Saturday, September 29, 2012

The General Died at Dawn (1936)

The General Died at Dawn (1936)The General Died at Dawn is a spy thriller that is, sadly, totally lacking in thrills. Made by Paramount in 1936, it rather neatly encapsulates every mistake you can possibly make when doing a thriller.

The pace is glacial, there’s virtually no action, what little action the story does contain is constantly interrupted by boring speeches, the characters are cardboard, the dialogue is pedestrian and the politics are clumsy and naïve.

The background to the movie is the warlord period in Chinese history, when rival generals set themselves up as military dictators of various provinces.

O’Hara (Gary Cooper) is a courageous American who is working with the forces trying to liberate the noble and oppressed peoples of a Chinese province that is currently under the control of a wicked warlord, General Yang. The people fighting against General Yang are noble and brave. O’Hara is noble and brave as well, and is also idealistic and much given to tedious speechifying about the struggles of the oppressed masses.

The General Died at Dawn (1936)

He is sent on a mission to buy guns but is betrayed by a woman. The woman Judy (Madeleine Carroll), is being manipulated by her weak and cowardly father who is working for the wicked General Yang. After betraying O’Hara she has second thoughts. Possibly she was impressed by his speeches about the oppressed masses, or perhaps she just thought he was cute.

Judy’s father is then supposed to take the money to buy guns for General Yang but he decides to keep it. Several plot twists later no-one knows where the money is and General Yang is about to start having people shot if he doesn’t get his money back.

The General Died at Dawn (1936)

A spy thriller should have some excitement, or at the very least some tension, but this movie contains neither.

Screenwriter Clifford Odets was a communist in the 1930s and his script is filled to the brim with crude propaganda about the class struggle and the glorious struggles of the oppressed masses. The opening scene sets the tone for the movie. A British colonel and his wife are making jokes about General Yang’s brutality in collecting taxes. As representatives of the reactionary imperialist capitalist ruling class they are naturally indifferent to the heroic struggles of the workers and peasants to free themselves from their oppressors.

The General Died at Dawn (1936)

With such an inept script there is little the actors can do. Gary Cooper could usually make even such an irritatingly noble figure as O’Hara likeable but there is no way he can make O’Hara’s speeches interesting, and he struggles even to make him likeable. Madeleine Carroll was a fine actress but she is floundering here, let down by the script which fails to convince us of her change of heart.

Akim Tamiroff as General Yang is an unconvincing cartoon villain. The support cast is unimpressive, with all the supporting characters being dreary clichés. Special mention must be made of Dudley Digges’ supremely irritating performance as Mr Wu, one of the leaders of the opposition to General Yang.

Lewis Milestone made some good movies but this is not one of them. It’s much too slow and there is a complete lack of dramatic tension. It’s also much too talky.

The General Died at Dawn (1936)

On the plus side Victor Milner’s black-and-white cinematography is nicely noirish.

This movie is included in the otherwise excellent Gary Cooper Franchise Collection DVD boxed set from Universal. The transfer is an excellent one. The set is highly recommended, but don’t waste your time on The General Died at Dawn.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Charlie Chan in Shanghai (1935)

Charlie Chan in Shanghai was the ninth of Fox’s Charlie Chan movies starring Warner Oland.

Charlie Chan is to be guest of honour at a banquet in Shanghai, hosted by his old friend Sir Stanley Woodman. Before he arrives he receives a mysterious warning that his presence in the city could turn out to be unhealthy. At the banquet Sir Stanley is murdered by a booby-trap concealed in a box containing a scroll that was to be presented to Charlie.

The Commissioner of Police, Colonel Watkins, asks for Charlie’s help in solving this murder. Sir Stanley had made contact with an FBI agent but at this stage no-one knows the nature of his business with the FBI.

Suspicions fall on Sir Stanley’s secretary Philip Nash, who is engaged to Sir Stanley’s niece Diana. Nash certainly behaves in a manner likely to cause him to be suspected. Charlie discovers that an apparently innocuous message from Sir Stanley to Andrews (the FBI man) contained a secret message written in invisible ink.

