“THE CAT’S MEOW” (2001) Review

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“THE CAT’S MEOW” (2001) Review

There have been many accounts of the infamous November 1924 cruise held aboard William Randolph Hearst’s yacht, in honor of Hollywood producer Thomas H. Ince’s birthday. But the biggest . . . and probably the most fictionalized account was featured in “THE CAT’S MEOW”, Peter Bogdanovich’s adaptation of screenwriter Steven Peros’ stage play.

The movie takes place aboard Hearst’s yacht on a weekend cruise celebrating Ince’s 42nd birthday. Among those in attendance include Hearst’s longtime companion and film actress Marion Davies, fellow actor Charlie Chaplin, writer Elinor Glyn, columnist Louella Parsons, and actress Margaret Livingston. Many of the guests harbor agendas that revolve around Hearst and Davies. Chaplin, who has become infatuated with the actress, sees the weekend cruise as a chance to declare his feelings for her . . . and convince Davies to end her relationship with the publisher. Parsons sees the cruise as a chance to develop a stronger professional relationship with her boss, Hearst, and relocate from the East Coast to Hollywood. Faced with a bad financial situation and accompanied by his mistress Margaret Livingston, Ince hopes to convince Hearst to allow him to become a partner in the publisher’s Cosmopolitan Pictures. Hearst suspects that Davies and Chaplin are engaged in an affair and has great difficulty in battling his jealousy. Thanks to this jealousy, a violent death ends the cruise, which becomes a subject of Hollywood legend.

After watching “THE CAT’S MEOW”, I realized that after so many years of documentaries and somewhat mediocre films, Peter Bogdanovich had maintained his touch as a first-rate director. At least back in 2000-2001. “THE CAT’S MEOW” struck me as a first-rate character study of a good number of film and publishing luminaries in the world of 1920s Hollywood. What I found interesting is that aside from one or two characters, most of them are not what I would call particularly sympathetic. Well, superficially, hardly any of them are sympathetic – including the very likable Marion Davies, who was not only Hearst’s official mistress, but who was doing a piss-poor job of hiding her attraction for Charlie Chaplin. But despite the lack of superficial charm, the movie managed to reveal the demons and desires of each major character. And thanks to Steven Peros’ screenplay and Bogdanovich’s direction, characters like Hearst, Davies, Chaplin and Ince rose above their superficial venality and ambiguity to be revealed as interesting and complex characters. The most interesting aspect of “THE CAT’S MEOW” was that many of the characters’ agendas either succeeded or failed, due to the romantic drama that surrounded Hearst, Davies and Chaplin.

For costume drama fans such as myself, “THE CAT’S MEOW” offered a tantalizing look into the world of Old Hollywood in the 1920s. Bogdanovich made a wise choice in hiring Jean-Vincent Puzos to serve as the movie’s production designer. In fact, I was so impressed by his re-creation of November 1924 that I felt rather disappointed that his efforts never received an Academy Award nomination. Puzos’ work was aided by the art direction team led by Christian Eisele and Daniele Drobny’s set decorations. But the second biggest contributor to the movie’s 1920s look were the gorgeous costumes designed by Caroline de Vivaise. I was extremely impressed by how the costumes closely adhered to the fashions worn during that particular decade. But de Vivaise did something special by designing all of the costumes in black and white – as some kind of homage to the photography used during that period in Hollywood. And if anyone is wondering whether de Vivaise won any awards or nominations for her work . . . she did not. What a travesty.

Bogdanovich gathered an impressive cast for his movie. “THE CAT’S MEOW” featured first-rate performances from the likes of Claudie Blakley and Chiara Schoras as a pair of fun-loving actresses that embodied the spirit of the 1920s flappers; Claudia Harrison as Ince’s frustrated mistress, actress Margaret Livingston; Ronan Vibert as one of Hearst’s minions, the stoic Joseph Willicombe; and Victor Slezak as Ince’s sardonic and witty colleague, George Thomas. But the more interesting performances came from Jennifer Tilly, who gave a delicious performance as the toadying and opportunistic columnist, Louella Parsons; Joanna Lumley as the wise and occasionally self-important novelist Elinor Glyn; and especially Eddie Izzard, who was surprisingly subtle and witty as the wise-cracking, yet passionate Charlie Chaplin.

But in my opinion, the three best performances in “THE CAT’S MEOW” came from Edward Herrmann, Cary Elwes and Kirsten Dunst. The latter was the only member of the cast to earn an award (Best Actress at the Mar del Plata Film Festival) for her performance as Hollywood starlet and W.R. Hearst’s mistress, Marion Davies. What made Dunst’s performance so remarkable was that she was the only one – as far as I know – who portrayed the actress as a complex and intelligent personality, instead of the one-note stereotype that director Orson Welles had introduced in his 1941 movie, “CITIZEN KANE”. I suppose one could credit screenwriter Steven Peros for writing a more realistic portrayal of Davies’ true nature. But it would have never worked without Dunst’s performance. Cary Elwes gave – in my opinion – the best performance of his career so far as the harried and ambitious movie producer, Thomas Ince. What made Elwes’ performance so impressive was the subtle manner in which he conveyed Ince’s desperation to save his career as a Hollywood producer through any means possible. But for me, the best performance came from Edward Herrmann as the wealthy and controlling William R. Hearst. Herrmann did a superb job in conveying some of the worst aspects of Hearst’s nature – sense of privilege, arrogance, his bullying and bad temper. Yet, Herrmann also managed to convey Hearst’s desperate love for Davies and vulnerabilities through the more unpleasant mask. It was a remarkable performance that failed to garner any real recognition. And this is more of a travesty to me than the lack of awards for production design or costumes.

