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A place in the sun., 11 June 2016

Theodore Dreiser's mammoth novel "an American tragedy" was adapted twice for the screen :first version was made by Joseph Von Sternberg in 1931,and is best remembered for Sylvia Sidney's portrayal of Roberta.This movie, rarely aired ,is today outstripped by Georges Stevens' " a place in the sun" -the producers did not want to hear of the original title which would have scared the audience away from the theaters-: masterfully directed ,with three aces :Montgomery Clift ,Elizabeth Taylor and Shelley Winters ,plus excellent support by Anne Revere as mom ,in an underwritten part.

The Italian effort is a miniseries,probably the best way to tackle this masterpiece of the American literature:seven episodes in all ,which is not too much for a 850 pages work .

By and large ,this is good MTV work: the book was sometimes sweetened ,but never cheapened ;most of the events were kept ;even though Clyde' s final redemption through religion is not really communist Dreiser's view ,its center subject is properly treated: the mirage of the American dream,the failure of ambition,the gap between the wealthy bourgeois and the proletarians ,a plea for a square deal for the underprivileged and disgust for death penalty .

For further details,look at each episode separately on this site.

"Like an old dusty road I get weary from the load", 11 June 2016

Like the first episode ,it was the first time this part of the novel had been transferred to the screen;except for the ending and some soap opera elements I'll go back to,it perfectly depicts the living hell of the death row where Clyde spends the last days of his life .

It begins with a meeting of Clyde's mom with Samuel Griffiths' selfish family (not from the book) ,then a brief look at the tour the mother undertakes to raise funds and to vindicate his son,helped by the reporters .

So it takes 21 minutes before we meet Clyde again;in this jail ,where ,as Mr Dreiser wrote,the wardens feel as depressed as their prisoners,all you can hear is sighs,groans ,sobs ,the lamentations of the damned ;the executions still pack real wallop ,true to Dreiser's words :"the keepers in charge of the deadly work(......)drawing the heavy green curtains with which the cells were equipped so that none might see the fatal procession..."

When we first meet Clyde in his jail,he plumbs the depth of despair;his face is almost indifferent.Reverend Ducan McMillan,the key figure of the final pages ,will help him redeem his soul and find back a certain serenity:"mama(.....) I die resigned and content (...) God has heard my prayers.He has given me strength and peace" But Dreiser's words are ambiguous "but to himself adding:had he?"

An admirable scene shows Clyde in his cell,with the good book on his lap , with two superimposed faces :McMillan chanting ,and the black convict singing a harrowing "sometimes I feel like a motherless child" .

Warner Bentivegna perfectly conveys Clyde's emotions ,as he runs the whole gamut ,from despair and incredulity to resignation and faith;his beaming face shows he does not care anymore about his lawyers' useless appeal or about the human governor's possible clemency;matching him every step of the way is Lilla Brignone 's Mater Dolorosa .The chemistry between them is nothing short of perfect.

On the other hand ,Stuart's presence is irrelevant:never in a month of Sundays ,one of those young rich kids ,afraid of scandal,would stoop to visiting an inmate on death row ;like Sondra's appearance in a dream -she sent him a short letter in the book- or a vision of Roberta on the fatal door ,this is pure soap opera.

Now for the ending: we should not forget it was made by Italians ,at the time of Vatican 2,and I wonder whether these pictures of a quiet nature ,and a clear sky ,enhanced by heavenly choirs, do not misinterpret Dreiser totally: Clyde has found peace of mind in faith but I'm not sure he approves of this way of life (or death): his last lines show mom and her grandson (remember the pregnant sister in the first episode )in the mission :"she must be kind to him,(...) not restrain him too much ,as maybe,maybe,she had (....) for HIS sake" .

In fact ,Dreiser was against all organized religions and praised the Chinese who had lived thousand of years without religion. The purpose of his book was not to glorify religion but to show the gap between the folks on the hill ,who kill time with all pleasures and enjoyments ,live in luxury and legally exploit their fellow men ,and the working class where time kills you,where you are sweating and maybe one day join the American dream ,but if you succeed ,you will always be a parvenu (the word is used in the miniseries);religion is Clyde's opium in the last days of his short life,it cannot be any other way.

