Saturday, April 15, 2017

East Side, West Side

It's collage day down at the poster studio. 
Sometimes I find surprising old films that buck my expectations of the so-called rules. Every now and again, a bad girl makes good, sex is permitted to go unmarried and unpunished, a good guy gets to make a selfish choice and still be the hero. Not in East Side, West Side (1949) though! With one substantial exception, this Barbara Stanwyck (all hail) drama follows all the rules to a tee. I'm not complaining, in fact it is important to see a picture so intent on checking all the boxes to understand that the boxes being checked were vital to this era of film making.
So happy! Hahahahaha! 
James Mason co-stars as Brandon Bourne, husband to Stanwyck's Jessie. The couple are a seemingly happy, wealthy and sophisticated pair who live on New York's Upper East Side. We meet them first in a strange scene where they are dining with Jessie's mother (Gale Sondergaard) and a family friend Horace (Raymond Greenleaf). So much time is spent on this scene giving background to Horace's pursuit of Jessie's mother and the mother's marriage to Jessie's father, that you'd assume some of it would be important. However, the mom only shows up once more in the movie, and we never see Horace again. The true take-aways from the introductory dinner scene are simply that Brandon is a huge flirt, Jessie is intent on showing her mother that she's happy, so so happy, and that her mom maybe thinks that Jessie would have been actually happier marrying a more down-to-earth man (implied by the story of her own marriage).

Pictured: Not a Down-to-Earth Man. 
The truth is that Jessie's mother has Brandon's ticket. He has a history of not making Jessie happy, by being a philandering fink! The affair that his wife knows about has been over for a year, and Jessie is still madly in love with her husband. To hold her marriage together, she puts on a happy face and emphatically tells Brandon that she trusts him. This is more for her benefit than his. As for Brandon, well... he's a skunk. We know that he at least still enjoys going out on the town without Jessie and hitting on strange women, because that's exactly what he goes out and does after dinner with her mom. He meets pretty young Rosa (Cyd Cherisse) out at a nightclub and is obviously trying to pick her up. She recognizes him and remembers his lovely wife from the fancy department store where she is a model and Jessie shops. Rosa has a good heart, and has no intentions of going home with another woman's husband. Someone with no qualms about that is Isabel (Ava Gardner), Brandon's ex-lover who shows up at the nightclub looking for him after her year away.

Quite literally the girl he tells you not to worry about. 
Isabel, a fucking bombshell if there ever was one, is straight-up out for Brandon's D. She's currently having her lifestyle bankrolled by a rich old dude named Alec Dawning (Douglas Kennedy) who is also seeing the amazonian (hardly.) Felice Brackett (Beverley Michaels). It's Brandon that Isabel really wants though, and she's pretty damn sure she can have him. They do have crackling chemistry, and while Brandon insists he's going to totally stay faithful to his wife this time, it's not a believable claim. Nothing salacious happens that night though, because Alec comes along to punch Brandon's lights out. In an attempt to save his reputation, young Rosa collects the unconscious playboy and takes him to her Italian grandmother's house. When he finally makes it home, for some reason Jessie believes this ridiculous story. I know it's true, but Jessie would be well within her rights to tell him to fuck off. She officially believes him, which is easier to do since he leaves out the part where Isabel is back in New York and he was punched by her current lover.  He just tells her that it was a random bar fight, and Rosa helped him because she knows Jessie.

Where the kisses are hers and hers and his
The next day, after an enlightening conversation with her friend Helen (Nancy Regan nee Davis), Jessie decides to arrange a meeting with Rosa and check out Brandon's dumb-ass story. Not only are her fears put to rest (Rosa also conveniently fails to mention that she met Brandon because he was hitting on her, and the whole Isabel thing), Jessie ends up taking Rosa to the airport to pick up her boyfriend. Well, he's not really her boyfriend. Mark Dwyer (Van Helfin) is an ex-beat cop who has been undercover in Italy for the last few years working for the FBI (okay... some parts of East Side, West Side are really silly). He's written a book about his experiences and is back in the States to be fawned over by society types like Jessie's friend Helen, who is hosting a party in his honour, which of course they are all going to. Mark hasn't seen Rosa in about 5 years, and still sees her as a gawky teenager with a crush on him, especially when his eyes land on Jessie. Refreshingly, he's much more interested in the woman than the girl, so to speak. So yes, while Rosa is gorgeous, she's only like 20 years old and she has an schoolgirl fantasy about him. Jessie on the other hand, is mature and refined and graceful. She's also married.

But her husband failed to attend that party that Helen is hosting because he's too busy fucking Isabel. That didn't take long, did it? Brandon went back to Isabel's West Side Greenwich Village apartment with her, all sanctimonious because she showed up at his workplace. He was angry at her and even slapped her, which as a rule is uncool but Isabel was so into it. There is an obvious nod to Isabel and Brandon's sex life during their affair, it was undoubtedly less vanilla than the sex he has with Jessie. That's not an excuse to cheat on your wife though, you slick douche bag. But that's just the sort of guy that Brandon is. A real fuck boy.

I always wear an apron to make coffee. 
Notably not a real fuck boy is Mark Dwyer, who escorts an abandoned Jessie home from the party, makes her some eggs, and promptly falls in love with her. He sees Brandon for the fink he is, but attempts to be cordial for Jessie's sake. He lets Rosa down gently and respectfully, when he realizes her crush has gone too far. And he is happy to spend the next day palling around with Jessie, knowing that she isn't about to cheat on her husband especially since after the party, there was a marital reconciliation where Brandon promised his faithfulness. They visit his old neighbourhood, and we get to see that they don't come from such different backgrounds after all. But before that, he unwittingly takes Jessie to see her arch nemesis.

Just here to remind you, you ain't shit. 
In a powerhouse scene, Jessie visits Isabel at her request and the two women face off for the very first time. Stanwyck is impressively steely here, when for most of the picture she's forced to play frustratingly meek. It is a performance with subtle layers, she's telling her husband's mistress to stay away and that as the wife, she's the one who wins, but you can see the wobble. Isabel is calm, vindictive, and sure of herself. While Jessie attempts to project confidence, it is easy to believe Isabel when she claims that Brandon will come when she calls. Isabel and Jessie are ideal examples of the Madonna/Whore dichotomy so often seen in films of the era (and beyond). Jessie is the good woman, faithful and loyal even in the face of lies and adultery. She is a sweet, kind, gentle person, a good daughter, a great wife. She has female friends, she has modest clothes, and she puts others needs before her own. Isabel is the opposite, a sharp tongued very likely kinky woman who uses multiple men for sex, gifts, and money. Isabel dresses provocatively, her dresses and suits nipped at the waist and open at the neckline. She has no friends, only lovers and rivals. She is a bad girl, through and through.

So of course she couldn't make it out of the movie alive. As I said before, this isn't the sort of picture where the bad girl can make good, and East Side, West Side didn't even attempt to give Isabel the slightest bit of redemption before having her strangled to death. But who did the strangling? We last see Isabel alive when Jessie leaves her apartment and goes off adventuring with Mark. Later, after she invites him over for some afternoon delight, Brandon is the one who finds Isabel's body. That's right, being the insufferable cheat that he is, Brandon totally did come when she called, just like she said he would. It's just that somebody got to Isabel first.

A giantess! Hide your mistresses! 
Mark goes into full on detective mode, which is strange for an ex-beat cop who spied on Italians. He and Jessie are let right into the crime scene because sure why not, and he finds a broken nail by the body that he quickly exonerates Jessie with. She's not the sort of hussy that would have long dark red fingernails, are you crazy? For some reason everybody is quick to believe Brandon's story, that he just stumbled upon the corpse. I understand that he really didn't kill her, but also I wouldn't believe him if I were Mark or one of the other police officers. Mark has a hunch though, and uses all his undercover skills to (quite effectively playing drunk) nab the murderer: Felice Brackett, the abnormally tall (not really, but they seriously wouldn't shut up about her size) woman who is also sleeping with the guy paying for Isabel's apartment. It was a crime of jealousy! Of passion and rage! Too bad the actress playing Felice couldn't move her face. The Bournes are both innocent of murder, but what now?

