Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Detail from a J.C. Leyendecker Saturday Evening Post cover.

Wishing my family and all my friends, a VERY HAPPY NEW YEAR!  

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Yet Again: My Favorite Quirky Christmas Movies (Heavy on the Quirk)

With your indulgence, this is a revamp of previous Christmas film posts. Nothing new is ever added, I stubbornly hold to the belief that nobody knows how to make this sort of movie anymore. 

1) MARCH OF THE WOODEN SOLDIERS (1934) is watched religiously by me every year either at Thanksgiving or Christmas. It is ritual. I know the songs by heart and can often be heard  humming along tunelessly with the music and if I'm really in the mood, I'll sing the words too. When it comes to this movie I am incorrigible. Laurel and Hardy, Santa Claus, Little Bo-Peep, A cello playing Cat, A bomb throwing monkey and Boogeymen - what more could you want? 

My original review for you purists out there.

Do not, whatever you do, fall for the 'colorized' version, it is blech. Stick to black and white, if you can find it.

2) THE THIN MAN (1934) Obviously '34 was a good year for Christmas movies. The very suave and sophisticated Nick and Nora Charles solve a murder or two, drink endless martinis, kibbitz in Manhattan's best eateries and dives, and celebrate Christmas with a hotel room full of wise-cracking NY riff-raff. Again I ask, what more could you want? And when was the last time you saw a movie featuring someone named Minna Gombell? I ask you.

Poor hapless Minna looks perpetually shell-shocked. I think it's the eye-makeup. Elizabeth Arden it ain't. And note that her very icky gigolo-hubby is played by none other than the still-to-be-suave Cesar Romero.

3) AMAHL AND THE NIGHT VISITORS (1951) If you can find this early black and white television version, then this is the one to watch. A short opera written for television by Gian Carlo Menotti (who was one of the directors), it remains fixed in my mind and heart as sheer Christmas perfection.

Three Wise Men (Three Kings, actually), following their star, must stop and rest for the night and choose the very humble abode of a desperately poor widow and her young, mischievous, handicapped son who hops about on a crutch and can't help getting into trouble. He's very inquisitive, you see.

There's no cuteness though, it's all just glorious singing to glorious music as well as some dancing villagers and, near the end, a miracle. If you've never seen this, you're in for a wonderful treat. This unique production is one of several reasons I am a life-long opera fan.

4) LADY ON A TRAIN (1945) starring Deanna Durbin as a ditzy society babe, out from under the watchful eye of her indulgent dad, just in from the coast to spend Christmas in NY with her aunt. But as the train pulls into Grand Central the deb spots a murder from the window of her compartment and the hunt is on for a killer. (What else is a nicely bred young lady to do in NYC on Christmas eve?) 

There is a cast full of character stalwarts from the forties, including Edward Everett Horton (with, truthfully, not much to do), David Bruce, Ralph Bellamy (at his ultra creepy best), Dan Duryea (equally creepy, he just can't help himself), Elizabeth Patterson, Allen Jenkins and George Coulouris, there to prop up Miss Durbin who does a creditable job playing the ditz who drives everyone crazy. 

She even gets to sing Silent Night (in close-up) over the phone to her dad out in California. 
Here's my original review, if you're so inclined. 

5) THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER (1942) starring Bette Davis, Monty Woolly, Reginal Gardiner and Ann Sheridan in a loony tale of a famous New York radio personality/curmudgeon who is forced by circumstance - a slip and fall incident - to spend the holidays in the home of a 'normal' small town midwestern family (with money) whose lives he upsets in a hilarious and often fiendish variety of ways. This is SO much fun and as the quips and insults fly by quickly - you gotta' pay attention. Bette Davis plays quietly sweet (if gently acerbic) very well as the curmudgeon's secretary and general factotum.

Note: An adorably engaging impersonation of Noel Coward by Reginald Gardiner almost steals the movie from the ferocious Monty Woolley whom I adore.

Here is fellow movie maven Dorian's take on THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER. Hint: She loves it as much as I do.

LADY IN THE LAKE starring Robert Montgomery, Audrey Totter and Lloyd Nolan. Based on Raymond Chandler's book. Spend Christmas with Phillip Marlowe and solve a murder, meet a gaily dressed gigolo and solve a murder or two while you're at it. My original review

Of course there are many versions of Dickens' A CHRISTMAS CAROL, but this year I'm choosing the one originally made for television and starring the superb American actor George C. Scott, (he had that curmudgeon face down pat). Scott's English accent isn't very good, but it doesn't seem to matter, it all works for me. He really is wonderfully touching.

SUSAN SLEPT HERE starring Dick Powell, Debbie Reynolds, Anne Francis, Glenda Farrell and Alvy Moore. A saucy comedy in which Debbie plays a seventeen year old truant who takes an improbable detour at Christmas - brought about by the machinations of two soft hearted L.A. cops. Susan aka Debbie, lands in the apartment of man-about-town screenwriter Dick Powell whose dragon queen fiance is played to the absolute hilt by an all but snarling Anne Francis.

Yes the age difference between the two principals is a bit of a stretch, in truth, Powell is old enough to be Debbi'es father, though on screen he's supposed to be in his late thirties - yeah, right. Well, Susan does turn 18 during the course of the story so that makes her legal - just. There are no real love scenes so not to worry. It's all just light and frothy Cinderella fun. But if you're of a serious turn of mind, then skip it.

Here's my original review.

CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT starring Barbara Stanwyck , Dennis Morgan and Sydney Greenstreet. Barbara Stanwyck plays Elizabeth Lane, a magazine food writer whose warm-hearted articles about hubby, baby, home and hearth on a Connecticut farm are followed religiously by women all over the country. The only trouble is that Liz is single, doesn't know how to cook, and has no real love for the country which is just as well since she doesn't really have a farm in Connecticut.

Over Christmas she is forced to make this fantasy life come true for her boss, publisher Alexander Yardley (Sydney Greenstreet in a rare benign performance) who insists on spending a real old fashioned Christmas with Liz and her 'family' as they welcome home a war hero played by Dennis Morgan. Uh-oh.

A Christmas delight of confused identities and happily ever after.

Where are WHITE CHRISTMAS and HOLIDAY INN? Not quirky enough. Besides I'm not a fan of Bing Crosby.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Please pardon my disappearance...

I've been ill - spent Thanksgiving bed-ridden and feeling very 'woe is me' - you know how that goes. I'm slowly getting back to normal, but today's 'Forgotten Film Tuesday' post will probably not appear until tomorrow or the day after and at that it will be in the guise of My Favorite Christmas Films.

I'll follow that up next week with a list of My Favorite Books of the Year and then that will be it for December and into January. I really do need some time off to begin my new venture (if my freakin' health will allow it). That is, a brand new portfolio of art which I'm very excited about.

So I guess that means I'm un-retiring.

But ladies and gents, I'm a slow-worker. I need time and 'space'. Something has to give and that will be my blogging duties, at least for the near future.

I'll still be around, just not as regularly.

