Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Coming Attraction

By ClassicBecky

Reading the plays of Shakespeare in high school has caused many a teenager to fall into a deep coma. But these plays were never meant to be just read, but to be experienced on the stage, and in our era, on film.  The difference between reading a play and seeing it is astounding.  Many people are unfamiliar with Shakespeare, or intimidated by the language, and have never given the movies a chance.  We're not talking about Romeo and Juliet or Midsummer Night's Dream here.  Oh no, nothing so light or romantic.

If you like bloody battles, lustful seduction, raging jealousy, witches and dire prophecies, dashing kings and villainy, you will like King Richard III, King Henry V, Macbeth and Othello..  I have always thought that school children would find a great interest in his plays if they were only taught not the romances or comedies, but rather the tragedies and the exciting stories of the English kings.  In my article to be posted later this week, I will review a sampling of the movies made from these types of plays. The different versions reflect the cultural stamp and controversy of each era in which the films were released, and will intrigue you and maybe even provoke interest in seeing them if you have not already done so.

I will be reviewing my favorites in pairs, each movie from a different movie era:  Laurence Olivier's and Kenneth Branagh's Henry V, Ian McKellan's and Olivier's Richard III, Roman Polanski's and Orson Welles' Macbeth, and Lawrence Fishburne's and Olivier's Othello.

Watch for my article to be posted later this week, called "Shakespeare On Film - You Don't Know What You're Missing!"

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Everybody's Got One!

By ClassicBecky

All of us remember particular scenes in movies that touched, surprised, made us laugh or made us cry.  Here are three of my favorites.  What are some of yours?

The Hunchback of Notre Dame, starring Charles Laughton as the tragic Quasimodo, has two scenes that I have never forgotten.  In the first scene, Quasimodo has been unjustly accused of wrongdoing, lashed to a whipping post and cruelly beaten.  Laughton's portrayal of his angry humiliation and anguish is tour de force.  When the beating is over and he must stay bound in the hot sun, he begs for water and is only laughed at by the crowd.  Then the lovely gypsy girl Esmeralda (Maureen O'Hara) steps up to the whipping post and brings him drink.  The crowd falls silent, and there is only the sound of haunting music.  At first Quasimodo is ashamed and will not look her in the eye.  Then, in a moment of absolute trust and gratitude, he turns up his head to accept the water.  If you don't have a tear in your eye at that one, check your brain waves for a possible disorder.

The second scene is Esmeralda's hanging.  Also accused unjustly, the beautiful girl stands at the scaffold in front of the cathedral.  The crowd shouts its disapproval at first, but then falls silent.  In a moment of absolute silence, Quasimodo swings down from the top of the Cathedral on a rope, grabs Esmeralda in his arm and swings her back up to the top, shouting "Sanctuary, sanctuary!"  He holds her up for the crowd to see, the roar is deafening, and a magnificent choir sings Alleluia.  It is a moment never to be forgotten.

The Phantom of the Opera, Lon Chaney's silent version, was one of the first classic films I was ever lucky enough to see in a real movie theatre.  A very old lady played music throughout the film on a very old organ, and it was wonderful.  The scene that took my breath away was, of course, the unmasking of the phantom.  On a big screen, it drew gasps from the whole audience of modern moviegoers who have seen a lot, but who were just as terrified as the original audiences must have been.  After the initial horror, the phantom then reveals his shame and humiliation at having the girl he loves see his hideous face.  What a movie moment!

If you have something you would like to share that you have never forgotten, tell us in the comment format.  It's fun to discuss what memorable scenes other movie-lovers share.

On Your Toes

By ClassicBecky

I don’t like baseball, but I love movies about baseball. You see all the good parts without the long, boring stretches. The same may be true for many people regarding ballet. Even if you would not spend an evening at the ballet, there are three movies about ballet that I believe are movie-making at its best.