Charlie will uncover a hidden conspiracy involving opium smuggling. In the process of doing so he is kidnapped but thanks to quick thinking by his Number One Son Lee he escapes. The conspiracy involves a mysterious shadowy figure named Marloff.

The plot is a classic 1930s-era mystery with red herrings and ambiguous clues and a succession of clever plot twists.

When Earl Derr Biggers created the character of Charlie Chan, in his excellent 1925 novel The House Without a Key, his intention was to get away from stereotyped depictions of Asian characters by creating a Chinese hero who was both intelligent and honourable. The movies have often been accused of perpetuating the very stereotypes that Biggers wished to avoid, but the accusation is rather unfair. Of course there is comic relief in the movie - in the 1930s all Hollywood genre films, even horror movies, had to contain comic relief. In this case it’s provided by Number One Son Lee. Charlie Chan himself though is never portrayed as a figure of fun, and even Lee is in fact shown to be brave and resourceful.

The Shanghai setting would have afforded the film-makers the opportunity to indulge in all kinds of Asian stereotyping but they refrain from doing so. None of the villains are Chinese.

The movies have also been accused of racial insensitivity by using a European actor to play Charlie Chan. But Warner Oland always claimed to be partly of Mongolian ancestry so as far as the studio was concerned they were using a part-Asian character to play the famous detective. And Oland’s performance is fairly restrained. It’s true that the bad guys often make the mistake of under-estimating Charlie because he’s a rather portly 60-year-old gentleman with a characteristically quaint way of expressing himself, but it’s clear that the audience is expected to see this as a sign of Charlie’s intelligence - having his adversaries under-estimate him provides him with a useful advantage. It’s really no different from the methods used by countless fictional detectives (Lord Peter Wimsey and Philo Vance come to mind) to gain an edge over their foes by exaggerating their own eccentricities.

I’ve become very fond of Warner Oland’s performances in this role. He always seem to be vaguely amused when the villains make the mistake of not taking him seriously enough.

The support cast is competent. Director James Tinling spent most of his career making B-movies and does a solid job.

This movie is included in the first of Fox’s Charlie Chan boxed sets. They spent a considerable amount of money on restoration and while the picture quality is not as good as in some of their other DVD releases they’ve done their best with movies that had been in fairly bad shape. And the picture quality is more than acceptable, in fact it’s pretty good.

An entertaining B-movie from the golden age of Hollywood B-movies. Warmly recommended.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

High Society (1956)

High Society (1956) I approached High Society with some trepidation. It was a musical remake of The Philadelphia Story, one of my least favourite classic Hollywood movies. Despite this I managed to enjoy it quite a bit. Made at MGM in 1956 it follows its model quite closely with even the characters’ names being unchanged. Charles Walters directed. Tracy Lord (Grace Kelly) had been married to C. K. Dexter-Haven (Bing Crosby). Now she’s getting remarried to the dull but respectable George Kittredge (John Lund). Dexter-Haven isn’t too happy about this since he’s still in love with Tracy. Tracy is, to put it charitably, a very strong-willed young woman. To put it less charitably she’s a control freak and a snob. She is appalled by the prospect of having press covering the wedding but she is blackmailed into allowing reporter Macauley “Mike” Connor (Frank Sinatra) and photographer Elizabeth Imbrie (Celeste Holm) to do an exclusive feature on the wedding. They work for Spy magazine and the magazine threatens to do a story on her father’s affair with a showgirl if they don’t get the exclusive. High Society (1956) Dexter-Haven is not exactly respectable, at least not in Tracy’s eyes. He’s a jazz fan and he’s organising a jazz festival. He’s allowed Louis Armstrong and his band to use the house for rehearsal. Satchmo offers some musical encouragement to Dexter’s plans to win Tracy back. Meanwhile Mike Connor has become somewhat smitten by Tracy as well. A big selling point for this movie was that it was the first time the era’s most popular singers, Crosby and Sinatra, had appeared in a film together. Both were not only huge singing stars but major movie stars as well, both having picked up Oscars for their acting. The casting of these two stars works quite well. Bing Crosby is no Cary Grant but he’s personable and amusing. Sinatra takes the James Stewart role from The Philadelphia Story and he handles this light comedy role fairly adeptly. High Society (1956) It’s Grace Kelly who dominates the movie though. Making Tracy likeable in spite of her flaws isn’t easy but she rises to the challenge superbly. This was to be her last movie performance and it’s one of her best. Cole Porter provided the music. The songs are a little uneven but they do include several great tunes including Who Wants To Be a Millionaire and Well, Did You Evah? (a duet between Crosby and Sinatra which is arguably the highlight of the movie) as well as True Love which became a major hit. High Society (1956) My idea of a great musical is that it should contain spectacular musical production numbers and lots of dancing (the Fred and Ginger and Busby Berkeley musicals of the 30s are my touchstones for musical magic). High Society lacks both these attributes. Although it was shot in Technicolor it could just as easily have been made in black-and-white. Don’t expect too many laugh-out-loud moments. The movie is mildly amusing at best, but then the same can be said (in my opinion) for The Philadelphia Story. High Society (1956) I wouldn’t rate this one as a great musical but if provides a reasonable mix of romance, mild humour and music, with the music occasionally being very good indeed. Worth seeing for Grace Kelly’s spirited performance. Warner Home Video’s Region 4 DVD offers a pretty reasonable transfer and a few extras including a brief documentary.

