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Head in the Clouds (2004)
A classy and erotic potboiler at its worst and a nice date movie at its best...
The title HEAD IN THE CLOUDS is symbolic. On the surface it represents the negligent and carefree behavior of many civilians in 1930s Europe before the nightmarish Second World War began. On the other hand, it represents the self-destructively ignorant behavior of the story's beautiful yet self-absorbed protagonist, the wealthy French-American heiress Gilda Bessé (Charlize Theron).
With an original screenplay by director John Duigan, the free-spirited and hedonistic Gilda encounters Irish-born Cambridge University student Guy Malyon (Stuart Townsend) in 1933 and a passionate romance between the two blossoms to its fullest as they later meet again in Paris, where Gilda works as a freelance photographer. Complications arise when Guy meets the beautiful Spanish nursing student/model Mia (Penélope Cruz), whom Gilda is living with and wants to join Guy in the occurring Spanish Civil War. World War II occurs a few years later and so the estranged Guy longs to be reunited with Gilda in Nazi-occupied Paris. However, Gilda is now the glamorous companion of a handsome German SS officer (Thomas Kretschmann).
What sounds like a romantic story good enough for W. Somerset Maugham, Ernest Hemingway or Evelyn Waugh on paper doesn't translate well on the screen as it should. Character development and timeless themes are minimal and too many scenes abruptly jump about, giving the audience little time to connect to the main characters in a sweeping plot. Theron does what she can with her self-absorbed and sexy protagonist, but Townsend's idealistic Guy is rather boring and stiff (not to mention anachronistic due to his unkempt hairstyle). Cruz is lively and likable as the ill-fated Mia but her secondary character doesn't receive as much screen time as it should. And talented supporting actors like Steven Berkoff and Thomas Kretschmann are woefully underused. However, the film is visually stunning and the authentic period detail of 1930s Europe is wonderfully realized. Although the film is disappointing in character development, the widescreen cinematography and the production values of a bygone era are truly excellent. Furthermore, the explicit ménage à trois aspects between Theron, Cruz and Townsend are quite erotic and were probably the only reasons for the film's existence.
With more character development and an extra half-hour added to the story for more support, HEAD IN THE CLOUDS could have been a sumptuous and emotional near-masterpiece bringing homage to classic Hollywood romance films like WATERLOO BRIDGE (1940), NOW, VOYAGER (1942), RANDOM HARVEST (1942) and CASABLANCA (1943). Instead the film is merely a pretty soap opera with some good performances, some explicitly sexy scenes and some lovely European scenery with 1930s settings. With its sad lack of character development, the film could have easily worked as a comedic parody of these old Hollywood romance films instead of the straight romantic drama it really is.
At its best, the film is worth a look for romantics and those who look back at a bygone era with nostalgia. At its worst, the film is worth seeing for its pretty period scenery and sexy moments alone. Due to the sloppy writing of an interesting story that spans a turbulent time in European history, it's too bad the film doesn't quite live up to its potential.
In 1983, Lynda Carter would have been perfectly cast as Hedy Lamarr...
Sometimes the road to bad movies is paved with good intentions. In 1980, the legendary 1940s screen icon Rita Hayworth was stricken with Alzheimer's disease, which would tragically lead to her death in 1987. Rita was cared for by her daughter Yasmin Khan during this terrible period and when producer David Susskind proposed a TV movie biopic on her mother's life, "Rita Hayworth: The Love Goddess", Yasmin became quite supportive of the idea while she brought public awareness to the disease. Susskind began a search for unknown actresses to play the former Love Goddess until he set his sights on an established TV star who, like Rita, also had Irish-Hispanic roots...Lynda Carter.
And that's only one of the many problems in this poor excuse for a biopic. The lovely and talented Lynda Carter, fresh off her iconic role in the wildly popular 1970s TV series "Wonder Woman", simply doesn't resemble Rita Hayworth in the least. She bears no facial resemblance to Rita, has striking blue eyes as opposed to Rita's unique brown eyes and is too tall for the role. Lynda makes a valiant effort with her acting and musical talents, but she never rises above the level of an awkward impersonation. With her blue-eyed brunette physical features, Lynda would have been perfectly cast as 1940s MGM star Hedy Lamarr at the time, not Rita Hayworth.
