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.
Latter-day screwball comedy Eternally Yours was made in what is often described as Hollywood’s greatest year, 1939, and has a superb cast. There are three actors who later won Oscars, not only leads Loretta Young and David Niven, but also Broderick Crawford as the hapless “other man”. Also featured are great silent film actress Zasu Pitts, doing a comic turn, and C. Aubrey Smith, Eve Arden, Hugh Herbert and Billie Burke in small roles. And there’s a good director, Tay Garnett, who went on to make The Postman Always Rings Twice a few years later. Don’t expect too much, though – this is not a masterpiece by any means and I’d have to say it sags in the middle, after a great start.
Any fan of classic romantic comedy will find plenty to enjoy, all the same, just as long as you steer clear of the dire public domain DVDs on the market from companies you’ve never heard of. I rashly bought one of these and found the film almost impossible to watch, with dreadful picture and sound quality, and a lot of bewildering jumps in the story. It later transpired that this was an incomplete version with many scenes missing (including some of the best ones!) so that the plot made little sense. Fortunately there was a more complete version on Youtube (around 90 minutes), with much better sound and picture. This may not be perfect, and still has one or two jumps, but, when I watched this, suddenly the film was immeasurably improved from the butchered version I’d originally seen. I note that the US TCM website also has a DVR version available which may be better yet.
Making a list of my top ten favourite male actors was even harder than listing my favourite actresses, because there is a temptation to put all those I find the most handsome top of the list, and that isn’t really what it’s about. I’m uneasily aware that most of my top ten are, nonetheless, very attractive, but I’ve tried to go more on acting talent and screen personality! As with my list of favourite actresses, I have not included any current actors. This list would be likely to change on another day, or after I’ve seen more films… and there are many others I longed to include. I’ve once again written something about my top three choices and just listed the names of the others. I’d be interested to hear other people’s favourites and thoughts.
1. James Cagney. It’s predictable that I would give Cagney my number one spot, since he has been my favourite for years now and I spent a lot of time tracking down all his films. Why do I love him? I think it is that he seems to give everything to every role, with a blend of humour, energy, intelligence and danger, and an underlying vulnerability. I do think the films he starred in are more uneven in quality than for some of the others on my list, basically because he was tied to the studio and often forced to appear in movies which didn’t really match his quality as an actor – but, even when it is a poor film, his talent and unique screen personality shine through. My favourite performances of his range from his big four gangster films, The Public Enemy, Angels with Dirty Faces, The Roaring Twenties and White Heat, to his song-and-dance films like Yankee Doodle Dandy and Footlight Parade, but there are also many more wonderful performances, ranging from his very first film, Sinners’ Holiday, right through to later offerings like the biopic Man of a Thousand Faces, and in an earlier posting I listed some of my favourites. I’m just slightly sorry that I’ve seen just about all his films and so will never again have the delight of seeing them for the first time, but they are well worth revisiting – and there are some, like White Heat, that I’ve watched many times. I’m looking forward to the blogathon on Cagney which R.D. Finch at The Movie Projector is organising in April.
2. John Barrymore. It’s hard to believe that this great actor never received even a single nomination for an Oscar – or any film award at all. There are still a lot of his films I haven’t managed to see as yet, and quite a lot that have been lost so there will never be the chance – but his range is astonishing in the work which does survive. Barrymore was equally powerful in silent films like Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Beloved Rogue and Don Juan and in the large number of pre-Code talkies he made, including Wyler’s Counsellor at Law and two celebrated films with all-star casts (on each occasion including his brother Lionel), Grand Hotel and Dinner at Eight. Sadly, he only ever played one Shakespeare role on film, an endearing yet violent Mercutio in George Cukor’s Romeo and Juliet. But there is a screen test for a film of Hamlet which was never made, and a brief clip of him as Richard, Duke of Gloucester/Richard III in a scene from Henry VI Part III included in The Show of Shows, to give a taste of what he was like on stage. Barrymore is probably as well-known for his turbulent private life and drink problem as for his acting, and often his great roles draw on these elements, so that his larger-than-life personality, veering from comedy to tragedy and back again, is inextricably linked with his acting. But it’s a shame if appreciation of his work is lost in anecdotes about drunken escapades.
3. Laurence Olivier. Olivier definitely seems to be the favourite actor among those who come across my blog, and my brief review of his Hamlet (1948) is by far my most popular posting ever. I’d like to review more of his Shakespearean films in future, as well as other work he did for both cinema and TV. However, it’s not just Olivier’s unforgettable interpretations of Shakespeare’s poetry which made him a fine film actor. He also brings the same intensity to other classic adaptations like Wyler’s Wuthering Heights and Carrie, and is perhaps best of all in the unlikely role of a failed comedian in The Entertainer. And he stayed great in later roles like a TV King Lear and as Lord Marchmain in Brideshead Revisited, which also starred his great Shakespearean contemporary, John Gielgud.