Friday, September 21, 2012

I’ll Get You (1952)

I’ll Get You (AKA Escape Route) was one of three movies George Raft made in England in the early 50s for Lippert Pictures. These were low-budget pictures  but Raft’s career was not exactly booming at the time and this was the best opportunity on offer for him.

Its claims to being a film noir rest mainly on the black-and-white cinematography. Content-wise it’s a straightforward spy thriller with no traces of noir at all.

Scientists have been disappearing from various countries. When aircraft engineer Steve Rossi (Raft) vanishes from the airport shortly after arriving in London it seems reasonable to assume there’s a link. In fact Rossi has disappeared intentionally. He’s after a job and he needs to make contact with a certain Michael Grand.

Grand proves to be a very difficult man to find. What Rossi does find is a woman, Joan Miller (Sally Gray). She’s not what she appears to be, but then neither is Rossi. Meanwhile Scotland Yard is conducting an intensive search for Rossi. Also involved in the case is British Intelligence and the FBI is interested as well.

This is a fairly routine spy movie. Rossi and Joan seem to have plenty of people after them, at least some of whom are intent on killing them. The suspense never really reaches an edge-of-your-seat intensity but for a low-budget production it’s entertaining enough.

George Raft’s reputation as an actor has not lasted well. This was partly his own fault. He was good at playing heavies but those precisely the roles he turned down. He preferred to play heroes. Personally I’ve always rather liked him. He has a certain style and he knows how to wear a trench coat.

Sally Gray is solid if unspectacular as Joan Miller. Clifford Evans is an effective enough villain.

The movie makes good uses of London locations and if the direction is mostly workmanlike the climactic fight scene on the cargo lift is quite well done.

The plot twists won’t come as huge surprises and the espionage angle is not explored as fully as it might have been.

This is very much a B movie, and it’s going to appeal mostly to George Raft fans. If you fall into that category you’ll be pleased enough with the film. Otherwise it’s harmless enough if not overly exciting.

VCI have done an excellent job with the transfer on this one. It’s included in their Forgotten Noir boxed set. None of the six films in the set could be described as masterpieces but for the price it represents pretty reasonable value.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Registered Nurse (1934)

Registered Nurse (1934)Registered Nurse is a pre-code medical melodrama, but one without a great deal to offer.

Bebe Daniels plays Sylvia Benton (known to her friends as Ben). She is married to James Benton, a self-pitying alcoholic with a nasty streak. After a drunken argument James smashes up his car and the resulting head injury leaves him insane. He has lucid moments but they are interspersed with such dangerous periods of insanity that he has to be permanently hospitalised.

Ben resumes her nursing career but doesn’t tell anybody at the hospital that she’s married. Being young, beautiful and likeable she soon attracts the attention of two men at the City Hospital - the kindly if slightly randy middle-aged Dr Hedwig (John Halliday) and the handsome young Dr Connelly (Lyle Talbot). Both want to marry her. Well actually both want to get her into bed but they’re prepared to marry her in order to do so. Ben favours the young Dr Connelly but of course she’s not free to marry either of them.

