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The Queen of Period Drama, 10 February 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

The eighties and nineties seemed to be the heyday of British heritage cinema, particularly of films set in the Victorian or Edwardian era. A number of actors seemed to specialise in films of this type, but the ruling Queen of Period Drama was undoubtedly Helena Bonham Carter. (James Wilby was probably the King). "The Wings of the Dove" was Helena's fourth film of this nature, following "A Room with a View", "Where Angels Fear to Tread" and "Howard's End".

Henry James's original novel dates from 1902, but the film is for some reason set in 1910. Bonham Carter's character, Kate Croy, is a young woman in a difficult position. She is, on her mother's side, from a wealthy family, but inherited little money when her mother died two years earlier because her father had squandered his wife's fortune to feed his opium habit. This has put Kate at the mercy of her mother's still wealthy sister, Aunt Maude, who is determined that Kate should marry a husband from a "good" family. Kate is in love with a journalist named Merton Densher, but dare not marry him for fear of incurring Maude's displeasure. Maude would much prefer Kate to marry Lord Mark, a member of an old-established aristocratic family.

The plot takes a new turn when Kate is introduced by Mark to Milly Theale, a wealthy American heiress who is on a tour of Europe. It turns out that Milly is in fact seriously ill and does not have long to live. It also turns out that, although Mark's family appear rich to outsiders, he (possibly unknown to Maude) is in financial difficulties of his own. He proposes a cynical scheme to Kate; he will marry Milly for her fortune, which will save his financial position, and then after her death marry Kate. Kate indignantly rejects this idea, but she is motivated by distaste for Mark himself, not for his scheme. She comes up with her own variation on Mark's idea and persuades Merton to pay court to Milly, hoping that Maude will no longer object to him as a husband once her is an independently wealthy widower. The film then explores what happens when Kate and Merton try to put their scheme into action.

Stephen Holden, the film reviewer of the New York Times, said that the film "succeeds where virtually every other film translation of a James novel has stumbled". I am not sure that I would go as far as that; there have been some very fine James adaptations in the past, such as "The Heiress" (based on "Washington Square") or "The Lost Moment" (based on "The Aspern Papers"), both from the late forties, or "The Innocents" (based upon "The Turn of the Screw") from 1961, or that fine Merchant-Ivory version of "The Europeans" from 1979; any of these could probably bear comparison with Some more recent versions of James novels, however, such as "The Golden Bowl" and "The Portrait of a Lady", have seemed to stumble, partially because they caught that occasional occupational disease of "heritage cinema", that of being visually attractive but inert and slow-moving. (This particular illness is not confined to James adaptations; "Where Angels Fear to Tread" and the more recent "Bel-Ami" suffered from it in an even more serious form).

"The Wings of the Dove" is certainly visually attractive in its recreation of the London and Venice of the early twentieth century and of the fashions and interiors of the period. Director Iain Softley makes subtle use of colour; the prominent tones are various shades of blue and green; especially in the women's clothes; red and yellow are much more sparingly used. It is, however, more than just a pretty face. It was nominated for four Academy Awards- "Best Actress" for Bonham Carter, "Best Adapted Screenplay", "Best Cinematography" and "Best Costume Design". All four nominations were well deserved, although it was defeated in all four categories. (1997 was the year when the Oscars were dominated by "Titanic").

Of the four main characters, Mark is admittedly pretty repulsive, but Kate and Merton, although flawed, are nevertheless to some extent sympathetic. Bonham Carter succeeds in the difficult task in showing us these two facets of Kate's nature, her flaws and her more sympathetic side. On the one hand, her scheme for her lover to marry the dying Milly strikes us as horribly mercenary. On the other, we also realise that Kate has been forced into a difficult position by her debauched, dissolute old father and her snobbish control-freak of an aunt, both well played by Michael Gambon and Charlotte Rampling. Alison Elliott, an actress I had not seen much of before, has an equally difficult task, that of making her character virtuous without making her insipid.

