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Dear Murderer (1947)
A forties British film noir
This is a gloomy British film noir made just after the War, starring Eric Portman as a wronged husband intent upon revenge. He has been away in America for 8 months on business, but during that time he came to realize that his wife was being unfaithful and going around with another man back in London. He returns without notifying her and sets about his meticulously planned campaign of murdering her lover by means of what he calls 'the perfect murder'. The film is based upon a play of the same title by St. John Legh Clowes. It was filmed twice for television, firstly for the BBC in 1949, and secondly in 1957 for the Armchair Theatre series on the ITV network. The playwright turned it into a novel, and that was filmed in 1972 as a German TV movie entitled GELIEBTER MOERDER. It is rather a sinister tale, and I marvel at its popularity. In this first filming of the story, Portman's wife is played by Greta Gynt. She is excellent as a totally narcissistic and faithless femme fatale, of the most disgusting kind. When she is told that a man has committed suicide over her, the camera closes on her face as we see her thrilled and gloating at the news, and she says to herself excitedly: 'He killed himself for me!' Dennis Price, in his best arch and snobbish manner, plays the lover who is murdered by Portman. But Portman discovers that the murder was pointless, because his wife has already dropped Price and taken up with another man played by Maxwell Reed. There are many twists and turns, much duplicity, lying, and deception, and several false stories. Through all of this the study police inspector played by Jack Warner does not believe anybody and knows something is fishy with all their stories. It would all be very fascinating if the people were not all so horrible and the events so very repulsive. Arthur Crabtree did a very good job of directing, and he uses a great deal of darkness in his shots to underline the awful gloom.
Steve Frears's first film, a successful mixed genre satirical thriller
I recently saw this film again for the first time since it came out, on a big screen, and had an opportunity to chat a bit with Steve Frears about it. It stands up very well to the passage of time, but the whiff of sixties Britain coming from the screen is very strong. I think we had all forgotten quite how grotty things were back then. People were still putting coins in gas meters and thinking that chow mein was Chinese food. So GUMSHOE has now become period. Why, I never. But there it is, it has joined Powell and Loy in the cabinet of yesteryear. And so it is all the more appropriate that in this film, Albert Finney sits reading a propped up paperback copy of Dash Hammett's THE THIN MAN as he eats his breakfast cereal. Where is Asta the dog? Well, now, down to cases, and I mean criminal cases. Albert Finney is a Walter Mitty fantasist who refuses to work in his brother's prosperous export business and instead lives on the dole, having forfeited the love of a good (?) woman played by Billie Whitelaw, who married his brother instead (an insidious Frank Finlay who is up to no good). But wait. Whitelaw keeps coming around and professing undying love for Albert. What is going on? She wants to stay overnight but asks where could she sleep, as Albert sleeps in a narrow cot. He says she could always sleep in the bath tub. Perhaps she was one of those gals of whom a chap could say: 'She'd scrub up nicely.' Meanwhile, Albert, under the influence of Humphrey Bogart (of whom he does imitations), and frenzied with love for THE MALTESE FALCON, puts an ad in the Liverpool paper (yes, he is a Liverpudlian) saying his name is Sam Spade and he is a private eye but will not accept divorce work. He is immediately contacted by 'the Fat Man', given a thousand pounds (a lot of money in those days), a photo of a woman, and a gun. It is a curious sort of gun, a .38 calibre revolver with only five chambers. There may be some numerological significance in this lack of a sixth chamber, especially as later in the film Aleister Crowley's face stares at us from the wall of the Atlantis Bookshop in London as if he knows what happened to the missing chamber. And for those of you who know Museum Street, you will be aware that there not only was a real Atlantis Bookshop, but it is still there. I don't like it because I don't like black magic. Albert, being a very kind-hearted person, does not understand that he is meant to kill the girl in the photo, who is a scholar at the University of Liverpool (a sinister place, home of Ian Shaw, who only leaves his coffin after midnight). So he looks her up and chats her up. Albert Finney plays this weird, innocent and intrepid character to perfection. His ability to pull it off means that the film works. It would have been so easy for a film like this walking the tightrope of comedy and murder to fail. Albert could have gone plop as he fell off the wire. But no, he is too sure-footed for that. It is a miracle that a first-time director could succeed in such a hazardous enterprise. But then Frears was well apprenticed under Karel Reisz on MORGAN: A SUITABLE CASE FOR TREATMENT, which was an even more bizarre mixture of comedy and tragedy, starring David Warner (who once pushed my friend Lucy Saroyan down the stairs, for which I have