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Thursday, September 30, 2010

THE WINNING OF BARBARA WORTH (1926)

Sam Goldwyn didn’t make a lot of Westerns, but this large-scaled modern one about taming the mighty Colorado River for irrigating the SouthWest desert was turned into a solid drama for his big romantic stars, Vilma Banky & Ronald Colman. With spectacular location lensing from George Barnes & his asst Gregg Toland; jaw-dropping special effects for the climactic flood scenes; and solid helming from Henry King (just off the superb silent version of STELLA DALLAS; Goldwyn couldn’t miss. (Top scripter Francis Marion does miss some big ‘story beats’ in her adaptation, but it’s possible that the physically stunningly, beautifully preserved 9-reel version we have was cut down from a longer ‘roadshow’ presentation.) But what really makes this one stand out is the all but accidental casting of young Gary Cooper as the second guy in the romantic triangle. It’s hard to believe that anyone could steal a film from Colman, but Coop’s got the better role and the camera just eats him up. You will too. The superb image on the M-G-M DVD edition has no Extras and only comes with a Gaylord Carter organ score. But since it was recorded at a live screening, you can occasionally hear the audience response. That’s special, too, since Sam Goldwyn’s widow Francis and director King were both in attendance.

CONTEST: Gary Cooper wasn't the only performer to break thru to stardom in a 1926 film that ends with a spectacular flood. Name the other film and budding star to win our usual prize, a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of the NetFlix DVD of your choice.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

HAK SE WUI / ELECTION (2005)

Scrupulous execution makes this gangster film, from Hong Kong helmer Johnnie To, something special. The election in play is for the biennial position as head of the local Triad and two men are vying for the top spot just as the local police are closing in on all the mob players. But while the local backstabbing and violence are playing out, a missing dragon head’s baton, the traditional symbol of authority, has gone missing on the wrong side of the Chinese border. Johnnie To manages to thread dozens of characters and plot twists without losing a beat (or confusing a non-Asian viewer) while tossing off superbly built action sequences and some stunning character reversals. Three or four bits should go down as instant classics and if To can’t balance all his lines of action (the police P.O.V. tends to get lost), he pulls us in without tacitly approving of the pandering sadism, eccentric crowd-pleasing psychopaths & unearned grandiosity you find in so many modern mob epics. Thrilling stuff, right to the end.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

ANNIE OAKLEY (1935)


Just about everyone is at their best in this endearing bit of Hollywood Americana. Like its better-known musical cousin (ANNIE GET YOUR GUN/’50), this film has to invent some dramatic action once Annie appears fresh from the backwoods. (The real Annie led a happy, wildly successful & largely uneventful life with her husband/manager.) But the two treatments are quite different. Here, Annie doesn’t want to show up her handsome shooting rival, but he doesn’t mind a bit. In fact, he suggests they play up a phony feud. Good for the box-office, even if it makes him look like a vainglorious jerk. But the sham works so well it leads to some major misunderstandings. Barbara Stanwyck’s Annie is so natural & sympathetic, you fall just as hard as Buffalo Bill & Co. Moroni Olsen as Bill and Melvyn Douglas as his manager & Annie’s romantic standby fit their roles perfectly, as does Chief Thunderbird’s Sitting Bull. You’ll need your period blinders for some non-P.C. gags, but the script does let him save the day right at the end. In fact, George Stevens, who helms without pushing anything at us, turns the climax into a marvelous one-reel silent comedy chase. Just as he used to do with Laurel & Hardy.