I tried to recall anything about the movie that left a negative mark within me and could only come up with one or two matters. The movie seemed to be in danger of slowing down to a crawl, following the tragic shooting that followed Ince’s birthday party. I wonder if Bogdanovitch had tried too hard to reveal the details that led to the cover up of the incident. However, one particular scene really annoyed me to no end. It was the scene that featured Elinor Glyn’s theory about the “California Curse”:

“The California Curse strikes you like a disease the Minute you set foot into California … so pay close attention, my dear. You see this place you’ve arrived in, the place we call home…isn’t a place at all. But a living creature. Or more precisely an evil wizard like in the old stories. And we all live on him like fleas on the belly of a mutt. But unlike the helpless dog, this wizard is able to banish the true personalities of those he bewitches. Forcing them against their will to carry out his command, to forget the land of their birth, the purpose of their journey, and what ever principals they once held dear. The Curse is taking hold of you if you experience the following: You see yourself as the most important person in any room. You accept money as the strongest force in nature. And finally your morality vanashes without a trace.”

As far as I am concerned, Elinor Glyn was full of shit. She could have easily described any individual who forgets his or her principles, no matter where that person resided. And according to Ms. Glyn, the curse has three symptoms – seeing yourself as the focus of all conversations, using money as the most important measure of success, and the disappearance of all traces of morality. Why did she seemed to believe that such a mindset only existed in Calfornia . . . or better yet, Hollywood, is beyond me. Anyone with too much ambition could acquire this curse in many other places in the world. Peros and Bogdanovich’s decision to include this crap in the movie damn near came close to ruining my enjoyment of the movie.

But in the end, I managed to overcome my annoyance of the so-called “California Curse”. Why? Because “THE CAT’S MEOW” remained a first-rate and entertaining movie about Old Hollywood that impresses me, even after sixteen years.“Hooray for Hollywood!”.

 

“JANE EYRE” (1943) Review

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“JANE EYRE” (1943) Review

Many fans of Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel, “Jane Eyre”, are aware that numerous (probably over twenty) television and movie adaptations of it had been made over the past several decades. While perusing the Internet, I was surprised to discover that the opinion of the 1943 adaption seemed to be extremely divided. Fans either regard it as the best adaptation or the worst. There seemed to be no middle ground.

As many know, “JANE EYRE” told the story of young 19th century English orphan who is forced to live at the Yorkshire estate of her widowed aunt-by-marriage, Aunt Reed. After a recent altercation between niece and aunt, the latter sends Jane Eyre to be educated at an all-girls school operated by a tyrannical and religious zealot named Mr. Lowood. Jane spends eight years at the school as a student and two years as a teacher. She eventually leaves Lowood School after she is hired as a governess for Adèle Varens, the French-born ward of a mysterious landowner named Mr. Edward Rochester. Not long after her arrival at Thornfield Hall, the Rochester estate, Jane meets her enigmatic employer. It does not take long before Jane and Rochester’s relationship evolve from employee/employer to friends, before it eventually becomes romantic. However, a possible romantic rival for Jane and a secret in Thornfield’s attic prove to be major obstacles in the road to romance for the young governess and her employer.

So . . . how does “JANE EYRE” hold up after 71 to 72 years? Actually, I believe it holds up pretty well. I thought director Robert Stevenson and the screenplay he co-wrote with John Houseman, Aldous Huxley, and Henry Koster did a solid job in translating Brontë’s novel to the screen. Many critics and movie fans have noted that this adaptation seemed to have convey the novel’s Gothic atmosphere a lot stronger than other versions. I supposed one has cinematographer George Barnes, production designer William L. Pereira and set decorator Thomas Little to thank. However, I recently learned it was Orson Welles (who not only served as leading man, but also an uncredited producer) who had convinced Stevenson and his fellow co-producers William Goetz and Kenneth Macgowan to inject more Gothic visuals into the movie. I could not say that René Hubert’s costume designs contributed to the movie’s Gothic atmosphere. But I was impressed by how Hubert’s costumes reflected the movie’s early 1840s setting, as shown in the images below:

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I certainly had no problems with how the movie handled Jane’s story through most of the film. From the opening scene in which the leading character found herself harassed by the Reed film to her disrupted wedding to Edward Rochester. I usually find it difficult to endure the Lowood School scenes in other adaptations of Brontë’s novels. But I cannot say the same about this adaptation. I really had no problem with it. It could be that I was so fascinated by the performances of Peggy Ann Garner, Elizabeth Taylor and Henry Daniell that I completely forgot that I was watching one of my least favorite sequences in the story. And of course, the best part of “JANE EYRE” remained the growing friendship and romance between the titled character and Rochester. This was especially apparent in two sequences – Rochester’s courtship of Blanche Ingram during his house party and Jane’s confession of her love for him.

