“THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER” (1935) Review

 

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“THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER” (1935) Review

For years, I could never understand Hollywood’s penchant for making so many films about the British Empire during the first half of the 20th century. The film industry had released films about imperial outposts under the control of other countries – like France, Spain and even the United States. But why did they film so many about British Imperialism? One of those films is the 1935 feature, “THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER”

“THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER” is based upon the 1930 memoirs of a former British Army officer named Francis Yeats-Brown. But if you are expecting the movie to be a clear adaptation of Yeats-Brown’s book, you are in for a big disappointment. I suspect Paramount Pictures and producer Louis D. Lighton simply used the book’s title and setting – Imperial India – to create their own movie. The movie’s screenwriters, who included Waldemar Young and John L. Balderston, wrote a story about the experiences of three British Army officers serving with the 41st Bengal Lancers on the Northwest Frontier of India. The Scots-Canadian Alan McGregor welcomes two replacements to the 41st Bengal Lancers, the well-born Lieutenant Forsythe and Lieutenant Donald Stone (Richard Cromwell), who happens to be the son of the regimental commander, Colonel Tom Stone. McGregor is regarded as some kind of North American savage, who needs to reign in his aggression. Forsythe, who comes from an upper-class family, takes pleasure in mocking McGregor’s Scots-Canadian ancestry. And Stone grows to resent his father, who is determined to treat him coldly in order not to show any partiality. 

The three officers, who find themselves sharing the same quarters, slowly develop a grudging friendship. However, when word reaches the regiment from intelligence officer Lieutenant Barrett that a local chieftain named Mohammed Khan might be preparing an uprising against the ruling British, Colonel Stone and his senior officers respond with a display of both friendship and power to the chieftain. Unfortunately, Khan kidnaps Lieutenant Stone, using his mysterious “associate” Tania Volkanskaya (portrayed by a rather unexceptional Kathleen Burke) as bait. While Khan tries to extract vital information about a British ammunition caravan from Lieutenant Stone, the latter’s father refuses to make any attempt to rescue him. Outrage, McGregor and Forsythe go after their younger colleague without orders. 

As I had stated earlier, I never could understand Hollywood’s penchant for Imperial British adventures for many years. Until now. I read in a few articles that “THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER” was the first of its kind in this genre. Well . . . not really. The previous year – 1934 – saw the release of John Ford’s World War I adventure, “THE LOST PATROL”. And the silent era produced such films as 1929’s “THE FOUR FEATHERS”. But it was the box office and critical success of “THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER” that kicked off a major influx of British Empire movies that clogged the theaters up to the end of the 1930s. 

How do I feel about “THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER”? Well . . . I certainly do not view it as a bad movie. I thought it was pretty decent. There were aspects of it that I found unoriginal – namely the “bromance” between the three major characters and the conflict involving a rebellious chieftain. How can I put this? I have encountered both scenarios before in other British Empire movies. The three buddies? Hmmm . . . the friendship between McGregor, Forsythe and Stone strongly reminded of a similar friendship between the three protagonists in 1939’s “GUNGA DIN”. One could accuse the 1939 film of plagiarizing the 1935 film, since it was released four years later. But the friendship featured in “GUNGA DIN”was based upon Rudyard Kipling’s collection of short stories called “Soldiers Three”. Who is to say that the movie’s screenwriters used Kipling’s stories as inspiration for the “bromance” in “THE LIVES OF THE BENGAL LANCER”

Speaking of the movie’s trio, why did Paramount cast three American-born actors in the leading roles? Was there really a serious shortage of British actors? As I recall, Ray Milland was under contract with Paramount around that time. The writers made excuses for Gary Cooper and Richard Cromwell’s characters by portraying the former as a Canadian and the latter as an Anglo-American raised in the U.S. Franchot Tone is another matter. He portrayed the upper-class Englishman, Lieutenant Forsythe. Mind you, I have no problems with the actors’ performances. But I had a difficult time watching a movie set in British India . . . and starring three American actors.

I realize “THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER” was the first movie to really utilize the whole “local chieftain rebels against British Imperial authorities” into its plot. This was also used in subsequent movies like “GUNGA DIN”“THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE”, and “WEE WILLIE WINKIE”. The problem is that I have seen these movies before I saw the 1935 film. And if I must be brutally honest, the screenwriters and director Henry Hathaway’s use of this trope rather dry and bloodless. Hell, even the torture that Richard Cromwell’s character underwent was handled off screen.