never forgiven him). There is a really serious criminal enterprise going on, of which Albert becomes dimly aware, assisted by the fact that people keep getting killed, so as one would notice. His brother is shipping guns in crates marked 'gardening tools' to Mozambique. Now, who would do a thing like that? Mozambique is so yesterday. But then, this is a period film, and there were different rebels then. The ice maiden Janice Rule (who six years later would be the ominous non-speaking third woman in Altman's 3 WOMEN) sends a chill down Albert's spine as she tries to deal with him. But even the most evil schemers can get nowhere with a Liverpool Prince Myshkin. Albert decides to find out what is going on, as it becomes clear that heroin is the game. His encounter with a young and sensual Maureen Lipman at the Atlantis Bookshop is a treat, as she assures him that the best time to see her is just after closing time, as 'I blossom in the evenings.' But the best scene in the film is when Albert encounters the young Wendy Richard and they exchange machine-gun rapid one-liners, he doing his very best Bogart, and she maintaining the most perfect taunting insouciance. I praised this scene to Frears and he agreed that she was 'absolutely brilliant', and it became clear that he loved the result of it very dearly indeed. Frears is very self-effacing and finds it hard to be praised. He looked pretty dazed that everybody still liked GUMSHOE all these years and 22 feature films later. But it is a gem.
Pabst's great anti-war film, banned by the Nazis
The 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme yesterday seemed to be an appropriate time to view WESTFRONT 1918. This German film of the trench warfare of 1918 is possibly the most realistic depiction we have of the First World War. The film is justly famous to those who are interested in cinema history and in the work of one of Germany's most talented directors, G. W. Pabst. The action is set in the trenches of Eastern France, and the film commences in Besancon, where the German soldiers are billeted. The story is based upon a novel by the German author Ernst Johannsen (1898-1977), entitled VIER VON DER INFANTRIE: IHRE LETZTEN TAGE AN DER WESTFRONT 1918 (FOUR INFANTRYMEN AND THEIR LAST DAYS ON THE WESTERN FRONT, 1918), published in 1929. The book was also published in French in 1929 as QUATRE DE L'INFANTERIE-FRONT OUEST 1918, published in England in 1930 as FOUR INFANTRYMEN ON THE WESTERN FRONT and also in America in 1930 as THE FOUR INFANTRYMEN. IMDb is in error in its references to Ernst Johannsen. however. It claims that this novel was also the basis for a 'TV short' of 1938 entitled BRIGADE-EXCHANGE. In fact, the 1938 production was not a filmed production but a radio play, which was broadcast by the BBC and was based upon a radio play by Johannsen entitled BRIGADE-VERMITTLUNG (BRIGADE-EXCHANGE). BBC Television did not even exist in 1938! IMDb please note this correction. Johannsen himself fought in the First World War and took part in the Battle of Verdun. His writings on the subject are wholly authentic. It is important to remember that this film was made only 12 years after the end of the War, and the sets and atmosphere portrayed were based upon personal knowledge and memory. The story is ostensibly about four individual soldiers, but the film spreads the attention to a larger cast as well. We see the return home to Germany on leave of one of the soldiers, named Karl. He arrives at his flat, full of joy at the prospect of seeing his beloved wife again. He has been away for more than a year and a half. He enters quietly, lays down his rifle, takes off his gear, and hears his wife giggling in the bedroom. He enters and finds her in bed with another man. He goes and gets his rifle and considers shooting them, but changes his mind. The wife cowers and cringes and can only say: 'I couldn't help it,' so that her 'apology' amounts only to whingeing self pity because he had deserted her to go to war. Karl is glad to leave and get back to the sanity of the trenches. Another of the four soldiers, 'the kid' or 'the student', has an affair with a French girl in Besancon, and they decide they want to marry. However, bombardments force her evacuation and she never even learns that he has been killed. The continual bombardments have become so commonplace to the soldiers that when they go to sleep, they say to the one on watch: 'Wake me up when you get the signal (to attack).' The explosions crashing down over their heads without cease are no longer even noticed, and do not interfere with their exhausted sleep. The only thing missing from the film is the plague of rats. Otherwise, we see them encrusted with mud which they have long since ceased to try to remove, and how they are continually rushing from shelter to shelter to avoid the locations where the artillery shells are falling thickest. At one point, their own artillery is decimating them in a friendly fire fiasco. The phone lines have collapsed and the messenger dog sent with a message tied round his neck to Divisional Headquarters (a miserable half-buried shack) fails to get through and is killed by a shell. But a man does, and the artillery extends its range and stops killing the German soldiers by mistake. The latter part of the film is based upon the chapter of the novel called 'Inferno', and it shows the most incredibly detailed