Friday, September 24, 2010

ONLY THE VALIANT (1951)

Gregory Peck’s natural gravitas serves him well in this U.S. Cavalry Western built out of bits & pieces from a couple of John Ford classics (FORT APACHE/’48; THE LOST PATROL/’34) and a classical classic (those Greeks @ Thermopylae; ‘300'). Peck’s a by-the-book officer who captures, but refuses to kill a war-crazed Apache. When the Indian escapes, Peck has to hold the neighboring fort that guards the pass with a half dozen misfit soldiers he’s specifically chosen as the most expendable men around. It’s a tasty set-up and Peck makes the most of his carefully chosen outbursts, especially when he finally tells off his motley crew. The acting is odder than usual as these things go (Lon Chaney’s ‘Arab’ & Ward Bond’s dog-faced drunk are pretty OTT), while both Lionel Lindon’s lensing & Gordon Douglas’s action megging are unexpectedly flat. (Douglas sure lays on the blood & violence, but his staging is often perfunctory.) This was one of only two films William Cagney produced without brother James as star and the modest budget shows. Better work comes from Franz Waxman who sneaks some cool solo string lines into his score when he isn’t being asked to ‘Mickey Mouse’ the comedy & action stuff.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

ARIEL (1988)

When the latest Hollywood bloat-fest gets you down; when that navel-gazing Sundance winner runs deep as a wading pool; when the Euro-trash smash comes up even emptier than usual; that’s when you turn to the cool, clean, succinct world of Aki Kaurismaki. Aki Kaurismaki, that mordant master of Finnish fatalism, had already turned out a handful of films when this perfect little work brought well-deserved international attention his way. Turo Pajala, Kaurismaki’s regular ‘regular guy’ at the time, stars as a down-on-his-luck miner who loses livelihood, family, savings, car & freedom with the calm resignation of a holy fool. But the film is hardly grim since Kaurismaki abstracts the action/revenge elements of his modernist fable, using his signature deadpan visual haiku to both stylize & humanize it. In other hands, it might play out as a series of near-absurd coincidences, but here the deft character touches & sleight-of-hand narrative management make it all logical, delightfully off-beat, even funny & completely believable as Pajala replaces everything he’s lost. The sense of magic & destiny that develops as the story unfolds is inexplicable, the Kaurismaki ‘touch,’ but the marvelous cast certainly add to the spell. Standouts include Susanna Haavisto as a g’friend who asks few questions; Matti Palanpää as a helpful prison-mate with useful connections; and young Eeto Hilkamo, who’s wonderful as the trustful kid with a wary demeanor.

Monday, September 20, 2010

ABE LINCOLN IN ILLINOIS (1940)


Robert Sherwood’s Pulitzer Prize winning play got the prestige treatment @ RKO (for good & ill) in John Cromwell’s film adaptation.* Cherry-picking the best moments from Lincoln’s adult life thru his departure for D.C., as President, and respectful to a fault, the film chugs along from one frame-worthy moment to the next, a series of patriotic talking tableaux vivant, juxtaposed with interpolated action set pieces that don’t feel dramatically integrated. Raymond Massey, repeating his famous stage perf, is a bit too aware that he’s playing the role-of-a-lifetime, his Lincoln is less lived-in than pickled. (In his film debut, Howard da Silva was the only other B’way holdover.) Gene Lockhart does well by Stephen Douglas while Ruth Gordon stands out as a disturbingly odd, yet weirdly powerful Mary Todd. And somehow, as the film rolls out, you adjust to the missteps & borrowed significance, because, darn it all, these really are frame-worthy moments. *Our poster is from the original B'way production.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

THE EMPEROR WALTZ (1948)



