Friday, July 23, 2010

1940 - Rebecca

Another week of My Fair Lady performances nearly over and since this project is moving at a more leisurely pace during this period, it means you have plenty more time to vote on the next year of review. We're heading to the 1990s next and the poll is over there to your right.

This week, I managed to find some time to watch the eventual winner of the 1940 Best Picture race...

Alfred Hitchcock
Philip MacDonald, Michael Hogan, Robert E. Sherwood, Joan Harrison
Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, George Sanders, Judith Anderson
Academy Awards:
11 nominations
2 wins, including Best Picture

Yet another 1940 nominee dealing with class differences, Rebecca relates the tale of Max de Winter (Olivier), an upper class gentleman who begins a love affair with a delightful young woman who apparently has no given name (Fontaine). The whirlwind romance proceeds to marriage and Max brings his new bride to his country home, which does have a name - Manderley. However, all is not rosy, as the new Mrs De Winter must live in the shadow of Max's first wife Rebecca, whose presence can still be felt at Manderley. Not only do all the servants seem to have adored their prior mistress, especially the creepily stoic Mrs. Danvers (Anderson), but everywhere our young heroine looks, she finds another monogrammed item of her predecessor's.

There is no question why director Alfred Hitchcock was given the moniker The Master of Suspense. In Rebecca, he creates a mysterious mood seemingly out of nowhere. For the most part, the story itself does not necessitate such mystery, at least until the final act. The first half could easily have been interpreted as a straightforward drama about a young woman struggling to fit into her new surroundings. Yet, Hitchcock consistently makes his audience feel uneasy, aware that something is awry. The circumstances of the title character's demise are given without much detail and new seemingly unrelated clues are provided every so often to unsettle the audience further. It's like an episode of Lost (except for the fact that there is actually a resolution at the end).

This is all the more unsettling precisely because the events that are unfolding do not immediately seem to be out of the ordinary. It's just the story of a woman who married a widower. But, of course, that's what you get with Hitchcock at the helm. Even the most mundane activities are treated with disconcerting tension, making us painfully curious for answers. And when these answers arrive, in the form of an explanatory - and intensely captivating - monologue from Max, the tone shifts from mysterious tension to suspenseful tension. No longer does the audience ask, "What is going on?" Now they ask, "What will happen next?"

Only a year earlier, Laurence Olivier hammed it up in Wuthering Heights, but here he is exquisitely restrained, delivering a wonderfully natural performance. Joan Fontaine succeeds at creating a meek and almost invisible character. The intense glares from Judith Anderson as the deadpan Mrs. Danvers are truly disturbing. And George Sanders is fast becoming another favourite actor of mine thanks to another bitingly acerbic portrayal.

Monday, July 19, 2010

1940 - Kitty Foyle

For those who have not been paying attention, I'm currently performing in My Fair Lady at the Allenberry Playhouse. That's me on the right playing Colonel Pickering. Last week was a hectic week of final rehearsals, but our first few performances were received very well. Four more weeks to go! With such a busy schedule last week, there was little time left for this project, or anything else, for that matter, but now that the show has opened, things have settled down again. In fact, today, a few fellow cast members and I made the most of our first day off in two weeks by taking out the tubes and rafts for a slow trip down the Yellow Breeches.

On the weekend, I had a chance to catch another 1940 Best Picture nominee...

Kitty Foyle
Sam Wood
Dalton Trumbo and Donald Ogden Stewart
(based on the novel by Christopher Morley)
Ginger Rogers, Dennis Morgan, James Craig
Academy Awards:
5 nominations
1 win, for Best Actress (Rogers)

Young working class girl Kitty Foyle (Rogers) is dating a friendly doctor named Mark (Craig). Before Mark proposes marriage, he delicately enquires whether Kitty still has any feelings for her ex-beau, a high society Philadelphian named Wyn (Morgan). She promises that she no longer thinks of him. But no sooner has she accepted Mark's proposal than Wyn sweeps back in to whisk her away. He's married now, but somehow they both seem to be able to look past that minor detail.

So, Kitty has a choice: settle down with Mark or run away with Wyn. She talks it over with her mirror image who helpfully recaps her life leading up to this moment, with particular attention given to her on again, off again relationship with Wyn and the problems caused by their class difference.