4. Humphrey Bogart
5. Jean Gabin
6. Cary Grant
7. John Garfield
8. Spencer Tracy
9. Errol Flynn
10. Paul Newman
I’m sorry to leave out, in no particular order, Richard Barthelmess, Fred Astaire, Frank Sinatra, Gary Cooper, John Gielgud, Fredric March, James Stewart, Clark Gable, Robert Mitchum, John Wayne, Edward G Robinson, Warner Baxter, Bing Crosby, William Powell, Herbert Morrison, Warren William, Sidney Poitier, Lionel Barrymore, Orson Welles, Gene Kelly, Henry Fonda, Clark Gable, Robert Donat, Ray Milland, James Mason, Kirk Douglas, Joseph Cotten, Claude Rains, Charlie Chaplin, Charles Laughton, Peter Lorre, Dana Andrews, Dan Duryea, Gregory Peck, Basil Rathbone, Charles Laughton, Thomas Mitchell… and doubtless many more.
I’ve noticed that quite a few other blogs have lists of favourite actors and actresses. Today I felt like doing something a bit different from my usual reviews, so made a list of my favourite ten actresses at the moment. I’m sure if I made the list another day it would be different -and there are many great actresses I am sad to have left out, some of whom I’ve listed at the end, plus there are doubtless others that I’ve forgotten about. I’d be interested to hear what anyone else thinks of my choices and who your own favourites are! I will also put up a list of male actors soon. I’ve written a few thoughts about my top three and just posted the names of the others, as it is getting late and I want to get this posting finished tonight, but I love them too.
1. Marlene Dietrich: I’ve always liked Dietrich as a singer, and her performance in The Blue Angel blew me away – it was the first black-and-white film that I ever saw on the big screen, in the English version, back in about 1980 (it is claimed all over the net that this version was lost until the 2000s, but this can’t be right, as I had seen it in a beautiful print many years earlier). The German version, which I saw much later, is even better. Recently I’ve been watching a lot of Dietrich’s 1930s films and in particular her pre-Codes made with Josef von Sternberg, and have become ever more impressed by her presence – the way she somehow undercuts her own astonishing beauty with her slight air of self-mockery. “Marlene watches from the wall, her mocking smile says it all,” as Suzanne Vega’s great song puts it. My favourite movies starring Dietrich include The Blue Angel, Blonde Venus, Morocco, Angel and The Spoilers (she makes a surprisingly great combination with John Wayne). I really want to see Martin Roumagnac, where she starred opposite Jean Gabin, one of my favourite male actors. I’d also like to see her silent German films… and everything else she did.
2. Barbara Stanwyck: Most Stanwyck fans seem to prefer her noirs, but, great though they are, I love her 1930s work even more and in particular her pre-Codes, where her warmth and forthright personality come across so strongly. She did some great films in this period with both Frank Capra and William Wellman. My favourite movies starring Stanwyck include Night Nurse, The Miracle Woman, The Purchase Price, The Bitter Tea of General Yen and Ball of fire. I want to see Remember the Night and many more that I haven’t managed to catch up with yet. I did also love her in TV’s The Thorn Birds, giving a great performance in her old age.
3. Bette Davis: For a long time Bette was the actress I would automatically list as my number one favourite, and, although Dietrich and Stanwyck have maybe ever-so-slightly overtaken her in my affections, I am still a huge fan. Davis is best-known for her roles as the “bad”, demanding characters, but she did play many self-effacing heroines too, and I think she was equally good in those parts. My favourite movies starring Davis include Of Human Bondage, Jezebel, The Sisters, All This, and Heaven Too and All About Eve. There are quite a few of her pre-codes that I haven’t seen yet and am determined to track down.
4. Judy Garland
5. Katharine Hepburn
6. Greta Garbo
7. Claudette Colbert
8. Ginger Rogers
9. Ingrid Bergman
10. Audrey Hepburn
I was sorry to leave out, in no particular order… Sylvia Sidney, Ann Dvorak, Miriam Hopkins, Ethel Barrymore, Vivien Leigh, Ida Lupino, Doris Day, Myrna Loy, Joan Crawford, Carole Lombard, Lauren Bacall, Gene Tierney, Lillian Gish, Joan Blondell, Mary Astor, Mary Pickford, Anna Sten, Clara Bow, Louise Brooks, Norma Shearer, Jean Arthur, Greer Garson, Jean Simmons, Joan Fontaine, Olivia de Havilland, Loretta Young, Margaret Sullavan, Priscilla Lane, Celia Johnson, Joan Fontaine, Joan Leslie, Jennifer Jones, Maureen O’Hara, Jean Harlow, Ann Sheridan and Marjorie Main. And I’m sure there are loads more too.
