“SAN FRANCISCO” (1936) Review

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“SAN FRANCISCO” (1936) Review

I just recently watched the 1936 disaster film, “SAN FRANCISCO”, which starred Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald, Spencer Tracy and Jack Holt. Released 30 years after the actual event, the movie is basically about a Barbary Coast saloonkeeper (Gable) and a Nob Hill impresario (Holt) who became rivals for the affections of a beautiful singer (MacDonald), both personally and professionally in 1906 San Francisco. The story culminated in the deadly April 18, 1906 earthquake that devastated the city. 

In the movie, a gambling hall tycoon named Blackie Norton (Gable) hires an impoverished but classically-trained singer from Colorado named Mary Blake (MacDonald). Mary also attracts the attention of a wealthy Nob Hill patron named Jack Burley (Holt), who believes that she is destined for a better career as an opera singer. Mary becomes a star attraction at Blackie’s saloon, and a romance develops between them. Complications arise when she is also courted by Burley. He also offers her an opportunity to sing in the opera. Meanwhile, Blackie’s childhood friend, Roman Catholic Father Tim Mullen (Tracy), keeps trying to reform him, while the other nightclub owners attempt to convince Norton to run for the City and County of San Francisco Board of Supervisors in order to protect their crooked interests. Despite Father Tim’s best efforts, Blackie remains a jaunty Barbary Coast atheist until the famous 1906 earthquake devastates the city. He “finds God” upon discovering that had Mary survived.

Basically, “SAN FRANCISCO” is an excellent movie filled with vitality, good performances and great music. Director Woody Van Dyke did an excellent job of capturing the color and energy of San Francisco during the Gilded Age. He was ably supported by the movie’s Assistant Director (Joseph M. Newman) and montage expert (Slavko Vorkapich). Composer Bronislaw Kaper and lyricist Gus Kahn wrote the now famous title song, performed by MacDonald. One of the best moments in the film occurred when MacDonald’s character announces her intention of performing the song in the movie’s Chicken’s Ball, producing applause and cries of joy from the audience. As for the famous earthquake itself . . . I am amazed that after seventy years or so, I still find it impressive. To this day, the earthquake montage is considered one of the standards that all disaster films are compared with. In fact, Assistant Director Newman won a special Academy Awards for his work.

Robert Hopkins (who received an Oscar nomination) wrote the story for “SAN FRANCISCO” and the famous Anita Loos wrote the screenplay. Hopkins and Loos created a good, solid story. But I have to be honest that I found nothing remarkable about it. It seemed like your basic Gable programmer from the 1930s that easily could have been set during any time period in American history . . . well, except for the actual earthquake. I do have one major problem with the movie’s plot – namely its religious subplot in which Father Mullen spends most of his time trying to redeem Blackie. Quite frankly, it struck me as heavy-handed and a little out of place. Perhaps Hopkins and Loos had intended for the scene in which Blackie found Mary offering compassion to some of the earthquake’s survivors to be a tender and emotional moment. It could have been . . . if they had left out the heavy religious theme.

The only good thing about the religious aspect of the story was Spencer Tracy’s presence in the film. One cannot deny that he gave the best performance in the movie. Well, he and veteran actress, Jessie Ralph, who portrayed Jack Burley’s Irish-born mother. But Tracy’s presence also meant that one had to deal with the movie’s religious subplot. And as much as I liked Tracy in the film, I think it could have done without him. Jeanette MacDonald gave a solid performance as the saloon hall singer-turned opera diva, Mary Blake. However . . . I found MacDonald’s singing more remarkable than her character. Pardon me for saying this but Mary is one boring woman. Rather typical of the female characters that Gable’s characters had romanced in his movies during the mid and late 1930s. I find it amazing that two dynamic men like Blackie and Burley were so dazzled by her. Both Clark Gable and Jack Holt gave solid performances as the two rivals wooing for Mary’s hand. Ironically, despite the differences in their characters’ backgrounds, they were chillingly alike. Both were charming, gregarious and extremely underhanded men. Quite frankly, I found it amazing that Mary could prefer one over the other.

Despite some flaws – the most obvious being the religious subplot that turned out to be as subtle as a rampaging elephant – “SAN FRANCISCO” is a first-class, rousing movie filled with music, drama, laughs and one of the best special effect sequences in movie history. I heartily recommend it.

 

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“MILDRED PIERCE” (1945) Review

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“MILDRED PIERCE” (1945) Review

I have been a fan of the 1945 movie, “MILDRED PIERCE” for years. Ever since the age of twelve. But many years have passed since I felt the urge to watch it. When I learned about the recent HBO version of the story, I decided to re-visit the past and watch the movie again. 

Based upon James M. Cain’s 1941 novel, “MILDRED PIERCE” is about a middle-class woman who struggle to make a new life for herself and her daughters and maintain their social position, following the break-up of her marriage during the last years of the Great Depression. After a difficult search Mildred finds a job as a waitress, but she worries that it is beneath her middle-class station. More than that, she worries that her ambitious and increasingly pretentious elder daughter, Veda, will view her new job as demeaning. Mildred encounters both success and failure as she opens a chain of successful restaurants, operates a pie-selling business and copes with the death of her younger daughter, Kay. Veda enjoys her mother’s newfound financial success but turns increasingly ungrateful and demanding, while openly condemning Mildred for becoming a working woman.

