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Month: November 2011

Gidget (1959)

Gidget (1959)

“When it’s the real thing, you’ll know it — as surely as if you’d been hit on the head with a sledgehammer!”

Synopsis:
A teenage tomboy (Sandra Dee) spends her summer learning how to surf, and falls in love with an elusive surfer-boy (James Darren) who aspires to live a “beach bum” existence like his mentor, the Big Kahuna (Cliff Robertson).

Genres:

Review:
Based on a novel by Frederick Kohner (who modeled the protagonist after his own surf-loving daughter, Kathy), Gidget is primarily remembered today for offering Sandra Dee one of her most notable roles, and for spawning a near cottage industry of sequels and spin-offs (including the short-lived but beloved television series starring Sally Field). Upon revisiting this original iteration, however, I was pleasantly surprised to find that its unique coming-of-age tale is handled with honesty and insight, showing us the travails of an “underdeveloped” teenager who feels out of place with her boy-crazy friends, wonders when she’ll ever experience “true love”, and longs to be inducted into the thrilling world of surfing (then, as now, primarily a male sport). The mocking disdain shown when Gidget first attempts to enter the surfing clique’s hallowed turf rings all-too-true and painful; it’s especially disturbing to see “Lover Boy” (Tom Laughlin) being sexually aggressive with innocent young Gidget while purportedly teaching her how to surf (thankfully, she holds her own just fine).

Where the film falters a bit is in the casting of teen heartthrob James Darren as Moondoggie, the object of Gidget’s affections. He’s such a pill that we can’t help wondering why she persists in her crush (though of course, the heart knows no reason, and I suppose he’s good-looking enough in his way). Much more interesting, however, is the relatively complex role played by Robertson, whose character “The Big Kahuna” possesses an intriguing history as a Korean War vet; one wishes his storyline were given a bit more emphasis. Then again, this film really is all about Gidget herself — and Dee is appropriately winsome in this central role. She’s reason enough to check out the film once; meanwhile, film fanatics may also be curious simply to see the prototype for all beach-bunny films made thereafter (most notably the Beach Party franchise starring Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon).

P.S. Residents of Southern California will enjoy laughing themselves silly at the notion that Robertson could successfully set up and maintain a ramshackle home for himself right on the beach. Ha!

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Sandra Dee as Francie/Gidget

Must See?
No, but it’s recommended.

Links:

Cover Girl (1944)

Cover Girl (1944)

“You’re gonna be a big star, Rusty — but you gotta get down on your feet, not your face.”

Synopsis:
A dancer (Rita Hayworth) performing in a nightclub owned by her boyfriend (Gene Kelly) is selected as a new “cover girl” by a magazine magnate (Otto Krueger) who was once in love with her look-alike grandmother (also Hayworth); soon Hayworth finds her loyalties torn between Kelly and a young producer (Lee Bowman) who promises her fame and fortune.

Genres:

Review:
Rita Hayworth was a top box-office draw at the time she made this enormously popular Technicolor musical for Columbia Pictures. Unfortunately, its cliched storyline — revolving around Hayworth’s quick rise to fame, and the tension this causes in those she “leaves behind”, particularly her loyal boyfriend — isn’t innovative enough to hold one’s attention, and hasn’t aged all that well. Hayworth’s wealthy suitor (Bowman) is about as charismatic as a wet rag, and Kelly’s frustration with Hayworth’s desire to take a “short-cut” to success (made possible due to a silly plot contrivance involving her uncanny resemblance to her grandmother) seems uncharitable at best. Meanwhile, only one of the songs in Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin’s Oscar-nominated score — the ballad “Long Ago and Far Away” — lingers in one’s memory, and this is likely due to its use as the film’s overall musical motif. However, Cover Girl remains worth a look simply to watch lovely Hayworth performing some fine dance numbers (she’s incredibly light on her feet), and to see Kelly’s “Alter-Ego” routine, in which he dances with “himself” — he purportedly labeled it “the most difficult thing [he’d] ever done, a technical torture”, but his efforts paid off, to stunning effect. Watch for Eve Arden in a standard supporting role as Krueger’s wisecracking assistant, and Phil Silvers as Hayworth and Kelly’s annoyingly abrasive dance partner.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Rudolph Mate’s Technicolor cinematography
  • Fine dancing by Hayworth and Kelly, and enjoyable choreography by Kelly and Stanley Donen
  • Kelly’s impressive “Alter Ego Dance”
  • The colorful “cover girl” montage

Must See?
No; this one is only must-see for Kelly or Hayworth fans. But it’s worth a look simply for the dancing.