Registered Nurse (1934)

Ben lives in a state where divorce is possible only in cases of adultery and James, for all his faults, has never been guilty of that. So she’s stuck. And she wouldn’t divorce him anyway since she once loved him and she feels sorry for him.

Things get really complicated when her mad husband becomes a patient at the City Hospital. He’s heard that Dr Hedwig can perform an operation that might cure him. This is somewhat alarming for Ben since she just wants to be free to marry the hunky Dr Connelly. And the course of true love certainly does not run smoothly for Ben.

Registered Nurse (1934)

Another of Ben’s patients is wrestling promoter Frankie Sylvestrie (Sidney Toler). He ended up in the hospital after a fight with his girlfriend Sadie (Irene Franklin), apparently a fairly common occurrence. Sadie runs the local whorehouse (this is after all a pre-code movie). Sadie ended up in the hospital as well. Frankie is not exactly a completely honest citizen but he’s basically good-hearted and he will play a key role in the resolution of Ben’s marital problems. This resolution is not the sort of thing movie would get away with once the Code started to be enforced.

There’s a sub-plot involving another nurse and a good-natured cop, a sub-plot that doesn’t really contribute much to the film apart from padding out the running time to a rather modest 63 minutes.

Registered Nurse (1934)

Bebe Daniels handles her role competently enough. Lyle Talbot is always fun to watch. But it’s Sidney Toler who steals the picture with his delightfully cynical and very pre-code performance.

Director Robert Florey does a solid if not inspiring job. The screenplay by Lillie Hayward and Peter Milne is rather pedestrian and has only moments of the outrageous dialogue pre-code fans will be looking for.

Registered Nurse (1934)

Registered Nurse is at best moderately entertaining and can be recommended only if you’re a fan of medical melodramas with a touch of pre-code naughtiness.

It’s available as part of a pre-code double-header made-on-demand DVD from the Warner Archive series, paired with The Crash. Neither movie would be really worth buying on their own but as a two-movie deal it’s certainly worth a look. Both transfers are reasonably good.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Private Hell 36 (1954)

Private Hell 36 came out in 1954, fairly late in the Hollywood film noir cycle. It was made by The Filmakers, the production company set up by Ida Lupino and her then husband Collier Young. Young and Lupino co-wrote the script while Don Siegel directed.

It starts out as a fairly routine if well-made and well-acted police procedural. Off-duty LA cop Detective-Sergeant Calvin Bruner (Steve Cochran) stumbles onto a drug store hold-up. It seems like no big deal, until one the $50 notes found on one of the suspects (Bruner killed the other robber) turns out to be linked with a very big robbery in New York a year earlier. Bruner and his partner Detective-Sergeant Jack Farnham (Howard Duff) trace the stolen note to a night-club singer at the Emerald Club. She got the note as a tip. The singer is Lilli Malowe (Ida Lupino).

Lilli can offer only a vague description of the man who passed her the note but this is a big case and she is their only lead. She mentioned that the guy said he’d had a big day at the track. So the two detectives, accompanied by a willing if unenthusiastic Lilli, stake out the racetrack. It’s a job that requires patience and it takes a week to get results, during which time Bruner and Lilli fall for each other.

Lilli is a fairly hardboiled dame. She’s waiting for a man with lots of money. And Detective-Sergeants don’t make enough money for that sort of woman.

The racetrack stakeout eventually brings result, a suspect is pursued and is killed when his car plunges over a cliff. The proceeds of the New York robbery are scattered all over the hillside. Lots and lots of money. And nobody could possibly know exactly how much money  - there’s no way of knowing if this haul represents all of the money from the robbery. If some of the money were to disappear, were for example to find its way into somebody’s coat pocket, nobody would ever be any the wiser. It’s a big temptation for any cop, and it’s too much for Calvin Bruner. This is where the noirness of the movie starts to kick in, in a very big way.