Hiding in plain sight under the candy-coated shell of this unusually lavish Bing Crosby Paramount musical is a remarkably personal work from Billy Wilder that’s long overdue for rediscovery. Wilder, after serving on a deNazification board in Berlin, returned home for divorce proceedings and briefly moved in with his mentor & idol Ernst Lubitsch who would soon die of heart disease. This may have sparked this first of the three overtly Lubitschean romantic-comedies Wilder would make. (The other two were LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON/’57 and AVANTI/’72; flawed films worth rubies.) Bing Crosby plays a traveling gramophone salesman in turn-of-the-last-century Vienna who falls for widowed Baroness Joan Fontaine. Their dogs fall for each other, too, which sets up the complicated but delightful plot just as the setting allows Bing to hike, yodel & croon to Viennese tunes real & faux. You’re well into the film before it becomes apparent that Wilder is using this trifle as a personal deNazification program for everything he still loves about Austria & German culture. Even the anthem the Germans expropriated from Haydn is played on screen for the first time since the war without a Nazi association. It’s no accident that the film’s climax has Bing saving a trio of mix-breeds from euthanasia. They’re mongrel dogs, of course, but Wilder gives Crosby a long speech in defense of mutts and commoners in general and even has the elderly Kaiser chime in. (Wilder may have originally planned a far darker allegory with the pups going down. An unlikely ending for a Crosby pic!) Unexpectedly, Wilder’s staging of the musical numbers is utterly delightful, especially the cleverly shot & structured yodeling number, spectacularly shot on real (Canadian) locations.


CONTEST: When Fontaine locates Bing’s hotel thru his whistle . . . only to find it’s the chambermaid who's doing the whistling, you get a ‘Lubitsch Touch’ so packed with mischief & info it’s worthy of the master. And Wilder even has Fontaine refer to two specific Lubitsch heroines when she finally succumbs to Crosby’s charms on a tiny island, Name the two films & their leading ladies to win our usual prize, a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of any NetFlix DVD. (Extra points for spotting the gag for the Kaiser that Wilder swiped from Lubitsch’s German silent THE OYSTER PRINCESS/’19.)

Friday, September 17, 2010

LAISSEZ-PASSER / SAFE PASSAGE (2002)


This behind-the-scenes tale of French film production during the Nazi occupation was an obvious labor of love for vet French helmer Bertrand Tavernier. He was friends with the real-life protagonists (a writer & an assistant director) and the film gets tremendous dramatic mileage charting the suspense, romance, & heroism of the interlocking spheres of studio politics, wartime intrigue & affairs of the heart. It sounds like a treat, but the film adds up to less than the sum of its parts, only coming together in the last hour of a long film. Tavernier has trouble organizing the many pronged story and his over-reliance on a roving steady-cam keeps us from getting our bearings on people or places, while subconsciously distancing us from the period. No doubt, François Truffaut’s THE LAST METRO/’80, about a Paris theater during the occupation, was on Tavernier’s mind, but the Lubitsch-like precision/concision Truffaut achieved is beyond his reach. Happily, the film improves as it goes along, coming together on long heroic bike ride, then climaxing with a secret mission that’s both exciting & hilarious. Plus, the many film references will please French movie mavens.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: In their desire to make the best films they could under Nazi occupation, the story bares some resemblance to THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI/’57, taken from a French novel that parses WWII collaboration with the Japanese. And be sure to check out the most famous of all French films made during the occupation, CHILDREN OF PARADISE/LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS/’45. (Except for Clouzot's LE CORBEAU, most of the films referenced here are currently unavailable Stateside.)

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

FROM THE TERRACE (1960)


In this plush pic, producer/director Mark Robson tried to refashion John O’Hara’s churning novel into a kind of Main Line Philadelphia PEYTON PLACE, his big hit from ‘57. The backdrop of mansions, old money vs new money, big business & upper-crust trysts gives Robson fresh areas of hypocrisy & scandal to chart, and the rapidly eroding film censorship code let him push the sexual envelop a little. He even used a writer who was fresh off a Hitchcock hit, just as he had with PEYTON PLACE: John Michael Hayes there; Ernest Lehman here. But the gambit doesn’t come off since O’Hara’s characters are flat stereotypes and the plot misses the juicy revelations & turnarounds that still make PEYTON PLACE so darn watchable. Paul Newman should be just right as the striving WWII vet who finds financial success an empty chalice, but he slums thru his role along with the starry A-list cast. Only Myrna Loy & Leon Ames, as Newman’s mismatched parents, break thru, but the film dumps them after the first act.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Ernest Lehman also wrote EXECUTIVE SUITE/’54 where half a dozen interlocking stories bubble along as its corporate/sex drama plays out. Better, and half an hour shorter!