prolonged staging of a battle situation where the French troops storm the German trenches, assisted by the quaint little battle tanks of that era, with men hiding behind them in their advance for cover. The carnage is immense, and nearly everyone on both sides gets killed. This part of the film lasts about 15 or 20 minutes. It is possible that this is the most authentic portrayal in a feature film of First World War trench warfare and its indescribable, incessant horrors. Cinéastes and war historians will wish to compare these scenes with Lewis Milestone's film ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, based upon Erich Maria Remarque's novel IM WESTEN NICHTS NEUES, which was also made in 1930. The most famous German war novels were IN STAHLGEWITTERN (1920, English title STORM OF STEEL) and a sequel dealing with the trench warfare of 1918, DAS WAELDCHEN 125 (1925, English title COPSE 125), both written by a German military hero of the First World War, Ernst Juenger. However, these have never been filmed. WESTFRONT 1918 has the end credit: 'ENDE ?!', which means 'THE END?!' Since the film was released only three years before Hitler came to power, its prophecy of more war ahead was obvious to everyone. It is no surprise that the film was banned and heavily criticised by the Nazis. The last thing they wanted was anti-war propaganda, as they prepared their future wars. But Pabst's message had already been delivered: war was a monstrous nightmare in which everyone loses, everyone starves, everyone dies. But the problem is that not enough of the German public were listening to such warnings, and those that were soon would find themselves rounded up and executed or sent to camps. The jackboot was well and truly on the front foot, and the world would pay.
It Happened in Paris (1935)
Carol Reed's first film, a tale of Montparnasse
This is an interesting film set in Paris during the Montparnasse Era. The film was made at the time Montparnasse was still just about swinging in the 1930s. The action is set in the twenties, when there were still plenty of American artists like the character played by John Loder living in Paris, before the Americans left Paris in the aftermath of the financial crashes. The characters, episodes, behaviour and settings are more realistic and true to life than most films about that period in Paris because, after all, this still was that period in Paris. One only needs to compare this with Jacques Becker's film LES AMANTS DE MONTPARNASSE (THE LOVERS OF MONTPARNSSE), of 1958, to see how far Montparnasse had receded into unrealistic mythology 23 years after this 1935 film was made. Already by the fifties, the French themselves could not even make a realistic film about their own Montparnasse Era and portray Modigliani and Jeanne, or their milieu, properly. This film bears the director's credit of a German emigrant named Robert Wyler, but he appears only to have had the credit because of contractual commitments and it was the uncredited Carol Reed who really directed it. I don't know the background to all that, and we can only speculate, I suppose. This film was also the first feature film screenplay written by the young John Huston, aged only 29 at the time. It was based on a play entitled L'ARPETE by the French playwright and screen writer Yves Mirande (1875-1957). As a writer Mirande had 107 film credits, so he was very much a fixture of the cinema. In this same year, 1935, he wrote the dialogue for Josephine Baker's film PRINCESS TAM-TAM (1935). The previous year, he had jointly written the film LE ROI DES CHAMPS-ELYSEES (THE KING OF THE CHAMPS-ELYSEES, 1934) starring Buster Keaton. So he was very much a man of the moment (I have just made a pun, though you would not know it, for Mirande wrote a film of that title in this same year, 1935, starring Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., directed by Monty Banks, who later married Gracie Fields). This film thus had some good talents and a considerable amount of authenticity built in from the start. John Loder does a passable job playing the romantic lead, but the film's sparkle comes from the female romantic lead, played by Nancy Burne, then aged 23. Burne later died prematurely at the age of 41, and never appeared in a film after 1939, so she was nearing the end of her career without realizing it when she made this film. The story is a bit of fun, nothing to be taken too seriously. Everybody is hard up and starving for art's sake in Paris, and John Loder is pretending to be doing that as well, concealing the fact that he is the son of a millionaire. Burne sacrifices everything, being penniless, to buy him two tubes of emerald green paint so that he can complete his large painting of her lying asleep, called 'The Girl in Green', which years later Loder buys back from a Manhattan art gallery for $10,000, but was thought to be worth five francs at the time it was painted. Burne feels pretty burned when she eventually realizes that Loder had been fooling everyone and only pretending to be poor. He goes back to America shamed and exposed and resumes his life as a rich boy for a few years. A horrible society harridan is then about to nab him as a husband, but wait, can true love be saved at the last moment? Will he escape the claws of the horrible scheming woman and rediscover happiness with Burne? Can miracles happen? Watch and see.