Farnham wants nothing to do with all this. He’s happily married with a kid and while it’s sometimes a struggle on a cop’s salary he’s always had the satisfaction of knowing that every penny they do have has been honestly come by. But Bruner is his partner and you can’t turn your partner in so Farnham finds himself a very reluctant participant in a very sordid undertaking. The money is stashed in a trailer Bruner has rented, trailer Number 36.

It all seems so simple, but of course it doesn’t turn out that way. Guilt is steadily gnawing away at Farnham and pretty soon the whole business shows signs of becoming uncomfortably complicated. Jumping every time the phone rings, the two cops become more and more jumpy and their once close friendship is soon in tatters. Things are closing in on them and that trailer full of money will become their own private hell.

Film school types like to see every Hollywood movie of the 50s as an indictment of the American Dream. That whole “dark underside of the American Dream” thing has become one of the most tedious clichés in film criticism. Of course they also try to apply it to this film. The problem is that Farnham and his wife are not trapped in “stifling suburban conformity” - they’re happy, they have a pleasant little house and they have a good relationship. It’s the dissatisfied hedonism of Bruner and Lilli that seems shallow and empty. Lilli doesn’t love Bruner - she loves the idea of a guy with lots of dough. Bruner doesn’t love Lilli - he loves the idea of dating a glamorous night-club singer. Neither is ever likely to find happiness, and Lupino plays Lilli as a rather sad and tragic figure. She’s chasing the wrong things. Bruner is equally sad. He’s a good cop and he throws it all away, chasing an illusion.

The relationship between Farnham and Bruner is obviously a crucial element in the film. Bruner is unable to accept that Farnham may have found the recipe for happiness. He sees marriage as a trap to be avoided and his rejection of that kind of commitment is one of the things that dooms him.

Steve Cochran was a good choice to play Bruner - he makes the character suitably selfish and egotistical without succumbing to the temptation to chew the scenery. Howard Duff was one of those honest journeyman actors who could always be relied upon for a solid performance. Dorothy Malone as Farnham’s wife Francey also resists the temptation to overact (something she was certainly capable of). Ida Lupino is wonderfully world-weary and cynical, but not too cynical. All the performances work splendidly.

Olive Films’ DVD release offers an excellent widescreen transfer, although sadly without any extras.

A very fine B noir, and highly recommended.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Stella Maris (1918)

Stella Maris (1918)Stella Maris was one of Mary Pickford’s better known movies, and a huge box-office hit at the time of its release. Pickford was one of the biggest Hollywood stars of the silent era but this is the first of her movies that I’ve seen.

It’s one of those silent films where you really do have to make allowances for the time it was made. That is not true of all silent films, but it’s certainly true of this one. This is pure melodrama. Personally I enjoy melodrama but if you don’t you may find this one heavy going.

Pickford made what was at the time the bold decision to play dual roles. This required what were for the time fairly cutting-edge special effects. Pickford’s first role is as Stella Maris, a crippled girl whose doting guardians have sheltered her completely from everything that is cruel, unfair, ugly or in any way disturbing. She lives as a princess in a fantasy world, and like all good princesses she has a Prince Charming to worship her - in this case her distant cousin John Riska.

Stella Maris (1918)

Her second role is that of Unity Blake, a poor orphan girl whose experience of life is the exact opposite of Stella Maris’s - Unity has never known anything but ugliness, injustice, cruelty, squalor and misery.

John Riska might seem to Stella Maris to be a fairy-tale prince (she truly believes he lives in a castle) but he has big problems of his own. He is married, and very unhappily. His wife  Louisa (Marcia Manon) is a violent alcoholic who has made his life a living Hell. This being 1918 divorce is not an option. And John has been brought up with such a strong sense of duty that he would probably not take that option even were it available.

The worlds of the two lead female characters start to intersect when Luoisa Riska adopts Unity. She does this for purely selfish reasons - no servant will work for her so now Unity will be her servant. In a positively Dickensian scene Louisa brutally beats Unity. So brutally that Louisa is sent to prison. John Riska decides that the only honourable thing to do is to adopt Unity himself.

