Friday, 21 August 2015

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

I have never outgrown a fondness for animated movies, although some of the gooey and simplistic films churned out today are nigh unwatchable. Against this the advances in digital technology have produced some wonderfully-detailed and warming tales from both Pixar and Disney (now of course the same company) and others. However I am still a sucker for the beauties of hand-drawn animation as exemplified by the early Disney classics and of course the amazing Studio Ghibli. These works are a labour of love.

Although I have seen the above movie many times over the years, it never ceases to amaze me how much I forget between viewings. Yes, I remember the gist of the tale and certain stand-out moments and songs, but at a recent viewing, I was staggered by just how brilliant, beautiful, meticulously detailed, amusing, and yes 'scary' the film actually is. It is definitely a landmark movie in cinema history. It was Walt Disney's first feature-length animation, costing 1.4 million dollars (over its original budget of $250,000), with more than two million individual illustrations and 1500 shades of paint. Before its release, sceptics immediately labelled it 'Disney's Folly' and the prophets of doom predicted the worst.

However it was an immediate critical and popular hit and, adjusted for inflation, it was long the highest grossing animated movie of all time. It was the first animated feature selected for the National Film Registry and it received a special Academy Award -- one regular-size Oscar and seven mini-Oscars for each of the seven dwarfs. Parenthetically I do have my own mnemonic for remembering their names -- a popular party trick -- but it is too rude to be immortalised on the net! There are no brownie points for discovering that it was one of Hitler's favourite movies, but Sergei Eisenstein declared it to be the greatest film ever made (and he should know). It certainly created the platform for the myriad full-length animations that have been released since.

I also did not remember just how eerie and dark the film is at times, with an underlying vibe of sinister menace. Initially the British Board of Film Classification gave it an A certificate rather than a U, making it off-limit to the under-sixteens. Although this was soon revised, I can understand that kids could be left with nightmares on viewing Snow White facing the murderous huntsman who has been ordered to place her heart in a casket, being attacked by trees while lost in the forest, seeing the evil queen morph into a wicked hag (a la Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde),watching her tempt Snow with her poisoned apple, and seeing her fall to her doom during the final storm -- with the last image of hungry vultures descending. There is no question that many of Disney's movies had their share of black moments and this one has them in spades.

But of course children are resilient, and they are more likely to come away with memories of Snow White's chirpy animal buddies, the jolly songs, and a fondness for the individualised dwarfs, especially the bumbling Dopey who is mute and the irascible Grumpy who is very very angry. The movie still holds up today -- apart from possibly the over-operatic warbling from the uncredited Adriana Caselotti as Snow White; it has lost none of its freshness and easy charm. It remains a timeless classic.

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I will not be blogging next Friday since, contrary to previous resolutions, we have again opted for the full FrightFest weekend from next Thursday through the Bank Holiday Monday. After only choosing a handful of movies last year, we were tempted to buy the whole package once again and well may regret doing so. They say that old dogs never learn -- and I won't take that analogy too far. So watch this space for the many reviews to follow....   

Friday, 14 August 2015

Chalk and Cheese

The two films under discussion today have absolutely nothing in common other than my wanting to write about them, for reasons which may or may not become apparent. At any rate they are the two from the past week's collection which lingered in my mind for possibly all the wrong reasons...

The Great Profile (1940): I have occasionally written about John Barrymore and he remains a great favourite of mine -- a genius actor with a fatally self-destructive bent. From a dynasty of famous actors and coming from the stage, he and his siblings Lionel and Ethel were movie stalwarts from the silent days. However, unlike those two, John was never recognized by the Academy with nominations or awards; yet he was probably the greatest actor of the three. Unfortunately he is little remembered today, especially by those who forget that movies existed before 1975 (!) or by those who only know of him as Drew's grandpa.

Considered the supreme Hamlet of his day, his film roles remain supremely watchable, even if his deadly attraction to drink undermined his natural talents. This movie was his fourth from last before his untimely death in 1942 and all of his late films are B-flicks at best, only saved by his indomitable joie de vivre. He may have tackled all of these roles through an alcoholic haze, reading his lines from cue cards, but he remains magnetic. In this film, originally intended for Adolphe Menjou but rewritten for the Great Profile himself here named Evan Garrick, he reappears from a three-day bender, desperate for work. The plot seems to have been written from his own life -- he may have been one of the greats once upon a time, but no one is willing to back the dissolute star.

Enter l7-year old Anne Baxter with a terrible play that she has penned and which she implores him to read. When Garrick and his fly-by-night producer Gregory Ratoff learn that her fiancĂ© is wealthy, they are suddenly eager to stage the sorry drama. The first night audience sit stone-faced through the first act, but when Garrick has a few little drinkies before the next act, the play degenerates into pure farce much to the playgoers' delight. On one level this satiric spoof is very sad given one's knowledge of Barrymore's own history, but at a very simple level the subsequent slapstick is nothing short of hilarious. Po-faced Baxter does her best to reform him, but Garrick/Barrymore was well past reforming at this point of his ultimately disastrous career. How the mighty have fallen, but the actor's late 'ham' remains succulent.