The opening of Kitty Foyle is a little choppy, jumping around in time, but once the story settles into its main flashback portion, it becomes a lot more engaging. However, due to the decent amount of exposition before the flashback, we are already mostly aware of the state of Kitty's current relationships, which creates a peculiar sensation as the flashback unfolds. Initially, one feels a sense of inevitability as Kitty and Wyn begin their love affair. But even if you think you know where it's all heading, there are still plenty of ups and downs throughout the picture that hold your attention.

By today's standards, the special effects employed to give the illusion that Kitty has a mirror image capable of independence are relatively basic, but considering when this film was made, it is an impressive achievement. Not to mention its effect as a literary device. It's the rational experienced Kitty talking to the impulsive modern Kitty, reminding her of how she got into this dilemma. Despite a clever script, I have to question one minor detail. While working at the department store, Kitty moves to call the stock room, but accidentally presses the burglar alarm instead. What kind of horrible telecommunications design is that to have the stock room call button and the alarm button right next to each other?

Ginger Rogers bagged her only Oscar nomination for this title role, winning the coveted Best Actress award. And a well deserved win it is, too. She clearly proves she is not just Fred Astaire's dancing partner. The two men of Kitty Foyle, Dennis Morgan and James Craig are a little dry, but in fairness, this is Ginger Rogers' movie, so it's almost fitting that they are not as memorable. And that inexplicably cute kid from All This, and Heaven Too, Richard Nichols, also appears briefly here, just as cute as before.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

1940 - The Philadelphia Story

I remember when television shows would screen the end credits in their entirety. Often, there was a voice over while the credits rolled, promoting another show on the same channel. Fair enough. A little while ago, to capitalise on advertising time, some channels began squishing the credits to one side of the screen and presenting a video promo on the other side. Okay, no biggie. But recently I witnessed what must be the conclusion to this escalation. I saw the next show begin as the previous show's credits flashed in a tiny font at the bottom of the screen. Now, that's efficiency.

Yesterday, I had a chance to watch another classic from 1940's Best Picture ballot...

The Philadelphia Story
George Cukor
Donald Ogden Stewart
(based on the play by Philip Barry)
Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart, Ruth Hussey, John Howard
Academy Awards:
6 nominations
2 wins, including Best Actor (Stewart)

Tracy Lord (Hepburn) is an upper-class socialite set to wed the dependable George Kittredge (Howard). Tracy's ex-husband, the arrogant yet suave C.K. Dexter Haven (Grant), shows up the day before the nuptials to stir up some trouble. He brings with him a reporter Macaulay Connor (Stewart) and a photographer Liz Imbrie (Hussey), who are both introduced as "friends of the family" in order that they can secretly cover the wedding of the year. But the evening brings a few surprises, mostly induced by the flow of alcohol, and with three men in her vicinity, Tracy begins to doubt where her affections truly lie.

The entertainment value of The Philadelphia Story lies mostly within its words and its performances. Another adaptation of a stage play, the picture unsurprisingly sees very little action and an abundance of dialogue. Indeed, once the main plot has been set up, not much happens other than conversation. Fortunately, all this talk is delightfully witty, with such gems as Tracy's line regarding her first marriage, "I thought it was for life, but the nice judge gave me a full pardon." Additionally, the words are delivered in a typically effective fast-paced manner. Thus, despite the lack of major activity, there are no lulls and the film feels a lot shorter than it is. The ending may feel a touch too neat, but this is a romantic comedy, after all, so it is an appropriate conclusion, sure to put a heartwarming smile on the faces of fans of the genre.

The three leads are a major reason why this picture has remained such a classic. Grant, Hepburn and Stewart (pictured) are all at the top of their respective games. Stewart, in particular, provides plenty of laughs with his adorable drunken behaviour. Ruth Hussey successfully holds her own amongst that famous trio. Playing Tracy's younger sister Dinah is Virginia Weidler, also seen in another 1940 Best Picture nominee All This, and Heaven Too. Here, she proves her talent, delivering a mature performance, including a delightful rendition of one of Groucho Marx's signature tunes, Lydia the Tattooed Lady.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

1940 - All This, and Heaven Too

It is undoubtedly summer in Pennsylvania. This week, the heat has been almost unbearable, topping 38 degrees Celsius, which sounds much more powerful and effective when expressed in Fahrenheit: It's a hundred degrees! As I write this, the weather gadget on my computer desktop is displaying the temperature in Boiling Springs as N/A. I can only assume that the intense heat has broken the recording instruments.

Yesterday, I remained indoors as much as possible, where I watched another film from the selection of 1940's Best Picture nominees...