READ ALL ABOUT IT: O’Hara’s blustery novels are out of fashion these days, but his Hollywood novella NATICA JACKSON is one of the great movie books. Alas, the fine Michelle Pfeiffer/Hector Elizando PBS adaptation from 1987 is only available in a mutilated edition.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

AKAI SATSUI / INTENTIONS OF MURDER (aka MURDEROUS INSTINCTS) (1964)

While only the later films of Japanese master Shohei Imamura received much attention in the West, his peak achievements may have come earlier, before his iconoclastic views of Japanese society hardened. (Ah, but so much remains unavailable!) This dark fable of warped family values undoubtedly places somewhere near the top. Masumi Harukawa, in a remarkable perf, is a tower of . . . inertia as the thick-skinned (and thick-waisted) wife & mother who’s still treated by her own family as the servant she once was. Her situation only gets worse when she is robbed & raped, then finds herself stalked by her unstable, but love-struck intruder. Would running away with such a man be madness? Some of the character psychology feels dated (or very ‘60s) and the jarring shift in tone & style for the last act adds a note of absurdity that (purposefully?) doesn’t match the rest of the film. But Imamura serves his material with a master’s hand, and helps Harukawa create that rarest of screen characters, a passive force of nature. The finished product may not have the strict logical development and consistent mood of Imamura’s PIGS AND BATTLESHIPS/’63, but it’s aim is broader & more humanistic.

Monday, September 13, 2010

L’INSTINCT DE L’ANGE / ANGEL’S WING (1993)


A flat-footed, but often compelling look at WWI pilots and the demons that kept them flying. Lambert Wilson stars as a rich Frenchman whose tubercular past keeps him out of the war until he pays for lessons and learns how to handle a plane. Finally in uniform, he’s mentored by flying ace François Cluzet and gains quick success in the air, but none with his fellows on the ground. It’s not his melancholy ways & priggish manner that put them off, nor are they jealous of his ‘hits,’ but he seems to have garnered more than his fair share of luck, leaving less to go around. The director, Richard Dembo, only made a handful of pics, and this left nary a trace, but his tight budget made him keep a narrow psychological focus with just enough missions and war footage to make his points. (Some of the little planes look a bit out of period.) But it’s often a fascinating (and different) look at how an intellectual (and a French intellectual, at that) functions in war. And, in the enigmatic final flying sequence, a ballet of death between two planes & their pilots that’s like an existential dogfight.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

KISMET (1955)

On stage, this old Arabian Nights barnstormer has always been indefensible, but irresistible. On screen, it’s only indefensible. The musical played down the ‘oriental’ nastiness of the father’s revenge tale while bumping up the romance between his daughter & the prince, then let the Borodin-inspired songs work their charms. It was still kitsch, but it was high-class kitsch. In the film, the vocals are fine, even if the score’s high point, ‘This Is My Beloved,’ is reduced from a showstopping quartet to a commonplace duet. Alas, helmer Vincente Minnelli loathed the show and only rushed thru it to protect his Van Gogh project, LUST FOR LIFE/’56. So, the storybook sets are vivid, but the drama never gets off the page.* And, except for campy vamp Dolores Gray, the cast are over-parted . . . or worse. This was the second classic musical Howard Keel inherited from B’way great Alfred Drake (KISS ME, KATE/’53 came first) and he just hasn’t got the acting chops to run the show. There’s no threat, and he misses the roguish authority that a seasoned star like Ronald Colman brought to the role in ‘44. Or try Clark Gable in Papa mode, say, MOGAMBO/’53 to get the idea. (Hey, he’d have been great!)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Yet, Minnelli is Minnelli and he can’t help but turn a CinemaScopic eye on the prince’s bridal procession, NIGHT OF MY NIGHTS which millions of Radio City Music Hall patrons will recognize as a variation on the famous Christmas Nativity pageant which even today looks just as Minnelli staged it back in the ‘30s.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