So bear with me, I'm a crazy old lady with dreams.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

10 Romantic Films to Cuddle Up With in a Snowstorm

Dee Nickerson - source

Snow is a'coming round the bend on the morrow - or so they promise. Plus it's Thanksgiving Weekend as well. Time for family, friends, good food, good films, good books. So I thought I'd revamp a couple of older posts primarily because I seem to be plagued lately by an attack of the 'what goes around, comes around' or words to that effect.

10 assorted films that make you 'sigh', along with a few runners up at the end. This is a re-working of two film posts from two years ago but I thought, 'what the heck', I love these films and never tire of talking about them. At my advanced age, I seem to go in a lot for repeating the things I'm most fond of (hence my current Re-reading Martha Grimes Marathon) - just wait, it will likely happen to you too. Why romance now? Well, why not? So, just in case you missed these the first time around:

(Warning: Stand by for overblown language. Romance and overblown often go together - at least in my mind.)

1) Jean Cocteau's LA BELLE ET LA BETTE (1946) Starring Jean Marais and Josette Day.

In my consideration, the most romantic film of all time. At least, my own favorite romantic film of all time. In its expert, occasionally startling visualization (the film often looks as if it takes place inside a darkened snow globe minus the snow). Cocteau reveals an enrichment of gorgeousness such as hasn't been seen on film since; dazzling imagery and the gift of a rampaging imagination capable of visualizing 'romance' as no one else ever had or has. If this is too overblown for you, my language, I mean, then so be it. I run out of superlatives.

(And for God's sake, if you haven't seen it and choose to do so, please see it in French with subtitles. The language, the sound of it, is part of the mysterious presence of the film. Though, of course, if you speak French, I imagine this would be less so.)

Starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal.

An unique film that refused to leave my conscious/sub-conscious thoughts for days and days when I first saw it. Even now, I can still visualize certain scenes and some of the spare, bitter dialogue. (This is one of those films that you just never can forget.) This is a story of thwarted love that, at any moment, might have been otherwise had 'society' been otherwise. 

BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN is the story of two young men, Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar, dirt-poor, end of the road Wyoming sheep herders, wannabe-be cowboys, and the summer on Brokeback which indelibly marks them for the rest of their lives. Jake Gyllenhaal and the late Heath Ledger are both fearless actors and hold nothing back. They make you believe in what is happening.

Annie Proulx's short story is quietly and honestly told (not a single wrong note) by master film maker, Ang Lee. Yet, somehow, despite the bleakness at its core, it is a lovely, lovely film full of nuance and images seared in the heart.

When was the last time you saw a film and simply ached for the characters? BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN is one of my all around favorite films of all time primarily because of the lasting impression it made on me.

Starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert

At the height of their attractiveness and screen power, there was no one quite like Gable and Colbert. And to think they hated making this picture and thought it would be the biggest flop of their careers - instead they all (film-makers included) won Oscars. One of the very few times a comedy has been so honored in Hollywood.

I saw this recently and again was struck by how well it holds up. The charm of it never grows old. Colbert is perfection in her part as the confused, spoiled, rich (but intelligent) runaway heiress who comes to rely on reporter Gable (she doesn't know he's a reporter) to guide her through the tricks and traps of the everyday world of folks who work for a living. She's come crashing down from her high tower (jumped off a yacht on her wedding day) and must now learn to navigate in murky waters she knows little about. Wise-cracking Gable has rarely been better. He is superb as the reporter who sees Colbert as his meal-ticket to Big Time journalism.

The film is scattered with the kind of superb character actors this golden era is noted for. Stand-outs: Walter Connolly as Colbert's rich, financier father. This guy made a career out of playing rich fathers. He exemplified them. I think he was born playing one. I love him. And of course there's also, Roscoe Karns about whom very little needs to be said. This guy was born with a wise-crack in his mouth.

4) MOONSTRUCK (1987)
Starring Cher and Nicholas Cage

Who would have thought that songstress Cher could act? Could carry a whole film on her shoulders? Could fashion the movie slap heard round the world? Not me, that's for sure. But Cher is unstoppable, unsinkable. The unflappable Miss Cher became a movie star in this film. (She won an Oscar too.)
And rightly so.

I'll never forget the scene at Lincoln Center: she, beautifully dolled up to meet Nicholas Cage, the loony bread-maker with the leather hand, their first and only date, to see LA BOHEME. After playing most of her part with graying hair and little make-up, she's a knock-out. Sigh. Of such stuff are dreams made. (I'm a woman and I'm not gay and yet I still felt the tug of her allure.)

It's not only Cage that falls in love with Cher in this movie. She is radiant. Matter of fact, it's the only film in which I've EVER liked Nicholas Cage. The very satisfactory ending round the kitchen table in the family's brownstone in Brooklyn, is just perfect. And by the way, this is one of those films that makes the simple warmth of family (even if some of them are nuts) devoutly to be wished for. And another by the way, this film introduces some of us to the elderly and charming Italian actor Feodor Chaliapin, who plays the eccentric grandfather in the film with very little spoken language, followed about by his gang of about 8 smallish dogs. The entry scenes of the dogs and the grandfather are highlights in the film.

Starring Johnny Weismuller and Maureen O'Sullivan

I've seen all the Tarzan films over the years - the Weismuller ones and others - but this remains my very favorite and, to my mind, the most romantic of what is, essentially, a series of jungle romances. (When they try to be anything else, they fail.) Though TARZAN THE APE MAN (the first in the series) could give this one a run for its money. If it weren't for the nude underwater scenes shot as if they were ballet (in TARZAN AND HIS MATE), I'd switch the numbers around. These scenes were censored when the film was originally aired on TV and for many years thereafter. Then, finally, they were returned to their rightful place. (Thankfully they weren't destroyed.) The last two times I've seen the film, the sequence was there.

The film also implies that Tarzan and Jane have, somehow, gotten married in the interim between this film (second in the series) and the first. But of course, we know better. I mean, who was there to marry them? They live on the freakin' Mutea Escarpment where the only neighbors appear to be animals, blood thirsty cannibals and other assorted unpleasant native tribes.

Well, either/or, this time out, Jane's friend Harry Holt, from the earlier safari which brought her to Tarzan's attentions and Holt's friend, a rather unscrupulous type, Martin Arlington, played by Paul Cavanaugh (in need of the fortune the cache of ivory in the elephant's burial ground would bring) head back to the Escarpment, a perilous journey every step of the way.

This film is notable for several things. The gorgeous nude underwater scenes. Maureen O'Sullivan (at least it looks like her, not a body double, though you never know) and Johnny Weissmuller, he in only his Tarzan regulation loin-cloth. They swim for several beautiful minutes, all underwater. (He has ripped a dress off her just before they dive in.)

The gown (among several outfits, dresses, hats, shoes etc.) was brought from England by Harry and the vile Martin in hopes that Jane, as a woman, would be shallow enough to be swayed by fripperies into returning to England with them. Do these men know women or what?

They've even brought a wind-up record player which, by the way, scares the hell out of the native bearers and transfixes Tarzan. The lascivious Martin, openly drooling over Jane who has tried on one of the gowns, dances with her - Tarzan should have dealt with him then and there.

