The Caine Mutiny (1954)

Fred MacMurray 2

The Great Strawberry Case of ‘44

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

1954, what a year for film! Rear Window, Dial M for Murder, A Star Is Born, On the Waterfront, Seven Samurai – to name a few. Among this year of outstanding films was The Caine Mutiny; a picture which has all the hallmarks of an event movie – based on a hit novel, an ensemble cast of big names, extremely lush production values. Aside from the high-end Hollywood spectacle on offer, The Caine Mutiny is one of the most thought-provoking films I’ve ever seen. I appreciate these message pictures which came from producer and later director Stanley Kramer which show that people and life itself is complicated and can’t always be simplified to basic terminology. There is never a dull moment during the two hour run time of The Caine Mutiny, although director Edward Dmytryk wanted the film to be three and a half to four hours long and with the film being as layered as it is in its current form, it probably could work drawn out to a much longer length.

There’s little which would make the production values of The Caine Mutiny better. The film likes to show off those US Navy ships and their docks in the glorious new widescreen format. The only minor criticism would be the implemented stock footage which does stick out although considering such shots would have been near impossible to film then it’s understandable. Likewise, the typhoon sequence has some very impressive model work, convincingly making a pool (presumably) in the Columbia backlot look like the Pacific Ocean during a great storm. The music score is also one among one of composer Max Steiner’s best; romantic, exciting and even has a swashbuckling tone to it.

Actor Robert Francis is not a hugely charismatic presence with or without the other big-name stars but it’s fitting to cast an unknown and rather plain actor as the POV of the viewer. Ensign Willis Seward “Willie” Keith is a character the average moviegoer can project onto as the average Joe entering this world for the first time. The romance subplot involving his love interest May Wynn (played by an actress who chose her stage name after this fictional character she played) is the one inclusion in The Caine Mutiny which is questionable; in other words, it has nothing to do with the main story and feels out of place. That said despite this I do enjoy these romance scenes as I am a sucker for this kind of 1950’s fluff such as the portion of the film in which they go out to Yosemite National Park – the most romantic location imaginable. Full of waterfalls, mountains, horse riding, an orchestrated version of the song “I Can’t Believe That You’re In Love With Me”, and no sign that there is a war going on (not to mention May Wynn is not bad on the eyes).

The cast and performances in The Caine Mutiny are exceptional. I never felt like I was watching actors but rather actual nay personal (we even get a pre-fame Lee Marvin in a small part offering some comic relief). I do find their military etiquette to be very pleasurable to listen to with there never being a moment when anyone sounds rude. Van Johnson, the boy next door himself is surprisingly commanding in the role of Lieutenant Steve Maryk. Even the scars on his face which he obtained from an accident when filming A Guy Named Joe (1943) are not hidden with makeup, helping to aid his performance.

Fred MacMurray, on the other hand, is an actor I find far more interesting when he is cast against type as is the case in the role of Lieutenant Tom Keefer; an elitist snob who thinks the Navy is beneath him and is much more interested in writing his novel. – His character is very much the opposite of Van Johnson’s. His thing of playing an amateur psychiatrist was just a little game to him until it later dawns on him the seriousness of the situation. However MacMurray’s performance is very subtle, you barely catch onto these traits unless paying close attention to his performance, another aspect which really gives The Caine Mutiny such re-watch value.

However, let’s talk about the main star of the show. Queeg; a name as infamous as Bligh. The role of Lieutenant Commander Philip Francis Queeg is one of the finest performances of Humphrey Bogart’s career (and the inspiration for one of my favourite Red Dwarf episodes). Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson all played tyrannical ship captains in what I view as the Tough Guy Tyrannical Ship Trilogy (The Sea Wolf, The Caine Mutiny and Mister Roberts).

Queeg is one complex character whom alone makes the movie worth watching multiple times to fully dissect him. There is a subtle, pathetic streak to Queeg (even his posture is rather bent at times); he fails to bond with his crew even though he earnestly tries. During the first meeting with his crew, he brings out a pair of clacking metal balls upon viewing a crew member with an un-tucked shirt; metal balls which just make things feel awkward and uneasy (he probably would have a fidget spinner if the movie were made today). – From day one it’s not hard to see why the crew did not warm up to him. While it could be argued Bogart is too old for the role of Queeg (it is stated in the film he was an ensign only 8 years earlier), this can more than easily be looked over as Bogart is so good and synonymous with the role. Even a moment in which Queeg talks with such confidence in relation to the missing quart of strawberries while simultaneously buttering crackers is very entertaining to watch.