(thanks Mr Stevie Wonder: all my titles of the seven episodes were taken from " a place in the sun")

Around the world in crazy days, 10 June 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Based on one of first French comic strips ,"La Famille Fenouillard" was first a short in the silent era;Christophe ,the writer ,was also a teacher and he creates several popular -now old-fashioned-characters ,besides this Fenouillard family: Le Sapeur Camembert (= Fireman Camenbert) and Le Savant Cosinus (=scientist Cosine ),the latter predating a little Hergé's Professeur Tournesol (Calculus).

In Yves Robert,filmography,it comes just before his biggest blockbuster "La Guerre Des Boutons" and features Jean Richard and Sophie Desmarets as the leads.This is one of the rare successful attempts at transferring a comic strip to the screen;it's all the more amazing since other old-fashioned stories such as "Bibi Fricotin" and "Bécassine " failed dismally. A picture comes to life and the imaginary world of SAint Remy Sur Deule ,wonderfully created in the studio -it was rather defiant at the time of the N.V- is before our eyes ,with the firemen,the holier-than-thou mayor,and La Famille Fenouillard,Agénor,Léocadie,and the two daughters Artémise and Cunégonde in their hosier's shop.

The screenplay is quite mad ,which is fine with me:beginning with a rivalry between the mayor and FEnouillard ,who would like to replace him,it takes our heroes to Paris to see the Eiffel tower;but they take the wrong train (after the laborious explanations of the station master),winds up on a ship who sails away to Brazil:here ,they get lost in the virgin forest which looks like an exotic garden ,complete with parrots,boas and cannibals who put them on their menu :their naivete is worth the price of admission ;they have not a clue of what's happening,even when a young native says "yummy yummy'.

Saved by convicts escaped from a penal colony (a nod to Gaston Leroux's "Chéri-Bibi",the leader of the pack is called "Souris- Bibi"),they try to get back home on a ship which takes them to the North Pole ,where they live,as tradition (or cliché ,more like) has it,in an igloo;then Madame gets drunk with sake in Japan ,dressed up as a geisha ;as there's no boat when they get to the harbor ,they will "walk" their way home via Africa rivers ,the pyramids,the road to Damascus...

When they have arrived ,they will have seen the whole world ,everything but the Eiffel Tower.

A hullabaloo around the world -it all happens in 78 minutes ,if you do not believe me,do watch the movie !- and political success for dad and true love for the daughters to boot (but the mayor's sash is for mom)

Yves Robert -who appears for a cameo in the railway station,watch out!- was always a grown up kid,as his best movies,this one,"La Guerre Des Boutons" "La Gloire De Mon Père" or "Le Château De Ma Mère " testify.Happy he who has kept his child's soul!

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"You know when times are bad ,and you're feeling sad", 10 June 2016

Most of the episode ,the shortest of them all (55 min),is given over to the trial,the Pièce De Résistance of Stevens' and mainly Sternberg's movies.

Warner Bentivagna underplays:he is absent as though the whole thing does not concern him anymore ;he knows the jury is hostile,as is the populace inside and outside the courtroom,and the prosecutor (Alberto Lupo) has no mercy for this first-degree murderer;he knows that the die is cast whatever his defense suggested by his lawyers may be. One scene sums up the atmosphere in succinct style: the wardens are having lunch,Clyde's plate remains full as he's desperately watching the clock.

The two American movies stop when the jury brings a guilty verdict and Clyde gets a death sentence ;but in fact Clyde's execution takes place after long months on death row ,depicted by Dreiser with spooky details.

Once more,the ending is brilliant:a black convict breaks into "nobody knows the trouble I've been " in a weary voice,and this is the perfect introduction to the last chapter:religion which was omnipresent in the first episode ,will come back as the key issue of the finale,when reverend Duncan enters the scene.