"The Wings of the Dove" is an intelligent film which presents us with some fine acting, a penetrating but humane analysis of human motivations and a deeply moving story. It should be required viewing for all those armchair critics (and there are still a few of them about) who believe that the heritage cinema movement is about no more than nostalgia and snobbery. 8/10

Chaplin Could Do Much Better Than This, 10 February 2017

During my childhood in the sixties and seventies, I was surprisingly familiar with the silent comedies made by the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Ben Turpin, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton and the Keystone Kops, as these films were still regularly shown on television at this period. Although I and some of my friends used to enjoy them, I don't think that they were mainly aimed at children. The target audience were probably older people of my grandparents' generation who would have had nostalgic memories of such films from their own youth in the 1910s and 1920s, and it is probably the passing of that generation which has been responsible for their virtual disappearance from terrestrial television. Even on specialist movie channels they only turn up rarely, although the internet now offers new possibilities for watching them.

"In the Park" is an early Chaplin short from 1915, which not only stars the great man but was also written and directed by him. I don't think that Charlie is supposed to be a tramp in this film but he wears the costume- bowler hat, walking stick, baggy trousers and toothbrush moustache- which were associated with his "Little Tramp" character. As the title suggests, the action all takes place in a park. There isn't really a good deal of plot, just a series of visual gags revolving around Charlie, a remarkably incompetent pickpocket, a hot dog vendor, a policeman, a courting couple and a nursemaid (played by Edna Purviance, one of the silver screen's first sex symbols).

I call them "gags", although actually there is nothing particularly funny about any of them. Indeed, what struck me most forcibly about the film is just how unfunny and mean-spirited the attempts at humour are. Chaplin obviously assumed that the best way to get laughs was to kick someone, throw a brick at them or to push them into a pond. When he isn't committing criminal assault on his victims he is trying to steal their property. Why my grandparents' generation found this sort of thing funny is a mystery; I can only assume that in 1915 the cinema was such a novelty that people would flock to whatever was on offer, regardless of quality. Chaplin could do much better than this.

You should never judge a book by its cover. Or a film by the big names in the cast list., 6 February 2017

Eli Wurman is a New York showbiz publicist who finds himself in danger after Jilli Hopper, the actress girlfriend of his most important client Cary Launer, is murdered. Launer is a Hollywood star considering running for political office; Jilli may have known too much about various sex-and-drug scandals involving Launer and other prominent personalities.

I was largely persuaded to watch this film by its stellar cast, including Al Pacino, Kim Basinger, Ryan O'Neal and Téa Leoni. That proved to be a mistake. The plot is a total mess, incoherent and hard to follow. It doesn't help that the main character spends most of his time in a haze of drugs and alcohol, and some of the others, especially Jilli, have similar propensities. The audience will probably also feel that they too need to be out of their skulls on one intoxicant or another before they can work out what is going on. The reviewer for "Time Out", while admitting that the film is a mess, commended it for its "rebellious spirit ". He presumably meant that both director and scriptwriter were in rebellion against the received idea that a film ought to make some sort of sense.

Just occasionally Pacino and some of his co-stars get a chance to show that, although the film as a whole might seem like evidence to the contrary, they are actually very accomplished actors. I liked the scene between Pacino and Basinger as Eli's sister-in-law Victoria (which doesn't seem to have much relevance to the action) and some of the scenes where Eli is trying to organise a fundraising dinner for some liberal cause. (Eli wants representatives of both the black and Jewish communities to be present, but this is more difficult than it sounds, given that the black representative, a fiery clergyman obviously based upon Al Sharpton, regards Jews as insufficiently supportive of the black cause and has a history of making anti-Semitic remarks).

These, however, are just occasional flashes of light in an otherwise dull film. You should never judge a book by its cover. Or a film by the big names in the cast list. 3/10

Metroland (1997)
If Not Now, Never, 4 February 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"Metroland" (or "Metro-Land") is the name given to the affluent north-western suburbs of London served by the Metropolitan Line (originally the Metropolitan Railway). The name was first coined by the railway itself in 1915 as part of an advertising campaign; it was later popularised by the poet and architectural critic John Betjeman (himself a native of the area) and taken up by Julian Barnes who used it as the title of a novel.

Barnes's novel deals with the contrasting fortunes of Chris and Toni, two school-friends who grow up in the area during the 1960s and 1970s. As teenagers in the early sixties both boys are rebellious and dissatisfied with what they see as the predictable, conformist lives of their parents and the other members of the prosperous North London bourgeoisie. They dream of escaping from their safe, cosy world to somewhere more exciting, especially to Paris which they see as a city of rebellion and progressive, avant-garde ideas. (Actually, France under de Gaulle was probably at least as politically conservative and socially conformist as Britain under Macmillan and Douglas-Home, but then "a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest").

