Director Vincente Minnelli created one of the warmest portrayals of American family life on film in the great musical Meet Me in St Louis (1944). But he gives a very different, darker take on families in Some Came Running, a 1950s melodrama which tackles the type of subject matter that Douglas Sirk made his own. The colour is gorgeous (or at least I assume it was originally – the DVD I have in the Frank Sinatra: The Golden Years collection looks a little faded at times), and there are many Cinemascope set pieces, including a glossy dance scene. However, the town’s idyllic appearance is constantly undercut by suggestions of the backbiting and nastiness just beneath the surface of life in the fictional Parktown.
I was given the Frank Sinatra: The Golden Years DVD box set for Christmas, so I’m looking forward to watching all the films in the collection. The UK/region 2 set contains four films, rather than five as in the US/region 1 set, with the missing title sadly being the most famous one - The Man with the Golden Arm. However, I have recently acquired this classic on a German Blu-ray and do intend to write about it too, although I’d like to read the book first.
It’s quite amazing to realise that Frank Sinatra made The Tender Trap in the same year as The Man with the Golden Arm. There’s not a hint of the noir film’s white-hot intensity in this glossy MGM battle-of-the-sexes comedy, with its gorgeous blend of Cinemascope and Eastman Color. The mood is set by the opening, where Sinatra is seen against a wide-open sky, stepping forward as he sings the great title song by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen.
It’s over-sweet and over-long – but should not be overlooked. Anchors Aweigh tends to be regarded as something of a dry run for another film featuring Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly as sailors on shore leave, On the Town. When the earlier movie does get a mention, usually it’s just the celebrated dance routine with Kelly and Jerry Mouse which comes in for praise. However, Anchors Aweigh has a warmth and charm going beyond that sequence and Sinatra actually gets better solo songs here than he does in the more famous movie. The gorgeous Technicolor also helps to make it all hugely watchable.
Kelly and Sinatra play the two kindest and nicest sailors imaginable. It comes as a surprise now to realise that Kelly was actually third-billed, because his determined, slightly sarcastic screen personality dominates the film. His character, Joe Brady, blusters about his supposed relationship with a girl about town called Lola, and has several one-sided phone conversations with her – but she never actually puts in an appearance. Sinatra plays a delicate second fiddle as wide-eyed former choirboy, Clarence Doolittle, who hero-worships Joe and, at the start of the film, is seen literally following him around. The actors’ real-life friendship helps to create a convincing warmth and chemistry between them, even if it is hard to believe that any sailors serving in a war could be quite this well-behaved.
This great comedy really is a film that has its wedding cake and eats it. James Stewart sums it all up beautifully in two caustic lines – on the one hand: “The prettiest sight in this fine, pretty world is the privileged class enjoying its privileges.” That’s certainly a big selling point for a movie set in an impossibly luxurious mansion on the eve of a grand wedding, amid a whirl of champagne and gowns by Adrian. But, on the other hand, as Stewart snarls on the phone: “This is the Voice of Doom calling. Your days are numbered, to the seventh son of the seventh son.” The Philadelphia Story, one of the greatest of screwball comedies, celebrates the quirkiness of rich society families, as epitomised in Katharine Hepburn’s haughty, upper-crust heroine, Tracy Samantha Lord. But it also suggests that their days are indeed numbered, and shows this American aristocrat having to change and bend with the times.
The opening scene is a brief silent drama which shows Tracy’s violent break-up with her husband, CK Dexter Haven (Cary Grant), as she contemptuously breaks his golf clubs and he retaliates by pushing her through a door, deciding against hitting her. From this dramatic break-up, it’s a case of going full circle and getting back to the point where the couple fall in love. Just as Tracy is about to marry a safe but boring businessman, George Kittredge (John Howard), Dexter turns up at the eleventh hour and starts turning everything upside down. He brings in a reporter and photographer from a gossip magazine, Spy, (he has been blackmailed into doing so) and things are soon becoming more complicated, and comic, by the minute. It turns out that the reporter, Macaulay/Mike Connor (Stewart) is really a poetic short story writer, and Tracy starts to fall under his spell, threatening her forthcoming marriage – while the rest of her eccentric family are busy causing their own brand of mayhem.
This is my contribution to the Gish Sisters blogathon, being organised by Movies Silently and The Motion Pictures blogs. Please note I will be discussing the whole plot of The Scarlet Letter, both the film and the book.