Anyone familiar with Cain’s novel would immediately realize that screenwriters Ranald MacDougall, William Faulkner and Catherine Turney took a great deal of liberties with the plot. One, the movie only spanned at least four to five years, in compare to the nine years featured in the novel. Any references to the Great Depression were eliminated altogether. However, the movie did feature one scene in which Mildred wrote the year 1939 on some document. In the novel, Mildred’s younger daughter was named Ray, not Kay. Nor did she die in the bedroom of the house owned by her father’s mistress, Mrs. Biederhof, as shown in the film. And Mildred’s friend, Lucy Gessler and co-worker Ida Corwin were combined into the wise-cracking Ida, who started out as Mildred’s boss and ended up as her partner (or manager – I am still not certain). References to Veda’s training as a pianist and later success as an opera singer, were tossed. The movie only made brief mention of her training as a singer. More importantly, Mildred’s second husband, Monty Beragon, was never killed. In fact, there was no murder mystery at all in Cain’s novel. Monty’s murder was invented by the filmmakers, because the old Production Code required that evildoers – namely the selfish and pretentious Veda and Monty, who were caught necking by Mildred – be punished for their misdeeds.

Even after so many years, “MILDRED PIERCE” remained a very entertaining and energetic film. Somewhat. The movie had one or two problems. One, why on earth did the screenwriters allow Ray (pardon me) Kay to die at the home of Bert Pierce’s mistress? How tacky is that? Why did he not have the good sense to take his younger daughter to the hospital? When I first saw the movie years ago, I had no problems with the murder mystery that had been included in the plot. But when I watched the movie recently, it finally occurred to me that the focus upon Monty’s murder in the first fifteen or twenty minutes nearly bogged down the movie’s pacing. I found myself longing to reach for my DVD remote and push the Fast Forward button. But a part of me argued that I had to watch every moment of the film to fully appreciate it. Fortunately, the movie eventually delved into Mildred’s back story, which included the breakup of her marriage, the job hunt, Ray’s (pardon me) Kay’s death, her first meeting with Monty, the launch of her first restaurant and most importantly, her relationship with Veda. As the unfolding of Mildred’s life weaved its magic spell, the script occasionally broke away from this very entertaining melodrama and forced us to contemplate the identity of Monty’s murderer. And every time this happened, the movie nearly grounded to a halt. I used to derive a great deal of pleasure when the very evil Veda was revealed as Monty’s murderer. Unfortunately, the pleasure of that moment failed to grasp me, the last time I saw “MILDRED PIERCE”. I finally remembered that when I first saw the movie, I knew that Veda was the killer. And her reason for killing Monty? After Mildred had interrupted Veda and Monty’s passionate embrace, the latter made it clear to his spoiled stepdaughter that he would always love Mildred. Go figure. When I first saw the movie, I cheered when Veda was being led away by the police. But after my last viewing, I realized that transforming Veda into a murderer did not solve the main problem – namely Mildred’s unhealthy love for her daughter. As Veda was being led away by the police, the look on Mildred’s face expressed her continuing obsession over the former. Nothing had really changed – at least not the relationship between Mildred and Veda. In the end, attaching the murder mystery did not solve a damn thing.

But despite these flaws, “MILDRED PIERCE” is still a first-rate movie after sixty-six years. The screenwriters and director Michael Curtiz handled the meat of the story – Mildred’s tormented relationship with Veda – with great skill and drama. I was happy to notice that the best aspects of Cain’s plot remained intact. My favorite sequences include Mildred’s lessons on the restaurant business as a waitress, the introduction of Monty’s character, the showdown between Mildred and Veda over the former’s waitress uniform, and Veda’s attempt to blackmail the wealthy Forresters with a fake pregnancy. I also have to commend Curtiz for providing the movie with his usual brisk pacing. I realize that I had earlier complained of the pacing featured in the movie’s first 15 to 20 minutes. And although the movie threatened to bog down in the scenes that featured the murder mystery, I thought that Curtiz handled the other aspects of Mildred’s life with his usual competent and artistic manner.

Fans of Cain’s novel have complained that this adaptation have skimmed one or two strong aspects of Mildred’s personality – namely her narcissist obsession toward Veda. I cannot say that I fully agree with this criticism. Mind you, I do believe that the movie failed to delve deeply into the aspect of Mildred’s personality that led her to indulge in Veda’s desires at nearly every opportunity. But MacDougall, Faulkner and Turney’s screenplay did not ignore it altogether. In the argument scene that featured the Pierces’ breakup, Bert pointed out Mildred’s penchant for indulging Veda’s whims . . . almost to the point of ignoring younger daughter Kay. Mind you, Bert is not completely blameless, considering his lack of interest in Veda and his failure to provide for his family. And in another scene, Mildred’s snobbery and class aspirations – something in which she had passed on to Veda – is apparent in her insistence that Kay continue with her dance lessons, despite the latter’s tomboyish nature and disinterest in any kind of social aspirations.