The miscast supporting cast is problematic as well. Edward Edwards receives only a couple scenes as the egotistically brilliant Orson Welles, Rita's second husband, and his tall, dashing mustached form doesn't suggest Welles at all. In fact, with the exception of Alejandro Rey's Eduard Cansino and Aharon Ipalé's Prince Aly Khan, not a single supporting character even vaguely resembles their real-life role. The middle-aged, balding David Shelley delivers a decent performance as director Vincent Sherman--who really had a thick head of dark hair during the early 1950s--but the acting honors really go to Michael Lerner (BARTON FINK) as the notorious Columbia Pictures president Harry Cohn. Despite his full head of hair for the role, Lerner's Cohn is an intensely riveting portrayal of a loathsome, monstrous Hollywood movie mogul with a keen eye for talent who bellows at, threatens and dominates his employees with the cruelest iron fist--including the shy and polite yet strong-willed protagonist--to get his own way. Lerner's compelling performance is perhaps the only thing that makes this lackluster biopic worth seeing.
But the worst offenders are the production values and the screenplay. The same sets are repeatedly used due to a low budget and give very little indication of the passage of time from 1935 to 1955. And the screenplay is an irritating mess; it sticks closely to the most basic facts of Rita's screen career but it's too darn rushed to inform the audience of Rita's prolific filmography and make the audience care about the cardboard characters within a 100-minute running time. So many positive aspects of Rita's life are omitted entirely, including her good relationship with her unmentioned brother Vernon Cansino, her ideal working relationship with Fred Astaire behind the scenes of the musicals YOU'LL NEVER GET RICH (1941) and YOU WERE NEVER LOVELIER (1942), her lifelong friendship with Glenn Ford and her numerous contributions to the Allied war effort during World War II. We are given only passing glimpses of Hayworth's screen career, with an abruptly anticlimactic ending to top off a lousy screenplay.
Sorry, but Lynda Carter is not Rita Hayworth. Due to the fascinating and biographical subject matter, this TV movie biopic is just disappointingly painful, not absurdly laughable. If anything, Rita Hayworth deserves a well-written, lovingly produced epic biopic like Richard Attenborough's GANDHI (1982) and CHAPLIN (1992), not an awful 100-minute TV movie with a miscast lead who would have been perfect playing Hedy Lamarr. For antidotes of this televised waste of time, fans of Carter can watch "Wonder Woman" while Hayworth fans can simply watch anything with the original Rita Hayworth. It is the only way to get a proper glimpse of what made Rita Hayworth so enduring and special.
Escape in the Desert (1945)
Fun wartime remake of THE PETRIFIED FOREST (1936) moves at a fast clip...
This updated cinematic remake of Robert E. Sherwood's 1935 play "The Petrified Forest" concerns four Nazi prisoners-of-war terrorizing the occupants of an isolated gas station deep in the California desert. Will these arrogant, vicious escapees manage to make it to the Mexican border in a stolen vehicle or be discovered and apprehended by the local authorities?
As a fan of Dutch actor Philip Dorn (RANDOM HARVEST, I REMEMBER MAMA) and Austrian actor Helmut Dantine (CASABLANCA, BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA), this film was wish fulfillment for me because it was a joy to see Dorn and Dantine in the lead roles of a heroic Dutch protagonist (based on Leslie Howard's role as the philosophical Alan Squier) and a ruthless, cold-blooded Nazi (based on Humphrey Bogart's role as bank robber Duke Mantee), respectively. And it was also a delicious treat to see German character actor Rudolph Anders (THE MORTAL STORM, THE GREAT DICTATOR) as a wide-eyed Nazi thug who is treated with a toothache by dentist Alan Hale as Hale is held hostage. Enhancing the entertaining story were the moody black-and-white cinematography by Robert Burks (STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, VERTIGO) and fast-paced direction by Edward A. Blatt (BETWEEN TWO WORLDS).
I haven't seen the original film version of THE PETRIFIED FOREST and I'm not particularly a big fan of Leslie Howard, Humphrey Bogart, and Bette Davis but I might give it a try someday after seeing this remake. And as for ESCAPE IN THE DESERT, it's a lot of fun seeing the typically cultured, intelligent Philip Dorn playing an action hero and beating the crap out of Helmut Datine in a stolen car that's about to crash and explode like a cliffhanger in a Republic serial! Unrealistic? Sure. Suspenseful? Of course. A lot of fun for classic film fans? Yes!