Although I was impressed by how Stevenson and the film’s other screenwriters handled Brontë’s tale up to Jane and Rochester’s disastrous wedding ceremony, I could not say the same about the rest of the film. In fact, it suffered from the same narrative problem that plagued several other adaptations – a weak finale. First of all, this is the only adaptation in which Jane never meets the Rivers siblings – St. John, Diana and Mary. She does meet a Doctor Rivers, who first treated Jane when she was a Lowood student. Instead of seeking refuge with the trio, Jane returns to Gateshead Hall, the home of her dying Aunt Reed. Following her aunt’s death, Jane reunites with Rochester. That is it. And I hate to say this, but the entire sequence – between Jane’s departure from Thornfield Hall to her return – seemed very rushed and unsatisfying.

I also have another major problem with the movie – its Gothic elements. There were times when these elements served the mysterious aspects of the movie very well. However, a good deal of these “Gothic touches” struck me as heavy handed . . . to the point that they ended up annoying me. This was apparent in Jane’s first meeting with Rochester, with so much fog swirling around the pair that at times they seemed almost hidden. The worst aspect of these “Gothic touches” occurred in the scene in which Jane and Rochester confessed their love for one another. The moment the pair sealed their engagement with a kiss, a bolt of lightning came out of the sky and struck a nearby log. I mean . . . come on! Really?

A good number of critics and movie fans did not seem particularly impressed by Joan Fontaine’s portrayal of Jane Eyre. I never understood the complaints. I thought she did an excellent job. More importantly, her portrayal of the passionate, yet introverted Jane seemed spot on. What were these critics expecting? An over-the-top performance by Fontaine? Jane Eyre is not an overtly emotional character – at least as an adult. However, I am happy to note that Fontaine certainly had a strong screen chemistry with her leading man, Orson Welles. Many have stated that Welles pretty much dominated the movie. To me, that is like saying every actor who has portrayed Edward Rochester overshadowed the actresses who have portrayed Jane. Personally, I thought Welles’ enigmatic and quick-witted portrayal of Rochester complimented Fontaine’s more introspective performance rather well. I guess these fans and critics did not want balance . . . just two very theatrical performances.

The other performances in the movie struck me as first-rate. Agnes Moorehead, who was part of Welles’ Mercury Theater company before her arrival in Hollywood, portrayed Jane’s haughty Aunt Reed. And I must say that she did an excellent job in portraying the character with a not-too-shabby English accent. Henry Daniell was equally impressive as the tyrannical head of Jane’s school, Mr. Lowood. But I was really impressed by Margaret O’Brien, who did a remarkable job as Rochester’s French ward, Adèle Varens. I would not know an authentic French accent, if I was stuck in the middle of Paris. But I must say that O’Brien’s accent was just as good as the other young actresses who portrayed Adèle. And she gave such a charming performance . . . at the age of six.

But O’Brien was not the only child star who gave an excellent performance. Peggy Ann Garner was equally impressive as the young Jane Eyre, who had no qualms about butting heads with the haughty Reed family. Also in the film was a young Elizabeth Taylor, who gave a mesmerizing performance as Jane’s doomed young friend, Helen Burns. I was surprised to discover that Hillary Brooke, who portrayed Blanche Ingram, was an American actress. I thought she was very convincing as the charmingly bitchy and very English Blanche. The movie also featured solid performances from Sara Allgood, John Sutton, Edith Barrett and Barbara Everest.

So . . . do I feel that “JANE EYRE” is the best or worst adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s novel? Honestly? I would say neither. Yes, there were times I could barely deal with the movie’s over-the-top Gothic atmosphere. And yes, I found the last quarter of the film both weak and rushed. But overall, I would say that it is a pretty good film. And I believe that it still holds up rather well after 73 to 74 years.

“EVELYN PRENTICE” (1934) Review

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“EVELYN PRENTICE” (1934) Review

“EVELYN PRENTICE” marked the third collaboration between William Powell and Myrna Loy in 1934. MGM Studios first had the pair co-star with Clark Gable in the hit crime melodrama, “MANHATTAN MELODRAMA”. Then the pair hit gold and became solidified as a screen team in “THE THIN MAN”. Following the success of the latter, MGM paired them in a melodrama called “EVELYN PRENTICE”.

William K. Howard directed this adaptation of W.E. Woodward’s 1931 novel about Evelyn Prentice, the neglected wife of a successful attorney, who drifts into dangerous waters when she becomes involved with another man. Although she loves her husband, John Prentice, Evelyn begins to despair of his long hours and begins to wonder if his career is more important to him than his family. John becomes engrossed in defending a young socialite named Nancy Harrison and has a brief affair with her before she is acquitted. Before Evelyn can celebrate his latest success, John is called to Boston for another case and during the train journey, encounters Miss Harrison. When Evelyn learns about Miss Harrison’s presence aboard the Boston-bound train, she commences upon a flirtation with a handsome man named Lawrence Kennard. Unfortunately, Lawrence proves to be a gold-digging gigolo, who blackmails Evelyn with a compromising letter. Just as Evelyn finds a gun inside a desk drawer, Lawrence’s girlfriend, Judith Wilson hears gunfire. But Evelyn manages to leave Lawrence’s room before being spotted by Judith. Evelyn eventually learns that Judith has been arrested for murder. And out of a sense of guilt, she convinces John to defend the younger woman.

