Joan Blondell and James Cagney in Footlight Parade
Hi to all those visiting my blog! I haven’t been around here much lately, and I’m afraid my projected themes fell by the wayside… though I might still resurrect them. But, anyway, I intend to get the show back on the road with some postings about musicals and then see where the spirit takes me. I’ve been enjoying the great Busby Berkeley movies in recent months, especially as I had the opportunity to see Footlight Parade during the pre-Code festival at the BFI in London earlier this year. This was also the first opportunity I’ve ever had to see a James Cagney film on the big screen – I’ve seen just about all his films, bar a couple of TV productions. but only on the small screen ( in many cases on Youtube). It was a revelation to see those spectacular Berkeley numbers as they should be seen – and I have more big-screen joy coming up next month, when Ipswich Film Society plans a screening of Gold Diggers of 1933.
In the meantime, I’ve been lucky enough to get my hands on an imported TCM mini set in their Greatest Classic Films series, thanks to my daughter who gave it to me for my birthday. On two double-sided discs, it contains the aforementioned Footlight Parade, 42nd Street, and two lesser-known Berkeley films, Dames and Gold Diggers of 1937. Some films in this TCM series are coded for region 1 only, while others are region free - but luckily, although I’m in the UK, I do have the ability to watch multi-region. A big bonus is that these DVDs have lots of special features, including trailers and featurettes. too. Just wondering, what are anyone’s favourite Berkeley musicals? I especially love 42nd Street, but am looking forward to discovering some of his lesser-known offerings. Watch this space for a review of Gold Diggers of 1937 coming up in the next couple of days.
Where previous Howard Hawks films about the First World War focused on pilots, this one goes into the trenches. Warner Baxter, Fredric March and Lionel Barrymore star as beleaguered French soldiers struggling to cope with the ceaseless death and destruction all around them on the Western Front. A contemporary review in the New York Times criticised The Road to Glory for its mix of grimness and romanticism, and failure to draw any conclusions about the “ultimate value of [the soldiers'] sacrifice”. Yet, to a modern audience, the bleakness is the thing which resonates – the feeling of individuals caught up in events which they can’t control and don’t understand. While it isn’t as well-known as some Hawks movies, this film is now available on DVD in both region 1 and UK/region 2.
The drama centres on two melodramatic tales of human relationships, a love triangle between two soldiers and a nurse, and a father and son coming together on the frontline. However, the most powerful and memorable elements of the film, beyond these stories, are the portrayals of the war itself. There is some very stark photography of the men advancing through a ruined landscape full of darkness and shadows. Much of this footage was taken from a great French film, Raymond Bernard’s Les Croix de Bois, after Twentieth Century Fox bought up the rights. But this movie has its own story.
I’m back in the Pre-Code groove after seeing quite a few of them in recent weeks – including this rather slight but enjoyable melodrama. I was attracted to Young Bride because it stars Helen Twelvetrees and Eric Linden, who are both now sadly forgotten, but were talented actors of the era. It also has a good director, William A. Seiter, who directed the Astaire and Rogers musical Roberta, as well as Laurel and Hardy’s Sons of the Desert. What’s more, it was one of the first films executive produced by David O. Selznick.
Helen Twelvetrees gets top billing here for what is essentially a woman’s emotion picture, centred on a lonely young girl who falls in love with Mr Wrong. The original working title of this film was ‘Love Starved’, and that’s a good description of Twelvetrees’ character, Allie Smith, who has recently lost her beloved mother and now leads an isolated existence in the flat they shared. What’s more, Allie has a job as… wait for it… a librarian. Continue reading →
For my money, Carrie is one of William Wyler’s greatest films – and one of Laurence Olivier’s finest performances. Yet it often seems to get overlooked. Maybe it would have more recognition as a classic adaptation if the title of Theodore Dreiser’s original novel, Sister Carrie, had been kept, which would also have avoided confusion with the horror film of the same name. In any case, I’d definitely urge any admirer of Olivier to see this period melodrama – and, if you are one of the doubters who think he was always too stagy on screen, this movingly understated role should help to change your mind.
Not everyone was sure about the choice of the very English Olivier for the great American role of George Hurstwood, a restaurant manager driven into a downward spiral by his passion for Carrie (Jennifer Jones). But Wyler was convinced the actor’s elegance would work well, and he was right. From the first glimpse of him, about half an hour into the film (wow, Olivier is playing a waiter?) there is a poignant feeling of this character slipping downwards, falling through the net. This adaptation of Sister Carrie focuses on the central love story, contrasting his decline with Carrie’s rise to fame, which gives it the same kind of dynamic as A Star Is Born. Just as in the various versions of that story, it’s hard to tear your eyes away from the character heading for the bottom.
Films where an actor is cast against type always have a fascination, and I’ve sometimes thought this would in itself be a great blogathon theme. Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution sees Tyrone Power surprisingly cast in what turned out to be his final role – and is sometimes said to be his best. In a sharp contrast with all the swashbuckling heroes he’s played, here he is cast as a charming drifter and would-be inventor who can’t hold down a job.
Yet, cleverly, the casting does play on his reputation as a matinee idol, since his character, Leonard Vole, is a man who gets women swooning. In particular, one older woman who befriended him – Emily French (Norma Varden). She’s the one he is now accused of murdering. I’ll admit I’ve never been a big Power fan (though I’m hoping to be converted by other postings in this blogathon!) , but I’m definitely impressed by his performance as Leonard, with his worn boyishness and increasing desperation. Vole can’t quite take the murder accusation seriously, but is persuaded that he needs to engage a barrister, and the stage is set for one of the all-time great courtroom dramas.
This is my contribution to the Great Villain Blogathon, hosted by the Silver Screenings, Shadows & Satin and Speakeasy blogs. Please do visit and read the great range of postings for this event.
For millions who were never lucky enough to see Laurence Olivier play Shakespeare on stage, the nearest we can come is to watch his films of the Bard’s works. My favourite out of his Shakespearean roles is undoubtedly Hamlet – and I’m clearly not the only one, as my review of that film is far and away the most popular posting ever on this blog. (It’s had nearly twice as many hits as the second on the list, which is my own small testament to the power of Olivier’s performance.)
But Olivier didn’t just take on the role of Shakespeare’s most beloved tragic hero. In Richard III, he also relished playing his villain of villains. To be honest, at first while watching this I found the outrageously over-the-top quality of his portrayal a bit hard to take – as he struts, sneers and shouts and is always many times larger than life. He towers over the rest of the cast just as his own misshapen, spidery shadow looms over him, and his mannered speaking sits uneasily with the more naturalistic speech used by most of the other actors.