Napló apámnak, anyámnak (1990)
The third and most powerful of the Diary films
The autobiographical Diary films of the brilliant Hungarian director Marta Meszaros continue with this one, the English title of which is DIARY FOR MY FATHER AND MOTHER. For the first and second films, see my reviews: NAPLO GYERMEKELMNEK (DIARY FOR MY CHILDREN, 1984), and DIARY FOR MY LOVERS (a mistranslation of DIARY FOR MY LOVES, aka NAPLO SZERELMELMNEK, 1987). I have listed these under their IMDb listings, even though two are listed under their Hungarian titles and one under an English title. Only the first of the films is available for sale with subtitles, either in English or, under the title JOURNAL INTIME, in French. The subsequent two films were broadcast with English subtitles on Channel 4 in its World Cinema season in 1994, and I have videos of them which I recorded then off the air. Otherwise, they are unobtainable. Unfortunately, for this third one, the first 15 minutes is missing from my tape. It should be mentioned that Meszaros made a fourth and final Diary film in 2000, entitled KISVILMA AZ UTOLSO NAPLO (LITTLE WILMA THE LAST DIARY). I have no way of reviewing the fourth and last one, which has never been subtitled. The story of this film commences in 1956 and ends in 1957. Although the first 15 minutes were missing, all of that portion took place in Moscow, which Juli was desperately trying to leave at the end of the second film. She has thus been trapped in Moscow for the duration of the Hungarian Uprising and the formation of the Imre Nagy Government. As anyone who knows history realizes, the Soviet Union invaded Hungary with a massive force and sent tanks onto the streets of Budapest, blasting and destroying countless buildings and homes, and ruthlessly massacring the population in the streets. After the Soviets have successfully occupied Hungary and overthrown the new Government, Juli (played as usual by the marvellous young actress Zsuza Czinkoczi) is finally given her passport back and allowed to travel to Hungary. She arrives in Budapest to find that Magda (played by Anna Polony as usual) is in hiding still, because of the wrath of the population against her, having been badly beaten up by a crowd. Magda's flat contains a woman named Vera whom Juli does not remember, but who was a friend of her parents. She has evaded execution by obtaining a certificate declaring herself insane, though she is not, of course. She warmly welcomes Juli, hut sadly tells her that while she was away, her grandmother has died. Janos is also in hiding because the Soviets are searching for him as a supporter of the revolution. He does surface, however, and Juli is able to see him again (he is still played by Jan Nowicki). The film contains, as its predecessors did, a great deal of fascinating contemporary documentary footage integrated with the story. In this film, must of that documentary footage was shot by Meszaros herself at the time. Some of it, showing crowds of tens of thousands of people in the streets, is incredible to see. As usual, a skillful interweaving of colour and black and white enables her film to appear to be seamless with the old footage. Also, from time to time, there are flashbacks in this film which we have seen in the two earlier films. When all three films are seen in succession, a marvellous unity emerges. In fact, so unified is everything that these films would make a superb mini-series for television today. I only wish I could comment on the fourth film made ten years after this, but I assume it is just as excellent as the others. Freed as she was by the fall of the old regime, Meszaros was able to turn this third film into a truly savage attack on the Soviet Union, and on its Hungarian surrogates, what we might call 'the Hungarian Vichy Regime'. The