The question does have to be raised if the crew had it too easy before Queeg came on board? Like the vessel in Mister Roberts, The Caine is a slack, dead-end ship. Regardless Queeg plays by the book to an obsessive degree and he overreacts to the breaking of rules which are trivial in the grand scheme of things as seen in the famous missing strawberries scene. His obsessive pre-occupation with the rules also puts the ship in danger as seen during the minesweeping sequence. Likewise, during the typhoon sequence in which the actual mutiny on board the Caine occurs, Queeg is clearly terrified and becomes paralysed with this fear. Yet Queeg is not the villain of The Caine Mutiny, he does not act in malice and it’s easy to empathise and feel sorry for him. – “A captain’s job is a lonely one. He’s easily misunderstood”.

The final third of The Caine Mutiny is comprised of a court-martial and oh is it gloriously fascinating as I am glued to the screen and eating up every word of it. Unlike many other Hollywood courtroom dramas there are no over the top hysterics but rather the actors remain subdued. That doesn’t make it any less intense though, thanks in part to the powerhouse acting presences of Jose Ferrer and E.G. Marshall as Lieutenant Barney Greenwald and the prosecutor Lieutenant Commander John Challee respectively.

It’s surprising the United States Navy would be involved in a film which portrayed a mentally unbalanced man as a captain as well as involving a mutiny (albeit a legalistic mutiny and not a violent one). The word “Mutiny” is even in the title of the film although I’m sure they would rather have played play linguistic semantics and called it an “Incident”. The film even opens with the disclaimer “There has never been a mutiny in a ship of the United States Navy” – itself a disputable historical fact. Mayrk (Van Johnson) initially has difficulty obtaining a lawyer to defend him as the Navy’s lawyers refuse to be in the position of having to testify against a commanding officer. While a film like this can be interrupted in many different ways, I’m left feeling it doesn’t paint a great picture of the navy establishment due to the ignorance on display with the dismissing of the crew’s actions based on a preliminary investigation. As Greenwald puts it bluntly “I think that what you’ve done stinks”.

I remember during my first time watching court marital, the moment which really stuck with me was the point brought up by the prosecutor asking Maryk how he was able to diagnose a mental illness without having the qualifications to do so. This struck me as an incredibly thought-provoking point although watching the movie years later it’s become apparent to me the prosecutor’s use of sophistry when questioning those at the stand. In relation to the aforementioned point, the prosecutor asks Maryk if he has had training in psychiatry or medicine to which Mayrk answers “none”. He also asks Mayrk to define the terms “schizophrenia“, “manic-depressive” and define the difference between “paranoid” and “paranoia”, all of which he fails to do. Isn’t it obvious to determine if someone is mentally unwell even with little knowledge of the subject matter?

Mayrk clearly does not have the ability to effectively defend himself on the stand and looks weak as a result. He is also asked immaterial questions about his school grades which his lawyer Greenwald raises no objection to (nor does he object to anything during the trial). Due to his unpreparedness, Mayrk reluctantly accepts the prosecutor’s narrative that himself and not Captain Queeg is in the wrong (“Isn’t it possible that, under pressure, you became erratic and couldn’t understand the captain’s sound decision?”). We also see the prosecutor put words in the mouth of the Lee Marvin character after he referred to the Captain’s actions as “strange”. The prosecutor then proceeds to straw-man him before he has a chance to defend himself which he clearly doesn’t the intellect to do so and accepts the mischaracterisation of what he may have been attempting to say.

Similar lines of questioning are used when the prosecutor asks Keith “Have you ever been in a ship that foundered?” followed by asking who is better qualified to judge if a ship is foundering; an ensign who has spent little over a year abroad a ship or an experienced captain of eight years? Isn’t such a question irrelevant when the sight of a foundering ship is obvious? Keith does deal nicely with the lines of questioning he receives such as when the prosecutor asks condescending questions such as “did the captain rave and make insane gestures” while waving his hands about, to his sarcastic response of “Thank you for your expert opinion” in relation to Keith’s response about the captain’s state. At one point Keith is asked “Are you aware that the captain has been pronounced completely rational by three qualified psychiatrists?”, to which he responds “They weren’t on the board the Caine during the typhoon sir”. Oh! #ThugLife.

Greenwald does a far more honourable job at questioning and is much more of a class act, not taking part in fallacies. He also knows how to play the game when it comes to the delicate matter of questioning a Naval officer of whom to disrespect would be a punishable offence. He states: “It’s not the defence’s contention that Lieutenant Commander Queeg is a coward. Quite the contrary. The defence assumes that no man who rises to command a United States naval ship can possibly be a coward. And that, therefore, if he commits questionable acts under fire, the explanation must be elsewhere”.  That said I’m not a legal expert so I’m happy to be corrected or challenged on these observations.

When Queeg does take to the stand, Bogart’s acting is the stuff of legend. A confident and cocky Queeg gradually lets himself go and of course, he brings out the clacking metal balls. When you use a term like “geometric logic” to describe how you intended to prove the theft of strawberries then you know you’ve dug your own grave. The culmination of this breakdown is filmed in a single, uncut, close up shot and is one of the most riveting pieces of acting I’ve ever witnessed.