The film (which has a different structure to that of the book) opens in 1977 with Chris, now aged around 30, and his wife Marion living precisely the sort of life which the younger Chris had hoped to escape. He still lives in the Metroland suburb of Eastwood and commutes by tube every day to an office job in central London. In Barnes's novel the suburb (a fictional one) was called "Eastwick"; this was presumably changed to avoid any association with John Updike's "The Witches of Eastwick", but "Eastwood" was probably not the best alternative as there actually is a town of this name in Nottinghamshire.

Chris's quiet life is disrupted when Toni, whom he has not seen for around ten years, suddenly reappears. Toni is dismayed when he discovers that Chris has, as he puts it, "sold out" and adopted the bourgeois lifestyle he once rejected. In a flashback we discover that after leaving school Chris did indeed live for a time in Paris, where he had an affair with a French girl and tried to earn a living as a photographer. Although during this period he affected a contempt for all things English, he eventually returned to England after falling in love with Marion. (He met her when she was in Paris as a tourist). He still cherishes hopes of becoming an author, but his projected magnum opus is nothing more radical than a history of the London transport system.

In his review of the film Roger Ebert wrote that "the movie is not about whether Chris will remain faithful to Marion; it's about whether he chose the right life in the first place". It is some time since I read Barnes's novel, but from memory that question seems to have been more finely balanced in the book than it is here. In Adrian Hodges's screenplay Toni becomes a rather more sinister figure than he was in the book; motivated by an ideological dislike of marriage as an institution, he makes a concerted effort to wreck Chris's relationship with Marion. Toni describes the secret of happiness as "doing what you want, not what others want", but to me this sounds more like a recipe for self-centredness. For all his talk about the wickedness of the "bourgeoisie", Toni is not motivated by any real commitment to an ideology such as socialism, commitment to anything or anyone other than himself being foreign to his nature. Towards the end of the film he talks about going to live in California and becoming a screenwriter for Hollywood, without considering whether such a move might constitute an even greater sell-out to the capitalist system than Chris's suburban lifestyle. Pace Mr Ebert, I cannot accept that the movie is not about whether Chris will remain faithful to Marion; his love for Marion is the one thing which prevents him from becoming as self-centred as Toni.

The film does not deal with Chris and Toni's teenage years in as much detail as the book, and I felt it was a mistake to use the same actors to play them as boys; it would have been more convincing to use teenage actors. Christian Bale, however, is excellent in the main part of the film. He plays Chris as a man torn between nostalgia for the ideals of his youth and a sad realisation that those ideals were never really attainable in the first place. There is another excellent performance from Emily Watson- probably the best I have seen from her apart from "Hilary and Jackie"- as the sensible, practical Marion. Lee Ross is perhaps a bit one-dimensional as Toni, but then Toni is supposed to be one-dimensional, a teenage rebel of the week who cannot accept that his week ended about fifteen years ago.

The film deals with the perennial question of the conflict between youthful innocence and adult experience, a conflict which much have seemed particularly intense to those who came of age in the idealistic sixties and then had to face the very different world of the seventies and eighties. ("The Big Chill" from 1983 also dealt with the gradual disillusionment of the hippies-turned-yuppies of the sixties generation, in that case from an American perspective). At the end of this film Marion asks Chris if he is happy. His reply is "Happy—if not now, never". 7/10 A goof. I know that house prices were lower in real terms in the seventies than they are now, but even so I doubt if even in 1977 a 30-year-old officer worker like Chris could have afforded that massive four-or-five-bedroom detached house in the North London suburbs. He refers to a mortgage, so we know he did not inherit it from his parents.

More than a Monster, 1 February 2017

When it was first released in 2004 "The Woodsman" was a highly controversial film because it offers a relatively sympathetic portrayal of a convicted child molester. When I say that the portrayal was "sympathetic" I do not mean that the film attempts to excuse or justify paedophilia. I mean that the main character, despite his crimes, is not depicted as a "monster" but as a human being with feelings and emotions of his own and, moreover, as a human being who is capable of redemption.