Pull yourself up by your huge flower lapels, you're an independent woman! 
The bad girl is dead, the good man Mark Dwyer knows that he can't be a vulture in someone else's marriage, and Brandon's fuckwittery has led to him discovering a dead body. So with the evil seductress gone for good, I suppose it is time for the Bournes to work on their marriage together. Thankfully, not quite! In the only variation from the loyal-to-a-fault wife archetype, Jessie is finally allowed to stand up for herself and leave her slimy no-good, cheating piece of shit husband. It took repeated infidelity and a murder to give her the gumption, but she did it. And since Mark headed back to Italy, she isn't even jumping straight to another man (though it's implied they will connect again some day). With a definite moral high ground, no one (not even 1949 audiences) could fault Jessie for leaving Brandon. She remains blemishless, but untethered from this morally bankrupt man.

Out all night again, dear? That's totally fine and normal! 
Throughout the movie, I was frustrated by the Jessie character because she was required to be so demure and passive. With the exception of the head-to-head scene with Gardner and the final break-up scene with Mason, Barbara Stanwyck didn't get to sink her teeth into the role at all. I've made this criticism before, that the only time Stanwyck falters in any way (and still, she remains spectacular) is when she's not allowed to show her strength and charisma. She excels at showing vulnerability when it is an undercurrent, but when meek and soft is the character's primary state, I find it difficult to reconcile.

I've never fucked someone with the same haircut as me, is it fun?
James Mason is suitably slick and untrustworthy as Brandon, and I can kind of see why women would sleep with him. He's sort of cute, but if you look too close he looks like a weird doll. Everyone wants to sleep with Ava Gardner, which is why she was quite perfect as the femme fatal Isabel. She slinks into every scene, and is so terribly beautiful. I wish that East Side, West Side wanted to give Isabel a sliver of humanity beyond loving sex (which is a valid aspect of humanity, but there is always more to a person), however I understand that she's meant to be a stock role, and there's no better woman for the job than Gardner.

Is the size of your hat what they mean by deep under cover?
It's safe to say that Cyd Cherisse hadn't fully become Cyd Cherisse by 1949, having only appeared in a handful of films in mostly small roles by that point. She's grins wildly throughout East Side, West Side with a nervous energy that doesn't hurt her part of young Rosa, but also doesn't add a whole lot to the picture. Van Helfin risked being underused as the good guy foil to Mason's Brandon, but he has solid chemistry with Stanwyck and gets to add some successful levity and charm in the third act when apprehending the real killer.

Yeah, "other women" are the problem. 
East Side, West Side is enjoyable, especially if you like shouting "you cheat! You absolute rat!" at your screen. I know I do! The bad girl ends up dead, unmarried sex goes very much punished, and the good guy acts selflessly, but at least Barbara Stanwyck gets to tell James Mason to go fuck himself (not a direct quote, sadly).

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Snows of Kilimanjaro

A Mountain Top Triangle! 
Have you read much Hemingway? I haven't, least of all The Snows of Kilimanjaro, what I've heard is one of his most popular short stories. I couldn't be disappointed thus, in the cinematic adaptation of the work from 1952, on the grounds that it removed a bunch of stuff, added in a bunch of stuff, and changed the ending entirely. I also must keep my disappointment in the epicness of the scenery in check, because I watched a truly shitty version of this public domain film. "Christ, no way that was filmed in Technicolor" I scoffed to my boyfriend, but I was wrong. We were just watching something that was probably taped onto VHS in the 80s, and left in a barn for 30 years being nibbled on by magnetic mice.

Being sick is boring, 
Gregory Peck, the deep voiced, tall, authoritative babe of the ages that he was, grounds The Snows of Kilimanjaro as Harry Street, a Hemingway stand-in if there ever was one. We first meet him in Tanzania (well... it wasn't Tanzania in 1952... but... the movie just keeps calling it Africa, which is too fucking vague an answer), where he is laid up in fevered agony being cared for by his pragmatic wife Helen (Susan Hayward). Two weird flashbacks from days previous illustrate Harry and Helen's theories as to how Harry's leg got infected. He thinks it happened with a random scratch, she thinks it's when he dove in dirty Hippo water to save a life. Both stories tell you a bit about Harry; that he is very brave, if reckless, and that he sees the poetry in a tough guy being taken down by a thorn. He's a writer, of course. We also learn very quickly that he's a total dick to his wife. I know he's dying and all that, but it doesn't seem like a super new behaviour for him. She tries to take care of him, and he's all like "Let me get drunk and tell you about other women I boned! It's my dying wish!"

Y'all are so hot, but smoking is nasty. 
Despite Helen's protests, Harry tries to tell her all about his first love. She leaves several times to go hunting and such, and Harry tells his story to his porter Molo (Emmett Smith - note: the porters have no lines in English, and seem to be all uncredited so this information comes from IMDB and could be wrong). Cutting in and out of flashback, Harry gets progressively more ill as he talks about his youth. Inspired by his rich game hunter uncle (Leo G. Carroll), Harry took off to see the world to get material for his writing. As was fashionable for post-Great War creatives, he ended up in Paris where he met Cynthia Greene (Ava Gardner). They fell in love, he with her beauty and irreverence, she with his beauty and talent. They lived in sin for a while, having a great time, and he found success with his first book. Cynthia wanted to move into a bigger apartment, but Harry wanted to use the money for the book to go on a grand adventure, so off they went to Africa! Where in Africa? Well... maybe to where is Tanzania is now, since the whole story is called The Snows of Kilimanjaro, but honestly, who can say?

Safaris are the worst. 
In Africa, they went on a Big Game Hunting Safari, and while Harry had the best time ever, Cynthia fucking hated it. She didn't like murdering animals, she didn't like being around guns, she didn't like it when rhinos charged at them all and nearly gored the man she loved. It wasn't thrilling, it sucked. And then she got pregnant, and the only person she could talk to about it was the Safari Guide, Johnson (Torin Thatcher) and he did NOT want to know. But Harry was having a blast! And getting so much material for his next novel! And everything was so much fun, and he loved shooting majestic beasts and wearing beige! Woohoo!

Why, you'd have to be a mind reader to know she was unhappy!
Cynthia still hadn't told Harry she was pregnant, when she was told by a hotel doctor that she would need extensive bed rest before the birth. Not sure how Harry would know all this for his flashback purposes, but she was just about to tell him that they'd need to go home to Paris quickly for the health of their baby (surprise!) when Harry told her he wanted to travel the world for the foreseeable future saying basically: Babies can totally wait, right honey? I've got adventures to have and books to write, and I can't write the books without the adventures, and also I have no imagination and very little empathy! I must be a great writer! Poor Cynthia was now convinced that Harry would resent her and a baby, and that starting a family would ruin his career, so she threw herself down some stairs.

Isn't it great having no problems at all? So great. 
Shockingly, the "accidental" loss of an unborn child that Cynthia really, really wanted, did nothing good for her relationship with Harry. She began to drink heavily, and couldn't even pretend to enjoy it when he took her to see the bullfights in Spain. Isn't it weird how someone who just had a miscarriage didn't like a brutal blood-sport? So strange! And then, Harry couldn't even be arsed to make her feel welcome during his magazine travel assignments. It was a mess, and who could blame poor drunk Cynthia for disappearing with a flamenco dancer? Not me!

Don't mind me, I'm just a stock Rich Bitch character
Harry uses the next bit of flashback, told predominately to Molo, to brag about having sex with a rich blond Countess, Elizabeth (Hildegarde Knef). She was his rebound after Cynthia, and during their time together, Harry achieved his greatest commercial successes despite his softer lifestyle and lack of big game hunting. Though they became engaged, Harry wasn't truly in love with Elizabeth, who was pretentious, jealous, and poorly drawn. He also never stopped thinking about Cynthia. Just when he thought he had found her again, the Spanish Civil War happened!

Just killing it in that beret, though. 
Guess how much I know about the Spanish Civil War. Try. No, less than that, I assure you. So granted, I know exactly nothing about the Spanish Civil War (I looked at the Wikipedia article 20 seconds ago, and I feel like I know less than I did before), but fuck me this part of the movie was stupid. Cynthia, who had been at least living in Madrid, joined up on... one of the sides, as an ambulance driver. In order to find her, though I'm not sure how he knew she'd signed up, least of all as an ambulance driver, Harry joined too. He found her on like Day 1, running through a battle field, when her ambulance tipped over and crushed her. They got to reunite for just a few seconds before she died. Of course she had to die because they made the movie in 1952 and she induced her own miscarriage, so she needed to be punished. Harry got shot in the leg by someone on one of the sides, and thus got out of staying in the war.

Ugh wives, amiright?
Harry stumbled around drunk for a spell in his grief, before eventually meeting Helen. How they actually hooked up is glossed over in the flashback, all we know for sure is that he drunkenly mistook her for poor dead Cynthia, and she was into it. I imagine that Harry proposed with a sexy disinterested grunt, and Helen pretended to be all nonchalant about it because she's a Cool Girl™. We know she's a Cool Girl™ because she loves hunting and shooting, wasn't prissy about going on Safari, and put all of Harry's needs before her own without making a big deal about it. She's so good at being chill that until Harry's leg got infected, he didn't fully realize how much she loves him. Now on his apparent death bed, Harry decides he loves Helen, too.
His hair looks cute, though.
The apparent climax of The Snows of Kilimanjaro, sort of coinciding with Harry finally noticing that his wife loves him, is when a hyena wanders into camp in the middle of the night. The hyena is just checking shit out, not being a bother, but he makes the mistake of peeking into Harry and Helen's tent. Helen, who is supposed to be brave and not bothered about animals, screams her head off like a damn lunatic. It scares away the hyena, and symbolically, the infection besieging her husband is also banished. Yay! It's a happy Hollywood ending, with Harry finally over his dead ex and alive to appreciate the life he has with his wife. Apparently not at all what Hemingway intended, but them's the breaks Ernest. He quite famously said that Ava Gardner and the hyena were the only good parts of the film, but given how silly the hyena bit was, I'm not sure I trust him.

Susan Hayward didn't sport a tube top even once in the film.
Gardner was good though, and paired extremely well with Peck, who as usual, was engaging and intense. Their love affair was believable (except for the part in the Spanish Civil War), frustrating, and sad. Both leads pulled you in, and allowed for sympathy even when their characters made infuriating choices. The filmmakers didn't give Hayward enough scenery to chew, thus failing to play to her strengths in a disappointing misstep. She was perfectly alright as Helen, don't get me wrong, but a waste of Hayward's over-the-top talents. All-in-all, I'm sure The Snows of Kilimanjaro benefits from being seen in better quality, with its sweeping scenery filmed by a second-unit team on location. As for the story, its unevenness did not diminish the fact that it remains an entertaining picture. While it ebbed, it was still worthwhile.       

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Goodbye Charlie

Tony Curtis made that exact face when he read the tagline. 
Simply to take a look at a bit more of her work in the light of her passing late last month, I decided to watch 1964's Goodbye Charlie on the strength of Debbie Reynolds, alone. I got a little nervous during the animated opening credits, worried I was in for a repeat of If a Man Answers Your Door or similarly frothy bit of nonsense. Luckily for me, the dynamite pairing of Reynolds and Tony Curtis, elevated Goodbye Charlie above its station. While not as engaging a film as their earlier co-starring effort The Rat Race, this movie still delivers in laughs and chemistry.

Who needs a gown?