We are never actually told what Queeg’s verdict is but the crew of the ship to celebrate the outcome at a party. Greenwald joins the procession only to give a monologue on how the crew where at least some degree complicit in the situation, pointing to the time when Queeg came to them for help and they “turned him down”. Needless to say, Greenwald is successful in changing their feelings over the situation and killing the mood of the party. This monologue is successful in being immensely thought-provoking and raising many of questions of any similar situation. Who is the victim? Who is the guilty one? Who disrespected who first? The one issue I would take with this monologue though is that it absolves Queeg of any personal responsibility.

Many people will say that movies are a mean of escaping reality; The Caine Mutiny shows how movies can be a means of understanding reality. Grab your ice cream and strawberries and enjoy!

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The Wrong Man (1956)

hitchcock-blogathon-4

Manny Balestrero Dindu Nuffin

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The Wrong Man is based on the true story of Christopher Emmanuel “Manny” Balestrero (Henry Fonda), who was arrested in 1953 after being mistaken for an armed robber. Like in the other Henry Fonda film 12 Angry Men, The Wrong Man is also an examination of the flaws in human cognition – in this case, the issue of faulty eyewitness testimony. However, this isn’t actually Fonda’s first film on the subject matter. Previously he starred in 1939’s Let Us Live, another film about a man who is falsely arrested due to poor eyewitness testimony. Both films differ greatly in their plot structure and characters but surprisingly the one thing they share in common other than the subject matter and the lead actor is interestingly enough, an emphasis on Catholicism. It remains to be seen however if Alfred Hitchcock looked at Let Us Live as a source of inspiration for The Wrong Man.

The Wrong Man is absent of any Alfred Hitchcock or Hollywood artifice but rather the movie has that European, neo-realism feel. A film which really captures the urban landscape in all its glory which is only enhanced more by the sounds of the city and the jazz music score; a hallmark which really characterises noir in this period with films such as The Sweet Smell of Success. Likewise, the film has several shots really worth examining from Fonda walking through the doorway of his house and closing a door we the viewer never see to the zoom through the open slit in the prison door onto Fonda and then back out again.

The Wrong Man has no witty dialogue or Roger O’Thornhill style adventures to capture the real culprits. Rather Hitchcock creates something which is oppressively real. A story which really gets under your skin, questions your faith in the criminal justice system, arises your inner skeptic and makes you ask: what if this happened to me? The Wrong Man does as effective a job as possible in both showing and making us feel the degradation Manny Balesterero goes through. In my mind there existed the doubt that Manny really did commit the crime but such a crazy plot twist never comes to fruition.

During the scene early in the film in which Manny visits the Insurance Company Office and the woman at the booth goes over to her work colleagues and asks them to look at the man standing over there in which they all agree he is the man who robbed them months earlier is an example of what we would now refer to as confirmation bias. It this scene an unintentional representation of this or did Hitchcock have knowledge of this phenomenon (the term itself wasn’t coined until 1960).

Some of the elements of the criminal procedure shown in The Wrong Man would not be permissible today; subjects being arrested without being given the Miranda Rights or informed of the crime they are suspected off, interviews being conducted without a written or taped recording being kept, two witnesses allowed to be present together during an identification parade. Manny is even denied the formality of letting his wife know where he’s going despite literally being in the house he is right outside off: would that even have been allowed at the time? Likewise, notice how the friendly cops keep referring to Manny as Chris. The name on his license if Christopher Emmanual Balestrero thus they assume he is called Chris. – The Wrong Man is full of little details like this.

On a lighter note though, what is up with the Balestrero’s two kids?  “We ought to get two music lessons today because we didn’t get any yesterday” – You’re father was just in prison yesterday child, cut him some slack. Likewise in another scene on the kids answers the phone and just puts it down and when his mother asks who it was he just says “it was some man, he didn’t say” – stupid kids.

When Manny is at the police station being questioned by two cops he is made to write down on a piece of paper the words from a note the robber had written himself. The results show that Manny’s handwriting is similar to that found on the note (although the cops don’t hold this against him as they state people tend to write in a similar manner when using upper case) but also that Manny misspells the word “drawer” as “draw” in the same manner that the criminal did on the original note. Surely this is a flawed piece of evidence? Firstly a real criminal could take advantage of the situation and alter his handwriting. Secondly, the officer reading out the note to Manny has a heavy accent and made his pronunciation sound like “draw” not to mention the actual note he is reading from says “draw” and not “drawer” which could have affected his pronunciation a very subtle, subconscious way. Not to mention there is something very suspicious about the way the two cops handle the notes as they hand them bank and forth between each other.