Great Swedish director Victor Sjöström’s The Wind (1928) is regularly hailed as one of the very greatest silent films. However, The Scarlet Letter, a movie he made just two years earlier with the same screenwriter, Frances Marion, and the same main stars, Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson, tends to be strangely overlooked. Yet, for my money, his adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel is another masterpiece – and, as with The Wind (which has at least had a Spanish release), I can hardly believe there isn’t a DVD available.
It is about time Sjöström and Gish got the recognition they deserved, and that both these great films were released on DVD, and preferably Blu-ray too. Sadly, the only way I could see The Scarlet Letter was on Youtube, where the picture quality wasn’t very good – but the film’s astonishing power shone through all the same. (It is occasionally shown on TCM in the USA, but I don’t think it is ever screened on TV in the UK, where I live.)
Portraits by Jenni has also reviewed The Scarlet Letter for the blogathon and her review includes a fascinating account of how Lillian Gish campaigned for the film to be made and how it was her project all the way. I won’t go over all this ground again, but please do read Jenni’s posting.
During filming for MGM, Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson acted their parts in English and Swedish respectively – something which was possible in the silent era – but you would never know that by watching. They both give great performances as the heroine, Hester Prynne, and the tortured young clergyman, Arthur Dimmesdale, while another fine actor of the era, Henry B Walthall, dominates several scenes as the vengeful Roger Chillingworth. (His name exactly suggests his chilling personality.) Gish expresses her character’s suffering and passion through her eyes, as she also does in The Wind.
If there’s one murder mystery where nobody cares whodunit, it has to be The Thin Man. Why waste time puzzling over clues when you could be enjoying William Powell and Myrna Loy, and their portrayal of glamorous detectives Nick and Nora Charles? The scenes everybody remembers from this sparkling pre-Code comedy-drama are all about Nick and Nora – and, of course, their wire-haired terrier, Asta.
For the uninitiated, the film centres on supposedly retired private detective Nick Charles, who has given up the day job to concentrate on enjoying life with his rich wife. Or so he thinks – but, inevitably, when the couple leave their San Francisco home and visit his native New York to stay in a grand hotel suite there over Christmas, the festivities get mixed up with solving one last crime. Which will lead to plenty more “last crimes” in a series of sequels. There is a fine supporting cast, including Maureen O’Sullivan as a lovelorn young girl and Nat Pendleton as a comic detective, and the murder mystery is well done in itself, leading up to a scene round the dinner table where Nick brings all the suspects together before revealing the killer. However, it isn’t what anybody remembers the film for. Few people even remember that the phrase “The Thin Man” is actually supposed to refer to a character involved in the murder mystery, a complicated tangle about an eccentric scientist suspected of killing his ex-lover, and not to William Powell.
James Stewart and Hedy Lamarr make an unusual romantic combination – especially when she is dressed in stunning gowns by Adrian and he is down to his last dime. However, this surprising pairing works well in the MGM romantic comedy Come Live with Me. This isn’t one of the greatest films in that genre and does have some flaws, while a few scenes clearly derive from more famous movies, but I still enjoyed it, largely because of the chemistry between the couple – plus a wonderful scene where Stewart recites Christopher Marlowe’s poem The Passionate Shepherd to His Love, which gave the film its title. (I’ve included a link to this clip at the end.) I actually saw this one a little while ago and should really have written about it sooner, but better late than never… and the posting is an excuse to post some lovely stills.
It’s hard to imagine a sunnier musical than Easter Parade. Everything fits together perfectly, from the sublime song-and-dance pairing of Judy Garland and Fred Astaire to the score packed with great Irving Berlin standards. Yet this brightly-coloured holiday favourite was at first intended to be darker and sadder, and it almost came together in its final form by a series of accidents.
This backstage tale is set in the vaudeville days of 1912, centred around New York’s famous Easter Parade. It has a warm, nostalgic flavour to it, though the gorgeous costumes would have been fashionable in the 1940s as well as in the period being portrayed. There are plenty of lavishly produced musical numbers, including scenes from the Ziegfeld Follies, but there are also scenes of Garland singing in a dingy nightclub, and glimpses of quirky vaudeville attractions such as a number featuring performing dogs. There is very little dialogue between the songs by comparison with most musicals, but it doesn’t feel too sparse, because every line is made to count.
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.
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.