Unfortunately, the film was rushed into production to capitalize on the real-life Camp Papago Park escape of 25 German POWs in Phoenix, Arizona in December 1944 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Camp_Papago_Park). It was released on May 1, 1945 and the war in Europe was coming to a close then. Audiences weren't interested in a film based on old news and critics were certainly displeased towards a wartime remake of Robert E. Sherwood's famous play. But to a fan of Dantine, Dorn, and Anders the film is enormous fun. Just don't expect a masterpiece and have an entertaining excursion for 80 minutes.
Calling Hedy Lamarr (2004)
An outstanding documentary on one of the most misunderstood geniuses in human history...
Being a fan of the Austrian-born inventor and Hollywood actress Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000), I've waited for years to see this obscure 2004 cinematic documentary on the lady herself, which is hosted and co-produced by her son Antony Loder (1947- ), now the manager of a telephone store in Los Angeles. Thanks to the generous help of a fellow Hedy Lamarr fan, I finally had a chance to see this rare film recently.
This fascinating documentary not only explores the exciting life of an attractive Viennese girl, Hedwig Kiesler, who later became an alluring Hollywood movie star with the name Hedy Lamarr and the nickname "The Most Beautiful Woman in the World" but also explores her troubled private life of six husbands and three estranged children, her enigmatic and independent personality which continues to be the subject of debate and, most impressively, her patented plans, co-designed by American composer George Antheil (1900-1959) in 1942, of an ingeniously complex radio-controlled, frequency-hopping guidance system that was intended for Allied torpedoes during World War II but later found its use in today's cell phones, wireless Internet, guided missiles and most other telecommunication devices the world over. Instead of receiving the enormous credit she deserved for her revolutionary work, Hedy and George's plans were rejected by the U.S. War Department on the grounds of impracticality, her screen career gradually waned and she lived a life of content privacy during her later years. But with this contentment came two shoplifting incidents, several plastic surgery operations with horrifying results, and numerous legal battles involving the use of her name in products and films, most infamously in the Mel Brooks Western parody BLAZING SADDLES (1974). However, as late as 1997 she was finally recognized for her ubiquitous technological achievement despite the unfortunate fact that the patent for her invention expired decades ago and technological companies had easy access to it without her permission.
Skillfully written and directed by Georg Misch, CALLING HEDY LAMARR refers to Hedy's frequent use of the telephone as a communication tool with her family and friends. During her final years in her modest Florida home, she would spend up to six or seven hours on the phone and was found dead with the phone by her side and the phone book in her lap. This title is put to artistic use throughout the film, in which several people who were involved in Hedy's life "call" the deceased Hedy in another world but she does not pick up the phone (using footage of Hedy in her classic films, most notably LET'S LIVE A LITTLE). With the charming Antony Loder as host, the viewer experiences a son attempting to understand his adoring and kind yet sometimes distant and difficult mother through the creative use of private audio tapes of Hedy's voice and a number of women of all shapes, sizes, and ages portraying Hedy in mock screen tests. Also along this mysterious journey we meet the likes of Peter Gardiner, son of British character actor Reginald Gardiner, and Arianne Ulmer, the daughter of director Edgar G. Ulmer and the director of one of Hedy's better films, THE STRANGE WOMAN (1946), both of whom reveal unique and interesting information regarding Hedy's screen career.
CALLING HEDY LAMARR is an absolute must-see for fans of this rather neglected Hollywood legend and lady with a brilliant and courageous mind behind her astonishing natural physical beauty. Despite its 71-minute running time, this deeply moving documentary has everything a Hedy Lamarr fan could want: pleasant trivia, bittersweet ironies, terribly sad revelations, and hopeful longings for the future of technology and humankind. The world would certainly be a different place without Hedy Lamarr, the face that launched a billion cell phones.
Die tote Stadt (1983)
Excellent German TV production of Erich Wolfgang Korngold's unjustly forgotten opera...but no English subtitles on the DVD!