That main character, Walter, returns home to Philadelphia after serving 12 years in prison for sexual offences against young girls. He gets a job at a local timber mill (hence the film's title). The film explores how Walter attempts to rebuild his life with the aid of his co-worker and girlfriend Vicki, who opts to remain with him even after she learns about his offences, and his brother-in-law Carlos, the only member of his family who stood by him after his conviction. The authorities do not seem to be a lot of help to him; his probation officer, for example, does not seem concerned that he lives in a flat overlooking a primary school and he is constantly pestered by a police officer named Lucas who quite clearly hopes to catch Walter reoffending.

Special praise is due to Kevin Bacon for his sensitive and well-judged performance in the leading role; he makes us realise that Walter is human, and yet we are never allowed to forget the seriousness of what he has done, even if Walter himself would at times prefer to forget it. There are also excellent performances from Kyra Sedgwick as Vicki and from Hannah Pilkes as Robin, a young girl whom Walter meets in the local park.

Because of its subject-matter the film had only a very limited cinematic release in both America and Britain. It was a brave move on the part of the film-makers to tackle a subject as controversial as this, but I think that their courage paid off. "The Woodsman" is not a great film; the plot is not always easy to follow and the dialogue is at times difficult to hear. It does, however, make an important contribution to the debate around the moral question of how society should deal with those who suffer from a compulsion to commit acts which others find abhorrent. 6/10

Homes Fit for Heroes, 1 February 2017

The "city" referred to in the title is Coventry, a city which had suffered severe damage during an air-raid in 1940. According to the film this event gave a new word to the English language, "to coventrate", meaning to destroy by bombing, although this word was not used much even during the war, and now seems to have passed out of use altogether; I have not, for example, heard of Aleppo being "coventrated" in any news reports about the Syrian civil war. (There was an equivalent German term, "koventrieren"; like most Nazi neologisms this has also passed out of use in modern German). We see some archive shots of the old pre-war Coventry; unlike many industrial cities it had preserved intact much of its mediaeval city centre, complete with timbered buildings.

This short documentary was made while the war was still being fought, but it is not really a propaganda film and concentrates less on the actual bombing than on plans for rebuilding the city once the war has been won. It opens with some striking footage of a steam train speeding towards Coventry. British documentarists of this period seemed to be fascinated by the railways; the GPO Film Unit's most famous film, "Night Mail", for example, is the story of a train journey. As with "Night Mail", the script for "A City Reborn" was written by a famous poet, in this case Dylan Thomas, although here Thomas sticks to prose whereas "Night Mail" featured a poem specially written by W H Auden and set to music by his friend Benjamin Britten.

Thomas seems to have wanted to avoid the "talking head" style of documentary, and introduced some fictitious characters, the most important of whom are Will, a soldier home on leave, and his fiancée Becky, and there is a lot of talk about what sort of home, and what sort of city, they can look forward to living in after the war has been won and they can get married. Although they are supposed to be natives of the city, neither Will nor Becky has a Coventry accent; he sounds more like a Cockney and she like a posh Home Counties girl. Midland accents, in fact, seem thin on the ground; perhaps in wartime the producers had to use whatever actors they could get, regardless of accent.

The film makes clear that post-war Britain will need lots of new homes, not just to replace those destroyed by bombing but also to replace the 19th century slums in which many people were still living in 1945. The town planners, however, are determined to avoid the mistakes of the twenties and thirties, a period when large areas of countryside were swallowed up by sprawling suburbs. (Thomas tactfully avoids mentioning that one of the causes of post-1918 suburban sprawl was the same desire to provide "homes fit for heroes" as prevailed in 1945). The modern British planning system was to be introduced two years later.

So what are the "homes fit for heroes" of the post-1945 era to look like? We see a model of the planned future Coventry, to be built in a bland, inoffensive low-level Modernist style with no high-rise buildings; the skyline was still to be dominated by the spires of the city's churches and Cathedral. (At this stage it seemed to be envisaged that the old Cathedral would be rebuilt, but in the event the Church of England, going through one of its periodic fits of trendiness, commissioned a new Modernist Coventry Cathedral, leaving the old one in ruins). The city centre was to be entirely pedestrianised, an aspiration later to be abandoned.

