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Funny Girl (1968)
Nobody needs this movie
Not a musical but an extended personal appearance by Barbra Streisand, grinding away at her aren't-I-cute routine so relentlessly that it seems only natural one of her comedy skits has her playing a four-year-old. Omar Sharif has no more charm--or activity--than a store dummy, with his prissy little features and his simpering that's supposed to represent understated class. There's no texture in this movie, no ambiance, no sense of period of even much of a sense that there are any other people around besides Fanny and Nick, and much laundered versions of both (they lived together for six years before getting married, while he was married to someone else, and before the bond robbery he had already done two years in Sing Sing for illegal wiretapping). The script is leaden and clumsy, without a single laugh. The tone matches Streisand's phony self-deprecation--the movie presents her to us as if she's a favourite grandchild, smugly saying, oh, look, isn't she marvelous.
While all this is tedious, what is really offensive is the hammering on the point that beauty is all, and that Fanny is quite right to crawl to a man who does her the big favour of sleeping with her and marrying her. Streisand may not win any Liz Taylor look-alike contest, but she's a good-looking, vivacious woman, so the constant put-downs are as phony as they are distasteful, especially given what a bum Nick is. Though he is greatly cleaned up(in real life, unlike the movie, he had no compunction about spending as much of his wife's money as he could get his hands on), he is still portrayed as a man who gambles for a living. He even complains in one scene that his wife's fame is interfering with his "work"! And yet he is someone we're supposed to sympathise with, and sympathise with Fanny for loving him. At a time when women were starting to take up real careers of their own? Please! I always thought People was a ridiculous song--you're lucky if you need people? Who doesn't need other people? It's not luck, it's necessity. This peculiar sentiment ties in with Fanny needing Nick so much that she overlooks his aversion to real work and his involvement with gangsters. In other words, the more needy you are, the better, because that means you'll ignore what is wrong with your man. It's an all too appropriate song for a movie that says a woman should be a doormat.
Great entertainment, but not without camp
The premise of this movie--a husband tries to drive his wife mad by playing tricks on her--was so famous that "Gaslight" became a byword for such a scheme, and the idea was much copied and parodied. Not that it isn't pretty silly from the start--I mean, Ingrid Bergman thinking she is going crazy because she can't remember where she put things? Another problem is that Charles Boyer (perhaps the sexiest actor ever on screen--that voice! those eyes!) is so divine most women wouldn't care if he certified or knocked off a whole raft of Ingrid Bergmans.
However, star quality and chemistry makes this memorable--unusual to have two foreign stars in a Hollywood movie, both very sensual but from extremely different nationalities. Though it is somewhat ridiculous that big, strong Bergman should go to pieces just because someone hides her jewelry, it is touching to see such a healthy woman so vulnerable.
At nearly the last minute, Boyer tips the wink to those of us who have thought it pure corn all along. Nicked by Scotland Yard, he turns to the housemaid, played by a sexy little minx called Angela Lansbury, and gives the raised-shoulder gesture that in French would mean "Alors.." and in Yiddish would be translated as "So nu?"
Though sumptuous and sophisticated for an English musical of the period (or, let's face it, any period), Evergreen lacks the pizazz and production values of even an average Hollywood product of the Thirties. But what it does have is Jessie Matthews and the charm and sweetness that she had to a degree that elevated these qualities to sensual enchantment. Watch her in the "Dancing on the Ceiling" number, in which she dances up a spiral staircase, into her bedroom, and into bed, and you could swear she decides to hover in the air over the bed for a second, playfully kicking her heels. In "I Wouldn't Leave My Little Wooden Hut for You," which she performs dancing down the length of a dinner table with another actress, in the costumes of the 1890s, can reduce you to tears. The plot has her being given a gala farewell as she is about to leave England, and the feeling of the whole song is of a laughing farewell to an era of innocence.
There was no one in films who moved like Jessie Matthews, unless you count the very, very different Louise Brooks (also a dancer). They moved with a liquid grace that, while full of natural sensuality, was never vulgar or openly sexy, any more than the movements of a beautiful feline. In the final number, "Over My Shoulder," however, she does a strip tease to make it plain that she is not a wonderfully preserved old lady but a young and vital one. It's breathtakingly sexy, but not because Matthews behaves, like later actresses, in a manner deliberately meant to be arousing--rather, because she is just so full of the joy of life.