I did not know what to expect with “EVELYN PRENTICE”. I had never heard of it, until recently. I knew it was a drama and did not expect any of the usual witty exchanges that highlighted the best of their “THIN MAN” movies and other comedies. Actually, screenwriters Lenore J. Coffee and Howard Emmett Rogers (uncredited) provided a good deal of witticism in “EVELYN PRENTICE”, but only for Una Merkel, who portrayed Evelyn’s best friend, Amy Drexel. I liked the costume designs created by Dolly Tree, who had served as Myrna Loy’s usual designer at MGM . . . even if I found them a tad over-the-top. Frank E. Hull’s editing proved to be valuable in the scene that featured Lawrence Kennard’s shooting. As for the performances, they proved to be solid, although not exactly dazzling. There were two or three performances that impressed me. They came from Merkel’s sharp-witted performance as best friend Amy; Isabel Jewell, who gave a passionate performance as Lawrence’s abused girlfriend, Judith Wilson; and even veteran actress Jessie Ralph, who gave a brief, yet lively performance as a charwoman who lived in the same building as the victim. Rosalind Russell made her screen debut as John Prentice’s lovesick client, Nancy Harrison. Mind you, I found her performance a bit theatrical, but at least she injected some fire into the movie.

Unfortunately, there was a good deal about “EVELYN PRENTICE” that made it difficult for me to really enjoy this film. I have nothing against melodrama. But there is good melodrama and there is bad. As far as I am concerned, “EVELYN PRENTICE” was not good melodrama. One, the performances of the two leads – Myrna Loy and William Powell – annoyed me. They did not give bad performances. But Loy spent a good deal of the movie utilizing enough pensive expressions that rivaled Evangeline Lilly from Season One of “LOST”. She almost bored me senseless. Powell, on the other hand, bored me. Although his John Prentice did not cheat on his wife during that train journey from New York to Boston, he did sleep with his client earlier in the film. I never realized that adultery could be so boring and I am afraid that Powell is to blame, not Russell. Cora Sue Collins portrayed the Prentices’ young daughter, Dorothy. She was sweet, cute and typical of the early 1930s child actors that I have always found nauseating. Shirley Temple made this kid look refreshing. And Harvey Stephens’ Lawrence Kennard proved to be one of the dullest gigolos in film history. This guy made sexiness seem like a bore.

In the end, it was Coffee and Rogers’ adaptation of Woodward’s novel, along with Howard’s direction that sunk this movie for me. For about the first fifteen or twenty minutes, I had no problems maintaining interest in this movie. But it did not take long for my interest to drift away from the plot. I was in danger of falling asleep. My interest perked again, following the death of the Lawrence Kennard character. I found myself wondering when Evelyn would tell the truth about what happened and save the girlfriend from a noose. I have never read the 1933 novel, so I do not know whether the solution to the movie’s plot came directly from the novel or was created by Coffee and Rogers. Needless to say, the legal solution to the Kennard murder took me by surprise . . . in a very negative way. I found myself disgusted by how the writers resolved the whole matter, when I first saw the film. And thinking about it later, I am still shaking my head in disbelief.

What else can I say about “EVELYN PRENTICE”? I have read some reviews of the movie and there are some movie fans who liked it. I had hoped to become a fan of the movie. But between the lackluster performances of the leads, the mind-boggling bad writing, and William K. Howard’s dull direction; I can honestly say that I hope to never lay eyes on this film again. I am a big fan of Powell and Loy, but I feel this movie was one of their major missteps during their tenure as a screen team.

Top Ten Favorite HISTORY DOCUMENTARIES

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Below is a list of my favorite history documentaries:

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE HISTORY DOCUMENTARIES

1 - Ken Burns The Civil War

1. “The Civil War” (1990) – Ken Burns produced this award-winning documentary about the U.S. Civil War. Narrated by David McCullough, the documentary was shown in eleven episodes.

2 - Supersizers Go-Eat

2. “The Supersizers Go/Eat” (2008-2009) – Food critic Giles Coren and comedian-broadcaster Sue Perkins co-hosted two entertaining series about the culinary history of Britain (with side trips to late 18th century France and Imperial Rome).

3 - MGM - When the Lion Roared

3. “MGM: When the Lion Roared” (1992) – Patrick Stewart narrated and hosted this three-part look into the history of one of the most famous Hollywood studios – Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM).

4 - Africans in America

4. “Africans in America: America’s Journey Through Slavery” (1998) – Angela Bassett narrated this four-part documentary on the history of slavery in the United States, from the Colonial era to Reconstruction.

5 - Queen Victoria Empire

5. “Queen Victoria’s Empire” (2001) – This PBS documentary is a two-part look at the British Empire during the reign of Queen Victoria. Donald Sutherland narrated.

6 - Motown 40 - The Music Is Forever

6. “Motown 40: The Music Is Forever” (1998) – Diana Ross hosted and narrated this look into the history of Motown, from its inception in 1958 to the 1990s.

7 - Ken Burns The War

7. “The War” (2007) – Ken Burns created another critically acclaimed documentary for PBS. Narrated by Keith David, this seven-part documentary focused upon the United States’ participation in World War II.