The Red Shoes (1948) is probably the most famous of ballet-themed movies. Starring prima ballerina Moira Shearer, it is a story of conflict, love and tragedy. The Hans Christian Anderson tale about a girl who covets a pair of red shoes, only to find that they will never stop dancing, is mirrored in the story of ballerina Vicky Page (Shearer). Her love of dance and fascination with Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), the ballet impresario who is a thinly disguised version of real-life ballet producer Diaghilev, collides with her wish for normal love and life with composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring). This conflict is portrayed on a melodramatic and epic scale. This film is rich in color, incredible music by Brian Easdale, and the genius of writer-producer-directors Powell and Pressburger (also famous for their film Black Narcissus). The Ballet of the Red Shoes, starring and choreographed by ballet master Robert Helpmann is a marvel of impressionistic artistry. The great Leonide Massine created the role of the demonic shoemaker. Both give performances that rival the sinister Walbrook, the emotive Goring and the ethereal Shearer.

In 1977, director Herbert Ross filmed The Turning Point, starring Anne Bancroft, Shirley Maclaine, the great Mikhail Baryshnikov and young ballerina Leslie Browne. Alternating between the often idealized world of ballet and the everyday world of marriage and family, the film revolves around the relationship between aging prima ballerina Emma (Bancroft) and former ballerina turned wife and mother Deedee (Maclaine). The complex relationship between the two women see-saws from love to anger, from jealousy to need. Their turmoil comes to a head in a fight you will not soon forget. Meanwhile, Baryshnikov and Browne strike up their own star-crossed love affair. Basically a study of people and relationships, the film is filled with incredible dancing to some of ballet’s most famous and beautiful scores. In all respects, The Turning Point is a tour de force.

Herbert Ross turned to ballet again with 1980’s Nijinsky. George de la Pena plays and dances the doomed Vaslav Nijinsky, premiere dancer of the Ballet Russe in the early 20th Century. Alan Bates is wonderfully effete as Diaghilev, impresario of the Ballet Russe and Nijinsky’s lover. Leslie Browne appears again as a naïve lovestruck girl who eventually marries Nijinsky. This marriage causes an irreparable rift between Diaghilev and Nijinsky, ending Nijinsky’s career with the Ballet Russe. De la Pena dances three of Nijinsky’s most famous performances, Spectre de la Rose, Scheherazade and Afternoon of a Faun, all presented with splendid artistry and authenticity. It is with Afternoon of a Faun that Nijinsky performs an indecent act on stage, and his eventual descent into madness begins. Although not an actor per se, de la Pena does an admirable job bringing to disturbing life the hysterical nature of Nijinsky, as well as his downward spiral at a very young age into the semi-comatose state in which he spent the remainder of his life.

So, if you don’t like baseball but enjoy baseball movies, take a chance on these three wonderful films. You will never forget them.

Moulin Rouge

By ClassicBecky

I would not be able to write about Moulin Rouge without surrounding the words with the works of the great genius Henri de Toulouse Lautrec. His life needed little embellishing for John Huston to create a movie about the greatness and tragedy of this artist. Lautrec recorded his own life in watercolor, oils and sketches. In 1952, John Huston and cinematographer Oswald Morris created the life and art of Lautrec in magnificent smoky color, each scene looking exactly like a Lautrec painting. Huston had a vision that the film should look as if Lautrec himself had directed it. Huston was true to his vision. Another creative artist worked with Huston to bring Lautrec to life – the marvelous Jose Ferrer. His performance and dedication to the role is without equal.

Toulouse Lautrec took a fall down a flight of stairs as a boy, and that simple accident created an extreme deformity that marked his life forever. His broken legs would never mend, and he ended up only 4’10”, his adult sized torso supported by legs the length of a child’s. Jose Ferrer, in striving to be like Lautrec, had his legs strapped up behind him and used special pads to walk on his knees in what must have been an extremely painful way. Huston also used special camera angles and in long shots, doubles to portray Lautrec. But besides these, plus the fact of Ferrer’s amazing resemblance to Lautrec, it was Ferrer’s superb acting that brought to life Lautrec in all of the anger, pathos and genius that were his life.

