by. Perry and Nolte are thrilled to see each other, and Perry comes inside to join them — but, to Dreyfuss’s astonishment, he politely refuses an offer of lunch (though he does steal bread rolls from various tables on his way out). Dignity of a sort is maintained, with Nolte openly acknowledging his humble origins (rather than presenting a new facade of wealth), and Perry demonstrating self-sufficiency in the face of charity.

Indeed, part of what makes Nolte’s character so oddly appealing is his refusal to “take advantage” of anything offered to him: he accepts Dreyfuss’s offer of food, clothing, and shelter, but it’s understood that he’ll leave whenever he pleases, and is unwilling to become the object of anyone’s pity or derision. He’s a refreshingly unique protagonist, and makes the film worth a one-time look. (I’ll have to rewatch Boudu… soon to make more detailed comparisons between the two.)

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Nick Nolte as Jerry
    Down and Out in Beverly Hills Nolte
  • Good use of The Talking Heads’ “Once in the Lifetime” to open and close the film

Must See?
Yes, as an enjoyable updated adaptation of a classic story.

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Cocoon (1985)

“Men should be explorers, no matter how old they are.”

Cocoon Poster

Synopsis:
A man (Brian Dennehy) and his companions (including Tahnee Welch and Tyrone Power Jr.) charter a boat run by a down-on-his luck captain (Steve Guttenberg), intending to rescue alien-filled cocoons from the ocean floor and place them in the pool of a mansion near a retirement home. When a group of elderly friends (Hume Cronyn, Don Ameche, and Wilfred Brimley) go swimming in the pool, they find themselves mysteriously rejuvenated and healthy, and invite their partners (Jessica Tandy, Gwen Verdon, and Maureen Stapleton) to join them — but will they be able to keep their “fountain of youth” a secret from others?

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “popular sci-fi fantasy” about “four friendly aliens who have come to earth to take back members of a crew that was left behind centuries before” is “well-intentioned and has an undeniable sweetness”, but feels “endless and disjointed”. He points out how problematic it is that “the original premise about rescuing the alien crew is… exchanged for [a] storyline in which old people go off with the aliens”, given that “we’re never convinced that these old people will be better off going out into space”. Indeed, while we come to care at least somewhat for the core group of elderly characters — who respectfully ask permission to share the life force generated in the pool — the remaining old-age home residents (who we know almost nothing about) end up acting like selfish “jerks” with “a total lack of compassion”. Ultimately, Peary argues that this film is “not bad, but overrated and filled with Spielberg cliches” — though it was actually directed by Ron Howard after his blockbuster success with Splash (1984).

I agree with Peary’s review. It’s troublesome that the script fails to sufficiently develop any of the lead elderly characters: we simply learn that Cronyn has cheated on his wife (Tandy) for years, a trait which becomes even more pronounced once he’s given renewed vim and vigor and is freed from cancer; that Ameche finally feels confident dating a sexy dance instructor (Verdon); and that Brimley — shown several times fishing with his doting grandson (Barret Oliver) — will regain his failing eyesight and be able to drive again (!). We also discover that Guttenberg, lo and behold, will fall for the sexy female alien (Tahnee Welch — Raquel Welch’s daughter, who “looks like a young Ali McGraw with short hair) and will get to experience alien sex — imagine a special-effects laden version of Woody Allen’s Orgasmatron in Sleeper (1973), taking place in a pool. But, as Peary notes, all of this simply diverts our attention away from the much more intriguing story of the aliens’ rescue mission; their lives and home context are glossed over quickly, with two of the aliens never even saying a word.