The courtroom scene in The Wrong Man is itself chilling. People are chatting, walking in and out, bored, dozing off, the jury is disinterested and Manny’s lawyer appears to just ask the witnesses stupid questions which lead nowhere. Manny’s entire future is on the line yet nobody seems to care. Regardless the real criminal gets caught and Balestrero is acquitted. However, the Fonda “lookalike” does not resemble Fonda and looks far more thuggish other than having the same face shape and cheekbones (in the real life case Balestrero and the actual criminal looked far more alike). The last appearance of those two smarmy women who first identified Manny at the police station, making no apology to Manny when they see him after his exoneration for all that has happened to him and his family. I always had a bad feeling about them since their very first appearance.

A Star Is Born (1954)

What Price Hollywood?

It’s hard to believe a mainstream film made as late as 1954 has strands of lost footage, yet that is the case with A Star Is Born. The inserts of production photographs over the surviving audio track in the restored version is a mildly irritating, so I can just hope and wait that an uncut version of the film will surface one day.

A Star is Born is the ultimate showcase for the incomparable talent that is Judy Garland. The film’s title couldn’t be more apt as this is the role she was born to play in the film her career had been building up to. Every song to come out of her mouth is sang with such emotional intensity, and with this being as much a drama as it is a musical, Garland acts her little heart like never before with her monologue at the end of film always leaves me stunned. Her performance is surely contributed by the movie very evidently tapping into Garland’s own past insecurities; such as the scene with Esther and the makeup department men.

As much as A Star Is Born is Garland’s big moment in the sun, it is also one of the high points of James Mason’s career in a performance which is nothing short of magnificent (thanks in part to that heavenly voice of his). The character of Norman Maine is right out of a classic tragedy; a man who has accepted his doom rather than fighting against it. He is a tragic figure wearing a mask while joking and makes light about his failing career and his dependence on alcohol. His only remaining hope is that his name will continue to be remembered through the success of his wife’s career (a career from a star which he created) if he dies he will continue to exist through his wife. George Cukor had tackled this material before, first in What Price Hollywood? (1932) and later in Dinner at Eight (1933) in which John Barrymore played the alcoholic, washed up actor Larry Renault. Like Norman Maine, Renault succumbs to the bottle, although has a demise without any optimistic ending that Norman Maine has. The other real standout member of the cast is Jack Carson as Matt Libby the publicity department executive. Carson often played roles such as PR agents but it’s not hard to see why as the man has the born look of a con man.

There is real movie magic within the structure as well as individual moments throughout of A Star Is Born. The entire first act for example takes place over the course of one night and within this single portion of the film we have a whole gauntlet of human emotion (fear, uncertainty, pity, joy, optimism). That scene in which Norman meets Esther for the first time and writes on the wall with lipstick has so much more poignancy when watching the film again.

With The Man That Got Away number, the song itself is amazing but the setting really sells it; a band playing in the early hours of the morning in a club after it’s closed, with the chairs on the table and the lights dimmed, just playing in order to unwind. Not to mention Garland’s vocals, just incredible. Likewise the scene in which Norman tells Esther to stay behind and start a Hollywood career to a backdrop of city lights – you can feel the world on her shoulder. There is also the publicity department sequence in which Esther is thrown from person to person only to literally end up where she started at the beginning of the scene. I can’t quite put my finger on it but I do smell a metaphor here. For the final portion of the film it goes right into classic melodrama territory, taking place in a home by the sea with the sound of crashing waves and hard winds.

It’s impressive considering this was George Cukor’s first film in widescreen, his first film in colour plus his first musical, yet watching the film you would he was already a long established master of these forms in a movie littered with eye pleasing compositions and a three hour run time which feels shorter than it is. A Star Is Born is a great movie to have playing in the background to enhance of the atmosphere of the room or just listen to the highly lush film score; I can happily listen to orchestral variations of The Man that Got Away over and over again. Likewise the film’s use of locations in L.A. as well as the Warner Bros studio makes the film a time capsule of Hollywood circa 1954.

Like Singin’ in the Rain, A Star Is Born is a movie which satirises Hollywood with its exposure of the actions of publicity departments and the lengths they go to in order to retain their public relations, however at the same time it is a movie which celebrates Hollywood; an ideal balance between celebration and self-deprecation. A Star Is Born is an ecstasy explosion of old Hollywood glamour; a world of spotlights, big bands, big costumes, high end nightclubs, back stage drama and the extravagance that comes with it. Likewise the number Born in a Trunk is Warner’s attempt to create the type of impressionistic ballet sequence which MGM had perfected – and they certainly succeed, with movies like this it’s hard to look away from the screen.

Invitation to the Dance (1956)

Gotta Dance!

