Monday, April 21, 2014

1934 - Flirtation Walk

Last year, I was approached by Take2 Publishing for permission to use several of my blog posts in their Guide to Steven Spielberg. The e-book is now on the e-shelves and four of my Spielberg reviews made their way into the guide. If I'm calculating my royalty percentage correctly, I believe I will receive the enormous sum of 1.4 cents for every copy sold. Who said blogging doesn't pay? They also made a fun video with some of the contributors wearing iconic hats of Spielberg characters. I think I'm Indiana Jones?

We now continue reviewing the behemoth that is the 1934 Best Picture competition with...

Flirtation Walk
Frank Borzage
Delmer Daves & Lou Edelman
Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler, Pat O'Brien, Ross Alexander, John Arledge, John Eldredge, Henry O'Neill, Guinn Williams
Academy Awards:
2 nominations
0 wins

Stationed in Hawaii, enlisted army man Dick Dorcy (Powell) is assigned to chauffeur the general's daughter, Kit (Keeler), to a reception. They never make it, though, and are found later that evening in a romantic embrace, having presumably fallen in love at first sight. Dick plans on quitting the army for Kit, but she prevents him from doing so by falsely denying that she loves him. In what can only be described as an act of impulsive arrogance, Dick decides to apply to West Point in order to become an officer. But when Kit arrives in Dick's final year at the Academy, their feelings are put to the test.

If nothing else, this project has taught me that audiences of the 1930s must have loved to see songs in movies. It doesn't seem to have mattered to which genre the film belonged. As long as there was at least one musical number in there - whether it broke the story's reality or not - then that's entertainment. Flirtation Walk is no exception. It's even billed as a musical, despite the fact that the majority of the film is without music. There's one gratuitous song at a luau early on, then towards the end of the picture, several songs are performed as part of a stage musical revue. Granted, the comedy/romance style of the non-musical scenes is not incongruous to the musical genre, but with such large chunks of the movie passing without a song, it takes some getting used to when all of a sudden you realise it's actually a musical you're watching.

Nonetheless, the story held my attention throughout, which I suppose indicates that it wasn't boring. Certainly not a brilliant tale, but nothing to complain about either. Well, almost nothing. Similar to the previously reviewed It Happened One Night, the conclusion of Flirtation Walk deprives us of the one thing romantic comedy audiences want to see: the two lovers falling into each other's arms. Sure, they end up together, but we never actually see it. In fact, that's not the only reason that the ending is less than satisfactory. Along with almost losing the girl, our protagonist almost misses out on graduating from West Point. Rather than affecting any change himself, his nemesis simply shows up to tell him that everything has turned in his favour. The girl is his and he can graduate, after all, and he didn't have to lift a finger. Now, that's a deus ex machina if ever there was one.

Dick Powell (pictured, with Ruby Keeler) creates one of those charming, authority-disrespecting characters who later shows he has depth and maturity - a very watchable portrayal. But I was most drawn to the performance of Ross Alexander. His engaging charisma and natural comic delivery seem ahead of his time. Sadly, upon researching more about him in order to discover what other films I could watch him in, I was dismayed to learn he committed suicide before he was 30. I will, however, see him again when this project covers the 1935 Best Picture nominees - he appears in both A Midsummer Night's Dream and Captain Blood.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

1934 - It Happened One Night

I recently ventured into the realm of viral videos (sort of) by creating a montage of movie characters screaming, "I'm walking here!" in homage to Dustin Hoffman's famous delivery in Midnight Cowboy. I don't really know why I took the time to make this, but if you're a film buff and you want a brief smile, check out the video here and then share away.

The next film up for discussion is 1934's eventual Best Picture winner...

It Happened One Night
Frank Capra
Robert Riskin
(based on the short story by Samuel Hopkins Adams)
Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Walter Connolly, Roscoe Karns
Academy Awards:
5 nominations
5 wins, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Gable) and Best Actress (Colbert)

Ellie Andrews (Colbert) is the spoiled daughter of a wealthy businessman (Connolly), held against her will on a boat off the coast of Miami while her father attempts to annul her recent elopement. Escaping by jumping overboard, Ellie then attempts to make her way to New York to her new husband. But wily reporter Peter Warne (Gable) recognizes the missing heiress when they sit next to each other on the bus. Seeing this as his chance to pick up the scoop of a lifetime, he makes a deal with Ellie, promising not to call her father if she'll give him her exclusive story. The two spend the journey in each other's pockets, which ... well, it's a romantic comedy, you can figure out the rest.

It's hard to deny the excellence of It Happened One Night. A pioneer of screwball comedy, and romantic comedy in general, everything just comes together sublimely. Interestingly, what I so lamented with fellow Best Picture nominee One Night of Love, namely the formulaic plot, works brilliantly here. It just goes to show how much of a story's success is in the execution. Where One Night of Love felt run-of-the-mill with average performances, It Happened One Night uses a similar formulaic structure but imbues it with interesting characters, witty repartee and dynamic performances. Plus, it includes such entertaining - and now sadly obsolete - phrases like, "Holy jumping catfish!"