"Like a branch on a tree,I keep reaching to be free", 10 June 2016

Important notice: in the novel,Stuart is Sondra's brother; in the miniseries ,he is renamed "Stuart Stark " ,Annabella 's brother.

The beginning of the fifth episode is brilliant: true film noir style.Sweating Clyde holds the phone ,and sees Sondra's face ,though the window pane :he will never see her again ;as the detectives surround the house,the young man tries to escape but he is quickly captured.Meanwhile ,in the providential world of the spoiled youth,life goes on,and unaware of Clyde's plight,they play a pathetic hide and seek:"who will be the first to find Sondra's squeeze?

Although we do not see the populace's wrath ,the media spreads the terrible new across the whole country ;but in their world with God on their side ,Clyde's parents did not know till a reporter took a photograph of them.Asa ,true to himself ,leaves everything to God's will ,but Elvira does intend to come to her son's rescue.

As always ,the last picture is a good idea:as he is the only witness of the drama ,Clyde ,following his lawyers' piece of advice,takes the oath and sees ,terrified, the prosecutor getting closer to him.

But the soap opera side,latent in the third episode ,gets in the way:the Finchley family seems too nice;Dreiser showed wealthy selfish people ,eager to avoid scandal ,and that's it;only Samuel Griffiths shows some remorse at having left Clyde alone,to his own devices.

Hence my notice above: Stuart 's visit to the prisoner is completely invented ;to make the matters more credible he is only a friend,not Sondra's brother ;if it were so,how could he be allowed to bring Clyde a photograph of her.Apart of his mom and his lawyers ,he 's alone in his cell ,and the screenwriters were probably asked to sweeten the ruthless plot.

"Moving on moving on ", 10 June 2016

In the book ,Clyde urges Roberta to stay with her parents for a while;the depiction of this farm near decay is one of the peaks of the literary work ,in the same league as French writers Zola and Maupassant.By chance,Clyde winds up on the farm ,asking his way to Roberta's father and discovers the milieu in which his girlfriend was nurtured and it strikes horror into his heart.And Clyde spends days and nights contemplating the perfect crime;but as a criminal,he is nothing but an amateur.To ease his conscience ,he thinks he's Aladdin and it's a genius who presses him to act.

The miniseries simplify all that and the fourth episode and shows Clyde and Roberta en route to the fateful lake .Considering the limitation the TV directing was working over,this part,which contains the famous scene of the drowning is better than the talky precedent episode ;the jazzy music turns into an ominous threatening score ;the night they spend in a hotel is given an Hitchcock treatment,and people who do not know the story may think that Clyde is about to murder the girl in the room.

The principal's acting ,feverish ,nervous,eaten with remorse , compares favorably with that of Monty Clift ,although he has not the American actor's inner intensity;the scene of the drowning is not really faithful to the book (neither is Stevens' ) ,for the camera does not seem to play a part when the boat capsizes .But it retains its ambiguity .These pages are very hard to transfer to the screen ,and the director does not capture the atmosphere ,which Dreiser depicts with short sentences


Many static shots of the "witnesses " ,from the station master to the man in the wood .Even when he returns to the paradise where Sondra lives ,Clyde is still in hell:the newspaper one of his pals reads scares him to death;and it's when his dream is about to come true -Sondra's parents are more sympathetic and seems to approve of their daughter's choice,in scenes more inspired by Stevens' movie than by Dreiser- that the investigators ,hot on his heels, will catch him up.

The political side is not passed over in silence,as far the law is concerned ,and there's a hint at the elections.

Virna Lisi 's beauty shines in the second half ,she's as attractive as Liz Taylor.

"I Keep running towards a dream", 9 June 2016

In this third episode ,one feels that filming on location would be necessary;most of the action takes place around the lakes ,and although the black servant reads an article about a drowning (in Stevens' movie, the hero hears it on the radio),and maps are displayed at the end ,but it's really too little for it's around those enchanted banks that the young jet set has fun(and that the tragedy will take place)

This is Clyde's peak ,as well as the beginning of the end ;he gets a promotion ,and now works in an office ;Sondra has really fallen for him and he may think that his American dream is no longer a mirage .But Roberta begins pregnant by him.