Invitation to the Dance is often dismissed as a failed experiment; I must disagree. In my eyes Invitation to the Dance is a masterful achievement. I find many anthology films tend to be hit and miss with their segments but all three segments presented here are gems. A pure representation of Gene Kelly’s artistry as seen in ballet sequences in previous Kelly musicals. Invitation to the Dance was made in 1953, when Kelly was at the height of his powers, however due to the film’s lack of commercial prospects. It wasn’t released until 1956 when the movie musical had dropped in popularity due to their lack of commercial viability from the rise of television.

The film’s title says it all; this is a film which tried to make dance more accessible to all and not just some Gene Kelly vanity project. A film to show that dancing isn’t for “sissies”; it can be masculine and bad ass. Originally Kelly was only going to appear in one segment with the rest starring the greatest dancers in Europe; however the studio wouldn’t allow this and demanded he appear in all the segments. Regardless I still feel the film succeeds in feeling like an inclusive experience with its array of dancers including a young child whom appear alongside Kelly and are all given their moment in the sun.

The first segment “Circus” offers a slice of early 20th century European culture with beautiful array of sets full of eye pleasing colours which still manage to feel authentic; somewhere that’s been used and lived in. All three segments in Invitation to the Dance are devoid of dialogue but Circus really does call back to silent cinema with its melodramatic love triangle premise. In his role as a mime, Kelly gets to express the full range of his physical talents and uses his face to convey all his emotion. Circus is a fine piece of tragic, visual melodrama with an emotionally gutting finale.

The second sequence “Ring Around the Rosy” is the section of the film most reminiscent of the MGM musical in the 1950’s with its use of impressionistic backgrounds as seen in the ballet sequences of Kelly’s musicals. I never do tire of these backgrounds as they’re always a pleasure to behold; an aesthetic and atmosphere which really characterised musicals of the era. I do love the humour present in the segment such as the femme fatale with the exaggerated Veronica Lake hairstyle which constantly had to be pulled back in order for her to even see, to the singer whose voice is the sound of a trumpet which causes the dames to swoon and faint.

The finale segment “Sinbad the Sailor” is the most impressive on a technical level in which Kelly dances alongside animated characters in a dazzling piece of Arabian Nights inspired fantasy. Famously Kelly had previously danced alongside Jerry the Mouse in Anchors Aweigh (1945 ) however Sinbad the Sailor takes this to a new level in which Kelly occupies a fully animated environment. The integration and interactions with the animated world and its characters is largely seamless and more than impressive for the time, with the dance steps of the animated characters being on synch with Kelly’s steps. Likewise he is also joined by a live action child and only Kelly himself could dance that well with a child. During this segment Kelly also finds a love interest with an animated Middle Eastern girl and the two even engage in a kiss: An early example of an inter-racial kiss in cinema, even if it is between a live action man and an animated woman.

How to Marry a Millionaire (1953)

One Million Dollars!

How To Marry a Millionaire was the first movie filmed in Cinemascope (second to be released) and thus is a bit like the Avatar of 1953; a technological showcase but provides little in the way of interesting story or characters. The first five minutes of the film is comprised of composer Alfred Newman and his orchestra showcasing the visual and stereophonic capabilities of the new technology and trying to get audiences away from their televisions and into the movie theatre. TV is square and in black & white, movies are in colour and on a big wide screen. I can imagine this being quite a spectacle for audiences back in 1953 but why is it part of the movie and not a separate short? As for the visuals in the film itself, they do take advantage of the frame showing New York in full cinemascope although the use of a fish eye like lens in many shots is a little bothersome.

How to Marry a Millionaire was the first film I saw William Powell in and he didn’t leave any impression on me despite me later becoming a huge fan of his. As Roger Ebert put it, “William Powell is to words as Fred Astaire is to dance”, but he has not killer material to work off here. The three leading ladies do have their own personalities but there is not much in the way of playing off each other nor is there any fast and witty dialogue. Overall the screwball comedy type plot isn’t hugely fleshed out and there’s no real sense of urgency although there are a few laughs to be had. I do particular like Betty Grable’s grouchy, grumpy date played by Fred Clark. I find Marilyn Monroe however gets the most interesting dynamic in the film playing a woman who is afraid to wear glasses which feels like a statement on conformity in the 1950’s.

How To Marry a Millionaire is a prime example of what you would call an ‘ok’ film; a time passer, not terrible but not great either. Most enjoyment I do get from it is largely superficial as I do love me some 50’s fluff with the colourful aesthetic and the high fashion. Plus three beauties in cinemascope, as a heterosexual male I’m not complaining.

Brigadoon (1954)

An American In Scotland

Brigadoon was originally conceived as a musical on the scale of a John Ford production but that didn’t come to be. Due to budget cuts the entire movie is set bound but as far as set bound movies go Brigadoon is still an impressive display of production design. The sets themselves look impressive and expansive complete with fog effects, animals, vegetation and backdrops which do appear vast; something I imagine would be more challenging to accomplish in colour and cinemascope. Brigadoon was made after the Technicolor era had ended and while it might be lacking the eye popping colour of previous MGM musicals it’s still a beauty of a film.