Screenwriter and lothario Charlie Sorel (Harry Madden) is murdered by a jealous husband, powerful film producer Sir Leopold Sartoni (Walter Matthau), after he is caught boning Sartori's wife Rusty (Laura Devon) during a yacht party. Charlie's former writing partner and best friend George Tracy (Curtis) returns from Paris for the funeral, dismayed but not 100% surprised that only he, Charlie's agent (Martin Gabel), and two wives of influential Hollywood producers, Janie (Joanna Barnes) and Franny (Ellen Burstyn, as Ellen McCrea) have shown up for the memorial. Charlie not only owed money all over the place, he also had a reputation for canoodling with other men's wives, thus the ladies' attendance and the dearth of other mourners. George is put in charge of his friends' estate, and settles himself in at the heavily mortgaged beach house for what he expects will be a short but uneventful spell before heading back to Paris. That night, imagine his surprise when a passing motorist named Bruce Minton the 3rd (Pat Boone) drops off a dazed, mostly naked young lady (Reynolds) at the beach house. Bruce found her on the highway, and she directed him to there. After Bruce leaves, George allows the young lady to stay the night, assuming that she's one of Charlie's many girlfriends.

The lady is decidedly not one of Charlie's many girlfriends, as she discovers herself waking up screaming in the middle of the night. The daze wearing off and temporary amnesia subsiding, the young lady realizes that she is actually Charlie himself! A classic Heaven Can Wait scenario! I had no idea going in, to be honest. That's what happens when you choose a movie based on its stars alone. I love that Goodbye Charlie doesn't even waste time trying to explain how exactly Charlie's soul ended up in the body of a gorgeous woman. The basic concept was being used in film at least as early as 1941, with Here Comes Mr Jordan the adaptation of Harry Segal's 1938 stageplay Heaven Can Wait (see also the 1978 version with Warren Beatty, and of course, in 2001 as Down to Earth with Chris Rock). There are probably even earlier examples, but my point is that the concept was established enough that the film doesn't suffer from leaving out the particulars. We don't need to see an afterlife counsel punishing Charlie or a mix-up on the road to Hell, it is enough that he is back and suddenly a girl.
First step as a woman: buy a weird beige suit. 
Reynolds' absolutely nails the part of a cheeky, swaggering dude confined in the body not his own. She changed her posture, her gait, and the tenor of her voice. It would have been easy to do an impression of a man's voice, but the key difference that makes her vocal performance a success is how Reynolds' speaks when Charlie is trying to hide who he is inside. Pretending to be his own widow, Reynolds' gets the chance to play a man playing a woman, with pointedly delicate movements, and a softer timber to her voice. It's a demonstration on how differently a woman may speak when speaking to a man she wants to attract or influence, however subconsciously. Neither voice is unnatural sounding, and Reynolds slips seamlessly between them depending on who Charlie is speaking to. Early on in the film, not yet used to playing the feminine part, Charlie can't help himself when surrounded by babes at the beauty salon. It's horribly sexist of course that he thinks it's okay to slap a woman on the ass, but it's quite funny when it is Debbie Reynolds doing the ogling.

Not going to be so smug when he finds out about the wage gap. 
Charlie ends up taking quite a shine to being a woman, finding that it suits his devious personality and scheming. As the widowed Mrs Charlie Sorel, he fleeces money out of both Janie and Franny, making vague threats to expose their affairs to the public. After George points out that those two were just about the only people who mourned him, he burns their cheques, but isn't altogether a changed man (inside). Next, Charlie figures that the best thing to do is to become a wife. He makes George an offer, but despite their obvious sexual chemistry, that's just too weird for George. So Charlie sets his sights on Bruce Minton the 3rd, who has been smitten with the gorgeous girl he picked up on the highway. I loved the character of Bruce. He's a really perfect Baxter in this totally strange love-triangle. Bruce is very rich, non-threateningly handsome, and obsessed with his mother. He falls head over heels with Charlie, especially after she (he) wows him with her (his) knowledge of how cars work (spoken like a real man's man, Marg).

