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A rousing musical study of a domestic family crisis...
11 January 2005
MEET ME IN ST LOUIS is a quaint, lush piece of work from musical director extraordinaire Vincente Minelli. Starring the lovely, young Judy Garland as Esther Smith, the movie traces the story of the Smiths as the two girls of the family try to land marriageable prospects, even as their father's (Leon Ames) decision to move the family out of the picturesque St Louis to New York threatens to tear their dreams asunder.

The movie isn't particularly demanding or especially thought-provoking. In fact, it's little more than a slight family drama dressed up with some songs (albeit lovely ones, including the title song, The Boy Next Door, The Trolley Song, and breakout classic Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas). Garland is fresh and pretty in her role as Esther, and displays some of her surprisingly sharp comedic talent in a scene where, due to a misunderstanding, she (quite physically!) berates her beau John Truett (Tom Drake). At this point in her life and career, Garland's voice is unparalleled, and it's certainly put to good use in this movie. There's little doubt that this movie was plotted around her talents; she is without a doubt the star, although little Margaret O'Brien puts in a valiant, adorable performance as her mischievous sister Tootie, and Mary Astor and Ames do a good job of depicting a relationship that's, in the end, still founded on love. (Their duet 'You And I' is unusually affecting, given that all the other songs in the film are really just for Garland to show her stuff.) You can't be much blamed for not remembering a whole lot of this movie's plot when you're done watching it though. It's so slight as to be a little unremarkable in that respect. The movie, while not objectionable in any way, is certainly one of the lesser entries in the canons of both Minelli and Garland.
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Alice Adams (1935)
Hepburn sparkles as small-town girl in clunky social drama
20 July 2003
ALICE ADAMS, played by the late, great Katharine Hepburn, is quintessentially the beautiful, ambitious small-town girl put upon by circumstance. She wants desperately to be accepted, to be something other than just a poor "nobody"... to hide the fact that she doesn't come from 'money' and 'background'. This is painfully obvious in the first few scenes, when Alice steals out of the nickel-and-dime store but pauses meaningfully before the classy Vogue shopfront: trying to fool the world and possibly herself into thinking that that was where she was shopping all afternoon. She plans and preens for the high-society Palmer party, even though she has to wear her two-year-old dress, pick flowers for her own corsage, and go with her brother Walter (Frank Albertson) as her date. As everyone at the party ignores Alice, save another social reject Frank Dowling (bit-player Grady Sutton), she spots and is attracted to the rich, handsome Arthur Russell (Fred MacMurray, in a woefully underwritten role). Of course, Mr. Russell is meant to marry party hostess Mildred Palmer. This doesn't last long though--he quickly makes clear his attraction to the magnetic, gracefully awkward Alice, and begins to court her with serious intent. But Alice, in her eagerness to hide her social status, papers over their growing love with lies, which leads to a disastrous dinner party at the Adams abode... even as her family slowly disintegrates around them, partly due to Alice's father Virgil (Fred Stone) wanting to earn more money for his daughter.

The film is generally okay--that's the best word for it. Not great, not even really *good*, but just... okay. It's interesting, and hints at something better than it is. But ultimately, it's a social drama that comes off a bit stilted, with very few fully-fledged characters. The key role of Arthur Russell is remarkably free of a personality, and it's even hard to really put a finger on what Arthur finds so enchanting about Alice... aside from her being fortuitously Katharine Hepburn's identical twin. Oh, Alice is an interesting character, certainly. But so much of her being is concentrated on her social ambitions that it leaves you wondering what Arthur sees in her since these are the very things she hides from him when they are together. Alice's brother and father fare better, but even towards the end, Walter becomes little more than a plot device in an ending that appears to want to serve as a muddled sort of come-uppance for Alice. Sutton as bumbling gentleman and his sister's dance partner is actually a stand-out in his... what? Five minutes of screen time? Intriguing though the message of the film may be (social class does not matter and attempts to rise above it will only keep you from your true self and happiness), the blandness of the characters keeps one from really developing sympathy for the characters.

As for Alice, the film almost seems designed to have the audience keep her at arm's length. When she recognises that she is the one who will drive Arthur away, not because of what he has heard about her but because she cannot bear to confront her own reality head on, she keeps pressing on. The one truly brilliant scene in the film is that of the disastrous dinner party--this is possibly the first film I've seen where the atmosphere is one of muffled horror, both on the part of the participants as well as the audience. As Alice flounders through the dinner, chatting constantly, gaily, desperately, I found myself just wanting her to please, please keep quiet. To stop making things worse. It was very effectively staged, and a wry, clever commentary on Alice's inability to just relax and be herself. But by the end of the film, when Alice realises her foolishness and finally lets her guard down, there just isn't time to muster much sympathy for her character. It doesn't help that her suitor is so terminally boring that the love story is charming at best, but certainly does not come anywhere near to the unadulterated magic of the best classic film couples.

However--and this is a pretty darn big however--although this is probably not one of Hepburn's better 1930s films (she starred in a whole run of those, including LITTLE WOMEN, STAGE DOOR, HOLIDAY and BRINGING UP BABY), this is without a doubt one of the best of her 1930s performances. Never was there a lovelier, more quietly desperate wallflower than Hepburn's Alice. Hepburn is not squarely in her prime here--not yet. For that, I point you to her unparalleled, radiant turn in THE PHILADELPHIA STORY. But in ALICE ADAMS, she is all fresh, awkward beauty. Her performance gives a strong hint of what she will be well capable of in the future--an almost intuitive ability to harness those 'mannerisms' of hers, as her critics call them, to serve the performance and flesh out her character... but also to shed them in an instant and truly, genuinely surprise her audience with beautiful understatement and a remarkable lack of histrionics in her performance. (This would only be refined in her future roles with Spencer Tracy.) As Alice floats through the Palmer party, pretending she is in demand and only waiting for her date, or as she chats with a desperate light in her eyes to Arthur at the Adams' dinner party, Hepburn suffuses the role with the kind of quiet, frantic desire which is simply perfect for her character. It is Hepburn that gives ALICE ADAMS the spark of life it needs to keep from being a mediocre, even bad, film. Her performance is the cornerstone and, quite frankly, the most interesting part of the film.

7.5, largely on the basis of Hepburn's performance which gives this film the extra edge it needs.
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Funny Face (1957)
I think the word for this is 'surreal'...
20 April 2003
So you've got two of the most famous, most classic film stars of ANY generation in one film--that would, of course, be Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn. You've also got the whole Gershwin songbook to pick from for your soundtrack. You even have the studio agreeing to ferry the whole company to Paris for location filming. Sounds promising?

Yeah, it did to me too. Quite frankly, it's the script and basic plotline that let the rest of the enterprise down. Hepburn plays Jo Stockton, an intellectual (and we know this because of her less-than-gleaming pageboy cut and the drab shapeless grey potato sack she wears... and still looks fabulous in) who works in a bookstore. She tries very hard to get her shelves back in shape after Dick Avery (Astaire) and his entourage from Quality magazine (including a manic Kay Thompson as lady-in-charge Maggie Prescott) descend upon the store for a photoshoot... only for Dick to leave her floundering and singing "How Long Has This Been Going On?" when he surprises her with a kiss. Still, she clings to her empathicalism ideals and agrees to go to Paris for a Quality fashion shoot so that she can meet the father of empathicalism (her philosophy of choice, of course), Professor Emile Flostre (Michel Auclair). Dick's charming of Jo continues through the fashion shoot, and to the tune of "He Loves And She Loves", he finally realises he loves her back. But as in all romantic comedies, the course of true love never did run smooth, and Jo gets upset when Dick tries to warn her off Professor Flostre ("He's about as interested in your intellect as I am"). The inevitable misunderstanding happens between two lovers when Jo refuses to turn up for the final unveiling, and Dick is set to take a plane back to New York alone.

It's all pretty run-of-the-mill, sentimental pablum, with an attempt to pass poor writing off as profound themes. I never knew Hepburn was a dancer, and she acquits herself rather well in her solo prance through the (literally) underground French cafe. But really--the only word for moments like this is 'surreal'. The impetus for the dance doesn't ring true; the dance itself is technically accomplished but bewilderingly weird... and well, Hepburn may entrance her audience when she's acting, but she's not a magnetic dancer (not the way, say, Cyd Charisse is). That apart, Thompson and Astaire also suffer in their seriously eccentric duet to "Clap Yo' Hands". Partly because Thompson's presence in the film is, to me, utterly mysterious. Of course she's *meant* to be the typical musical sidekick (see O'Connor, Donald, SINGIN' IN THE RAIN), but she falls far short of the mark. A successful sidekick would light the screen up during his or her solo--her "Think Pink" was, frankly, frightening, and she just wasn't very good in the rest of her numbers. (Even her duet with Hepburn, "How To Be Lovely", was running on empty when it started.) As for Astaire--what a shame. His talent was put to waste in this film, even though he still looks pretty spry and his sense of rhythm is as impeccable as ever. But in "Clap Yo' Hands", his dancing passes only for mugging (and sadly, not even intentionally so). Another one for the 'surreal' label--it's evidently TRYING to be witty and avant-garde. And failing miserably. Astaire's own solo number is perfectly executed as usual, and he pulls off his coat-swirling with great style, but one still feels as if some spark in him is still missing. Of all the good material the film had to work with, it's really a shame that it never used any of its three principals well.

That's not to say the film was beyond all hope: It's hard to come out of such a poorly-scripted and thought-out film on your feet, but it's also hard for Astaire and Hepburn to be truly horrifyingly bad... so they're just bland. They do go some way in lending their trademark class to the film, for example in the extremely poorly-lit darkroom courtship dance. It *seems* very good, from what little I can make out through all the murky black and red... it's a scene just crying out for digital re-enhancement so that we can actually see what's going on. But it's still quite nicely-executed. There's also a flash of the magic that this film could have had the two times Jo and Dick walk together behind the little Parisian church, with her in all her wedding finery. When he realises that she's fallen for him, for real, he sweetly serenades her with the song "He Loves And She Loves", and the raft across the river is a very sweet, pretty touch.

Given the pedigree of this film, I really had been expecting a lot more than I actually got. It's not horrible, but nor is it fantastic. Probably one to watch if you're a fan of Astaire's or Hepburn's, but I doubt I'll be pulling this one out for a re-viewing any time soon. 6.5/10
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Could anyone really resist Shirley?
12 February 2003
Were star vehicles in film *created* for Shirley Temple? It certainly seems so--there just couldn't have been another more adorable, endlessly charming, chubby little cherub fit to act in films like POOR LITTLE RICH GIRL.. and actually keep the audience interested and not turned off by all the unabashed saccharine sweetness she exudes (especially true for modern cynical audiences for whom Macaulay Culkin was their superstar child star).

In this film, Temple plays little Barbara Barry, daughter to soap mogul Richard Barry (Michael Whalen). Unfortunately, her father is too busy trying to fight off competition from Peck Soaps to spend much time with her and decides to send her off to school. On the way there, Barbara's nanny meets with an accident and Barbara is left to go off on her own little vacation where she eventually meets the Dolans (Alice Faye & Jack Haley), who work her into their radio act as their talented child who sings and taps like a dream. Barbara charms the Dolans' way into a Peck Soaps radio spot and it is when her father listens to the radio and recognises her singing a song with lyrics special to him that he realises that Barbara never made it to school...

POOR LITTLE RICH GIRL doesn't try to be a great film classic. (Incidentally, it's not one.) It's just a vehicle for Temple to sing, act, and generally be cute. She takes full advantage of it. Her baby voice is high but uncommonly sweet, and she does well with numbers like, "When I'm With You", "Oh My Goodness" and "But Definitely". It doesn't hurt that she's quite a talented little dancer as well, so she looks good when performing with the Dolans (for example, the over-long and rather pointless, but well-performed "Military Man"). My favourite number is when they argue over spinach in "You've Gotta Eat Your Spinach, Baby"--Temple displays just the right degree of righteous indignation as she pleads on behalf of children across the world that spinach isn't necessary. Her cuteness is undeniable as well--it's what made her box-office champion at Fox for several years in a row, and her trademark shock of ringlets, dimples and chubby cheeks are used to excellent effect in this film.

It's a pleasant enough film, moderately engaging for most, with no real shocks but no moments of supreme awfulness either. Good for a night in with the kids--they're sure to identify with all of Barbara's vitriolic protests against eating her greens (they sure are obsessed with spinach in this film!). Fun, but not challenging. 7.5/10
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A fine evening of entertainment!
3 February 2003
Every THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT film has a hook to draw new viewers in--the first film had the sheer novelty of these film giants talking to us about the work they did in that glorious, music-filled period of movie-making, although these legends were reduced to reading off pre-written scripts. The second movie had a more intriguing main attraction: only two narrators, but when those two narrators were Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly actually dancing and singing their way through the gorgeous clips stacked up? Fantastic.

Well, THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT III sure tries its best to live up to its predecessors. Retaining the narration technique used in the same film, albeit with the second generation of MGM musical stars (and only Gene Kelly, sporting enormous glasses!, retained from the first two films), the film's hook is the rare special footage it boasts--from a background tracking shot showing the vast amount of money and manpower invested in just one Eleanor Powell number, through to valuable outtakes such as Debbie Reynolds' 'You Are My Lucky Star' number (cut from SINGIN' IN THE RAIN but available on DVD now) and the Indians number in ANNIE GET YOUR GUN as originally performed by Judy Garland. There are other little treasure nuggets as well, all deleted scenes, such as Judy Garland's song 'Mr Monotony', meant for Easter Parade; and Lena Horne's risky bubble bath chanson filmed for CABIN IN THE SKY. And I do wonder what was so bad about Ava Gardner's lost vocals for SHOWBOAT--I thought she sounded pretty darn good myself!

I personally thought the best thing about this film was the way some of this rare footage was displayed--the split-screen technique was quite the stroke of genius. It was used to simply brilliant effect, for example, in showcasing two versions of a number filmed to the same dubbed vocals, the first starring Joan Crawford (for TWO-FACED WOMAN, in rather astonishingly Technicolour and camp blackface) and the second Cyd Charisse (for THE BANDWAGON). No guessing which number SHOULD have been retained (hint: Charisse is one of the best dancers of any time; Crawford is... not), but it was hilarious watching the very VERY different ways in which the same song was approached in the two different films.

My favourite part of the whole film was a number similarly presented, except this time it pitted Fred Astaire against himself. The sand-enhanced song-and-dance, to the tune 'I'm Just A Dancing Man', was filmed once, but deemed not classy enough. So there are two versions--one of Fred in top hat and tails, the other in overalls. Guess what? Astaire keeps to his own internal rhythm perfectly, and proves in this juxtaposition of the two scenes that he is his own best partner. It's pretty damn amazing, and probably the best and most jaw-dropping part of the film.

The rest of THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT III is pretty run-of-the-mill in comparison. It's not stuff we haven't seen before (we've seen better clips in the previous two films), and there are still the prerequisite sections dedicated to Fred Astaire, Judy Garland and Gene Kelly (oh yes, and Esther Williams, of course). It's a shame that there wasn't a Cyd Charisse segment, or one dedicated to Ann Miller. Considering that both these dancing ladies were presenters during the film, it'd have been nice to recognise the great contribution their long legs made to film musical history. I did enjoy the clip from THE KISSING BANDIT that had Charisse and Miller pitted against each other in a catfight slash dance-off, which was very cool, very intense and great fun to watch. But otherwise, it's all stuff that would work better in the original films.

So while THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT III again succeeds in doing what it sets out to do (leave the audience in a happy glow), it's less accomplished than its predecessors. It's not as engaging to new viewers as either of the first two (showcasing lesser-known numbers and films), and is of only average interest to the hardcore classic film buff. It's a hard line to straddle, and the film manages to do it, don't get me wrong. But well. You can't go wrong with this film, but it's all been done before, and dare I say it...? Done better. 7.5/10
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Now this is *really* entertainment!
24 January 2003
You really would think that no other film musical documentary could possibly top THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT. Come on--it's got personal appearances by a host of stars, and some of the most famous and best-loved clips ever. Including, you know, the singing in the rain bit from SINGIN' IN THE RAIN. Could it get any better?

Well, THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT II certainly tries its darned hardest to be better. Not a single clip is repeated from the first film in the trilogy, and watching this film really makes you realise just how much talent was all focused in the one studio from the 30s through to the 50s. Judy Garland admiring Fred Astaire's Easter bonnet in EASTER PARADE, Garland and Astaire sailing up the avenue as 'A Couple Of Swells' in the same film, Gene Kelly and Garland dueting on FOR ME AND MY GAL, Ann Miller and Bob Fosse in KISS ME KATE, a montage of musicals before colour, a Garland tribute, a Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn love-fest... this film unabashedly brings them all (and much much more) together. There are a couple of clunkers, of course, like Bobby Van hopping like a maniacal rabbit-freak through the town, or the token Esther Williams number. But as you listen to Garland sing 'Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas', or Frank Sinatra croon his way through 'I Fall In Love Too Easily', and see Gene tap dance on skates as naturally as if he had been born with them strapped on... again you're struck with just how special an era this was in film-making, one that unfortunately is lost to the rest of us except through video and DVD.

And I know that this isn't the most popular of opinions, but I think THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT II not only matches but far surpasses the original. There was nothing special about the first film--its only gimmick was the coup it had managed in bringing all these glorious film legends back together to talk about their work. The only caveat was that the incredible personalities behind the stars just couldn't shine through except with some pretty special people... otherwise, they were all reading off a pre-written script. Kind of dampening, really.

THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT II, on the other hand, is a small but successful exercise in creativity: from the title sequence through to Gene Kelly's direction of the new footage between himself and Astaire. It's also a delight for fans of both Astaire and Kelly when these two dancing men, you know... dance together again. Sure, they're not as nimble and quicksilver as they used to be, and some of the lyrics they're singing are--well, the only word for it is corny. But there's no denying that both these men have a kind of screen charisma that doesn't disappear with time, and having them both onscreen together, singing... now that really *is* entertainment as it should be. In the final scene they tell us that the best films have the audience leaving the film with a glow. How right they are.

Quite simply, THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT II is sheer, perfect nostalgia bottled and kept simmering, just waiting for an audience. About the only flaw with it is that it simply couldn't be better than its source material... but that's also what's so good about this film. It makes you want to go out and rent all the others... and still watch it over again just to revel in Astaire and Kelly being onscreen together for the first time since 'The Babbitt and The Bromide' in ZIEGFELD FOLLIES almost three decades ago.

What more could you ask for?
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More stars than there are in heaven...
22 January 2003
There is nothing in this film--or more accurately, documentary--that doesn't do *exactly* what the title promises. It's hard for it to fail, really, considering the material it's working with. THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT! sets out to be a joyous celebration of everything that was fun and sparkly and happy-making in the MGM musical, with the added bonus of having the stars (the BEST, brightest, eternal ones) that were there themselves telling us all about it.

Well, it works. No two words about it. These clips of song-and-dance routines that will stay with us forever were made with one sole purpose--to entertain. And entertain they do. From 'Singin' In The Rain' through to 'Showboat', 'High Society', 'Seven Brides For Seven Brothers'... the film is a catalogue of the best and brightest of MGM musicals, and the stars. Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly deliver tributes to each other, Liza Minelli and Mickey Rooney talk about the magic that was Judy Garland, Donald O'Connor and Debbie Reynolds and Peter Lawford--with a lovely stint by Bing Crosby and a hilarious interlude by James Stewart--bring us through the decades singing and dancing. The clips picked were great, of course. How could you go wrong with segments dedicated to Astaire, Kelly and Garland? The clips were all perfect, with some rarer items popping up like Cary Grant singing 'Did I Remember?' and enough of the classic ones to make one feel like pulling out all the tapes and watching them through again.

There are a couple of things that keep me from giving this documentary top marks. Firstly, a general complaint that really isn't quite fair: seeing these clips just don't compare to watching them in their original films and the proper contexts. I hope that people who watch this film as an introduction to movie musicals actually go out and rent them afterwards, because there really isn't anything more brilliant than SINGIN' IN THE RAIN or ON THE TOWN. Secondly: it would have been much more engaging if the actors invited to speak on the programme hadn't so evidently been reading off pre-written scripts. Some fared better than others, with Taylor being the spaced-out worst, and Stewart acquitting himself admirably with his trademark drawl and charm. Astaire and Kelly are both still immeasurably attractive onscreen, but even they can't quite pull off the image of camaraderie the words they speak impart to their previous relationship. (Not to say that they were rivals--the opposite extreme isn't true either. They were simply professionals, and acquaintances.) It'd have been just that much more fun if these legends had been allowed to speak off the cuff.

All said, if you want to introduce someone to the magic that was the movie musical, there's really no need to go further than THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT!. It's a catalogue of stars and talent, song and dance, and extensive proof that we won't ever see the likes of all this again. More's the pity for those of us who weren't there when film history happened, all to the songs of Berlin and Gershwin and the toe-tapping of Astaire and Kelly...
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Sparkly and fun but with next to no substance... Astaire shines though!
31 December 2002
If you're watching ZIEGFELD FOLLIES expecting a plot of any kind, or even an attempt at one, you'd probably be quite horrifically let down by this film. It's best to approach and accept it for what it is--a crazy filmic patchwork of song and dance and sketches, with some that undoubtedly work better than others, and some that are best left forgotten in the annals of film history. If you *do* bear this in mind, ZIEGFELD FOLLIES is an amusing way to spend a couple of hours as you watch these famous stars, including Fred Astaire, Lucille Ball, Gene Kelly, Judy Garland and many many more trying their utmost best to entertain you. (Admittedly, some with better success than others!)

The film opens with William Powell as Florenz Ziegfeld (reprising his role in THE GREAT ZIEGFELD for what really amounts to a cameo), looking down from heaven as he plans to put up one last, great Ziegfeld follies using the best stars of the day. What immediately follows is the trademark very very pink number, with girls galore floating by on merry-go-round horses, that segues into a rather surreal bit with Lucille Ball (properly attired in a pink fluffy concoction) brandishing a whip (oh dear) against several girls in very sexily-cut black leather body suits. It's an... interesting way to kick the film off, let's leave it at that.

There's no real way to summarise ZIEGFELD FOLLIES except by singling out one's own favourite numbers. And in the forest of boring (Keenan Wynn wastes his talents in a grating and predictable phone sketch), over-the-top (feast your eyes on Esther Williams' water ballet or Kathryn Grayson's operatic warbling as Cyd Charisse dances through bubble mountains) and just plain weird (Judy Garland performing what could well be the first rap in Classic Hollywood--it's not an altogether pretty picture), all of Astaire's contributions to the film stand out.

Astaire is the ostensible star of the film, appearing no less than four times with three gorgeous dance sequences that could certainly count among his personal best. In two of them he's partnered with Lucille Bremer to pleasing effect. "This Heart Of Mine" features Astaire in his rogue persona as he romances Bremer with dance (doesn't he always?) only to steal her jewelry... and for her to steal his heart. The better of their collaborations is the odd but intriguing "Limehouse Blues" with the two of them made up like Chinese (Astaire almost--*almost*--carries it off but ends up looking a little silly). Leaving aside stereotypes, the ballet in Tai Long's fevered dreams is quite stunning, and impeccably staged. I'm still trying to figure out how Astaire and Bremer managed to remember the exact way in which to flip their fans... I hate to think how many times they must have reshot that just to get it all perfectly synchronised!

My favourite number in ZIEGFELD FOLLIES, small surprise, is the one I was looking out for: the penultimate number, "The Babbitt & The Bromide", featuring Astaire and Kelly together on screen, performing the same routine for once in their long illustrious careers. It's a funny little number, with the two fellows they play meeting each other at every stage of their lives, only to have the same inane, mundane conversation. Then follows a small bout of onemanupship as they try to out-dance the other, right into the gates of Heaven. Watching them together is a real treat, because you know these are probably the two best dancer/singer/actors ever committed to film. It's a bit of a shame that their styles don't quite gel: Astaire floats his way through the routine as Kelly pounds the ground as only he can, so their dancing is polished, in perfect time (the timing is absolutely amazing!), but just a little bit off-kilter. It's still the best number in ZIEGFELD FOLLIES though, with Kelly's irrepressible mischief playing against Astaire's ruffled charm.

ZIEGFELD FOLLIES is really just a big, sparkly candy box of a movie--if you bear in mind that a plot was never particularly high on the mind of writers, producers, or directors, and you have a good book by your side to tide you through the (fortunately not too numerous) stretches of boredom, you're set for the evening. Keep the video ready for whenever Astaire breaks onto the screen; that's always a sign of quality. 7/10
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He's a real angel of a guy...
26 December 2002
Reverend Henry Brougham (David Niven) is working very hard to get his cathedral built--in fact, he's so busy speaking to wealthy clients and attending business meetings that he forgets that the one thing he needs most in this world is his wife Julia (Loretta Young) and their daughter Debbie. As Julia feels increasingly hurt at Henry's neglect, who should swoop in but the mysterious, charming Dudley (Cary Grant), telling Henry he's an angel who's there to answer Henry's prayer. Henry can't quite believe this even as Dudley seems to make himself quite at home in Henry's life, charming the wife, the child, the maids... even the taxi driver Sylvester (James Gleason). It's all a bit too much for Henry when Dudley finally brings the cathedral's biggest patron Mrs Hamilton (Gladys Cooper) around to the idea of donating the money to the homeless instead of to the cathedral. Is there anything left of Henry's life that he can salvage? And can he really compete against an angel who has God and little miracles on his side?

THE BISHOP'S WIFE is a sweet little romantic dramedy, perfect for a Christmas night curled up before the TV set. You have to give it credit for packing in a lot more story and real, human characters than you'd expect--it's not stock Christmas heart-tugging schmokum (did I just make up a word?), but a story that's quite genuinely intelligent and real. It's not perfect (what is?), but its presentation of the characters, especially Dudley and Henry, ring true. You can believe that Henry, underneath his bitterness and myopia, really loves his wife. He's just... forgotten his direction in life, is all. Niven does an excellent job with the character, keeping him just this side of prim but making him sympathetic especially when he asks Dudley to put up his fists for Julia.

My favourite secondary characters are Sylvester, played impeccably by Gleason, and the slightly dotty Professor Wutheridge (Monty Woolley). They're actually real *people*. Actually, they even fare better than Julia herself, whom I didn't particularly warm to. I wasn't annoyed by her, but nor did I feel that it was very likely she could get a reverend and an angel to almost come to blows over her. It's a shame that Loretta Young spent most of the film looking pensive, and even in her character's moments of joy--say the ice-skating scene--she simply fails to leap off the screen and run away with the audience's hearts.

Cary Grant has no such problem, however. From the moment he strolls onscreen as Dudley--the guardian angel every girl wished she could have--he has everyone's attention. He makes Dudley just a little bit roguish, a little bit dark. You couldn't really take Grant seriously if he's all decked out in an angel's costume, halo and harp and all, but you *can* imagine him as a sort of very human kind of angel. Which is exactly what Dudley is. It's mostly the smaller moments Grant sneaks into the film and his own performance that make THE BISHOP'S WIFE compelling viewing, and if you came to this film as a Grant fan, you certainly won't leave it disappointed.

All in all, the final film is well-drawn-together, cleverly written and directed, and benefiting from its two powerhouse male leads... Niven cleverly underplaying his part, and Grant suffusing Dudley with the charm and deep, hidden vulnerability he can suggest in all his characters without so much as faking a pained expression. It's definitely a great way to spend a Christmas night, and perhaps any other night. 8/10.
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Holiday Inn (1942)
It's always a wonderful holiday with Bing and Fred!
24 December 2002
It seems as if the laidback, unambitious Jim Hardy (Bing Crosby) is always competing with the edgy, decidely ambitious Ted Hanover (Fred Astaire) for the same girl. Ted dances away with Lila Dixon (Virginia Dale) the night Jim and Lila are supposed to get married, proving that Jim wasn't quite right when he claimed that "I'll Capture Your Heart Singing". Jim decides to set up the Holiday Inn, an inn that serves up a cracking night's entertainment (themed song and all) every time a holiday rolls around--which means that Jim gets to work 15 days out of the year and enjoy his farm and be "Lazy" the rest of the time. It isn't long before Jim meets Linda Mason (Marjorie Reynolds), a girl who sings *and* dances beautifully, and the two of them make Holiday Inn a bigger success than anyone could have expected. Jim and Linda share a quiet "White Christmas", but just as the quiet (and I must say rather repressed) Jim begins to make hopeful overtures to Linda, Ted gets dumped by Lila and, in a haze of drunkenness, turns up at the Holiday Inn... only to bump into Linda and dance with his perfect partner and not even remember her when he wakes up with a hangover the next day. Ted's agent (Walter Abel) keeps trying to find Linda, whose back is the only thing he recognises, even as Jim realises that Ted could be poised to steal his girl again. Rather than explain this to Linda, Jim embarks on some subterfuge, making Linda dance in blackface ("Abraham"), sabotaging their dance routines (the hilarious "I Can't Tell A Lie") and trying to keep Hollywood agents from seeing them together (forcing Ted to perform the spectacular "Let's Say It With Firecrackers"). But Linda discovers Jim's betrayal, and goes off to Hollywood with Ted to make a film based on Jim's Holiday Inn. Can Jim win Linda back, and prove that he really *can* capture her through singing... rather than have her won away by Ted's dancing? Will he, in the end, have "Plenty To Be Thankful For?".

HOLIDAY INN is quite simply the quintessential holiday movie, perfect for any occasion. It's tailored to be that way, after all, with beautiful Irving Berlin songs written for every holiday. My favourites would have to be the heartbreakingly lovely "Be Careful It's My Heart" for Valentine's Day, "Easter Parade" for Easter (later the theme song for a Fred Astaire/Judy Garland vehicle of the same name) and of course, "White Christmas"--that classic, beautiful Christmas serenade by none other than Bing Crosby. Crosby is on fine form and it's not hard to see why his voice alone could win droves of ladies to his side, even if his character as written was too repressed to be particularly attractive.

Undoubted added value would be several of Astaire's numbers... surely some of the most innovative and breathtaking dance sequences he's ever performed, in a lifetime of innovative and breathtaking dance sequences. First off is the number Ted performs with Linda while drunk--whether or not Astaire himself was drunk at the time (it's reputed that he needed 8 shots of bourbon to get the dance perfect), it's a perfectly-timed, subtly humourous number performed with great style. When he dances with Linda again after he's declared that "I Can't Tell A Lie", Astaire is as funny as he's ever been, with his immaculate execution and impeccable timing, as he clowns his way through Crosby's abrupt tempo changes. Then, of course, Astaire literally blows the stage up around him as he joyfully proclaims (and his character claims to improvise!) "Let's Say It With Firecrackers".

The singing and the dancing in HOLIDAY INN, if it isn't obvious by now, is top-notch. What's interesting is that the characters, perhaps unintentionally, display surprising depth and complexity. Not the ladies--Linda and Lila (the latter in particular) are sketchily drawn out and don't have much character of their own. It's Jim and Ted who intrigue: Jim, the guy who can't seem to express his love except through anger or music; Ted, the apparently brash fellow who has never failed to fall for every girl he's danced with and felt no qualms at nicking girls off Jim for his own benefit. Jim's general meanness, with only the very occasional chink in his armour when he opens his mouth to sing (and *that* voice comes out of it), makes him very much an archetypal romantic hero. He's *not* the guy you like on sight, nor is he an everyman--he's lazy, he's stealthy, he doesn't consult the lady when he does things... and yet you're rooting for him in the end. A lot of it comes down to the fact that Jim is being played by Bing Crosby. Crosby pulls off the menacing aspects of Jim wonderfully, and yet manages to give him a sensitive undertone that doesn't alienate the audience completely. You can capture my heart singing anyday, Bing!

As for Fred Astaire--although his role and character are technically secondary, I have to say that this is the first of his films that I've seen where he actually leaps right off the screen and grabs my attention as an actor and not a dancer. Don't get me wrong; he's always been good. But I've always been more interested in seeing him get to the *dancing*, dammit. All the non-sung words in between? Filler. I'm beginning to think I'll have to go back and watch all those other films again, because Astaire was excellent in HOLIDAY INN. It probably helped that he was playing a bit of a scoundrel, devil-may-care and cheeky as all get out. It's the little touches in his performance that make it so good: his annoyance in between hurried dance-steps for "I Can't Tell A Lie", his earnestness when he asks Linda if she really means to leave for Hollywood with him... and well, his ability to hold his own as a cad, sort of, and still play right into the hearts of the audience. He's evidently set up to be the villain of the piece, and yet it feels right when things don't end *completely* against him.

HOLIDAY INN isn't a brilliant film, but it's certainly a very good--probably even great--one, and it's hard to imagine that anyone could watch the ending credits flash on the screen without a smile lingering on your face and Crosby's voice and Astaire's twirls still in your head. Highly recommended for any holiday in the year... and any other time you might need a pick-me-up!
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Undercurrent (1946)
Powerhouses that never quite seem to spark off each other...
15 December 2002
UNDERCURRENT most certainly isn't a typical Katharine Hepburn film. In between films with Spencer Tracy, she tries her hand at a suspense thriller, playing the supposedly dowdy Ann Hamilton, an apparently confirmed spinster who quickly finds herself in love and married to Alan Garroway (Robert Taylor), a rich scientist who is hiding a far greater and darker secret than she could ever have imagined. It isn't long before Ann the gregarious tomboy becomes the cookie-cutter-perfect Mrs Alan Garroway... except for one thing. She just can't seem to shake off that darker, malevolent undercurrent of obsession and hate she senses in her husband. Nor can she ignore the shadow of her brother-in-law Michael Garroway (Robert Mitchum), whom she's never met but has been told so much about. As Alan's apparent normalcy begins to fall away before Ann's eyes, the audience also realises that his deadly obsession with his brother Michael has shifted onto Ann. Now that Alan has staked his possessive claim on her, can Ann free herself from his love for her... and more importantly, her own love for him?

Sounds good? Well, the premise is certainly there. And you've got to admire what must have started out as a far more ambitious project altogether. You've got at least four powerhouses in this film--Hepburn, the Roberts Taylor and Mitchum, and the direction of Vincente Minelli. Unfortunately, UNDERCURRENT only makes an adequate attempt at putting this story together on the screen. There are moments and characters in the film that had so much potential, an example being the mysterious figure of Mother Garroway, who seems as sinister as either of her sons, and yet is quickly forgotten once she seems redundant to the plot. But she isn't, really--the circumstances of her death are just as intriguing as those surrounding Michael's death/disappearance... and yet not picked up on. Nor is the suggestion that Michael is as much Ann's obsession as Ann is Alan's expanded upon.

While Minelli is brilliant in capturing the rhythm and mood of a scene when it comes to colourful MGM musicals, he only manages to create a mediocre level of suspense in this film--there are no heart-pounding moments in UNDERCURRENT; when the lights go out as Ann is stuck in the closet, one only feels annoyed and mildly curious at the completely black screen. There's hardly any pace to it either, since the supposedly climactic ending only comes off rather half-hearted and a bit lame with the less-than-expert editing between Taylor's face and Hepburn's reactions. And yet Minelli is nothing if not an accomplished director; some shots are beautifully dark and capture the ambiguous relationship of Alan and Ann quite well.

Similarly, the performances in this film showcase both its good points and its problems. Starting with the two Roberts: Robert Taylor makes a commendable effort to transform Alan into something remotely human, and almost succeeds. He mostly underplays his part, except for one great scene when he truly goes all out to look deranged, and that really helps. Alan *is* supposed to be perfectly normal... at least on the outside. The trouble with Taylor is that his underplaying isn't as skilful as, for example, Spencer Tracy's--Taylor tends to fade into a monotone, making it just the kind of under-acting performance that would galvanize La Hepburn into *over*-acting to fill up a scene. As for Robert Mitchum: he's hardly onscreen enough to warrant much of a review. Still, considering that he's playing the pivotal role of the mysterious, back-from-the-dead brother of Alan Garroway, Mitchum and his character mostly look stoned beyond caring about what's happening around them. Shame.

As for Ms. Hepburn: although this isn't usually her film genre of choice (film noir is really something one doesn't expect Hepburn's name to ever be associated with), she turns in quite a credible performance. Ann Hamilton starts out as the giddy independent gal in love, a prototype from Hepburn's romantic comedies, but also progresses (or should that be degenerates?) into a woman haunted by fear and obsession--that of her husband's, surely... but possibly her own as well. Even a Hepburn fan must admit that she has a tendency to mug, to overact to fill a perceived void, and unless reined in by a director or co-star, tends to overpower everything around her through sheer force of will (and personality). Mercifully, this only happens in the first few scenes when Ann is still the happy independent girl she is before meeting and marrying Alan--odd that it should happen with a type of character Hepburn has arguably played so many times before. If it hasn't already been made clear, in this film Hepburn is in fact at her best when she plays the scenes with Ann constantly doubting her husband, worrying at his family mystery as a dog would a bone. She portrays the right level of frenzy, of worry, of muted suspicion and unspoken doubt. Her performance on this occasion suggests that there is much more to Hepburn as an actress than simply 'playing herself', although this isn't realised immediately after UNDERCURRENT which, as I gather, flopped rather mightily at the box office. She returns to romantic comedies to lick her wounds for a decade or so, forestalling the revelation of her potential as a dramatic actress to later in her career. The only problems this character gives her are when Ann is called on to be truly helpless--two occasions on which histrionics have been deemed necessary. Both times, when she has to cry but most especially when she has to scream, Hepburn fares rather badly. Other than that, she turns in a performance that does manage to rein the largely ordinary bits of the film together.

All in all, it's rather a shame that UNDERCURRENT doesn't make full use of the considerable talent at its disposal. Minelli and the writers don't see the potential in the script and characters, nor, I suspect, does Minelli know just how to handle Hepburn to draw a more rounded performance from her. UNDERCURRENT isn't a bad piece of film-making or story-telling, but it is far from a great one. Unfortunately, considering the names involved in this production, adequacy is the last thing they should have achieved in making this film.
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The devil is a woman... and what a woman it is!
9 November 2002
THE DEVIL IS A WOMAN really couldn't be a better description of Concha Perez (Marlene Dietrich). Making full use of her considerable feminine wiles, Concha captures hearts everywhere she goes, then breaks them with happy abandon... only to pick up the pieces before she again grounds them to dust under her high-heeled feet. Two of her victims include Don Pasqual (Lionel Atwill) and a young fellow Antonio (Cesar Romero) who really admires Pasqual. As revealed in flashbacks, Concha has made a complete and utter fool of her 'Pasqualito' (several times!), and even though Pasqual warns Antonio off her, she makes short work of the latter's defences and soon has the two friends pitted against each other in a duel to the death.

With the deliberately provocative title (especially considering this film was made in 1935), one would expect a lot more than what one gets in this film--which is, basically, not all that much, considering the talent involved. Firstly, it's not much of a story, and one only struggles through the pretty short running time (80 minutes!) just to look at Dietrich's fabulous costumes and perhaps find out who she ends up with in the film... if anyone. Secondly, the character development (particularly of Concha's character) is rather slight--one cannot help but come to the conclusion that Concha is either *really* the devil (in which case she's a particularly flighty, empty-minded incarnation) or an extremely flighty, empty-minded... well, the word I'm looking for rhymes with 'witch'. (And 'witch' would work fine too.) There's little to no suggestion that Concha is a human being, and perhaps that's von Sternberg's message in the end, since THE DEVIL IS A WOMAN seems to be a hardly-veiled semi-autobiographical description of his own relationship with Dietrich. Whatever the case, it would have been nice to see some of Concha's internal motivation, whatever it might have been.

Arguably the character study comes into play with the character of Pasqual, played masterfully by Atwill. Pasqual certainly is the best character in the piece--he's a previously solid pillar of the community with one fatal flaw: his foolish, obsessive love for Concha. His fatherly advice to Antonio, tainted by jealousy and mingled with genuine concern, as well as his actions during the duel, suggest a fully-drawn portrait of a man. (Whether that man is a conscious or subconscious depiction of von Sternberg himself is another question to be asked, of course.) Romero doesn't have much to do, and makes neither a positive nor a negative impression, while Edward Everett Horton only occasionally displays flashes of subtly underplayed comic genius as Don Paquito.

What then, of Dietrich? One couldn't see this film and not realise that this film was a Dietrich vehicle from start to finish. As in all of her films with von Sternberg, she is lavishly, beautifully costumed (all her meticulous, perfectionist work with Travis Banton always pays off) and looks simply ravishing. His lighting and filming of Dietrich is probably one of the main reasons she had and still has such an impact on film audiences, considering her varying acting ability (she is decidedly not one of those actors whose work is always top-notch, regardless of the quality of the rest of the film) and average--though endlessly intriguing--singing ability. In this, their last film together, the magic of the Dietrich and von Sternberg collaboration is in full force, and so she looks marvellous. It's a bit of a shame that she doesn't play the character in anything other than the one note however--that of a coquettish flirt. A lot could have been made of Concha's character, even as written. Unfortunately, Dietrich doesn't lend Concha an iota of the mystery she brings to other characters such as MOROCCO's Amy Jolly. In fact, Dietrich plays Concha with a manic (albeit radiant) energy that makes me keep expecting her to start twitching or display other signs of hypertension. Is there a reason Dietrich chose to play this way, or von Sternberg directed her to do so? I hope it's only a misguided reading of Concha, and not a reflection on Dietrich's own character and behaviour. She isn't really irritating in this film (thank goodness) and is still eminently watchable... but I can imagine her wearing on the nerves if the film drags on any longer than its mercifully short running time.

Despite all the negativity I've been throwing in the film's general direction, this really isn't to say that THE DEVIL IS A WOMAN is a bad film. Far from it. It's not a great one, certainly, but there are redeeming factors. One is Dietrich's beauty, of course, for she is truly at her prime in this film, and the costumes are flamboyant, eye-catching, and practically worth the price of the ticket. The other is the production values brought into everything--it's quite evident that no expense was spared on bringing the Spanish carnival to life, particularly in the first moment it joyously bursts onto the screen. You really couldn't tell it was all done on a set (another key attribute of von Sternberg's art), and it's such a visual film that one sometimes feels it's exploding with life and colour even though it's filmed in black and white. So it's an interesting film to watch if you're a Dietrich fan, but particularly if you're a fan of Dietrich/von Sternberg collaborations--THE DEVIL IS A WOMAN is a more or less pleasant, undemanding filmic romp, and in the process might throw up a few deeper questions on the fictionality of Concha's character...
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Entertaining thriller but not one of the best
4 November 2002
James Stewart is THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, Dr. Benjamin McKenna. He, along with his famous wife Jo Conway (Doris Day) and son Hank (Christopher Olsen), is unwittingly embroiled in a dark, twisting conspiracy plot when he meets mysterious Frenchman Louis Bernard (Daniel Gelin) while on stopover in Marrakech. Why does Bernard tell him a secret of epic proportions just as Bernard is fatally stabbed in the back? And who exactly are the deceptively benign Draytons (played by Bernard Miles and Brenda de Banzie), and what is their agenda in all this? Left with the dying words of a man they only met the day before, Ben and Jo must find their son before both Hank and the target of the conspiracy plot are killed.

This makes for a very entertaining film. More suspense than one would expect is injected into the proceedings, largely due, one feels, to the clever direction and the excellent scoring rather than the script or the characters. Not that everyone concerned doesn't try very hard. James Stewart never gives more than his best, which is quite a formidable best, and it isn't really his fault that Ben McKenna doesn't come off as a particularly three-dimensional character. In fact, Ben seems rather a chauvinist, despite the comfortable way in which Ben and Jo act around each other (which is more likely due to a rapport between Stewart and Day than between their characters). There's nothing about *Ben* that makes the audience empathise with him and want him to succeed, aside from the rather messy situation he seems to have found himself in. It's hard to feel pity or warmth for a character that isn't much more alive than Stewart can force it to be, and that's rather a shame. (Contrast this with Cary Grant's portrayal of Roger Thornhill in NORTH BY NORTHWEST--a similar idea of a man who knows nothing and is forced into a life of intrigue against his will. Grant's character is written with real depth, and Grant plays him marvellously. Stewart doesn't have the same luxury of a well-written character to work from; most of the time one doesn't sense desperation in Ben, but doggedness... it's hard to sympathise with a character whose love for his son--or wife, for that matter--never comes through very well.) The same goes for Doris Day's Jo Conway-McKenna. You can tell that she's trying her level best at what is, for her, a rare dramatic role. She almost pulls it off at times, particularly in the scene where Ben gives Jo sedatives before breaking the news to her about their son's kidnapping. Day really evokes Jo's anger at Ben giving her drugs to calm her down, mixed with the desperation she feels at her son's disappearance. As with her husband Ben, one doesn't feel sympathy towards her per se, but more towards her situation. It's quite a shame to think one could have really been done with this film if the two main characters had had a genuine spark of life in them, something more than the instant affability Stewart lends all his characters, or the singing voice Day gives hers.

It probably goes without saying that the only person who could remake a Hitchcock film without getting a lot of flak is Hitchcock himself. I've not seen the 1934 black-and-white original, but Hitchcock does manage to create the suspense one expects to find in his films with a minimum of fuss. It's not quite on the level of the heart-racing NORTH BY NORTHWEST, nor does it have the sexy undercurrents pulsing through NOTORIOUS, but THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH does have its thrilling moments and keeps up a brisk pace through its 2-hour running time. There are some implausibilities required to bring the film to a close (Jo singing 'Que Sera Sera' loud enough for it to reverberate through an entire *mansion*, for one), and a few oddly-directed scenes, but on the whole Hitch does his best by this film. What also works in its favour is the authenticity that went into the scenes set in Marrakech. Whether or not it was filmed on location, it at least feels and appears more or less right.

All in all, a good film and an entertaining one, but it's not as edgy and suspense-filled as NOTORIOUS, or as amusing and funny as NORTH BY NORTHWEST. The comparisons are only made to indicate what THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH is--a competent exercise in film-making by all concerned, but not the best work turned in by any of them. You probably won't be bored watching this film, but it's highly likely you won't have fallen in love with it by the time you've seen it either. 7.5/10
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Charade (1963)
Check disbelief at the door for one of the sexiest spy (agent!) thrillers ever...
25 October 2002
Upon returning to Paris from a ski vacation, Regina Lampert (Audrey Hepburn) finds herself newly widowed, and Charlie, the husband she never really knew, hiding a secret from her the darkness and magnitude of which she never could have fathomed. With information provided by Hamilton Bartholomew (Walter Matthau) of the American Embassy, Reggie's hunt for that elusive quarter of a million dollars begins... with the dubious help of the man she meets (and instinctively trusts) in the mountains, Peter Joshua (Cary Grant), and the dogged pursuit of Charlie's partners in crime who want a cut of the money, Tex (James Coburn), Scobie (George Kennedy), and Gideon (Ned Glass). The illicit deal made in the past between Charlie and his army buddies tangles with the present as, one after another, the people after the money keep coming up empty-handed... and dead. Can Reggie's one friend, the man whose name she can never be sure of, be trusted? Or, in the end, is he the one who is ruthlessly eliminating everyone until there's no one else to share the money with? Speaking of which, where *is* the money that Charlie was killed for? Are they all hunting for something that just can't be found?

You'll have to find these answers--and such answers they are!--by watching CHARADE yourself. What a treat you'll be letting yourself in for... this in spite of the fact that the film starts out a little slowly, and never quite dispels the feeling that everything one sees and hears as part of the audience is all too well-manufactured. A lot of the banter between Reggie and Peter, for example, seems just a little *too* glib; all the coincidences and plot twists (though they make for simply marvellous movie-watching!) just this side of too perfect. It all fits perfectly during the film, but you do come away from it wondering if you--and Reggie!--have been cheated just once too many times.

However, that's just about the only caveat one can find about the extent to which you'll enjoy watching this film. Quite frankly, leave disbelief behind and you'll find yourself just enjoying the ride. Revel in the dialogue (crisp and stylish in the best tradition of romantic comedy), the settings (it's a nice picture of Paris, the ideal backdrop for high espionage and deep romance), and the cleverness of the script. The plot really is quite exceptional, though a bit contrived, and some of the twists--for there are several!--really leave you gasping.

If for nothing else, this film is as good as any to serve as an introduction to Cary Grant. He's suave, just a little bit roguish, smiles that heartbreaking smile and tosses off those lines so naturally you'd wish he *had* become the original (James) Bond. From the absolutely priceless orange-game scene, through to his shower fully-clothed for Reggie's sake, Grant displays that impeccable and under-rated comedic timing he was born with... just as he shows his talent for darker drama (mined so successfully by Hitchcock in NOTORIOUS, another top-notch spy thriller) in the final scenes of this film.

Audrey Hepburn, as usual, has that innate ability to make the audience fall in love with her over the course of a film--I must say that I hadn't warmed to her at first, thinking her too detached for the film. I don't mean her character, who is *meant* to be a little 'nuts' and detachedly asks for food (repeatedly!) and cigarettes every time she's faced with another stunning revelation. Hepburn herself seemed a bit removed from the action going on in the film, a little oblivious to the other actors around her. Fortunately this sense of distancing didn't last too long--by the time Reggie and Peter stared into each other's eyes while passing oranges under their chins (it's a lot sexier than it sounds, trust me), you could tell that Hepburn was in quite formidable control of her role. I couldn't let this review go by without mentioning the delicious telephone scene in CHARADE, surely a nod to a similar, electrically-charged scene in NOTORIOUS between Grant and Ingrid Bergman. It works, of course, just as one can believe Reggie chasing after Peter despite the discrepancy in their ages.

With a great cast, a great script and excellent direction by Stanley Donen (which might explain the Gene Kelly references--one explicit and another subtler--in the film), one really wonders why anyone would even consider remaking CHARADE (i.e. save yourself the trouble of seeing 'The Truth About Charlie', and watch this instead). Grant already is irreplaceable. Add in the other elements of this film--suspense, comedy, drama, the luminous Audrey Hepburn--and CHARADE really is untouchable. 8.5/10
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Sinatra & Kelly--They're 'Strictly USA!'
23 October 2002
In TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME, Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly play Dennis Ryan and Eddie O'Brien, two best pals who work the vaudeville circuit during the baseball off-season, but play with the Wolves club in the summer, together with their peripheral sidekick Nat Goldberg (Jules Munshin). The arrival of their new manager, however, Ms K.C. (Katherine Catherine, if you please!) Higgins (Esther Williams), annoys the heck out of man-about-town Eddie but charms the socks off girl-shy Denny. It's pretty evident before long, however, that Katherine and Denny are falling in love, just as the oh-so-timid Shirley Delwyn (Betty Garrett) sets her sights on skinny runt Denny and refuses to take no for an answer until he gives in to her. But before the guys can really get their girls, Eddie becomes embroiled in a scam perpetuated by Joe Lorgan (played by everyone's favourite grouch/bad guy Edward Arnold), who wants to take the surewin Wolves out so that he can win big by betting against them. Can Denny still get out there and play in the final match to win the pennant for Ms Higgins' Wolves?

The answer, of course, isn't important (although it's pretty obvious!), but it's rousingly given, with a healthy dose of song and dance. The Sinatra/Kelly duo are on fine, seasoned form in the universally-known title song--perhaps their best song-and-dance collaboration out of all the three films, since one gets the distinct impression in the other numbers that Kelly is playing down to Sinatra's rather limited dancing abilities. In this number, one gets no such feeling--Sinatra more than holds his own and is almost as light on his feet as Kelly (a formidable feat for an amateur!). There's also the mandatory 'boasting about girls' number, 'Yes Indeed', and the triple act with Munshin ('O'Brien To Ryan To Goldberg') that gives a hint of why Munshin is retained for a beefed-up role in the Sinatra/Kelly film to follow this one, ON THE TOWN. We even get a Sinatra solo, with him crooning 'She's The Right Girl For Me' to Williams; and a Kelly dance number to 'It's The Hat My Dear Old Father Wore On St Patrick's Day'. However entertaining the above numbers are, honours for Best Number must be unreservedly reserved for Betty Garrett's earnest rendition of 'It's Fate, Baby'--her energy simply bounces off the screen as her Shirley chases Sinatra's Denny up, down and around the bleachers. The movements are simple but tightly-choreographed, and with Garrett's enthusiasm firing the whole enterprise, becomes the most memorable musical man-chase in film history. It's pretty obvious why Garrett was asked to reprise her man-hungry duties in ON THE TOWN--she's just so damn good at it! If possible, try also to watch the deleted musical out-takes, Kelly and Williams' 'Baby Doll' (one quickly understands why it was cut), and Sinatra's serenading of Garrett 'Boys and Girls Like You And Me'. Even though the right call was made in cutting them, they're both still great fun to watch.

Just about the only problem I can find with TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME, however, is the fact that, having seen all the Sinatra/Kelly collaborations, one gets the distinct feeling that this film is just filler for what is yet to come. It even inherits the basic plot of ANCHORS AWEIGH, having the innocent Sinatra character fall for a girl obviously meant for the worldly Kelly character before finding his own brassy gal. (This is finally discarded in ON THE TOWN, although the innocence of Sinatra's character and the worldliness of Kelly's character remain.) There are no surefire hits here--Sinatra's ballads don't compare to his songs 'I Fall In Love Too Easily' and 'Why Does The Sun Set?' in ANCHORS AWEIGH, or 'You're Awful' in ON THE TOWN. Similarly, however hard Kelly tries, his solo dance number just doesn't have that same magic he lends to most of his dances. A lot of the time it's Kelly's innovative dance sequences that rise above the film in which they're contained (see COVER GIRL, ANCHORS AWEIGH, etc. etc.); in this one, it seems submerged. It's good, but not amazing; amusing, but not particularly inventive. TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME is like the shift back to neutral gear between ANCHORS AWEIGH and ON THE TOWN--a break between the innovation and joy that suffuses the other two projects (even though the final effect is somewhat botched in ANCHORS AWEIGH). In other words, it's good enough entertainment, and certainly a film I wouldn't mind watching again. But with the calibre of talent present in this film, from Kelly to Sinatra to Garrett to Stanley Donen and Betty Comden and Adolph Green, you'd expect something... well, *better*. (Which you *do* get... a year later, in ON THE TOWN.)

As a standalone film, without the perspective of its being a test run for the next vehicle in the Sinatra/Kelly oeuvre, TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME is undeniably pleasant entertainment... and unabashedly patriotic at that. It celebrates two of the greatest, truly American institutions--vaudeville and baseball. And as the song 'Strictly USA' proudly proclaims, that's something well worth celebrating--along with its two lead actors, both themselves American treasures and legends. In fact, watch the film for them. They're both as charming and funny as ever, with Sinatra taking pratfalls in Denny's misguided belief that he's a tough guy, and Kelly hamming it up a lot more than usual, but still giving off that charm that's simply unique to him. The plot's not much, and even the songs and dances aren't all that memorable (excepting Garrett's 'It's Fate, Baby' and the final tongue-in-cheek reprise of 'Strictly USA'), but it's still colourful, vibrant, and funny... the way all MGM musicals are. It's a fun night out at the movies, with a few old friends you know and love... you couldn't really ask for more than that!
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Camelot (1967)
A bit muddled in the execution, but saved by the marvellous music!
22 October 2002
CAMELOT is, of course, the story of King Arthur (Richard Harris), his Queen, Guenevere (Vanessa Redgrave), and Sir Lancelot (Franco Nero), the best and brightest knight of Arthur's treasured Round Table. To Arthur's infinite sorrow, his queen and love falls hard--irrevocably so--for his friend and ally, and he is forced to choose between indulging the hatred that overwhelms him as a man, and the nobility that accompanies his stature as a king. Choosing the latter, Arthur must live with the whispers of 'poison in the court' as the other knights bristle at Lancelot's stolen kisses with Guenevere. All this while the king clings to his flame of hope, the idea of establishing a civil court to establish law and order where once there was violence and bloodshed. When Arthur's illegitimate son Mordred (David Hemmings) devises a plan to get Arthur out of the castle and the knights into Guenevere's room to trap the clandestine lovers, 'Jenny' and 'Lance' are found out... even as they're pledging to part in order to honour their love and loyalty to Arthur. The eventual demise of each of the three main characters, which I'm emphatically *not* going to reveal but you might suspect anyway if you know any Arthurian folklore, is heartrending and quite well played-out.

'Tis a tale rich in ironies, this tale of Camelot, and in the end a story about two ideas--that of an ideal i.e. the peaceful lawful Camelot as envisioned by Arthur, and that of love. Neither are 'real' in the sense of being tangible, can't be seen or felt or heard, and yet both are worth fighting to the death for. They can bring a king to his knees, but they can also make heroes of men. It's a shame that the film doesn't do handle this too well; whenever it sets out to do so, it becomes a tad overdone. Take for example the quandary Arthur finds himself in--should he turn a blind eye to the adulterous pair's trysts? Arthur's dilemma is expressed by a soliloquy superbly delivered by Harris. It's a great piece of acting and a solid writing job--it's just not something that works on film, even in a musical (when one is more inclined to accepting an actor directly addressing or serenading the camera than with other film genres). The point is made *too* overtly, and the film and characters suffer as a result.

It probably isn't helped by the fact that the majority of the lush, beautiful shots in the film (see the 'Lusty Month Of May' number) are marred by some equally jarring shots that seem completely out of place, or just wrong. During the montage of shots to Nero's solo 'If Ever I Would Leave You', there is one sequence in which Guenevere enters Lancelot's room--it would make a perfectly lovely shot if done in an understated fashion, making the point that it is Guenevere who comes to Lancelot and not (always) the other way around. Unfortunately, in an attempt to create 'romance' (something that doesn't need overt manufacturing if the actors are capable of generating that atmosphere sans special effects), both actors are subjected to a wind machine, and end up looking like the melodramatic lover-idiots of a Mills & Boon dramatisation. Arthur's chat with young Tom as well is great in the conception, and suffers in the execution--something is lacking from that scene (I think the ability to underact by Gary Marsh as the boy), and it spoils what would otherwise be a great message and ending. (The too many 'Run, boy, run!'s also wears on the nerves after a while.) CAMELOT is caught uncomfortably between being a stage production and a film, and that shows in how it rigidly keeps to the 'Overture/Intermission/Entr'Acte/Ending Music' structure... while *annoucing* it with captions!

Whatever problems there might be with direction and execution, however, there can be no faulting of the score and songs written with the distinctive stamp of songwriting team Lerner and Loewe. Every song has its own charm, but I particularly enjoyed 'Camelot' (a sweet and fitting theme tune for the love between Arthur and Guenevere, and Arthur and his kingdom); 'Then You May Take Me To The Fair' (Guenevere's deviousness put to glorious song); and 'If Ever I Would Love You' (with smashing lyrics but spoilt somewhat by Nero). The actors, or at least the two leads Harris and Redgrave, do a creditable job by these songs... Harris in particular. He is consummately King Arthur, the vulnerable man and the noble king, and he brings the character off (dodgy blue eyeshadow or no!). The role of Guenevere is a tough one to make sympathetic, and even now I don't know whether I like her... but I do know that Redgrave did as good a job as can be expected with a woman who falls *instantly*( in love with her husband's best friend after trying her best to get him killed in (not one but three!) jousts. Neither Harris nor Redgrave are singers by profession, and it's rather a shame that Julie Andrews (who created the role of Guenevere on Broadway) didn't reprise her role for the film, but neither of them hinder the beauty of the Lerner/Loewe music. I'm afraid the same can't be said of Nero, whom I thought annoying as the puffed-up prat Lancelot. Watch and you'll notice that he emotes, in between a bad attempt at a French accent, by flaring his nostrils. Hardly attractive, especially in close-up!

CAMELOT is far from a perfect film or even a perfect musical. (That adjective can probably be applied only to the score, and that has nothing specifically to do with the film.) It would have been interesting to see it onstage, or to have the main Broadway cast reprise their roles in this version--yet the film *does* have its own quaint charm. The costumes are breathtaking, for certain, and Harris really works very very hard at trying to make the film one worth seeing. For his performance, despite the rest of the film and the uneven writing for his character, it almost *is* worth it. And I cannot deny that the ending still made me cry. So don't take it from me alone that CAMELOT isn't a great film--there *are* many things about it to like. But be warned that liking it, as I do, doesn't translate into loving it. 7.5/10
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Morocco (1930)
Dietrich, given us by von Sternberg--could it get better than this?
20 October 2002
Warning: Spoilers
MOROCCO is the second of seven collaborations between Marlene Dietrich and the director that discovered her and probably photographed her the best, Josef von Sternberg. In fact, it is Dietrich's first English-language film, and she stars in it as the world-weary, man-weary French entertainer Amy Jolly. She's never had a reason to trust a man, much less love one, until she sees Legionnaire Tom Brown (Gary Cooper) defend her honour the first time she arrives onstage--this is surely a classic movie moment, Marlene Dietrich arriving in full top hat and tails. Tom is just as cynical about women as Amy is about men, but from their first encounter over the price of an apple, you know that these two have met the one person of the opposite sex who could change everything. Much as he loves her, however, Tom believes that Monsieur La Bessiere (Adolphe Menjou) could bring Amy more happiness and stability through his marriage proposal... so he leaves, to march off with the Foreign Legion.

To be frank, the story really isn't all that important--it's pretty one-note, with the sole amusement being provided by the zings Amy and Tom trade each time they meet. That's a nice touch, the slightly wry way in which they both approach the budding relationship, both because they've been hurt before, and because there's also no conventional way for the two of them to stay together. This is brought out very nicely by the ending of the film.

Whatever other reason you might have to watch MOROCCO, there's no denying that Marlene Dietrich is very clearly the star of the entire enterprise. The way von Sternberg photographs and captures her makes her appear mysterious, beautiful and yet achingly vulnerable at the same time. You couldn't talk about Dietrich in this film without also mentioning von Sternberg in the same breath, since she is so very evidently portrayed in the way he sees her at her best. Some shots of Dietrich, more than others, are breathtaking. Even if her character isn't particularly well-fleshed-out and her lines not too great (von Sternberg fed her most of her lines during filming, partly because that's how he works and partly because Dietrich apparently knew very little English), Amy/Dietrich--both creations of the same directorial genius--is a fine work of art. Whether it's Dietrich creating a furore of gasps when she emerges in her tux, or when she plants a firm kiss on another lady's mouth (this film was made in *1930*!), she is a simply captivating screen presence--Cooper seems bland in his role in comparison, and Menjou is adequate but certainly doesn't steal the picture. The sound for the whole film isn't that great, and Dietrich does have to sing over the noise of the crowd so you really have to struggle to make out what she's saying... but just looking at her really is enough in this film.

Watch this film for Dietrich, the meticulously-created Moroccan atmosphere (von Sternberg excels at this, and evidently took great pains to make it as authentic as possible--to the detriment of plot and character), the sweet romance with a nice final twist... but mostly for Dietrich. She makes it all worth it. 7.5/10.
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Pot o' Gold (1941)
One of the most charming 'pot of gold's you could hope to find at the end of a rainbow!
18 October 2002
Warning: Spoilers
James Hamilton Haskel (James Stewart) is a small-town kind of guy who'd much rather run his dad's music store and let kids practise the piano and trumpet in his shop than work for the Haskel health food business run by his Uncle Charley (Charles Winninger). Unfortunately, he's also got to eat, so he finally accepts Uncle Charley's offer of a chance to get to know the business better... only to turn up in town and immediately befriend the very musical McCorkle family, including Ma (Mary Gordon), who cooks for everyone in the band and takes care of them like a big mother hen; and Molly (Paulette Goddard). The McCorkles and Horace Heidt's band play swing music on the roof just next to the Haskel factory, which drives poor music-hating Uncle Charley completely batty. Ma McCorkle and Uncle Charley are bitter rivals, but the oblivious younger generation (well, Molly at least doesn't know that Jimmy is the Haskel Health Food heir) quickly become friends and (of course!) fall in love, thanks to a tomato misthrown, a doughnut shared and a harmonica rendition of 'Pete The Piper'. Jimmy decides to use his uncle's radio show, the Haskel Happiness Hour, to promote Molly and Horace Heidt's band, and hopefully heal the Haskel-McCorkle rift. This results in a hilarious sequence in which Jimmy has to convince Uncle Charley that the latter has gone crazy and hears all kinds of music through the vents and floors, on the phone and sees girls dancing in the garden... all to get him out of town. When Molly finally *does* find out that Jimmy is a Haskel though, she angrily announces on the air that the Haskel Happiness Hour would be giving away a thousand dollars every week--which infuriates Uncle Charley (listening in from Canada) and gets Jimmy in trouble... how to give the money away without making it a lottery? And how are the now bickering twosome going to get back together again?

A musical is really the last type of movie you'd figure James Stewart to be in, but that's exactly what POT O'GOLD is... and oddly enough, it doesn't really suffer for it. All the songs, including the opening 'Hi Cy, What's Cookin'?', 'Pete The Piper' and 'Broadway Caballero' (with great vocals by Goddard), are toe-tappingly catchy and cute, and actually function quite successfully as an extension of the plot. I also really like the cutlery-banging number performed to initiate Jimmy into the McCorkle Clan, but am especially partial towards the rousing jailhouse singsong 'Johnny Toots His Horn'... which not only features Jimmy Haskel playing the harmonica, but also Jimmy Stewart singing! And he doesn't sound bad at all--it was probably a good choice to limit his singing voice to the one song, and use a song that fit his limited range well. Instead of appearing a fool, he comes off well, and one can actually believe that Jimmy Haskel's a music-loving, musical guy.

My *favourite* number, however, is Molly's dream sequence to the sweet ballad, 'Do You Believe In Fairy Tales?'. As Molly drifts off to sleep and awakens to find herself dressed as a princess, she cranes her neck eagerly to look for her knight in shining armour, riding a white steed... and there he is! Or is he? In a self-consciously anti-climactic (and therefore truly hilarious) moment, Jimmy Haskel saunters in as... Jimmy Haskel. Same suit, same hat, same harmonica. He serenades her in Horace Heidt's borrowed voice, then twitches noticeably when she 'romantically' empties a bucket of flowers over his head. The scene is written and executed with tongue planted very firmly in cheek, satirising the romantic dreams of a young girl, while making a sweet but very subtle point that Molly loves Jimmy exactly as he already is. He doesn't need to be a knight in shining armour; he's just Jimmy. It's a point she forgets later (and finally learns again) when she discovers his last name is Haskel. It's a great song, a great scene, and Stewart is incredibly... well, the only word for him is 'cute'.

That goes for pretty much the entire film--his character has, of course, the typical Stewart soft side, this time manifested in his love of music and his ability to connect with and touch others through its language. But there's a harder edge in Jimmy Haskel too, manifested by his willingness to pull the wool over his poor uncle's eyes, or when he's sniping rudely at Molly after they've 'broken up' (before ever really getting together!). Stewart ultimately creates a very real character, a sweet guy who isn't perfect, who isn't averse to a lie now and then, and more than willing to give as good as he gets. (It's Molly who starts the bickering: thumping him on the head and pulling him down the stairs to wake him up, spraying him with seltzer water--he only returns the final favour.) James Hamilton Haskel is no patsy, and no paragon of virtue... and Stewart gives him the charm and the aw-shucks demeanour Haskel needs to be plausibly taken into the bosom of the McCorkle family as he so quickly is.

The rest of the cast is excellent as well, considering how much this really is Stewart's film (from screen time to performance)--Winninger is fantastic as CJ Haskel, the unreasonable tycoon whose hatred of music sets him up as the villain of the piece... it's a shame that he suddenly seems to be transformed into a new man at the end, though that could be explained by the lucrative prospects in the revamped radio show. Gordon makes a great Ma McCorkle, bustling, cheery, and most importantly, not annoying--however saintly and Irish she gets. Her raucous laughter is probably the key to remaining likable! Goddard also puts up a fine show: she's great when she's onscreen, and has a really good singing voice as well.

POT O'GOLD really is an excellent film--not a classic, but excellent. It may not be everyone's cup of tea... but I personally don't think the film is uneven. It's meant to be funny, to be a little madcap, to be sweet. It's a romantic comedy told in musical form, just like SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, though certainly not on its level. In the end, it's just a film that makes you smile (from beginning to end), that stars James Stewart in his prime (which is very prime indeed), and that even sings to you--a language everyone can understand. In fact, its musical sequences are inventive, charming, and even genius in one case. If you're a fan of Stewart, this is definitely a film you'll want to watch--you'll be as pleasantly surprised as I was on discovering the charm of POT O'GOLD!
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Big stars, small cameos, good film...
17 October 2002
STAGE DOOR CANTEEN, of course, is set during WWII, and its main locale is the canteen of the film's title that is run and staffed by stars of the cinema and stage. The New York version of the Hollywood Canteen set up on the West Coast by Bette Davis and others, the Stage Door Canteen welcomes the boys in uniform when they're on leave, giving them a little comfort, a little entertainment, a little taste of home. Although STAGE DOOR CANTEEN really is about the big-name entertainment involved (with cameos by top-billed stars like Katharine Hepburn, Harpo Marx and Ray Bolger among others), it tries also to tell a heartwarming tale of the bravery of the boys who must fight, if necessary to the death, so that the rest of their country might live in peace. The loyal and brave Dakota (William Terry) stumbles into love with the initially selfish, haughty Eileen (Cheryl Walker); young California (Lon McAllister) keeps missing out on his first kiss with Jean (Marjorie Riordan) and Tex (Sunset Carson) wants to go back west with Ella Sue (Margaret Early) when the fighting's done. It all revolves around the idea of the boys having something--someone--to fight for overseas, someone to write home to, someone to come home to.

In that sense, the film succeeds; I was actually rather moved by the final words each boy left for his girl at the end of the film. That doesn't mean the film isn't a little saccharine though; it *has* to be--it was meant to be a morale booster during the 1940s (including, as it does, songs about shooting down Japanese planes and marching into Berlin). It rides on the strong wave of American patriotism at the time, reflecting and hoping to add to it, and even hints at an internationalism unheard of these days (the crowd cheers for Russian soldiers and carries Chinese pilots on their shoulders in tribute to their bravery). If you strip it of these time-bound scenes, however, the message and the courage remains, which is what makes STAGE DOOR CANTEEN still a film that one can enjoyably sit through not just for the glamorous star cameos. It's sweet when California keeps trying to kiss Jean and missing out (including an incredibly frustrating final attempt when someone cuts in on them when they're dancing!), and you feel just as dejected as Eileen must when she realises that Dakota *isn't* coming back this time. (Let us, for now, leave aside the fact that I can't seem to find a redeeming quality in Eileen beyond the fact that she's willing to break the canteen rules to make it up to Dakota for being mean to him at first.)

The big-name entertainment in STAGE DOOR CANTEEN really can't be faulted: there are appearances by the orchestras of Benny Goodman, Xavier Cugat and Count Basie (to name just a few!); cameos by Merle Oberon, Katharine Cornell and Alan Mowbray; and a pretty literal striptease that ends way too soon for the boys' liking by Gypsy Rose Lee. My favourite numbers would be 'We Mustn't Say Goodbye' and 'Don't Worry Island', alongside Yehudi Menuhin's beautiful rendition of 'Ave Maria' (unfortunately given under some quite terrible lighting) and the very funny opening act with Edgar Bergen and Charlie. As, essentially, the final act, Hepburn gives her few words great weight and is as striking as ever with her five minutes (tops!) of screen time.

All in all, STAGE DOOR CANTEEN is great fun to watch. It'd be even better fun if one knew all of the people making cameos in it--I could only half-guess at most of them, and I'm sure I missed many many others. A sweet, patriotic film made with a very definite purpose, and if you make allowances for that purpose, it's easy to accept the overdoing of the message, and appreciate the film for what it is... good, clean entertainment!
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Kiss Me Kate (1953)
What An Absolutely 'Wunderbar' Way to 'Brush Up Your Shakespeare'!
15 October 2002
KISS ME KATE is quite easily one of the two most famous musical 'adaptations' of Shakespeare for the stage and screen (the other being WEST SIDE STORY). Focusing on a theatre company putting up a musical version of 'The Taming of The Shrew', the film traces the main relationship between director/leading man Fred Graham (Howard Keel) and his ex-wife/leading lady Lilli Vanessi (Kathryn Grayson) as they respectively portray the Shakespearean roles of Petruchio and Katherine (the Shrew to be tamed, of course!). Throw in a deliciously naughty second lead actress Lois Lane (Ann Miller) and her gambling-addict beau Bill Calhoun (Tommy Rall), as well as a couple of gangsters (played brilliantly by Keenan Wynn and James Whitmore) mistakenly chasing after Fred 'sweetie' for Bill's latest debt, and opening night proves to be quite a big event, both onstage and off. Can the feuding Fred and Lilli, still in love with each other despite Fred's ego and Lilli's fiance, get their act together before the curtain goes down on the play?

I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed this film... yes, even having already seen the London stage version of the musical earlier this year. There are, of course, personal reasons that bias me towards the film and to perhaps set out watching it with every intention of liking it (which surely helps!). First of all, I have no qualms in admitting I'm probably the biggest Ann Miller fan there is, and there's no doubting also that KISS ME KATE is possibly the best showcase of her talents and beauty there is. Secondly, I've been listening to the film soundtrack on constant repeat for months now, influenced by an interest kindled by the musical and discovering Miller. It helps that I can sing along to most of the songs and know the lyrics--no struggling to figure out what Grayson is singing in her operatic voice, and no attempting to acclimatise to new tunes. I already know the Cole Porter music, from lyrics to tune to score, and love it. So yes, perhaps I *was* predisposed to loving this film--how could I *not*, particularly with Miller dancing and singing my favourite songs in the film?

Still, I firmly believe that there's a lot more to recommend KISS ME KATE than the ravings of a fangirl. Cole Porter really outdoes himself here with a toe-tappingly catchy score: even songs like 'I've Come To Wive It Wealthily In Padua' and 'We Open In Venice' have the same sparkling lyrics, the same ability to catch the ear as the better-known 'Wunderbar' and 'From This Moment On'. Then there's the jazz-influenced 'Too Darn Hot' and the sweet ballad 'Why Can't You Behave?'. I honestly believe that Porter's score for KISS ME KATE is better than the one he wrote for HIGH SOCIETY, because he makes fine use of reprisals and bridges. Take for example Rall singing a short reprisal of Miller's 'Why Can't You Behave?' back to her before she replies with a wonderful segue into 'Always True To You In My Fashion'--the reprisal marks the couple and the relationship and works wonderfully well.

Of course, it helps also that the cast for KISS ME KATE is really most impressive. Keel, with his big big voice and untrained natural talent, fills the screen (and his tights!) with his masculine presence. He struts, swaggers, and yet shows his vulnerable side believably enough to make us *like* his character, ego or no ego. Grayson, so much weaker against Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra in ANCHORS AWEIGH a decade earlier, really comes into her own here--she's excellent as Lilli, swooning at the right moments, strident during the rest, and actually bites out 'I Hate Men' with conviction... you certainly wouldn't imagine it possible of the actress who gave us the rather simpering Aunt Susie in the aforementioned Kelly/Sinatra film! I'm also partial to Tommy Rall, whose soaring athletic ability just crackles off the screen. It's such a thrill to see Miller get matched with someone who can dance circles around most everyone else alongside her. They make the cutest couple in their two numbers together, with the energetic, exuberant dance to 'Why Can't You Behave?' definitely making one of my favourite film dance routines of all time.

This film is, of course, Miller's shining moment--a shame, considering she's still only second lead and yet really steals the film with her dancing and singing. I can understand why other reviewers don't like that the song 'Too Darn Hot' became a solo for her, but what works on the stage, quite frankly, won't have made it in the film. (Even in the musical I thought the song a rather inauspicious and irrelevant start to the second act.) Miller's 'Too Darn Hot' fandance tap is precisely what the title suggests, and the charm she always radiates in all her small roles sizzles through her sexy fringed costume and black lace fan as she dances all over the furniture. One of my favourite songs is also the *unbelievably* catchy 'Tom, Dick & Harry', and the version in the film is great fun.

The directing by George Sidney is solid, making the best of the choreography. Any apparently odd choices would have to be explained by the fact that the film was originally filmed in 3-D--imagine Miller's gloves and necklace flying into your lap, or the objects on the tavern table crashing off the screen when Grayson sweeps them off (while despising men, of course!). I really wish I could have the chance to see this film the way it was meant to be seen, in 3-D. Unfortunately, there's no way to get that effect on VHS and probably not DVD either.

Even so, KISS ME KATE is bright, splashy, flashy and colourful. It's breathtakingly happy eye-candy and drags only at a few moments when non-Shakespearean dialogue gets in the way. Considering the cleverness of its concept (it's a film about the staging of a musical version of the Shakespearean play), the film has little to no artistic pretension--in this way, it's a quintessential MGM musical... set, geared, intended to *entertain*. And entertain it does. With the vocal talents of Keel and Grayson, the incredible tapping of Miller and the soaring of Rall, all accompanied by an irresistible Porter score, let's hope this one makes it to DVD; it's definitely a keeper!
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Flashy, funny, overlong... but Kelly shines through!
14 October 2002
ANCHORS AWEIGH sees two eager young sailors, Joe Brady (Gene Kelly) and Clarence Doolittle/Brooklyn (Frank Sinatra), get a special four-day shore leave. Eager to get to the girls, particularly Joe's Lola, neither Joe nor Brooklyn figure on the interruption of little Navy-mad Donald (Dean Stockwell) and his Aunt Susie (Kathryn Grayson). Unexperienced in the ways of females and courting, Brooklyn quickly enlists Joe to help him win Aunt Susie over. Along the way, however, Joe finds himself falling for the gal he thinks belongs to his best friend. How is Brooklyn going to take this betrayal? And does Joe end up with Susie, who loves him too?

The first and second times I saw ANCHORS AWEIGH, I also saw it at the same time as I did ON THE TOWN, the Kelly/Sinatra collaboration from 1949. Both times I felt that ANCHORS AWEIGH was the better film in terms of plotting and structure--all the dances and songs fit the moment in the plot, and they develop the characters and story rather than hamper them. Yet, both times I came away feeling that ON THE TOWN is the better film overall. Having now seen both films a third time, I still stand by that judgement. Somehow ON THE TOWN, as a film and a piece of entertainment, is just lighter, gayer, purely and simply *happier*. The numbers are more outrageous and less integral to the plot, and yet somehow it works better than all the dances and singing in ANCHORS AWEIGH. I'm not quite sure why this is. The typical argument is that the latter film is over-long: at almost two and a half hours, this is certainly a valid criticism to make. I certainly felt the length the first two times I saw it! However, it's also a film that grows on you--the more you see it, the shorter it feels and the more you appreciate the technical mastery involved in its making. And yet, something just doesn't hang together quite right. It feels almost as if the script was pored over, and *every* single moment when Kelly could break into dance or Sinatra into song was noted, and that's exactly what happened. No opportunity to shoehorn a musical number in was given up... and that's probably the film's biggest weakness. It has 16 numbers (give or take a few), and no matter how big a fan you are of Kelly or Sinatra, this really starts to turn one numb after a while. (Contrast this, for example, with the ten numbers in ON THE TOWN.) You might well feel that each song, each dance, can't be taken out of the film without leaving it lacking... and that's true. But that's also because the writers weren't more restrained in adding them in in the first place.

All this long preamble doesn't mean there's nothing good about ANCHORS AWEIGH. The musical *is* splashy with great songs bursting out all over, like the duets between Kelly and Sinatra ('We Hate To Leave', 'I Begged Her' and 'If You Knew Susie'), the singing of Sinatra ('What Makes The Sunset', 'The Charm Of You', and the best of all, 'I Fall In Love Too Easily'), and without a doubt the always inventive, always breathtaking dancing of Kelly. It's also hard to miss with a cast of this calibre. Grayson is sweet and seems to improve on each viewing (her voice becoming stunning rather than frightening); Jose Iturbi's role is written sympathetically and he does a great job with it; even Clarence's own Brooklyn, Pamela Britton, is cute and charming... as close as one could get to Betty Garrett without being Garrett herself! Sinatra is adorable with those blue eyes and curls of his, and plays the innocent boy-man wonderfully (a role he reprises in ON THE TOWN). His singing is, as usual, simply faultless from enunciation through to timing and phrasing. His solo numbers might seem to drag a little, but when you've got the voice of a century, showcasing it is probably as good a reason as any to slow up the rest of the film!

Gene Kelly's sheer genius in this film is worthy of its own paragraph. Third in the billing behind Sinatra and Grayson respectively, ANCHORS AWEIGH really is Kelly's film. His Joe Brady is a believable, real character--he's tough on the outside, glib and willing to lie when necessary to win a gal, but he's actually the biggest softy on the inside. Kelly makes this charming rather than cloying, but also gives Joe a real edge that you see in the scene when Joe chases Brooklyn around the room with a genuinely murderous look on his face and his breakfast tray in his hands. And the *dancing*--again, the film suffers from the 'too much of a good thing spoils the effect' syndrome, as it does with Sinatra's singing. But once again, if it's Gene Kelly doing the softshoe, or tapping across the screen in a sailor's outfit or dressed up as a bandit chief... might as well err on the side of overdoing it! All of Kelly's dances are breathtaking, be it the pared-down simplicity of his tap number with Sinatra to 'I Begged Her', his 'Mexican Hat Dance' with the sweet wide-eyed little girl, or his lavish Spanish-influenced dance 'La Cumparsita'. Of course, the classic image left in audiences' minds for all time would be Kelly in his red, white and blue sailor suit, dancing with Jerry Mouse of 'Tom & Jerry' fame. A well-deserved golden film memory, to be sure--it's not often that one can say you're impressed by the special effects in a film made in 1945, given the saturation of CGI in the contemporary film market. But Gene and Jerry still look great, with Kelly always hitting his spots and looking exactly where he needs to look. It *would* turn out that just about the only people who could really keep up with Gene Kelly would be Kelly himself (in COVER GIRL) and a cartoon animation.

It's doubtless that this first daring, inventive Kelly dance with Jerry has reserved a place for ANCHORS AWEIGH in film history and the hearts of classic film buffs. But it's also notable for being the first of three Kelly/Sinatra film collaborations, and though rather too drawn-out, still a great couple of hours of entertainment. Watch it first, then again and maybe again--it'll grow on you before you realise it! 7.5/10
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Powell and Lombard spark off a great screwball comedy!
12 October 2002
William Powell is the Godfrey of the film's title, at the beginning of the film apparently an unshaven bum living at the city dump. His peace is suddenly disrupted one fateful night by the Bullock sisters, Irene (Carole Lombard) and Cornelia (Gail Patrick), who each need a 'forgotten man' to win their scavenger hunt. Cornelia, haughty and rude, annoys Godfrey, and he volunteers to help the decidely loopy Irene beat her sister for once. Before long, Irene wants Godfrey as her 'protege', following in the footsteps of her zany mother Angelica (Alice Brady) who seems to have adopted the odd little Russian man Carlo (Mischa Auer). It isn't long, either, before Irene falls hard for Godfrey and tries her best, from faking engagements to faking fainting spells, to win him over. But Godfrey has his own secrets and reasons for working at the Bullock household. (As gleefully pointed out by Molly the maid, played by Jean Dixon, no *ordinary* butler lasts beyond their first encounter with the extremely eccentric female Bullocks.) It is through Godfrey's reevaluation of his own true identity, and the Bullocks' subsequent discovery of this identity, that every character in the film learns a little something about themselves and about life.

MY MAN GODFREY has just about as screwball a cast of characters as it can get: after all, the Bullock girls (consisting of a ditzy matriach who sees pixies when she has a hangover and a daughter who rides horses up the front steps and parks them in the library!) certainly do their very best to keep one constantly bemused. The actresses all do very well in their roles--Brady tosses off manic giggles as Madame Bullock so convincingly you wonder if she really *is* like that in real life. She handles the character's blithe irrelevance expertly, even as Mrs Bullock sees hangover-induced pixies, asks her pet Carlo to play gorilla to cheer her daughter up, and spouts non sequiturs like she was born to do so. Gail Patrick is also worthy of mention as the spoilt brat Cornelia, who sets out to make Godfrey's life as difficult as she can because he pushed her into an ash pile when they first met, and even as butler, he still refuses to pander to her every whim. Patrick really does a grand job playing the bitch (see STAGE DOOR for another example), but doesn't completely alienate the audience--quite a feat considering what she does with her pearl necklace in order to get Godfrey fired...!

The leads are on top form as well. In approaching the role of Irene with no reservations whatsoever, Carole Lombard gives an excellent portrayal of this kooky heiress who not only doggedly pursues Godfrey once she discovers he's actually single and *doesn't* have five children, but also drifts around striking tragic poses learnt at drama school to get Godfrey's attention when she *thinks* he's married with kids. Lombard doesn't try to live up to any kind of glamorous image; she just *goes* for it all, crying, fainting, jumping around the room and all over the bed because Godfrey sticking her in the shower somehow proves he 'loves' her... She has no problem with either looking or acting foolish, and this works entirely in her favour, as well as that of her character's. Good as she is, however, she can't quite stop MY MAN GODFREY from being a consummate William Powell film. Powell is absolutely fantastic: even though he doesn't quite carry off the street bum look (his natural elegance struggles through, and even that's probably part of the role since Godfrey isn't really who he appears to be), his Godfrey is wry, charming and witty. No one plays the lucid drunk better than Powell, and this film, along with THE THIN MAN series, acts as the best evidence of that. He handles his character's self-imposed detachment from the Lombard character with aplomb, playing Godfrey as simultaneously bemused and charmed.

