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The Yearling (1946)
Rural America Never Looked So Beautiful
Every so often a film comes along that is so endearing, so righteous and so just darn decent - "Old Yeller", "Pollyanna" and, this one, "The Yearling". When watching this film, I couldn't help but think of the others. And, no, not just because of the fact the plot involves a family and the emotional fallout and drama caused by a pet such as in "Old Yeller", or the fact that Jane Wyman stars with an adorable child actor, such as she did in "Pollyanna". It's the feel and the atmosphere that invoked these comparisons. However, where "The Yearling" is on a pedestal all its own is in regards to the fine performances. No, "The Yearling" is not my kind of film. I tend to avoid the saccharine and goopy syrup of movies like this. You know the old adage, "Never make a movie with kids or animals"? Well, mine is "Never watch a movie with kids or animals". But this one sucked me in. I don't quite know what did it. But I got sucked in and couldn't get out. The performances make this movie.
Claude Jarman Jr. stars as Jody Baxter, a young boy living in post-Civil War America who longs for the companionship and love of a pet - someone to take care of and nurture. While Jody's loving father, Ezra(Gregory Peck)makes great strides to give Jody companionship and someone to look up to, Jody suffers from the neglect of his hardened mother, Orry(Wyman), still reeling from the untimely deaths of her other children. Jody befriends a fawn and takes it in as his own. The two bond and love each other. But what happens when the young deer begins to eat the crops that the family live off of? Only tragedy can ensue.
"The Yearling" is a delicately handled film that encapsulates the best of 1800's living. And while this is deemed a "family film", there are some surprisingly difficult scenes and sub-plots that might be scary to some children. I know I was uncomfortable watching the animal fight scenes and the death of one of Jody's close friends. And even though this has got to be one of the most predictable movies, the performances we get from Wyman, Peck and, especially Jarman, are stellar. In the movie's final emotional scenes, no one has been so convincing as Jarman in conveying heartache and mind-numbing trauma. And Wyman, while on the sidelines, is incredible as a woman afraid to open up and terrified to lose her one remaining child. On top of that, the cinematography is first-rate, with some stunning sunset shots and silhouettes set against the backdrop of rural America. And despite some off-kilter bits at the end revolving around Jody getting lost on the river and being found by a ship, "The Yearling" is a solid and heart-warming film that has earned its place among the top Hollywood classics.
Written on the Wind (1956)
Just Like A Steamy Summer Night In Texas....
Arguably Douglas Sirk's best film, "Written On The Wind" is a virtual hurricane of over-the-top acting, cotton candy-colored cinematography and blatant sexual energy all whipped into a Category 4 storm. Many critics dare to compare this 1956 classic to another melodrama from the same year, the soapy MGM film "Giant". Besides the fact that both star Rock Hudson and follow the seedy lives of wealthy Texans, "Written On The Wind" succeeds thanks in large part to Sirk's social critique and uncanny eye for visual irony. And the screen sizzles as a result of steamy performances all around. This is the perfect film to watch if you want it to feel like a hot, steamy summer night.
The Hadley family is one of wealth and beauty, but underneath lie secrets and scandals that threaten to uproot the cracking dynasty. Jasper Hadley(Robert Keith)has his hands full dealing with his slutty daughter, Marylee(Dorothy Malone), and insecure alcoholic son, Kyle(Robert Stack). Marylee only amps up her randy sex-capades the more she realizes her true love, Mitch Wayne(Hudson), doesn't want to be with her. In fact, not only does he not want Marylee, but he is actually in love with Lucy(Lauren Bcall), Kyle's new bride. Got all that? The drama gains momentum when Jasper is confronted about his daughter's promiscuous behavior and Kyle finds out that his own sexual dysfunction will prevent him from having children with Lucy. So what happens when Lucy turns up pregnant? The film comes to a sordid, pounding climax.