Brigadoon was Vincente Minnelli’s first musical in cinemascope and while the widescreen technology allows for more space for the dancers I couldn’t help but notice there is not a single close up shot in the entire film. As it turns out Minnelli actually had disliked the use of close ups in cinemascope. It’s not a major issue but I do find it to be somewhat of a mild irritance.

The fantasy set of Brigadoon doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and requires the old suspension of disbelief. The village of Brigadoon rises out of the mist every 100 years for just one day thus the village will never be changed or destroyed by the outside world. Travelling through time at this rate the village will have gone 3,650,000 years into the future after only one year Brigadoon time. What happens if the location of Brigadoon has something constructed on it or succumbs to natural geographical change? Regardless the movie still works despite its illogical concept plus it is fun trying to theorise how it would play out. The Scottish setting of Brigadoon on the other hand is how the rest of the world imagines Scotland is like with its tartan layered aesthetic and I love it. The Scottish accents however do feel right and are not exaggerated as you would expect a Hollywood movie to do.

Gene Kelly and Van Johnson make an entertaining duo with Johnson playing the grumpy and sarcastic comic relief. But the real jewel pairing is between Kelly and Cyd Charisse as the romantic love interests. Just look at the Heather on the Hill number for a better expression of falling in love through dance. The soundtrack is no Singin’ in the Rain (but then again so few musicals are) but still a fine selection of gems and lush orchestrations, many of which help make Brigadoon a very relaxing film to watch and as pleasant a musical excursion as you could ask for.

An American In Paris (1951)

We’ll Always Have Paris

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

An American In Paris is a very different beast of a movie than Singin’ in the Rain. It’s not as fun as other MGM musicals (although there is fun to be had) but it’s better described as a more intellectual viewing experience. The film is light on plot like other classic Hollywood musicals but there is much going on internally between and within the characters. Simply put, this movie musical is dark. Gene Kelly’s role of Jerry Mulligan is a cynical loser who is not a very successful painter (although I do like when he tells of the pretentious art student, telling it like it is!). Likewise the romance between Jerry and Lise Bouvier (Leslie Caron) is a hopeful but not entirely a happy one. Even with Kelly and Caron ending up together at the end, the character relationships in the film are never resolved. During the film I kept thinking is she not better off with Henri Baurel (Georges Guetary)? The guy who is a successful actor and saved your life during the war or the loser whom you only recently met? Likewise in Milo Robert’s (Nina Foch) final appearance she states “I think I need some champagne” and is never heard or seen again. Even though her character denies wanting more with Kelly than championship and only wants to help him professionally in a surprising prostitution reference (“If you’re hard up for companionship there are guys in town who do this kind of thing for a living, call one of them”), I never felt convinced by this. Who says classic Hollywood is all just happy endings?

An American In Paris is the perfect display of the artistry of director Vincente Minnelli. He found French painting an inspiration for his own style; a skill he would incorporate into other productions such as Lust for Life. There couldn’t be a better or more obvious choice of director for An American In Paris than Minnelli. Not many other directors can use space as effective as Minnelli and display such a fluid motion of the camera. Just look as the film’s introductory sequence to Gene Kelly and his chums or the shot of Kelly walking down several flights of stairs in his apartment building; thus I can forgive the very visible camera shake 47 minutes into the movie during the Tra-la-la number. Even though he was a contract director (he made 33 films, only three made outside of MGM) he rose above these constraints and formed his own style whereas contract directors where usually assigned to conform to the studio’s standard and aesthetic. Whether or not he can be classified as an auteur there has been no other filmmaker like him in Hollywood history.

The film’s sets themselves look like they’ve been lived in instead of coming off as totally shiny and glossy with frames still looking like Paris as the impressionists saw it. Have neighbourhoods in Paris ever looked like this or is it just movie fantasy? Likewise take in the appearance of the Beatnick nightclub and observe the early incarnation to the modern day world of the hipster.

Kelly’s ability to dance alongside children and interact with them is something no one could do better than him which is evident from the genuine reactions from the on looking kids during the I Got Rhythm number; truly the dancing figure for the everyman. Leslie Caron’s introductory ballet sequence on the other hand is a Technicolor assault on the senses; the backgrounds are one solid colour while she wears dresses which totally contrasts them. Could you ask for a more memorable first ever screen appearance; complete with a sexual chair dance and one flexible body. Likewise the contradictory humour from the sequence’s narration always makes me laugh. Another major musical highlight is Oscar Levant’s dream sequence which reminds of the Buster Keaton short The Playhouse in which every member of the theatre is played by Keaton; likewise here he have an army of Oscar Levant. The sequence was actually his idea and along with the character he portrays in the film reflects his real life personality as a neurotic. The appearance and the colours of the sequence definitely remind me of Powell and Pressburger; surely the filmmakers must have taken inspiration.