After viewing “THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER”, it occurred to me that the movie’s character studies impressed me a lot more than the “action-filled” subplot. The interactions between the characters – especially between McGregor, Forsythe and Stone – struck me as a lot more interesting and complex. First of all, the screenwriters and Hathaway did an excellent job in portraying the problems (or lack of them) that the three major characters had with the film’s other supporting characters – especially their fellow British officers. I was especially impressed by the film’s portrayal of the officers’ low regard for McGregor’s so-called North American aggression, and with the younger Stone’s cool relationship with his estranged father. I was also impressed by how the three disparate leading characters developed into a strong friendship by the movie’s last act. But the screenwriters and Hathaway are not the only ones who deserve the praise. The movie’s strong characterization would have never worked without the first-rate performances from the cast – especially Gary Cooper as McGregor, Franchot Tone as Forstythe and Richard Cromwell as the younger Stone. The three actors were ably supported by solid performances from Guy Standing, C. Aubrey Smith and Douglass Dumbrille.

Do not get me wrong. I do not dislike “THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER”. I think it is a pretty solid film. But I find it difficult to believe or accept that it received a total of seven Academy Award nominations. Despite the movie’s strong characterizations and excellent performances, I did not find it particularly exceptional. A part of me believes simply believes it would have been better off as a character study (with a shorter running time) than an epic British Imperial adventure.

 

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“ESCAPE FROM FORT BRAVO” (1953) Review

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“ESCAPE FROM FORT BRAVO” (1953) Review

Years ago, I used to watch a great deal of old movies on late night television. My two favorite channels that offered these movies were Turner Network Television (TNT) and the American Movies Classic (AMC), which used to air movies without any commercial breaks. On TNT, I had stumbled across a Western movie originally released by MGM Studios in 1953 called “ESCAPE FROM FORT BRAVO” (1953) and fell in love with it. After viewing my recently purchased DVD copy of the movie, I could see why it became a favorite of mine.

Directed by John Sturges during the first decade of his directorial career, “ESCAPE FROM FORT BRAVO” told the story of a Union Army officer that served as the second-in-command of a prisoner-of-war camp located in the Arizona Territory in 1863. The movie’s opening pretty much set the stage of what kind of character Captain Roper was, as it depicted him dragging an escaped Confederate prisoner back to Fort Bravo. The fact that Roper was on horseback and his prisoner – a Lieutenant Bailey – was on foot pretty much established the Union officer as a hard-nosed and ruthless man. That flint-like personality was exacerbated by his cynicism, revealed in his reactions to the other characters’ disapproval of his treatment of Bailey. However, chaos soon arrived in the form of one Carla Forrester, a Texas belle who arrived at Fort Bravo to serve as maid-of-honor at the wedding of Alice Owens, the daughter of Fort Bravo’s commanding officer, Colonel Owens. Carla was also there to ensure the escape of the prisoners’ ranking officer, her fiancé Captain John Marsh and a few of his men. In order to keep their Union jailers distracted, Carla set out to seduce and romance the fort’s most feared man – Captain Roper.

When I first saw “ESCAPE FROM FORT BRAVO”, I never thought I would become such a diehard fan of the movie. Do not get me wrong. It was not the best or innovative Western I had ever seen. Screenwriters Frank Fenton and an unaccredited Michael Pate had created a solid character study about conflicts – both political and personal – between the Union and Confederate troops in the Civil War Southwest, and the conflict between the Apaches and everyone else. The movie even had a happy ending – somewhat. Yet, Sturges, Fenton and Pate managed to lift a solid tale into something more fascinating by infusing a great deal of emotion and complexity in the main characters And it were these complex characters that truly made “ESCAPE FROM FORT BRAVO” for me. The characters seemed to seethe with an array of emotions that eventually burst forth as the movie unfolded. Many of these emotions seemed to center around the story’s main character.

One of those characters happened to be Carla Forrester. And Eleanor Parker managed to do a top-notch job in portraying the bundle of contradictions that simmered underneath her ladylike façade. Parker portrayed Carla as a cool Southern belle with impeccable manners and a talent for seduction. Her Carla also possessed the ruthlessness to browbeat a reluctant pro-Southern storekeeper into helping Marsh and his men escape; a boldness that allowed her to chase after Roper in an age where women were valued for being passive; and a great deal of passion for Marsh and later, Roper. One of the more interesting aspects of Parker’s performance was expessing Carla’s struggles to suppress her feelings for Roper. Recently, I learned that Parker had earned the nickname Woman of a Thousand Faces. Judging from her portrayal of Carla Forrester, I would say that she deserved the name.

I have been a fan of John Forsythe since his years as Charlie Townsend’s voice in “CHARLIE’S ANGELS” (1976-1981) and his work on the ABC nighttime soap opera “DYNASTY” (1981-1989). But I must admit that I found his performance in “ESCAPE FROM FORT BRAVO” somewhat perplexing. On one hand, Forsythe did a excellent job in portraying John Marsh’s patience, intelligence and slightly caustic nature – especially in scenes that featured Marsh’s exchanges with his fellow Confederate prisoners. However, there seemed to be something not quite . . . right about the character. I do not know if the fault lay with Forsythe’s performance or Fenton and Pate’s screenplay. The problem with the Marsh character or Forsythe’s acting seemed to be Marsh’s successful ability to suppress his emotions. There were times when I wondered if the only true feelings that Marsh seemed able to truly express, centered around his desire to escape. And when he finally did express his his jealousy toward Carla’s feelings about Roper – it came off as slightly unconvincing. Either Forsythe had failed to sell it . . . or Fenton and Pate failed to allow Marsh to express his jealousy until it was too late in the story.