Speaking of the aliens, Dennehy gives the best performance in the film as a potentially formidable presence, bulky and domineering yet ultimately an intriguing and kind leader. Of the elderly folks, Cronyn’s performance as a man given a sudden second chance at life is the most nuanced (though we dislike him for fooling around on Tandy). Ameche won a Best Supporting Actor award, but I’m not exactly sure why he would be considered a better candidate for this than Cronyn. [On a side note, Ameche gives a wonderful lead performance as "Gino" in David Mamet's Things Change (1988) -- this is the film his fans should watch if they'd really like to see him in a worthy swan song role.] Ultimately, as Peary points out, “it’s great seeing so many fine veteran actors work together, all in good parts”, and “some of their scenes are perceptive and heart-warming” — but the film itself is a minor disappointment.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Brian Dennehy as Walter
    Cocoon Dennehy
  • Hume Cronyn as Joe
    Cocoon Cronyn

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a one-time look.

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Gates of Heaven (1978)

“There’s your dog; your dog’s dead. But where’s the thing that made it move? It had to be something, didn’t it?”

Gates of Heaven Poster

Synopsis:
Pet cemetery owners in California discuss their motivations and business protocols.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that this “intentionally bland” debut documentary by filmmaker Errol Morris “isn’t as bizarre as one would guess from its cult reputation”, or “as revelatory as one would expect”. He describes Morris’s stylistic use “of a stationary camera” and “medium shots of his seated subjects, who are positioned so precisely within the frame that they might as well be lamps”, and he points out that they “deliver lengthy monologues about animals, about life” instead of responding to interview questions. He argues (I disagree) that since the “real people” we see here are “the kind you meet every day, what they say sounds familiar”, so “you don’t react to them in one way or another” — and “if you laugh, it’s at the pathetic human condition”. Peary’s clearly not a big fan of this flick, though he does concede that “the montage in which we see tombstones which have animal photos and owners’ dedications comes across not as either stupid or outrageous… but as oddly touching”.

I find Gates of Heaven more inherently intriguing than Peary — though I am troubled by the fact that Morris seems to be presenting his participants in the quirkiest possible light, strategically editing and interweaving their interview clips so that they all come across as either deluded, arrogant, or ridiculous. It’s no surprise that the main cemetery on display, Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park in Napa Valley, makes no mention whatsoever of the documentary on its website. One scene in particular — in which Bubbling Well’s founder fawns over a photo of a couple’s unusual-looking dog (“This is a most unusual, most unusual [dog] — I just can say I’ve never seen anything like it…”) — stands out as especially mean-spirited on Morris’s part.

Knowing the unique direction Morris would eventually take with his documentaries (i.e., his use of an “Interrotron” machine, allowing his subjects to look directly at him while speaking to the camera), this early film feels quaint in comparison. Yet Morris’s characteristically droll, highly philosophical approach to his material is in clear evidence: as Roger Ebert noted in his overview of the title on his “Top 10 Favorite Films” list, “Morris is not concerned with his apparent subject. He has made a film about life and death, pride and shame, deception and betrayal, and the stubborn quirkiness of human nature.” Whether one agrees with Peary’s more cynical perspective, or Ebert’s loftier one, this cult favorite should be seen at least once, simply for its notoriety.

Note: It’s interesting that Peary fails to mention that this film was the basis for Les Blank’s short documentary entitled “Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe”; click here to read more about the bet that led to this event, as well as Morris’s eclectic background in general.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A revealing, often unintentionally (?) humorous peek inside a niche industry
    Gates of Heaven Still
    Gates of Heaven Still2

Must See?
Yes, as a cult documentary with a notorious production bet attached to it.

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Horse’s Mouth, The (1958)

“I’ll tell you something, straight from the horse’s mouth: you have to know when you succeed and when you fail, and why. Know thyself, in fact. In short, you have to think.”

Horse's Mouth Poster

Synopsis:
An irascible painter (Alec Guinness) with an aging patron (Ernest Thesiger) elicits help from his cranky girlfriend (Kay Walsh) in trying to secure a painting he gave to his wily ex-wife (Renee Houston). Meanwhile, accompanied by an eager groupie (Mike Morgan), Guinness remains continually on the prowl for a location to paint his next epic masterpiece.