If I had to find one gripe about the film, though, it would have to be its conclusion. In typical romantic comedy fashion - spoiler alert - the leading couple end up together at the end, a fittingly satisfying wrap-up for films of this genre. However, It Happened One Night accomplishes this without actually showing it on screen. We see Ellie bolt from her wedding before saying, "I do," to the wrong man, then we later cut to a hotel in which the owners are discussing the newly married tenants. One last close-up of the "Walls of Jericho" falling and ... The End. No passionate embrace, no smiles of relief, no longing gazes. As an audience member, I felt somehow robbed of a final cathartic moment.

A large portion of the film is two-handed scenes between our protagonists. No surprise, after all, considering the story is all about Ellie and Peter, and their relationship. Thankfully, they are played by two stars of great charisma and amiability, and despite the initial egotism of their characters, the performances of Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert (both pictured) and their chemistry together are divine. A particularly brilliant moment unfolds when the two pretend to be a bickering married couple to avoid nosy detectives.

Both Gable and Colbert won Oscars for their roles, as did Frank Capra and Robert Riskin for their direction and writing, respectively. Rounding it all off was a win for Best Picture, giving the film five for five. And not just any five. That's the Big Five - Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay. Only One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and The Silence of the Lambs have repeated that achievement. Yet despite all the accolades, It Happened One Night still failed miserably to match their stunt bus driver to the actor playing the easily distracted coachman. Not even close.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

1934 - The Barretts of Wimpole Street

Not content to demand constant attention at home, my six-week-old son, Charlie, has now taken it upon himself to upstage my acting career. Well, technically, his mother and I took it upon him, since his decision-making capabilities are still rather limited. Nonetheless, Charlie has now trumped my two-decade career by sharing the screen with Julianne Moore and Alec Baldwin in a scene for the upcoming Still Alice. He plays (if you can call it that) their grandson, coincidentally also named Charlie. While you may not actually see his face through all the blankets, you can be guaranteed that the baby in Kate Bosworth's arms is indeed our little man.

Moving on now to another 1934 Best Picture contender...

The Barretts of Wimpole Street
Sidney Franklin
Ernest Vajda, Claudine West, Donald Ogden Stewart
(based on the play by Rudolf Besier)
Norma Shearer, Fredric March, Charles Laughton, Maureen O'Sullivan, Katharine Alexander
Academy Awards:
2 nominations
0 wins

Published English poet Elizabeth Barrett (Shearer) is gravely ill and confined to her room in a house occupied by her overbearing father (Laughton) and her many siblings. A visit from another poet, Robert Browning (March), lifts her spirits, especially when he confesses his love for her, a love that grew solely from reading her beautiful words. The two begin a sweet and loving affair despite the insistent disapproval of her father, who unreasonably demands her affections remain only with him.

A relatively stock-standard drama, The Barretts of Wimpole Street presents an emotional family story. However, the tension is occasionally alleviated, perhaps incongruously, with bursts of silliness in the form of visiting cousin Bella and her heavy rhotacism.

Set in the mid-19th century, the period costumes are obviously sumptuous, but otherwise the picture leans toward the visually bland side. Perhaps an unfair assessment considering the number of sets was necessarily limited - not only is it based on a play, an art form generally short on location changes, but it's based on a play about a mostly housebound woman.

Norma Shearer delivers a subtly sincere performance, earning herself a Best Actress nomination - the only other citation the film received aside from Best Picture. It is Charles Laughton (pictured with Shearer), however, who commands the most attention with his portrayal of a deliciously callous father, the king of guilt trips. But the casting of his many sons is a bit of a curiosity - all six brothers appear to be of a biologically impossible similar age.

Monday, March 24, 2014

1934 - Cleopatra

It turns out that being up all night to look after a newborn baby creates the perfect opportunity for some movie-watching. I don't want to speak too soon, but there's a good chance I'll storm through the rest of this review year. Which is a good thing, considering I almost took a step backwards this past 12 months. Between last year's Oscars ceremony and the one just gone, I only reviewed a total of 11 films for this project, while the Academy added another 9 to my list. So, unless I plan on living another 150 years or so, I better get a wriggle on.

So, here's a look at another contender from the Best Picture race of 1934...

Cecil B. DeMille
Waldemar Young and Vincent Lawrence
(based on an adaptation of historical material by Bartlett Cormack)
Claudette Colbert, Warren William, Henry Wilcoxon, Joseph Schildkraut, Ian Keith, Gertrude Michael, C. Aubrey Smith
Academy Awards:
5 nominations
1 win, for Best Cinematography

As the title suggests, Cleopatra tells the story of the ancient Egyptian queen, played by Claudette Colbert, specifically covering the period of her two dalliances with Roman leaders. First, she seduces Julius Caesar (William), thereby ensuring she gets control of Egypt over her brother Ptolemy. But when Caesar's paranoid senators assassinate him, Cleopatra's broken heart is healed by meeting Marc Antony (Wilcoxon). Initially reluctant to her charms, Antony eventually falls for the queen despite the disdain of his countrymen.