What can I say about the cast of “MILDRED PIERCE”? To be honest, I cannot find fault in the performances featured in the movie. Many have criticized Bruce Bennett for giving a dull performance as Bert Pierce, Mildred’s first husband, who leaves the family in a financial lurch. Mind you, his portrayal of Bert did not exactly rock my boat. But I did not find it dull – especially in two scenes that featured a heated argument between his character and Mildred. Butterfly McQueen gave an entertaining performance as Mildred’s maid, Lottie. Even more importantly, her character was not the wince inducing cliché that she portrayed in 1939’s “GONE WITH THE WIND”. Jo Ann Marlowe was charming as Mildred’s earthy and tomboyish younger daughter, Kay. I especially enjoyed her little spoof of Carmen Miranda. Both Jack Carson and Eve Arden gave deliciously sarcastic performances as Bert’s ex-partner Wally Fay (Burgan in the novel) and Mildred’s boss-turned-partner Ida Corwin. In fact, both were given some of the best lines in the movie. I cannot help but wonder if this line – “Personally, Veda’s convinced me that alligators have the right idea. They eat their young.” – had led to Arden’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination.

Zachary Scott has portrayed a good number of heels throughout his movie career. But none of them had been as interesting as his performance as Monty Beragon, the Pasadena socialite who becomes Mildred’s second husband. Instead of portraying Monty as a one-note villain or sleaze, Scott portrayed the character as a complex personality that seems to convey both some of the good and a good deal of the bad in humanity, and who became a tool in Mildred’s campaign to win back her daughter . . . and grew to resent her for it and his willingness to become her gigolo. Ann Blyth earned a well deserved Best Supporting Actress nomination for her portrayal of Veda Pierce, Mildred’s snobbish, selfish and ungrateful older daughter. And I must say that she did a superb job. What impressed me about Blyth’s performance was that not only did she convey all of the venality of Veda’s personality without going over the top, she also managed to hold her own against the powerhouse of Joan Crawford. Speaking of the latter actress, the role of Mildred Pierce must have seemed like a godsend to her career. After eighteen years with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Crawford found herself shoved aside for new starlets to fill the studio’s roster. Warner Brothers saved her career with a new contract and the Mildred Pierce role. And Crawford gave it everything she got. Some have accused the Hollywood icon of being obvious in a pursuit for Oscar gold. Personally, I simply saw a first-rate performance. She did an excellent job of conveying Mildred’s determination to become a successful businesswoman and obsession toward winning Veda’s love. Most importantly, I do not believe that she was “over melodramatic” as some critics have claimed. If I have to be honest, I consider Mildred Pierce to be one of her best roles.

After reading this review, one would suspect that my opinion of “MILDRED PIERCE” is not be as positive as it used to be. And that person would be right. My latest viewing of the film detected some flaws that I had failed to notice in the past. The biggest flaw seemed to be the screenwriters’ attempt to combine aspects of film noir and melodrama. It simply did not work for me, because the movie’s noir aspects dragged the pacing. But despite any flaws, I feel that the movie still manages to hold up very well after nearly seventy-four years. And this is all due to Michael Curtiz’s excellent direction, Ernest Haller’s photography, some very sharp dialogue and characterization, and a first-rate cast. Even after all of these years, “MILDRED PIERCE” is still entertaining to watch.

 

“SOME LIKE IT HOT” (1959) Review

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“SOME LIKE IT” (1959) Review

It has been called one of the greatest film comedies of all time . . . and possibly the greatest. Billy Wilder’s 1959 comedy, “SOME LIKE IT HOT” has been the topic of many books and documentaries on both Hollywood and the director’s career. I have seen the movie more times than I can remember. And for the first time, I have decided to publicize my feelings on it.

Directed by Billy Wilder and co-written by him and I.A.L. Diamond, “SOME LIKE IT HOT” is a remake of a 1935 French film called “FANFARE D’AMOUR”, which was based upon a story by Robert Thoeren and Michael Logan. “FANFARE D’AMOUR” was first remade in 1951 by director Kurt Hoffmann as “FANFAREN DER LIEBE”. However, the French and German versions did not feature gangsters as an integral part of their plots. “SOME LIKE IT HOT” told the story of a pair of struggling jazz musicians who end up witnessing the Saint Valentine Day Massacre – at least a fictionalized account of it. When the Chicago gangsters, led by “Spats” Columbo see them, the two flee Chicago for their lives by taking a job as members of an all-girl band heading for Florida . . . disguised as women. The musicians, Joe and Jerry, become enamored of a “Sugar” Kane Kowalczyk, the band’s vocalist and ukulele player. And both struggle for her affection, while maintaining their disguises. In order to win Sugar’s affection, Joe assume a second disguise as a millionaire named “Junior”, the heir to Shell Oil. As for Joe, he has attracted the attention of a real millionaire named Osgood Fielding III. But when “Spats” Columbo and his men make an unexpected appearance at a gangster’s convention at their hotel, all hell breaks loose.