Korngold's once phenomenally successful opera, first performed simultaneously in the German cities of Hamburg and Cologne in 1920 when the composer was only 23 years old, is vividly brought to life in this superior German TV production, which was produced in 1983 by the Deutsche Oper Berlin opera company and was partly responsible for the gradual rehabilitation of this three-act opera in the European repertoire in recent times.
Freely adapted from Georges Rodenbach's 1892 novel "Bruges-la-Morte" by Erich and his father Julius (under the pen name "Paul Schott"), the story of DIE TOTE STADT is simple: Paul (played by the late tenor James King, who resembles 1940s Belgian-born actor Victor Francen with his thin mustache), mourning over the loss of his beautiful blonde wife Marie in the Belgian city of Bruges, is ecstatic to encounter her exact double one day, the flirtatious opera dancer Marietta (played by soprano Karan Armstrong, who resembles a curvaceous and strawberry blonde version of Myrna Loy). After he invites Marietta to his home to sing and dance for him, she is surprised to find a giant portrait of Marie upstairs. After Marietta leaves to attend her rehearsal, Paul, torn by his loyalty to the deceased Marie and his longing for the living Marietta, imagines his brief, doomed romance with Marietta that will bloom and wither in the weeks to come. Most of the opera takes place as a fantasy in Paul's troubled mind, from the ghost of Marie (also played by Armstrong) appearing to Paul to encourage him to go out into life to a demonic church procession invading Paul's home the morning after Marietta has seduced Paul.
Mr. King is exceptional as Paul, the romantic yet obsessive and delusional protagonist. Under the direction of Brian Large, the Kansas-born James King delivers all his singing and acting prowess to create a meticulous and memorable portrayal of a lost soul. There are several individual and subtle elements that make his performance so appealing: the horizontal movement of his hand while describing the shimmering canal waters of Bruges in one of his more romantic arias, his charming stroking and inhaling a bouquet of red roses before Marietta's arrival, his misty eyes and dazed movements while reacting to the gorgeous and haunting aria "Glück, das mir verblieb", and his defeatist sobs while arguing with Marietta during a highly dramatic confrontation. He's wonderful.
The Montana-born Karan Armstrong as Marie/Marietta exudes otherworldliness as the ghostly Marie as well as sex appeal and playfulness as Marietta. It's a difficult dual role, but she pulls it off very well with her tremendous lung power and sensual, well-shaped figure. Special mention should go to baritone William Murray in the dual role of Frank/Fritz, Paul's friend in reality and a Pierrot clown in Paul's fantasy, and mezzo-soprano Margit Neubauer as Brigitta, Paul's faithful housekeeper.
The production values are impressive, featuring a spacious and somewhat Expressionist interior for Paul's home in the first and third acts and a slightly flooded square of Bruges in the second act. The 1920s costume design, which includes double-breasted suits and homburg hats for the males and simple dresses for the females, is unassuming in the reality scenes yet colorful and opulent in Paul's fantasy. Kudos to the camera and editing crew members for using traditional cinematic techniques like close-up shots, zooms, dissolves, multiple exposures, and quick cuts in order to prevent the production from descending into a dully and amateurishly presented "filmed play" style.
For all its virtues, the production has its few flaws. Firstly, some passages from the German libretto and the music score are excised in order to accommodate a two-hour running time. Secondly, the Deutsche Oper Berlin orchestra is pretty competent yet it drowns out the singing voices of King and Armstrong once or twice throughout the opera (a very common mistake in the performing arts, nevertheless). Thirdly and most importantly, Large has modified Korngold's original optimistic ending in favor of a more pessimistic ending, perhaps in order to prove Paul's extreme, obsessive love for the deceased Marie and his strong mental and emotional torment after experiencing such a vivid fantasy. But whether this modified ending is a good or bad decision by the director is up to the viewer to decide, and the aforementioned flaws can easily be ignored.
A bare-bones DVD of this first-rate production, containing a pristine print, is currently only available online on the Premiere Opera website for a total of thirteen dollars. However, as this production was intended for German television audiences, there are no English subtitles. I strongly suggest those who are unfamiliar with the opera or the German language to consult an English translation of the libretto while watching, especially since the opera company's general director, Götz Friedrich, introduces a brief biography of Korngold and a synopsis of the opera at the beginning. Incidentally, an English-translated libretto is included in the two-disc RCA Victor recording of DIE TOTE STADT, featuring René Kollo as Paul and Carol Neblett as Marie/Marietta under the conduction of Erich Leinsdorf with the Munich Radio Orchestra. This CD version is widely considered to be the best available recording of this forgotten opera and is the ideal companion piece for this DVD.