Genres:

Review:
Peary doesn’t review this adaptation of Joyce Cary’s 1944 novel in his GFTFF, but he discusses it at length in Alternate Oscars, where he names Alec Guinness Best Actor of the Year for his performance as the iconoclastic painter Gulley Jimson. He asserts that “Guinness gives one of the best, if not the best, sketches of an artist (the suffering, the creative process of any kind) in all of cinema” — portraying a man who “constantly revives himself through his art”, which is “what cheers him, keeps him alive, motivates him to attempt absurd endeavors”. Peary provides a detailed description of all the ways in which Guinness’s Jimson is unappealing: he “has a distinctly dry, unpleasant voice, coughs incessantly and annoyingly”, and is “self-destructive and self-pitying”, in addition to being “usually grouchy” and tolerant only of “self-criticism of his work”. Yet it’s the fact that “he’ll try almost anything to keep painting” that puts Guinness “at his most hilarious: lying, flirting, flattering amateurs about their artistic gifts, audaciously confiscating the rich vacationers’ apartment, charging art students to paint his artistic vision on a wall”.

Indeed, it’s to Guinness’ enormous credit that we find his deceitful character so oddly “appealing” — and even charming (almost!) in his single-minded pursuit of his craft. As Peary argues, “We’d almost think Gulley insane if it weren’t for several moments when he talks about art and what it means to him”, at which point his “character is suddenly clearheaded, wise, inspired and inspiring”, evincing “an intellectual approach to his art” that leads to numerous expressive quotes — as when he enjoins Walsh to “feel the picture with your eyes… the lights and the shades, the cool and the warm”. As Peary points out, however, this film is ultimately concerned with demonstrating how “no one but another great artist could grasp how [Jimson] feels, what he sees, or what he paints” — and thus, “he must remain alone and isolated, an irritant to society, an idol to aspiring young artists, an outsider, a visionary with a great new, but probably impossible, idea in his head”.

Peary’s articulate review of Guinness’s “marvelous” performance does justice to the film’s unique portrait of an artist who may be permanently unhinged, but whose single-minded pursuit of creative expression is truly a feat to behold. We see the humor in Guinness’s actions even as we cringe at his overtly critical manipulation of others, given that we can sense what a vital role he plays in “an England that was changing socially and politically”. After all, he does possess legions of adoring fans — not just bright-eyed young aspiring artists and critics (including the hilariously obsequious tag-along Morgan), but high-society admirers such as Lady Beeder (Veronica Turleigh), who seems not-at-all perturbed by Guinness’s destruction of her manor while she’s gone on vacation, though her husband (Robert Coote) is a bit less tolerant.

While Guinness’s performance clearly dominates the proceedings, equally impressive is Kay Walsh — perhaps best known by film fanatics as “Nancy” in David Lean’s Oliver Twist (1948) — as his reluctantly loyal on-and-off-again girlfriend. She epitomizes our collectively begrudging support of artists in general: they may be intolerably narcissistic and infuriating, but we need them to push the limits of our creative vision, and Walsh senses this on some level; meanwhile, her level-headed rationality is a crucial counterweight to Guinness’s flighty temperament (what would he do without her?). She’s given plenty of meaty lines (courtesy of the fine script, by Guinness himself), and the entire proceedings are filmed in wonderfully expressive hues by director Ronald Neame and cinematographer Arthur Ibbetson. The Horse’s Mouth isn’t always easy to watch — Guinness’s Gulley Jimson is an undeniably hard pill to swallow — but it should be seen at least once by all film fanatics.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Alec Guinness as Gulley Jimson
    Horse's Mouth Guinness
  • Kay Walsh as “Cokey”
    Horse's Mouth Walsh
  • Fine sets
    Horse's Mouth Sets
    Horse's Mouth Sets2
  • Arthur Ibbetson’s cinematography
    Horse's Mouth Cinematography
  • Guinness’s screenplay and dialogue (courtesy of Cary’s novel)

    Guinness: “Not what I meant; not the vision I had. Why doesn’t it fit — like it does in the mind?”

    Walsh: “I’ve got things to be thankful for, haven’t I? Here I’ve come in my life, face like an accident, kicked all around the place by my auntie and uncle when I was a girl — but I’ve got both legs the same length and I don’t squint! It’s a sort of miracle. That’s something to be grateful for, isn’t it?”