violence, brutality, and inhumanity of the regimes which she hates are shown in their full horror, with the effects on the lives of the individuals. As a history lesson concerning the nightmare of Eastern Europe under Soviet domination, this series of films is surely unrivalled. It is unique also in being the director's own story made into a series of films by herself. Janos, whom Juli (the Meszaros character) loves, is played by Meszaros's own husband, Jan Nowicki. He is magnificent. These films are superior even to Andrzej Wajda's pair of films, MAN OF IRON (1981) and MAN OF MARBLE (1977), in being more intimate and impassioned. I would go so far as to say that Meszaros is a better director even than Poland's Wajda. A large part of this film consists of a lengthy and detailed depiction of a party to celebrate New Year's Eve for 1957. It is a triumphant sequence, for it compresses within it the entire tale, with most of the characters present. We see the ambiguous relationship between Janos and Magda, and we realize the real reason why she has persecuted him politically for so many years and confined him to prison: it is because she loved him and he rejected her. At the party, she gets carried away and, in front of everyone, passionately kisses him. But she is a dangerous viper, and to be kissed by Magda can literally be the kiss of death. These films show the complexity of human natures, the ambiguity of passions, the treachery of friends, and the corrosion of humanity by tyrannies. They are together a great artistic achievement and a monumental testimony to history. The fact that this series of films is unknown in the West is a tragedy. If the oafs and morons who run BBC-2 had half a brain between them, they would run the four films as a series on British television. They deserve to be seen, reflected upon, and discussed by everyone.
Stalag 17 (1953)
Prisoners of war, a tragi-comedy
This was a very famous film at the time and made a big impact. One of the reasons for this was that the story was largely true. There really was a Stalag 17 (the name of a POW camp in Germany), and the characters really existed. One needs to remember that this film was made only a few years after the end of the War, and everything still resonated very strongly. The lead role is played by William Holden, who won the Oscar for his performance. If you want to know the truth, his performance is nothing to be excited about, and did not deserve an Oscar, but he himself claimed he was given it to make up for his having been denied one three years before for his role in SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950). Who knows. He was in any case a very popular and talented lead actor of the time. One surprise in this film is that the director Otto Preminger appears as an actor in the film, and plays the German commandant of the camp, Oberst (Colonel) von Scherbach. Preminger did not direct the film. It was directed by Billy Wilder. Stalag 17 is a camp for captured American non-commissioned officers, so everyone in the camp is a sergeant. They keep trying to escape but keep getting caught. The film begins with two of them being shot for this. They all know there is a 'stoolie' amongst them who is telling the Germans of all of their plans, but no one can figure out who it is. They all decide it is William Holden, who is not a team player and keeps himself to himself, and refuses to go along with group-think. But of course it is not Holden. Holden eventually figures out who it really is, but how can he prove it and expose him? The film is full of raw comedy, laughs, jokes, and teasing. This sounds very unlikely for a film about prisoners of war, and it certainly is, but it works. The film makes lively and entertaining viewing, and has been released in a restored version on Blu-Ray.