Otherwise, Jane's fetching little jungle outfit is the scimpiest it will ever be. Between this and the third film, the censorship board came into being and Jane shows up in later films in this ridiculous neck to mid thigh outfit that just used to make us laugh. She became then and forever, Jane the mom.

There is also, unaccountably, one nearly nude scene in the film's beginning when Martin strips for a bath in a portable tub while having a conversation with Harry Holt. The only thing that prevents us seeing Martin's spare parts are a timely arrival of a servant who steps in front of the camera for a moment. Lots of nudity going on here. But all tastefully done. It does make you wonder, though...What? Oh sorry, my mind...uh, wandered.

A fun film. And never has the magic attraction between Weismuller and O'Sullivan been more apparent. I love it.

6) GIGI (1958)
Starring Leslie Caron, Louis Jourdan, Maurice Chevalier and Hermione Gingold.

This delightful, and at its core, somewhat sophisticated story of courtesans and the men who keep them, is based on the novels of the French turn of the century writer, Collette. The story was adapted expressly for the screen and turned into a musical French pastry (as only Hollywood can) by director Vincente Minnelli and writers Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe.

Leslie Caron plays the young Gigi, a schoolgirl being trained for eventual duties by her grandmother and grand-aunt, both 'retired' courtesans, one more successful than the other. Gigi goes to her wealthy great-aunt's beautiful Parisian flat every day after school for lessons in deportment, the proper way to judge jewels and wines and how to clip cigars so the man won't have to do this little chore. Oh, and how to eat these annoying little bony birds with knife and fork and talk while chewing without opening the mouth. These are some of the funniest scenes in the movie. Leslie Caron is perfection as a girl judged a bit 'backward' by her family. She is viewed as too gauche, straight-forward and gasp, perhaps too intelligently precocious. How will they ever turn her into a 'proper' member of the courtesan class they do not know.

Louis Jourdan is also perfection as Gaston Lachaille, the wealthy Parisian man about town who, at a relatively young age, is already bored to tears with life. When his uncle, Maurice Chevalier, ever the zesty optimist tries to chivy Gaston out of his doldrums by proclaiming, in song, all that Paris has to offer, Gaston grimaces, "What a bore!" He refuses to be happy except when he's in the company of Gigi and her grandmother in their little flat with bright red painted walls. There he can be himself.

And by the way, isn't Gigi a delightful child? One very telling scene: when Gigi (spurred on by her grandmother and grand-aunt when they sense which way the wind is blowing - Gaston-wise), puts on a 'grown-up' sort of gown, Gaston, caught off guard, is affronted by the sight and storms out of the apartment. He has not seen what is happening right in front of his eyes. Gigi is growing up.

This is the most wonderful moment in the film for me, when Jourdan who is not a singer, still manages the song by Lerner and Loewe. As Paris slowly darkens around him Gaston walks, aimlessly with his dark coat, top hat and walking stick - such a dashing figure - so confused and unsure.

"Gigi, am I fool without a mind or have I really been too blind to realize?" Sigh! Double sigh!

Before you can sing a second chorus of the The Night They Invented Champagne, you will guess what happens next. The film is a delicious whirl of nights at Maxims, beautiful women, handsome men, champagne, sparkling jewels, gorgeous costumes, heartbreak, dramatic suicide attempts, reunions, and everything else frothy you can think of when it comes to turn-of-the century Paris. Shot on location, GIGI is a visual feast from beginning to end. Oh, and of course there's Maurice Chevalier at his most bon-vivant. What a charming personality. Just thinking about him makes me smile. He is superb as an aging roue who, somehow, still manages to stay young in spirit. "Thank heaven for little girls, for little girls grow bigger every day. Thank heaven for little girls, they grow up in the most delightful way."

(This is probably a sentiment that could not be expressed today without horrifying the politcally correct, but back then, delight in the difference between the sexes was still an allowable emotion.)

If you love Romance (with a capital R) and the whole idea of being in love, even if you're currently not, you must love this film. The funny thing is that though this is one of the most romantic films ever, there's really not a single love scene between Gaston and Gigi. It's all implied. Perfection.

7) A NEW LEAF (1971)
Starring Walter Matthau and Elaine May (who also directed)

Who would have thought that Matthau would make an excellent leading man in a romantic comedy? I mean, his was not, exactly, the handsomest facade in movies. We chatted about this for a moment or two over at Pattinase's blog - Matthau as leading man. Patti made a very wise observation, she says that Matthau had an 'impishness' about him. And it rang the bell for me. Yes! It was there in the eyes when he turned it on and the camera always picked it up.

It is this quality that stood him heads and tails above the handsome, glittering movie-star leading men of his era. Plus, the fact that Matthau practically steals every scene he's in AND thus is able to carry a movie effortlessly on his shoulders. There are some actors like that. Matthau was one of them. There may never be his like again.

I wrote about A NEW LEAF here on the blog a while back. So really, I have nothing more to add except: see this oh-so-wonderful film! If you haven't, already, that is.

8) TOP HAT (1935)
Starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers

Oh the plot, the plot, the plot makes little sense except that somehow, it all works. Here goes: Ginger Rogers meets Fred Astaire in London. He is a dancing star working on a show produced by his friend, Horace Hardwick, played by the inimitable Edward Everett Horton. Through a series of missteps Ginger thinks Fred is married - she's mistaken him for the Horace Hardwick character.

Fred is staying in Horton's hotel room because the hotel is full or some other nonsense. That night, while showing Horace his new steps, Fred's tap-dancing wakes Ginger who is sleeping in the room below. Fred goes downstairs to see what the fuss is about since Ginger has complained to management that the guest upstairs from her is making it impossible for her to sleep. ANYWAY, once they meet, Fred is instantly smitten.

Ginger is a model working for a designer played by the wonderful Erik Rhodes (Alberto Beddini, a priceless caricature of an Italian designer who refers to himself in the third person), showing off his clothes in various tourist spots around Europe. (I think that's what she does, not sure.) Well, Ginger and her friend Madge, played by Helen Broderick, (who is married to Horace but, for some reason, Ginger has never met him, at least until the tap-dancing incident, she thinks.) go off to Venice for the weekend so that Ginger can get away and think things through. They're joined there by Fred who has followed Ginger and Horace, who is meeting up with his wife Madge. Get it?

Now this is a Venice never dreamed of except in Hollywood. It beats even the one in Las Vegas. What an immaculately perfect place, everything white and sparkling. Such gorgeous, gleaming effervescence, the enormous hotel rooms, the set decorations, the gowns, the men in black tie, anyone likely, at any moment, to break out in song and dance.This was the age of art-deco writ large across the silver screen, mostly in dazzling white against black. It was all a lovely musical dream. An era that will never come again.

Once there, all sorts of further missteps are taken by our little group, though not, of course when Fred dances with Ginger to the tune of Irving Berlin's Cheek To Cheek. (Ginger wearing the famous feathered gown which Fred and the director had thought impractical since feathers fall off the dress as they move about, still I love the way Ginger looks in it.) OMG, no wonder she falls in love with him. Fred Astaire had the knack, once he started dancing, of making women swoon with very little effort. When he and Ginger get to the end of this particular number, she gives him such a wondrous look, really as if he'd actually just made love to her. Which, I suppose he had, in dance. Wonderful scene.