Links:

Love Parade (1929)

Love Parade (1929)

“I pronounce you wife and man.”

Synopsis:
A rakish count (Maurice Chevalier) marries the queen of Sylvania (Jeanette MacDonald), but finds his masculinity threatened by his new role as “Prince Consort”.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary notes that “Ernst Lubitsch’s first sound film revolutionized the screen musical because he integrated numbers into the storyline and used non-synchronized sound… so he could move his camera without fear of losing some lyrics and picking up stage noise”. Indeed, film fanatics interested in the evolution of early sound cinema will surely be fascinated to watch this movie and see how much Lubitsch was able to accomplish, relatively speaking, within his technological constraints. What’s most surprising, however, is how enjoyable this witty pre-Code “bedroom comedy” remains on multiple other levels. The clever, often racy storyline “deals with a husband and wife who have troubles because neither is satisfied with their roles in [a] marriage”; what makes this particular variation on the theme so unusual is that it’s Chevalier who is dissatisfied with the back seat he must take to the demands of his royal wife. The ultimate resolution of this tension is dated and somewhat unsatisfying — but as Peary argues, “it’s all so silly that no one could be seriously offended”.

At the heart of the film’s success are its charismatic lovers. In her screen debut, MacDonald is “glowing” — as Peary notes, this “film is a reminder that [she] was not just a singer, but an okay comedienne and also an extremely sexy actress when given a chance”. Meanwhile, Oscar-nominated Chevalier cemented his American screen presence here as a “bubbling” ladies’ man; it’s easy to see why MacDonald’s “virgin queen” would fall head-over-heels for him. Most film fanatics will also be interested to see a very young Lillian Roth in her breakthrough comedic role as MacDonald’s maid; she performs a couple of enjoyable ditties and dances with “acrobatic, elastic-legged Lupino Lane” (playing Chevalier’s loyal servant).

While its pacing is occasionally off (it could have easily been trimmed by half-an-hour or so), this early Lubitsch outing remains worth a look.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Maurice Chevalier as Alfred (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actors of the Year in his Alternate Oscars)
  • Jeanette MacDonald as Queen Louise
  • Lillian Roth and Lupino Lane’s energetic dances together
  • Plenty of enjoyably racy pre-Code “innuendo”

Must See?
Yes, for its historical relevance as a ground-breaking early (narrative) musical.

Categories

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Summer Storm (1944)

Summer Storm (1944)

“When a man pities his rival, he’s preparing to pity himself.”

Synopsis:
In pre-Revolutionary Russia, beautiful young Olga (Linda Darnell) is married off to an older peasant (Hugo Haas), but secretly loves an aristocratic judge (George Sanders); meanwhile, a foppish nobleman (Edward Everett Horton) lavishes Olga with gifts in hopes of buying her favors, and the upstanding daughter (Anna Lee) of a publisher mourns the loss of her fiancee (Sanders).

Genres:

Review:
Based on Anton Chekhov’s 1884 novella The Shooting Party, this historical melodrama is primarily remembered — along with Hitler’s Madman (1943) — as one of Douglas Sirk’s first American studio pictures after his emigration from Germany. Film fanatics will likely be surprised to see iconic fey character actor Edward Everett Horton given a relatively substantial role here, playing a simpering, womanizing (!) aristocrat with comedic flair; unfortunately, as much as I’d love to give him kudos, his performance is ultimately more amusing than convincing. Sanders is typecast in a somewhat serious role as a judge who falls head-over-heels for Darnell’s Olga; their romance isn’t particularly convincing either — though we’re meant to simply accept that Olga is such an intoxicatingly smoldering beauty she can’t help igniting the passions of all men around her. Other than the rather pedestrian “suspense” surrounding Darnell’s social-climbing romantic aspirations (and an unexpected plot twist in the final half-hour), the film’s narrative tensions derive primarily from sticky class relations; indeed, the original story’s timeline was moved up a few decades to heighten the fact that Horton and Sanders’ sense of entitlement would not last long in the face of an increasingly disenchanted proletariat. Watch for a memorable supporting performance by Laurie Lane (Lori Lahner) as a maid with a crush on Sanders.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Linda Darnell as Olga
  • Laurie Lane as Clara
  • Atmospheric cinematography and direction