With Cecil B. DeMille at the helm, you know it's going to be grand. And this picture epitomises 1930s Hollywood entertainment. There's a little bit of singing, a very impressive war montage - particularly the sea battle sequence using model ships - and they even manage to get in a circus act/dance number. The costumes are extravagant, some quite revealing, which is a little unexpected since the film begins with a title card confirming the production's adherence to the Hays Code. The code had only just taken effect, though, so I guess in the early days, studios got away with risqué clothing on their female stars.

The film does not include the most satisfying of endings. Instead, it is rather tragic and hopeless, but I suppose you can only fiddle so much with a historical story. And despite the fact that it was arguably eclipsed by the other epic adaptation in 1963 (which will also be covered by this blog at some point), this version's spectacle did indeed translate to box office success.

Also of its time is the acting style, seemingly out of place for a story set in ancient Egypt, particularly when the tone occasionally becomes reminiscent of screwball comedy. Then again, such was the standard in the 1930s, so what seems like screwball comedy to a modern movie-goer like myself was probably just par for the course to audiences of the time. Claudette Colbert is superb in the title role, oozing seductive charm while retaining a grounded power. Yet, despite the juicy Oscar-bait role, Colbert did not receive a Best Actress citation for this performance. Instead, she was nominated (and won) in the same year for a true screwball comedy, It Happened One Night (which will also be covered by this blog in the very near future). Joseph Schildkraut (pictured with Colbert) also delivers a brilliant, yet brief, turn as the devious Herod.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

1934 - One Night of Love

So, parenthood. Who would have thought it would be so exhausting? But after you've spent an infuriating hour trying to get the little man to sleep, he flashes a smile and it all seems worth it. Of course, the smile is undoubtedly not actually a smile, and probably just an involuntary facial reaction to a satisfying bowel movement, but hey. Evolution sure knew what it was doing making babies cute.

Anyway, the Oscars are well and truly over now, but it would be remiss of me not to mention them briefly. I predicted 20 correct winners, my greatest result ever. Which is not actually that impressive considering this year's awards ceremony provided no real surprises. Just about every favourite won.

A couple of quick (Down Under-themed) statistics: With her Best Actress win for Blue Jasmine, Cate Blanchett became the first Australian to win a second acting award after her Supporting Actress victory in 2004's The Aviator. And designer Catherine Martin is now the most decorated Australian after winning both Production Design and Costume Design for The Great Gatsby. With her dual wins in the same categories for Moulin Rouge! in 2001, that brings her total Oscar count to four.

And now, we finally make our way back to 1934 to look at another Best Picture nominee...

One Night of Love
Victor Schertzinger
S.K. Lauren, James Gow, Edmund North
(based on the play "Don't Fall in Love" by Dorothy Speare and Charles Beahan)
Grace Moore, Tullio Carminati, Lyle Talbot, Mona Barrie, Jessie Ralph, Luis Alberni
Academy Awards:
6 nominations
2 wins, plus a Technical Achievement Award

After failing to win an opera contest in which she could have won the tutelage of a famed vocal coach, Mary Barrett (Moore) decides to move to Milan to pursue her career on her own. As fate would have it, that very same vocal coach, Guilio Monteverdi (Carminati), discovers her singing in a bar and takes her on anyway. His only condition: that she not fall in love with him. Over the years, Monteverdi sculpts her into the perfect soprano specimen, providing Mary with much fame and renown, but perhaps at the price of her independence. Oh, and of course, she falls in love with him.

One Night of Love is a relatively run-of-the-mill romance. There are occasional witty moments, such as when Mary tells her parents she's moving to Italy, to which her mother disapprovingly replies, "Why, that place is full of Italians." But, on the whole, the story and script are rather cliched and formulaic. Boy meets girl, boy hates girl, boy falls in love with girl, boy almost screws it all up, boy gets girl in the end. Granted, it's possible to make that formula fascinating, but this picture sticks to the storytelling standards.

I suppose, then, the film's unique point is its somewhat gratuitous opera singing. It's only 83 minutes long, but a significant portion of that is taken up with opera performances. Still, as the nice man from TCM mentioned in his introduction to this film, Grace Moore (pictured) was an international radio and stage star at the time, so seeing and hearing her sing classic opera tunes is exactly why people went to see this movie.

And while her acting is merely adequate, Moore's voice is certainly something to behold. Her leading man, Tullio Carminati, also fails to impress with an average performance. His sidekick, Luis Alberni, steals the scenes in which he appears, clearly enjoying a thoroughly silly character. And Jane Darwell - appearing in her second Best Picture nominee in 1934, after The White Parade - also delights in a small uncredited role as Mary's mother.