The entire cast has an undeniable chemistry - a chemistry which Sirk tried to emulate the next year by reuniting Hudson, Stack and Malone for his gritty drama, "The Tarnished Angels". And Stack is at the top of his game, as he nails the role of a pathetic, weak and insecure man who has everything, but really has nothing. Sirk's use of phallic symbols in the scenes with Marylee are riotous(one of cinema's best moments is when she is caressing the mini oil derrick model)and his mise-en-scene is filled in every nook and cranny with relevant visual stimulation. Even the open title sequence, done much like a classic nighttime soap opera, is sleek, sophisticated and unforgettable. And unlike many films from this period, precious time is not wasted on tedious monologues or wordy segments. The action starts as soon as the movie opens and swiftly continues from scene to scene. "Written On The Wind", a true screen classic, provides a torrent of unabashed glamor and trash, upheld by the smart and saavy direction of the always brilliant Sirk.
Peyton Place (1957)
Sentimentality Meets Sensationalism
Grace Metalious' explosive best-selling novel is given the Hollywood treatment in 1957's "Peyton Place". Devoid of so much of the nonsense that has been known to permeate other melodramas, "Peyton Place" is a beautifully filmed, effective film that uncovers the hidden scandals of a quaint, New England town. With fine acting, score and cinematography, this screen classic translates well from its literary heritage. And the film's unraveling of the town's secrets is handled well - building up like a ball of snow as each successive scandal is unearthed.
We meet the townspeople from the point-of-view of Allison Mackenzie(Diane Varsi), the sweet and sheltered daughter of Constance(Lana Turner). Constance struggles to be a good mother and community member, while rebuffing the advances of handsome school principal, Michael Rossi(Lee Philips). On the other side of the tracks live Constance's housekeeper whose daughter, Selena(Hope Lange), struggles as a victim of abuse by her own step-father. In the midst of these primary plots are several other tales revolving around sex, love and the war. No one is immune to the reveal of secrets, which have a domino effect all across town.
"Peyton Place" shook the foundation of Hollywood's censorship board by exposing such taboo topics as sexual abuse and abortion, but not once does it come off as exploitative. On the contrary, the film is firmly grounded in emotion and genuine feeling. And while the movie straddles the line of good taste, a plot involving the war effort and its effect on the young men of Peyton Place proves to be profound. Lana Turner does her job well as the repressed mother. In fact, heated passion can be sensed underneath her aloof, icy-cold exterior - a chill factor even more effective 2 years later in "Imitation of Life". And the incredibly good-looking Lee Philip is a perfect match the screen beauty. But it is really with the sensitive performances of Diane Varsi and Hope Lange that this film gains its legs. And Lloyd Nolan cannot be overlooked as the town's warm-hearted doctor. "Peyton Place" could have been a heaving, overblown showcase, but instead made its way into becoming an important melodrama that has stood the test of time.
The Glenn Miller Story (1954)
I Still Don't Know Much About Glenn Miller
Glenn Miller was a timid man, with a pushy wife. At least that is what "The Glenn Miller Story", a loose biographical look at the latter part of the famed band leader's life, would have you believe. And just when did his wife become so ambitious? The filmmakers never really let us know. But not being familiar with the details of Miller's life myself, I took this Universal-International tale very lightly and did not take the details, or lack thereof, to heart too much.
Old reliable James Stewart plays Miller, as we follow his life from his more lean days as a musical hopeful until his untimely death in a World War II plane crash. Along the way, we watch as Miller makes successes in his career, as well as his budding relationship with college sweetheart and eventual wife, Helen(June Allyson). After enduring setbacks in creating his signature sound and his wife's eventual infertility, he reaches the pinnacle of his career, only to lose his life while participating in America's war effort.