Anyway, after a few more missed connections, Ginger marries her ludicrous designer boss, reasoning that Fred wouldn't dare come after a married woman. But then, after yet another mis-understanding, it turns out that Ginger isn't REALLY married, Madge finally figures out what's going on and sets Ginger straight. All is forgiven. Edward Everett Horton gets a black eye and Ginger and Fred dance off into their happy ending.

Starring Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn

Cary Grant at his zenith. Katherine Hepburn at hers. Both at the top of their comedy game. Who couldn't love this movie? He plays a befuddled, distracted paleontologist who is about to be married to the wrong woman (not Hepburn). They both work at a small museum which is desperately short of grant money. Despite being socially inept, he must figure out how to get an endowment from a wealthy type he's never met. In the meantime he is putting together the huge skeleton of a brontosaurus. (They're not called brontosaurus now, but you know what I mean.)

In his search for an endowment, Grant is off to Connecticut to try and meet up with a certain society-type money-man. There he makes the mistake of running into Katherine Hepburn who plays a scatter-brained, very wealthy society girl who, instantly, falls in love with Grant and spends the rest of the movie chasing him. Basically that's it. Oh, there's a leopard involved too, the 'baby' of the title. Two leopards, really. One sent from Africa as a gift for Hepburn and one escaped from a circus - one sweet-natured, one not. Lots of confusion when one leopard is mistaken for the other. And last, but not least,there's a funny little monster of a dog who practically steals all the scenes he is in.

Not only are Grant and Hepburn wonderful (they seem made to play these sorts of roles with ease and finesse), but the supporting cast of characters is top-notch as was often the case in films of this era. There are hilarious scenes at Hepburn's family's country estate where Hepburn steals Grant's clothes so he can't leave and he's forced to wear one of her dressing gowns, jodhpurs and riding boots. (The only clothing he can find in that moment.) He walks around adjusting his eyeglasses and looking absolutely lost at sea.

In the meantime, the small monster dog (really a wire-haired terrier) has stolen the fossil bone Grant had been carrying around (for reasons I can't remember). He'd left it in a box on the bed in a guest room at the estate. The dog, naturally, runs off with it and buries it somewhere on the grounds.

There's a very funny dinner table scene with Grant, Hepburn, the aunt, played perfectly by May Robson AND the aunt's dinner guest, a big game hunter played by Charlie Ruggles. Every time the dog leaves the dining room Grant thinks he's going to find the bone so he jumps up, then Hepburn jumps up and they both run around chasing the dog then return to the table and continue the meal. In fact, there are funny scenes all throughout this very screwball comedy as Grant tries to get away from Hepburn, find the bone and get back to his original purpose of searching out an endowment for the museum. But every step he takes is thwarted by Hepburn. I mean, she is relentless.

Now played by anyone else, this part might not have worked. You might have wanted Grant to strangle Hepburn and be done with it - OR - let the leopard have her. But instead of being annoying, most of the time, Hepburn is endearing. She is SUCH a lunatic. But a lunatic in love. Someone not to be trifled with.

Grant, helpless, just falls deeper and deeper into this maze of confusion until, after awhile, there doesn't seem to be a way out except to give in to Hepburn. He is delightful as a man whose whole life is turned upside down in one short 48 hour period. And, let's face it, he does play something of a dweeb which makes you wonder what Hepburn sees in him from the get-go. What, am I kidding? Look at the man. Ha!

The ending is unforgettable. Won't say a word except: brontosaurus skeleton. Well, that's two words. Figure it out.

A great romantic farce of a movie made at a time when actors knew how to do screwball. No one knows how to do this anymore. It's a dead art. Lucky for us, we have these films to show us how it was done, once upon a time.

Starring Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson

One of famed director Douglas Sirk's romantic extravaganzas filmed in the lushest technicolor imaginable. Middle-aged, upper class widow, Jane Wyman has two grown children and a very settled life with her country club friends, playing cards, always behaving and doing all the boring stuff that a woman in her position was expected to do in the 50's. She is not really very happy though she pretends she is. Well, she is EXPECTED to be happy. Even her grown children seem to think her restlessness is untoward. What else could Wyman want? (Well, how about a television at Christmas - that ought to keep a mom satisfied.)

Even better how about Rock Hudson? He is the gardener she's recently hired to work around her property. He is younger than she (very daring in those times) and the sort of man her friends and her children would never in a million years suspect Jane might have an eye on.

He is the sort of man who sees no social barriers or if he does, steps right over them. He's a disciple of Thoreau, all he-man lumberjack physicality, a nature-lover with the soul of a poet. A perfect part for the young god that was Rock in his prime.

Anyway, they fall in love after Rock shows Jane a different sort of life than the dreary one she's used to. And once he takes her to his magical mill house complete with ancient wheel and stone walls and fireplace, well, what's a girl to do? He also has great salt-of-the-earth friends who drink cheap wine, fashion pot-luck dinners, sing songs at the drop of a hint and probably write poetry.

Well, once Jane introduces Rock as her new beau to her friends and children, the you-know-what hits the fan. Oh no, mother, he's not your sort, he's not your kind, he's a - horrors! - gardener. What would people think? Eventually all this wears Jane down and she breaks it off with Rock. Fool that she is.

As a reward, the kids buy her a large console television set so she won't ever be lonely. (This is an especially sad little scene.)

Well, eventually Jane comes to her senses and she and Rock work their way back to each other. But not before tears are shed, apologies are tendered, and Jane's daughter comes to the realization that being a woman of a certain age doesn't mean her mother's emotional life is over.

Certainly not a great film, but a great romantic film. The sort that makes you sigh and makes you believe, at least for a minute or two, that love really does conquer all.

NOW, for some runners-up:

starring Ziyi Zhang, Takeshi Kaneshero and Andy Lao

starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan

starring Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal

14) NOTTING HILL (1999)
starring Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant

15) A ROOM WITH A VIEW (1985)
starring Helena Bonham Carter, Julian Sands, Maggie Smith and Daniel Day-Lewis

16) ROXANNE (1987)
starring Steve Martin and Daryl Hannah

17) MAURICE (1987)
starring Hugh Grant, James Wilby and Rupert Graves

18) SPLASH (1984)
starring Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah

19) DIRTY DANCING (1987)
starring Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey

starring Rex Harrison and Gene Tierney

starring Stewart Granger and Deborah Kerr

You will no doubt notice that I've left off the Colin Firth version of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE though it is hard to beat this for romance with a capital R. But I have a reason: It was a television series. Not strictly a film

Since it's Tuesday, don't forget to check in later at Todd Mason's blog, Sweet Freedom, to see what other films other bloggers are talking about today. 

Friday, November 21, 2014

FFB: SILVER MEADOW (2002) by Barry Maitland

Four years ago, a vicious, methamphetamine-laced armed robber named Gregory North (known as 'Upper North') killed two guards in a bank robbery and got away. But Chief Inspector David Brock has never stopped looking for him even as other cases intervene and the trail has all but disappeared. Now, at the site of a more recent and very grisly murder, a witness claims to have spotted North in a crowd of shoppers.