Don't mention the Jews!
If you wonder why the story "The Alien Corn" has that title, the answer tells you what has been left out, and why it is therefore so bland and restrained as to be superficial and uninteresting. Maugham gave it that title because it was about Jews. The boy's father is not some terribly, terribly dash-it-all, upper-upper English aristocrat. He is a self-made man who has devoted his life to fitting into English society. But, Maugham says, in a line no one who has read this story will ever forget, he betrayed himself with one characteristic which marked him out as entirely un-English: "He loved his son." It is this tension between the man's deep, sensual love of his son and the man's desire to fit in with the English upper class, who do not become artists, or didn't then (sort of thing foreigners and nancy boys do), that gives the story its power and pain, not simply the young man's desire to be an artist conflicting with his lack of talent. And it is a disgrace that, even after World War II, the filmmakers clearly thought that the problem of Jewish assimilation could not be part of a "civilised," classy, English entertainment.
Kitty Foyle (1940)
The censors are appeased, but we're confused
ALL THE FOLLOWING IS A SPOILER. True, Kitty Foyle is adapted from a novel, so much must be eliminated or compressed, and, also true, the Production Code of the time clamped down tight on any suggestion of immorality or even natural functions. Even so, this movie deserves some kind of a record for the longest gestation, shortest courtship, and quickest (non-Reno) divorce in movie history--and all in one scene! Ginger Rogers marries Dennis Morgan, but a few days later realises she has made a mistake when his snobbish family won't accept her as she is. Some unspecified time later, she gets her final decree but simultaneously finds out she is pregnant (a word that could not be used in the movies). So she would have had to file for the divorce, go through all the procedures, and receive her decree in less than the few weeks it usually takes to suspect and confirm pregnancy--unless we are meant to think that Ginger Rogers, a smart cookie here as in all her roles, doesn't know where babies come from. Rogers goes to tell her ex about the blessed event, but keeps mum when he tells her that he is going to get married. It's possible that he was going with this other woman and impulsively threw her over to marry Rogers, but we are told nothing and are left to assume he met, courted, and was accepted by this other woman in the past few weeks.
At the end of the scene, therefore, you are left thinking, What? Hello? Did I miss something? No, it's just very bad continuity.
Earlier, we see Rogers and her boyfriend on a sofa before a blazing fire "in the Poconos." Kiss and fadeout. Now, the Poconos, as most viewers will not realise, is a mountain resort in Pennsylvania, famous for honeymoons. But we are not told how they come to be there and what is going on. The k and f are the usual code for illicit sex, but this seems contrary to the insistence that Rogers and Morgan are, if briefly, married when she becomes pregnant. Once again, it feels as if the novel has been adapted by just filming a few pages here and there and ignoring the rest.
And what, anyway, is so terrible about Morgan's family wanting to mold Rogers so she doesn't embarrass them? What does she have to get on her high horse about, announcing no one will re-make Kitty Foyle? She's an ignorant shopgirl, for heaven's sake, and marriage to a wealthy man would give her the freedom to do what she wants, and discover who she is, a lot more than sharing a room with two other penny-pinching spinsters. Instead of flaring up and stalking out, anyone with an ounce of sense would have smiled, put up with the lessons in table manners or whatever, and then done whatever she liked. The whole thing is a patronising lie that tells its Depression audience being true to yourself, in even the most minor and superficial ways, is more important than money and a cute husband like Dennis Morgan. Hard to believe too many half-starved working girls would have agreed.
The World of Suzie Wong (1960)
Wives are not like prostitutes anymore
Though William Holden's age is part of what makes him awkward as the lead, another obstacle is his being American, as the hero ought to be English. The novel was written by an Englishman, and all the Westerners we meet in the movie, as Hong Kong was then a British protectorate, are English. Along with not being young and sexually timid or naive (the better to contrast with Suzy), Holden, a big, virile-looking man, does not share the washed-out-looking sexual primness of the English, and therefore seems almost as much an outsider among them as does Suzy. He does not have the cautious, deferential manner of the Englishmen, who, we are told, often have Chinese mistresses--not surprising at a time when good women were not supposed to enjoy sex, even after marriage. Michael Wilding, as the pathetic English businessman, says he was "grateful" when his wife allowed him to make love to her for the first time in a year.