  • Kenneth V. Jones’ score (heavily inspired by Prokofiev)

Must See?
Yes, as an unusual classic and fine vehicle for Guinness. Listed as a film with Historical Importance, a Personal Favorite, and a Cult Movie in the back of Peary’s book.

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Splash (1984)

“All my life I’ve been waiting for someone — and when I find her, she’s a fish.”

Splash Poster

Synopsis:
A lonely produce vendor (Tom Hanks) with an overbearing brother (John Candy) finally meets the love of his life (Darryl Hannah), not realizing she’s a mermaid being relentlessly pursued by a determined scientist (Eugene Levy).

Genres:

Review:
I’ve now seen three of the four “mermaid films”* listed in Peary’s GFTFFMr. Peabody and the Mermaid (1948), The Mermaids of Tiburon (1962), and this blockbuster romantic fantasy, directed by Ron Howard — and have come to the conclusion that this limited “subgenre” is almost exclusively concerned with fulfilling male fantasies. In each film listed above, mermaids function primarily as exotically alluring sexual creatures who demand little of their partner; in Splash, the modern “twist” is that Madison (Hannah) is apparently bright enough to teach herself English after just a few short hours of watching television, but this is the extent of our understanding of who she is or what she wants out of life, other than to be a “perfect” (if quirky) companion for Hanks. [Disney's 1989 animated version of The Little Mermaid raised the bar for mermaid flicks in terms of quality and creativity, but the storyline was still primarily centered on a mermaid desperately in love with a human male, struggling to choose between two worlds.] Hannah is appealingly natural in a tricky role (she’s well-cast), but Hanks’ character is a bit of a dullard, and his loud-mouthed brother (Candy) couldn’t be more obnoxious — I’m flummoxed by the consistently positive reviews he’s received for his role here.

Splash‘s script (co-written by four males) is, despite its Oscar-nominated status, both lazy and unsatisfying: What kind of world does Hannah come from? Why is she hanging around Cape Cod? Who are her family members, and why is Levy solely interested in capturing Hannah? Other logistical concerns abound as well — i.e., why Hannah has just six days to live as a human before deciding permanently between worlds, or why water instantly transforms her back into mermaid form — though these would feel less important if the film itself were more satisfying. The best scenes are those filmed underwater, but they’re too few in number, and fail to open up our understanding of Hannah’s normal existence. Meanwhile, countless lines and scenes are either juvenile (i.e., the running “joke” that Candy likes to drop things on the ground in order to look up women’s skirts) or offensive (a saleswoman helping Hannah casually remarks, “My daughter, on the other hand, is lucky — she’s anorexic.”). Feel free to skip this one unless you’re curious to check it out for its cult appeal.

* The fourth title is Night Tide (1961), which I haven’t yet seen, but I’ll report back…

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Darryl Hannah as Madison
    Splash Hannah
  • Effective costume design/special effects
    Splash Special Effects

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a one-time look simply for its cultural relevancy. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Fabulous World of Jules Verne, The (1958)

“The heart is always full of desire to fly sky-high.”

Fabulous World Jules Verne Poster

Synopsis:
A world-renowned scientist (Arnost Navratil) and his assistant (Lubor Tokos) are kidnapped by a band of marauding pirates in a submarine and taken to an underwater kingdom run by Count Artigas (Miroslav Holub), who hopes Navratil will unwittingly help him perfect an atomic weapon of mass destruction.

Genres:

I’d like to begin this review by saying hello to my fellow CMBA bloggers who may be stopping by for the first time. I’m publishing this post as part of the Classic Movie Bloggers Association “Fabulous Films of the Fifties” blogathon (my first ever!) and am honored to participate. If you’re curious to read a bit more about this site in general, please click here.

If you’d like to leave a comment — and I’d love to hear from you! — please send me an email at filmfanatic.org@gmail.com and I’ll sign you up as a user.

Now — on to the review!

