Saturday, April 25, 2015

First of Three Movie Posts

I have a backlog of about ten movies, all from the favored period from 1936-1963, to write up. I am going to break those up into three posts, one for the 50s-60s, and one each for the other two decades cited

Charade (1963)

I knew nothing about this movie going in other than that it starred Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn at a time when both were long established stars with definite celluloid personae. I surmised that it would likely be 'stylish' after the fashion of the time. I did not anticipate however quite how relentlessly and even absurdly stylish it is--it goes well beyond anything that ever transpires, or that probably would ever even be desirable to transpire, in actual life, from the theme music and the opening titles to the settings and clothes and the glossy smoothness of the impossible plot.

Despite my socialist tendencies. I still like Audrey Hepburn, who besides did have to flee her native Belgium as an early adolescent during the Second World War and spend her teenage years in England in a situation of some hardship. 

But I actually like it, because I sense that everybody involved was to some extent in on the joke. For all of the beautiful clothes and beautiful people and the ridiculously chic Paris of the early 1960s, all projected in glorious technicolor to an even more exaggerated pitch of these qualities, it retains the feel of being something of a lark, of not really taking itself all that seriously. Being apparently an inveterate socialist by inclination, I have always found the Audrey Hepburn fashion show which is always a big part of her movies to be annoying, lovely though even my shrunken socialist heart finds her to be. In Charade it makes up a considerable part of the character of the movie, yet, as its director and writer also conceded, it is also absurd, since in the very opening scenes we are shown that Audrey Hepburn's character's husband, before being mysteriously being murdered on a train, had completely cleaned out their apartment, and afterwards she spends much of the rest of the film rushing around and darting into the phone booths and taxicabs and subway stations of Paris avoiding a gang of thugs who are trying to get at some money they believe she has, yet she is decked out in a different fabulous designer outfit in every scene.

Forward thinking people, especially from the tech and finance worlds, are fiercely insistent about how much better across the board life is now than it was fifty years ago, and that most of us would find living under the conditions of the 1960s unbearable now. This is probably true if we talking about the suburban life of that time vis-a-vis that of the affluent modern day professional, for whom the thought of having no alternative to the food and coffee alone that he would have to endure if transported back to that time and place would cause him to wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, but it still seems to me that life in the great cities of the west, perhaps especially Paris, would have been at that time close to the peak of their enjoyability as places to live. But then again I am looking at the case through a very middle class perspective, and am oblivious to the finer points of life in these cities accessible to elite types today.

Party game for sophisticates, early 1960s

The Band Wagon (1953)

A, to my mind, somewhat forgotten musical near the end of MGM's legendary run of them in the years following the second world war, directed by Vincente Minnelli, many of whose movies I am fond of, and starring an older Fred Astaire, to whom I always pay due homage for being the great star and showman that he was, playing a past-his-prime movie star kind of like himself who is taking a shot at Broadway. While there are bits and pieces of it that I like, and while all of the commentaries that come with the DVD try very hard to persuade the vacillating viewer that this is truly one of the greatest musicals of all time, I don't think it holds together. The songs are O.K., though there are none that I think of as immortal ("That's Entertainment" is probably the most famous). Fred Astaire is Fred Astaire, and I always find it uplifting to see him, though this uplift is a separate emotion from whatever is actually going on with the movie. The time was one of mild transition, from the immediate postwar Truman years to the (seemingly) psychologically less intense and decompressing Eisenhower era, and perhaps the classic Hollywood musical could not withstand this relaxing of the general tension in the culture, certainly without really great songs. I remember that I did not like On the Town all that much on the first viewing, and did not think much of its songs either, but it had an optimistic energy that grew on me the more I recollected and considered it. That has not happened overall with the Band Wagon, though I do like some of the atmosphere. I also don't really like the leading women in this, Cyd Charisse and Nanette Fabray, that much. They seem to have begun to be affected by the limp, rather gusto-less quality that became all too characteristic of traditional musicals during the 50s.

"That's Entertainment". The shoeshine number, "All By Myself", and the beer and pretzel song (ed--"I Love Louisa") are all decent, but nothing exhilarating. This is the first Minnelli film I have seen where I have not come away thinking that what he was able to do with the material was somewhat underrated (The others I am thinking of are Meet Me in St Louis, The Clock, Father of the Bride and An American in Paris). 

I guess I have nothing else to say about this.

Alice in Wonderland (1951)

This wasn't actually on my list but I had recently read the book and thought I should like to see one of the older movie versions, and could not find a copy of the 1933 Paramount movie featuring W.C. Fields, Cary Grant, Gary Cooper and others that devotees of the books seem to have at least found interesting, I settled on the Disney cartoon. While I tend to find especially the modern Disney cartoons tiresome, I often like the ones from this era. I thought this Alice was excellent, imaginative, captured some of the manic intelligence of the story (particularly the parts voiced by the very talented ex-vaudevillians Sterling Holloway and Ed Wynn), interesting and vivid drawings. Compared to some of the other Disney films I think it is underrated today. It is also very short, 75 minutes according to the internet. This voice of Alice was done by a 13-year old English girl and cartoon Alice lookalike named Kathryn Beaumont who appears (via several extras on the DVD) to have been every American's, and certainly my, ideal of what a properly brought up thirteen year old English girl ought to be. She would also do the voice of Wendy in Peter Pan two years later.

The memory of the Disney Alice seems to have been hurt by her not qualifying as one of their proper princesses, though as far as female characters go, she would seem to be a much more acceptable object of identification for impressionable young ladies in our modern age than the unfortunately named (and fated) Snow White or Sleeping Beauty. But she does not seem to be one of their more popular characters, despite the circumstance that the adorable cartoon depiction of her is even more exaggeratedly Aryan-looking than the Tenniel illustrations, and as we all know, Disney, much to the dismay of all right-thinking people, tends to cash in when they go full-on Aryan with their female characters, as in Frozen, which features an ur-Scandinavian princess named Elsa who is so unvibrant that everything she touches becomes encased in ice. Somebody out there cannot get enough however.

There were a couple of Disney produced television programs from 1950 and 1951 not too subtly promoting the upcoming Alice release that I must say I found kind of charming. The first one was a show that aired on Christmas Day and featured a bunch of kids, including Disney's teenaged daughters and the aforementioned Kathryn Beaumont quaffing Coca-Cola along with Edgar Bergen, Charlie McCarthy, and the great Mortimer Snead. Now that I have children near this age (13) and am given to sentimentality over them when their energies are not negatively directed, I found this rather endearing. In the second program Beaumont and Sterling Holloway, who was a show business person, appeared as guests on some orchestra leader's program, as a number of musical pieces from Alice were performed. This also had I believe the footage of Ed Wynn acting out and doing the recording for the Mad Hatter, which was very impressive to see.   

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