All That Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk, 1955)

All That Heaven Allows 1This great romantic melodrama from Douglas Sirk shares a lot with his film from the previous year, Magnificent Obsession. It has the same intense Technicolor, combining with music from Frank Skinner to give a dream quality, and much of the cast is the same, including leads Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson. However, for me this film is even more powerful than its predecessor, partly because the plot is not so far-fetched – stemming more from the characters without so many exterior twists.

The story of this film can in some ways be seen as a role reversal take on Magnificent Obsession. In the earlier movie, Rock Hudson played a rich character who had to embrace a whole new philosophy and change his way of life for the sake of love. This time around, it’s Jane Wyman who has to follow a similar path. She plays Cary Scott, a well-off but lonely widow who doesn’t have enough to do now that her children are grown up. It looks as if the only life she can have now is one revolving around an empty succession of cocktail parties and country club meetings. When her children visit, they seem extremely keen to consign her to a premature old age (Wyman was still in her 30s here, though the character is clearly older), complaining if she wears a low-cut dress and apparently hoping she will make a “suitable” marriage to the staid, boring Harvey.  Their solution for her loneliness is to order her a TV set, even though she doesn’t want one. The television set and the layers of ornaments all seem like so many ways of trapping her in a gilded cage.

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Stage Fright (Alfred Hitchcock, 1950)

This is my contribution to the Sleuthathon organised by Movies Silently. Please do visit and read the other entries. The film I’ve chosen is controversial because of some plot elements. I won’t discuss this aspect until the end and will give a spoiler warning, since, as so often with Hitchcock, this is a film where you definitely don’t want to know what’s coming in advance! 

Stage Fright 3Jane Wyman stars as young actress Eve, who turns detective to prove the man she loves is innocent of murder. That’s the starting-point for this unusual Hitchcock thriller, also starring Marlene Dietrich and Michael Wilding. For my money, the movie disproves the claim that he couldn’t do comedy, with many hilarious moments from British character greats such as Alastair Sim and Joyce Grenfell. At times the humour does slow the pace, but it’s all so enjoyable that it’s hard to care – and the tension still builds to an unbearable level whenever the plot calls for it. In particular, the ending of the film is increasingly tense, achieving the same sort of edge-of-the-seat agony as many better-known Hitchcocks.

Hitchcock was keen to work in London at this time because daughter Patricia was at drama school there, and he gave her a small part as a character with the wonderful name “Chubby Bannister”. Despite a mainly British cast, probably with an eye on the US box office, he chose an American actress for the lead role. I’ve just been watching Jane Wyman’s most famous films made with Douglas Sirk, so I was interested to see her in a very different part here. This was made only four years before she played an older woman in  Magnificent Obsession, yet here she is cast as a fresh-faced ingénue who still lives at home with her mother. Well, with her mother (Sybil Thorndike in sublime grande dame form) half the time, and her father (a gloriously grumpy Alastair Sim) the other half.

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Change to my posting schedule… such as it is!

A quick note to say I haven’t had much time for posting here lately, so have decided to carry on writing about Douglas Sirk films through the rest of March, as time allows – though I will take a break from him to write about a Hitchcock film for the Sleuthathon on March 16! I’ll then go on to write about Laurence Olivier in April (I’ve signed up to take part in a couple of blogathons then too, writing about his films). And I’ll get on to Marlene Dietrich in May… rather than March as originally planned.

Magnificent Obsession (1954, Douglas Sirk)

Magnificent Obsession 6Please note I do discuss the whole plot of this film.  So far I’ve written about a couple of lesser-known Douglas Sirk films. Now I’m on to one of his more famous melodramas, the glossy romance Magnificent Obsession – said to be one of the greatest weepies of all time. I’ll admit I stayed dry-eyed. For me the problem is that the soapy plot is just so far-fetched, even by the standards of this genre, and it’s hard to suspend disbelief enough to go with the emotions. Having said that, lead actors Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson are both excellent, Sirk’s direction is seductively smooth, and there are many great scenes and moments along the way.

One of those is the film’s opening. It is exciting, glamorous – and likely to hook most viewers from the start.  Handsome, rich playboy Bob Merrick (Hudson) is at the helm of a hydroplane which clearly cost a fortune, ignoring warnings from bystanders as he heads out across the lake and piles on speed. In an action film, this kind of sequence would be designed to make the audience marvel at the hero’s daring – for instance, with the pre-credits stunts in Bond films. It has much the same effect in this “women’s emotion picture”, as you find yourself willing Bob to avoid the inevitable crash. Yet, at the same time as demonstrating his courage, it also shows the character’s fatal recklessness and self-absorption – something underlined by the comments of those surrounding him. “Doesn’t that guy have a brain?” “He doesn’t need to, he’s got four million bucks.”