Review:
Numerous novels and stories by science fiction author Jules Verne have been adapted for the big screen over the years — indeed, an entire book (Thomas Renzi’s Jules Verne on Film, 1998) has been written on the topic — but it’s safe to say that none begins to approach the visual innovation of this animated feature by Czechoslovakian director Karel Zeman. Based on a relatively obscure Verne novel entitled Facing the Flag (1896), it tells the simple tale of a brilliant but naive scientist (Navratil) who’s been kidnapped for nefarious purposes, and his assistant’s (Tokos’) attempts to alert the world above-sea that destructive havoc is about to be wrought. Romantic interest appears briefly in the form of a beautiful young woman (Jana Zatloukalova) who’s escaped from a ship destroyed by the pirates’ submarine, but she and all other characters are ultimately rather thinly delineated.

Thankfully, it’s not the screenplay one is concerned with when watching this film — it’s the stunning visuals, through and through. Intended to pay homage to the original lithographic illustrations in the 54 novels that comprise Verne’s collective Voyages Extraordinaires, Zeman’s steampunk sets and animation style suit the subject matter and time period perfectly. Each frame — as intended by Zeman — looks as though it belongs in one of Verne’s books, with the added bonus of live actors bringing the images to life. For an overview of the dizzying combination of animation techniques being employed, I humbly refer to a recent (2010) article by Alex Barrett in Experimental Conversations, cited in Wikipedia’s entry on the movie:

“… [The] film combines all manner of tricks and effects — double exposures, painted animation, cut-out animation, stop-motion animation, puppets, miniatures, models, stylised matte-paintings, and who knows what else — with its live-action footage to create a seamless blend of startling, crisp, black-and-white material. The process was dubbed ‘Mystimation’ [for the later US release], a name which seems perfectly apt for something which really does need to be seen to be believed.”

Other than this title, Zeman’s best-known film is The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (1961), a wonderfully fantastical adventure tale possessing a more complex storyline, heightened surreality, and a differently distinctive animation style; it’s a personal favorite, and one I would likely return to more easily than …Jules Verne. With that said, this earlier outing — which remains Zeman’s most popular title — is far too clever, impressive, and visually innovative to ignore. It’s won numerous awards, was voted in 2010 as the most successful Czech film to date, and is indisputably worth a look by all film fanatics.

Note: As pointed out earlier, Zeman’s animation style is ultimately best understood by actually seeing it in action. Click here to watch a ~3 minute video (entitled “Why Zeman Made the Film”) which includes both short clips and an illuminating interview with Zeman’s daughter. Or, check out the overwrought American trailer here.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments (click on thumbnails for bigger images):

  • Marvelously creative animation (often combined with live action)
    FWJV Animation1
    FWJV Animation2
    FWJV Animation3
    FWJV Animation4
  • Innovative Victorian-era sets
    FWJV Sets1
    FWJV Sets2
    FWJV Sets3
  • Zdenek Liska’s harpsichord-infused score

Must See?
Yes, as a most unusual animated classic and foreign gem.

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Imitation of Life (1959)

“How do you explain to your child she was born to be hurt?”

Imitation of Life Poster

Synopsis:
An African-American mother (Juanita Moore) with a light-skinned daughter named Sarah Jane (Karen Dicker) begins living with and working for an aspiring actress (Lana Turner) and her daughter Susie (Terry Burnham). As Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) grows older, she becomes increasingly ashamed of her dark-skinned mother and hopes to “pass” as white; meanwhile, teenage Susie (Sandra Dee) — whose self-absorbed mom has become a famous actress — finds herself attracted to Turner’s on-and-off-again lover (John Gavin).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that while “many Douglas Sirk fans consider [this] last film [in his oeuvre] to be a masterpiece”, he considers it simply “impeccably made Hollywood trash — a watchable, laughable, lamentable soap opera/’women’s picture’/’problem picture’ that has women who’ll sacrifice all for their children but aren’t particularly good mothers (a soap tradition).” He writes that “the plot [only] superficially resembles John Stahl’s 1934 film, also adapted from Fannie Hurst’s novel” about widows who are both best friends and employee/employer. Peary’s scathing assessment of the racial politics in Sirk’s film are spot-on — he writes that “the script is… infuriating because when Turner, Gavin, and Dee are nice to Moore and Kohner or act without prejudice, white audiences are expected, in a self-congratulatory gesture, to weep about the white characters’ nobility”. He points out that “the most honest scene” — a lurid, distressing bit of melodramatic violence — “has white Troy Donahue brutally beating date Kohner, who he has learned is black”.