I certainly cannot accuse William Demarest and William Campbell for giving unconvincing performances. The pair portrayed two of the Confederate prisoners – the wise “old” man Sergeant Campbell and the cocky young Cabot Young. The pair seemed to be engaged in some kind of verbal warfare that I found a lot of fun. Yet, it also seemed to hint some kind of mild dislike between the two – until the ending revealed their true feelings for each other. Two other performances caught my attention – John Lupo as the cowardly Confederate officer Lieutenant Bailey and Richard Anderson (of “THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN” and “THE BIONIC WOMAN” fame) as the soon-to-be husband of Alice Owen, Lieutenant Beecher. What made these two characters interesting was that each man – in his own way – seemed capable of some kind of courage. Although a physical coward, Bailey possessed the courage to openly admit his limitations. And Beecher had no qualms about openly expressing his disapproval of Roper’s ruthlessness, despite being the captain’s subordinate.

While writing this review, it occurred to me that I had yet to comment on William Holden’s performance as the hard-nosed Captain Roper. The same year (1953) that MGM released “ESCAPE FROM FORT BRAVO”, Paramount released Billy Wilder’s movie, “STALAG 17” – the movie that featured Holden’s Oscar winning performance. If I had my way, I would have given Holden the Oscar for his performances in both movies. What I found amazing about his portrayal of Roper is that in the hands of a lesser actor, the character could have easily ended up one-dimensional. Ironically, most of the supporting characters seemed to view him as a one-dimensional hard ass. Yet, Holden managed to effectively convey Roper’s complexity by perfectly balancing the character’s ruthlessness with an intelligent, witty and passionate man. In the end, he actor did a superb job in combining the many aspects of Roper’s personality into a complex and interesting character.

MGM’s Oscar winning costume designer Helen Rose added color to the movie with some lush costumes befitting the movie’s early 1860s setting. Unfortunately, Rose made one serious misstep with a yellow evening gown worn by Eleanor Parker:

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The gown seemed more befitting of a movie set in the early 1950s, instead of the 1860s. It is not surprising that Rose had received her Oscar nominations and wins for movies in a modern setting. I also have to commend cinematographer Robert Surtees for capturing the Southwest landscape (Southern California and New Mexico) without overwhelming the performers. Surtees also made use of the Ansco cameras to give the movie a rich and lush aura, allowing the desert to seem more colorful than usual.

Surprisingly, Frank Fenton and Michael Pate’s script for “ESCAPE FROM FORT BRAVO” seemed to bear a small, yet striking resemblance to John Ford’s 1939 classic, “STAGECOACH”. Both movies are basically character studies of a group of people in a Western setting – namely the Southwest – that included action against the Apaches in the final acts. And the Apaches in both films proved to be nothing more than plot devices to drive the characters’ situations forward. However, Sturges and the two screenwriters gave the Apaches’ roles a twist by portraying them as an organized military unit, instead of a bunch of rampaging “savages”, during a sequence that featured Roper, Carla, Beecher, Marsh, Bailey, Campbell and Young under besiege by the Apaches’ “bombardment” of arrow similar to Henry V’s use of English and Welsh longbowmen at the Battle of Agincourt. And unlike the John Wayne and Claire Trevor characters in “STAGECOACH”, this movie left the fate of Roper and Carla’s future romance in the air. After all, she had assisted in the Confederates’ escape.

It is a shame that “ESCAPE FROM FORT BRAVO” has never been considered when top Hollywood Westers are discussed. Or even when John Sturges’ career is discussed. Frankly, I believe the movie deserves to be considered. Sturges had taken Frank Fenton and Michael Pate’s sharp screenplay and a top notch cast to create a tense and complex Western that I feel is one of my favorites to come out of the Hollywood studio era.

 

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“FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” (1967) Review

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“FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” (1998) Review

To my knowledge, there have been five adaptations of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel, “Far From the Madding Crowd”. One of them is even a modern day adaptation. I have not seen this modern version of Hardy’s novel. But I have seen at least three adaptations, including the 1967 version directed by John Schlesinger. 

“FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” – at least the 1967 version – has been highly regarded by critics, moviegoers and fans of Hardy’s novel for nearly five decades. It is the adaptation that other ones have been measured against . . . much to their detriment. “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” was a different direction for Schlesinger. It would prove to be the first of five period productions directed by him. Schlesinger and screenwriter Frederic Raphael stuck as closely to Hardy’s novel as they possibly could. The movie was not a hundred percent adaptation of Hardy’s novel, but it was pretty close.