In this third segment ,the screenplay drastically wanders from Dreiser's novel: Samuel Griffiths and his family's role has been fleshed out,Clyde is invited to their birthday party and he has a long conversation with his cousin,which would be unlikely in Dreiser's story.

All that concerns Roberta's pregnancy has been sweetened :no visit to the shady chemist who's got an effective medicine ,and the girl does not want to have an abortion :it's Clyde himself ,under his pseud (Mr Smith) who asks for it (he's present in the doctor's office).

This episode is too talky and sometimes verges on soap opera;only its end is really spooky:Clyde's face appears superimposed on the lakes map ,then on ominous waters.

"Like this tired troubled earth ,I've been rollin' since my birth....", 9 June 2016

The second episode takes the viewer into more known territory ;all the previous characters -except mom,for a short phone call about the accident that killed an old man-have disappeared ,living Clyde Griffiths on his own ....

On his own indeed and ,although as I previously wrote he is too old for the part, Werner Bentiregna has,here, more screen presence ,although ,paradoxically,he has to keep a low profile during the whole part. The action tends to be accelerated ,compared to the book,and by and large,the screenplay is firm and well constructed.

Gilbert GRiffith ,Clyde's cousin ,does not resemble him ,which is the biggest flaw of the episode ,since in the book ,their resemblance was often mooted ;but the snub person is exactly how Dreiser depicts him:when a self-conscious Clyde holds out his hand to him,he refuses to shake it;oddly,he is part of Sondra's group,whereas he despises her in the novel.And all in all ,it is a good change ,for it intensifies the wealthy young man's contempt.

Clyde remains shy,self-conscious,gauche ,in this world of luxury he does not belong to ;the scene of the dinner in which only Samuel Griffiths shows some sympathy for his nephew,is remarkable: when the young jet set appears (a screeching to a halt always signals their arrival),Gilbert and his sister leave for a drive with them ,leaving his cousin ,sadly eating dinner with his uncle and his aunt.

Although foreman Whigham has warned him (no affairs with the workers),Clyde cannot stand his loneliness,and when he sees Roberta ,it's love at first sight (their attraction is astutely shown as we see their faces appeared superimposed on hands working on the conveyor belt)

But Clyde treats his flirt as his cousins do: when the rich kids appear in the cafe where a black piano player performs a bluesy tune,he follows them,leaving the poor girl in front of her cup of coffee.

Sondra Finchley (played by beauty Virna Lisi ,the only member of the cast who has enjoyed an international career later on,culminating in her portrayal of Catherine De Medicis in "La Reine Margot" (1993)) already fascinates Clyde :she's got everything going for her,beauty,charm,wealth ,and she might be the way to taste this American dream he longs for;but at this stage,he cannot even think of dating her.

That's why he returns to Alberta for comfort ,but as he woos her ,they are surprised by a policeman -a scene also featured in Stevens' version- and they have to leave for the girl's room.

Once again,the director shows finesse: to tell the viewer Roberta has yielded to Clyde ,a light briefly comes at her window.

Actually ,tragedy has only begun.

There's a place in the sun, and before my life is done......., 9 June 2016

Theodore Dreiser's mammoth novel "an American tragedy" was adapted twice for the screen :first version was made by Joseph Von Sternberg in 1931,and is best remembered for Sylvia Sidney's portrayal of Roberta.This movie, rarely aired ,is today outstripped by Georges Stevens' " a place in the sun" -the producers did not want to hear of the original title which would have scared the audience away from the theaters-: masterfully directed ,with three aces :Montgomery Clift ,Elizabeth Taylor and Shelley Winters ,plus excellent support by Anne Revere as mom ,in an underwritten part.