Must See?
No; this one is only must-see for Sirk completists.

Links:

Wrong Man, The (1956)

Wrong Man, The (1956)

“An innocent man has nothing to fear — remember that.”

Synopsis:
A musician (Henry Fonda) is falsely accused of being a thief, and struggles to assert his innocence; meanwhile, his wife (Vera Miles) descends into a mental breakdown from the strain of the situation.

Genres:

  • Anthony Quayle Films
  • Courtroom Drama
  • Falsely Accused
  • Henry Fonda Films
  • Hitchcock Films
  • Living Nightmare
  • Mental Breakdown

Response to Peary’s Review:
Alfred Hitchcock’s dramatization of the travails of falsely accused New York musician Christopher Emmanual Ballestreros is his most documentary-like feature — and also, perhaps not coincidentally, the most depressing film in his entire oeuvre. As Peary notes, the “first part of the picture, in which Fonda is arrested outside his home, questioned, fingerprinted, paraded in front of witnesses, and tossed in jail, is masterfully directed with a sense of precision that’s even above Hitchcock’s usual standards”, and “perfectly illustrates [his] lifelong terror of being arrested for a crime he knew nothing about.” Peary argues that “this Kafkaesque sequence is so frightening that everything that comes afterward seems anticlimactic”, positing that “Miles’s breakdown is bothersome rather than compelling because it takes time away from the mystery” — but I don’t quite agree; rather than finding Miles’s mental collapse distracting, I feel it actually deepens the power and heartbreak of the screenplay, given that it shows the truly irreparable harm done by the false accusation.

Fonda is well-cast in the title role; he’s the ideal “everyman”, an “initially dull Hitchcockian hero whose every minute is planned out and whose life doesn’t vary at all from day to day” — and a rare Hitchcockian protagonist “without any sense of humor” whatsoever. Miles provides a nuanced, sensitive portrayal as his increasingly disturbed wife, and the supporting performances throughout the film — many by seemingly unknown actors — are finely rendered; note, for instance, the utter believability of the three terrified women in the Social Security office who initially accuse Fonda’s character. Meanwhile, Robert Burks’s stark cinematography perfectly captures the nightmarish noir milieu within which Fonda and his family find themselves, and fine use is made of authentic New York City locales.

With all that said, I must now admit to postponing my revisit of this highly regarded Hitchcock title for as long as possible; as DVD Savant puts it, “There’s nothing wrong with this picture except that it breaks Hitchcock’s primary rule – it doesn’t please the audience.” Hitchcock’s fidelity to the real-life story he was telling results in an oddly depressing and disturbing viewing experience; while The Wrong Man is undeniably a masterful film on many levels, it’s one which most film fanatics will probably want to consider a “once and done” title. At the very least, any viewer will come away with a heightened understanding of the importance of never, ever providing information to the police without first consulting a lawyer; Fonda’s best intentions here (giving lie to the oft-repeated quote that “an innocent man has nothing to fear”) do nothing but get him even deeper into trouble.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Henry Fonda as Manny Ballestreros
  • Vera Miles as Ruth Ballestreros
  • Robert Burks’ noir-ish cinematography
  • Fine use of authentic New York locales

Must See?
Yes, once — but don’t expect to want to return to this one.

Categories

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

Links:

Paradine Case, The (1947)

Paradine Case, The (1947)

“I may not be the cleverest woman in the world, and there are lots of things I don’t know, but there’s one thing I know better than anyone else: I know you.”