Peary’s extensive analysis of Kohner’s self-hatred as a young black woman is both no-holds-barred and astute. He writes that “Kohner is made out to be thoroughly insensitive when in fact her choice to pass for white has to do with her rejecting the demeaning black world that is presented to her… When Turner chastises Kohner for insinuating she’s been treated differently at home, Kohner acquiesces that Turner and Dee never showed prejudice — but the script should have had her attack Turner for treating Moore as her servant.” He points out that while “Moore is made into Kohner’s whipping post… that might [have been] different if she had suggested to her daughter not to go to a black teachers’ college but to break down some racial barriers, be defiant, and improve the lot of her race rather than to be satisfied with the hand dealt with her”. Frustratingly, although “Moore may be the nicest woman in the world (which is why Kohner can’t help loving her)… she makes no attempt to teach Kohner pride in being black”.

Oscar-nominated Moore gives a fine performance, but her self-sacrificing character is almost too much to bear — especially as the film nears its infamously maudlin ending. The same could be said about Oscar-nominated Kohner (though for different reasons): while her counterpoint in the original film (Fredi Washington) comes across as an appropriately tragic representation of racial self-loathing, Kohner’s characterization as Peola (as indicated in Peary’s assessment above) simply makes one want to slap her for her insolence; something clearly got lost in translation. Speaking of intentions, the film’s most startling and revealing line — Turner stating to an increasingly ill Moore, “It never occurred to me that you had any friends” (!!) — could easily have helped the movie segue into an absorbing drama about a deluded white woman recognizing her tendencies towards racial superiority, and working to rectify this paradigm. Alas, Sirk had other intentions for his melodrama: ultimately, it’s the “Ross Hunter gloss and glitter, fantasy lighting, and perfectly designed sets” — along with an impeccably coiffed Lana Turner, hunky John Gavin, and perky Sandra Dee — that are meant to draw one in, not a tale of authentic personal redemption.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Ross Hunter’s typically slick set designs
    Imitation of Life Sets

Must See?
Yes, once, simply for its notoriety. But please note that the original is far superior, and be sure to see that one, too.

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Imitation of Life (1934)

“I wanna be white — like I look!”

Imitation of Life Postser

Synopsis:
An industrious widow (Claudette Colbert) with a young daughter (Juanita Quigley and Marilyn Knowlden) befriends and hires an out-of-work African American widow (Louise Beavers) with a daughter of her own, light-skinned Peola (Sebie Hendricks). When Colbert turns Beavers’ special waffle recipe into a thriving business, they experience a life of wealth and comfort, though Beavers remains Colbert’s servant and only receives a small portion of the profits. As Peola (Fredi Washington) grows older, she becomes increasingly ashamed of her racial status, and tries to pass as white; meanwhile, Colbert’s teenage daughter (Rochelle Hudson) falls for Colbert’s new boyfriend (Warren Williams), causing additional tensions in the family.

Genres:

Review:
Although Douglas Sirk’s overblown 1959 remake (starring Lana Turner) is much better known, this original, more faithful adaptation of Fannie Hurst’s classic women’s weepie remains the superior version, telling a distressing parable of how racial prejudice — both externally and internally manifested — can destroy lives. Beavers (giving a fine, sensitive performance) represents passive acceptance of racial expectations: it’s clear she wouldn’t even consider asking for more than a 20% share in the business product she created, or shifting away from her “duties” as Colbert’s caretaker despite her new (relative) wealth. Meanwhile, Washington — a mulatto actress and activist who deserves to be better known, and clearly should have had a bigger career in Hollywood — is fantastic in an undeniably challenging role, generating such authentic pathos that we can’t help empathizing with her even while hating the pain she’s causing her mother.