By all means, this TV production of DIE TOTE STADT is a must-see for all Korngold and opera fans. But I only hope a more legitimate DVD company will release a version with English subtitles sometime soon!
Those interested in DIE TOTE STADT may also be interested in reading my review on the Kollo/Neblett/Leinsdorf recording on Amazon.com.
Hold Back the Dawn (1941)
A buried treasure chest for classic film lovers
Charles Boyer, Olivia de Havilland, and Paulette Goddard star in this excellent romantic drama set on the Mexican-American border. The plot is simple: Boyer plays suave Romanian womanizer Georges Iscovescu, who attempts to become an American citizen by marrying a somewhat naïve schoolteacher (de Havilland), who is leading a field trip from her school in California to a Fourth of July celebration in the scorching Mexican town. Meanwhile, an old flame of Georges (Goddard) is also in town and complicates matters.
The plot is better than it sounds due to the superb performances all around and the ingenious screenplay by Charles Brackett and the great Billy Wilder (with uncredited contribution by Richard Maibaum and Manuel Reachi). It's a great pity that such a superior film is currently unavailable on DVD or VHS and is locked inside the vaults of Universal Studios. I've wanted to see the film for years until I finally stumbled upon a copy with some difficulty along the way and it was well worth the journey. It's no wonder the film was such a critical and popular success in its day and received six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Writing, and Best Actress for Olivia de Havilland.
In spite of this, HOLD BACK THE DAWN remains one of the finest films ever produced in the history of Paramount Pictures and is a must-see for classic film lovers everywhere. Charles Boyer plays the charming and conniving Georges with perfection, Olivia de Havilland was never lovelier to look at in a sparkling performance as Emmy Brown, and Paulette Goddard is sassy and spirited as Georges' attractive ex-girlfriend Anita Dixon. Also worth mentioning are the colorful supporting performances by Walter Abel, Victor Francen, Curt Bois, Rosemary DeCamp, and many others. Also worth mentioning in the supporting cast is the film's director, Mitchell Leisen, playing a fictional Paramount director working on a scene from the real Veronica Lake-Brian Donlevy aviation romance film I WANTED WINGS (1941) in a highly creative sequence. The film is beautifully photographed by Leo Tover, lushly scored by Victor Young, and convincingly designed by Hans Dreier, Robert Usher, and Sam Comer. All of these highly professional crew members received Oscar nominations for their work here.
However, I must leave room for the masterful performance of Olivia de Havilland, who looks absolutely stunning in Leo Tover's black-and-white cinematography (there's even a scene in which she joyfully skinny-dips!) and is a delight to watch as the childlike Emmy, who transforms from a shy ingénue to a lively bride to finally a mature-minded wife. The outstandingly vivid chemistry between Charles and Olivia is very obvious: Charles was one of Olivia's favorite male costars. In fact, Oliva showed the love in her eyes too much in an early scene and it had to be re-shot to suit the demands of Mitchell Leisen, who wanted her to show more restraint at that point in the story.
All in all, this is a wonderfully romantic film that holds up incredibly well today and is well worth watching if you ever have a chance to see it. Here's hoping and praying that Universal will finally recognize HOLD BACK THE DAWN for what it's worth and release it with great fanfare to DVD!
In a footnote, the film's enigmatic title comes from Georges' seduction towards Emmy while the morning light slowly appears outside the hotel lobby window: "You see, we are like...two trains, halted for a moment at the same station. But we're going in different directions. We can't change our course, any more than we can hold back the dawn."
The Cowboy and the Lady (1938)
Cute yet ordinary screwball comedy is worth seeing for its delightful cast...