Synopsis:
A married attorney (Gregory Peck) becomes obsessed with the beautiful widow (Alida Valli) he’s defending, much to the consternation of his loyal wife (Ann Todd).

Genres:

  • Charles Coburn Films
  • Charles Laughton Films
  • Courtroom Drama
  • Ethel Barrymore Films
  • Gregory Peck Films
  • Hitchcock Films
  • Marital Problems

Review:
Alfred Hitchcock’s final film for producer David Selznick is widely regarded as one of his lesser efforts — and upon revisiting it, I’m inclined to agree. All the required ingredients for a fine Hitchcockian melodrama are present, but they never quite gel. Perhaps the greatest fault lies in the central conceit of Peck’s happily married barrister falling almost instantly in love with the enigmatic Valli: while she’s certainly gorgeous and sexually alluring, her personality (she’s consistently cold and aloof) isn’t nearly compelling enough to help us understand his infatuation. Meanwhile, we’re simply exasperated by Todd’s overly compassionate approach to the “situation” she finds herself in; would any wife REALLY be quite that understanding and forgiving upon hearing her husband confess that he’s in love with another woman? Another facet of the problem may lie in the fact that the film was drastically cut (it originally ran three hours), so certain elements are necessarily given short shrift; Charles Laughton as the lecherous judge overseeing the case, for instance, presents as simply a cameo, while his interactions with his highly sensitive wife (Ethel Barrymore) seem to belong to another movie entirely. Louis Jordan does a fine job playing the valet accused by Peck of murdering Valli’s blind husband — but his critical role, too, seems to merit further expansion. Ultimately, one watches The Paradine Case from a state of odd detachment, mildly curious to learn the truth behind the murder mystery, but sadly uninvolved on an emotional level.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Lee Garmes’ cinematography

Must See?
No; this one is only must-see for Hitchcock completists.

Links:

Rear Window (1954)

Rear Window (1954)

“We’ve become a race of Peeping Toms. What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change.”

Synopsis:
A wheelchair-bound photographer (James Stewart) confined to his NYC apartment begins to suspect that one of his neighbors (Raymond Burr) has killed his wife. With help from his glamorous girlfriend (Grace Kelly), his personal nurse (Thelma Ritter), and a former war buddy (Wendell Corey), he tries to gather evidence to support his claim.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary rightfully refers to this Alfred Hitchcock thriller — adapted from a short story by Cornell Woolrich — as an “undisputed masterpiece”, and spends the bulk of his review analyzing the film’s multiple enticing themes. He asserts, however, that while “much has been written about this film being about how we are all Peeping Toms… too much is made of [this] theme; that we are all snoopers is a given.” Instead, he argues that “what [Hitchcock is] most interested in is what we discover when we study people”, beginning with the fact that “people are into such dull, regimented lives that when they do anything that varies from their routines (as Burr does), neighbors will become suspicious and may suspect them of doing something terrible.” Indeed, part of what makes the film so consistently engaging on a narrative level is that we’re never quite sure whether Stewart is right in his suspicions, or simply suffering from an overly active imagination; the various “clues” we’re given throughout the storyline (such as the fact that “Burr’s wife’s handbag is still in the Burr apartment”) remain circumstantial evidence at best.

As Peary notes, a “related and equally important theme (central to most Hitchcock films) is that even the most [seemingly] predictable people are capable of doing wildly unpredictable things” — demonstrated by the fact that “Kelly, who’s the type to fret over a broken fingernail, can be gallant enough to climb up a railing into a murderer’s apartment”. Speaking of Kelly, she’s not only as gorgeous as ever here (wearing “Edith Head’s lavish, sexy costumes”), but, as noted by Vincent Canby in his NY Times review of the film for its 1983 re-release, gives “probably her most successful performance, one in which the facts of her public personality and the fiction of the film become marvelously mixed”. We are actually able to have some fun with her notorious ice-princess persona, since it’s called out time and again by Stewart.