No thanks, I'm straight.                      Source
But of course Charlie doesn't really love him back, and since it's 1964 and they couldn't admit that the man inside the woman's body might actually be interested in having sex with another man, Charlie won't even kiss poor Bruce. Eventually, after getting drunk together, Bruce and Charlie make sweet, sweet love. I'm just fucking with you, what really happens is that they have some drinks, and Bruce pours his heart out to Charlie. Charlie realizes that taking advantage of such an earnest, loving, albeit odd guy, is a terrible thing to do, and leaves. With that settled, it means that Charlie is pretty well redeemed. No longer interested in using people for what he can get or playing with other people's emotions, now all there is left to do to learn to live as woman, presumably a lesbian one.

A Christian Mingle Ad. 
The first thing Charlie gets to do in accepting life as woman is (CONTENT WARNING) fend off a sexual assault! Welcome to the team, Charlie! Sir Leopold, the very same film producer who murdered Charlie's first body, breaks into the beach house to rape who he thinks is Charlie's widow. I mean, he claims that he is performing some great seduction, but it is 100% an attempted rape, with Charlie saying no repeatedly, trying to fight him off, and Sir Leopold refusing to stop. And yes, it is played for laughs. It is the worst part of the film, totally out of line even considering how twisted the 1960s were about these sorts of things. Then, in the midst of successfully fighting off Sir Leopold, his wife Rusty shows up and shoots Charlie in a misguided jealous rage. So great, Charlie has been murdered twice. Maybe he'll get reincarnated as a dog next!... That's exactly what happens, and George gets a meet-cute with the Charlie-dog's owner, played by Debbie Reynolds because who the fuck cares if this fever dream third act makes a lick of sense?

I wonder if he sees me. 
While yes, the last few scenes shit the bed, and the ending is downright silly, the rest of Goodbye Charlie is a very enjoyable and strange comedy. The fact that in 1964 they couldn't fully explore the idea of gender fluidity and the wide spectrum that is human sexuality is of course a shame, but honestly, they could have done a worse job. Director Vincente Minnelli (Liza's dad) included some impressive and innovative scenes, elevating what easily could have been a flatter picture. Reynolds, as I mentioned, was fantastic in her multifaceted role, and she was perfectly matched with Curtis, one of the least polished but most charming comedic actors of his era. .
"Now he's back in great shape - HER'S" 

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

A Christmas Carol

Yeah, fuck you David Copperfield!
Somehow, I've never seen this 1938 version of A Christmas Carol before, falsely equating it with the 1951 Alastair Sim version, which I've always found a little long (that one is only 86 minutes, hardly an unreasonable ordeal, and yet there you go). The 1938 adaptation is certainly snappier, and I think a worthy alternative to the more popular 50s film if you want to switch things up this year. Look at you, getting wild with your holiday traditions!

Alright, now give me Sexy Scrooge. That's it, be coy!
With such a well known story, any adaptation of A Christmas Carol needs to prove itself with some key elements: Scrooge, the Ghosts, Tiny Tim, and the Redemption Arc. First, the Scrooge. Reginald Owen was pretty decent in the titular role, successfully playing crotchety to blindingly blissed out with Christmas spirit. At only 51 however, I found his age-make up distracting and hard to believe. He looked quite a bit like that horrible Six Flags old man mascot, if I'm being honest, or Dana Carvey's turtle man character. Regardless, Owens' portrayal was enjoyable without being as over-the-top as it could have been.

Something is different about you Marley, is the ponytail new?
The Ghosts in the film were... inconsistent. We begin of course with Marley (Leo G. Carrol), who was effectively ghost like for sure. I would have liked more chains, as his load didn't seem that substantial given his lifetime of greed and sin. That said, he was translucent and spooky-ish, so I won't complain too much.

Ghost of Christmas Accessories
The Ghost of Christmas Past (Ann Rutherford) has very pretty hair and a cool outfit with a sparkly belt and a hat with a star on it. That's all there really is to say about the Ghost of Christmas Past, because she barely did anything! The scene of her flying over London with Scrooge is pretty unintentionally funny, but beyond that she just sort of gently arrives with him places and sleepily fails to emote. The scenes from Christmases past are missing something huge, but I'll get to that later.