This is my second favorite Barry Maitland book (after THE VERGE PRACTICE which I waxed rhapsodic about a few weeks ago) and here are the reasons why:

1) The setting: the ostentatiously huge and often mind boggling Silver Meadow Mall in Essex, scene of the crime. The modern retail mall as refuge for disaffected teenagers and petty crime is no stranger to modern fiction, but Silver Meadow is beyond anything ever experienced by modern day shoppers or, for that matter, modern day readers. This is mall as nightmare destination. In fact, after reading this book you might not ever look at your local mall in quite the same way again. I know I won't.

With it's ever-present uniformed security team and the constant monitoring of cameras round the clock, one wonders how a teenage girl could be murdered at Silver Meadow and no one have noticed anything. But the sprawling mall has hidden depths (literally) of dark cavernous byways, having been built on an old and mostly forgotten archaeological site. It is this sort of unexpected detail which adds an eerie aura to this tale of violent crime set among the forced gaiety of shoppers and workers at a retail palace of glitz - a place with a Vegas-like working volcano which spews lava every hour on the hour accompanied by flashing lights special effects.

2) The protagonists: Chief Inspector David Brock sends ever intrepid Sergeant Kathy Kolla to investigate the murder of a 14 year old whose body has turned up in a trash compactor at Silver Meadow, while he investigates the possible return of the murderous villain Gregory North - at first seen as a separate investigation despite the possible mall sighting.

As usual with a Barry Maitland book, you get a variety of colorful side characters who turn up to obfuscate and/or add their own brand of special 'charm' to what is a dark tale of murder at the hands of a cunning killer and his witting and/or unwitting cronies.

This is pretty gritty stuff, so not light reading at all. Still, it's the sort of book I wouldn't mind rereading and probably will. I was simply fascinated by the bone-chilling behind the scenes at this sinister mall. Most especially with Christmas shopping season just at hand.

It's Friday, so don't forget to check in at Patti Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other Forgotten (or Overlooked) Books other bloggers are talking about today.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Seen and Appreciated at BRAIN PICKING

THE LION AND THE BIRD by French Canadian graphic designer and illustrator Marianne Dubuc.

"I don't write for children," Maurice Sendak scoffed in his final interview. " I write - and somebody says, 'That's for children!' "


The Graphic Canon Books edited by Russ Kick

THE GRAPHIC CANON OF CHILDREN'S LITERATURE: Comic Artist Reimagine Beloved Childhood Classics from Tolstoy's Fairy Tales to Harry Potter - edited by Russ Kick:

"Part of the appeal is my belief that 'children's literature' can be great literature, period. Works meant primarily for children or teens are usually ghettoized, considered unworthy of serious treatment and study. But the best of it achieves a greatness through heightened use of language, through examination of universal themes and human dilemmas, and through nuance and layers of meaning. 

One sign of a great work of literature or art is that it can be interpreted multiple ways, that it remains ambiguous, refusing to provide clear-cut answers."

I couldn't agree more. Take a moment to check out these thought-provoking featured adaptations of tales we might have thought we knew.

Brain Picking link - Graphic Canon 

There are three other Graphic Canon volumes edited by Russ Kick in which various graphic artists take on the work of  authors such as Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Bronte, James Joyce and the like.

Russ Kick at Seven Stories Press - info re: the Graphic Canon books.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Tuesday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Films, Television and/or Other Audio/Visuals: 7 Movie Posters

Mary Englebreit source

It's movie poster day! (You know how I love great film posters.) I found the following (except for the last one) at the excellent film blog, WHERE DANGER LIVES, where the best film posters are regularly, gorgeously on view. The place is a feast for the eyes, minds and hearts of vintage movie mavens. 


Since it's Tuesday, don't forget to check in later at Todd Mason's blog, Sweet Freedom, to see what other Forgotten (or Overlooked) Films, Television or other Audio/Visuals, other bloggers are talking about today. 

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Saturday Salon: A Painting I Love

Click on the painting to see a larger view. Source.

A painting I came across on my internet 'travels'. I'd never heard of the artist, Evelyn Dunbar until recently, and as you know, I'm always on the look-out for little known artists whose work needs another good look. I am especially fond of British war time paintings. This is one I'd definitely love to own.

A 1944 Pastoral - Land Girls Pruning in East Malling is such an evocative work, saying so much about the time in England's past when women had to step in and do 'men's work' while the men were off fighting WWII.  They all saw their duty and they did it. I love the women's singular purpose, the painting's border, the clothing - especially the head gear, the tools, the idea of readying an orchard for the next year's harvest in the midst of war. Sanguinity.

Read more about this painting, here at this Fruit Forum link which usually, I suppose, has more to do with fruit than painting, but Ian Harrison does a wonderful job of examining the work and the artist.

Also discovered this dedicated blog, Evelyn Dunbar, A Series of Commentaries on Her Paintings by Christopher Campbell-Howes, which has many details about Dunbar's work and life.


More about the Women's Land Army.

Friday, November 14, 2014

FFB: EARLY AUTUMN (1980) by Robert B. Parker

This is a readjustment of a post from November, 2010. I thought it was time to talk about my favorite Robert Parker book once again. 

EARLY AUTUMN is an early Spenser book by Parker (the seventh in the series), published in 1980. It is also my favorite. Though I've enjoyed most of the Spenser books, this one remains at the top of the heap for me. I'm also extremely fond of its sequel PAST TIME, written several years and many other Spenser adventures later. But that's a talk for another day. Today I'm, once again, sharing my enthusiasm for EARLY AUTUMN and hoping to get you to read it if you haven't.

The urban renewers had struck again. They'd evicted me, a fortune teller, and a bookie from the corner of Mass. Ave. and Boylston, moved in with sandblasters and bleached oak and plant hangers, and last I looked appeared to be turning the place into a Marin County whorehouse. I moved down Boylston Street to the corner of Berkeley, second floor. I was half a block from Brooks Brothers and right over a bank. I felt at home. In the bank they did the same kind of stuff the fortune-teller and the bookie had done. But they dressed better.

From this beginning, you know what you're in for. The kind of hip, wise-ass detective story where a client sashays into Spenser's office, they trade a few quips and within a few pages you're off and running on another tale of Boston murder and tough guy aphorisms - and you'd be right.

Except it turns out that, as the paperback blurb for Early Autumn says, "Spenser's most personal case begins here..." Oh, the case starts out with a dishy blonde hiring Spenser to do a job - no problem, but then the job turns into something Spenser and possibly, the reader, could never have anticipated.

I like this summary from my Dell paperback: A bitter divorce is only the beginning. First the father hires thugs to kidnap his son. Then the mother hires Spenser to get the boy back. But as soon as Spenser senses the lay of the land, he decides to do some kidnapping of his own. With a contract out on his life, he heads for the Maine woods, determined to give a puny fifteen-year-old a crash course in survival and to beat his dangerous opponents at their own brutal game.