Ultimately, Kelly’s impossible beauty and charm (could she BE any more perfect?) simply serve to heighten the fact that Stewart is scared to death of marital commitment (as wryly evidenced by his silently judgmental observations of various married couples in apartments across the way). As noted by Gary Mairs in his review of the film for Culture Vulture, “he fears domestication… and the stories he watches in his neighbors’ windows come to resemble projections of all his worst connubial fantasies”. To that end, Mairs picks up on the Peeping Tom theme once again by arguing that Stewart’s “desire to watch overwhelms his desire for [Kelly], and he only really becomes aroused when she joins him in peeping.” Speaking of such matters, Hitchcock and screenwriter John Michael Hayes get away with an astonishing amount of sexual subtext for the times — most notably in Kelly’s brazen assertion that she’ll be spending the night in Stewart’s apartment, followed by pulling out and donning a sexy negligee; as Jonathan Rosenbaum points out in his analysis of the film, “one suspects the censors were placated only because Jeff’s plaster cast made sex between him and Lisa seem unlikely.”

Any discussion of Rear Window‘s multiple merits as a cinematic masterpiece would be incomplete without mentioning its sheer technical bravado. Hitchcock was clearly at the top of his game when planning and executing his vision for the film, given his consistently innovative approach to the material. Collaborating with DP Robert Burks — and given a truly impressive set to work with (possessing no less than 31 apartments!) — Hitchcock tells nearly the entire story from a camera “situated in the living room of [Stewart]… so we sense how trapped he feels while stuck in his apartment”. Until Stewart pulls out his camera’s zoom lens as makeshift binoculars, we’re restricted to the same limited view of his neighbors’ existence as he is; we’re never privy to anything more than what Stewart himself can see — which is what makes the finale so terrifying (though I won’t say more about that here, at risk of revealing spoilers).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jimmy Stewart as Jeff
  • Grace Kelly as Lisa (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actresses of the Year in his Alternate Oscars)
  • Thelma Ritter as Stella
  • Robert Burks’ cinematography
  • The truly impressive set
  • Edith Head’s outfits
  • Masterful direction

Must See?
Of course; this one merits multiple enjoyable viewings.

Categories

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

Links:

Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (1970)

Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (1970)

“We’re all freaks — so don’t try to steal the show!”

Synopsis:
A young woman (Liza Minnelli) disfigured by an abusive date (Ben Piazza) finds solace and friendship when she rents a house with a gay paraplegic (Robert Moore) and an epileptic (Ken Howard).

Genres:

Review:
Based on a novel by Marjorie Kellogg, Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon is one among several oddities in Otto Preminger’s late-life directorial career, when he was making movies so far removed from his earlier successes — such as Laura (1944), The Man With the Golden Arm (1955), and Anatomy of a Murder (1959) — that it’s honestly challenging to associate them with the same individual. While nowhere near as bizarre as Skidoo (1969), or as tawdrily melodramatic as Hurry Sundown (1967), … Junie Moon (even its title smacks of kitschy-coo) unfortunately presents itself as intentionally kooky — the type of insufferable story about lovable misfits banding together which indie directors these days seem to churn out in spades. We’re made privy to each character’s “sordid” background story through dramatic flashbacks (beginning with a surreally scored scene in which we see how the once-beautiful Minnelli came to receive her tragic burns); the remainder of the insipidly scripted film is simply concerned with detailing how they come to (marginally) accept themselves and find (temporary) happiness. Kay Thompson appears in near-cameo as the trio’s brusque and eccentric landlord, while James Coco is given a pathetically underdeveloped role as a fishmonger with an inexplicable crush on Minnelli.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Robert Moore as Warren

Must See?
No; this one is simply a curiosity, and only a must-see for diehard Minnelli or Preminger fans.

Links:

Major and the Minor, The (1942)

Major and the Minor, The (1942)

“You know, SuSu, you’re a very peculiar child.”

Synopsis:
A young woman (Ginger Rogers) poses as a 12-year-old in order to buy a half-price train ticket, and falls for a kindly Army major (Ray Milland) who takes her under his wing. When visiting the military academy where Milland works, she enchants all the boys on campus, and poses a threat to Milland’s jealous fiancee (Rita Johnson).