It’s interesting (but not surprising) to note that both liberals and conservatives were distressed by this (relatively) progressive movie, which is bold in its presentation of themes and concerns that simply weren’t tackled in mainstream Hollywood at the time. Knowing that white women were subsequently cast in comparable “Peola”-like roles — i.e., Ava Gardner in Show Boat, Jeanne Crain in Pinky, and Susan Kohner in the film’s remake — makes one especially appreciative of this earlier film’s attempt towards authenticity in that regard. According to Wikipedia, “In 2005, Imitation of Life was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry” and “was named by Time in 2007 as one of ‘The 25 Most Important Films on Race’” — both designations that make complete sense.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fredi Washington as Peola
    Imitation of Life Washington
  • Louise Beavers as Delilah
    Imitation of Life Beavers
  • A refreshing depiction of inter-racial friendship and social dynamics
    Imitation of Life Friendship
    Imitation of Life Staircase

Must See?
Yes, for its historical relevance and fine supporting performances. Listed as a Personal Recommendation and a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

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In a Lonely Place (1950)

“I didn’t say I was a gentleman; I said I was tired.”

In a Lonely Place Poster

Synopsis:
A screenwriter (Humphrey Bogart) with a pugilistic bent becomes the primary suspect when a hatcheck girl (Martha Stewart) dies after spending a platonic evening at his house. The loyalty and love of a new neighbor (Gloria Grahame) gives Bogart renewed energy and hope — but as Grahame sees increasing evidence of his violent nature, she, too, begins to question his innocence.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary writes, “Nicholas Ray made several films about decent men who couldn’t control violent tempers”, including this “onetime ‘sleeper’” (based on a novel by Dorothy B. Hughes) that “has come to be regarded as one of Bogart’s classics”. The “terrific, unusual script” (by Andrew Solt and Edmund H. North) “includes sharp dialogue” and “some peculiar secondary characters” — including Stewart, who is perfectly cast as an ill-fated young lover of melodramatic fiction. But it’s the primary players here who really hold our attention: Bogart’s “Dixon Steele” (what a name!) — an “ex-GI who’s been trying to make a comeback since the war ended”, and whose “frustrations have manifested” in both “cynical remarks about the movie industry” and repeated “violent tantrums” — is presented as an admirably complex protagonist. Meanwhile, sexy Grahame (who in real life “was about to get her divorce from Ray”) transcends her initial characterization as a presumed-femme fatale to emerge as a loving and supportive romantic partner.

As detectives continue to probe the mysterious case, we’re kept on the edge of our seats: we don’t want to believe that Bogie (our hero!) could possibly have committed the murder, but we slowly see — through the perspective of Grahame, who has “become the main character” — that he’s certainly “capable of such an act”, and we begin to genuinely fear for her safety. The surprisingly downbeat ending packs a punch: it’s realistic, respectful, and decidedly unusual for Hollywood fare at the time. With its smart script, solid direction by Ray, atmospheric cinematography by Burnett Guffey, and fine performances across the board, this fatalistic noir remains a must-see classic for all film fanatics.

Note: In Hughes’ original novel, Steele is “a serial sex murderer” who relates the story from his own perspective; clearly, some adjustments were needed before Hollywood would consent to telling this tale!

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Humphrey Bogart as Dixon Steele
    In a Lonely Place Bogart
  • Gloria Grahame as Laurel Gray
    In a Lonely Place Grahame
  • Nice use of authentic L.A. locales
    In a Lonely Place Sets
  • Burnett Guffey’s cinematography
  • A gripping script with plenty of memorable lines:

    “I was born when you kissed me,
    I died when you left me,
    I lived a few weeks while you loved me.”

    “You knew he was dynamite — he has to explode sometimes!”

Must See?
Yes, as a fine and unusual romantic noir. Nominated as one of the Best Films of the Year in Peary’s Alternate Oscars.