There is much talk of "prefabricated houses" as the wave of the future. (Oddly, the commonly-used abbreviation "prefab" is avoided). As one character puts it, "If cars can be built in factories, why not houses?" (A bit of a non-sequitur. One might as well ask "If houses can be built of brick, why not cars?") One old man, Arnold, expresses scepticism and a preference for traditional brick houses, but the film invites us to laugh at him as a reactionary old stick-in-the-mud. Arnold's opponents, however, do not seem very persuasive either. Their descriptions of prefabs make them seem very flimsy, and the film overlooks the fact that prefabs were intended as a temporary, stopgap measure, not a permanent solution to Britain's housing problems.

The film contains some attractive photography and some effective use of music, particularly Bach's famous "Toccata and Fugue". The modern attraction of films like this, however, is for the insights they give into British social history.

How British television culture has changed over the last few decades!, 1 February 2017

This is a television version of "Twelfth Night" made by ATV (part of Britain's ITV network) in 1970 and broadcast as part of its "Sunday Night Theatre" series. That sentence, incidentally, shows just how much British television culture has changed over the last few decades. Even in the sixties and seventies ITV was sometimes dismissed as the "downmarket" commercial rival of the more "highbrow" public-service BBC, yet it could still broadcast a Shakespeare play during prime time on a weekend evening. I could not imagine that happening on ITV today, or for that matter on either of the two terrestrial BBC channels.

I will not set out the plot in detail because it is so well known. The main plot revolves around a curious love-triangle involving its three main characters, Duke Orsino, Countess Olivia and Viola; there is also a comic sub-plot involving a trick played on Olivia's steward Malvolio by her uncle Sir Toby Belch and his friends. At least, critics and academics generally refer to the "main plot" and the "sub-plot" in this way, but, as another reviewer has pointed out, in this production it is the so-called "sub-plot" which seems more prominent. Certainly, the first three actors credited all play characters in the sub-plot; Ralph Richardson plays Sir Toby, Alec Guinness plays Malvolio and the pop star Tommy Steele plays Olivia's jester Feste.

The only feature-film version with which I am familiar is Trevor Nunn's from 1996. Some have criticised this production for underplaying the play's comic element and blurring the supposed differences in tone between the main plot and sub-plot, but I have always felt that Nunn and his actors offer us an alternative interpretation of the play which gives us fresh insights into it. In this interpretation Andrew Aguecheek remains a comical fool- it would be difficult to make him anything else- but the other three main characters in the sub-plot are treated to some extent as tragic figures. Ben Kingsley's Feste becomes an ageing, sardonic, world-weary philosopher. Nigel Hawthorne's Malvolio, the one character for whom there is no happy ending, is a dignified and dedicated servant who is tricked into making a fool of himself by a gang of people who have taken an irrational dislike to him. And Sir Toby (brilliantly played by the comedian Mel Smith) becomes a rather sad figure, an elderly man of wealth and noble family who realises too late that he has wasted his life in drink, debauchery and the company of low-minded friends and that there might indeed be more things in this life than cakes and ale.

John Dexter here offers us a rather more conventional "Twelfth Night". The most unconventional thing about it is Steele's Feste, sixties pop idol as Shakespearean clown and something, I must admit, of an acquired taste. Richardson's Sir Toby is a jovial old roisterer, with something of a military bearing about him. One can imagine him as an old soldier determined to enjoy life to the full now he has returned from the wars. Guinness's Malvolio is a cold, joyless, Puritanical individual, sniffily disapproving of all forms of enjoyment or celebration. (Some have speculated that Shakespeare created the character to mock the Puritans of his day). Besides his Puritanism, his other defining characteristics are self-love and a sense of his own importance; there is a suggestion that his wooing of Olivia is motivated less by love for her person than by ambition and a desire to have "greatness", in the sense of the wealth and privilege he will enjoy as Olivia's husband, thrust upon him.

Turning to the main plot, there is nothing particularly wrong with Gary Raymond's Orsino or Adrienne Corri's Olivia, except that I felt that they were rather overshadowed by Richardson and Guinness, two giants of the British acting profession. There is something wrong with Joan Plowright in the dual role of Viola and her brother Sebastian. Shakespeare never tells us how old the twin siblings are, but as both Sebastian and Viola (when in her male disguise as Cesario) are referred to as "boy" or "youth", and as Sebastian is presumably still beardless, I would guess they are supposed to be in their late teens or early twenties. Plowright was 41 at the time, and never comes close to suggesting a teenage or twenty-something girl. Her attempts to impersonate a teenage or twenty-something boy are even less convincing. (Imogen Stubbs, 34 at the time but looking younger, was much more successful in this respect in the 1996 version).

Nunn's film was shot on location in Cornwall, with costumes suggesting a vaguely 19th century setting, but this version was clearly filmed in a studio with more traditionally Elizabethan sets and costumes. Television productions from the sixties and seventies, even when they are not lost forever- as, alas, so many of them have been- tend to be locked away in the archives, with only very limited opportunities for the public to see them, but I was lucky enough to catch "Twelfth Night" when it was recently shown on the "London Live" channel, if only for the rare chance it offered to see two of Britain's acting greats in a Shakespearean production which has been preserved for posterity. 7/10, which would have been higher with a better Viola.

Stalag 17 (1953)
Too Much Inappropriate Humour, 30 January 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

At the beginning of this film the narrator, Sergeant Clarence Cook, states that although there are plenty of films about World War II you don't see many about the experiences of prisoners of war. This is certainly one of the earliest war films to deal with this subject, although not the very earliest. The earliest I can think of is the British-made "The Wooden Horse" from 1950; this was to be followed by the likes of "The Colditz Story", "Bridge on the River Kwai", "Danger Within", "The Great Escape" and "King Rat". Strangely enough, "Stalag 17" was made in 1952 but not released in that year, apparently because Paramount believed that audiences would not be interested in its subject-matter. They changed their minds the following year because the end of the Korean War and the subsequent release of American prisoners had focused public attention on the problems facing POWs.

The action takes place during December 1944 in a German POW camp "somewhere along the Danube" and concentrates on the inmates of one particular hut in the camp, all of them sergeants in the U.S. Air Force. The film opens with two men from the hut attempting to escape through a tunnel, but when they emerge outside the barbed wire fence they are shot dead by the guards. (This is unusual but not impossible; German guards generally preferred to recapture escaping prisoners alive rather than shoot them, although there were exceptions). The inmates conclude (correctly) that one of their number must be an informer who is letting the Germans know about planned escape attempts. ("Danger Within" also had a plot involving an informer inside a POW camp).

The most obvious suspect is J J Sefton, an enterprising would-be capitalist who has a knack for turning any situation to his own profit. (He is in many ways similar to King in "King Rat"). Although the other prisoners are happy to take advantage of Sefton's illicit alcohol and gambling rackets, he is not a popular figure, partly because of his cynical attitude- he regards escape attempts as foolish- and partly because he has no qualms about doing deals with the German guards for luxuries such as eggs, silk stockings and cigarettes. Of course, Sefton is so unpopular and such an obvious suspect that the audience will immediately realise that he must be innocent- indeed, much of the film is taken up with Sefton's efforts to clear his name by exposing the real traitor.

When I reviewed "From Here to Eternity" I had not yet seen "Stalag 17", so said that I would reserve judgement on the justice of William Holden's Best Actor Oscar, an award which he won ahead of Burt Lancaster and Montgomery Clift. Holden, in fact, always felt that he did not deserve the award and, having now seen "Stalag 17", I am inclined to agree with him. Certainly, his performance here as Sefton is a good one, but I felt that both Lancaster and Clift were better.

The film as a whole has the potential to be a very good one; it has an exciting plot, some well-observed characterisation and some well-written dialogue. Like some other reviewers, however, I feel that it suffers from the defect of too much inappropriate humour. It is, of course, quite possible to write a comedy set in a POW camp – the television series "Hogan's Heroes" was an example- but "Stalag 17" is not really intended as a comedy. It is, for the most part, a serious drama- it opens with two men being shot dead, and towards the end another character finds himself in danger of his life. Against this backdrop the antics of the German Feldwebel Johann Sebastian Schulz- clearly a frustrated comedian in civilian life- and of the American Sergeant Stanislas "Animal" Kuzawa- equally clearly a congenital idiot- seem rather out-of-place. "Animal", in particular, seems so mentally defective that I could not imagine why the U.S. Air Force ever accepted him in the first place, let alone promoted him to sergeant. I have heard it said that director Billy Wilder, himself a Jewish refugee from Nazism, found himself psychologically unable to deal with the subject of the war unless he leavened his seriousness with humour. That may be so, but I nevertheless feel that "Stalag 17" would have been a better film had it concentrated on its serious main plot rather than on its would-be humorous sub-plots. 6/10

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It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily, 27 January 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"Shanghai Express" is an early example of what I have come to think of as the "Stagecoach" plot; a motley group of travellers with little in common are forced to work together when their conveyance, generally a carriage or a train, is stopped or attacked by an outside force. Besides John Ford's "Stagecoach" itself, other later examples include "North-West Frontier", "The Journey" and "Hondo".

The plot is loosely based on Guy de Maupassant's story "Boule de Suif" and upon a real incident which occurred in China in 1923. In 1931 China is torn by civil war between the government and a rebel army- presumably Mao's Communists, although this is never made clear. A group of travellers are taking the express train from Peking and Shanghai; at least, it is described as an "express" even though it is scheduled to take three days to complete a journey of some 750 miles. (Peking was officially known as "Peiping" during this period, but this name was little used by Westerners). Although this was an American film, only one of the group is actually American. The others include a British army doctor, a German businessman, a British missionary, a French army officer, a mysterious Eurasian, Mr Chang, and two "coasters", one European and one Chinese. The word "coaster" is explained as meaning a "woman who lives by her wits along the China coast.

The two main characters are Captain Donald Harvey, the doctor, and Magdalen, one of the "coasters" who now goes by the name "Shanghai Lily". It turns out that, before she took to "coasting", Harvey and Magdalen were lovers, and although they parted acrimoniously it is clear that they are still in love with one another. (Given that Mary Magdalene has traditionally been seen as a repentant prostitute, Magdalen's name is highly symbolic. The use of this name may also have been a reference to the fact that Marlene Dietrich's full name was Maria Magdalena Dietrich- "Marlene" was a diminutive). Before the train reaches Shanghai it is held up by rebel troops and Chang reveals himself to be a commander in the rebel army. He is seeking for a hostage important enough to barter for the life of a rebel agent being held by Government troops, and finds one in the shape of Harvey, who is travelling to Shanghai to perform a life-saving operation on the city's Governor.

The film was made in 1932, and is considerably more frank about sexual matters than would have been permitted after the Production Code came into force two years later. Like Maupassant's heroine, the two leading female characters are high-class prostitutes- "coaster" is only a euphemism- and no attempt is made to hide that fact, but in the end it is their courage and resourcefulness which help to save the other passengers. By contrast, "The Journey", made in 1959 when the Code was still in force, was also loosely based on "Boule de Suif" but makes no mention of prostitution. In some other respects, however, the thirties, even the Pre-Code thirties, were still very conservative. Anna May Wong, the best-known Chinese-American actress of the period, found it difficult to secure leading roles because these were mostly romantic roles and, given prevailing attitudes towards miscegenation, audiences did not want to see a Chinese woman as the love-interest of a white man. Here, however, Wong does take a major role, that of the "coaster" Hui Fei, and makes the most of it.

This was one of seven films which Dietrich made together with director Josef von Sternberg, and gives an excellent performance. Magdalen/Lily is essentially a double role because she has two distinct sides to her character, something indicated by the fact that she goes by two names. (As she says in the film's most famous line "It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily"). On the one hand she must be seductive enough (not a problem for Dietrich) for the audience to accept her as a "coaster". On the other hand she also needs to be sympathetic enough for her repentance to seem genuine and for the audience to accept her as the love-interest of a good man. Clive Brook is not always very animated as Harvey, but this may have been deliberate as Harvey seems to have been conceived as a "stiff-upper-lip" character, the sort of man who does not find it easy to show his emotions.

Warner Oland is also good as Chang, another difficult role to play. Chang is a sadistic bully, yet the film-makers seem to have had some sympathy with the cause he represents. His main motivation is resentment at the way the Chinese have been treated by Westerners, and this resentment is shown to be partly justified when the German businessman, Baum, is exposed as an opium trader. Some of the other passengers are rather arrogant in their attitude towards the Chinese. ("Chang" is presumably a pseudonym as we learn that he is the son of a white father and Chinese mother. He has possibly taken a Chinese surname to symbolise his support for Chinese nationalism).