From the Terrace (1960)
A powerful melodrama with a message
This film, based upon a best-selling novel of the period by John O'Hara, is a savage attack on the materialistic imperatives of American society. Paul Newman stars as the young heir to a steel mill in Pennsylvania who does not want to take on the running of Daddy's business, but wants to shape his own independent life. So far so good. But it turns out that what he really wants is to get richer than Daddy. Big mistake. He falls for a wholly materialistic and self-centred beauty played by Joanne Woodward (as most people know, Newman's wife in real life, if there is any real life outside movies, that is). There is the usual struggle against the horrified parents, who are richer than Newman's father because they are part of 'the Dupont set' in Delaware. Newman's sperm accomplish what his charm could not, and persuade the parents of Woodward that as she is pregnant, they had better accept 'a poor boy', i.e. someone who is only moderately rich, as a son-in-law after all. So stratified is the American social hierarchy! John O'Hara knew what he was talking about, being from Pennsylvania, when he told his popular tales of what goes on there, and in neighbouring Delaware. The marriage falls apart and Woodward is serially unfaithful but Newman puts up with it in return for earning a partnership in a large financial firm which will make him richer than Daddy at last. He meets the archetypal good girl, played sympathetically by Ina Balin (an actress who was later to die prematurely at 52), but he even turns his back on her and on True Love for money. Can he save his soul? Can he say no to money and yes to love? Can he redeem himself? I dare not tell. But this is a very effective melodrama, excellently directed by Mark Robson, and well worth watching. And oh yes I almost did not mention that Newman's mother, a hopeless alcoholic, is magnificently played by Myrna Loy, and although she only appears in the early part of the film, it is worth seeing just for her alone. This is a good 'un.
Fernandel and his charming daughter
This French comedy film must not be confused with an American film made the following year with Don Ameche, JOSETTE (1938), with which it has no connection whatever. This delightful film has never been given English subtitles, and is available only in French, in France. Fernandel was a truly delightful French comic actor, a self-deprecating personality with huge teeth and a horsey grin. He was immensely popular, and deserved to be. In this film, in which he stars, his ten year-old daughter Josette appears, and plays a little girl called by the same name, Josette. This is the only film in which she appeared as an actress. Although she is credited as Josette Fernandel, her real name was Josette Contandin, since that was her father's real surname (his first name being Fernand). It is a great pity that she did not make more films as a child. The French do not seem ever to have been responsive to 'cute kids' in films, whereas the British and the Americans have always loved them. If Josette Contandin had been in the English-speaking world, she would probably have gone on to make many films and become immensely popular as a child star. But the querulous French, who are always complaining about each other, criticised her so much that she never acted again. Their loss! I am very partial to people like Fernandel who come from Marseilles, with their wonderful broad accents which are so opposite to the preciosity of the Paris way of speaking. That is why I love the films of Marcel Pagnol, and so many of his actors, who came from that world of the French South. Those people all have the openness and direct nature of people who prize their lack of sophistication and do not want to become 'smart' or chic. It is a more honest mode of being, and wholly lacking in artificiality. I am an enemy of 'the smart sets'. Give me ordinary people any day. And who could be more of a Mr. Ordinary in French terms that Fernandel? It is no accident that Fernandel starred in the Marcel Pagnol films ANGELE (1934), HARVEST (1937), THE WELL-DIGGER'S DAUGHTER (1940), and TOPAZE (1951), not to be confused with the later Alfred Hitchcock spy film of that title, which has no connection with it. Fernandel and Pagnol both represented the same thing, the rough and tumble world of Marseilles, and they were both as authentic as is genuine bouillabaisse, which can only be made properly if it includes the Mediterranean fish rascasse, which is not available in Paris. (For Pagnol, see my reviews of Pagnol's Marseilles trilogy, MARIUS, 1931, FANNY, 1932, and CESAR, 1936.) In this film, Fernandel is sacked from his job and wanders around wondering hopelessly what to do. He has (unofficially) become the guardian of little Josette, because her mother is too ill to look after her. By chance, he helps an old man who turns out to be a rich industrialist, who is called Monsieur le Baron. He takes a fancy to Fernandel and funds his desire to become a singer, which Fernandel does successfully. The film is not exactly original, but it is amusing, entertaining, and charming. It was well directed by the director who called himself by the name of Christian-Jaque, a very well known and much respected pillar of the French cinema, who directed 80 films, many of them well known. Maybe some day this film will be given subtitles and be more widely circulated.