Anyone familiar with Hardy’s novel know the tale. It begins with a young 19th century Englishwoman named Bathsheba Everdene, living on a farm with her aunt, Mrs. Hurst. She meets Gabriel Oak, a former shepherd who has leased and stocked a sheep farm. Gabriel falls in love with Bathsheba and eventually proposes marriage. Although she likes Gabriel, Bathsheba values her independence too much and rejects his marriage proposal. Gabriel’s fortunes take a worse for turn, when his inexperienced sheep dog drives his flock of sheep over a cliff, bankrupting him. Bathsheba, on the other hand, inherits her uncle’s prosperous estate. Their paths crosses again, and she ends up hiring Gabriel as her new shepherd.

Bathsheba has also become acquainted with her new neighbor, the wealthy farmer John Boldwood, who becomes romantically obsessed with her after she sends him a Valentine’s Day card as a joke. He sets about wooing her in a persistent manner that she finds difficult to ignore. But just as Bathsheba is about to consider Mr. Boldwood as a potential husband, Sergeant Frank Troy enters her life and she becomes infatuated with him. Frank was set to marry one of Bathsheba’s former servants, a young woman named Fanny Robin. Unfortunately, the latter showed up at the wrong church for the wedding and an angry and humiliated Frank called off the wedding. Bathsheba finds herself in the middle of a rather unpleasant love triangle between Boldwood and Frank, while Gabriel can only watch helplessly as the situation develops into tragedy.

“FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” is a beautiful movie to behold . . . visually. One can credit the movie’s sweeping and colorful look to its iconic cinematographer Nicolas Roeg. Thanks to the latter, the English counties of Wiltshire and Dorset never looked lovelier. Not surprisingly, Roeg earned a BAFTA nomination for his work. The movie also benefited from Richard Macdonald’s production designs, which did an excellent job in recreating rural England in the mid 19th century. This was especially apparent in those scenes that featured Gabriel’s arrival at Shottwood, and his attempts to get hired as a bailiff or a shepherd at a hiring fair; the harvest meal at the Everdene farm; Bathsheba’s meeting with Frank in Bath; the rural fair attended by Bathsheba and Mr. Boldwood; and the Christmas party held by Mr. Boldwood. I will not pretend that I found Richard Rodney Bennett’s score particularly memorable. But I must admit that it blended well with the movie’s plot and Schlesinger’s direction. I also noticed that Bennett added traditional English folk songs in various scenes throughout the movie.

I have seen at least two movie versions and one television adaptation of Hardy’s novel. And it occurred to me that the main reason why I ended up enjoying all three adaptations so much is that I really liked Hardy’s tale. I really do. More importantly, all three adaptations, including this 1967 movie, did an excellent job in capturing the novel’s spirit. With a running time of 169 minutes, “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” took its time in conveying Hardy’s story . . . with a few little shortcuts. And thanks to Schlesinger’s direction and Raphael’s screenplay, the movie not only recaptured both the idyllic nature of 19th century rural England, but also its harsh realities. More importantly, the movie brought alive to the screen, Hardy’s complex characters and romances. Hollywood once made a movie about a woman torn between three men in 1941’s “TOM, DICK, AND HARRY” with Ginger Rogers. But the complexity between the one woman and the three men was nothing in compare to this tale. Especially, when the leading lady is such a complex and ambiguous character like Bathsheba Everdene. Another aspect of “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” that I enjoyed were the interactions between the movie’s leads and the supporting cast who portrayed Bathsheba’s employees. Like her relationships with Gabriel, Frank and Mr. Boldwood; the leading lady’s relationships with her employees – especially the women who worked inside her home – proved to be very interesting.

There was a good deal of controversy when Julie Christie was announced as the actress to portray Bathsheba Everdene. Apparently, the media did not consider her capable of portraying the tumultuous mid-Victorian maiden . . . or any other period character. Well, she proved them wrong. Christie gave a very skillful and nuanced performance as the ambiguous Bathsheba, capturing the character’s passion, vanity and at times, insecurity. Terence Stamp was another actor more associated with the Swinging Sixties scene in London, but unlike Christie, his casting did not generate any controversy. I might as well place my cards on the table. I think Stamp proved to be the best Frank Troy I have seen on screen, despite the first-rate performances of the other two actors I have seen in role. He really did an excellent job in re-creating Frank’s charm, roguishness and unstable nature. Thanks to Stamp’s performance, I can see why Schlesinger became so fascinated with the character.

Despite Christie and Stamp’s popularity with moviegoers, the two actors who walked away with nominations and an award were Peter Finch and Alan Bates. No matter how interesting all of the other characters were, I personally found the William Boldwood character to be the most fascinating one in Hardy’s tale. And Peter Finch, who won the National Board of Review Award for Best Actor did a superb job in bringing the character to life. Finch beautifully re-captured the nuances of a character that I not only found sympathetic, but also a bit frightening at times. Alan Bates earned a Golden Globe nomination for his portrayal of the stalwart Gabriel Oak, which I believe he fully deserved. I think portraying such a minimalist character like Gabriel must be quite difficult for any actor. He is a character that required real skill and subtlety. Bates certainly did the job. The actor managed to convey the passion that Gabriel harbored for Bathsheba without any theatrical acting and at the same time, convey the character’s introverted and sensible nature. The movie also benefited from some skillful and solid work from its supporting cast that included Golden Globe nominee Prunella Ransome, who portrayed the tragic Fanny Robin; Fiona Walker (from 1972’s “EMMA”); Alison Leggatt; John Barrett; and iconic character actor, Freddie Jones.