In 1937, Anglo-Indian movie star Merle Oberon was under contract as a leading lady to two major international studios: the prestigious London Films owned by Alexander Korda in the United Kingdom and the independent Samuel Goldwyn Productions owned by Samuel Goldwyn in Hollywood, California in the United States. According to David Shipman in his 1970 book THE GREAT MOVIE STARS: THE GOLDEN YEARS, during that time Merle was cast in a lavish Goldwyn fantasy adventure that was never made: GRAUSTARK, with Gary Cooper and Sigrid Gurie. Huge sets depicting the wonders of the fictional Eastern European country were built on the Goldwyn lot, but the film was deemed too expensive by Mr. Goldwyn before filming began and so Goldwyn set his sights on a cheaper vehicle for Merle. After coming up with a movie title, THE COWBOY AND THE LADY, Goldwyn hired as many talented writers as he could to concoct an acceptable script out of this peculiar title.
With a script concocted by no less than seventeen writers, THE COWBOY AND THE LADY is a pleasant trifle that's worth watching due to its delightful cast, especially if you're a fan of Merle Oberon or Gary Cooper. A cheerful old uncle, Hannibal Smith (Harry Davenport), encourages his wealthy, sheltered niece Mary (Merle Oberon) to enjoy the things that young people do by taking her to a gambling spot. What follows is a police raid and so Mary gets into hot water by the press and her strict father (Henry Kolker), who is running for President of the United States. He sends his daughter to a mansion in Palm Beach, Florida so that his political ambitions won't be spoiled by any scandal. Mary soon grows bored and lonely living in the spacious place by the beach occupied by only two slightly goofy young maids. One evening, the two maids decide to go out on a double-date with a pair of cowboys from a local rodeo show (Walter Brennan and Fuzzy Knight) and Mary tags along with them posing as a maid since there's reportedly a third cowboy. Mary hits the jackpot when the third cowboy turns out to be the tall and handsome Stretch Willoughby (Gary Cooper). The trio returns to Mary's lavish mansion later that evening, in which the cowboys present curiosity towards kitchen gadgets like electric juicers and dishwashers. What follows is a cute yet ordinary romantic comedy story of two inexperienced people of different backgrounds and lifestyles falling in love and marrying within the space of two nights with the usual temporary separation element thrown in for good measure.
THE COWBOY AND THE LADY borrows elements from so many 1930s screwball comedies (including the far superior IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, directed by Frank Capra) that parts of the film are better than the whole. As a Merle Oberon fan, I was delighted by the scenes in which a bored, lonely Merle quirkily balances a pen between her nose and mouth and attempts to clean Gary's tent while gradually ruining her only dress. I was less interested in the Gary Cooper scenes, particularly because a number of his scenesincluding the lengthy yet creative scene involving Gary performing pantomime inside the bare framework of his new housefelt like needless filler material just to occupy a 91-minute running time within the cute yet slim plot.
Despite its flaws and ordinary script, THE COWBOY AND THE LADY not only benefits from its on-screen talent but also from some of its off-screen talent. While H.C. Potter steadily directs the film with no particular style (especially after the film's original director, William Wyler, was suspended from production after arguing over extensive retakes with Goldwyn), Richard Day's production values are top-notch, Merle wears a very fetching wardrobe designed by Omar Kiam, and Gregg Toland contributes some outstanding black-and-white cinematography, particularly glamorous close-up shots of Merle, dreamy shots of the isolated Palm Beach mansion and beach, and a subjective camera shot of Gary waving farewell at Merle from the back window of a departing bus.
The MGM DVD of THE COWBOY AND THE LADY presents a beautiful print of the film, in which Gregg Toland's cinematography looks gorgeous and clear throughout and Thomas T. Moulton's Oscar-winning sound recording is nice and sharp on the original mono soundtrack. A pity that so much effort was spent on remastering such a trivial film that did no harm to anyone involved. An even greater pity was that GRAUSTARK wasn't made for Merle instead.
Fortunately, better things came to Merle and Gary in their screen careers. With Merle, they were WUTHERING HEIGHTS (1939) at Goldwyn and THE LODGER (1944) at 20th Century-Fox. With Gary, they were his Oscar-winning turns in SERGEANT YORK (1941) at Warner Bros. and HIGH NOON (1952) at the independent Stanley Kramer Productions. And while THE COWBOY AND THE LADY is something you might like if you see it, it's certainly something you don't need to worry about if you don't see it.