Thirteen Women (1932)
Myrna Loy is really scary in this rarity
This is a very unusual film, not least because Myrna Loy, best known for cheerier films, here plays an extremely sinister character. What is more surprising is that she is extremely convincing in that kind of role. There must have been another side to Myrna! Even more unusual, she plays an Anglo-Indian woman. For those who don't know, that means people who were born in India during the Raj who were half English and half Indian. The Anglo-Indians experienced a great deal of prejudice in India because they were not accepted by the Indians, being 'half-breeds', and were also looked upon as inferior by the English. Here, Myrna has a huge chip on her shoulder and is obsessed with resentment at having been treated in a humiliating manner at her boarding school by the other girls. She is, not to put too fine a point on it, dangerously mad. She is determined to get even despite the fact that it is so many years later. She tracks down the other twelve 'girls', now obviously women, and starts killing them one by one. I first came across this film under the title TREIZE FEMMES ('thirteen women'), and wrongly dated 1936, as a DVD release in the RKO Series by Editions Montparnasse in Paris. On its rear cover is the boast, in the form of a quote from Serge Bromberg: 'A rarity never distributed in France' (in French of course.). Well, things have changed, it is now widely available, as more and more forgotten old movies get released. Another reason for the French to get excited was that the film was directed by the French-born director George Archainbaud, who emigrated to America when he was 25 and became a director of 146 films, including the TV series THE LONE RANGER (1949-50), HOPALONG CASSIDY (1952-54), ANNIE OAKLEY (1954-57), and a host of other such Americana. He was therefore very drastically 'un-Frenched' in his new environment, something that the French find incomprehensible, fascinating, and also alarming. The film includes a somewhat subdued performance by Irene Dunne, who four years later would become an eternal icon for her starring role in SHOW BOAT (1936). Both Irene Dunne and Myrna Loy doubled up and played two of the other twelve girls who were minor characters, though this was not revealed in the credits. Another interesting feature of this film is that Myrna uses hypnotic powers to wreak her vengeance. Spell-binding stuff!
A Touch of the Sun (1956)
A very funny early Frankie Howerd film
Frankie Howerd began appearing in feature films in 1954 (THE RUNAWAY BUS), but by 1956 he had this comedy star vehicle, in which he truly shines. Back then, he was far more restrained than he became later. There were not so many oohs nor so much suggestive sexual innuendo as appeared in his later persona. Nor did he 'take over', but instead he played a role in a definable story. This film is extremely amusing, and works very well. It is good to see the excellent Gordon Harker lending his support, though I wished his role had been larger. A young Irish popular singer from Belfast named Ruby Murray, aged 21, is given a role in the film. It is the only film in which she ever appeared. She gets to sing, of course. Her acting is sweetly amateurish, which in my opinion only adds to her elfin charm. Pardon my ignorance of Irish singers of the 1950s, but I plead that one cannot know everything, and hence I have to confess I had never previously heard of her. But it seems that she was 'one of the most successful Irish singers of all time'. Well done, then, she and John MacCormack (a friend of my wife's grandparents). Ireland is 'busting out all over' with talent and always has been, and whether green or orange, they are all very charming, apart from the ones who blow everybody up, that is. (As someone who is both part Irish and part Ulster, I consider myself a potential cross-border phenomenon and wish they would just all learn how to get along and stop causing trouble.) Alfred Shaughnessy, later famous for writing the hit TV series UPSTAIRS DOWNSTAIRS (1971-1975), wrote the story and script for this film, and that helps explain why it is so good. There is plenty of wit, but the story is a satirical one. Frank Howerd plays a hall porter in a swank London hotel (swank for 1956, that is, though we would not call it that now) who inherits a lot of money from an elderly customer of the hotel who had taken a fancy to him. He quits his job and fulfils his dream of going off to the French Riviera to live the life of Riley (there's those Irish again), but finds it dull and empty so that he longs to go back to his old life. He uses what is left of his inherited fortune to buy the hotel where he once worked, but has none left for operations costs. For that, he is dependent upon a favourable investment decision by a group of three hard-nosed Yorkshire businessmen. The film has wonderful opportunities to make fun of the Yorkshiremen, with their clipped accents, bluntness, and naïve susceptibility to being impressed by titles. Frank gets his old chums who had been on the staff of the hotel before it closed to come and work for free while the Yorkshiremen visit, but to dress up in outrageous disguises (he himself masquerades successfully as a duchess!) to try to fool the potential investors into believing that the failed hotel is a centre of high society, patronised by the rich and titled. There are many opportunities for high comedy as the staff rush from room to room changing costumes and wigs, to maintain the fiction. This is all good fun, and will cheer up anybody suffering from a dreary, wet British afternoon.