Does “SOME LIKE IT HOT” deserve its reputation as one of the greatest film comedies of all time? I believe it does. In fact, it happens to be my personal favorite comedy of all time. Fifty-nine years have passed since it was first released and it is just as fresh and hilarious as ever. More importantly, “SOME LIKE IT HOT” features some twisted humor that does not seem dated at all. Mind you, there have been other movies and television series (think “BOSOM BUDDIES” of the early 1980s) with a gender bender theme. But not one of them have been as funny as “SOME LIKE IT HOT”. Not even 1982’s “VICTOR/VICTORIA” – which is a close second for me – is not as funny. Both movies featured the insidious possibilities of cross-dressing. But whereas the 1982 movie is a bit more obvious and a little preachy in its attempt to convince moviegoers to accept what is presented on the screen, “SOME LIKE IT HOT” is a lot more subtle and funny, thanks to Wilder and Diamond’s script. In fact, the movie’s last line said a lot more about the consequences of cross dressing than any other movie ever had. I only have one complaint about Wilder and Diamond’s script. From the moment “Spats” Columbo and his men arrived in Florida, I found the movie’s plot and pacing somewhat rushed. Only Marilyn Monroe’s poignant rendition of “I’m Through With Love”, Pat O’Brien, Nehemiah Persoff and the last scene saved the movie’s final fifteen to twenty minutes.

Production-wise, “SOME LIKE IT HOT” seemed pretty top-notch. Production manager Allen K. Wood did his best to re-create the late 1920s for the film. I certainly had nothing to complain about Edward G. Boyle’s sets and Ted Haworth’s art direction, both earning Academy Award nominations. Although a part of me find the idea of “SOME LIKE IT HOT” shot in color somewhat appealing (see the photograph above), I must admit that Charles Lang’s black-and-white photography (also an Oscar nominee) looked very attractive – especially his photography of San Diego’s famous Hotel Del Coronado standing in as the Florida hotel where Sweet Sue’s band performed. Legendary Hollywood veteran Orry-Kelly won the film’s only Academy Award for his costume designs. I must admit that I found them very impressive and captured the late 1920s beautifully. I only wish that the women’s shoes worn with the costumes had been just as accurate. Looking at Marilyn Monroe’s famous walk along the train station platform, I could easily tell that her shoes were circa 1958-59. And I could say the same for the hairstyles worn by the female cast members.

Speaking of the cast,they were superb . . . every last member. The supporting cast provided brief, but memorable moments from the likes of Billy Gray as a young hotel bellhop lusting after Joe (as Josephine), Nehemiah Persoff as the colorful crime boss Little Bonaparte, Beverly Willis as band member and lover of raunchy jokes Dolores, Dave Barry as the band’s “dignified” manager Beinstock and a delicious Pat O’Brien as the sardonic police detective Mulligan. The movie also featured a funny performance from Joan Shawnlee as the band’s tough talking leader, Sweet Sue. And George Raft was effectively menacing as bootlegger/gangster “Spats” Columbo. I have only seen Joe E. Brown in perhaps two roles . . . and one of them was Osgood Fielding III, the sweet and hilarious millionaire whose heart is captured by Jerry aka “Daphne”. I have a deep suspicion that Osgood may have been one of Brown’s best movie roles ever. And he also had the good luck to utter one of the funniest and memorable last lines in Hollywood history.

But the movie truly belonged to Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon. Monroe won a Golden Globe award for her performance as the love-sick chartreuse, “Sugar” Kane Kowalczyk. She may or may not have been difficult during the movie’s production, but she more than earned that Golden Globe award. She was funny, poignant, sweet . . . and slightly mercenary – especially in her character’s pursuit of the fictional Shell Oil heir, “Junior”. It is heartening to see that so many have finally learned to appreciate Tony Curtis’ talents as an actor. While co-stars Monroe earned a Golden Globe and Jack Lemmon earned an Oscar nomination, Curtis ended up with the “short end of the lollipop”. Pity, because he was just as funny as the seductive trombone player Joe. But I found his portrayal of the fictional “Junior” even funnier and he managed to utter the second funniest line in the movie. Bull fiddler Jerry aka “Daphne” led to a second Academy Award nomination for Jack Lemmon . . . and he deserved it. One, he formed a great comedy team with Curtis (with whom he would reunite six years later in “THE GREAT RACE”). Two, watching him assume the airs of woman had me rolling on the floor. But what really cracked me up were his acceptance of the possibility of becoming Osgood’s next bride, while basking in the throes of their night together at a Cuban restaurant. It was a superb comedic moment for Lemmon and I would not be surprised if it was the very one that led to his nomination.

What else can I say about “SOME LIKE IT HOT”? Okay, it is not perfect. I was able to spot a few flaws in the costumes and one in the plot. But it is the closest to a perfect film comedy I have seen so far. And remember . . . this movie had been made fifty-nine years ago. William Wyler’s remake, “BEN-HUR” ended up sweeping the Oscars for that year. Pity. I have never been a fan of that movie. And if it had been up to me, I would have given the top awards to “SOME LIKE IT HOT”.

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“LIVE AND LET DIE” (1973) Review

 

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“LIVE AND LET DIE” (1973) Review

Between 1967 and 1972, EON Productions spent a chaotic five years trying to find one man to portray James Bond following Sean Connery’s decision to retire from the role. Nineteen sixty-eight found Australian model, George Lazenby in the role. But after one movie, the excellent “ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE”, Lazenby decided that he did not want to continue the role. Connery came back for one last movie – “DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER”, but did not bother to stick around. 

Then in 1972, Broccoli and Saltzman hired Roger Moore (famous for the TV series, “THE SAINT”) to portray the British agent. And Moore went on to play the role for the next 12 years. But he had to start somewhere and he did with 1973’s “LIVE AND LET DIE”, an adaptation of Ian Fleming’s 1954 novel. This was the very first Bond movie I had ever seen. Although I have a great sentimental attachment to the movie, I do not really consider it to be among the finest in the franchise. Nor is it a personal favorite of mine.

Following the murders of three MI-6 agents (in New York, New Orleans and the fictional island of San Monique), Bond is assigned by “M” to investigate their deaths. His investigations in New York leads him to a Harlem gangster named Mr. Big. But as it turns out, Mr. Big is also San Monique’s foreign minister, Dr. Kanaga. Bond eventually learns that Kanaga/Mr. Big plans to use the heroin grown in the San Monique opium fields to flood the current heroin market and gain complete control of the U.S. drug market (very similar to the schemes of Harlem gangster, Frank Lucas). He ordered the three British agents killed, because apparently they were in danger of stumbling upon his scheme.

I am going to be frank. As much as I like “LIVE AND LET DIE”, I have never been impressed by the screenplay written by Tom Mankiewicz. It never made any sense to me that the British government would be interested in the activities of a diplomat from an island that had obviously been a former French colony, or an American gangster. If the three agents and Bond had been French, I could see them working with CIA agent Felix Leiter on this case. But there you have it. And Bond’s San Monique showdown with Kanaga had always struck me as being rather disappointing. Another aspect of the movie I found disappointing was the leading lady – namely Jane Seymour as Kanaga’s Tarot card seer, Solitaire. I have nothing against Seymour’s performance. She seemed to be her usual, competent self. But other than predicting Bond’s arrival in New York and later, at Kanaga’s San Monique estate; and warning Bond about Rosie Carver (via a Tarot card), I found nothing impressive about Solitaire’s role in the story. Especially since she eventually became nothing more than a moaning damsel-in-distress. And Geoffrey Holder as Baron Semedi did not really do much for me, but his ghostly appearance at the end of the movie was memorable.

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Fortunately, “LIVE AN LET DIE” had its virtues. Roger Moore’s long experience with action roles in television (“MAVERICK”“THE SAINT”, and “THE PERSUADERS”) allowed him to segued into the Bond role with great ease. He already seemed very comfortable in the role. And without any problems, Moore managed to establish his own style. Unfortunately, very few people appreciated this at the time. And Yaphet Kotto created an impressive villain in an interesting duel role as the smooth and intelligent Kanaga/the bombastic Mr. Big. To this day, Julius Harris’ TeeHee remains one of my favorite Bond henchmen of all time. All I can say was that the man was perfect – humorous, yet very menacing. David Hedison’s friendship with Moore proved to be very effective in his first outing as CIA agent, Felix Leiter. The warmth and easy manner between Leiter and Bond seemed more apparent than in any other Bond film. And I rather enjoyed Gloria Hendry’s performance as the amusingly clumsy, yet treacherous Rosie Carver. And let us not forget the hilarious and unforgettable Clifton James as the long-suffering Southern lawman, Sheriff J.W. Pepper. James’ peformance was so impressive that the producers brought him back to reprise his role in 1974’s “THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN”.

Also among the movie’s virtues was its smooth direction by Guy Hamilton, which included a rather fun boat chase through the Louisiana bayou, fine performances and the rich atmosphere of New York’s Harlem and New Orleans. Cinematographer Ted Moore did much to contribute to the film’s atmosphere. But it is the movie’s score by George Martin and theme song by Paul McCartnery and Wings that seemed to be the movie’s most impressive virtue . . . other than Moore, Kotto, Harris and James’ performances. Although the story for “LIVE AND LET DIE” struck me as unimpressive, I still find the movie to be very entertaining.

 

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“WESTWARD HO!”: Part One – “HOW THE WEST WAS WON” (1962)

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Below is Part One to my article about Hollywood’s depiction about the westward migration via wagon trains in 19th century United States. It focuses upon the 1962 movie, “HOW THE WEST WAS WON”

“WESTWARD HO!”: Part One – “HOW THE WEST WAS WON” (1962)

I. Introduction

The sprawling 1962 movie, “HOW THE WEST WAS WON” focused upon the fifty (50) years history of the Prescott-Rawlins family between 1839 and 1889. The movie was divided into five sections – “The Rivers”“The Plains”“The Civil War”“The Railroad” and “The Outlaws”. Westbound migration was featured in the movie’s first two segments – “The River” and “The Plains”.