Mission to Moscow (1943)
Just put your 1943 glasses on and enjoy Michael Curtiz's brilliant direction
During the first years of World War II in June 1941, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Desperate for an ally to help save the largest country in the world from falling into the hands of the Third Reich, the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin clung to the United States, which was still neutral in the war at the time. As a result, the Lend-Lease Act of raw materials, food, and weaponry between the two countries began and pro-Soviet feelings developed in the Allied countries, especially in the United States and Great Britain. Two products of these pro-Soviet feelings during World War II are former United States Ambassador to the Soviet Union Joseph E. Davies' enormously successful memoir "Mission to Moscow", which chronicles his occupation in the Soviet Union before World War II, and the 1943 Warner Bros. film upon which the memoir is based.
There are many poor reviews for this film on IMDb due to the film's intentional distortion of historical facts and the pro-Soviet propaganda aspects. Since I'm not really a political person, I suppose I can safely say that I managed to put much of the film's pro-Soviet politics aside and enjoy the film's technical elements. MISSION TO MOSCOW is brilliantly directed by Michael Curtiz, who presents the film with a vibrant pace and with several dynamic, imaginatively edited montages. Bert Glennon's impressive black-and-white cinematography makes use of deep, dramatic shadows and Max Steiner delivers a powerful and stirring music score. The Oscar-nominated production design is lavish and meticulous. And Howard Koch's script, despite its pro-Soviet propaganda aspects and the fact that Davies himself had absolute control over its writing, is absorbing and very well-written.
The film also benefits from strong performances by its cast. Despite having a full head of hair, Walter Huston does a superb acting job as Joseph E. Davies. And Henry Daniell delivers a suave performance as his foil, the Nazi German Foreign Minister Joachim Von Ribbentrop. Ann Harding and the gorgeous Eleanor Parker deliver good performances as Davies' wife and daughter. Special mention should go the handsome Helmut Dantine as a Soviet officer, Victor Francen as a stern Soviet court prosecutor, and the lovely Cyd Charisse in an uncredited non-speaking role as a Russian ballerina, who dances divinely.
But make sure that you have a reliable history book beside you in case you walk away thinking that the events on-screen are true. The film does all it can to portray the Soviet Union in an extremely positive light. For example, the victims of Stalin's infamous and widespread purge trials are portrayed as fifth columnists (in other words, spies for Nazi Germany, Italy, and Japan). And I was amused when Davies complimented Stalin as a "great builder for the benefit of mankind." If you do decide to watch this film and you don't have any pro-communist beliefs, I suggest putting on an open mind and watching this film as a a curiosity piece or pretending this film is a historical fantasy like THE PRISONER OF ZENDA in order to enjoy it. But whether you have pro-communist beliefs or not, please keep in mind that this controversial film was produced in a different time period and was intended to contribute to the Allied war effort.
Despite its controversial aspects, MISSION TO MOSCOW remains an absorbing and extremely well-made cinematic product of its time.
Of Human Bondage (1946)
Erich Wolfgang Korngold's excellent music score is the best element of this average cinematic adaptation of a classic novel
Since I'm an avid fan of the brilliant Austrian composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold and his music, I was eager to see this 1946 film version of W. Somerset Maugham's OF HUMAN BONDAGE. I was also eager to see two of my favorite actors from the era in the film, Paul Henreid and Eleanor Parker, despite the slight reservations I had about their casting in the lead roles before watching.
It seems that I was right about the casting. Paul Henreid, although he delivers a sensitive and satisfying performance as Philip Carey, is clearly too old to play a young medical student and the fact that the character's heritage has been changed to suit Paul's natural Austrian accent may upset some fans of the novel. Eleanor Parker sacrifices her gorgeous features and gives a creditable Cockney accent as Mildred Rogers, but her acting in her passionate scenes seems little more than mechanical and whiny. If you want to see some examples of Eleanor acting at (and looking) her best, I suggest BETWEEN TWO WORLDS (1944), SCARAMOUCHE (1952), and THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965).
The supporting actors fare little better. The beautiful Alexis Smith, although third-billed in the opening titles, is simply wasted as Nora Nesbitt. Patric Knowles, best known for portraying Will Scarlet in THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938), is simply wooden as Harry Griffiths, Philip's fellow medical student. Only Henry Stephenson, in a tiny role as a kind Dr. Tyrell, and Edmund Gwenn, as an overly cheerful gout-stricken Mr. Athelny, shed solace on such a dreary film.
