A Night At The Opera
The Marx Brothers - Groucho, Chico, and Harpo - were actual brothers (their early stage act included another brother, Gummo, and in a couple early films he was replaced by Zeppo). Going from Vaudeville to Broadway then to the big screen, the Marx Brothers were a completely original act. Their formula, which is still in use today, was the classic snobs vs. the slobs, but what really made them memorable was the mix of smartass one-liners (from Groucho and Chico) and fantastic physical comedy (usually associated with the mute Harpo). After a half dozen films that progressively got better they really hit their stride with Duck Soup in 1933 and then made their true masterpiece with their next film, A Night At The Opera, a perfectly subversive film and still one of the funniest screen comedies of all time.
Groucho plays Otis B. Driftwood, a con man working the Opera scene in Italy. He is hired by the clueless widow, Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont), to help her break into proper society. Meanwhile the egomaniacal star of the opera, Lassparri (Walter Woolf King), abuses his dresser (Harpo) and sexually harasses the company’s young ingÃ©nue, Rosa (Kitty Carlisle), who is in love with the less successful, but equally talented tenor, Riccardo (Allan Jones, playing the Zeppo, straight man role). Riccardo is managed by Fiorello (Chico) who hustles Otis into signing him to a contract. As the opera company sets sail to New York the three Marx Brothers follow it in order to help the young lovers reunite, make some cash, and bring down the arrogant Lassparri.Continue Reading
Based on Sinclair Lewis’s controversial, apparently dangerous 1927 novel of the same name, Elmer Gantry opens with a note from the producers warning that children should not see this film. Why all the hubbub? It’s a film about religion. More specifically it’s about a drunken, womanizing, two-bit salesman (Burt Lancaster) who hooks up with a true believer, a lady minister (Jean Simmons), and they become a big-time preaching duo. But things get ugly when his lusty old ways come back to haunt him, the con gets ugly. Yes, keep the children away.
Lewis’s massive book was apparently banned in some parts of the country (can you guess which?) for questioning the true faith of those who are worshipped for their religious zealism. Based somewhat on the famous Pentecostal evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, apparently the film version is only a small fraction of the book. I would guess that, though controversial in its own right, the film's “controversial” aspects may have been watered down - 1960’s Hollywood was still in the last days of control by the Hayes Office which had the power to censor material it found offensive, luckily for art’s sake that power was ebbing.Continue Reading
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
I've seen other movies with Elizabeth Taylor in them. She is particularly wonderful as a sickly child serenely accepting her impending death in the Orson Welles version of Jayne Eyre. Still, her performance as Maggie in Tennessee Williams's steamy Southern melodrama Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is what I'll always remember most vividly.
It was the fifth Tennessee Williams play to be adapted for the movies and is perhaps the most famous example of his hot-and-bothered Southern style being given the celluloid treatment. Paul Newman plays Brick, the alcoholic son of a Mississippi plantation owner (Burl Ives) with the excellent name of Big Daddy. Brick's wife, Maggie, struggles to understand why their marriage has deteriorated to the point where he barely looks at her. This is understandably unconscionable because his wife is Elizabeth Taylor in her prime as one of the most gorgeous women of her day.Continue Reading
Back in 1958 Vertigo was considered a misfire from the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, but now over 50 years later, with a strong restoration and a number of clever reissues, many deem it one of Hitch’s best films and maybe his most personal. Like Notorious before it, underneath the suspense it’s a love story, but a twisted kind of love, obsession. Jimmy Stewart finishes off his Hitchcock trifecta after The Man Who Knew Too Much and Rear Window (not counting the much earlier Rope), putting a twist on his everyman and giving one of the most complicated psychological performances of his career. Vertigo also proves to be career peaks for the stunning Kim Novak and for film composer Bernard Herrman. If you can get past some of the plottyness of the film's first act Vertigo proves to be a film worth obsessing over.
The film is based on the novel The Living And The Dead by the French writing team of Pierre Boileau and Pierre Ayraud, who also wrote the deliberately Hitchcockian thriller Les Diaboliques (whose film version by Henri-Georges Clouzot had a big impact on Hitch and helped to push him in the more shocking direction that lead to Psycho and later Frenzy).Continue Reading
The Loved One
Besides being one of the funniest, yet strangest comedies ever made, The Loved One may be the greatest satire of life in Los Angeles during the 1960s and has one of the most eclectic, but well used casts of all time (including Jonathan Winters in dual roles, Robert Morse, Milton Berle, Rod Steiger, John Gielgud, Paul Williams, Tab Hunter, Roddy McDowall…oh, and Liberace). Morse plays Dennis Barlow, a young British poet who shows up in Los Angeles to visit his uncle, Sir Francis Hinsley (John Gielgud), a film studio worker. After the uncle dies Dennis gets involved with Aimee (Anjanette Comer), an employee at the sinister funeral home, Whispering Glades.
Based on the book by the big-time British novelist Evelyn Waugh (Brideshead Revisited), The Loved One was adapted for the screen by the American satirist Terry Southern (Dr. Strangelove) and the haughty author and critic Christopher Isherwood (A Single Man). To make this motley crew even more improbable it was directed British filmmaker Tony Richardson who arose to much acclaim during the “angry young man” movement of British filmmaking in the late '50s and early '60s and won an Oscar for Tom Jones. But after The Loved One, he was never able to find his filmmaking footing. The film was shot beautifully in black and white, giving a crisp, yet gothic look to the Los Angeles locations, by legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler (One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, Bound For Glory) and it was edited by the soon-to-be-major director of the '70s, Hal Ashby (Harold And Maude, Coming Home). All of these very improbable voices came together to create one of the more unique films of the decade.Continue Reading
Gone With The Wind
For 40 years, until of the era of the blockbuster (beginning with Jaws, Star Wars, E.T., and perhaps The Sound Of Music and The Godfather before them), Gone With The Wind was the ultimate blockbuster. Other films may have passed it in overall box office, but that’s because ticket prices have risen. No film had more people go see it in its day than Gone With The Wind. And yes, it’s a melodramatic soap opera with an eerie romantic schoolgirl crush on the Old South, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that it is impeccably crafted with one of the most stunning performances by an actress in film history.