In viewing The World of Suzy Wong, one must keep in mind that it was made at a time when the ethos of the wife was different from that of the prostitute only in that she would limit herself to one man. Both types of women, in return for money, gave not only sex but submission and obedience. Suzy's belief that a man who really loves his woman will beat her is treated as comic, but at the time the picture was made this was indeed the belief of many women, and not just in the Orient. And while many other women might not have equated male violence with passion, they tolerated it as part of the price they had to pay for financial security. Despite the stricter morals of the time, it might actually have been easier for a man to see a prostitute as a potential wife than it would be today, when she would not be looked down upon for her sexual promiscuity (which could be fixed with a proposal) but for her low earnings and poor career plan.
Three Coins in the Fountain (1954)
Fine for sociology, not great for art
Don't look to movies to see how people lived in the past--most are far too glamorous for that--but to find out how they thought, or, rather, what their assumptions were. In this movie Maggie McNamara gets Louis Jourdan to fall in love with her by pretending to like everything he likes--modern art, opera, Roman food and wine, etc. What a wealth of social pathology is here revealed! We are supposed to believe that a man (even a wealthy, cultured, sophisticated man like this one) wants a wife who brings nothing at all to the party, who will never introduce him to anything new he might like, who will never disagree with him, in short is just a clone and a slave. (Didn't anyone ever tell him that a man who wants a mate who is exactly like him really wants...another man? But maybe he knows that, since he's such a pal of Clifton Webb's.) For her part, McNamara is shown as a gold-digger who is excited to have found a rich man who is also handsome and charming. But that's fine because this is what women do, right? This trick was hardly confined to this movie--it was used in other films and TV programmes. With a view of matrimony this bleak it's no wonder that since the following decade people started to give up on the idea of the man as money machine and the woman as doormat.
The view of the arts is depressing, too. McNamara merely parrots Jourdan's or her friend's opinions on art and music. She never tries to learn anything about them on her own, and she finds them hideously boring. Which all good Americans are supposed to, right? All that highbrow stuff is for phonies and foreigners! They had some nice clothes in the Fifties (if you didn't mind wearing a girdle so tight you could hardly breathe), but as for respect for intelligence and culture, forget it. Certainly no one with a tad of aesthetics would have pawned off Clifton Webb's auburn dye job on a helpless audience.
Leave Her to Heaven (1945)
Plodding, phony, and misogynistic
If this movie had some energy it could at least be camp, but it is as portentous as they come, with a score that goes heavy on percussion (boom...boom...) whenever Gene Tierney's Ellen turns into Devil Woman. We are told that Ellen loved her father so much that "he couldn't call his soul his own" and that it broke up her parents' marriage. Well, come on! What is this but an inside-out way of saying that the father had too much interest in the daughter? Whether the relationship was actually incestuous or not, such undue closeness is the fault of the parent, not the child. Today we know this, but at the time the movie was made an adult could escape responsibility by labelling the child as unnatural, precocious, etc. In this fashion, Ellen is made into a vixen who ruined her father's and mother's lives and then wants to ruin her husband's (she married him because he looked just like her father) when he wants to live a normal life and not be in an obsessive, cloistered relationship with Ellen.
Though made in 1945, this movie is utterly Fifties in its lush colour, misogyny, and materialism. The hero says he thought of being a painter but gave it up when he went to Paris and saw that painters lived in unpleasant garrets. (In the film's one, bizarrely anomalous attempt at sophisticated wit, he says that he discovered he was colour blind, but "that didn't matter because I was interested in the post-Impressionists"!) Ellen's rich rival is nicknamed "the gal with the hoe" because she likes gardening, but all we see her doing is shopping--no job, not even charity work. The settings are uniformly tasteful and look so new as to be unreal. Even a courtroom is a spic-and-span huge room in then-fashionable Early American but with arsenic-green walls and brilliant white woodwork. The spectators are so polite (or sedated) that they remain silent or just murmur quietly, even when revelations are made that in other movies of the time (I am not judging them by present mores) would have them shrieking and gasping. Indeed, the demeanour of all the actors throughout the film is wooden, as if the chilling Fifties fear of saying a wrong word and being taken for a Communist or a nonconformist had already crept in.