“HOW THE WEST WAS WON” opens in 1839 (I think) with the Prescotts, a family from upstate New York, westbound to settle on new land in Illinois. After a trip along the Erie Canal, the Prescotts and their traveling companions, the Harveys from Scotland, build flatboats for the westbound journey on the Ohio River. During their journey, they meet a mountain man named Linus Rawlins (James Stewart), who is eastbound to sell his furs in Pittsburgh. The Prescotts’ oldest daughter, Eve (Carroll Baker), and Linus fall in love. After a disastrous encounter with river rapids that led to the deaths of Mr. and Mrs. Prescott; Eve decides to settle at the very location of their deaths in Southern Ohio and accept Linus’ marriage proposal. Younger sister Lilith Prescott (Debbie Reynolds) decides to move on.

“The Plains” picks up over a decade later, with Lilith as a dance hall performer in St. Louis. She learns from an attorney that she has inherited a California gold claim from a now deceased customer. Lilith travels to Independence, where she joins a California-bound wagon train by becoming the traveling companion of a middle-aged woman named Aggie Clegg (Thelma Ritter), willing to use Lilith’s looks to attract eligible men for marriage. Lilith also attracts the attention of two men, wagonmaster Roger Morgan (Robert Preston) and a roguish gambler named Cleve Van Valen (Gregory Peck).

II. History vs. Hollywood

To this day, I never understood why screenwriter James R. Webb allowed the Prescotts and the Harveys to travel across the Erie Canal. It is obvious that he had every intention of having them settle in Southern Ohio, along the River. So why use that route? According to the 1840 map below, the Erie Canal was a waterway that stretched from Albany to Buffalo in upstate New York.

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This meant that the Prescotts and Harveys’s first leg of their journey ended at Buffalo, along the shores of Lake Erie. Are we really supposed to believe that the two families then journeyed from Buffalo to the banks of the Ohio River, in order to reach Illinois, when they could have easily traveled near the U.S.-Canada border to reach their destination? And Webb failed to reveal how they reached the Ohio River without a wagon. He could have allowed Eve Prescott and the other surviving members of the family to settle in Illinois or Ohio near one of the Great Lakes . . . or avoid the Erie Canal altogether and end up in Southern Ohio. Unfortunately, the screenwriter settled for a convoluted route. Even worse, he had mountain man Linus Rawlins traveling toward Pittsburgh to sell furs. Really? In 1839? Linus could have easily sold his furs further west in St. Louis or more importantly, Independence in western Missouri, without having to cross the Mississippi River.

When Lilith Prescott traveled to California after inheriting her California gold claim over a decade later, she chose the correct route – the Oregon/California Trails. However, Webb, director Henry Hathaway, and the producers decide to include nearly every cliché regarding western migration.

One, gambler Cleve Van Valen tried to join Roger Morgan’s wagon train in Independence, in order to make acquaintance with Lilith. He was told to get lost. Cleve managed to catch up with the wagon train some 100 miles west of Independence. Yet, the terrain looked suspiciously arid for eastern Kansas. The wagon trains used in this production were very large. In fact, they struck me as looking larger than a typical Conestoga wagon. One scene in the movie featured Cleve and a group of male emigrants playing poker inside one wagon . . . while it was traveling. This was Hollywood history at its worse. And guess what? Those wagons were pulled by horses, not oxen or mules.

“HOW THE WEST WAS WON” never featured any well known landmarks along the Oregon/California Trails. I suspect this was due to the movie’s constraining time for each segment. However, there was time to feature a large scale attack on the wagon train by a horde of Cheyenne warriors. And this attack was made against a large and well-armed wagon train. In reality, there would have never been such an attack in the first place. And if such a thing had happened, the Cheyenne would have been seriously wiped out.

I cannot deny that “HOW THE WEST WAS WON” was an entertaining film. But in the end, it turned out to be too much “Hollywood” and not enough “History”.

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“MOROCCO” (1930) Review

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“MOROCCO” (1930) Review

As a long time movie buff, I have read a great deal about Hollywood’s Pre-Code Era, a brief period in which the film industry barely made an effort to enforce its Production Code, which forbade any open portrayal of controversial topics like sexual innuendos, prostitution, and excessive violence. Among the movies discussed during this period were the seven films that served as a collaboration between director Josef von Sternberg and actress Marlene Dietrich. 

The second film that the pair made together (and their first in Hollywood) was “MOROCCO”, the 1930 adaptation of “Amy Jolly”, Benno Vigny’s 1927 novel. The movie, which also starred Gary Cooper and Adolphe Menjou is basically a melodramatic love story between Amy Brown, a cabaret singer, and an American-born Legionnaire named Tom Brown, who fall in love during the Rif War (also known as the Second Second Moroccan War), which was fought during the first half of the 1920s. Their potential romance is threatened by his womanizing and a wealthy Frenchman named Kennington La Bessière, who develops an interest in Amy. Also complicating Amy and Tom’s potential love life is the latter’s past affair with his commanding officer’s wife, which has attracted the jealous attention of the officer, one Adjutant Caesar.