PANE E TULIPANI / BREAD AND TULIPS (2000)

Crowd-pleasing pablum about an Italian wife & mother who finds that . . . Life Begins at 40. Licia Maglietta is addled & underappreciated as the wife & mother who’s left at a rest stop when the tour bus takes off with her family. And it’s HOME ALONE meets A DOLL’S HOUSE after that. Nora, that is, Licia makes a snap decision to give herself a ‘time out,’ hitchhiking to Venice where she gently falls for a lonely waiter (Bruno Ganz); lands a job with an eccentric florist; finds a BFF with the kooky holistic masseuse down the hall; and discovers that personal bliss can trump hearth & home if the kids are almost grown & hubby’s got his business & a mistress to keep him warm. Didn’t Jill Clayburgh go thru all this in the ‘70s? There’s nothing inherently dated or condescending in the basic idea, but Silvio Soldini megs & co-scripts with a cloyingly saccharine touch with dumbed-down characters acting too stupid for words or straining to be lovable. A shame since Maglietta already is lovable, with a lovely touch of Ingrid Bergman about her, and it’s fun to see the back streets & working-class areas of Venice for a change.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

THE PURCHASE PRICE (1932)

A rare Pre-Code dud from Barbara Stanwyck’s early days. She’s a nightclub singer who’s dumped by her society fiancé and refuses to settle for her loyal, but shady sugardaddy. She’s discovered on the lam in Montreal and takes off again, this time as a mail-order bride in North Dakota! The nights are cold, but her marriage is even colder when Mr. Sugardaddy shows up again to save the day. Will Babs go back to her old life or has she become a proper farmer’s wife for handsome, young, dull George Brent. It hardly seems worth all the trouble. Director William Wellman throws in an occasional coarse gag or sentimental tug, but generally keeps his distance until Stanwyck briefly shows her stuff in a big hysterical outburst. Too little, too late.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Only two years back, but an æsthetic world away, F. W. Murnau used similar elements for his final silent wonder, CITY GIRL/’30. A flop in its day, soon forgotten, and still an absurdly unsung masterpiece.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

OTHER MEN’S WOMEN (1931)


In this early iteration of a favorite Warners storyline, Grant Withers & Regis Toomey play best pals who come to blows when Mary Astor, wife of the nice guy, falls hard for the bosom-buddy. In this version, the guys run a massive freight train which means they have to fight it out in the small engine car while their train hurtles ahead with no one at the controls. William Wellman did his best megging in the early Talkie era and you can feel him pushing new technical innovations all thru the film. Sometimes the limitations of early sound technology defeat him, but the rain-soaked climax, stunningly shot by lenser Barney McGill is pretty spectacular. (Ignore the unconvincing model shots and gasp at the glistening chiaroscuro and an amazing ultra-close up of Toomey.) Ultimately, the film is done in by the charisma-free leads (Toomey is solid, but bland and Withers just hasn’t got leading-man chops) and by an ending that’s a pointless sacrifice. But there are lovely things in here, like Withers grabbing a lunch counter meal in the time it takes his train to roll by; and in watching film newbies Joan Blondell (cracking wise) and James Cagney (doing a bit of hot hoofing) making everyone else look passé.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

THE LAWLESS BREED (1953)

This Raoul Walsh Western gave Rock Hudson one of first starring roles as a hard-luck Texan who killed more people in self-defense than many gunfighters shot on purpose. Even Wild Bill Hickok backs off of this guy. It’s supposedly based on the gunslinger’s auto-bio, but it feels rigged, as drama & as defense. Rock was awful pretty in his salad days, and awful raw as an actor, especially when he goes for a big effect. But the film gets help from Walsh’s clear action staging and from its better than average cast. Julie Adams, Dennis Weaver, Lee Van Cleef & John McIntire all get their licks in. Walsh (or someone) was even able to tamp down on Universal’s typically drenched TechniColor. Watch for a bit of Civil War footage that was borrowed from KANSAS RAIDERS/’50, another Universal Western that’s now on the same damn DVD disc!