As much as I enjoyed “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD”, there were some aspects of the production that I found troublesome. Earlier, I had pointed out that Schlesinger had seemed so fascinated by the Frank Troy character. And while this contributed to Terence Stamp’s presence in the movie, Schlesinger’s handling of the character threatened to overshadow the entire movie. Quite frankly, he seemed a bit too obsessed with Frank for my tastes. This heavy emphasis on Frank – especially in two-thirds of the movie – also seemed to overshadow Bathsheba’s relationship with Gabriel Oak. At one point, I found myself wondering what happened to the character. Worse, the chemistry between Julie Christie and Alan Bates had somewhat dissipated by the movie’s last act to the point that it barely seemed to exist by the end of the movie. And Schlesinger allowed the “ghost” of Frank Troy to hover over Bathsheba and Gabriel’s future relationship by ending the movie with a shot of a toy soldier inside the Everdeen-Oak household. No wonder Stamp was credited as the male lead in this film.

There were other aspects of “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” that either troubled me or failed to impress me. I am at a loss on how Prunella Ransome earned a Golden Globe nomination for her portrayal of Fanny Robin. Mind you, she gave a very good performance. But she was on the screen for such a small amount of time that there seemed to be no opportunity for the narrative to delve into her character. Ransome’s Fanny came off as a plot device and a part of me cannot help but blame Hardy’s original novel for this failure. Although I cannot deny that Nicholas Roeg’s cinematography was visually beautiful to me; I also found myself annoyed by his and Schlesinger’s overuse of far shots. It reminded me of how director William Wyler and cinematographer Franz F. Planer nearly went overboard in their use of far shots in the 1958 western, “THE BIG COUNTRY”. I read somewhere that Alan Barrett had earned a BAFTA nomination for Best Costume Designs for this film. I do not mean to be cruel, but how in the hell did that happened? I have to be frank. I was not impressed with the costumes featured in this film. Although I managed to spot a few costumes that struck me as a well-done re-creation of fashion in the mid-to-late 1860s, most of the other costumes looked as if they had been rented from a warehouse in Hollywood or London. Not impressed at all.

Aside from my complaints, I enjoyed “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” very much. A good deal of delight in the film originated with Thomas Hardy’s original tale. But if I must be honest, a good deal of filmmakers have screwed up a potential adaptation with either bad writing, bad direction or both. Thankfully, I cannot say the same about “FAR FROM MADDING CROWD”. Thanks to the first-rate artistry of the film’s crew, a well-written screenplay by Frederic Raphael, a very talented cast led by Julie Christie; director John Schlesinger did an excellent in bringing Hardy’s tale to the screen.

 

“KING KONG” (2005) Review

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“KING KONG” (2005) Review

Years ago, producer-director Peter Jackson had stated in an interview that one of movies that had inspired him to become a filmmaker was Merian C. Cooper’s 1933 hit adventure film, “KING KONG”. Sixteen to eighteen years after his first directorial effort, Jackson was finally able to pay tribute to his inspiration with a remake of the 1933 film. 

Anyone familiar with Cooper’s film should know the story of King Kong. Set during the early years of the Great Depression, an overly ambitious movie producer coerces his cast and the crew of a freighter ship to travel to mysterious Skull Island, where they encounter Kong, a giant ape who becomes immediately smitten with the producer’s financially struggling leading lady. After using his leading lady to lure Kong into a trap, the producer ships Kong back to Manhattan to be displayed to the public as the Eighth Wonder of the World. Unfortunately, Kong escapes and inflicts chaos on the city streets in search for the leading lady.

Jackson and his co-screenwriters, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens pretty much followed the 1933 movie. However, they made some changes. In the 1933 film, Carl Denham was a respected and successful filmmaker. He was a struggling filmmaker who resorted to stealing footage of his film from his financial backers in Jackson’s version. There is more backstory on the Ann Darrow character in the newer film and she is a vaudeville dancer/comedian, not simply a unemployed and starving woman. Ann remains frightened of Kong throughout the entire 1933 film (an emotion that actress Fay Wray did not share); whereas Naomi Watts’ Ann forms an emotional bond with him. The inhabitants of Skull Island are a lot more hostile in the 2005 film, and less human. Kong is portrayed as simply an animal and less of a monster. Jack Driscoll is a playwright hired as a screenwriter in this film, whereas in the ’33 film, he is the S.S. Venture’s first mate. And in Jackson’s film, the first mate is an African-American. The 2005 Captain Englehorn is at least fifteen to twenty years than his 1933 counterpart. Kong’s rampage across Manhattan was a lot more horrific than his rampage in the 2005 film. The character of actor Bruce Baxter was created as a homage to actor Bruce Cabot, one of the stars of the 1933 film. And it is he, along with Denham and some actress hired to impersonate Ann that ends up on the stage with Kong in Jackson’s film. In Cooper’s film, both Ann and Driscoll end up on stage with Denham and Kong.