“MOROCCO” is not the first Dietrich-von Sternberg collaboration I have seen. And I am not going to pretend that it was their best film together. Because it was not. Once you strip away the iconic Dietrich moments during one of her cabaret act, the steamy chemistry between Dietrich and Cooper, and the exotic Moroccan setting; it is basically a somewhat lurid melodrama. I did not find the dialogue written by screenwriter Jules Furthman particularly
scintillating. It was a miracle that both Cooper and Menjou were barely able to rise above some of the stiff dialogue. Poor Dietrich did not fare as well, due to “MOROCCO” being her first English-speaking movie. It was easy to see that the actress had to phonetically delivered her dialogue. The songs she had performed in the movie were not only unmemorable, but not very good . . . if I must be frank. And the action surrounding a particular battle scene in which the jealous Adjutant Caesar tries to kill Tom Brown came off as a bit uninspiring.

But “MOROCCO” had its virtues. One, I was very impressed with Lee Garmes’ cinematography for the movie. Between his soft-focus photography, Hans Dreier’s art design and Elizabeth McGreary’s production work; Yuma, Arizona made an excellent stand-in for Morocco. Two, the movie may have been a borderline turgid melodrama, but I must admit that I found the relationship between Amy Jolly and Tom Brown rather interesting. It seemed pretty obvious that both had been romantically damaged in the past and resorted to different means to deal with their pain. Amy resorted to projecting a cool and disdainful facade to any man who might express interest in her. And Tom resorted to womanizing – an act that nearly got him in trouble with Adjutant Caesar. And yet, no matter how they tried, the pair seemed unable to overcome their deep interest in each other. This was apparent when Cooper uttered what became for me, the movie’s best line:

“I’ve told women about everything a man can say. I’m going to tell you something I’ve never told a woman before: I wish I’d met you ten years ago.”

Dietrich’s silent reaction to his words pretty much confirmed that Amy shared Tom’s feelings. However, there were other aspects of “MOROCCO” that I found very interesting. Many have commented on that moment in the film in which Dietrich’s Amy Jolly kissed a woman during her cabaret act. With the actress in a tuxedo and top hat and a playful expression on her face, I must admit that I found the moment very memorable myself. What I found equally memorable was the moment in which she tossed a flower at Cooper, who immediately tucked it behind his ear before regarding her with deep attraction. Cooper must have been very comfortable with his masculinity in order to shoot that particular scene. Although I was not that impressed by the battle scene featuring the Legionnaires and the Moroccans, I must admit that I found Caesar’s final moment on screen hard to forget. But if there is one scene that will always stick with me is that last scene with Amy joining a group of camp followers, marching across the desert in the wake of Tom and the other Legionnaires in his regiment. That scene of a bare-footed Amy with the other camp followers, with the desert sand blowing and the wind emitting from the soundtrack, is something I do not think I will ever forget. I thought it was a very classic ending to a somewhat classic film.

“MOROCCO” featured some solid performances from the supporting cast. I was especially impressed by Ullrich Haupt as Adjutant Caesar, Eve Southern as Madame Caesar, Francis McDonald as Sergeant Tatoche and Juliette Compton as Anna Dolores. As for the leads . . . Adolphe Menjou gave a charming and charismatic performance as the wealthy Kennington La Bessière. However, there were times when I found it hard to believe that his La Bessière was so infatuated with Amy. He simply did not seem that passionate toward her . . . at least to me. I think Gary Cooper fared somewhat better as the womanizing Legionnaire Tom Brown. Despite his portrayal of Tom’s attitude toward Amy and other women, I feel that Cooper was a little more successful in conveying his character’s true feeling for Amy. As I had stated earlier, I believe that Marlene Dietrich’s lack of experience with the English language and phonetically delivery of her dialogue led her to come off as a bit stiff in some of her scenes. I am amazed that she managed to earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. Although she more than managed to rise to the occasion in scenes that either did not require dialogue from her or when her character performed on the stage.

But you know what? Despite its flaws – and it had plenty, I rather enjoyed “MOROCCO” very much. It never tried to pretend to be more than it was – merely a romantic melodrama in an exotic setting. Despite the movie’s turgid nature, I thought Josef von Sternberg did an excellent job in maintaining my interest in the story with a well-balanced pacing. The movie also featured some interesting and complex characters that were performed not only by a solid supporting cast, but also three charismatic leads who would continue to forge successful careers – namely Gary Cooper, Marlene Dietrich and Adolphe Menjou.

“ENCHANTED” (2007) Review

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“ENCHANTED” (2007) Review

When I first saw Disney’s 2007 live-action film, “ENCHANTED”, I found myself experiencing mixed reactions.  On one hand, the movie – more or less – turned out to be exactly how I had expected. The trailer had pretty much revealed the gist of the movie. Yet, when I finally saw it, I ended up enjoying it a lot more than I had expected I would. 