The lay of the land is this: Neither the mother nor the father have any time or affection for this unhappy kid. He is merely a pawn in their divorce battles. The boy, Paul Giacomin, is withdrawn and uncommunicative, a geek in the worse sense of the word - a boy who, at fifteen, seems destined to be cast aside by life.

Against his self-centered girlfriend (and you know how we don't like her even one little bit) Susan Silverman's wishes, Spenser decides to do something about Paul before it's too late. (And by the way, this is one of the Spenser books which shows us why very few people like the character of Susan Silverman and only put up with her because Spenser, for whatever reason, loves her.) Her behavior is kind of odd really because Susan is a psychologist, you'd think someone in that profession would be eager to help a kid in obvious trouble. But I digress...

The point is: Spenser steps in and saves the day. But it's how he actually goes about it that makes this book so damned entertaining, enlightening and even moving. In a way that's hard to define, EARLY AUTUMN is more than a mere detective story, it's a primer on how to turn a troubled teenager into a good and reasonable young man.

Of course, there's violence and brutality and a murder or two, but this is to be expected in a Spenser tale. It's the other story going on, the saving of Paul Giacomin that makes this book so special. This is a book to be read in one evening if you like since it's the sort of thing that's hard to put down until the finale which is both satisfying and brilliantly realized.

In certain ways, (I'm sure you'll recognize what I mean) it wouldn't hurt for any adult with a teenage boy in his or her life, to read Early Autumn and perhaps learn a thing or two from, yes, an action-filled private eye book in a genre not known for its child-rearing wisdom.

It's hard not to love this book (and Spenser) and I recommend it even if you are still not a serious fan of the mystery/thriller persuasion.

Robert B. Parker's Fantastic Fiction page has all the titles of all the books in all the series.

And since it's Friday, don't forget to check in at Patti Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other Forgotten (or Overlooked) Books other bloggers are talking about today.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Tuesday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Films: LA GRANDE ILLUSION starring Pierre Fresnay, Erich Von Stroheim, Jean Gabin, Dita Parlo and Marcel Dalio

A short post today, feeling a bit wonky:

THE GRAND ILLUSION (1937) aka La Grande Illusion, a French film directed by Jean Renoir based on a screenplay by Charles Spaak and Jean Renoir and starring Pierre Fresnay, Erich Von Stroheim, Jean Gabin, Dita Parlo and Marcel Dalio.

A superb film which, without much fuss or film-making shock and awe, reveals the emptiness of war and the valor and humanity of men. 

After many trials and tribulations, two WWI French soldiers, Lieutenant Marechal (Jean Gabin), a working class officer and Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), an officer and aristocrat, are captured and sent to an impregnable German fortress/POW camp from which no one has ever escaped. The camp is run by the gentlemanly Captaine Von Ruffenstein (Erich Von Stroheim), a stoic in mind, body (he wears a stiff neck brace) and manners who soon forms an unlikely friendship based on class and mutual friends, with Captain de Boeldieu. 

It is this friendship which in the end speaks volumes, historically and otherwise, about the terrible futility of war, the end of chivalry and worse, the death of illusion. A very human and approachable film, even these many years later. 

THE GRAND ILLUSION is listed as one of the greatest films ever made by just about everyone, including me. 

To read the entire plot, please go to the film's Wikipedia page, here

To read a Roger Ebert review, please check this link.

P.S. Of course, Jean Renoir's imaginative concepts influenced later war films. Example: In THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963), the scene in which POW prisoners dig a tunnel and funnel the earth through their pants is taken, almost literally, from GRAND ILLUSION.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Have a good Veteran's Day.

A soldier celebrates Thanksgiving. J.C. Leyendecker, 1917.

On Veteran's Day please take a moment to remember the brave men and women to whom we owe so much.

A fascinating look at WWI history and how the utterly tragic 'war to end all wars' influenced the shape of our world today - from the NY TIMES.

Friday, November 7, 2014

FFB: I AM THE ONLY RUNNING FOOTMAN (1986) by Martha Grimes - A Richard Jury mystery.

Some of you may know that I am a big fan of Martha Grimes' Richard Jury books - in fact, I've read them all. But most of you know that I'm an old lady with miles of baggage on her chassis, the result being that many of these books have disappeared into the tomb of time that is my memory.

Ergo, I'm beginning again with Martha Grimes, rereading all the Jury books I have in the house while I wait for the new Bryant and May book by Christopher Fowler, due out next month. (I drop everything for Bryant and May).

I AM THE ONLY RUNNING FOOTMAN is the eighth Jury book, the title of which is based on an existing pub in Great Britain - all the Jury books are titled after pubs and lately, restaurants.

I've written about Grimes' unique style and quirks before, so today I'm quoting an example and hope it captures your imagination. See, here's the thing with Grimes - you have to use your imagination to 'get' what she's doing. If you don't, you won't. Simple as that.

There is a killer on the loose who has strangled a couple of young women - one in Devon and one closer to home in Mayfair. Jury is called in on the Mayfair murder and then must coordinate with Brian Macalvie of the Devon constabulary, a rather parochial but brilliant cop he met in a previous book. In the meantime, Melrose Plant, Jury's aristocratic friend must put on (no matter how unwillingly) his amateur detective guise and head out to Devon to help a nice young woman in trouble.

Martha Grimes is devilishly good at combing aspects of 'the cozy' with the more bizarre and violent nature of modern day crime. It's what throws some people off - but it's the part of her writing that I love most. No one else does it as successfully, though many have tried. Grimes is unique in her handling of the crime novel, she doesn't stint on the grisly activities of human beings and their beastly natures yet her books do contain cozy elements though they are definitely not cozies. It can strike some as odd, it never did me.

And now to the section that had me laughing last night, even though I knew we were on the hunt for a probable serial killer. The setting: Melrose Plant has arrived in Devon and is staying at a black and white Tudor timbered country inn called the Mortal Man. It is owned and operated by a family with the odd last name of Warboys (or maybe in England that's a common name), innkeepers who will test Plant's mettle to the fullest.

Breakfast was an occasion involving the usual hazards. He should have known that the juice would spill, the porridge tilt, and the mackerel slide and taken the precaution of wearing a bib.

As Melrose ate the mackerel he had rescued from his lap, he listened to the keening sound coming from the kitchen. It increased and diminished each time Sally Warboys slapped open the door to bring him another dish. It might have been the screech of a kettle forgotten on the hob or the youngest Warboys (there was a baby, too) with some intractable demand. There had already come from the kitchen the clatter of breaking crockery and the usual assortment of angry voices as the Warboyses took their battle stations.

Sally Warboys, in washboard gray, came out of the kitchen in her half-run, half-walk, to deposit Merlrose's pot of tea, which struck the table edge and sent hot water splashing down the cloth, just missing his hand by an inch. To call the Warboyses accident-prone would have been to do them an injustice, he thought; there was something here that smacked of deeply rooted tribal behavior.

As he blotted a bit of grease from his cuff, he noticed that the lad who done porter duty and dropped his bag had come into the dining room. This room was undergoing a Warboysian transformation, with Bobby [Warboys] up on his ladder swinging his hammer.