Based on Margaret Mitchell’s massive Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the fall of the antebellum American South, Gone With The Wind follows the young Southern belle, Sacrlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), through her many marriages, before, during, and after the Civil War. The dashing and worldly Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) is the man for her, but like any spoiled creature, she wants what she can’t have. The stiff, but proud Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) is the object of her near obsession, but he is engaged to her kindly cousin Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland).Continue Reading
Inspired by the critical and commercial success of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s arthouse shocker, Les Diabolique, Alfred Hitchcock took a break from his big budget Technicolor thrillers to make a little horror film called Psycho. Like the French film, he would shoot on a shoestring budget and in black & white. After the massive success of his previous film, North By Northwest, most of the suits at the studio thought their cash cow was off his rocker. Forgoing most of his big money crew he had worked with for years, he used the team from his anthology TV series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, knowing they could work fast and cheap and would be more open to some of the new radical tricks Hitchcock was hoping to try out. With no one understanding what the master had up his sleeve, in the end, Psycho has proved to be one his biggest hits and one of the most influential films of all time.
Perfectly taut and compact, every line of Pyscho's dialog, every camera movement, and even the casting is all carefully constructed for the scare and suspense payoffs to come. Based on a then little read novel with the same title by Robert Bloch (Strait-Jacket), Hitchcock burned through a couple of screenwriters before Joseph Stefano got the vibe he was looking for. Bloch was inspired by the horrific true-life serial killer Ed Gein (whose ghastly crimes would inspire a number of films from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Motel Hell).Continue Reading
Leave Her To Heaven
What do you call a film noir without shadows? Is it still noir? Leave Her To Heaven is a total anomaly, a claustrophobic thriller that takes place in the wide open spaces of some of the most serene nature settings imaginable. It’s a murky psychodrama done in Technicolor. This isn’t the blazingly sharp Technicolor of Douglas Sirk, though, where every pink wall and cocktail shaker gleams with vivid detail. Leave Her To Heaven was made a good ten years before Technicolor advanced to what we think of as its signature bold and bright look. The Technicolor process was more primitive when Leave Her To Heaven was made, giving the film a weirdly unsettling brightness like the eerie orange glow before a heavy summer storm.
Cornel Wilde plays Richard Harland, an author who meets a beautiful and wealthy young woman named Ellen (played by Gene Tierney) on a train. Soon they are in love, get married, and Richard is smitten with his new bride. However, Ellen’s behavior becomes bizarre and her treatment of Richard more and more possessive and unreasonable. Much like her attachment to her dead father, her need to possess Richard totally has drastic and murderous consequences for the other people in their lives.Continue Reading
Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying & Learned To Love The Bomb
In the heart of the Cold War, after the Cuban missal crisis, fresh from the assassination of President Kennedy, the world seemed to be on the brink of nuclear destruction. It was a tense era, as reflected by a number of the paranoid films that were produced - Fail-Safe, Seven Days In May, On The Beach, to name a few. Knowing the world it was released into makes the attitudes of the "black comedy" Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Learned To Love The Bomb, particularly black. While many Americans had fall-out shelters in their backyards, Stanley Kubrick's film was laughing at the ridiculousness of world annihilation, while wondering who are the hopeless leaders we have entrusted with our nukes and our planet’s future?
Kubrick co-wrote the script with satirist Terry Southern (The Loved One, Easy Rider), kinda sorta based on a novel Red Alert, an actual thriller by Peter George. Dr. Strangelove was the final film of Kubrick’s outstanding black and white period, following his other classics, The Killing, Paths Of Glory, and Lolita, a foursome as relevant and as diverse as any young American director has had. And like Lolita, Dr. Strangelove would be a showcase for the acting range of Peter Sellers. Here he would take on three utterly different roles, to much acclaim.Continue Reading
The Grapes Of Wrath
When Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) returns to his Oklahoma farm after four years in prison, he learns that nothing is what it was. It’s the 1930s, the depression is on, and his family has lost their farm and home to the bank. So begins an amazing journey for Tom - as he sees the social injustice around him he grows from petty criminal to labor activist. The Grapes of Wrath is a monumental film by a monumental director, John Ford, based on a brilliant book by another monumental figure, John Steinbeck. The truths laid out in the book and film may be just as true today as they were then. Tom leads his family from the dustbowl in search of work and a promise for a better life in California, but all they find are lies, police corruption, and corporate exploitation of desperate workers. It sounds a lot like the plight migrant workers from Mexico and Central America still face in search of the supposed American Dream.
The Grapes Of Wrath almost plays like a post-apocalyptic adventure as Tom, along with his Ma (Jane Darwell), Pa (Russell Simpson), and the preacher, Casey (John Carradine), pack the entire Joad clan into the truck and head west, where the world they encounter is a hostile and burnt out place. They are encouraged by pamphlets to head to California, but they get there to find themselves hoarded like cattle in a police state where their every move is monitored (another piece of futureshock, the dystopian state). Tom, at first naive, then confused, slowly realizes that all the cards are fixed against him and all the little people of the country. By the end, on the run from the cops, he tells his Ma in one of the great speeches in film history, "Wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there..." It’s a dark conclusion for the Joad family (and for the American Socialist dream, as WWII and then the Cold War are just around history’s corner).Continue Reading