Small wonder that the film picked up acting nominations in all four categories (male and female lead and supporting) at the Academy Awards--the cast of MY MAN GODFREY is really excellent, and they're ably supported by the script and assured direction of Gregory La Cava. All in all, it's a great film: certainly one of the best romantic comedies I've seen, though possibly not the best screwball (that honour still belongs to BRINGING UP BABY, which certainly recognises its debt to MY MAN GODFREY, at least insofar as Katharine Hepburn brings a lot of Lombard's inflection and lilt into her own performance). It's the kind of film you won't see emerging from Hollywood anymore, unless it's a remake (heaven forbid), and definitely one whose characters really need to be seen to be believed. The ending of the film is a bit rushed (though bizarrely appropriate!), and it certainly isn't perfect, but other than that, MY MAN GODFREY is first-class film-making with classy performances... and that's as good a reason as any to watch it.
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Now *this* is entertainment!
10 October 2002
THE BAND WAGON tells the story of faded movie star Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire) as he attempts to restart his stage career with the help of his two pals Lester (Oscar Levant) and Lily (Nanette Fabray) Marton. The Martons have written Tony a surefire hit... or so they think, until they fall under the charms of writer/director/producer/actor du jour, Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan) and their lighthearted musical comedy is turned into some kind of freaky Faustian opera. Jeffrey also ropes the famous French ballet-dancer Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse) and her choreographer boyfriend Paul Byrd (James Mitchell) into the production, but Tony and Gabrielle start off with each other on the wrong foot--almost literally so, since Tony is primarily a hoofer feeling his age, and Gabrielle a ballet star in her prime. They don't seem to match at all, from age to temperament, right down to dancing style. When Tony and Gabrielle finally come to an understanding, however, it's evident their musical is headed for a critical drubbing, and their hint of a romantic relationship thrown into doubt by Paul's annoyance that Gaby doesn't want to leave the show with him. The rest of the film works at resolving this double impasse.

It's probably hard to avoid comparing this film to SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, since they were made just a year apart and were both written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Moreover, the themes are even vaguely similar--THE BAND WAGON is a gentle, sharp satire on theatrical goings-on; SINGIN' IN THE RAIN a wicked parody of Hollywood and movie-making. Both films list Cyd Charisse as one of the characters; both films have a ballet section towards the end of the film. And of course, both films star (separately, unfortunately) the two greatest dancing talents of any and every Hollywood generation--Fred Astaire (TBW) and Gene Kelly (SITR). So certainly, comparisons are rife... the films seem to *beg* one to make them! Personally, the chips fall on the side of SITR for me: it's got a tighter story line, it's less talky, the chemistry between the leads is impeccable, and the songs and dances are simply wonderful.

That is, however, an entirely personal preference. There are people--there are in fact several other IMDB reviewers--who prefer THE BAND WAGON, and with good reason. Entirely on its own merits and not in comparison to SITR (as it should be judged), this film is exactly what it sets out to be: a cracking two hours worth of sheer entertainment. It's cleverly written, while the songs and dances are charming and some even mind-blowing. Vincente Minelli does an excellent job of directing; he is, after all, justly known as the master of musical films. Astaire couldn't be bad if he tried, and he's quite ably supported by his cast of Charisse, Levant, Fabray and Buchanan. The numbers range from the heartbreakingly romantic and simple (Charisse and Astaire falling in love to 'Dancing In The Dark'); through to the clever and amusing (most of the brief numbers attributed to 'The Band Wagon', the play within the movie, but most especially the 'Triplets' number with Astaire, Fabray and Buchanan); on to the rousing and hilarious (Astaire's German accent midway through 'I Love Louisa); and finally to those that are simply stunning in their sheer technical mastery (without a doubt the 'Girl Hunt' ballet). And of course, that's forgetting to mention the song that best sums up the entire spirit of THE BAND WAGON: 'That's Entertainment!'. Joyously performed by Astaire, Fabray, Buchanan and Levant (and in a finale reprisal also featuring Charisse), you really get the feeling that *this* is what Hollywood, and more specifically, the MGM musical, is about. And at the game of entertainment, THE BAND WAGON succeeds handsomely.

I think the only problem I have with THE BAND WAGON is that it just doesn't come together as perfectly and as seamlessly as I'd like. There are moments when my attention drifts, and the acting is frequently uneven. (An exception would be Fabray, who simply radiates exuberance with her big voice and great moves in relatively little screen time.) I've said that Astaire couldn't be bad if he tried. True, he *isn't* bad... just a little listless, it seems to me, particularly in the first half of the film. His dancing, however, is faultless as usual, just as you'd expect from Astaire. And he definitely seems to warm up considerably in the second half of the film. It's rather a shame that there's a spark missing from Charisse's performance as well--as a dancer she is visually *and* emotionally arresting, but she's quite frankly not as much an actress as she is a dancer. (She had the same problem in BRIGADOON, and she didn't have to act in SINGIN' IN THE RAIN except through her dancing.) Most of the time her performance is passable, reaching 'good' and occasionally 'great' at the most naturalistic parts--for example, when she's laughing or pretending to smoke with Tony. Astaire and Charisse are fantastic in their two main numbers together though--'Dancing In The Dark' is one of the best, simplest and most romantic film dances I've ever seen, and 'Girl Hunt' is so inventive and perfectly executed that you can't help thinking these two dancers really *do* match somehow.

Simply put, you just couldn't go wrong with THE BAND WAGON. You'll laugh, you'll marvel, you'll sing along... but most of all, you'll be well-entertained. And if *that's* the point the film is trying to make... point surely very well-taken! 8/10
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Gilda (1946)
Great visuals and characters but lacking in plot...
8 October 2002
Rita Hayworth is GILDA, the mysterious sex-bomb who slinks into the life of casino owner Ballin Mundson (George MacReady) and his right-hand man Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford). It's pretty evident that Gilda and Johnny share a turbulent past, and their love-hate relationship (there has probably never been a screen relationship since that so perfectly encapsulated both sides of that equation) traps them both in a web of mutual brinkmanship... both trying to prove they 'hate' the other more. There is the complication of Gilda's marriage to Mundson, of course, as Johnny tries angrily to keep her faithful to Ballin, and the plot twists that unfold, leading Gilda to marry Johnny after Ballin's 'suicide' and his subsequent psychological tormenting of her. All in all, GILDA is a film-noir whose plot is almost an open book--the foreshadowing that goes on here is hardly what one would call subtle. You're hit on the head with the plot twists to come and know what to expect. It's the psychological creations of Gilda and Johnny that are interesting, with Gilda especially being an intriguing character.

Rita Hayworth is without a doubt the best thing about the film: she's sexy, gorgeous, and sizzles whenever she's onscreen, from her guitar-strumming rendition of 'Put The Blame On Mame' through to that famous reprisal in the black dress and elbow gloves. (Her not-quite-striptease is hotter than most sex scenes in films these days!) It's not just about the looks though--her dramatic moments are a treasure to watch as well, particularly when she discovers that she has been tricked into returning to Buenos Aires. The moment when she breaks and slaps and scratches and screams at Johnny before sliding down to his feet, defeated, is an amazing emotional display. (Given more impact by her immediate reappearance onstage in the casino's club.)

An interesting film for the characters (though Mundson turned out to be too one-note to be anything other than a caricature), and an excellent performance from Hayworth. You might want to look elsewhere for a better plotline though!
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Absolutely delightful with Stewart in a career and legend making role...
7 October 2002
MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON is quite easily one of *those* classic films that everyone has heard of but not everyone has seen. It's referenced in everything, from television programmes like The Simpsons through to American Politics textbooks. It's got that glowing word-of-mouth aura about it, kind of like another of Frank Capra and James Stewart's collaborations, IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE. You know the story even before you see the film: James Stewart plays small-town community hero and full-time Boy Ranger Jefferson Smith, the idealistic naive kind of guy who's an aw-shucks patriot and can quote chunks of Lincoln and Washington off the top of his head. When one of the sitting senators in his state passes away, the massive political machine controlling and choking the state, headed by the ruthless James Taylor (Edward Arnold), goes into action. It's already bought out the senior Senator, Joseph Harrison Paine (Claude Rains), and attempts to break Jeff's back when he does finally go to Washington and his idealistic hope of setting up a national boys' camp in his home-state runs smack against a dam-building graft scheme Mr. Taylor is currently hatching. With the help of sassy, worldly Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), Jeff sets out to prove not only that he is innocent, but that his faith in his ideals and principles will win him the world and the respect he deserves, all this through an absolutely cracking filibuster that takes up the last fifth or so of the film.

There is much to recommend MR SMITH, but I'd like to concentrate on the acting. Three actors deserve special praise for their work showcased in this film, although the supporting cast is also excellent, from the page boys in the Senate Room through to Governor 'Happy' Hopper (Guy Kibbee), the sympathetic Senate President (Harry Carey), and of course, Edward Arnold as Jim Taylor is as crusty and mean as ever. However, the three top-billed stars must also take top acting honours. Jean Arthur is excellent as 'Call me Clarissa only if you mean it' Saunders--she's completely believable from first to last, from her initial skepticism about the "Daniel Boone" she was going to have to shepherd around, through to her last impassioned fight for and with Jefferson Smith to win through against the Taylor political machine and the Senate. It's easy to believe her when hardboiled city gal Saunders listens to Smith waxing lyrical about nature, about the wonders of the American system and political symbols, and melts--her drunk scene when she keeps promising to marry her buddy Diz Moore (Thomas Mitchell) because she doesn't yet know that she's already in love with Jeff is great to watch. One really cannot help but adore Arthur, always sweet, real, and very much a Capra heroine (see YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU, MR DEEDS GOES TO TOWN etc.).

Claude Rains is, as usual, excellent in his role as Senator Paine: he creates a character who is flawed but essentially good, someone who is so used to 20 years of taking orders from someone else that he can believe he's just 'compromising'. It takes Jefferson Smith, of course, to make Paine realise that there can be no compromising one's ideals without losing something even more important--one's integrity. Paine's final impassioned scene, when he bursts back into the Senate hall, is a fabulous display of deep self-disgust. Rains truly is one of the most undeservedly unknown actors of his generation: a rare chameleon who blends into every role he plays so much so that he's appeared in some of the most famous film classics of all time (aside from MR SMITH, he also plays key roles in CASABLANCA and NOTORIOUS, to name just two), and is not only as well-known for it as he should be, but also isn't often recognised from film to film! His performance is MR SMITH is no exception: pitch-perfect and utterly credible.

Finally, we come to James Stewart's Jefferson Smith, what must surely be one of the best performances ever committed to film--not just of Stewart's own filmography, but of every screen actor to date. He makes a potentially hokey, foolish character a real person, someone you'd really like to meet some day. By the end of the film you're cheering Smith on without reservation, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that you *believe* Stewart as Smith. From his first stuttery speech down to his final powerful filibuster, Stewart makes the role his. No person, dead or alive, could take on the role and hope to perform anywhere as well as Stewart has done. It would take some doing to keep the Washington sightseeing scenes from being oversentimental, and Capra manages to do so only when Stewart's expressive face is pictured onscreen, marvelling at these symbols of democracy and the American Way. (The flag montage goes on far too long for my taste.) Moreover, his filibuster scene alone could have won him lifetime achievement awards. Whether fired from within or aided by mercury (Stewart requested that his throat be painted with it so that it would be appropriately hoarse while filming the later hours of his marathon filibuster), it's quite a sight to behold. The fact that the Academy Award didn't go to him in this year is a travesty only slightly mitigated by his win in the same category the following year for THE PHILADELPHIA STORY. This film, however, truly contains the archetypal James Stewart character--an idealistic everyman-hero who loses confidence in himself but always comes through on top in the end.

If it isn't evident enough by now, the performances given in this film by the three top-billed actors is reason enough to watch it. However, MR SMITH also has a great script, fantastic production values, and a wonderful message. It may be Capra-corn, but it's Capra-corn of the first order, and will make you both smile and cry and believe that the world is a much better place than you thought it was.
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