Monday, September 6, 2010

TODAY WE LIVE (1933)


If you can wade thru 40 minutes of stillborn romance, you’ll reach the lean WWI actioner Howard Hawks tried to make from William Faulkner’s short story TURN ABOUT. Gary Cooper & Roscoe Karns play U.S. volunteer pilots who sneak Robert Young on one of their bomb runs. They hope to show this rich, young pup what the war’s all about. Young may be a kid in a uniform, and a bit of a sot, but he’s got ‘the right stuff’ and holds his own during the mission. By the time they’ve landed, these three are the best of pals and Young returns the favor by taking Coop & Karns on his next 'torpedo boat' run with his Captain/best pal Franchot Tone. Mutual admiration; dangerous action; clipped, fatalistic banter; heavy-duty male-bonding; and swift action scenes follow. (Borrowed footage & underwhelming process work hurt the air-borne stuff, but the torpedo runs are superb.) Alas, someone @ M-G-M (probably Hawks’ brother-in-law, Irving Thalberg) added Joan Crawford to the story. As an upper-crust Brit, who’s Franchot Tone's sister, Robert Young’s finance and Coop’s fated mate, she tries on an accent and a to-the-manner-born attitude that are as ill-suited to her talents as the costumes she has to wear.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: To see Young & Tone break your heart as the best of pals, see THREE COMRADES/’38; to see Coop as a WWI flyboy who’s mistakenly reported dead, see the deliriously romantic & funny LILAC TIME/’28, a late silent with wonderful Colleen Moore. (Alas, LILAC TIME is currently only available on YOU-TUBE in compressed digital mode and COMRADES is only available with Robert Taylor.)

Sunday, September 5, 2010

A LION IS IN THE STREETS (1953)


This was the last, and certainly the oddest of the four films James Cagney made with Raoul Walsh. It’s a Southern Fried political melodrama (think Robert Penn Warren’s ALL THE KING’S MEN on acid) with Jimmy in Huey Long mode as a traveling salesman in bayou country. He becomes a populist hero when he takes on the local cotton cartel, but his easily stoked political ambitions & personal failings quickly drag him down. The film never gets past its soundstage sets or the faux gumbo-friendly accents (Cagney’s is a doozy, though he’s typically entertaining and works nicely with leading lady Barbara Hale) and the short running time causes it to lurch from one explosive situation to another.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

KANSAS RAIDERS (1950)


Universal must have liked the results they got with Audie Murphy playing Billy the Kid in THE KID FROM TEXAS/’50 since they quickly resaddled him for Jesse James in this Civil War oater. Here, the James Brothers, the Cole Brothers & Kit Dalton, hoping to aid the Confederacy, all join up with Quantrill’s Raiders, a notorious band of Southern sympathizing renegades acting as a quasi-military outfit. There’s a great true tale buried in here, but don’t hope to find it in this missed opportunity. A shame, since the scale of production is ripe for something more substantial and the cast is loaded with new generation actors in chrysalis (i.e. Tony Curtis, Dewey Martin & Richard Long). As a subtly delusional Quantrill, Brian Donlevy may have been twice the age of the real historical figure, but he still manages to steal the film from the youngsters with melancholy shadings he finds between the lines.

WATCH THIS,NOT THAT: Ang Lee’s sadly ignored RIDE WITH THE DEVIL/’99 brings Quantrill’s campaign to life with a superb young cast of stars-to-be. And you can check out those outlaw brothers in Philip Kaufman’s THE GREAT, NORTHFIELD, MINNESOTA RAID/’72 or in Walter Hill’s THE LONG RIDERS/’80.