The film is notable for its striking black-and-white chiaroscuro photography, anticipating the development of film noir later in the decade. (It won an Oscar for Best Cinematography). It has some fine acting performances, a gripping plot and some excellent dialogue. It remains one of the most memorable Hollywood productions of the early thirties. 8/10

Decent Historical Yarn, 24 January 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Like "Rembrandt" which I recently reviewed on this board "The Rise of Catherine the Great" is an ostensibly British historical film from the thirties which might also be regarded as a multi-national co-production. It was based on the play by two Hungarian writers (Lajos Bíró and Melchior Lengyel) about a German-born Russian Empress. It had two co-producers, one Hungarian (Alexander Korda) and one Italian (Ludovico Toeplitz), an Austrian director (Paul Czinner) and an American-born leading man (Douglas Fairbanks junior). Its leading lady, Elisabeth Bergner, is difficult to categorise in terms of ethnicity. She was born to a German-speaking Jewish family in what was at the time of her birth part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, at the time this film was made part of Poland and today is part of the Ukraine. Rather than determine whether she should be described as German, Austrian, Hungarian, Polish or Ukrainian, her Wikipedia entry evades the issue by calling her a "European actress".

In 1745 Princess Sophie Auguste Frederika of Anhalt-Zerbst arrived in Russia to marry the Grand Duke Peter, heir to the Russian throne. Although Peter had a Russian mother, he too was from a German princely house, that of Holstein-Gottorp, and could speak little Russian. (By rights the name of Russia's ruling dynasty should, from 1762 onwards, have been the House of Holstein-Gottorp, but for reasons of both nationalism and continuity Peter's descendants continued to use the more authentically Russian surname Romanov). Upon arrival Sophie's name was arbitrarily changed to Yekaterina, generally rendered in English as Catherine, even though "Sofiya" would have been a perfectly acceptable Russification of her German name. Her marriage to the mentally unstable Peter was not a happy one, but they remained together until after he had ascended the throne in 1762. (Divorce would presumably have been unthinkable). As Tsar Peter proved a disaster, and within a few months he was removed from power by a military coup, dying in mysterious circumstances shortly afterwards, following which the coup plotters invited Catherine to become Empress in her own right.

As its title suggests, the film only deals with Catherine's rise to power and not with her subsequent reign. One or two details have been changed for dramatic purposes; in reality Catherine and Peter's marriage lasted for seventeen years, but in the film this period is greatly telescoped and no mention is made of their children. (Their son Paul eventually became Tsar after Catherine's death, even though he was nearly as mad as his father). No mention is also made of the historical Catherine's notorious sexual promiscuity, but in 1934 movie heroines were required to be impeccably virtuous, and Catherine is very much the heroine here.

Bergner is not very good in the leading role, partly because she did not speak English very well but mainly because she is insufficiently imperious and commanding to make us think that this is a woman capable of not only ruling a mighty empire in her own right but also ruling it so well as to acquire the title "The Great". One cannot envisage Bergman's "Little Catherine" ever amounting to more than, at most, a puppet in the hands of the aristocrats and military officers who carried out the coup d'état.

Fairbanks, however, is good as Peter, a difficult role to play because in this production Peter, although suffering from mental illness, is not altogether unsympathetic. At times he is capable of showing love towards Catherine, who for a time returns his love until he begins an affair with another woman. When he dies in the coup his wife is devastated, which is probably more than one could say for the real Catherine. Flora Robson is also good as Empress Elizabeth, Peter's aunt and Catherine's autocratic if capable predecessor.

The mid-eighteenth century was a period when clothes and furnishings favoured by the wealthy classes of Europe were particularly fanciful and elaborate, and this is reflected in the lavish sets and costumes on view here. (By this period the Russian nobility had largely adopted Western fashions; had the story been set a hundred years earlier the clothes of the Boyars and their wives would have been very different to those worn by their English or French counterparts). It is therefore a pity that the film was made in black-and-white, but in 1934 colour film was an expensive luxury, rarely used in Britain. "The Rise of Catherine the Great" is a fairly decent historical yarn, but I felt it could have been better with another actress in the leading role. 6/10

A goof. The film begins and ends with a rousing rendition of the Russian Imperial Anthem, "Tsarya, Bozhe, Khrani", but this hymn was not written until 1833, long after the date when the film is set.

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