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"Decline and (definitely a) Fall..."
I'd missed this when it was given a U.S. theatrical release and, considering its cast, thought I'd give it a whirl when it was shown today on the FOX Movie Channel. But, as it unreeled, the recollection of its lukewarm-to-poor reviews came vividly to mind. It's a thorough disappointment in lots of ways, beginning with a script that has barely a hint of what was, no doubt, a good example of novelist Evelyn Waugh's acerbic social satire. The production design, typical of most films then, British and American, is colorfully garish. And the waste of the acting talent of a phalanx of the best British character actors is awesomely prodigious, attributable, I'm sure, to the slack direction of one John Krish, whose meager filmography is testament to his utter mediocrity. I should have been forewarned by the psychedelic colors swirling under the main credits (Well, the year of production WAS 1968, after all.) and the soupy music of Ron Goodwin, whose syrupy strains inappropriately underline most of the film's unfolding. Worst of all was the misuse of the elegant Genevieve Page, an actress perfectly capable of playing a lady of privilege and breeding, who seems, in this one, to be an inexperienced amateur attempting a role for which she is almost entirely unsuited. What a pity!
Scandal at Scourie (1953)
Perhaps too gentle and charming for today's sensation-seekers.
This was the sort of film my parents could confidently send me off to see, knowing that there would be nothing scandalous about it. I saw it just after we'd moved to a southern California suburb from a town near Boston, Massachusetts, and I recall being envious of young Donna Corcoran (who was also billed as Noreen, and whose sibling, Kevin, aka: "Moochie," also enjoyed a career as a child actor, mostly at Disney) getting to emote with such charming people as the leads, Greer Garson and Walter Pigeon, one of M-G-M's favorite pairings, once again playing a loving married couple. (By the way, no matter how I try, IMDb keeps deleting the "d" in Walter's last name in this comment when I try to post it. What's going on?!?)
I haven't seen it since but I do remember that I was aware then that it was an example of Hollywood's backlot artistry, something which, were it to be remade today for TV, for example, might benefit from some location shooting in the actual locale of the story. It's a gentle film made with the care one would expect from the professionals listed in its credits, one of those relics unlikely to be made available on video, and that's really a loss that many of us do regret, however mildly. Turner Classic Movies unearths it from their treasure trove occasionally. Worth keeping an eye out for.
A rather sad farewell for Twentieth's famous CinemaScope logo.
The talents of Frank Tashlin and Doris Day would seem to be a Hollywood combination made in heaven but, with "The Glass Bottom Boat" (made at M-G-M a year earlier than "Caprice') and this one, their fans were doomed to a certain degree of disappointment. The main trouble with this film is its impossibly convoluted and ridiculous script, giving little opportunity for anyone to shine, except, perhaps, the set and clothes designers, though one must appreciate that their efforts look very, VERY much of the dreaded "Mod" period when this one was conceived.
Technical credits are, for the most part, top-notch, especially that old pro Leon Shamroy's lush cinematography (although I do recall that the back projections were very obvious when I saw this on a 40-foot wide CinemaScope screen when it was first released).
I've never been a particular fan of Richard Harris and he was most definitely miscast opposite Doris. His too-clipped delivery of some of his lines can be attributed, I suspect, to Mr. Tashlin's rather slack direction (unusual for that comic master).
All in all, when one considers that producer Martin Melcher, Doris's husband, was, at the time, squandering her hefty paychecks in unwise investments, it's easy to understand why Ms. Day has since been content to retire form the screen and allow us to remember her better, earlier efforts.
The Unsuspected (1947)
The mystery of Ted/Michael North
WARNING - Mini-spoilers may ensue: The sympathetic male lead in this glossy, slickly directed murder (non)mystery is played by Ted North (billed by his first name, as Michael North). He has a rather ingratiating presence and that old Hollywood pro, director Michael Curtz, coaxes a fairly convincing performance out of him. He was perhaps the first of the blonde 'bombshell' Mary Beth Hughes's several husbands, and disappeared from the Hollywood radar quite promptly after this, his final film. His IMDb biographical site lists just twenty previous film appearances (some uncredited). Wonder what happened.
Claude Rains and Audrey Totter chew the scenery with their customary relish in this one and Hurd Hatfield's visage is almost as frozen as it was when he played the title character in M-G-M's "The Picture of Dorian Gray" in 1945. Constance Bennett, looking very glamorous, is given too little to do and Joan Caulfield does about as well as can be expected with the ill-conceived role of an uncomprehending young woman in deadly peril.