Stewart plays Miller convincingly enough, if a little boring at times. But Stewart does manage to inject the right amount of sweetness and earnestness to make Miller seem likable and of rooting-value. Allyson, who has never been a favorite of mine, warbles her way through the film as if she has a mouth full of marbles. And she never truly brings the character to life to make me see past Allyson just playing a part. "The Glenn Miller Story" does have its moments, though. There are a great few moments of cinematography in a nightclub performance of Louis Armstrong, in which various colors of lenses rotate on the camera lens. There is also a touching, if underdone scene at the end, when a heartbroken Helen listens to Glenn's posthumous performance on the radio. But these great moments are unfortunately weighed down by other not-so-great moments. For instance, when Helen finds out she won't be able to have children of her own, she seems to take the news as if someone just told her that the Piggly Wiggly stopped carrying her favorite brand of detergent. They never seem to want to delve too deeply into the difficult moments. Nonetheless, the movie works. Stewart and a fine supporting cast create a foundation which holds up the good and the bad, and Glenn Miller's tale is glossy and engaging, if a tad bit uneven at times.
Magnificent Obsession (1954)
The Glossy Facade Gives Way To A Studio Classic
Looking back on the abbreviated career of Douglas Sirk, "Magnificent Obsession" rises above being just another "woman's film" or "weepie". It actually serves as a notable turning point as it is the first in a string of Technicolor melodramas Sirk helmed at Universal-International, as well as one of his most popular. It also kick-started the malnourished career of Rock Hudson and sent his fame into another realm. Despite the film's lame-brained premise and endless implausibilities, Sirk takes the material and dishes out a sweet, moving drama that is a thinly disguised tale of Christianity.
Hudson stars as Bob Merrick, a millionaire playboy with no cares in the world. His lavish and self-serving lifestyle inadvertently leads to the death of a prominent local doctor, Wayne Phillips. Dr.Phillip's widow, Helen(Jane Wyman)tries to pick up the pieces of her shattered life, while at the same time resisting the advances of Bob Merrick. His persistence results in an accident in which Helen goes blind. In a convoluted and corny twist, Bob tries to redeem himself by giving selflessly to others and devoting his life to medicine to find a way to restore Helen's eyesight.
Every stereotype of every soap opera convention is used in overwhelming doses to tell the story of "Magnificent Obsession". The "alternative lifestyle" of Christianity that Bob learns is a mish-mash of psychobabble that even the most detail-oriented viewer would find boring and confusing. And the seriousness in which the actors take the material is eye-rollingly unbelievable. But this film is saved by the always-savvy direction of Douglas Sirk(who himself hated the plot)and an elegant, understated Jane Wyman who brought her own brand of sophistication to every role she played - and was Oscar-nominated for this role. Even Hudson is able to overcome his nerves in his first leading, A-list role to give a performance that is convincing. Sirk's use of reflective surfaces and a dominating color palette give this movie a look that is undeniably sheen. And Frank Skinner's classical score takes the ordinary material to an emotional level; although the choral "oohs and aahs" on the soundtrack are a bit pungent for such a quiet film. This is not Sirk's best work, but it is definitely solid enough to engage first time viewers and a must for fans of the German-bred director's work.
Old Acquaintance (1943)
Hopkins + Davis = Drama
Bette Davis really has her hands full in Vincent Sherman's 1943 gem, in which she battles it out with an "Old Acquaintance". The woman vs. woman war, so prominent in the films of the 1930s, '40s and '50s, gets some serious ammunition with this classic film. As excellent as it is, it is unfortunately not available on VHS/DVD, nor does it get the recognition bestowed upon many of Davis' other, and dare I say, lesser movies.
Davis plays writer Kit Marlowe, a woman who is unable to find true happiness as she selflessly puts the needs of her childhood friend, Milly(Miriam Hopkins), ahead of her own desires. Milly, a self-absorbed, insecure - even childlike - housewife is constantly in competition with Kit. As the two woman have successes over the years, their friendship endures strains, but never totally collapses. The battle between them even extends to Milly's teenage daughter(Dolores Moran)during the later years of their lives.
Davis nails the cattiness, insecurity and self-effacing humor that embodies Kit. Hopkins also succeeds as Milly. Even though Milly's self-destructive jealousies border on tedious and Hopkins almost succumbs to over-acting, Hopkins manages to pull back the reigns just in time. As good as "Old Acquaintance" is, however, there are moments that just don't ring true. For example, why wouldn't a teenage Deirdre(Moran)recognize her own father(John Loder), even if she hadn't seen him in a decade? Surely she would have seen a photo or had a faint memory. Despite that, though, this is a great classic just waiting to be restored and released. Fine writing, classic lines, smooth direction and stellar performances are what drive this film. One of Davis' finest and a shining entry into the women's genre.