William sat at the table across the room. In another this might have been called a 'respectful distance,' but in a Warboys it looked like the first step in a campaign from which Melrose doubted he would emerge the victor. The boy sat stiff and staring, with a gaze so intent it pried Melrose's eyes up like a lever. 

He was assisted in this scrutiny by Osmond, who lay on the floor with his head on his paws, eyes unflinching. Melrose assumed this was tactical necessity on the dog's part, like a falling back of troops readying for a surprise attack. He wondered if there had ever been guests at the Mortal Man before he happened along, for none there seemed to know what to make of one - whether to hold him hostage or kill him outright.

"Good morning," said Melrose cheerily. "It's William, isn't it?"

The boy responded swiftly and came over to the table. He sat down and placed a small notebook and pencil, or the stub of a pencil, beside the plate of buttered crumpet that Melrose had not ordered. When Melrose invited him to have one, he pulled the plate and marmalade pot over with an alacrity that would have made one think he'd been on prison rations up to now.

The Warboyses will be mentioned now and again in future Jury books. Martha Grimes has a habit of investing even minor side characters (and their pets, usually dogs, though occasionally cats) with memorable quirks too colorful to be completely forgotten, even by me.

Simply put: I love the Richard Jury series and if a couple of the later ones are not Grimes' best work, the remainder are definitely worth looking for. Martha Grimes' Fantastic Fiction page has a handy list of all her books.

NOTE: Since it's Friday, don't forget to check in at Patti Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other Forgotten (or Overlooked) Books other bloggers are talking about today. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Tuesday Forgotten Television: ACTION IN THE AFTERNOON - From the action-packed days of yesteryear and the warped annals of television history!

Gil Thompson and Horse in ACTION IN THE AFTERNOON

The other day a friend and I were talking ancient television shows and suddenly ACTION IN THE AFTERNOON jumped into my brain. Unfortunately no one else seems to have heard of this, much less watched it - or maybe it's that no one wants to admit to having watched it.

ACTION IN THE AFTERNOON ran for a year - 1953 - 1954 - and I rushed home religiously every day after school to watch it. (This was before AMERICAN BANDSTAND with Dick Clark caught on big time and rock and roll changed the world forever. Hyperbole? I think not.)

A live-action western - the only live western without inserted film clips - ever broadcast on CBS or elsewhere, for that matter, and I seem to be the only one who ever watched it. Tell me this isn't so. Disabuse me of the notion. Tell me there were others out there enthralled by the whole idea of horses and 'colorful' town folk, schoolmarms, bank robbers, sheriffs, grizzled cowpokes and fist fights, moving about in real time, mistakes, missed cues, odd background noises, recalcitrant and/or jumpy horses and all. (Actually, the horses were the best part.)

I loved it.

I can trace my eternal affection for cowboy movies and such to Roy Rogers, Red Ryder, Lash LaRue, The Lone Ranger et al  keeping me company Saturday afternoons at the movies, and of course, ACTION IN THE AFTERNOON every day after school. Hey, I lived in Manhattan - this was the wild west to me. Even if it originated in Pennsylvania.

Since it's Tuesday once again, don't forget to check in at Todd Mason's blog, Sweet Freedom, to see what other Forgotten (or Overlooked) Films, Television and/or Other Audio/Visuals other bloggers are talking about today. 

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Saturday Salon: Contemporary painter James Aponovich

James Aponovich is a contemporary American painter born in Nashua, New Hampshire. He still lives and works in New Hampshire, though his work is widely exhibited and is in the collections of several museums. Aponovich is best know for his controlled and wonderfully detailed still life visions. My favorites are what I call his 'balcony' paintings which combine the still life imperative with intriguing glimpses of faraway places.

To learn more about the painter and his work, please check out his blog and also the Clark Gallery page (among several gallery pages) and the blog, Aponovich and Johansson at Home and Away.

Friday, October 31, 2014

A Quick Review: DEATH COMES TO PEMBERLEY - PBS Masterpiece Mystery

Just finished watching Episode One on the PBS (available until Nov. 2nd, I think) website. DEATH COMES TO PEMBERLEY is based on the book by mystery great P.D. James. A book I'd very eagerly looked forward to because, after all, P.D. James created the Commander Adam Dalgliesh books, ipso-facto, this Jane Austen pastiche had to be good.

Boy was I wrong. The book is dreadful.So bad I couldn't even finish it. But I won't go into details here. I wrote about my disappointment earlier this year and that's enough.

Somehow I though the television film would have to be better than the book. Right? PBS. Masterpiece Mystery. Matthew Rhys. Need I say more?

Gee whiz, I was wrong again.

If this first episode is anything to go by, I won't be watching the second or the third. This is dreary stuff, limp and uninspired, even hard to understand. The production is abysmally cast with people whose accents don't seem to be quite the proper thing. Several of them sound almost American in tone and we know they are Brits. The dialogue has no crispness, no Austen tone at all. This is Regency England or at least, a few years past the Regency - mid-19th century. So what gives?

The casting is so entirely wrong. Even Matthew Rhys seems not able to live up to Pemberley, that glorious house. Actually, the house itself is the best thing about the production. The camera-work is wonderful too and the scenery. But ladies and gents, that's not enough.

In comparison to the superb PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (1995) starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle and an incredibly fine cast, this production is just lame. There I've said it. Lame and boring.

Anna Maxwell Martin (who is wonderful in THE BLETCHLEY CIRCLE) is entirely miscast, lost in the part of Elizabeth Bennett Darcy. She looks haggard, not at all lovely, her costumes so ill-fitted they make her look less like the lady of the manor and more like a downstairs servant. In one scene she is wearing this dreary hat that any housemaid might wear and wearing it askew - didn't someone notice? She looks NOTHING like the Elizabeth Bennett so wonderfully played by Jennifer Ehle. I'm talking about the character's style and zest. In comparison, this Elizabeth Bennett looks like a washerwoman.

But the rest of the lackluster cast including the Bennett mother, father and sisters are no better. Who are these people? You'll note that I don't bother to name names. One is hard put to differentiate between them.

Matthew Rhys as Darcy is nice to look at but a bit too rugged in my opinion, not refined enough, and hardly seems in command of his surroundings.

What ever happened to the delightful Miss Bennett? Has marriage to Darcy turned her into a drudge?  From the first she appears to be wearing the same ugly green dress for an entire day - morning to night, even though company is expected - a ball is planned at Pemberley.

 Later, sister Jane shows up in an outfit almost the same color as Liz's - they blend into each other - something that I would have thought was a costume design no-no. The men's neckcloths and linen appear damp and soiled and not at all the sort of thing that would have been worn by people of this social class. Yes, it's the country, but really, would they have all looked so sloppy?

What the heck happened here? Did they run out of money? Attention to detail, the niceties of costume and language are the main reasons we love these sorts of things. When all that is missing all that's left is soap opera  - and not very good soap opera at that. Oh yeah and there's a murder. But the guy who's killed is no one we have any emotional interest in. So from the first we're hampered by lack of connection.