Friday, September 3, 2010

THE FOUNTAINHEAD (1949)

King Vidor’s unhappy film version of Ayn Rand’s bestselling novel has always been something of a camp classic. Even in ‘49, Rand’s dialogue was too ripe for its own good and Vidor’s try at an expressionistic tone fails to convince. The famous story, about an architect who refuses to compromise, comes off as self-justifying nonsense (especially in a post-9/11 world) as Rand sets up strawmen for her architect to quash and a glamorous bitch to tame. But the current DVD edition is worth a look if only for a ‘Making Of’ featurette made with Rand’s ‘objectivism’ blinders firmly in place. You’d never know from watching it that Rand’s film career stalled here. Or that the best Rand film was made without her help in Fascist Italy! (WE THE LIVING/’42) You’d certainly never know that King Vidor’s THE CITADEL/’38 also has a hero who sets off bombs to make his point. Or that Vidor’s career was seriously damaged when this film flopped. No mention that Gary Cooper, after two decades at the top of the Hollywood heap, began a six-film slump here. (HIGH NOON/’52 turned things around.) Or that debuting Patricia Neal grimly served out her Warners contract (with a single happy loan-out for THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL/’51) then left Hollywood for five years. And many more topsy-turvy viewpoints. Yet, the single participant who did get a big career bump out of THE FOUNTAINHEAD goes unmentioned. It was Robert Burks whose stylish lensing was noticed by Alfred Hitchcock. They made a dozen classics together beginning with Hitch’s next Hollywood production, STRANGERS ON A TRAIN/’51.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

THE BEGGAR’S OPERA (1953)

Superb. Phenomenally entertaining. Though a famous commercial flop upon release, and in a form (17th Century popular opera) that’s never going to appeal across the board, this marvelous film should long have established itself as a cult favorite, a kissin’ cousin to the musical pics of Powell/Pressburger. Now out in reasonably good condition on a Warner Archive DVD, there’s no excuse for missing it. It was the film debut of theatrical legend Peter Brooks, and you can tell he’s more comfortable staging action than editing it, but the decor, dialogue & performances more than compensate. Stateside, the Brecht/Weill 3-PENNY OPERA adaptation is better known than John Gay’s original, but it’s familiar enough for comfort. In this performing edition, the popular London airs Gay repurposed for his tawdry masterpiece have been vigorously adapted and slightly tamed by Arthur Bliss. It all sounds as if Handel had been asked to write OLIVER!, or, perhaps, a down-and-dirty Gilbert & Sullivan. MacHeath is our swashbuckling highwayman & lady killer, and the satire of society & theatrical convention still works beautifully. One exceptional bit has MacHeath about to walk into a trap, but saved because his wench insists on singing yet one more verse of farewell. It’s all been neatly structured as a musical performance set inside a prison. A conceit Brooks would repeat in MARAT/SADE/’66 and which MAN OF LA MANCHA would happily poach as well. But what really lights this film up is it’s wonderful cast. The ladies are lovely, bawdy, and gross, and the men are swine, hypocrites and dandies. Laurence Olivier, as a swashbuckling MacHeath, and Stanley Holloway, as Lockit, the jailer, are the only actors who do their own singing, and they do themselves proud. Just about everyone knows Holloway’s skills as a Music Hall stylist thanks to MY FAIR LADY, but even those who’ve relished his ‘Pooh Bah’ in the Groucho Marx version of THE MIKADO will be gob-smacked by his lower extension. The guy’s got a two and a half octave range. And Olivier, when he’s in his element, is truly an actor beyond compare. Who knew he possessed such a fine high baritone voice. And what a vocal production! Listen to the final line of the film as he lets loose with a stunning messa di voce singing ‘On an opera made byYYYYYYYY,’ than shouting joyously, ‘a Beggar!" It’s a moment fully worthy to stand with his ST. CRISPIAN’S DAY speech in the popular imagination of all actors manque. Along with his quietly devastating work the previous year in William Wyler’s CARRIE, this may be his greatest unheralded perf.