As if the boom-boom isn't enough, the direction underlines everything and then rings it in red. At the beginning, Gene Tierney stares fixedly at Cornel Wilde for several minutes while he coughs, smiles nervously, looks away, etc., and then asks him if she was staring. Toward the end, she chatters away, asking him several questions, and it is only after a few minutes go by in silence that she asks if anything is wrong. Also at the beginning, Wilde returns to his old home, and, to show us that he is considered a pariah, the locals turn up their noses, fall silent, look away, shudder, look at the ground--they do everything but ring a little bell and cry, Unclean! Great to look at Tierney and Jeanne Crain. but the psychotic Ellen (and even back then, wouldn't someone in the family, certainly her husband, have considered her a suitable case for treatment?) is no nuttier than the ambiance.
Casque d'or (1952)
A hymn to voluptuous, mature beauty
Despite the corsets and petticoats and horse-drawn cabs, this lush, richly textured film has more in common with the bleak, fatalistic modern-dress films of the period than with conventional historical romance. The action takes place over the course of only a few days, but in France that's long enough for a passion strong enough to change a life, or end it--more than one man dies because of the bewitching Marie and her golden hair that shines like the sun. The intensity of the characters' emotions and the suddenness of their violence is powerfully countered by the reserve of the playing--of the solemn, laconic toughs and of Simone Signoret as Marie. In moments of great emotion, her slight smile changes to a broad one, but with her lips still closed. There's none of the giggling and wriggling that marked the other blonde Fifties sex symbols, Bardot and Monroe, and countless others since, and obviously no nudity, total or partial, but in her morning-after scene with Serge Reggiani, you can practically smell smoke.
Like Zola's Nana, Marie is neither a villain nor a victim, simply an elemental force of nature. This elemental-woman business can, in French and non-French movies, be pretentious and unwittingly comic, but there's none of that here, because neither Signoret nor the director indulge in any fancy dialogue or vocal tricks to play up how alluring she is--they don't have to. We are always aware of Marie as a figure of enormous strength, with a broad, strong back, round shoulders spilling out of her blouse, and a mouth too wide for coyness.
In an otherwise favourable review, Pauline Kael said that the film's tone was slightly trashy, as if it were saying, of the low-life characters, "Look, they have feelings too." I disagree--the scene of the wealthy, slumming group in evening dress who find the characters "marvelously amusing" show us what Becker thinks of that viewpoint and implicitly reproaches anyone who shares it.
You Were Never Lovelier (1942)
Divine dances. Skip the rest
With two such talented and appealing leads, the studio must have felt it needn't spend any money on a script. Not only the story as a whole but the individual gags are from hunger, as we used to say. Sample: Fred Astaire, not knowing who Rita Hayworth is, comments adversely on her family; a minute or two later, he does the same with Adolph Menjou; a few minutes later, he and Xavier Cugat ridicule their boss, Menjou, not realising he has entered the room behind them. How lazy can you get! We are also supposed to think it hilarious that someone falls down. This is condescending enough to the audience, but positively insulting to Astaire when he has to tell Hayworth he is just an unsophisticated rube from Omaha (Astaire's actual birthplace), and she has to ask him (he is over 40) if he has ever kissed a girl! A pity Astaire wasn't as exacting over scripts as he was over choreography.
If it's best to ignore the dialogue scenes, however, the musical numbers are unmissable. We get to see Astaire using Latin rhythms in his choreography, as well as a style of dancing that, as in his "audition" number in Menjou's office, involves a more emphatic use of hips and thighs. The big romantic number, "I'm Old-Fashioned," is sex in motion, a kind of partner to the "Night and Day" number in "The Gay Divorcée." In the earlier film (the first in which he starred with Ginger Rogers), the dance is a seduction of the reluctant maiden. Here, despite Hayworth's being much younger than Astaire, it is, given her greater sensuality, more like the passionate-but-comfortable partnership of a long-married couple. And when the two wrap their arms around each other in the "Shorty George" number, they show a physical pleasure that is absent in their awkward, corny conversation.
Others have remarked on Adolphe Menjou's being angry and domineering and not at all funny in what is meant as a comic role. To those who know Hayworth's sad history, the part is extremely discomfiting, given that Menjou was such an old lech and that the story has him writing anonymous love notes to her, trying to warm up his frigid daughter. In real life, Hayworth's father, with whom she had a dance act, repeatedly raped her, and the sexy, manipulative screen personality she showed the world (as is typical with sexually abused girls), was a cover for her real fear and reserve. As she ruefully said, "Men go to bed with Gilda, but they wake up with me."