Not in fact Will Forte.
The Ghost of Christmas Present (Lionel Braham) is delightfully strange, and is at least given something of interest to do. What he shows Scrooge isn't technically the present, more the very short-term future (Christmas Day) but I suppose that's semantics. There is a truly weird scene where he and Scrooge stand on the street watching people bumping into each other, the people get mad until the Ghost waves his bell? torch? at them, showering them with Christmas spirit. It does the opposite of proving that good will and human kindness are inherent this time of year, since it takes interference from the Ghost for the people to get along. But the effect on Scrooge is that he now loves Christmas, so it's all good.

BOO-gie Woogie.
It is easy for the Ghost of Christmas Future (D'Arcy Corrigan) to be a total let down. There is always so much build up. It's the last Spirit, it's covered in a mysterious cloak, it never says shit. It's meant to be so ominous, that almost any reveal will be a disappointment. That is why, in the best versions, Scrooge finds himself frightened not so much by what may lay beneath the Ghost's shroud, but by his own sad end and the terror of falling into a fiery grave. This film gives us neither a glimpse at the Ghost (which okay, fine), nor a cool plunge plunge into a lonely grave, just a melancholy realization that eventually Scrooge will die unloved. We knew that already, and he knew that already, but the Ghost did its main job at least. Personally however, I think the falling into the grave bit is important for Scrooge's reaction upon waking, like coming out of a nightmare, rather than just waking up from a glum dream.

Bigger the hat, the smaller the child.
The next important element for any Christmas Carol adaptation is Tiny Tim. My boyfriend seems to think I'm a monster for not liking Tiny Tim (Terry Kilburn) in this version, but I have very good reasons. First off, like nearly all child actors he was extremely annoying, with a shrill voice and affected mannerisms. Secondly, he didn't look sick. Sure, he had a cane but other than that, there was little to indicate why he was going to die. They could have at least painted some bags under his eyes or something, told Kilburn to pretend to be weak or anything! Thirdly, at 12 years old, I think Kilburn was too old for the role, in a way that adversely effected the casting of the Cratchit siblings. They all needed to be older than him, so the result is a bunch of teenagers acting like small goofy children licking their chops over a plum pudding and sitting on Scrooge's lap. The elders of the Cratchit family, Bob and Wife, played by real life couple Gene and Kathleen Lockhart were better, at least. The pair added levity and sensitivity to their roles, which easily could have gotten quite maudlin.

Fred, this is not your moment.
Arguably the most important aspect of A Christmas Carol is Scrooge's redemption arc. It is vital to see not only how miserly Scrooge as become, but also how it is that he got that way, in order to appreciate how changed he is by the power of human kindness by the end of the story. This version definitely succeeds in showing how bitter Scrooge is and how that bitterness effects people like the Cratchits, and his nephew Fred (Barry MacKay), but where it suffers is in showing how he got there. The Ghost of Christmas Past scenes show how he was more-or-less abandoned by his family at school for a few years, but skip over his ambitions at work, and I think crucially, his relationship with his fiancee. There is in fact, no fiancee character in this version at all! Her role is vital however, for explaining his bitterness. She loves him, but cannot handle how much of a workaholic he becomes. He ignores her, and his cruelty is too much to bare. When she leaves him, he twists that loss into a betrayal, rather than understanding her perspective at all. Without that character, then Scrooge's evolution into a horrible old man makes much less sense.

Maybe he's just bitter about his hair
A few other minor issues crop up in this A Christmas Carol, such as characters unnecessarily whispering non-secrets to each other (stop it!), and a pointlessly increased role for Fred's lady friend (Lynne Carver), who was there presumably just to up the babe factor ("We need a dame in the picture!"). Over all however, this edition of the story is still entertaining and as I said, worth adding to your holiday movie rotation. For the curious, the very best A Christmas Carol adaptations are: Mickey's Christmas Carol, Scrooged, and The Muppet's Christmas Carol.