8 - Manor House

8. “The Edwardian Manor House” (2002) – This five-episode documentary is also a reality television series in which a British family assume the identity of Edwardian aristocrats and live in an opulent Scottish manor with fifteen (15) people from all walks of life participating as their servants.

9 - Elegance and Decadence - The Age of Regency

9. “Elegance and Decadence: The Age of Regency” (2011) – Historian Dr. Lucy Worsley presented and hosted this three-part documentary about Britain’s Regency era between 1810 and 1820.

10 - Ken Burns The West

10. “The West” (1996) – Directed by Steven Ives and produced by Ken Burns, this eight-part documentary chronicled the history of the trans-Appalachian West in the United States. Peter Coyote narrated.

HM - Fahrenheit 9-11

Honorable Mention: “Fahrenheit 9/11” (2004) – Michael Moore co-produced and directed this Oscar winning documentary that took a critical look at the presidency of George W. Bush, the War on Terror, and its coverage in the news media.

“LIFE WITH FATHER” (1947) Review

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“LIFE WITH FATHER” (1947) Review

Warner Brothers is the last studio I would associate with a heartwarming family comedy set in the 19th century. At least the Warner Brothers of the 1940s. And yet, the studio did exactly that when it adapted Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse’s 1939 play, “Life With Father”, which happened to be an adaptation of Clarence Day’s 1935 novel.

If I must be frank, I am a little confused on how to describe the plot for “LIFE WITH FATHER”. But I will give it my best shot. The movie is basically a cinematic account in the life of one Clarence Day, a stockbroker in 1880s Manhattan, who wants to be master of his house and run his household, just as he runs his Wall Street office. However, standing in his way is his wife, Vinnie, and their four sons, who are more inclined to be more obedient of their mother than their father. You see, Vinnie is the real head of the Day household. And along with their children, she continues to demand that Mr. Day overcome his stubbornness and make changes in his life.

Thanks to Donald Odgen Stewart’s screenplay, “LIFE WITH FATHER” focused on Mr. Day’s attempt to find a new maid; a romance between his oldest son Clarence Junior and pretty out-of-towner named Mary Skinner, who is the ward of his cousin-in-law Cora Cartwright; a plan by Clarence Jr. and second son John to make easy money selling patent medicines; Mrs. Day’s health scare; Mr. Day’s general contempt toward the trappings of organized religion; and Mrs. Day’s agenda to get him baptized. Some of these story lines seem somewhat disconnected. But after watching the movie, I noticed that the story lines regarding Clarence Junior and John’s patent medicine scheme were connected to Clarence Junior’s romance with Mary and Mrs. Day’s health scare. Which played a major role in Mrs. Day’s attempt to get her husband baptized. Even the baptism story line originated from Cousin Cora and Mary’s visit.

Many would be surprised to learn that Michael Curtiz was the director of “LIFE WITH FATHER”. Curtiz was not usually associated with light comedies like “LIFE WITH FATHER”. Instead, he has been known for some of Errol Flynn’s best swashbucklers, noir melodramas like “MILDRED PIERCE”, the occasional crime drama and melodramas like the Oscar winning film, “CASABLANCA”. However, Curtiz had also directed musicals, “YANKEE DOODLE DANDY” and “FOUR DAUGHTERS”; so perhaps “LIFE WITH FATHER” was not a stretch for him, after all. I certainly had no problem with this direction for this film. I found it well paced and sharp. And for a movie that heavily relied upon interior shots – especially inside the Days’ home, I find it miraculous that the movie lacked the feel of a filmed play. It also helped that “LIFE WITH FATHER” featured some top notch performers.

William Powell earned his third and last Academy Award nomination for his portrayal as Clarence Day Senior, the family’s stubborn and temperamental patriarch. Although the Nick Charles character will always be my personal favorite, I believe that Clarence Day is Powell’s best. He really did an excellent job in immersing himself in the role . . . to the point that there were times that I forgot he was an actor. Powell also clicked very well with Irene Dunne, who portrayed the family’s charming, yet manipulative matriarch, Vinnie Day. It is a testament to Dunne’s skill as an actress that she managed to convey to the audience that despite Clarence Senior’s bombastic manner, she was the real head of the Day household. Unlike Powell, Dunne did not receive an Academy Award nomination. Frankly, I think this is a shame, because she was just as good as her co-star . . . as far as I am concerned.

“LIFE WITH FATHER” also featured excellent performances from the supporting cast. Jimmy Lydon did a wonderful job portraying the Days’ oldest offspring, Clarence Junior. Although Lydon was excellent portraying a character similar in personality to Vinnie Day, I found him especially funny when his Clarence Junior unintentionally project Mr. Day’s personality quirks when his romance with Mary Skinner threatened to go off the rails. Speaking of Mary Skinner, Elizabeth Taylor gave a very funny and superb performance as the young lady who shakes up the Day household with a burgeoning romance with Clarence Junior and an innocent remark that leads Mrs. Day to learn that her husband was not baptized. Edmund Gwenn gave a skillful and subtle performance as Mrs. Day’s minister, who is constantly irritated by Mr. Day’s hostile stance against organized religion. The movie also featured excellent performances from Martin Milner, ZaSu Pitts, Emma Dunn, Derek Scott and Heather Wilde.