No Name on the Bullet (1959): Having written recently that I am no great fan of minor Western movies, I was pleasantly surprised by this unusual oater. Audie Murphy, America's most decorated World War 2 hero, was turned into a most unlikely movie star by the studios. His acting talent was often derided and he himself never thought it was much of a profession for a grown man. Most of the films he made are forgettable, but this B-movie casts him against type as the villain of the piece, or more correctly as the anti-hero. He plays one John Gant, an assassin for hire, whose reputation precedes him. His clever ploy is that he has never been prosecuted as a contract killer, since he always goads his potential victim into drawing first and only responds in kind before witnesses.

When he rides into the small town here, nearly all of the populace are in dread, wondering whom he has come to kill and whether it might be they themselves. Old feuds and double-crosses rise to the surface, erupting in internal violence, as the baby-faced Gant (Murphy was 35 at the time but looked ever so young and innocent) bides his time. The second-tier supporting cast -- the likes of Charles Drake, R G Armstrong, Willis Bouchey, and Whit Bissel -- handle the tension nicely, but few of them come across as completely trustworthy or likeable, as they futilely attempt to drive Gant from the town. If anything the cool-headed Gant is among the more admirable personalities on display, even if his business is murder for cash. His intended victim does not come as a complete surprise, but the movie's denouement is sufficiently open-ended to be satisfying.  All in all, a more than competent small gem. 

Friday, 7 August 2015

Boardwalk (1979)

At long last this movie is available on DVD -- in the U.S. anyhow. I have often thought about this film since I first saw it back in the day, but it has proved elusive until now. It's not that it's a particular brilliant piece of work from writer-director Stephen Verona (who was only involved with five movies and this is his fourth), but it is an infinitely sad and moving viewing experience.

It is also decidedly politically incorrect by today's standards and would never have received a green light in our painfully polite milieu. Becky and David are a loving couple who have been married for forty-nine years, perfectly captured by Ruth Gordon and Lee Strasberg. Their once-genteel and largely Jewish neighbourhood in the shadow of Coney Island has deteriorated over the years as families have moved to the suburbs and more 'unacceptable' elements have moved in, bringing with them falling property values, a host of robberies, intimidation, and a pervasive sense of fear. The pleasure of elderly folk sitting on the boardwalk to gossip or read the daily news is fast disappearing as the young thugs strut menacingly towards them. The fact that these toughs are black with only one token white girl among them, with absolutely no redeeming qualities, is what would make this movie a 'no-no' today. These yahoos are completely hateful to the old-timers, claiming that Jews always have money hidden away, and the viewer can't help but hate them as well.

Becky and David have raised three children who help out at David's nearby cafeteria. Neither of their two sons are played by well-known actors (Joe Silver and Eddie Barth), but their daughter Florence is played by Janet Leigh, who is far too much of a skinny blonde shiksa for the role and something of a fish out of water. When the cafĂ© is fire-bombed by the gang, David decides that perhaps it is time to retire. Strasberg is best known as the moving spirit behind the Actors Studio in New York, but has appeared in the occasional film. He was Oscar-nominated for his role in "The Godfather, Part 2" and sparkled in "Going in Style (also 1979) with fellow oldies George Burns and Art Carney. Here he plays an indomitable spirit who refuses to be cowed by the black hoodlums and who will not contemplate abandoning his family home.

Gordon, an Oscar-winner for "Rosemary's Baby" has always been a distinctive character actress and is fondly remembered for "Harold and Maude" and the Eastwood monkey movies. In a long career as both an actress and writer, she has said that her part in this movie was one of her favourites and one of her best. Becky knows that she is dying from inoperable and painful cancer and all she prays for is to be able to celebrate her forthcoming 50th wedding anniversary. She does -- but only just -- leaving David to mourn her passing and to fill in his increasingly empty days.

The film is not entirely prejudiced against the black community, since a professional black couple buy the house next-door to David's -- much to daughter Florence's horror -- and her father recognizes that this is a step up from their own humble beginnings, much as emigrating to the U.S. was a positive step in his own life. As he tells the gang's leader, he escaped from prejudice and intolerance once and he is not prepared to be browbeaten into doing so again. While not exactly a vigilante movie, the gang's casual and vindictive trashing of David's synagogue and subsequently the elaborate model train layout in his home, does cause him to snap. The violence at the film's end is both unbelievable and in so many ways heart-breaking.

The movie is well-worth seeing for its two lead performances, but it is something of a cheapjack production with a largely unrecognizable and undistinguished cast. Of passing interest is that it includes brief performances (probably as a favour to Strasberg) from singer Lillian Roth -- her first screen appearance for 44 years -- and from song-writer Sammy Cahn.