Stella Maris (1918)

Meanwhile a team of top London surgeons have operated on Stella Maris and she is able to walk again. This is not an unmixed blessing since Stella Maris will now come face to face with the realities of life outside her fairy-tale castle. She will encounter suffering and injustice. This marks an early appearance of an element that would blight Hollywood movies for decades to come - social comment. And the social comment in this film is as clumsy and heavy-handed as it would be in countless films to come.

This is the downside of melodrama - everything is reduced to simple black and white. Social problems are wrong so they should be magically changed. Villains, like Louisa, are two-dimensional stereotypes.

Stella Maris (1918)

After being adopted by John Unity meets Stella Maris and to Unity she really does seem like a princess. But there is a complication - Unity has fallen in love with John as well.

In order to accept the ending you have to accept the movie on its own terms - it’s a classic melodrama ending.

Pickford’s performance is impressive and is the chief reason for seeing this movie. As Stella Maris her acting is quite modern and naturalistic. As Unity she sometimes indulges in the theatrical gestures for which silent movies are (somewhat unjustly) notorious. Without much in the way of makeup effects she is able to transform herself, mostly just through physical acting, into another person entirely. The movie does tend to portray Unity almost as a kind of religious martyr, a kind of saint of the slums.

Stella Maris (1918)

The other actors are adequate enough, although Marcia Manon’s performance as Louisa is not exactly subtle.

The public domain version I saw was in reasonably good condition, certainly quite watchable.

Stella Maris is worth a look if you have no problems with melodrama.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Singin’ in the Rain is a movie I’ve assiduously avoided for many years. The reason is the Gene Kelly factor. I just don’t like him. More than that, there’s something about him that really irritates me. I also don’t like Donald O’Connor so that was another reason to avoid this one. Now the time has come for to start exploring the world of 1950s Hollywood musicals, I decided I would have to bite the bullet and finally face my Gene Kelly phobia. I would have to watch Singin’ in the Rain at least.

Since everyone but me has seen this movie it almost seems unnecessary to talk about the plot but just in case, here goes.

Don Lockwood (Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) are big stars in Hollywood in the late 1920s. But a shadow hangs over their world. Talking pictures are on the horizon. The Jazz Singer is about to be released. Don and Lina are in the middle of shooting their latest picture, The Duelling Cavalier, when the storm breaks. The studio, in a panic, decides to reshoot the movie as a talkie. But there is a problem - Lina’s terrible screeching voice. Actually there’s another problem - Don’s awful acting. The movie is previewed and it’s a disaster. Don assumes his career is all over.

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

But his friend Cosmo Brown (O’Connor) has a brain wave. The Duelling Cavalier is a train wreck as a drama but if they could find a way to turn it into a musical comedy it might save the picture, the studio and Don’s career.

Meanwhile Don has other troubles. The studio has insisted that he and Lina pretend to be engaged, for publicity reasons. But they hate each other. And Don has met aspiring young actress-singer Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) and he’s head over heels in love with her. And Lina hates Kathy. That’s pretty much it for the plot, but it’s enough for any self-respecting musical.

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

The movie is technically dazzling, although it often seems to be technique for technique's sake (which is one of the issues I’ve always had with Gene Kelly). But dazzling it certainly is, in Technicolor so bright your eyes will bleed.

To me the movie seems to have some structural problems. I guess I’m used to the Fred Astaire approach to dance, where the central love story is told mainly through the dancing. The dance routines advance the plot. That doesn’t happen in Singin’ in the Rain. Even worse, the only significant romantic dance duet is between Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse! And Cyd Charisse is not even a character in the movie. To me that was a dance routine that should have paired the leading man and the leading lady. As it is, it interrupts the plot and distracts us from the Don-Kathy romance.

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

But my main problem with this movie is, as I expected, Gene Kelly. I find Don somewhat obnoxious and I was hoping that poor Kathy would end up with anybody but him. Kelly tries so hard with his dance sequences but to me they often seem irritating and vulgar. They’re loud and flashy, as is the movie in general. Donald O'Connor is annoying as well.

Debbie Reynolds is harmless but just a little on the bland side. The supporting cast is fine.