I simply had to write this tonight. I'm sorry to be so harsh, but I was SO disappointed. I hate when that happens.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Tuesday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Film: ANATOMY OF A MURDER (1959) starring James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, Arthur O'Connell, Eve Arden, George C. Scott

Hadn't seen this in many years and the truth is I remembered it as being better than it is. But still, it's what we used to call, 'a pretty good flick'.

ANATOMY OF A MURDER is a film directed by Otto Preminger, from a script by Wendell Mayes based on the novel by Robert Traver and starring James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazarra, Arthur O'Connell, Eve Arden and George C. Scott.

Watched it last night on Netflix streaming and thought I'd jot down a few of my impressions:

Here, in my view, is one instance where the Saul Bass credits don't work as well as they might. Bass, as everyone knows was a brilliant graphic artist and designer, creator of many iconic film opening credits. Among my favorites: THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM, WALK ON THE WILD SIDE, WEST SIDE STORY, THE BIG COUNTRY and so on and so on - fabulous stuff. Actually, in some cases, the credits themselves were better than the movie, as in the remarkable credits for WALK ON THE WILD SIDE which was an abysmal flopperoo.

Well, my reasoning for not liking the fit of Bass's modernistic credits for ANATOMY OF A MURDER is that the movie is not especially 'modernistic' in tone or subject or even in point of view - though of course there is all that talk about a woman's panties and even, dare I say it, the mention of sperm.Shocking, I suppose, in its time.

The credits are done in a very graphic style which is jarring in the sense that they mislead. But in this view I am probably in the minority and really, the credits are intriguing enough to capture the attention. Mustn't nitpick.

The low-key soundtrack is by Duke Ellington who rarely fails (he even has a small part as - what else? - a jazz musician), the music is alluring if maybe slightly too modern in feel. But it captures the 'sleaze' quotient of the crime.

The bare-bones plot:

Lt. Frederick Manion (the very intense Ben Gazarra) has been arrested for the murder of a local bar-tender named Barney Quill. Manion claims he shot Quill (five times) because the man raped and beat his wife, Laura (the beautiful and always vulnerable Lee Remick). From behind bars, Manion hires lawyer Paul Biegler (the laconic James Stewart) to defend him. Biegler has, as his 'crew' a hard-drinking, older 'law-clerk' Parnell McCarthy (the irascible Arthur O'Connell) and a wise-cracking secretary, Maida Rutledge (the always wonderful Eve Arden who made a career of wise-cracking).

Lt. Manion will plead guilty due to temporary insanity, a defense which the wily Biegler nudges him into.

Though most of the film takes place inside a courtroom, the setting is a bland, run-of-the-mill Michigan town near the Canadian border - try as I might, I never did catch the name. The film is shot in a slightly clunky way in black and white by Sam Leavitt. There are unaccountable moments in the beginning of the film when the camera-work seems almost amateurish, but it may just be that the version Netlix is streaming is not the best available. There are also some very claustrophobic scenes in Paul Biegler's small ugly house in which James Steward just seems too tall and too big for the rooms. (Actually, even Eve Arden looks odd inside that house.) But maybe that's intentional, at any rate, I couldn't wait to leave and head for the courthouse.

The lurid courtroom dramatics are powerful. The details of the sordid crime are gone into with a stoic 1959 relish which is at times appalling and at other times grimly laughable.

James Stewart shines as a lawyer outraged by the violence done to the wife of his client and eager to keep the prosecutors from glossing over the motive for hubby's extreme retribution. There is no 'crime passionel' aspect to the murder, since the Lt. waited an hour before heading out to kill the man who'd attacked his wife.

Inside that courtroom are two scene-stealers who manage to steal the show right out from under Stewart's nose: George C. Scott as a state attorney brought in to bolster the prosecution and best of all, Joseph N. Welch as the Judge.

Joseph N. Welch, James Stewart, Brooks West, George C. Scott

Joseph N. Welch was a curious bit of casting. He was a hero, a real lawyer, the head counsel for the U.S. Army while it was being investigated (in 1954) by the nefarious Senator Joseph McCarthy's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations which was on the hunt for communist activity therein. The investigation came to be known as the Army-McCarthy hearings.

Welch uttered the famous words: "Senator you've done enough. Have you no decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"

As Judge Weaver, Welch gently wrestles the picture from the rest of the more seasoned cast and is a delight to behold. I would watch this film again purely for his performance.

George C. Scott as Assistant State Attorney General Claude Dancer is so intense in his role that he out-inteses Ben Gazzara which is no small feat let me tell you. In his powerful scenes with Lee Remick he seems to abuse her physically while never coming in contact with her. I thought for a moment he was going to jump out of his skin. He is as repellent as a cobra. That battered profile of his works a treat in close-ups.

But the rest of the cast is almost as good:

Lee Remick as Laura Manion is heart-breaking in her courtroom scenes, most of all because she seems so puzzled by it all. She plays a woman used to being oggled by men and not averse to drawing attention to herself by her 'jiggly' style of dress (she doesn't even wear a girdle for God's sake!). She sends out lures consciously or unconsciously that most men would have to be dead not to notice - even that old sweetheart, James Stewart, looks as if he'd like nothing more than to spend the night up at the trailer-park. Oh yes, Laura and her hubby live in a trailer - within walking distance of the local bar and grill and pinball machine emporium. (Well, one pinball machine does not an emporium make, but you know what I mean.)

James Stewart can't help looking like a sheepdog in his scenes with Lee Remick.

Despite her womanly wiles, Laura has a kind of naive quality which makes her seem less like a femme fatale and more like a lost innocent. In a way, she is the enigma at the heart of the film. She never seems outraged by the attack on her person or the fact that she has been raped. Rather she seems almost accepting of it. As she is accepting of the fact that no one thought to call the police and report the attack until after her hubby had killed the perp.

So strange to see a U.S. Army soldier sporting a cigarette holder. Kind of takes away from Ben Gazzara's intenseness. But I'm sure there was a very definite reason.

Ben Gazzara as Lt. Manion is another enigma. He is unlikable, not averse to slapping his wife around and basically unrepentant. Gazzara plays the part not in any way meant to make us feel sorry for his predicament which, in a way, is a weakness in the story.

There seems to be a heartbreaking futility in the lives of Mr. and Mrs. Manion.

James Stewart is wonderful as a guy with an obviously huge ego and a brilliant canny mind - a guy who, for whatever reason, is a lifelong bachelor seemingly devoid of ambition and apparently satisfied to wile away the days barely making a living and fishing for trout. We learn little of his background - except that he likes to fish and play or listen to jazz - but maybe that's okay. Still, I did wonder at his oddly uncomfortable way of living. Wondered too, why he'd need a secretary if his client list was so paltry. Still, I wouldn't have missed Eve Arden for the world.

Though ANATOMY OF A MURDER is a terrific courtroom drama not to be missed, it is not a great film. And here the blame goes to Otto Preminger who's directing wizardry isn't enough to quite hold the thing together.

Since it's Tuesday, don't forget to check in at Todd Mason's blog, Sweet Freedom, to see what other Forgotten (or Overlooked) Films, Television and/or Other Audio/Visuals other bloggers are talking about today.