Lautrec loathed his body, longed for love that he felt he would never be given, and hid his pain beneath a caustic wit. He also dealt with the mental and physical pain by an addiction to absinthe which he drank from morning to night. In the 1952 movie, it is said that he drank cognac, probably because of absinthe’s reputation as an evil opiate used only by depraved people. We know that Lautrec found sympathy and release in the Paris brothels, where he was known for his virility. Many of his well-known paintings are of the women of the streets and brothels.

But his most famous works are of the bohemian café, the Moulin Rouge. It is there that the Can-Can was popularized, and the café was rough and inviting. It was there that Lautrec befriended Jane Avril (Zsa Zsa Gabor), the singer. He also came to know La Goulue, the wild, rough and tumble, unabashedly sexual dancer (Katherine Kath). His sketches of the Moulin were made into posters to advertise the café, and they became a part of the bohemian quarter landscape. In a double performance, Ferrer also played his disapproving father, the Count of Toulouse, who was ashamed of his son’s life as a street artist.

Women were always a big part of Lautrec’s life, particularly two. The first is the deceitful and manipulative Marie Charlet (Colette Marchand), a street whore who pushes her way into Lautrec’s life with promises of acceptance and affection. Her betrayal of him led him to want to take his own life. The second woman was Myriamme (Suzanne Flon), a beautiful woman who truly loved Lautrec, but by the time she came into his life, he was too embittered to believe her.

The incredible beauty of this film is only enhanced by the superb performances of the cast, showing La Goulue in her decline, Marie Charlet in her evil, Myriamme in her goodness. Not just a beautiful movie, the music for Moulin Rouge by Georges Auric is remarkable. It moves from the gaiety of the Can Can to the deepest tragedy to a soft lilt when the paintings of Lautrec are shown throughout the film. There are many wonderful movies that I love, but Moulin Rouge will always have a special place in my love of beauty and truth.

Creepy Museum and Vincent Price - The House of Wax

By ClassicBecky

I have always loved wax museums. They are out of style now, few and far between, but when I find one I revel in the quiet, creepy atmosphere created by the still wax figures with life-like eyes that seem to follow you as you move. It may be hard to find a real wax museum, but I can always visit the best one ever put on film by watching The House of Wax. Vincent Price, creepy wax figures, wonderfully scary music – who could ask for anything more?  The House of Wax, released in 1953, is actually a remake of a 1933 movie called Mystery of the Wax Museum with Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray. The1933 original was shot in a 2-strip Technicolor process that created a blue-green color denoting dark and sinister atmosphere. It is a wonderful movie and any classic film buff would love it.

That story of a genius sculptor who is driven mad was remade with Vincent Price originally in 3D process. It is easy to spot the 3D technique even when seen without it. Hands thrusting at the screen and objects flying toward you during a fight scene, a street barker expertly using a paddleball to shoot the ball right at the audience, Can-Can dancers, all very clever. But this movie does not require gimmicks to thrill and frighten you.
Price plays Henry Jarrod, a sculptor of wax figures who loves beauty and despises exploitative museums that feature famous criminals in the act of murder and mayhem. Jarrod’s partner, played by staple character actor Roy Roberts, is unhappy with Jarrod’s refusal to add such figures to their museum, is greedy for profit, and decides to burn it down for insurance money. Jarrod, horrified at the grisly melting and burning of his beloved figures, tries desperately to put out the fire, but is caught in the building and presumed dead. This scene is wonderfully horrifying and not soon forgotten! Interestingly, Vincent Price in real life was scared of fire, yet most of his movies feature him battling fire in one way or another!

A few years later, we find Jarrod again, not dead as presumed, but left a wheelchair-bound cripple with burned, useless hands. He opens a museum with figures sculpted by students, very odd students indeed, including a young Charles Bronson as a very scary-looking deaf-mute. Jarrod has given in to popular demand and created a chamber of horrors in his new wax museum. The scenes of the public being led through the museum are done with lots of humor and Price’s signature sarcasm.

Jarrod meets young sculptor Scott Andrews, played by Paul Picerni, and is interested not only in his talent, but also in his female companion, Sue Allen, played by the lovely Phyllis Kirk. Jarrod is fascinated by Sue because she looks exactly like his favorite creation, Marie Antoinette, who was destroyed in the fire. Sue has witnessed the murder of her friend, played by Carolyn Jones, who, as an aside, had the smallest wasp-waist I’ve ever seen. Sue was chased through the streets by the murderer, a hideous looking man in a hat and cape. It is with Sue’s suspicions about the figures in Jarrod’s museum that the story gets really ghoulish.

This movie is Price at his best, sinister with a dark humor that makes one wonder what he is really thinking, acting up a storm as the mad genius. The music by David Buttolph is extremely scary by itself, and the spooky scenes of fog, fire, night-time in the dark museum, up to the final shocking climax, will give you real chills. But, as Henry Jarrod says while leading his public through the chamber of horrors – “It’s wonderful to be scared to death.”

Saturday, May 22, 2010


By ClassicBecky

From the first line -- "Call me Ishmael" -- to the last -- "I only am escaped, alone, to tell thee" -- Moby Dick haunted my imagination and my dreams. Warner Brothers' 1956 production, directed by John Huston, with screenplay by Huston and Ray Bradbury, captures the soul of Herman Melville's 1851 novel about obsession and the demigod-complex that feeds it. There are some differences between the movie and the book, but nothing that damages Melville's vision. The poetically supernatural writing of Bradbury is evident in the screenplay and only adds to the power of the story.

Gregory Peck portrays Ahab, captain of the whaler Pequod, a surprising choice to many, including Peck himself. John Huston's father, Walter, was the first choice to play Ahab, but died before the movie was made. Peck was 40 years old at the time, younger than Melville's Ahab, but the marvelous makeup and costuming transformed the handsome, debonair Peck into the unforgiving, scarred Ahab. Peck's acting reveals Ahab's scarred soul and rage against God and nature perfectly. The cast includes a very young Richard Basehart as Ishmael, a wanderer who signs onto the Pequod with his south sea island friend, Queequeg (Friedrich von Ledebur). The wonderful Leo Genn is the stalwart Starbuck, first mate, with Harry Andrews and Seamus Kelly as 2nd and 3rd mates Stubb and Flask. Most famous of the supporting cast is Orson Welles, who appears a the unrelenting New Bedford minister, Father Mapple. His cameo role preaching a thunderous sermon to the outgoing whalers is a powerful performance.

From the beginning, we see that even to his crewmen, Ahab is a god-like figure. In answer to Ishmael's question about what Ahab is like, mate Stubb says simply "Ahab's Ahab", mirroring the Bible in which God describes himself to Moses -- "I am that I am." Biblical references abound in Moby Dick. The ragged man on the wharf who speaks to Ishmael as he goes to the ship calls himself Elijah, prophecying -- "A day will come at sea when you smell land where there be no land, and on that day Ahab will go to his grave, but he will rise again and beckon, and all save one shall follow." This is one of Bradbury's contributions to the novel, in which Elijah only says something bad will happen.

Ahab's plan for this whaling voyage is not to hunt whales for their oil, but to hunt vengeance upon the white whale, Moby Dick, who took off his leg in an earlier encounter. Ahab challenges the heavens in his quest, is obsessed with revenge and will take no refusal from anyone in his cause. He wins the admiration and loyalty of the crew with his hypnotic speech and promises, convincing them with his own unrelenting leadership -- "You be the cogs that fit my wheel, the gunpowder that takes my torch." Through storms and doldum, Ahab chases Moby Dick -- "I'll follow him around the Horn and around the Norway maelstrom and around perdition's flames before I give him up."  Starbuck is Ahab's conscience, endeavoring always to turn his captain away from his impious desire for vengeance, to no avail. As Starbuck sees the men come under Ahab's spell, he is horrified -- "Where is the crew of the Pequod? I see not one man I know among 30. They are gloves, Ahab fills them, Ahab moves them.

Moby Dick is so much more than a story of whaling in the early 1800's. It is a portrait of obsession, vengeance, excitement and tragedy. I have never forgotten the beautiful language, stirring music by Philip Sainton, and incredible ending of this great movie.

So go down to the sea, stand on the ship with Ahab and experience something very special.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Elementary, My Dear Readers

221B Baker Street, London, has seen many occupants come and go since the 19th century, all of whom are named Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was the author of more than just stories about a detective...he was the originator of a cultural fascination that has made its way through books, movies, radio and television. Holmes and Watson have been portrayed by many actors in countries all over the world, My focus here is 5 of the most famous movie/TV characterizations. Who are your favorites?

Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. What movie buff does not picture them first when Holmes and Watson come to mind? Rathbone with his marvelous profile, clipped British accent, pipe in mouth and deerstalker cap and cape ... Bruce as the mumbling, bumbling dear old Watson, faithful to Holmes, steadfastly British and easily fooled by both criminals and Holmes alike. Who could not love them? Despite the fact that almost none of the movies were actually based on Conan Doyle's stories, the movies were atmospheric with the beauty that only black and white can bring, and each one is met like an old friend, always welcome. Some of the stories were updated to the 1940's and made as obvious propaganda films for the war effort, but who cares? It's Holmes and Watson, and they will always be first in my heart.

In 1984, British television began presenting 36 episodes starring an actor who many believe to be the best Holmes, Jeremy Brett. With David Burke as Watson (later replaced with Edward Hardwick), Brett was a darker version of Holmes, more sardonic in demeanor, always with a little sneer in the flare of his nostrils, and also more outwardly enthusiastic at times. The deerstalker cap and cape were nowhere to be seen, having been earlier taken from a stage play version and not as Conan Doyle's description anyway. The episodes were taken from Conan Doyle's stories, and in that respect pleased Holmes' purists. It's difficult to admit, but this characterization was truer to Conan Doyle than the Rathbone versions, and Brett was marvelous.

In 1970, a most interesting movie was released called "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes" starring British actors Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely. I found this odd, wonderful movie extremely fascinating with its spoof quality, dark humor and also depth of characterization. Stephens reveals the darker side of Holmes as a cocaine addict and anti-social personality, yet also makes us laugh when he bemoans the requirement that he wear the deerstalker cap and cape because Watson wrote him so in his stories. He finds it difficult to live up to the written description of himself, and berates Watson for it. This movie is also notable for the hauntingly beautiful score written by Erich Wolfgang Korngold.

Although I feel disloyal to Basil Rathbone, I feel compelled to admit that my favorite Holmes performance is that of Richard Roxburgh. In 1992, The Hound Of The Baskervilles was released, and it is a marvel of acting and storytelling, remaining quite true to Conan Doyle's original story. Roxburgh, known for unusual parts such as the nasal-voiced duke in Moulin Rouge, and as Dracula in Van Helsing, plays Holmes as a handsome, brilliant emotional man who never loses his logic and reserve. Ian Hart is an intelligent and keen Watson, a critical and caring friend who worries about Holmes' addiction. The cast is superb, and any Holmes lover would miss a real gem if they did not see this movie.

In closing, I must bring up the new version of the Holmes/Watson phenomenon to be released soon in theatres. Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law play Holmes and Watson in a movie touted to be an action thriller. The picture here does not show fully the outfit that I have seen Downey wearing, a slouch hat, baggy pants, and frankly in many of these pictures he looks a bit like Charlie Chaplin. I worry about this one, although I must see it. Sherlock Holmes is a cerebral personality, always dressed impeccably, every inch the British gentleman in Conan Doyle's stories, nothing like what I have seen of Downey's persona. I like Robert Downey, but I am not sure how he will do. Jude Law doesn't worry me as much. He looks the part, and he is a good actor as well. We'll just have to see, won't we? I'll try to keep an open mind, but hope that this movie will not be just another graphic novel brought to explosive thriller life.

Three cheers to Holmes and Watson!  What would movies be without them?