So, what did I think of Jackson’s “KING KONG”? Technically and visually, it is a beautiful film. One of the first things that impressed me was Grant Major’s production designs for the movie. His work, along with the art direction team led by Dan Hannah, Hannah and Simon Bright’s set decorations and Andrew Lesnine’s photography did an excellent job in re-creating Manhattan of the early 1930s. And what I found even more amazing about their work is that all of the Manhattan sequences were filmed in New Zealand . . . even the opening montage that introduced the movie’s time period and its leading female character. Terry Ryan’s costume designs for the movie were attractive to look at. But if I must be honest, they did not particularly blow my mind. I really cannot explain why. It seemed as if her costumes – especially for the female characters – failed to achieve that early 1930s look, one hundred percent. I was also impressed by work of both the art department and the visual effects team. Their work on the Skull Island sequences struck me as impressive. But honestly, I was more impressed by their work on the Manhattan scenes . . . especially the sequence featuring King Kong’s confrontation with the U.S. Army planes. And here are two samples of their work:

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My only quibble about the visual work in the Manhattan sequences featured the S.S. Venture’s depature from Manhattan. Frankly, it looked like the work of an amateur, circa 1929. Why on earth did Jackson allowed the ship to leave New York Harbor at double speed? It looked so tacky.

Jackson, Walsh and Boyens did a pretty good job in re-creating Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace’s story. In fact, I believe they had improved on some aspects of the 1933 film. One, the Ann Darrow character was given more of a background and more screen time before the S.S. Venture’s journey to Skull Island. I could say the same for the Carl Denham character, who proved to be a more ambiguous character than his 1933 counterpart. Due to the depth given to both Ann and Denham’s characters, the setup for the S.S. Venture’s departure from Manhattan seemed more detailed and far from rushed. The movie spent a good deal of time aboard the S.S. Venture, building up suspense to the ship’s arrival at Skull Island and allowing relationships and the characters to develop – especially Ann’s romance with playwright/screenwriter Jack Driscoll. I wonder if many moviegoers had complained about the length it took the Venture to reach Skull Island. I certainly did not. The longer the movie focused on the Venture sequences, the longer it took the movie to reach Skull Island.

Because . . . honestly? I disliked the Skull Island sequences. I was able to bear it in the 1933 film. But I cannot say the same for Jackson’s film. There were some scenes in the Skull Island sequence that I liked. I enjoyed the chase sequence featured members of the Venture crew, Denham’s film production and a Venatosaurus saevidicus pack‘s hunt of Brontosaurus baxteri. I even tolerated Kong’s rescue of Ann from three Vastatosaurus rex. And I was impressed by the scene that featured Ann and Kong’s initial bonding. I found it both touching and slightly humorous. And I could see that the screenwriters, along with Naomi Watts and Fay Wray (who portrayed the original Ann) understood Kong’s feelings for the leading lady a lot better than Cooper and Wallace did. But I still disliked the Skull Island sequence – especially the scenes featuring Denham’s film crew’s encounter with the island’s natives and the visitors’ enounter with giant insects inside a large pit. The natives seemed more like Orc rejects from Middlearth with very little humanity. Despite the coconut bras and bone jewelry, the natives featured in the 1933 film struck me as a lot more human and less like savage stereotypes. As for the giant insect pit sequence . . . I usually press the fast-forward button for that scene. I not only dislike it, I find it repulsive.

Fortunately, the movie returned to Manhattan. And I noticed that for the first minutes or so, Jackson re-created Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s introduction of Kong to the people of Manhattan. I was impressed. In fact, I found this second Manhattan sequence very impressive . . . but not as much as I did the earlier one. Granted, Bruce Baxter’s quick departure from the theater following Kong’s escape provided some laughs. And Jackson handled Kong’s rampage of Manhattan rather well. I was a little disappointed that Jackson did not re-create the elevated train sequence from the first film. I was stunned by the sight of Ann searching the streets of Manhattan for Kong wearing nothing but her costume from a stage musical in the middle of winter. Hell, I was amazed that she managed to not to get pnemonia from wandering around the city with no overcoat and no sleeves for her gown. And frankly, I found Ann and Kong’s reunion in Central Park something of a bore. I truly wish that Jackson had cut that scene. As for the Empire State Building sequence, once again, Naomi Watt’s Ann did not seemed to be affected by the cold weather, while wearing nothing but a costume gown. And I noticed that Jackson plagerized Gandalf’s death in “LORD OF THE RINGS: FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING” for Kong’s final death scene. I felt nothing but a little relief because the U.S. Army Air Corp’s attempt to kill Kong seemed to last forever.