They do save the best for last however in the form of the American In Paris Ballet; among one of the greatest things ever committed to film. A sequence which takes full advantage of cinema as an art form; could the entire thing be recreated on the stage? Watch French impressionism come to life in a 17 minutes feast for the senses which is artful without being artsy. There’s chorography and then there’s this with so many people moving, dancing and doing their own thing; with Gene Kelly’s graceful yet masculine dancing still being at the centre of it. Fred Astaire once said he didn’t want the camera to dance for him but rather stay stationary with as few cuts as possible. Kelly’s style is very much the opposite of this in that the camera movement is integral to the dance but doesn’t take away from his talent, not one bit. Yet I haven’t I even mentioned the music of Gershwin; could it be more lush and rich?

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

That’s Entertainment!

What is about Singin’ in the Rain that even the film elite hold it in such high regard and has even appeared on a previous Sight & Sound poll as one of the ten greatest films of all time, ranking among traditional highbrow films? Singin’ in the Rain is not just a great musical but also a film with a great story. It is not as harsh a critique on Hollywood as Sunset Boulevard but who would have still believed the content of fan magazines to be genuine after this film. Singin’ in the Rain has a cynical side as it pulls apart the Hollywood myth; beginning with Don Lockwood’s back-story as to how he rose to fame, which the movie comically shows us is full of crap. “Dignity, always dignity” but not if you want to make it to the top but at the end of the day  Singin’ in the Rain is a movie for movie lovers which celebrates Hollywood as much as it makes fun of it.

The film is set in 1927 albeit a very colourful 1927. In 1952 Technicolor films were in their final years of production and would soon become a thing of the past. The movie is a tribute to MGM producer and songwriter Arthur Freed – head of the MGM Freed unit – the producers of some of the greatest film musicals of all time. Although the days of the studio system where coming to an end in the early 1950’s as films from different studios started becoming homogenous and not containing unique aesthetics to each studio, the MGM musical still remained its own unique beast that on other studio could replicate. Likewise, the film studio in Singin’ in the Rain is a fictional studio and not MGM itself, I guess that would have been too much of a self-endorsement.

The soundtrack itself has entered the pop culture lexicon for good reason. I’ve had no shortage of listening to my CD soundtrack; glorious corn and camp topped with beautiful orchestrations, all of which never leaves your head and contributing to making Singin’ in the Rain one of the go to anti-depressant films. Few other songs can lift my mood more than Moses Supposes or the film’s title number: could there be a greater expression of joy? After all, it is in the title; he is singing in the rain; turning the dreary rain into carefree joy, finding joy in despair. As for Make ‘em Laugh, even though it is a plagiarism of Cole Porter’s Be a Clown from The Pirate (1948), I considering Make ‘em Laugh is a superior rendition. There is also that disorienting fashion parade sequence which could be removed and have no effect on the plot but I do love me some 50’s fluff. But they do save the best for last in the form of the Broadway Melody Ballet. A number of MGM musicals had a lengthy ballet sequence, and to say they out did themselves here would be an understatement as Gene Kelly dressed as Harold Lloyd with the go getter attitude of the 1920’s celebrates a simple notion, “gotta dance!”. The visually asserting array of bright colours and impressionistic backgrounds is aided by Cyd Charisse; what a talent, what a figure!

Singin’ in the Rain presents a light hearted and comical look at what actors and studios went through during the transition to sound. Few other scenes in cinema are as entertaining as Lina Lomant’s failure to understand sound recording technology. This scene not only showcases the problems with the technology in its early days by picking up unwanted sounds (complete also with the classic angry movie director) but it perfectly captures the relatable frustration that comes with filmmaking. I can tell you there is nothing more frustrating than out-of-sync sound. Likewise, the star’s difficulty in adapting to talkies and being laughed at by audiences parallel the legend of audiences being in howls of laughter as actor John Gilbert’s attempts to deliver dialogue on screen. Jean Hagan playing the dumb broad Lina Loment does a comedy act similar to Judy Holiday but in my view better than Holiday ever did. Donald O’Connor on the other hand surely isn’t human with his vaudeville style act his facial and body movements and ability to walk up walls. Just name me a film with a more astounding display of talent. Here’s to you Singin’ In the Rain, I bow humbly to your cinematic and musical perfection.