Genres:

Review:
Billy Wilder’s directorial debut remains — as DVD Savant describes it — a “consistently hilarious, effortlessly diverting show”, one which “would lighten the spirits of someone on death row”. The premise is so silly and unbelievable that one happily suspends disbelief from start to finish, instead simply enjoying the ruse and rooting for the enormously appealing protagonists (Rogers and Milland). In his discussion of Rogers’ performance in Alternate Oscars (where he offers Rogers a split Best Actress Award, along with Carole Lombard for her work in To Be or Not to Be), Peary points out that “her attempts to be a kid aren’t particularly convincing”, given that “she can’t resist saying things with double meanings or under her breath”; despite her attempts to “keep her eyes wide and goofy”, to “walk awkwardly and graceless”, and to “display a vivid imagination”, her inner wisecracking dame shows through time and again. Yet this is precisely what makes her performance so amusing — and why we’re charmed by Milland’s apparent inability to see through her ruse.

In a much less showy — but equally pivotal — role, Milland is perfectly cast as the kind-hearted yet hopelessly naive military man who takes SuSu under his wing. Given that the film eventually becomes a study in thinly veiled pedophilia (!), believing in his good graces (which we do) is essential. The film’s first half-hour — in which we witness “scalp massager” Rogers reaching her breaking point while being propositioned by a lecherous client (Robert Benchley) in New York, and “meeting cute” with Milland on the train — is probably its best; but the remainder of the storyline (taking place primarily at Milland’s military academy, where SuSu copes with dozens of would-be adolescent suitors) offers enough chuckles to keep us consistently amused. As DVD Savant points out, “The irony is that Susan ditched the Big Apple to be free of unwanted advances, only to be mauled and chased by a bunch of girl crazy” military cadets; she’s simply irresistible! The subplot involving Milland’s conveniently unsympathetic fiancee (Rita Johnson), who “keeps foiling his attempts at a transfer” to active duty, is slight but forgivable as a narrative device; more disappointing is the overly simplistic ending. However, this is easy to overlook in the face of what remains an otherwise most enjoyable romantic farce.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Ginger Rogers as “SuSu”
  • Ray Milland as Major Kirby
  • Plenty of delightful exchanges and scenes

Must See?
Yes, as an all-around good show. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

Links:

Indiscreet (1958)

Indiscreet (1958)

“There is no sincerity like a woman telling a lie.”

Synopsis:
A successful actress (Ingrid Bergman) falls in love with an unhappily married diplomat (Cary Grant) who can’t divorce his wife; their passionate affair gets more complicated, however, when a disturbing secret is revealed.

Genres:

Review:
Twelve years after they co-starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946), Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman reappeared as screen lovers in Stanley Donen’s adaptation of Norman Krasna’s short-lived Broadway play Kind Sir; unfortunately, while both Grant and Bergman still possess potent chemistry together, the material here isn’t quite worth their talents or energy. The entire first hour of the film is concerned simply with showing their romantic courtship and “steamy” affair, complete with a cleverly filmed split-screen bedroom sequence (which predates the more infamous split-screen “bathroom sequence” in Pillow Talk by a full year). This all turns out to be an elaborate build-up to a substantial plot twist (don’t read about the film online if you wish to remain surprised) — but viewers may well find themselves impatient long before this point, and wondering where exactly things are going; the pacing feels off. While the twist itself adds some much-needed energy and punch to the proceedings, it never registers as anything other than a narrative device; meanwhile, the stagy denouement is both rushed and unrealistic. With that said, the film itself is consistently gorgeous to look at, from Freddie Young’s vibrant cinematography to visually innovative set designs (check out the still below of Bergman’s living room!) to the array of fashionable Christian Dior outfits Bergman is attired in — so at the very least, it provides pleasant eye candy throughout.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Ingrid Bergman as Ann
  • Cary Grant as Philip
  • The innovative split-screen bedroom scene
  • Excellent set designs
  • Lovely Dior outfits

Must See?
No, but it’s recommended for fans of Bergman and/or Grant.

Links: