Monday, August 30, 2010

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir - Reflections

It's 5:30 a.m., and I did not go to bed until 1:30 a.m.  I did not have to get up early this morning, but here I am, wide awake.  It is completely dark outside, the crickets are singing, my neighborhood is silent, and that is the time that I start to think and worry about anything difficult that is going on in my life.  At the moment, there is plenty to fret about.  Instead of just letting those thoughts whirl through my brain, I decided to write some thoughts  about a movie I have always loved, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947, starring Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison). I watched it just last night, and it had its usual effect on me - I sighed and cried a lot.  It is beautifully filmed, incredibly romantic, and emotionally moving.  Composer Bernard Herrmann believed the score to be his best work, and even taking into consideration the incredible body of his marvelous work, I agree completely. 

The story of Mrs. Lucy Muir, a widow who rents a house by the English seaside and the ghost of Captain Daniel Gregg who haunts his house is fantasy at its best.  They fall in love, but Mrs. Muir becomes impoverished and in danger of losing her beloved house.  Captain Gregg helps Lucy write a book, his autobiography, the unvarnished tale of a seaman's life.  The book is published, Mrs. Muir is able to buy the house and all seems secure.  Captain Gregg, however, knows there can be no future for Mrs. Muir with him, despite their love, and he vanishes from her life, telling her as she sleeps that it has all just been a dream - "...and it will die, as all dreams must die upon waking."  I think I need another handkerchief.  Mrs. Muir meets a dashing scoundrel (George Sanders, the most charming scoundrel of all), and ends up alone in her house with her only family in the world, little daughter Anna (young Natalie Wood) and faithful servant Martha (the wonderful Edna Best).  The years pass, with the rolling ocean as the symbol of time, and Mrs. Muir grows old.  One night she dies quietly in her chair, and Captain Gregg comes back for her.  She takes his hands and stands up, young and beautiful again.  They walk side by side into the mist to the incredible music of Bernard Hermann.  How can you help sobbing like a child?

So I called my sister Amy, certainly a sucker for romance herself, but more pragmatic than I.  I wanted to know why this widow, with no apparent income except the royalties from one book, was able to keep her beautiful cottage by the sea for 50 years until her death.  Considering the life changes I am going through right now, it just didn't seem fair.  Amy said simply, "Becky, it's a movie."  Uh oh, reality came crashing down.  Our conversation had me laughing until my throat hurt.  We talked about how on earth she could have kept an old house by the sea, with wood that would warp, large lawn to mow, a servant that logically should be paid a salary (although you got the impression that Martha did all that work just for love), and a growing daughter to feed and send through school.  Not to mention that the kid was never around to bother her or get under her feet while the romances were going on.  All of that upkeep had to be done by someone, and they had to be paid, right?  How? Can one book finance an entire life?  Then the final blow -- the beauty of the love she always remembered as a dream and the reunion of the two lovers at the end.  Amy said, "Becky, that woman spent her life standing on a balcony looking at the sea for 50 years!"  She has a good point.  In the movie, 50 years goes by in about 5 minutes with the technique of the rolling sea.  In reality, it would be pretty boring.  My sister Amy was just what I needed last night!

Now, movie-lovers, don't descend upon me like an angry mob with torches and pitchforks for this little reflection.  I have loved The Ghost and Mrs. Muir all of my life and know it by heart.  I will always love it and cry every time with the wistful wish that life was really like that.  But as I wrote in my introduction to my site, movies have been a big part of who I am, for good or ill.  Sometimes it can have a negative side if you dive too deeply into the fantasy of it all.  I'm not worried though.  I will always have my sister to understand and pull me back down from the clouds when I float too high up.  I consider that to be the best of both worlds.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Ann Sheridan -- A Classy Lady With Earthy Style

The Lovely Ann Sheridan

Today is Ann Sheridan day on Turner Classic Movies. I thought it would be appropriate to do a tribute to one of my favorite actresses.  Throughout most of her career, Ann played women who were direct and earthy, with common sense and a subtle sensuality that never crossed the line to open sexuality. She was associated for most of her career with Warner Brothers, and played opposite many of their most prominent male stars such as Humphrey Bogart, George Raft, James Cagney and Errol Flynn. She became great friends with Humphrey Bogart after they starred together as brother and sister in San Quentin. After that movie, Ann and Bogart starting calling each other “Sister Annie” and “Brother Bogie.”(1)  Some of my favorite movies with Ann in her prime are Angels With Dirty Faces and City for Conquest with Cagney, They Drive By Night with Raft and Bogart, and Dodge City, Edge of Darkness and Silver River with Errol Flynn. Ann said of Flynn: “He was one of the wild characters of the world, but he had a strange, quiet side. He camouflaged himself completely. In all the years I knew him, I never really knew what lay underneath and I doubt if many people did.” (2)

Two films showed Ann’s real flair for comedy. She played wife to Jack Benny in George Washington Slept Here, a little different type for Ann as a rather ditzy but adorable wife. Later in her career, she played opposite Cary Grant in the comedy I Was A Male War Bride, where both Ann and Grant showed their comedic talents.

Ann had been seriously considered for the part of Ilsa in Casablanca, but lost out to Ingrid Bergman. Ann’s beauty put her into the pin-up girl category along with Betty Grable. She was given the nickname “The Oomph Girl”, and as she said: “…I loathe that nickname. Just being known by a nickname indicates that you are not thought of as a true actress … It’s just crap! If you call an actress by her looks or a reaction, then that’s all she’ll ever be thought of as.” (3)

Ann’s fear of being overlooked for her acting talent was certainly put to rest by what I consider to be her greatest role, that of Randy in King’s Row, with Robert Cummings and Ronald Reagan. The range of emotions she revealed in this difficult role took her from a teasing girl to a wise woman to a devoted wife forced to deal with horrifying events that required her to face her own feelings about love and the future. She was just marvelous in the part and in my opinion her extraordinary performance made this movie one of the great classics.

When Ann’s movie career began to decline as she got older, she tried her hand at television, where she appeared for a time on the soap opera “Another World.” She was beginning to work on another TV show when she fell ill.  Ann died of cancer in 1967 – she was only 51.

TCM is playing several of Ann Sheridan’s good movies today. My favorites coming up are City for Conquest at 4:30 EST, George Washington Slept Here at 6:15 and King’s Row at 9:45. Set your DVR to tape if you are not able to watch them today. You’ll love them!

(Footnotes extend credit to IMDb website.)

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Richard III -- A Villain For The Ages

If you are not familiar with William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of King Richard the Third, you are missing the greatest villain of stage and screen. To quote my own post announcing my intention to write about this monstrous man, "...Shakespeare puts most teenagers into a comatose state.” I don’t believe this would happen if people were introduced to Shakespeare not with sweet love stories or comedies, but with plays like Richard III.  As I also said, “If you like bloody battles, lustful seduction, raging jealousy ... dire prophecies ... and villainy, you will like Richard III."  Richard was so monstrous that no heir to the English throne has ever been given that name since his death.

Even Richard's coat of arms is ugly, a white boar with the translated motto "Loyalty binds me." Richard's loyalty was all to himself, and he never wavered in his obsession to grab the crown. He mowed down everyone in his path, be it brother, wife, friends, court advisors or two innocent children. He surrounded himself with men like himself, ambitious, without conscience and willing to murder in hideous ways at his behest. The best known of Richard’s murderers is James Tyrrel, a name almost as famous as Richard’s in the annals of villains of English history. Richard lived from October, 1452 to August, 1485. He only reigned for less than 2 years as king, from 1483-1485. His family, the House of York, had been at war with the House of Lancaster for 100 years, known as the War of the Roses. Richard was the last of the Plantagenet line which started in 1154 with King Henry II, father of Richard the Lionheart. After Richard III's defeat at the Battle of Bosworth, the House of Tudor reigned, beginning with Henry VII, father of the most infamous of that house, Henry the Eighth. Richard was also the last English king to be killed in battle.

As a point of history, there are two schools of thought about Richard. One is that he was indeed the great villain described in Shakespeare’s play as well as in memoirs of Thomas More and other sources. The other is that he was a much-maligned, decent man whose history was re-written by the people who defeated him, the House of Tudor. If you are interested in this argument, just pull up the websites for Richard III Society and Society of Friends of King Richard III. It is a very interesting debate. For our purposes here, however, I am writing about the Richard of Shakespeare’s incomparable play. The first, titled Richard III, was released in 1956 with Sir Laurence Olivier, the second by the same name in 1995 with Sir Ian McKellan. These are two movies of different eras, each brilliant in their own unique ways.

Laurence Olivier had produced and acted in movies of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Henry V, all to great acclaim. Richard III was greatly anticipated, and it was released in 1955. Filmed in Technicolor, it was a cinematically beautiful movie. Olivier did take some license with Shakespeare’s play, particularly in opening the movie with some of Richard’s speeches in the previous play, King Henry IV, Part II. Olivier felt that this would give some clarity to the story as well as Richard’s personality, and though I tend to be a purist about Shakespeare, I agree that this enhanced the movie. As the court celebrates the triumph and crowning of Richard’s brother, Edward IV (Sir Cedric Hardwicke), Richard goes off by himself to bemoan the end of war and beginning of “…this weak, piping time of peace.”

Richard was born hunchbacked, with a withered arm and a lame leg, with fierce ambition and love of war. He was a bitter man who, in his words, was “cheated of feature by dissembling nature, deformed, unfinished, sent before my time into this breathing world scarce half made up, and that so lamely and unfashionable that dogs bark at me as I halt by them.” In an inspired style of film-making, Olivier delivers his lines directly to the audience, pulling them into his world and creating a bond with them. He acts with a raised eyebrow and subtle sarcasm, truly fantastic. As part of this scene, Olivier inserts from Henry IV, Part II, Richard’s hatred of his deformed body and ferocious determination to seize the crown: “What other pleasure can the world afford? forswore me in my mother’s womb…and am I then a man to be beloved?...I’ll make my heaven to dream upon the crown, and whiles I live to account this world but hell until my mis-shaped trunk that bears this head be round impaled with a glorious crown….many lives stand between me and home…And I, like one lost in a thorny wood, that rends the thorns and is rent with the thorns, seeking a way….toiling desperately to find it out, torment myself to catch the English crown, and from that torment will free myself or hew my way out with a bloody axe! Why, I can smile and murder whiles I smile…and wet my cheeks with artificial tears, and frame my face to all occasions….can I do this, and cannot get a crown? Tut, were it farther off, I’ll pluck it down!”

That is Richard. Everything he does stems from this description of himself and his desires. As fourth in line of succession, the King’s two very young sons and Richard’s own brother, the Duke of Clarence (Sir John Gielgud), stand in the way. Gielgud gives a remarkable performance of Clarence, particularly when he describes his prophetic dream about his own death while imprisoned in the Tower of London. Richard is also determined to marry the Lady Anne (Claire Bloom), of Lancaster royal blood, partly from lust, partly from desire for a further royal alliance to strengthen his aim. The fact that Richard had just killed Anne's husband in battle did not sway him from seducing Anne right by the coffin of her dead husband. Anne, a devastated wife and frightened, weak woman, allowed herself to be seduced by Richard's "honeyed words." This tells us that despite his appearance and villainy, Richard could charm like a snake. Richard even goes so far later in the story as to try to marry his own niece for further royal affiliation. As he moves inexorably toward his ultimate aim, Richard is assisted by the Duke of Buckingham (Sir Ralph Richardson) and the aforementioned murderer Tyrell. Horrific events abound, and the story is told superbly to its bloody end.

Olivier’s Richard III, with its stellar cast, superb performances and stirring music by Sir William Walton, was delivered to the public in a most unusual way. It was released in the United States on afternoon TV and at movie theatres simultaneously. An unfortunate effect of this first-ever type of release was that the box office revenue at theatres was dismal. It is hard to believe, but Olivier was then unable to get his next project off the ground, filming of Macbeth, because of the bad revenues and because his only backer, producer Mike Todd (husband of Elizabeth Taylor), was killed in a plane crash. However, when Richard III was re-released in 1966, it topped box office records in most major American cities, and today it is considered a masterpiece. Richard III was nominated for only one award, unbelievably, which was best actor for Olivier, but he lost to Yul Brynner in The King and I.

In 1995, Sir Ian McKellan, known to younger audiences from his role in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, decided to make his own Richard III. McKellan is a classically trained actor of stage and screen, and added his own unique touches to Richard. He also used the technique of speaking directly to the audience. However, McKellan’s Richard is put into a modern setting, bringing it to life in the 1930’s with a suggestion of Richard and his cohorts in Nazi-type uniforms, and the Tudor heroes in British-style uniforms. The costumes, particularly those of the women, are gorgeous, and the music is jazzy and contemporary with the 1930’s. Shakespeare’s language is intact, thank heaven, and is strangely unmarred by the modern setting. Perhaps this is because we have seen in the 20th century many monstrous rulers like Richard, particularly Hitler. It is familiar territory to modern audiences.

McKellan’s Richard is viciously gleeful, acting the atrocious events with laughter and a twinkle in his eye. He is simply marvelous. Some of the updated scenes are humorous, such as the beginning speech which takes place in the men’s bathroom. He does not insert the scenes from Henry IV, Part II, as Olivier did, except for the lines about being able to murder while he smiles. He grins and says “Plots have I laid”, then crooks his finger at the audience, compelling us to follow along. Another witty update portrays one of the most famous lines from the movie -- “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!” --- which here is Richard’s broken-down jeep in the midst of battle. The palaces are lovely, but the main setting for the film is dark and bleak, with strange buildings and landscape that create a chilling atmosphere.

The cast, which does not boast of as many “Sirs” as Olivier’s version, is sometimes unusual and works beautifully. Annette Benning plays Elizabeth, Edward IV’s wretched widow queen trying to protect her 2 sons, with great elegance and style, showing real acting chops. Jim Broadbent as the evil Duke of Buckingham is a cigar-chomping, pot-bellied businessman who helps Richard with a smile and a wink. Nigel Hawthorne as Clarence is pitiable, and performs the famous soliloquy in the Tower of London with subtlety and grace. Kristin Scott Thomas is the Lady Anne, devastated by her husband’s death, seduced by Richard, and pitifully aware of her downfall. Robert Downy, Jr. is a surprise as Elizabeth’s brother, Lord Rivers. Downey apparently wanted the part so much that he cleared his calendar after the offer from McKellan. He does well playing the part of Rivers as a loving brother and appealing drunk. I must say that one of my favorites of this great cast is Adrian Dunbar, who plays the murdering Tyrrel. In Olivier’s film, Tyrrel was willing to do the deeds, but seemed much more reluctant and sensitive about it, particularly with the little princes. But Dunbar’s Tyrrel is not reluctant or sensitive. Richard, having been told Tyrrel is the kind of man he is looking for, meets him in a hog barn where Tyrrel is feeding apple pieces to the pigs. Richard asks him “Darest thou resolve to kill a friend of mine?” to which Tyrrel answers in a blasé tone “Ay, my lord, but I had rather kill two enemies.” (It is plain Richard means the two little princes.) Richard then throws a piece of  apple into the pen, hits a hog with an apple hard enough to make him squeal, and the two men smile.   The ending of the film is done with dark humor, as we see Richard for the last time, going to his death laughing, to the strains of an old recording of Al Jolson's "I'm Sittin' on Top of the World."  Marvelous.

McKellan’s Richard III won two Academy Awards, for costume design and art direction. McKellan was not even nominated for best actor, in my opinion an inordinately brainless decision on the part of Academy members. As movie lovers know, that wasn’t the first Academy blunder, nor will it be the last. It is really shameful that McKellan’s performance was not given the kudos it deserved.

As for the historical arguments about Richard, well, we may never know if he was an ordinary guy or the nasty scoundrel of Shakespeare. And that is just as well. I would hate to lose Richard, the greatest villain of all.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Errol Flynn Adventures - Movies of World War II

I am the happy owner of a wonderful boxed set featuring my favorite actor, Warner Brothers release “Errol Flynn Adventures”. These are Flynn's World War II era movies, and they have been beautifully restored and are crystal clear in quality.  The set includes war-time newsreels, Warner Brother cartoons, military band shorts, and theatrical trailers..

The 5 films are a picture of an era and of Hollywood’s propaganda in bolstering the morale of a suffering citizenry. Some are more realistic than others, but all share a common bond of hope and determination to win that terrible war. Errol Flynn took some heat due to the fact that he did not fight in the war, and it did not help that the studio did not want it to be known that Flynn had tried every branch of the service and was turned down. He had a bad heart, malaria, history of tuberculosis and an injured back. The studio did not want their macho star’s image tarnished with any kind of disability, and this was a source of embarrassment to Flynn through the war years. It was his desire to make films to help the war effort, and he did so very effectively with the following movies:

Uncertain Glory (1944) is the story of Jean Picard (Errol Flynn), a thief and murderer sentenced to the guillotine in Nazi-occupied France. Inspector Bonet (Paul Lukas) has been chasing him down for years and is determined to bring him to justice. Through a series of circumstances, Picard and Bonet find themselves on the same side of a very strange exploit. In my opinion, this movie, although not very well known outside of classic movie buff circles, is one of Flynn’s finest performances. He is not dashing, not very charming, unshaven most of the time, a thoroughly reprehensible man. Flynn really shows his acting chops and gives a marvelous performance.
Director: Raoul Walsh. Music: Max Steiner

Edge of Darkness (1943) is the story of Gunnar Brogge (Flynn), a fisherman in a small village in Nazi-occupied Norway. Along with his love Karen (Ann Sheridan), her doctor father (Walter Huston), and the rest of the small village, underground activities against the Nazis are the focus of their lives. A really nasty Nazi Captain (Helmut Dantine, probably the most beautiful male villain on screen) has no conscience in his desire to blot out all patriotism and hope in these people. This film is strong, serious and very spiritual in nature.
Director: Lewis Milestone. Music: Franz Waxman

Objective Burma (1945) was Flynn’s personal favorite. A stirring and true story of a squadron trapped in the Burmese jungle trying to make their way out for rescue, the movie is hard-edged and quite realistic for the time. James Brown and Henry Hull co-starred. Flynn enjoyed it because he did not have to be a romantic lead this time, just a man in a man’s world.
Director: Raoul Walsh. Music: Franz Waxman

Desperate Journey (1944) is probably the most propaganda-type of any war movie I ever saw. It’s a Hogan’s Hero type of romp through the German countryside by a group of flyers trying to get out of Germany. Flynn, Ronald Reagan, Arthur Kennedy and Alan Hale are comrades in arms.  Most of the Germans are pretty stupid and easily tricked by our guys. Even the great Raymond Massey as a Nazi Major is made to look foolish. Even though a bit unrealistic, I just love this movie. It is full of humor, has enough pathos to keep it respectable, and was good for war-time morale.
Director: Raoul Walsh. Music: Max Steiner/Hugo Friedhofer

Northern Pursuit (1943) has Flynn playing Steve Wagner, a Canadian Mountie who stumbles across a Nazi colonel (Helmut Dantine again) who has landed in Canada to mount an offensive. The film is quite lovely in its portrayal of a snowy, icy Canadian wasteland, and the story is well-done.
Director: Raoul Walsh. Music: Adolph Deutsch

These movies have it all – wonderful actors, creative cinematography and soaring music that includes our own Anthem, La Marseilles and God Save the King -- patriotism in its purest form.  Flynn at his finest.