Warner Brothers lavished some expense on the sets (by Anton Grot) and costuming (by Milo Anderson) and it's all very professionally photographed by Woody (Elwood) Bredell and slickly edited by Frederick Richards. Franz Waxman does his best imitation of Max Steiner with his lushly orchestrated score, but doesn't lay it on too thickly, as was frequently Steiner's wont.
One little thing stuck out, for me, is how a car that goes careening off a cliff and burns as it crashes is a cheaper model than the one seen speeding down a winding road in the immediately preceding shots. Back then the studios didn't destroy Detroit sheet metal with the profligate abandon which they do now, that's for sure!
The Valley of Decision (1945)
A dissenting opinion...
Finally caught up with this one via a recent Turner Classic Movies broadcast and have to regretfully admit that I'm in the minority (i.e., negative) opinion here. I found it awfully disappointing in lots of ways, from the miscasting of the too-old-for-the-part and rather patrician Greer Garson (obviously photographed through the softest focus possible in several closeups), to the surprisingly paltry production values. The skimpy backlot work and the really wretched art direction (at least for a prestige M-G-M picture) were appalling. Only the women's costumes (by Irene) seem to be up to the standard that the other Metro artisans (cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg, composer Herbert Stothart, et al.) usually achieve. And as for Tay Garnett's direction, oh my goodness! Gregory Peck, in what was only his second lead role in a major production, given too little to do; Dan Duryea managing little more than a reprise of his role as the family spoiler as in 1941's "The Little Foxes"; Lionel Barrymore totally, shamelessly out of control; Preston Foster, usually a stalwart asset, quite wooden and ineffective; the usually wonderful Jessica Tandy much too shrill; the very young Dean Stockwell allowed to be more than annoying; and only the peerless Gladys Cooper acquitting herself without dishonor. All in all not one of M-G-M's best examples of its glory days as Hollywood's preeminent major studio.
The White Cliffs of Dover (1944)
Holds up quite well, in almost every respect.
Finally caught up with this one on a recent Turner Classic Movies broadcast and found it quite enthralling, despite its rather protracted length and of-its-era WWII wartime propagandizing. It's exceptionally smoothly directed by Clarence Brown and mounted in the very plushest M-G-M manner. It's impossible to imagine a story like this being as lavishly produced today. The cast is attractive and capable, with Irene Dunne (beautifully gowned and coiffed throughout) more than holding her own amidst a virtual platoon of marvelous British actors and actresses. The ubiquitous Frank Morgan manages to be minimally irritating; in fact he's quite credibly effective as Dunne's irascible American father. And even Herbert Stothart, whose scores often sound rather syrupy and intrusive to these ears, provides one of his best accompaniments to a story that spans decades and quite a gamut of emotions. Those whose attention spans haven't been stunted by the fragmented way we receive so much information and entertainment today should find this a rewarding example of how cinema audiences of several decades ago were respectfully treated by the Hollywood studio system at its professional best.
It Started with a Kiss (1959)
Stunning concept car outshines the usual dull Hollywood clichés.
I missed this one when it was released, being warned away by mostly negative reviews and the objections of the Catholic censorship body of the time. (I believe some facsimile had replaced the dreaded Legion of Decency by 1959, the year of its release.) The prudes objected to the generally "suggestive" tone of the proceedings and, after watching it on a Turner Classic Movies broadcast recently, I can see why their knickers got into a twist. Even by today's much more relaxed standards, its situations and its treatment of marriage are pretty sleazy.
It's a rather lame "bedroom farce" that makes poor use of the talents of nearly everyone involved and its main redeeming assets are the location shots of several Spanish cities and its countryside and the gorgeous Lincoln Futura concept car (which lost its eye-popping fire engine red paint job when it was transformed into the Batmobile for the campy Batman TV series).
For some reason M-G-M brass at the time thought that the chemistry between Glenn Ford (dull as dishwater, as usual, and sporting one of the worst and greasiest-looking haircuts on a leading man ever) and a very pert and pretty Debbie Reynolds was worth exploiting. Their second co-starring vehicle, "The Gazebo," was rushed into production and released just four months after this one. Debbie was soon free of her M-G-M contract and went on to appear in somewhat worthier enterprises at virtually all the other major Hollywood studios, with an occasional return to her launching pad at Metro.
Mario Cantone: Laugh Whore (2005)
Prepare to be blown away - and then some!