The Italian effort is a miniseries,probably the best way to tackle this masterpiece of the American literature:seven episodes in all ,which is not too much for a 850 pages work .

This episode concerns Book 1 ,which was never featured in the American movies;this is probably-that's also the opinion of Richard Lingeman who wrote Dreiser's biography as well as the introduction of the signet classics edition- the least palatable part of the novel, being sometimes dull,and very repetitive ,although it's only 150 pages long.

First remark : Warner Bentivegna (31 in 1962) is obviously too old for the part of Clyde Griffiths who died in his early twenties,and he has not the youthful look of Monty Clift ,now Dreiser's character for millions of cine buffs (although he is called George Eastman;anyway all the names were changed in the 1951 version); on the other hand Elvira and Asa Griffiths are portrayed a Dreiser depicted them.

One can regret that no scene depicts the pitiful preaching family on the streets ,praising the Lord and pumping the organ , a picture which comes back in the ominous epilogue called "souvenir";when the series begin,Clyde is already working in the hotel and we can't feel how much he was loath to be part of the mission .

However,the director succeeds in making us feel the gap between the American dream Clyde sees in the hotel guests and the seedy house where his family eats dinner ,and where religion is everywhere (the children's brainwashing is constant,whatever they do,even when they go to bed );besides,Clyde's and mom's relationship is particularly well treated ,and we do feel warmth ,love and tenderness between them;she's actually the man of the family ,the only one who will react to events when the tragedy happens,and the only member of the family who will try to do something about it .

When sister Esther gets pregnant by a man who leaves her ,while Asa thinks she has sinned, Elvira shows compassion;so does Clyde,even though he tries to get Hortensia ,a futile vain girl ,who ,with cheap jewelry and chic dressings ,is only interested in a fur coat.

Clyde's fate is sealed from the start: his sister's plight predates his;then the accident which costs an old man -the screenplay was "sweetened": it was actually a little girl-his life ,although the poor lad is totally innocent; the youngsters' wild drive across the streets is not as gripping as in the novel ,being too short ,and featuring Clyde's beat up by his mates (not from the novel).

After a final confrontation with his father (once again invented by the screenwriters ,but not irrelevant),Clyde leaves home and that's where Sternberg's and Steven's movies begin.

The last picture is a very good idea : a torn picture of Hortensia :there's no place for romanticism when you want to be part of the American Dream,Clyde's first love has already understood it when she makes of fool of him,and the young man soon will too.

"That's the sound of the men working on the chain gang...", 8 June 2016

Second version of a less famous Gaston Leroux's novel;unlike "Mystere De La Chambre Jaune " or "phantom of the opera"it's not a murder mystery;Cheri-Bibi is a gangster flanked by accomplices such as "La Ficelle"

This one by Leon Mathot stars Pierre Fresnay as the lead -perhaps not a good choice ,he's better on the right side of the law,at portraying Commissaire Wens.Jean-Pierre Aumont , romantic male lead of the era ,portrays the nephew of a millionaire,falsely accused of his uncle's murder;Cheri-Bibi ,his gang and the young man end up on a ship en route to the penal colony;the villains try to take over the ship,but their attempt fails : they will work as lumberjacks deep in the virgin forest ,after a painful journey .As always since "Pepe Le Moko" ,Marcel Dalio is the unfortunate hateful informer .

The story is muddled in its first part and the interest comes up with the beginning of the voyage,during which Mathot uses a very original technique: to carry out a plan to get rid of the wardens ,the prisoners use the sign language ,and there are subtitles for the viewers who do not know it;the priest's sermon,before the ship leaves for the green hell,is quite funny;and the ending shows a chivalrous Cheri -Bibi .The 14th July letter is also a good moment ,but the "Paname (=Paris) " nostalgia comes directly from "Pepe Le Moko".And Aumont shows a tendency to overplay in the last part.

"All day long they work so hard till the sun is going down" (Sam Cooke)

Besides the three black and white movies,Cheri-Bibi would be adapted a fourth time in the seventies ,this time as a miniseries.

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