There’s a Western musical number in one of Fred Astaire’s least-known films, Let’s Dance (1950), where a TV set is seen on the wall, showing a cowboy film. Astaire eyes it disbelievingly for a second – then whips out a gun and shoots the screen. A slightly less drastic method of getting rid of the competition is used at the start of another Fifties film musical, Young at Heart (1954.) Here, an elderly Ethel Barrymore is sitting watching a boxing match on television, but the commentary is deliberately drowned out by her musician brother (Robert Keith), until she switches off – and the message is driven home by a wry comment that he “won the fight”.
In real life, however, the fight wasn’t so easy to win.The audience was falling away to television, and the writing was on the wall for big-budget Technicolor musical extravaganzas. When The Band Wagon was released in 1953, MGM’s Arthur Freed unit, which had made so many great films, was facing a struggle for funding, and Astaire’s contract with the studio was coming to an end. It’s hardly surprising that, despite its lavish musical sequences, including Astaire and Cyd Charisse’s romantic Dancing in the Dark, the film at times has a sad, wistful feeling about it compared to the high spirits of Singin’ In The Rain the previous year.
Nearly two decades before M.A.S.H., the Korean War romantic drama Battle Circus, starring Humphrey Bogart and June Allyson as a surgeon and nurse, covered much of the same territory. Indeed, the opening shots of a helicopter hovering above a landscape of tents looks uncannily familiar to any fan of the later film and TV series. This film was made while the war was still going on, and doesn’t quite have the sharp irreverence of the later takes on the conflict, but there are flashes of the same kind of black humour. (The wounded here are ‘incoming mail’.) It is also a lot more downbeat than some of the Second World War flag-wavers, which is perhaps inevitable in a film focusing not on soldiers, but on the army medics called to patch up the wounded and dying. I found the medical and military scenes powerful, but felt it a shame that so much screen time is spent on the rather unconvincing romance between Bogart and Allyson.
Bogart stars as Major Jed Webbe, a hard-bitten, weary surgeon with a gift for sarcastic one-liners, who shows the way forward to Hawkeye Pierce in M.A.S.H. Like Hawkeye, Jed is starting to show the strain of his daily struggle to save lives, and at one point is tempted to drown his sorrows with an illicit bottle of whisky. However, he is soon in trouble for this, even though he is off-duty at the time, as his commanding officer (Robert Keith) tersely points out that he must be sober and ready to work 24 hours a day, if required.
In another scene, after a young soldier has died on the operating table, Webbe briefly walks out of the room to cope with his emotions, and is followed by Lt Ruth McGara (Allyson), who tells him: “Don’t blame yourself for that man dying.” “It’s not just him,” he replies. “It’s all the others – all the young men, the futility of it all.” At another point he suggests that the Korean war will become the third world war in one lifetime – bringing out the fears of those living through it.
This is my contribution to the John Garfield centenary blogathon being organised by Patti at They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To. Please do visit and take a look at the other postings.
John Garfield’s last film is one of his greatest – yet it tends to be known more for the shadows which were gathering around him in real life than for those on screen. It was made a year before he died, at a time when the actor was being pursued just as relentlessly as his character is in the film, and it is impossible not to think about the parallels as you watch. Indeed, the whole film carries echoes of the McCarthy witch-hunt and many of those involved with it, including director John Berry and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, were being persecuted along with Garfield. However, there is a lot more to this movie than its historical/biographical context and I would definitely recommend it to anyone who admires Garfield’s better-known films noir, such as Force of Evil and Body and Soul. Sadly it hasn’t as yet had a DVD release in region 1, but I can recommend the region 2 release from Optimum, which has fine picture quality, although there are no extras – not even a trailer. (You can also find the film in segments at Youtube, but I don’t know what the quality is like. )
This is a taut, disturbing noir, with superb camerawork by the great James Wong Howe – I’m including a link to a clip of the opening, on Youtube, to give a taste. It begins in the middle of a nightmare, as the camera slowly pans into a dark, untidy room, in a long shot which finds Garfield’s character, small-time criminal Nick Robey, lying in bed, sweating and shaking. Then his mother roughly wakes him and the two go straight into a row, which is just the start of a waking nightmare lasting for the rest of the film. The title is He Ran All the Way, but for most of the film Nick has nowhere to run.
Here’s a link to a brief clip of the film’s start:
Frank Loesser’s amazing score for Guys and Dolls has to be one of the greatest ever written, packed with unforgettable songs, from Fugue for Tinhorns to Luck, Be a Lady and Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat. Michael Kidd’s fast-moving choreography in the colourful street scenes, using Cinemascope to its full effect, adds to the atmosphere, while the dialogue is full of sharp one-liners. However, the film has had much adverse criticism over the years.
So what’s the reason for the widespread lack of enthusiasm? I think it might be mainly that the stage musical is so beloved and frequently revived, with the film coming off second-best by comparison . As with so many adaptations, a few of the songs from the stage show were jettisoned for the film, including such greats as I’ve Never Been in Love Before – Marlon Brando, controversially cast in a singing role, is said to have struggled with some of the notes. However, as compensation, Loesser wrote some new songs for the film, including A Woman in Love for Brando and Sinatra’s show-stopper Adelaide, which, going full circle, is now sometimes included in stage productions.