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

I have to emphasise that I’m not saying this is a bad movie. If you like Gene Kelly you’re probably going to thoroughly enjoy it. It’s very much a star vehicle for Kelly (who co-directed the film) so your enjoyment will depend very much on whether you like him or not. I simply happen not to like him and for me personally that proved to be an insurmountable obstacle. When it comes to dancers I prefer Fred Astaire who made dancing look so effortless that you don’t notice the technical difficulty of what he’s doing, you just enjoy the aesthetic and emotional impact. Gene Kelly on the other hand made dancing look difficult so you find yourself distracted by the technique rather than the effect. But it’s basically a matter of personal preference.

The Region 4 DVD is certainly impressive. The colours are so bright you may need sunglasses.

All I can really say in summing up this movie is that you probably need to be a Gene Kelly fan to appreciate it. It has plenty of things going for it so if Gene Kelly doesn’t bother you then go for it. I’d also add that a little bit of Donald O’Connor goes a long way so it helps if you like his work. I can see many of the reasons this is such an admired film but for me it just didn’t work.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Band Wagon (1953)

The Band Wagon (1953)I’ve learnt to appreciate the Hollywood musicals of the 1930s but so far I’ve resisted the lure of 1950s musicals. I have childhood memories of seeing all the film versions of the Rogers and Hammerstein musicals, and absolutely hating them. Now I’m thinking I should give the Technicolor musicals of the 50s another chance, and Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon seemed like a reasonable place to start.

Made at MGM in 1953, The Band Wagon was a major box-office hit.

It’s a classic backstage musical. Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire) is a fading movie star. Everybody says he’s washed up. Everybody except his two greatest fans Lily and Lester Marton (Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant). They’re a composing/songwriting team and they’ve just written a new Broadway musical for Tony. For reasons best known to themselves they have decided that Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan) should be the director. Cordova is talented but takes himself very seriously indeed, and has never directed a musical. He is a classical actor and he’s just a little bit pompous. In fact he’s very pompous.

The Band Wagon (1953)

Tony realises immediately that Cordova’s style is all wrong for him. Tony is just an old-fashioned song-and-dance man. Cordova wants to create art. Tony has nothing against art, but it’s not him. He’s a hoofer. But he desperately wants to get back on the Broadway stage and against his better judgment he agrees to the deal.

Cordova sees the show as a modern dance version of Faust, whereas Lily and Lester had written it as a light-hearted musical romp. Not surprisingly, when they take the show on the road prior to its New York opening it’s a disaster. The financial backers can’t back out quickly enough.

The Band Wagon (1953)

The opening night party turns into a wake, until Lester suggests that with this all this talent gathered together there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be able to put on a great show. That gets Tony Hunter all fired up and he decides they should abandon all the boring arty stuff and go back to doing Lily and Lester’s original idea of a light-hearted musical romp. Surprisingly, Jeffrey Cordova agrees. He admits he was wrong and now he wants Tony to take over the running of the show, but he still wants to be part of it.

Part of Jeffrey Cordova’s plan for an arty musical was to get prima ballerina Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse) as the female lead. Gabrielle, under the influence of her agent-manager Paul Byrd (James Mitchell), had always refused to lower herself to doing Broadway shows. But once she’s had a taste of good old-fashioned show business she’s hooked. She wants to do the show. And, in a typical Astaire touch, a dance routine between Tony and Gabrielle lets the audience in on the secret - they’re falling in love.

The Band Wagon (1953)

Ironically, for a movie that promotes the idea of lightweight entertainment over art, the movie has some very arty touches. The famous Girl Hunt ballet sequence is visually dazzling, but it’s very arty as well. It’s almost the sort of thing Jeffrey Cordova would have come up with.

Vincente Minnelli was renowned as one of the greatest exponents of the Hollywood musical and this movie is technically awe-inspiring. It’s filled with the sorts of visual tour-de-forces that can easily become sterile, just technique for technique’s sake (as in Gene Kelly’s musicals). But The Band Wagon has enough warmth and enthusiasm to avoid this pitfall. Minnelli reveals himself as both artist and showman.

The Band Wagon (1953)

And Fred Astaire effortlessly achieves the same combination of seemingly incompatible elements. This movie has a decidedly modern feel for 1953 and Astaire shows that he had no difficulty keeping up with the times. He and Cyd Charisse don’t have quite the chemistry that he had with Ginger Rogers but Charisse is likeable enough and she can certainly dance.