Another aspect of “LIFE WITH FATHER” that I found admirable was its production values. When it comes to period films, many of the Old Hollywood films tend to be on shaky ground, sometimes. For the likes of me, I tried to find something wrong with the production for “LIFE WITH FATHER”, but I could not. J. Peverell Marley and William V. Skall’s photography, along with Robert M. Haas’ art direction, and George James Hopkins’ set decorations all combined to the household of an upper middle-class family in 1885 Manhattan. But the one aspect of the film’s production that really impressed me was Marjorie Best’s costume designs. Quite frankly, I thought they were beautiful. Not only did they seem indicative of the movie’s setting and the characters’ class, they . . . well, I thought they were beautiful. Especially the costumes that Irene Dunne wore.

As much as I had enjoyed “LIFE WITH FATHER”, I could not help but notice that it seemed to possess one major flaw. Either this movie lacked a main narrative, or it possessed a very weak one. What is this movie about? Is it about Clarence Junior’s efforts to get a new suit to impress Mary Skinner? Is it about Mrs. Day’s health scare? Or is it about her efforts to get Mr. Day baptized? I suspect that the main plot is the latter . . . and if so, I feel that is pretty weak. If this was the main plot in the 1939 Broadway play, then screenwriter Donald Odgen Stewart should have changed the main narrative. But my gut feeling tells me that he was instructed to be as faithful to the stage play as possible. Too bad.

I see now that the only way to really enjoy “LIFE WITH FATHER” is to regard it as a character study. Between the strong characterizations, and superb performances from a cast led by Oscar nominee William Powell and Irene Dunne, this is easy for me to do. It also helped that despite the weak narrative, the movie could boast some excellent production values and first-rate direction from Michael Curtiz. You know what? Regardless of the weak narrative, “LIFE WITH FATHER” is a movie I could watch over and over again. I enjoyed it that much.

“THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES” (1965) Review

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“THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES” (1965) Review

Many comedies featuring a long running time and a cast of celebrities were very prevalent in Hollywood and Europe during the 1960s. One of the more famous of these films happened to be the epic 1965 comedy titled “THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES, Or How I Flew from London to Paris in 25 Hours 11 Minutes. Directed and co-written by Ken Annakin, this two hour and eighteen minutes film depicted an comedic air race between London and Paris in 1910.

Director Annakin first came up with the idea of a pre-World War I air race while co-directing Darryl Zanuck’s World War II epic, “THE LONGEST DAY” (1962). He pitched the idea to the producer and the latter agreed to bankroll the film. Zanuck also came up with the movie’s title, after Elmo Williams, managing director of 20th Century Fox in Europe, told the producer that his wife had written an opening lyric to the movie’s song:

“Those magnificent men in their flying machines,
They go up diddley up-up, they go down diddley down-down!”

Annakin complained would eventually “seal the fate of the movie”. However, after being put to music by composer Ron Goodwin, the “Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines” song would become the “irresistible” jingle-style theme music for the film and go on to have a “life of its own”, even released in singles and on the soundtrack record. I can relate. To this day, I still consider the tune one of the best theme songs in movie history.

Annakin, along with Jack Davies, wrote a story that opened with a brief, comic introductory segment on the history of , narrated by James Robertson Justice and featuring American comedian Red Skelton (in a cameo appearance) that depicted a recurring character whose aerial adventures span the centuries, in a series of silent blackout vignettes that incorporate actual stock footage of unsuccessful attempts at early aircraft. As the story unfolded, Lord Rawnsley (Robert Morley), a newspaper magnate whose favorite to win his race is his daughter’s ( fiancé, Richard Mays (James Fox). Lord Rawnsley summed up the expectation that a Britisher should win the competition: “The trouble with these international affairs is they attract foreigners.” An international cast plays the array of contestants, most of whom live up to their national stereotypes, including the fanatically by-the-book, monocle-wearing Prussian officer (Gert Fröbe), the impetuous Count Emilio Ponticelli (Alberto Sordi), an amorous Frenchman (Jean-Pierre Cassel), and the rugged American cowboy Orville Newton (Stuart Whitman), who falls for Lord Rawnsley’s daughter, Patricia (Sarah Miles).

The main entertainment came from the amusing dialogue and characterizations and the daring aerial stunts, with a dash of heroism and gentlemanly conduct thrown in for good measure. Terry-Thomas portrayed the cheating Sir Percival Ware-Armitage, an aristocratic rogue who “never leaves anything to chance”. With the help of his bullied servant Courtney (Eric Sykes), he sabotaged other aircraft or drugs their pilots – only to get his comeuppance in the end. The film is also notable for its use of specially constructed reproductions of 1910-era aircraft, including a triplane, as well as monoplanes and biplanes. Air Commodore Wheeler insisted on using the authentic materials of the originals, but with modern engines and modifications (where necessary) to ensure safety.

In the end, “THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES” became one of the most successful “epic comedies”to emerge from the 1960s. Not only did it score top notches at the box office, it was also nominated and received various movie awards in both the U.S. and Great Britain. The original screenplay written by Ken Annakin and Jack Davies was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Writing Directly for the Screen (1966). The film was also nominated in the category of Best Writing, Story and Screenplay – Written. At the 1966 Golden Globes, the film won Best Motion Picture Actor – Musical/Comedy for Alberto Sordi, as well as being nominated in Best Motion Picture – Musical/Comedy and Most Promising Newcomer Male for James Fox.