With a faulty script that reduces important plot points and a dark and claustrophobic Victorian production design that dominates almost every scene, the film gets duller and duller as it drags along. It's no wonder this film was a critical and financial flop!
However, Korngold's dramatic music score prevents the film from being a total waste of time. His jaunty theme for Mildred and his gorgeous theme for Nora are haunting pieces that burn into one's memory long after the film is over. Of course, I've been familiar with the music score for quite some time: a monophonic suite of the film's score is available on the 2-CD set "Erich Wolfgang Korngold: The Warner Bros. Years" and a lush re-recording of Nora's theme is available on the CD "The Sea Hawk: Classic Film Scores of Erich Wolfgang Korngold" as performed by the National Philharmonic Orchestra under the marvelous and precise conduction of Charles Gerhardt.
Edmund Goulding did a better job at handling Maugham with THE RAZOR'S EDGE (1946) at 20th Century-Fox. Also, I prefer the 1964 Lawrence Harvey-Kim Novak remake over this version and the original 1934 Bette Davis-Leslie Howard version. Although all three films are flawed and abbreviated adaptations of the novel, the 1964 version seems to contain the most natural performances, the most convincing and consistent script, and the most meticulous black-and-white cinematography and production values of the three films to my eyes. At least the sexual frankness is finally present in this version and the late Ron Goodwin contributes a lovely and memorable theme for the film, which is included on the CD "The Film Music of Ron Goodwin."
I agree with the closing sentence of someone else's comment: Korngold's score should have accompanied a much better film.
The House in the Square (1951)
Finally, this haunting romantic fantasy has seen the light of day again!
Never before released on DVD or video and very rarely shown on TV over the decades due to rights entanglements, I'LL NEVER FORGET YOU (a.k.a. THE HOUSE IN THE SQUARE) has finally been released on DVD as part of the Tyrone Power Matinée Idol Collection box set. This has been one of the most requested films to be put on DVD for several years, and it is well worth the wait. Although Tyrone Power didn't care about this highly unusual film, this haunting romantic fantasy is now considered one of the best films of his highly successful career. The film is a 1951 remake of the obscure BERKELEY SQUARE (1933) and is based on a John L. Balderston play.
I first saw this film in an utterly dismal black-and-white print a few years ago, but the fascinating story and excellent cast greatly impressed me. The new DVD, which has restored this seldom-seen film to its original glory, is a revelation: the black-and-white used in the opening and closing scenes is crisp and pristine, and the glorious Technicolor fantasy sequences look soft and lifelike. The sound quality is sharp and clear throughout. The difference between the awful black-and-white print I watched and the restored print of the DVD is astonishing. The DVD includes galleries of posters, publicity, and production stills of the film as special features. However, the DVD is not sold separately at present.
I won't bother mentioning the plot for fear of spoilers, so I'll just mention the cast. Tyrone Power is perfectly cast as the introspective and obsessive protagonist, and the lovely Ann Blyth exudes sweetness, compassion, and understanding in her role. As for the supporting characters of the past, Dennis Price is wonderful as a rakish fop and Kathleen Byron shines in her brief role as a duchess. Special mention should go to Michael Rennie as Tyrone's sensible friend of the present and Felix Alymer as a stiff and puritanical doctor of the past. All the performances are sincere and the acting is professional under Roy Ward Baker's fine direction.
Excellent, too, are the production values. The production design of the present is meticulous and convincing, while the past is presented with dreamlike backdrops and colors of all sorts. The costumes of the past are authentic and suitably ornate. William Alwyn's marvelous music score, which effectively enhances the most touching elements of the film, makes use of haunting leitmotifs and occasional choral music.
All in all, this is a worthwhile film, especially for romantics and fans of romantic fantasy films like PORTRAIT OF JENNIE (1948) and SOMEWHERE IN TIME (1980). Of all the films included on the Tyrone Power Matinée Idol Collection box set, I'LL NEVER FORGET YOU is undoubtedly the best film of the collection. Its moving and unusual story, handsome production values, excellent music score, and marvelous cast will haunt you for years to come. You'll never forget this film (pun intended).