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.

The Ten Commandments (1956)

Old Testament, Real Wrath of God Type Stuff

Upon viewing with my own eyes Cecil B DeMille’s motion picture production of The Ten Commandments, I can only conclude that is cinematic entertainment worthy of the almighty himself and one of which I can wholeheartedly recommend to my fellow man. For man shall be entertained by the will of great cinema, not be the will of interior productions, for cinema is cinema.

Ok I won’t talk like that for the entire review but yes, I love old Hollywood epics. The sheer scope, the bombastic music scores, everyone talking like they’re Laurence Olivier with everything they say being an epic monologue of well, biblical proportions. You can’t get films like this made anymore. No studio would be willing to finance such a project nor would movie goers be willing to watch a film four hours long; they would run for the hills if you even suggest it to them.

From the films I’ve seen or have tried to watch from Cecil B. DeMille (aside from The Greatest Show on Earth which I also enjoyed) his work comes off to me as dull, turgid experiences. The Ten Commandments is an unashamedly old fashioned, stagey and creaky film even for its time but that was DeMille’s Victorian style. Yet with the Ten Commandments all these DeMillen elements all work; perhaps his entire career was leading up to this one film. The Ten Commandments is one of the most classic of old Hollywood epics tapping in with the public’s fascination with Egyptology. No scene during all fours hours of The Ten Commandments feels unneeded, something interesting is always going on with special effects and sets which get better with age; fake but in a good way. Moses parting the sea is one of the greatest and most awe inspiring special effects shots in cinema history; I can never take my eyes off it as it occurs.

Only a handful of scenes in the film where filmed on location with the majority was filmed within the confines of studio sets. Yet it is impressive how DeMille is able to create such a vast world in spite of this, beaming with life and personality; a lavish ancient Egyptian fantasy land that you can lose yourself in and one which feels lived in. The cuts between location and the Hollywood sets are seamless while the widespread use of blue screen, matte paintings and miniatures helps create scenes which look like beautiful paintings.

Everything Charlton Heston says has so much weight to it; a superman who you would happily follow in a heartbeat. Yul Brynner however is the actor who steals the show; one of the coolest looking stars of the big screen with his distinctive bald look. With his broad and toned figure no one could look better wearing that Egyptian head dress and attire. Rames is so evil, suave, chauvinistic and charming; at times you love to hate him, at other times you can’t help to just love him. These guys are opposing forces of masculine badassery with every line of dialogue they utter raising the hairs on my back.

For the record I am an atheist and I’m staunchly anti-religion however I can still enjoy films about religion. A friend of mine once told me that what prevented him from enjoying The Ten Commandments was that Moses got the east way out by relying on God’s miracles in order to free his people from slavery in instead of political intervention. While I do agree I prefer to view the story of Exodus as well the Old Testament as works of mythology exploring timeless themes of good vs. evil as opposed to historical fact. After all there are no actual records from the ancient Egyptians themselves that they ever used slave labour.

Four hours of pure entertainment.

The Harder They Fall (1956)

Bogart’s Swansong Packs a Punch

Watching Humphrey Bogart’s final film is interesting on a number of levels. From the Saul Bass inspired opening credits to the jazzy music score, it’s unique to see Bogart in a more contemporary 1950’s film. I imagine if he lived longer and stared in movies for at least a few more years they would have been in a similar vein aesthetically to The Harder They Fall. In a period in which opening credits where becoming more interdict, the movie uses them to set up the plot; as soon as they’re over we are right into the heart of the story.

The film features a generational clash between Bogart and Rod Steiger; Bogart being of the old theatrical style of acting while Steiger being of the modern method style of acting. However I’ve always found Bogart to be an adaptable actor and he seamlessly blends into these unfamiliar surroundings. Bogart’s role as Eddie Willis is one of the most interesting heroic performances of his career, a character dealing with his moral and ethical conscience throughout the film. He may take part in the corruption game but he never fully believes in what is doing and tries to make it as unscrupulous as possible. Likewise Rod Steiger portrays corrupt sports promoter Nick Benko, a villain who believes his actions are justified. A villain who isn’t evil for the sake of it but throughout the film I get the sense he actually believes in what he’s doing. Steiger hams it up from time to time but in a good way.

The Harder They Fall deals with corruption in boxing and how promoters exploit athletes regardless of their health or well being while also celebrating the power of writing as a force to fight wrong and enforce positive social change, proving once again the pen is mightier than the sword, or should I say boxing glove. I’d be hard pressed to find a film which presents a more in depth look at corruption in boxing. It’s an informative experience into who pulls the strings and how. The fight scene themselves look like the real deal, no speed up footage or obviously faked punches. Likewise the grime and sweatiness of boxing arenas and training gyms never fail as effective subjects to capture on film, especially in black and white. Also what’s the deal with that bus with the cardboard cut outs attached to it? It’s almost like a character in itself.

I had sense of melancholy during the movie’s closing shots knowing this was the last time Bogart appeared on screen. Bogart was in poor health during the film’s production, suffering from lung cancer (although ironically it doesn’t stop him from lighting up during the movie), but thankfully doesn’t affect his ability to deliver a great performance. The Harder They Fall proves to be a worthy conclusion to in my opinion, one of the most impressive careers every held by any actor in the history of cinema.