I’VE just seen the 1999 film version of Trevor Nunn’s London stage revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s great musical Oklahoma, starring Hugh Jackman – who was then pretty well unknown. He makes a great Curly and to be honest I might prefer his relaxed singing in this film to his acclaimed role as Valjean in the latest adaptation of Les Miserables, though of course he is excellent in that too. Anyway, seeing the London revival of Oklahoma! reminded me that I wrote a piece about the 1955 film for the musicals countdown at the Wonders in the Dark website, so I thought I’d re-post it here, and will add a few thoughts about the Trevor Nunn version at the end, plus links to the two different versions of my favourite song from the show. (I’ve never actually seen the musical on stage, but would really love to do if I get the chance).
Rodgers and Hammerstein were surely second to none when it came to creating musical scores full of great standards – and Oklahoma! is one of their finest. The 1955 film’s 145-minute running time is packed with unforgettable numbers like the title song, The Surrey with the Fringe on Top, People will Say We’re In Love, I Cain’t Say No, and, of course, the stunning opening song, Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’. The story of this Western musical romance at first seems very simple and impossibly sunny, not to mention a little old-fashioned, as two very different young girls in Oklahoma at the turn of the 20th century are each courted by two rival men. However, there are some darker themes amid all that sunshine and ripening corn, with occasional shadow-filled scenes showing the way forward to R&H’s Carousel, filmed the following year, which again starred Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae.
Laurey (Shirley Jones) is obviously made for boy next door Curly (Gordon Macrae), but is also being wooed, or stalked, by older, sinister farmhand Jud Fry (Rod Steiger). Meanwhile, fickle Ado Annie (Gloria Grahame, looking completely different from her roles in film noir!) just cain’t decide whether she should marry adoring cowboy Will Parker (Gene Nelson) or plump for flirtatious peddler Ali Hakim (Eddie Albert). What she doesn’t realise is that the peddler is even more fickle than she is.
As promised, here’s my review of the 1951 Scrooge, which was the winner in the Movie Classics poll for people’s favourite adaptation. At heart, A Christmas Carol is a ghost story. Some productions almost lose sight of that, amid all the cosy family scenes and picturesque snowscapes. However, the great 1951 British film starring Alastair Sim – known as Scrooge in the UK and A Christmas Carol in the US – keeps to the spirit of the original text, and gives us all the haunted darkness of the story, as well as the wild happiness of its ending. Screenwriter Noel Langley, who went on to script and direct The Pickwick Papers the following year, clearly had a gift for adapting Dickens.
In the UK, the 1958 Rank Organisation adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities, starring Dirk Bogarde, is probably better-remembered than the 1935 MGM version. The 1950s film is the one that’s widely available here (there’s even a special edition DVD), whereas the 1930s version has never been released on DVD in the UK at all and has to be specially ordered on import. I think it is a pity that the later version seems to have edged out the Ronald Colman film, which to me is by far the greater of the two, with its lavish production values and strong script. But, having said that, the 1950s version is well worth seeing in its own right, and Bogarde makes the role of Carton his own, giving a performance which is perhaps as moving as Colman’s, though very different. I also like Dorothy Tutin as Lucie – I’ve seen her criticised as too sweet, but she does bring some humour to her quiet portrayal of a heroine who has to spend a lot of time waiting in the background.
I’ve finally discovered how to post a poll on my blog, so there is now one in my sidebar asking for people to vote for their favourite film/TV version of A Christmas Carol. Please do cast your vote and also leave a comment if you would like to.
Following on from the early silent version I wrote about yesterday, I’ve now also seen a rather obscure TV version featuring two great cinema actors, which is currently available on Youtube. It is an episode from the series Tales from Dickens, hosted by Fredric March for the British-based Towers of London Productions and starring Basil Rathbone as Scrooge, and was originally shown in either 1958 or 1959 – opinions on the exact airdate seem to differ between websites. Possibly it was shown on different dates in the UK and the US.
My Dickens in December season is getting properly under way with this review – come back tomorrow for another posting! Compressing an enormous, rambling book like Dickens’ Pickwick Papers into a single film of under two hours sounds like a daunting task. But director and screenwriter Noel Langley did a great job in his 1952 film, and really captured the exuberant, improvised flavour of this young man’s novel. Sadly, as in most Dickens adaptations, there is no narrator – but Langley’s dialogue keeps the rhythms of Dickens and many witty lines are there intact.
James Hayter as Pickwick and Nigel Patrick as the charming swindler Mr Jingle head up a wonderful British cast. Patrick simply IS Jingle – whenever I return to the book from now on, I’m sure I will hear his voice. Added to this, Wilkie Cooper’s black-and-white cinematography, Frederick Pusey’s art direction and Beatrice Dawson’s Oscar-nominated costumes make a stunning combination – often feeling almost as if Phiz’s famous illustrations have come to life. Although director Langley was South African-born and had worked in America, the film feels very English. It was made at Nettlefold Studios in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, and features some unmistakably English scenery.
Don’t be misled by the title – though MGM probably hoped people would be. There is nothing very glitzy about this movie, not all that much pageantry, and the only “king” featured is Fred Astaire in a pasteboard crown for the opening musical number.
For the most part, the royal wedding, of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, is just a backdrop, and the film was released as Wedding Bells in the UK to make it clear the royals didn’t actually feature. The main story is an amusing and occasionally poignant backstager partly based on Astaire’s own early career, when he and sister Adele were famous dancing partners until she retired from the stage to marry a British aristocrat. However, the story is probably secondary to the stunning dance numbers, including the famous one where he dances up the walls and around the ceiling. Jane Powell ‘s beautiful singing voice is another definite plus to this movie, which has songs by Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane and a screenplay by Lerner.