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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Fame (1980)

“A real artist must never be afraid of what other people will say about him.”

Fame Poster

Synopsis:
A group of aspiring performing artists — including a nervous actress (Maureen Teefy) with an overly enmeshed mother (Tresa Hughes); an illiterate dancer (Gene Anthony Ray) with ample raw talent; the synthesizer-playing son (Lee Curreri) of a cab driver (Eddie Barth); an arrogant, spoiled ballerina (Antonia Franceschi); a dubiously talented lifelong dancer (Laura Dean); a closeted young gay actor (Paul McCrane); a hopeful but naive singer/dancer (Irene Cara); and a Freddie Prinze-worshiping stand-up comedian (Barry Miller) — audition for placement at the prestigious New York High School of Performing Arts.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this “extremely entertaining and original seriocomic musical” — about a group of diverse students struggling to survive and thrive at a competitive performing arts high school in New York — not only demonstrates the development of their “individual talents”, but, “more significantly”, shows how they “simultaneously strip off their defenses and discover their elusive self-identities”. He writes that “director Alan Parker obviously has respect for [these] young people and their great talents (which are evident on the screen) as well as sympathy for their brave, masochistic attempts to make a living through their art”. As Peary points out, “the film’s comedy is consistently bright” and “the drama works well as long as Parker strives for poignancy rather than pathos (which occurs too often in the later stages of the film).”

What stands out most vividly about the movie are the “imaginatively staged, free-for-all musical production numbers”, during which “everyone in the school jumps in spontaneously”, with “blacks, whites, and hispanics dancing together, ballet dancers rocking with students in wild street clothes, cellists jamming with drummers”; we truly “see spirited democracy at work, and no one worries about making fools of themselves”. While these numbers are far from realistic (who cares?), they nonetheless perfectly capture the vibrancy, enthusiasm, diligence, and creativity of this immensely talented group of teens — which makes it especially depressing to see how much they inevitably struggle to “make it” as artists in the “real world” (though Parker should be commended for authentically representing this aspect of their young existence, too).

As Peary writes, the “entire film, not just the music, has rhythm”, which is “most evident in the dialogue [Christopher Gore wrote the screenplay] and the editing” (by Gerry Hambling). Indeed, other than its catchy score (by Michael Gore), the film’s fast-paced, finely calibrated editing is one of its most distinctive features — particularly during the first section (entitled “Auditions”; the remaining sections are divided into the four high school years). I also love how Parker manages to capture not only the immense ethnic and social diversity of these New York youths, but how multi-talented they must become to have a fighting chance of success as working artists.

They must also prove themselves academically, at least in order to graduate — and it’s on this latter topic that the film ultimately flails a bit, as demonstrated in the interactions between Ray and his English teacher (Anne Meara), who doesn’t seem to have a clue that her defiant student may be struggling with issues far more complicated than mere motivation. I wish the screenplay spent more time on Ray (whose complex character is the most interesting by far) and less on the friendship/love “triangle” between Teefy, Miller and McCrane — though their outing to see a midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show remains a fun cultural artifact. While Fame may ultimately try to cover a bit too much territory in one feature-length film (the 1982-1987 T.V. show spin-off made complete sense!), it’s easy enough to focus on the parts that work exceptionally well — and, thankfully, many do.

Note: Sadly, Ray (who played Leroy in both the film and T.V. series) apparently struggled enormously in his personal life, becoming HIV-positive and dying far too young (of a stroke) at 41.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A refreshing representation of diverse, talented New York teens
    Fame Diversity
  • A fun glimpse at The Rocky Horror Picture Show in live action
    Fame RHPS
  • Michael Seresin’s cinematography
    Fame Cinematography3
    Fame Cinematography2
  • Excellent use of authentic New York locales
    Fame New York Locales
  • Louis Falco’s choreography
    Fame Dance
  • Michael Gore’s vibrant score
    Fame Music
  • Seamless editing by Gerry Hambling

Must See?
Yes, as a (mostly) strong and unusual high school musical.

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