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Month: November 2009

Evergreen (1934)

Evergreen (1934)

“Do you mean that you think you can persuade the British public that this girl is the Harriet Green of Edwardian times?”

Synopsis:
The daughter (Jessie Matthews) of deceased Edwardian music hall star Harriet Green (also Matthews) stages a “comeback” as her mother, convincing the public that Harriet Green is alive and well — but how long will her ruse last?

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Mistaken or Hidden Identities
  • Musicals
  • Play Adaptation
  • Singers

Review:
Once hailed as the “female Fred Astaire”, British singer/dancer Jessie Matthews skyrocketed to international fame with this phenomenally popular romantic musical, featuring music by Rodgers and Hart. The rather implausible “mistaken identities” storyline — involving Matthews’ rekindled affair with her dead mother’s aristocratic lover (Ivor McLaren), and her burgeoning love for the man passed off to the public as her grown son (Barry MacKay) — is flimsy but innocuous, and really just an excuse to let Matthews show off her impressive dancing chops and comedic delivery. Sadly, Matthews’ fame never really went anywhere, and few film buffs today will recognize her name. As the most successful British film musical until 1960’s Oliver!, Evergreen is worth a look for historical purposes — but it’s not must-see viewing for all film fanatics.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jessie Matthews as Harriet Green
  • Several creatively staged dance sequences

Must See?
No, but it’s worth a look simply for Matthews’ dance numbers, and for historical purposes.

Links:

Bitter Tea of General Yen, The (1933)

Bitter Tea of General Yen, The (1933)

“You can always do so much more with mercy than you can with murder.”

Synopsis:
A general (Nils Asther) in revolutionary China falls in love with an American missionary (Barbara Stanwyck) he rescues during a street riot.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Barbara Stanwyck Films
  • China
  • Cross-Cultural Romance
  • Frank Capra Films
  • Missionaries and Revivalists

Review:
The Bitter Tea of General Yen remains a unique entry in Frank Capra’s early oeuvre. Exhibiting none of the “Capra-corn” that would mark Capra’s later populist films, Bitter Tea is a dreamy, beautifully photographed, provocative tone poem about cross-cultural tensions and inter-racial longing. Danish actor Nils Asther thankfully manages to avoid most stereotypes in his portrayal of the imposing Chinese General Yen, instead infusing his character with charisma and emotional complexity. He exhibits authority and vulnerability in equal measure — indeed, it’s easy to see why Stanwyck’s strong-willed female missionary (Megan) can’t help feeling a deep-seated attraction to him, despite her status as a betrothed woman (watch for her infamous “dream sequence” — haunting evidence of pre-code cinematic sensibility). Stanwyck is luminous in this early role — like Asther, she’s called upon to demonstrate both strength of character and emotional nuance as she contemplates, however subconsciously, a forbidden romance. The entire story takes place within the context of gorgeously baroque sets and lustrous cinematography, adding to the dream-like ambience of Megan and Yen’s tragic “affair”; the film’s ending is foreshadowed by its provocative title.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Nils Asther as General Yen
  • Barbara Stanwyck as Megan Davis (nominated by Peary as Best Actress of the Year in his Alternate Oscars book)
  • A provocative portrayal of “forbidden” romance
  • Stunning sets
  • Joseph Walker’s luminous cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a unique gem by a famed director.

Categories

  • Important Director

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

Links:

Duellists, The (1977)

Duellists, The (1977)

“The duelist demands satisfaction; honor for him is an appetite.”

Synopsis:
A truculent French soldier (Harvey Keitel) challenges a cavalry officer (Keith Carradine) to a duel, thus setting off a 15-year feud that lasts throughout the Napoleonic era .

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Feuds
  • Harvey Keitel Films
  • Historical Drama
  • Ridley Scott Films
  • Rivalry
  • Soldiers

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this “excellent, highly original” first feature by Ridley Scott features “exquisite photography” by D.P. Frank Tidy and meticulous “attention to period detail”. Unlike Scott’s later blockbuster films — such as Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1985), and Gladiator (2000) — The Duellists (based on a 60-page short story by Joseph Conrad) was “not an ideal commercial project”, and has remained more of a favorite with critics than with the masses. Keitel and Carradine’s series of “exciting, brutal and realistic” duels — which “parallel the ongoing, equally senseless Napoleonic Wars” — are posited as a thinly veiled attack on “nations that are enemies because of events that happened long ago and are long forgotten”. Interestingly — and perhaps strategically — it’s never made entirely clear why Keitel’s Feraud challenges Carradine’s D’Hubert to a duel in the first place; we simply get the sense that he’s a pugnacious, “temperamental brute” who’s continually “itching for a fight”. While it’s difficult not to wish that Scott’s original choices to play D’Hubert and Feraud — Michael York and Oliver Reed (sigh) — had been cast, I’ll agree with Peary and most other critics that Carradine and Keitel, despite their anachronistic American accents, eventually emerge as compelling leads.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A compelling tale of an enduring rivalry
  • Frank Tidy’s gorgeous cinematography
  • Impressive period detail
  • Fine supporting performances

Must See?
Yes, as an impressive debut by a master director.

Categories

  • Important Director

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