I can say with true honesty that “THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES” has become one of my favorite movies from the 1960s. Ken Annakin and his production crew had created a stylish and funny movie. The movie was filled with memorable characters like Terry-Thomas’ dastardly Sir Percival Ware-Armitage, Alberto Sordi’s eager aviator Count Emilio Ponticelli and Gert Fröbe’s by-the-book Prussian Colonel Manfred von Holstein. One very witty moment featured the arrival of the Japanese pilot, Yamamoto (Yujiro Ishihara), whose description of his journey from Japan to Great Britain turned out to be less exciting than a reporter had assumed.

Thomas N. Morahan’s production design and Osbert Lancaster’s costumes managed to evoke the bygone era of Europe and especially Great Britain during the last years before the outbreak of World War II. Christopher Challis’ photography and the Special Effects department led by Ron Ballinger did a great job in re-creating the actual air race shown during the last third of the film. Two of my favorite scenes featured the contestants leaving Dover to cross the English Channel and the race’s exciting finale in Paris. I also enjoyed the pre-race interlude at Dover in which the contestants and their families/companions spend a few hours frolicking in the sea and sipping champagne.

Not all seemed perfect with “THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES”. One tiresome aspect of the film included the running joke featuring Pierre Dubois’ (Jean-Pierre Cassel) encounters with six women of different nationalities that all look alike and are portrayed by Irina Demick. I found it slightly amusing when Dubois encountered two of the women. By the time of Dubois’ encounter with the fifth Irina Demick, I found myself screaming for the joke to end. Romance did not fare very well in the movie. Granted, James Fox’s Mays and Sarah Miles’ Patricia made a quaint couple. But Whitman’s arrival as Orville Newton, Mays’ rival in the race and for Patricia’s hand, did not improve matters. The problem was that Whitman and Miles made a poor screen team. According to Annakin, the two actors had a falling out after Whitman attempted to romantically pursue Miles and the two ended up disliking each other so much, they had trouble portraying a romance between Orville and Patricia. Mind you, Whitman and Miles had a few scenes that did generate chemistry. I suspect those scenes had been filmed before the fallout.

I must admit that “THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES” can boast some hilarious moments and dry wit. But most of the humor seemed focused upon the Keystone Cops antics of the aviators during the days leading up to the race and the race itself. Most of the film’s humor featured bizarre plane crashes, hackneyed stunts and cliché portrayals of the various nationalities featured in the film. I rather liked the comedian Benny Hill . . . but not in this movie. In “THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN”, he portrayed a fire chief, whose job was to keep an eye out for aviation accidents. And whenever a crash occurred, it gave Hill and his cronies the opportunity to engage in an extreme form of slapstick humor that forced me to press the Fast Forward button of my DVD player . . . every damn time. But if there is one aspect of the movie I find frustrating, it is the fact that “THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINE” is a two hour and eighteen minute film about an air race . . . that does not occur on screen until the last 45-47 minutes. The movie’s first fifteen or twenty minutes focused upon the characters’ introduction. But most of the movie’s action does not focus upon the race. Instead, it focused upon the few days before the race in which one has to endure practice flights that include countless crashes and slapstick humor. And every time I watch this film, I find this aspect so . . . damn . . . FRUSTRATING.

Technically, “THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES” is a first-rate film. Although I found some of the dry humor to be rather sharp and entertaining, the slapstick humor that dominated the film became very hard for me to bear. I am also not thrilled that only one-third of the film had focused upon the actual race. But I have to give the movie points for the creation of interesting characters like Sir Percy Ware-Armitage and Count Emilio Ponticelli, along with a memorable and catchy theme song. And I must give Annakin and his production crew credit for re-creating a charming look at the elegance of pre-World War I Europe. Overall, “THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES” has remained a fun and entertaining look at the early days of aviation that moviegoers today might still enjoy.

“THE FOUR FEATHERS” (1939) Review

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“THE FOUR FEATHERS” (1939) Review

There have been seven versions of A.E.W. Mason’s 1902 novel, “The Four Feathers”. At least three of them were silent films. In 1939, British producer Alexander Korda released the first sound adaptation of the novel. This version was also the first one to be filmed in color. Directed by Korda’s brother, Zoltan Korda, “THE FOUR FEATHERS” starred John Clements, June Duprez, Ralph Richardson and C. Aubrey Smith.

Not only was this version of “THE FOUR FEATHERS” the first to feature both sound and color, it is regarded by many as the best adaptation of Mason’s novel. Fifteen years has passed since I last saw this movie. When I first saw it back in the mid-1990s, I was very impressed by this film. After seeing it fifteen years later (or more), I am still impressed. Somewhat. Granted, my admiration for the movie has dimmed slightly, but I still believe that it is a first-class movie.