Back Street (1961)
Straight From The Universal Assembly Line....
The Universal/Ross Hunter film era of the 1950's was at its prime when director Douglas Sirk was at the helm. However, once Sirk took an early retirement in 1959, the Universal/Hunter team could not match the quality of the Sirk flicks with their assembly line of homogeneous, sudsy replications, which started with 1960's "Portrait In Black" and ended with the 1966 film "Madame X". But boy did they try! And 1961's "Back Street", the dated, recycled tale of a woman's sacrifice, was no different.
This time around, producer Ross Hunter recruits fading star Susan Hayward and his favorite up-and-coming star(who never came up, by the way)John Gavin, to play lovers torn apart by circumstance. Hayward plays Rae Smith(rae, all lower-case), a wannabe fashion designer stuck in Podunk, U.S.A. Rae, in an outrageous serious of coincidences, meets Paul Saxon(Gavin)while he is on a lay-over in Podunk, and they begin a brief romance. We all know the romance won't last - and it doesn't. Rae's car runs out of gas while she is on the way to meet Paul for a flight to Chicago. He thinks she has stood him up. Years pass and Rae becomes a top designer....remember, this is Ross Hunter-land, where characters fall in love in minutes and the women become rich & successful seemingly overnight. Many years later, Rae and Paul meet again. But this time, a woman, not circumstance, try to tear them apart. And who is this woman? Why, it is none other than Paul's alcoholic, nut-job wife, played to crazed perfection by the always reliable Vera Miles. Rae somehow manages to accept being Paul's kept woman, while he tries valiantly to deal with his psychotic wife. This can't be going to a pretty place - and it doesn't. Tragedy ensues for all.
While Hayward receives top-billing, it's actually Miles who steals her thunder with a fantastic performance. And John Gavin is....well....John Gavin - stiff, stoic and simply beautiful. "Back Street" tries to be a lot of things - heart-wrenching, three-hanky weeper; emotionally-gripping drama; a showcase for Hayward. And it fails in all areas. Where it does succeed is in being a chunk of mass-produced melodrama - a hastily thrown together women's movie. But somehow, someway, Ross Hunter takes some beautiful gowns, sparkly sets and throbbing music(courtesy of the always dramatic Frank Skinner), and makes this nonsense work. At least for fans of this schlock.
Light in the Piazza (1962)
Nice, Unmemorable Travelogue
Stunning vistas of Florence, Italy, and the Italian countryside draw you into what is, overall, a fairly slow and ordinary film. "Light In The Piazza" is nice to look at. And the performances are nice. And the story is nice. There just isn't anything spectacular beyond the glossy facade. The movie is just...well...nice.
Olivia de Havilland plays a wealthy American on vacation in Italy with her beautiful 26-year old daughter, Clara(Yvette Mimieux),who, due to a childhood accident, has the mentality of a 10-year old. Once Clara meets a handsome Italian named Fabrizio, played surprisingly well by George Hamilton, her mother becomes increasingly overbearing and pulls out all the stops to keep the two of them apart. However, once Clara's cold-hearted father arrives in Italy, will de Havilland have a change of heart?
Olivia de Havilland saves this film. She brings tremendous grace to the screen and compensates for any of the movie's shortcomings. Also very good is Rosanno Brazzi as Fabrizio's father. Brazzi is shamelessly handsome and de Havilland and Mimieux are beautiful. But where does all of this beauty get you? Not far. The story is limp and full of holes. And you keep wanting it to come to a climax(or at least the end). Interestingly, the ending is a real tear-jerker. I was completely caught off guard by how touching the story's conclusion is. Despite the highlights, however, "Light In The Piazza" is sweet, nice, and incredibly forgettable. But it is a great ad for Italy's Department of Tourism.
All That Heaven Allows (1955)
Douglas Sirk's Visual Extravaganza
At times, the aesthetic appeal of a film is so overwhelming, it surpasses the draw of the big-name stars and plot. And "All That Heaven Allows" is one of those rare examples. Anyone familiar with Douglas Sirk-directed projects knows his grandiose style. And this 1955 masterpiece sums up the best of Sirk drama, with the surface sheen, thundering music, noted stars and biting social commentary. This film, in fact, is so beautiful, that it requires repeated viewings just to be able to take it all in.
Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson re-team from Sirk's inferior "Magnificent Obsession" that was such a hit the year before. In this story, Wyman plays a wealthy widow bound to the claustrophobic confines of her uppity New England town. Her friends and two grown children do their best to convince her to marry Harvey, a stuffy and older neighborhood bachelor. But Wyman wants more. She ends up falling for her younger gardener, played by Hudson. After bonding over the virtues of the silver-tipped spruce, they embark on a love affair which is rejected by the community and Wyman's own children. They feel she is far too upstanding to be with a gardener. The reluctance of those around her to accept this relationship cause Wyman to have to choose between love or respect from her town.
Sirk takes what is a sappy, predictable tale and turns it into a visual feast. This is true eye candy for film buffs. Sirk sets the stage for this story against a heightened background of the reds, golds and yellows of a New England autumn. Every detail from Agnes Moorehead's red hair to sunsets to Wyman's lipstick and even the cars is given the Technicolor treatment to the max. Sirk's knack for visual irony is also heavily present throughout. The film opens with a shot of the town's clocktower with pigeons roosting. The pigeons are divided into two groups - a gaggle of black pigeons representing the townspeople on one end, and on the other are two white pigeons nuzzling, representing Wyman and Hudson and the division they face in this community. This is just for starters. Other stunning examples are when Sirk uses shades of blues and greys and reds to convey character's feelings of sadness or anger. And of course there is the famous television set scene. And through all of this emotion and cotton candy extravaganza is Frank Skinner's lush score that soars in all the right places. "All That Heaven Allows" is a first-rate classic that is a must for fans of Sirk or anyone who are devotees of lush melodramas from the studio heyday.
Joan On-The-Edge....Watch Out!
Joan Crawford was a star. She was not so much an actress, but a star. She didn't have the craft down to an art form, but boy could she command the screen. In fact, often her larger-than-life persona was too big for the limitations of the movie theatre. And this was especially true during her mid-40s to mid-50s heyday - perfectly coiffed hair, exaggerated eyebrows and all. And Joan was never better than when she was a woman in peril ("Autumn Leaves", "Sudden Fear") or a woman-on-the-verge. And this brings us to "Possessed". Not only was Joan-on-the verge in this film. She goes over-the-edge and somersaults all the way down to the bottom with sheer, unadulterated gusto.
In "Possessed", Joan is in love with Van Heflin. Van doesn't love Joan the same way and makes this quite clear from the beginning. However, Joan is not able to let go him that easily. She continues to pine away for him even after being rebuffed over and over. Meanwhile, Joan tries to stay busy as the caretaker for the ill wife of Raymond Massey. When the wife dies, Joan and Raymond come together. He wants to be with her so he is not alone. And she wants to be with him hoping that the marriage will lead her down a normal path and steer her clear from her obsessive ways. Once Van Helfin re-enters the scene as the new love interest of Joan's stepdaughter, her delusions and obsessive tendencies once again come to fruition.
Joan is great as this woman unraveling at the seams. And Geraldine Brooks is very good in her first major film role as the bitchy stepdaughter who eventually warms up to Joan. However, the men are mediocre. They make you wonder why Joan is even tangled up with them at all. This is excellent film noir. The opening with its thunderous classical piano stylings give way to a smart, stylish film which never slows down. Sure there are better movies about mental illness. "The Snake Pit" which stars Olivia De Havilland is a realistic look at the disease. And "Leave Her To Heaven" with Gene Tierney is a true noir classic in which Gene goes even more nutso than Joan could dream of. However, "Possessed" is a great vehicle for Joan at the top of her game and a solid entry into this classic genre.