The story is basically about an animated heroine named Giselle (Amy Adams) who lives in the blissful animated world of Andalasia, where magical beings frolic freely, animals are talkative companions and musical interludes punctuate every interaction. Giselle becomes engaged to the handsome, valiant, and bumbling Prince Edward (James Marsden). Her fate takes a turn for the worse when his stepmother, the villainous Queen Narissa (Susan Sarandon), throws her through a magic portal, apparently to her doom, in order to keep her stepson single and remain queen of Andalasia. Giselle’s plunge into darkness lands her in the strange and chaotic world of New York City. As the cruelty of this new place wears down the fairy-tale idealism of the once carefree maiden – like a homeless man stealing her tiara – the frightened Giselle meets the pragmatic divorce attorney Robert Philip (Patrick Dempsey), who takes her into his apartment, despite belief that she is a little crazy. Robert also has to deal with his own fiancée, a very attractive attorney with a penchant for romance named Nancy Tremaine (Idina Menzel). When Giselle’s chipmunk friend, Pip, reveals Giselle’s whereabouts to Edward, Narissa orders her besotted henchman Nathaniel (Timothy Spall) to accompany Edward and Pip to New York and prevent her stepson and the missing bride-to-be from reconciling.

“ENCHANTED” is basically a predictable story. Even before the last reel, I knew that Giselle and Robert would fall in love. From the moment Edward met Nancy at the ball, I knew those two would also become a couple. I knew that Nathaniel would eventually realize that Narissa viewed him as worthless and betray her. And I knew that Narissa would end up in New York and nearly kill Giselle. But what I did not expect was how I would enjoy the way the cast – especially Adams, Marsden, Spall, Menzel and Sarandon, screenwriter Bill Kelly and director Kevin Lima poked fun at the Disney animated fantasy legacy. They did it with fun, color and gentle humor. Okay, the humor was not always gentle. Jodi Benson (the voice of Ariel of “THE LITTLE MERMAID” and who portrayed Robert’s assistant) caustically made fun of Giselle’s “fairy princess” voice. Giselle’s talent for making friends with animals of all kinds was definitely a spoof of several Disney princesses’ friendships with . . . animals. Only Giselle may have taken it to an extreme by summoning them to clean Robert’s house. I do not know about you, but I would be freaking out at the thought of birds, mice and cockroaches inside my home. The “happily ever after” for most of the characters seemed a little saccharine, but on the whole I enjoyed the movie very much.

“ENCHANTED” proved to be the first time I saw Amy Adams in action. And quite frankly, I was impressed. I still am. Not only did I admire her singing voice, I especially admired how she maintained Giselle’s perky “fairy princess” personality up until the end – even if it suffered the occasional bumps from Robert’s more cynical views on love, her disappointing reunion with Edward and her encounter with Narissa. I realize that Patrick Dempsey’s career had bounced back with the TV series, “GREY’S ANATOMY”, but since I do not watch the show . . . this was my first time in seeing him in action since his days as a leading man during the late 1980s and 1990s. And it was nice to see that his talent has not waned one bit. He is still as charismatic and professional as ever. I must admit that it was a bit strange seeing him portray a character less extroverted than his roles from the past.

James Marsden. Dear James. I think his talent was wasted in the “X-MEN” movies and “SUPERMAN RETURNS”. He really shone in his role as the valiant, yet slightly pompous Prince Edward. Hell, the man was perfect. And he was also charming enough for me to be happy that his character had a happy ending with someone – namely Nancy- in the film. It was good to see Timothy Spall again, after his appearances in two “HARRY POTTER” films. Actually, his role as Narissa’s henchman, Nathaniel, strongly reminded me of his other famous role – Peter Pettigrew. But unlike Peter, Nathaniel proved to have more balls . . . and something of a moral compass in the end. But his performance was thoroughly first-class as usual. Broadway star Idina Menzel did a first-class job in projecting an interesting mixture of romance and a little cynicism in her portrayal of Robert’s more romantic-minded fiancée, Nancy. I was surprised that she did not perform any songs in this film. But since I enjoyed her performance anyway, I did not see the need for a musical performance from her. And of course there is Oscar winner Susan Sarandon, who portrayed the villainess – the conniving and greedy – Queen Narissa. Sarandon spent most of the movie peforming Narissa’s voice in the animated sequences. But she was just as deliciously evil when her flesh-and-blood counterpart arrived in New York City. One could tell that Sarandon was enjoying herself. And for a brief moment, we got to see how she had manipulated Prince Edward all of those years, pretending to be his loving stepmother. I have only one complaint – I did not really care for the platform shoes she wore. Visually, it did not exactly mesh with the rest of her image.

If you are expecting surprises from this charming spoof of Disney fantasy animation, you are going to be disappointed. As I had stated before, it is a rather predictable movie. But if you are expecting first-class entertainment, laughs, music and a good story, then “ENCHANTED” is your movie and I suggest that you see it as soon as possible.