Just saw Mario Cantone frenetically fill very close to ninety minutes with his manic one-man Broadway show (on a Showtime cable TV broadcast) and, while I personally enjoyed it all, I can well imagine he'd be more than a bit too much for some. This is one performer whose energy is close to exhausting, although he himself seems to have a limitless well of the stuff. He's a shamelessly funny comic genius who can be foul-mouthed and genuinely sentimental at one and the same time (talking about his extended Italian-American family, for instance) and he's pretty close to the male equal of Tracey Ullman in his ability to mimic famous personalities and others, with an amazingly flexible countenance and a vocal instrument that's frequently uncanny. He can sing pretty well, too, and his last act impersonation of Judy Garland is one of the best I've ever seen. He's quite merciless with his incarnations of some (his Julia Child had me in stitches), but one comes away with the feeling that he has a deep affection for all that is worthwhile in people and for the joy of living, as well.
Be forewarned, if you haven't ever been exposed to him before, you may find him more than over-the-top, but if you like an entertainer who has never heard of such a thing as an inhibition, then you might just be fabulously entertained.
The Heat's On (1943)
They Done Her Wrong!
Turner Classic Movies just unearthed this turkey from their vaults and, being a fan of Mae West (though not an avid one), I thought I'd give it a whirl. Big mistake! (i.e., Big disaster!) After it had unspooled, TCM's host, Robert Osborne, revealed that producer-director Gregory Ratoff had somehow obtained Mae's signature on a contract to appear in this film without her seeing a completed script. When she did get an astonished look at what she was supposed to headline, she was "furious" according to Osborne, and promptly went to work rewriting most of her scenes, adding a few (but not enough) of her trademark witticisms.
The story is more than silly and takes little advantage of Miss West's star power, and, except for Hazel Scott's interpolated production numbers, there's almost no one else in the cast to match Mae's wattage. But she looks great, slinking around in Walter Plunkett's fancifully fantastic creations and Franz Planer's glossy black-and-white cinematography makes the most of the second-tier production values typical of a Columbia Pictures programmer.
Poor Victor Moore is required to portray a pathetic boob, intimidated by a battleaxe of a sister, quite effectively embodied by one Almira Sessions. The ingénue, played by Mary Roche, probably didn't elicit many wolf whistles when this dud was shown to the troops during WW II; Lloyd Bridges has a really small role as her swain (in uniform, of course); and there's an actor named Lester Allen, playing a character appropriately called Mouse Beller, who could only be cast in a role with that moniker.
Mae West quit performing before the cameras (going back to the stage and touring with her fabled nightclub act) and didn't make another picture until "Myra Breckenridge" in 1970 (and she was arguably the best thing in that crazy curiosity). This one is only for those fans who want to get a look at what Hollywood thought it could get away with during the wartime years.
Come to the Stable (1949)
When nuns wore habits - and makeup!
I saw this charming, slickly produced film as a young parochial grammar school kid at a theater in downtown Boston (near where my family lived at the time) and remember being tremendously amused at the scene where the two sisters, played by Loretta and Celeste (saddled with having to approximate a French accent), blithely tore up a parking ticket, placed on the windshield of their borrowed open WW II-era Jeep, thinking it was just an advertisement. Sister Celeste tosses the pieces into the air as they drive off from in front of New York's St. Patrick Cathedral where they'd illegally parked. (I doubt that she felt obliged to confess that little venial sin, do you?) There's a lot more to be amused and entertained by, of course, and the behind-the-camera artisans, as well as the well-chosen actors, especially Hugh Marlowe and Elsa Lanchester as well as Misses Young and Holm, all contributed some very professional work. Henry Koster, the director, was an old hand at keeping a project such as this from slipping entirely into a bath of over-the-top sentimentality.
So much has changed since those somewhat more innocent times and a gentle story such as this, with two ladies encased in those heavy, enveloping habits (with only their perfectly made-up faces visible to the world, by the way), is almost inconceivable today. See it and be transported back to a time when goodness, sincerity, and religious beliefs that don't descend into fanaticism were the order of the day, at least in Hollywood movies aimed at the family trade.
One interesting little tidbit: in one scene Hugh Marlowe's character (a song writer) sings the Academy Award-nominated song, "Through a Long and Sleepless Night" (which didn't win - and you'll hear why), and his singing voice was dubbed by Ken Darby, who was chiefly responsible for directing most of the choral work in many of Twentieth's films for many years. I have a suspicion that Mr. Darby probably rejected quite a few male candidates who wanted to join the Fox studio's choir if they didn't sound any better than he did!