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.
MGM was at one time said to have “more stars than there are in heaven”. The studio certainly poured quite a few of them into its 1933 drama Night Flight, produced by David O Selznick and directed by Clarence Brown, which features both John and Lionel Barrymore along with Helen Hayes, Clark Gable, Robert Montgomery and Myrna Loy. It’s an all-star cast list to rival Grand Hotel or Dinner at Eight, but this lesser-known film is on a smaller scale and doesn’t have the same compelling quality as the other two – perhaps because it was severely cut after its premiere, so what we have are the butchered remains of an epic. Most of the time the various stars are kept separate, with several of them never sharing a scene. The two Barrymores are both superb and bring the film alive whenever they are on screen, especially when they are together. But some of the other actors are wasted, especially Gable, who hardly speaks a line and is only seen wearing a helmet in the cockpit of his plane, having to act silently by means of his eyes alone.
Many great musicals have plots packed with drama and unlikely coincidences. By contrast, on the surface anyway, Meet Me In St Louis has almost no plot at all. However, there is far more to this holiday classic, starring Judy Garland in one of her best-loved roles, than meets the eye on first viewing. Producer Arthur Freed, director Vincente Minnelli and the team at MGM agonised over the ingredients just as the Smith household’s cook, Katie (Marjorie Main) worries over her homemade ketchup bubbling on the stove in the film’s opening scene.
Katie is afraid the ketchup may be too sweet. MGM’s powers-that-be saw the same danger in this adaptation of writer Sally Benson’s humorous Kensington magazine stories, recalling her girlhood in St Louis at the turn of the 20th century. Various scriptwriters were drafted in and encouraged to add exciting plot twists, such as an unlikely blackmail plot involving a Colonel, to make the mixture a little stronger.
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.
Thanks very much to all those who have been following my Dickens in December season this month – I hope all those celebrating have had a good Christmas, and would like to wish everyone all the best for 2013. I’ve enjoyed posting about Dickens and discussing films of his work with all those who have commented, even though, once the festivities kicked in, I haven’t quite kept up my original intention to post every day!
Over the month, I’ve been running a poll in the sidebar asking people to vote for their favourite adaptation of A Christmas Carol. There is no doubt at all about the winner – the 1951 version starring Alastair Sim, originally entitled Scrooge in the UK and known as A Christmas Carol in the US. Out of 39 people who voted in the poll, 24 (nearly 62%) went for this version. I’m preparing a review of this great film at the moment – after finally managing to see it in black and white rather than in the horrible colorised versions favoured by TV – and will be posting it in the next couple of days to finish off the month.
The second most popular version in my poll was a long way behind Sim’s performance – Scrooge (1938) starring Reginald Owen, which got 4 votes ( just over 10%). A Christmas Carol (1984) starring George C Scott got just one vote less at 3 votes (nearly 8%) - I haven’t seen this version as yet but aim to do so next year!
The modern version Scrooged (1988), starring Bill Murray, got 2 votes, while the musical version, Scrooge (1970), starring Albert Finney, the Patrick Stewart version, A Christmas Carol (1999) and the animation starring Jim Carrey, A Christmas Carol (2009) got 1 vote each. The other versions I listed got no votes, but one person did vote for “a different version – or none of them, just the book!”
I was slightly saddened that the 1935 British Scrooge starring Seymour Hicks got no votes, since for my money this is an excellent adaptation which looks forward to the Sim portrayal. Maybe the problem is that not enough people have seen it – I’d say it is definitely worth looking out next time you feel like an older Carol. Anyway, thanks to all who took part in the poll and who have supported my Dickens season.
As a fan of 1930s films, I was really looking forward to seeing this 1938 version of A Christmas Carol. However, I must admit I was rather disappointed with this very short film (just 69 minutes), which cuts out a great deal of the story, including most of its darker elements. Remarkably, this is a version where nobody really seems to be poor. Instead, there is a lot of MGM glamour, including Ann Rutherford improbably cast as an elegant blonde Ghost of Christmas Past, plus some lavish Hollywood snow scenes thrown in. I can see that this adaptation was aimed at a family audience and this is why it has cut out so many of the scary/disturbing elements, but unfortunately this means it has in effect plucked out the heart of Dickens’s story.