The cast of “KING KONG” seemed to fare very well, despite some of the mediocre lines written by Jackson, Walsh and Boyens. Thomas Kretschmann’s portrayal of the pragmatic and cynical Captain Englehorn struck me as very skillful and effective. Both Evan Parke and Jamie Bell provided some well-acted pathos as First Mate Ben Hayes and a young crewman named Jimmy, for whom Hayes seemed to act as mentor. Adrien Brody provided a nice balance of romance, heroics and cynicism in his portrayal of writer Jack Driscoll. Actually, I thought he made a more interesting leading man than Bruce Cabot. And Colin Hanks’ solid portrayal of Preston, Denham’s neurotic but honest personal assistant, proved to be the movie’s emotional backbone. But there were the performances that really stood out for me.

Andy Serkis, who had impressed the world with his portrayal of Gollum in the “LORD OF THE RINGS” movies, proved to be equally impressive in his motion capture performance as Kong. Not only was he solid as the S.S. Venture cook, Lumpy; he did an excellent job in providing Kong with a great deal of emotional nuances. Kyle Chandler nearly stole the film with his hilarious portrayal of movie actor Bruce Baxter. Not only was Chandler’s Baxter egotistical and self-involved, he also proved to be a surprisingly pragmatic character with a talent for self-preservation. He also provided, in my opinion, one of the film’s best quotes:

“Hey, pal. Hey, wake up. Heroes don’t look like me – not in the real world. In th real world they got bad teeth, a bald spot, and a beer gut. I’m just an actor with a gun who’s lost his motivation. Be seeing you.”

Jack Black gave a superb job as movie producer Carl Denham. In fact, I believe that Black’s Denham proved to be the film’s most ambiguous character. Even though his Denham seemed manipulative, greedy and exploitive; he also managed to bring out the character’s compassionate side and enthusiasm for his profession. It seemed a pity that Black never received any acclaim for his performance. Many moviegoers and critics seemed disappointed that Naomi Watts did not receive a Golden Globes or Academy Awards nomination for her excellent portrayal of out-of-luck vaudevillian Ann Darrow. Frankly, I think she deserved such nominations for her work. More than any other member of the cast, she had to develop an emotional bond and work with an animated figure and at the same time, develop her own character. And she did one hell of a job. Think Bob Hoskins in 1988’s “WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT?”.

“KING KONG” has become a highly regarded film over the years. It made “Empire” magazine’s 2008 list of the 500 Greatest Movies of All Time. Do I agree with this assessment? Hmmm . . . no. Not really. It is a very entertaining film filled with plenty of action and adventure. It also featured some pretty damn good acting from a cast led by Naomi Watts, Jack Black and Andy Serkis. But the movie also possesses some pretty obvious flaws and I find it difficult to enjoy the Skull Island sequence. Like I said, Jackson created a pretty good movie. But I could never regard it as one of the greatest movies of all time.

 

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“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.

 

“RED-HEADED WOMAN” (1932) Review

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“RED-HEADED WOMAN” (1932) Review

According to Hollywood legend, at least a handful of movies made during the period known as the Pre-Code Era (1929-1934) had pushed the boundaries of on-screen decency so deeply that they may have been responsible for the stringent enforcement of the Hays Code between the mid-1930s and the late 1960s. One of those movies happened to be MGM’s 1932 comedy called “RED-HEADED WOMAN”

Based upon Katherine Brush’s 1931 novel, “RED-HEADED WOMAN” told the story of Lilian “Lil” Andrews, a young secretary at the Legendre Company who uses sex to advance her position there by instigating an affair with William “Bill” Legendre Jr., the son of her wealthy boss. During the course of the film, Lil engages in pre-marital sex, breaks up Bill’s marriage to his ladylike wife Irene. After Lil marries Bill following his divorce, she finds herself shunned by high society due to not only her home wrecking, but also her lower-class origins. Lil tries to force herself into high society by seducing the Legendres’ main customer, wealthy coal tycoon Charles B. Gaerste and blackmailing him into sponsoring her own party. But the plan backfires and a humiliated Lil sets upon a course that ends up threatening her tenuous marriage.

“RED-HEADED WOMAN” proved to be a difficult movie to make for MGM production chief Irving Thalberg. One, he did not care for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first draft, viewing it as too serious. Thalberg believed that the movie would be more of a success if it presented Lil’s antics from a humorous bent, so he replaced Fitzgerald with Anita Loos as the movie’s screenwriter. He hoped she would provide a story that was more fun and playful. And he proved to be right. Thalberg and associate producer Paul Bern originally hired Clara Bow for the role of “Lil” Andrews. Although she originally agreed to participate in the movie, Bow changed her mind due to her objections to the long-term contract that MGM wanted her to sign for the role. Thalberg and Bern then turned their attention to the studio’s new contract player, Jean Harlow, whose contract they had recently purchased from Howard Hughes. Studio contract employee Jack Conway directed the film. Four weeks after production ended, the movie was released in late June 1932.