Ben-Hur (1959)

When In Rome…

Metro Goldwyn Mayer hadn’t created a production this big since Gone with The Wind some twenty years earlier. Ben-Hur was created with the intent of lifting the studio out of financial trouble, yet somehow along the way art managed to be created. With the gloriously pompous opening credits set to the backdrop of The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo and the booming horns of Miklos Rozsa’s score, the stage is set. During the early scenes of Ben-Hur I get the satisfaction of knowing that everything in front of the camera is real and had to be assembled, such as every single extra in those trails of roman soldiers which go back as far as the eye can see. Ben-Hur was William Wyler’s Cecil B. DeMille picture, well certainly thematically. Technologically Ben-Hur is an incredibly different film to those made by DeMille. The films of DeMille’s where largely staged despite their epic scope which does work in its own way and while I’m not trying dismiss The Ten Commandments (it is my favourite biblical epic) it can’t be denied Wyler is a far superior craftsman and that comes through in Ben-Hur; his filling of the frame is more rich and vibrant with a great sense of depth of field. At nearly four hours long, Ben-Hur is the perfect example of how to pace a movie of long length; it feels shorter than it is.

Ben-Hur was only one of a handful of movies shot using the MGM Camera 65; an extremely wide aspect ratio. The wide lens is not just for grand sweeping shots, it helps make the intimate, close up moments more immense and make the actors more godlike. Any close up of only one actor in the middle of the frame with an out of focus background looks majestic. Ben-Hur seems to be a movie largely remembered for just its spectacle, which is a shame. It is also a movie of rich layered vibrancy, evoking the senses and full of emotion. The story also includes that age old idea of one’s destiny being by a seemingly insignificant event. If that tile didn’t fall of the roof during the Roman parade then things may have turned out very differently. I also love Jack Hawkins’ words off “You have the spirit to fight back, but a good sense to control it”, and “[hate] That’s good, hate keeps a man alive; it gives him strength”; two more additions to my book of life advice from movie quotes.

People will be quick to dismiss Charlton Heston as a ham actor. He’s a classically trained actor, over the top and boisterous at times (in a good way) but so was Laurence Oliver yet everyone gives him a free pass; I guess when you’re the star of mainstream, blockbuster films then you don’t garner as much respect. The style of acting is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I relish in it.

One of the reasons why the famous chariot race is so great is because the action is real; people where actually put in danger’s way for the creation of art. There is no music during the race; just primarily the sound effects of the chariots and horses storming across the ground with the cheers from the immense crowd of spectators. The filmmakers brought 2,000 years ago back to life; nine minutes of cinema history in which your eyes are truly glued to the screen. The chariot race is one of the reasons why the 1959 film version of Ben-Hur will always be the definitive version. If anyone thinks they can do a chariot race which is better then they are fooling themselves. Imagine if Hollywood remade Ben-Hur with a CGI chariot race, that would be really awful wouldn’t it? Oh wait, never mind. The ship battle sequence on the other hand, while superb I do feel the battle in the 1925 version of Ben-Hur is more effective; a more brutal sequence in which people are tied to the front of ships and snakes are catapulted into other enemy boats.

Even as someone who is not religious I can’t deny the power of the film’s religious moments such as the scene of Jesus giving Judah water and the roman guard being unable to whip him, and even the birth of Jesus appears very dreamlike. Even the use of miracles as a device to resolve plot points doesn’t hurt my enjoyment of the film such as the section of the movie at the Leper colony; a powerful and disturbing sequence in which people segregated from the rest of society with a debilitating illness. Yet is it not an easy way out when the leprosy of Judah’s mother and sister is cured instantly? Burt Lancaster, a self-proclaimed atheist turned down the role of Judah Ben Hur as he felt he couldn’t star in a film which promotes Christianity. I feel the same way, but dammed if it doesn’t stop me from loving this movie.

No Highway In the Sky (1951)

Airplane!

After the war James Stewart expanded his range taking on a number of tough guy roles, mainly in westerns but would still return to his gawky boy next door persona which he first became famous for. In No Highway In the Sky he not only returns to the gawky persona, Stewart plays the most nerdy, socially awkward, slouched over, clumsy character.

No Highway In the Sky puts forth an idea of scientists requiring social isolation in order to do their work. As Stewart’s daughter who is destined towards the same life says, “The scientists do the thinking while we do the living”. The Jack Hawkins character represents the layman viewer, exploring this man’s odd but fascinating lifestyle and being bemused by the technical jargon. I don’t know how many real life scientists would appreciate this, but it makes for a fascinating character dynamic.

The section of the film on board the aeroplane is a predecessor to disaster movies to follow which would follow which would feature a diverse array of characters in danger. It is a cliché that the crazy or seemingly crazy one is the person who is right about an impending danger but it is cliché I admit to enjoying. I’m not an aviation expert so I can’t comment on the film’s scientific accuracy but as a lay viewer it did a good job at explaining the aeronautics involved and made it sound convincing; a real nail bitter of a film.