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All I Desire (Douglas Sirk, 1953)

All I Desire 3

Barbara Stanwyck with Lori Nelson

Mention Douglas Sirk, and the type of film that immediately comes to mind is a glossy colour melodrama. However, he did also make some black-and-white films – including this early 1950s production. Like his previous film, Has Anybody Seen My Gal?, this is a period piece (it’s set in 1910). Also like the earlier film, it again paints a portrait of small-town America which is deeply nostalgic and wistful and yet, at the same time, clearly draws out the narrowness and judgemental attitudes of the community. At its centre is Barbara Stanwyck, giving a powerful and multi-layered performance.

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Has Anybody Seen My Gal? (Douglas Sirk, 1952)

has anybody seen my gal 5Where does the time go? February’s half over and I’m only just getting on to my Douglas Sirk season – sorry to be slow, but hopefully I’ll still manage to fit in a few reviews! The earliest film included in the 7-DVD UK/region 2 Douglas Sirk Collection is the charming, bitter-sweet Has Anybody Seen My Gal?  This is a small-town tale in gorgeous Technicolor (though sadly a bit faded on the DVD), as typical of Sirk, but, since it is a comedy, the mood is rather lighter than in many of his films. Unusually, it’s also a sort-of musical, with occasional brief bursts of song and dance, although none of them really come to much. This is a period piece, set in the 1920s, and it’s full of loving observation and beautiful sets and costumes to create the mood.

Top billing goes to Piper Laurie and Rock Hudson, who went on to work with Sirk on several better-known films – but make no mistake, this is Charles Coburn’s film all the way. In his mid-70s when he made this movie, the comedy great dominates throughout, and playing the lead rather than a smaller character part gives him the chance to show more layers to his grumpy but kindly screen persona. Once again, he plays a grandfather type loaded with money, as in earlier comedies like Bachelor Mother – but his wealth certainly doesn’t seem to be making him happy. As the film opens, he is pining away in bed,  nursing imaginary ailments and making the lives of his employees a misery as he barks out cruel but witty one-liners.

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Which is Frank Sinatra’s best film performance as an actor?

Golden Arm 8I’ve enjoyed watching and writing about some of Frank Sinatra’s films over the last few weeks – and would like to thank everyone who has contributed such great comments. People made a lot of interesting suggestions in response to my question about which were his greatest film songs - and now I’ve got another question to pose. Which is his best film performance as an actor? Here are a few thoughts, linking in to some of the reviews I’ve written here. I have quite a few well-known films still to see, so would especially appreciate thoughts and recommendations on those.

Rod, one commenter who knows a lot about Sinatra’s work, has already suggested that the answer to that question might be the film I’ve just written about, The Man with the Golden Arm.  Sinatra is full of intensity, but never hammy, as junkie Frankie Machine – and heartbreaking as the  character’s desperation for a fix builds. As I said in my review, I feel the film somewhat cops out towards the end, but Sinatra himself gives a fearless performance and fully deserved his Oscar nomination.

So what about the film he actually won a supporting actor Oscar for, and which reinvigorated his whole career after a famously bleak patch – From Here to Eternity? I’ll admit it is quite a while since I saw this (I meant to fit in a viewing over the last few weeks but time ran out) – but, apart from the iconic image of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr lying on the beach, the scenes which stick in my mind the most are those involving Sinatra’s character, Angelo Maggio. I can’t be sure how the performance compares with his others after all this time, but would be interested to hear what others think.

Another film which many would pick as his finest, and which he himself describes in an interview on the DVD as the best in his career, is The Manchurian Candidate. I saw this recently but didn’t write about it because I must admit I found the plot very hard to follow. I’ll need to see it again, but was impressed by the surreal opening sequence and by just how vulnerable Sinatra lets himself be in the scene on the train where he can’t light his cigarette because his hand is shaking. He looks grey and ill, with a patch of sweat breaking out on his upper lip – you want to look away, but can’t.

Yet another acclaimed performance is his role as the soldier coming home to a small town in Some Came Running.  He also makes a compelling nervous gangster in Suddenly (1954), a role which has a lot in common with Bogart’s performance in Wyler’s The Desperate Hours

Then of course there are the films where he combines acting and singing, such as the biopic of comedian Joe Lewis, The Joker Is Wild and the musical Young at Heart, a personal favourite for me. As has often been said, Sinatra really acts when he is singing – he used to study the lyric like a poem and make every word count. Recently I saw a documentary about his career which included a black and white clip of him singing One For My Baby in a TV studio, at a mocked-up bar. I don’t know whether this went out live on air or not, but it was impressive how he acted the scene at the same time as singing the words with passion. Fellow-blogger Patti wrote an interesting comment on one of my postings, after she and her son had a discussion about the question  “Was Frank an actor who could sing? Or was he a singer who could act?” I’d have to say I see him as a singer first and foremost, but his acting is deeply connected to his singing – as in both cases he feels the words and gives them their weight.

Before I start to sound too gushing (if I haven’t done that already), I must say that I’m by no means a fan of every Sinatra film I’ve seen. Rat Pack self-indulgence like Robin and the Seven Hoods leaves me cold, and I was disappointed recently by Double Dynamite (1951), a very weak musical with hardly any songs, where Sinatra is miscast as a meek, boring bank teller and Groucho Marx gets all the good lines!