In a nutshell, “RED-HEADED WOMAN” is a funny and sexy movie that holds up surprisingly well, even after eighty-one years. For me, “RED-HEADED WOMAN” is a humorous reminder at how little human nature has changed over the years, especially in regard to sex, gender issues, ambition and class bigotry. Used to the idea that single women eighty years ago (or even fifty years ago) never had pre-marital sex, “RED-HEADED WOMAN” must have seemed like a shock to the system to modern viewers. This makes me wonder how present moviegoers would view “RED-HEADED WOMAN”, if it had been made in recent years. Think about it. “RED-HEADED WOMAN” featured pre-marital sex, extramarital sex, and rough sex (all which were featured off screen). If made today, most of Lil’s sexual encounters would have made it in the final cut . . . along with some on-screen nudity. But for me, it is the story itself, along with actress Jean Harlow’s amoral portaryal, that struck me as both sexy and lurid. I suspect that any on-screen sex and nudity would have very little impact on the movie. But I cannot help but wonder if today’s writers would have given Lil her happening.

Thalberg was right to dump Fitzgerald’s serious screenplay in favor of Loos’ more risqué tale. I believe the latter served the story a lot better. Realistically, Lil Andrews is not a sympathetic character. And I suspect that if her tale had told in Fitzgerald’s more serious style, the general moviegoers would have been turned off by her antics. And I doubt that the emotional crisis that Lil had suffered from Bill Legendre’s first rejection of her following their first tryst or the class bigotry she had faced from her father-in-law and the Legendres’ friends would have garnered any sympathy for her. A good number of morality groups from the early 1930s were up in arms over Lil’s fate at the end of the movie. If Thalberg had chosen Fitzgerald’s script over Loos’, I suspect those moviegoers that had made “RED-HEADED WOMAN” such a big hit would have felt the same.

I did have a few problems with the movie. I realize that Thalberg, Loos and director Jack Conway thought it was best to introduce Lil Andrews’in a brief montage that featured Harlow spoofing the “Gentlemen prefer blondes” quote from Loos’ famous 1925 novel and the actress wearing a see-through dress (honestly, not much is shown other than her legs). Frankly, I found this introduction rather amateurish and stagy. I think Loos could have done better. Also, the movie seemed to permeate with class prejudice. I realize that Lil was supposed to suffer from such bigotry. But the movie fails to generate any real sympathy toward her situation, due to Lil’s role as a home wrecker. Even Lil’s best friend, Sally, did not seem particularly repelled by Lil’s antics. And it did not help that the movie’s most sympathetic female turned out to be the gentle and well-born Irene Legendre. Even Bill Legendre seemed to be viewed in a sympathetic light as a mere victim of Lil’s feminine wiles, instead of simply a cheating spouse. If Lil had not emerged triumphant in the movie’s last reel, I believe this movie would have turned out to be a real turn off for me . . . despite the comic tone.

The cast proved to be the best thing about “RED-HEADED WOMAN” . . . at least for me. Although Jean Harlow had become a star two years earlier, thanks to her co-starring role in Howard Hughes’ wartime opus, “HELL’S ANGELS”; her career had eventually suffered through a series of questionable roles. Thankfully, Paul Bern saw her potential and convinced the MGM brass to purchase her contract from Hughes. And she was perfect as the amoral and sassy Lil Andrews. She was not the first or would be the last actress to portray a woman who used sex to advance her social position. But thanks to a performance that featured not only perfect comic timing and some surprisingly emotional angst, her Lil Andrews proved to be one of the most memorable female roles not only from the Pre-Code era, but also from 1930s Hollywood.

Harlow received admirable support from Chester Morris, who proved once again his talent for roles that projected a male ideal corrupted by man’s inner lusts and other flaws. He did a very good job in combining both Bill Legendre’s superficial decency and inner bestiality. Both Lewis Stone and Leila Hyams gave solid support as Bill’s snobbish father Legendre Sr. and long-suffering first wife Irene. And I was somewhat surprised to see Charles Boyer in a small, yet charming role as Lil’s eventual lover, Albert. But the two performances (other than Harlow and Morris) that really stood out for me came from Una Merkel and Henry Stephenson. Merkel was a delight as Lil’s equally sassy friend, Sally, who seemed to enjoy a voyeuristic thrill from Lil’s sexy love life. Also, she and Harlow managed to generate a strong chemistry as the two best friends. I wonder if they had made any further movies together. And Henry Stephenson, whom I remember from two Errol Flynn costume swashbucklers, provided some great comic moments as the Legendres’ wealthy customer, who ends up in a tawdry affair with Lil.

“RED-HEADED WOMAN” is a comic gem from the early 1930s, despite a few kinks, including a class bigotry that nearly tainted the film. It featured a sexy tale and fine performances from a cast led by the incomparable Jean Harlow that still holds up after eighty years or so. As far as I am concerned, I consider it one of the highlights of the Pre-Code era. Producers Irving Thalberg and Paul Bern, screenwriter Anita Loos and director Jack Conway took on an improbable project and transformed it into a minor classic.

 

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