Unlike Mason’s novel or the recent 2002 version, this version of “THE FOUR FEATHERS” is not set right after General Charles Gordon’s death in 1885. Instead, the movie is set in 1895. Harry Faversham is an officer in the British Army and his regiment has been ordered to the Sudan to avenge the death of Charles “Chinese” Gordon from ten years ago. On the eve of its departure, British officer Harry Faversham (Clements) resigns his commission. As a result, his three friends and fellow officers, Captain John Durrance (Richardson) and Lieutenants Burroughs (Donald Grey) and Willoughby (Jack Allen), express their contempt of his supposed cowardice by each sending him a white feather attached to a calling card. When his fiancée, Ethne Burroughs (Duprez), says nothing in his defense, he bitterly demands one more from her. She refuses, but he plucks one from her fan and leaves. While the officers go off to war, he admits to his old acquaintance Dr. Sutton (Frederick Culley) that he is a coward and must make amends. He departs for Egypt. There, he adopts the disguise of a native with the help of Dr. Harraz (Henry Oscar), choosing to play a despised mute Sangali to hide his lack of knowledge of the language.

What can I saw about “THE FOUR FEATHERS”? For one, it is a beautiful looking film. I understand that it had been filmed in both Great Britain and in Sudan. And photographers Georges Périnal and Osmond Borradaile did a beautiful job in capturing the scope and color (via Technicolor) of both countries. It was not surprising for me to learn that the film had received an Academy Award nomination for Best Cinematography. I also found Miklos Rozsa’s score, Vincent Korda’s uncredited production design, W. Percy Day’s matte paintings, along with Godfrey Brennan and René Hubert’s costume designs impressive, as well.

But I am merely procrastinating. I have not discussed the meat of the movie – namely the story and the acting. Well, I might as well start with the first. R.C. Sherriff, Lajos Biro and Arthur Wimperis created a solid adaptation of Mason’s novel. They made a few changes. As I had stated before, they set the movie in the 1890s, enabling them to incorporate the British victory at the Battle of Omdurman in September 1898 into the plot. The novel was set around the mid 1880s. The character of Abou Fatma (featured in both the novel and in other versions, including the 2002 movie) is not this film. But these changes did not hurt the plot. “THE FOUR FEATHERS” still turned out to be a rousing action-adventure film. When I first saw the movie back in the early 1990s, the patriotic jingoism surrounding the British Empire did not bother me at all. Fifteen years later, it did. Somewhat. I have seen plenty of old films from the 1930s and 1940s that painted the British Empire in a positive light. Unfortunately, this version of “THE FOUR FEATHERS” did so at a level that sometimes came off as a little too heavy-handed for my taste. I suspect that the reason behind the three screenwriters’ decision to set the movie in the mid-to-late 1890s in order to allow the movie to feature an actual British imperialist victory – Omdurman – and a chance to wave the flag. The movie did question the idea of what constituted bravery or cowardice. But once Harry arrived in the Sudan, the topic never reared its ugly head again. Hmmm. Too bad.

The movie featured a solid, first-rate cast. John Clements gave an excellent performance as Harry Faversham, who is emotionally torn between his aversion to the idea of serving as a British officer and continuing his family’s military tradition. My only quibble with his performance was that I found his . . . ‘portrayal’ of a mute Sangali exaggerated. The other first-rate performance featured in this movie came from Ralph Richardson, who portrayed Faversham’s best friend and romantic rival, Jack Durrance. I was especially impressed by how Richardson conveyed Jack’s desperation to hide his blindness from his command and his hopeless infatuation with Harry’s fiancée, Ethne Burroughs. Who, by the way, was portrayed by June Duprez. Ms. Duprez gave a charming performance. But aside from two scenes – one that featured her discovery of Harry’s resignation from the Army and her regret for pushing him away – Miss Duprez’s Ethne seemed to lack depth. Well known British character actor, C. Aubrey Smith gave a sprightly and funny performance as Ethne’s father, the irascible General Burroughs who continues to live in the past glories of his service during the Crimean War. In fact, the movie’s running joke turned out to be the General’s embellishments of his favorite war story – the Battle of Balaclava.

When one comes down to it, the 1939 version of “THE FOUR FEATHERS” is a rousing and entertaining tale about a disgraced British Army officer who finds redemption through his private heroic acts to protect his former colleagues and friends during the last year of the Mahdist War. My main quibble with the movie centered around the script written by R.C. Sherriff, Lajos Biro and Arthur Wimperis. Granted, they did a first-rate job of adapting Mason’s novel. But aside from the first third of the movie in which the script briefly questioned society’s idea of bravery, the story seemed lack depth and in the end, came off as a propaganda film for the British Empire. However, Georges Périnal and Osmond Borradaile’s Technicolor photography of both England and the Sudan are absolutely breathtaking and deserving of an Oscar nomination. The movie featured a solid cast that included excellent performances by John Clements and Ralph Richardson. And Zoltan Korda kept it all together with his skillful direction that featured some excellent dramatic moments and great action.

I realize that many consider Korda’s version of “THE FOUR FEATHERS” to be the best of the seven already made. This is an opinion that I cannot honestly share. It is also an opinion I have not harbored in the past decade. It is a little too jingoistic for my taste. And aside from the Harry Faversham and Jack Durrance characters, most of the other characters do not strike me as possessing enough depth. But it is a first-rate action-adventure film. And it is easy to see why so many fans still love it after seventy-three years.