Jack Buchanan is perfect as Cordova. For all his pompousness he has a genuine enthusiasm for what he’s doing and he’s a big enough man to admit he was wrong. And he reveals himself as no mean song-and-dance man. The supporting cast is strong with Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray contributing to the fun.

The Band Wagon (1953)

Warner Home Video’s Region 4 release comes packed with extras, with Liza Minnelli’s commentary track (with Michael Feinstein) being a highlight. Liza clearly admires her father’s work enormously and her enthusiasm is infectious.

So has The Band Wagon converted me to the case of 1950s Hollywood musicals? Not entirely perhaps, but I’m certainly willing to explore this area in greater depth. The Band Wagon is certainly a thoroughly enjoyable concoction. Highly recommended.

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Long Haul (1957)

The Long Haul is an excellent and unjustly neglected British film noir from 1957. It’s a gritty and very dark movie concerning corruption and crime in the trucking industry. Victor Mature and Diana Dors are the stars. It was made by a small independent producing company and distributed by Columbia Pictures.

Harry Miller (Victor Mature) drives trucks for the US Army in Germany. When he is discharged he plans to return to the States but his English wife Connie persuades him that they should spend a few months in England first. Her family lives in Liverpool and her uncle can get him a job in his long distance trucking business.

Harry soon discovers that this industry is rife with crooked practices and gangsterism. Harry is an honest man and wants nothing to do with it but when his truck is hijacked he finds that no insurance company will touch him and that as a result he cannot get work. Then his friend Casey offers him a job. He tells Harry it’s slightly illegal. In fact it’s highly illegal and it all goes horribly wrong.

The prime mover behind most of the crime in the industry is trucking boss Joe Easy (Patrick Allen). Harry has already had a run-in with Easy and he is about to become involved with Easy in an unexpected and potentially very messy way. Harry has already encountered Joe’s beautiful young girlfriend Lynn (Diana Dors). When Lynn and Joe have a major fight Lynn takes flight in Harry’s truck. Harry has no intention of doing anything other than drive Lynn somewhere where she will be safe but one thing leads to another and they spend the night together.

Apart from causing Harry a lot of grief with both Connie and Joe Easy this also makes things difficult for Lynn’s brother Frank (Peter Reynolds) who works for Joe.

Harry is now sliding into the noir nightmare world. His one night stand with Lynn was bad enough but now she’s fallen in love with him. And he is being drawn deeper into crime. He simply cannot get honest work and then he discovers something that shakes him so much that he longer cares what happens to him. Harry is however basically a nice guy and he has a kid about whom he cares deeply. He also has to admit that he’s in love with Lynn. He thinks he’s given up but he’s not the kind of guy who really gives up.

This is classic film noir with a decent guy who becomes entangled in dirty dealings against his will, and his downfall is brought about by a femme fatale in the person of Lynn. Lynn is not an evil spider woman, in fact she’s basically decent as well, but fate has cast her in the role of the femme fatale.

Victor Mature gave his best performances in film noir and he’s superb here. He is tough but sensitive, he doesn’t go over-the-top but his anguish is obvious as his life slips out of control. Diana Dors gives yet another fine performance confirming her position as the queen of British noir. Lynn has had a tough life and she is both hardboiled and vulnerable. She doesn’t want to wreck Harry’s life but she can’t give him up - he’s the first decent man she’s met. Mature and Dors generate convincing chemistry. Patrick Allen makes a very nasty villain. The supporting cast is very solid.

Writer-director Ken Hughes displays an instinctive feel for the world of film noir. The plot is nothing startlingly original but that could be said of most film noir. It’s the way the material is handled that makes for great film noir and Hughes handles the material with considerable skill. Basil Emmott’s black-and-white cinematography is another major asset.

Columbia’s region-free DVD presents this movie in an excellent anamorphic widescreen transfer.

This would make a great double feature with Hell Drivers, another fine British trucking noir made in the same year.

The Long Haul is highly recommended as a fine example of British film noir. The superb performances by Mature and Dors make it a must-see movie.