All This, and Heaven Too
Anatole Litvak
Casey Robinson
(based on the novel by Rachel Field)
Bette Davis, Charles Boyer, Barbara O'Neil, Jeffrey Lynn
Academy Awards:
3 nominations
0 wins

Mademoiselle Henriette Deluzy (Davis) is the new French teacher at a girls school in mid-nineteenth-century England. Her first day is marred by taunts from her impudent students, who have heard rumours that their teacher was involved in a tragic and sordid scandal, forcing her to leave France. Rather than let the gossip run wild, Deluzy throws away the lesson plan for the day and attempts to set the record straight by narrating her own version of the story.

Several years ago, Mademoiselle Henriette Desportes (as she was known before scandal forced her to change her name) served as governess to the four children of Duc de Praslin (Boyer) and his capriciously moody wife, the Duchesse de Praslin (O'Neil). While Henriette wins the hearts of all the children, she is subjected to the Duchesse's constant emotional episodes. This erratic behaviour has already pushed the Duc away from his wife and he is now secretly smitten with Henriette, who just as secretly reciprocates. Although both dare not act on their feelings, stifling any urges they have, the Duchesse's paranoia translates into bitter jealousy, making life miserable for everybody involved.

The opening of All This, and Heaven Too successfully sets up an intriguing mystery, releasing just the right amount of information so as to make the audience want more. It is this gossip in all of us that delights in uncovering the facts of any juicy scandal, so when Henriette begins to tell her tale, we can't wait to hear all the sordid details. It turns out, however, that the story is actually heart-breakingly poignant, but by the time we have heard it all, we are so invested in the characters, that we can forgive the lack of sordidness.

The screenplay is a prime example of the power of inference. Just like a good British period drama about forbidden love (the ones that Merchant-Ivory do so well), this picture manages to communicate the strong desire and yearning of its two lead characters without having them say a word about it. The love affair between Henriette and the Duc is understated, full of longing looks and subtext-filled metaphors, without any overt mention that they are even attracted to each other. Other people gossip about the pair, but neither Henriette nor the Duc ever let slip their true feelings. Until the end, of course - and I'm about to ruin it for you now - when the Duc makes a deathbed confession of his deep affection for Henriette, a passionate declaration that is made all the more satisfying due to the fact that he has remained so silent about it up until that point. It is like an enormous weight has been lifted and all the tension that has pervaded the story's atmosphere simply fades away.

Bette Davis and Charles Boyer are both superb in their subtlety. Barbara O'Neil (who you may remember as Scarlett O'Hara's mother) is frighteningly convincing as the crazy bitch, earning herself the film's only acting nomination. You may also recognise Isabelle, the eldest daughter. That's 60s sitcom mom June Lockhart. And I cannot go without mentioning Richard Nichols as the youngest child, Reynald, who is possibly the cutest child to appear on screen. He even manages to remain adorable while delivering (in an equally adorable Southern drawl) the morbidly philosophical line, "But my white rabbit died and I loved it better than the brown one that didn't."

Thursday, July 1, 2010

1940 - Foreign Correspondent

Life in Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania is quiet. That much is certain. While I enjoy that silence in comparison to the unrelenting noise of New York City, it is accompanied by few options in the way of entertainment. Quiet towns, I guess, are quiet specifically because there is not much going on. Not that I want to discourage people from visiting. I hear there's a very fine playhouse here with a couple of very entertaining shows this summer.

In my down time today, I watched another nominee from 1940's Best Picture shortlist...

Foreign Correspondent
Alfred Hitchcock
Charles Bennett, Joan Harrison, James Hilton and Robert Benchley
Joel McCrea, Laraine Day, Herbert Marshall, George Sanders, Albert Bassermann, Robert Benchley
Academy Awards:
6 nominations
0 wins

One of two Alfred Hitchcock films nominated for Best Picture in 1940, Foreign Correspondent begins innocently as a drama about New York Globe reporter Johnny Jones (McCrea), whose fresh assignment as a foreign correspondent is to travel to Europe and get the scoop on the impending war. Under the pen name Huntley Haverstock, our intrepid reporter soon becomes embroiled in political intrigue as he witnesses the murder of Dutch diplomat Van Meer (Bassermann) ... or does he? Haverstock uncovers a kidnapping plot at the heart of a larger conspiracy, but establishing it to those around him proves difficult even with the help of British reporter Scott ffolliott (Sanders), who is not at all concerned about his surname's lack of a capital letter. Somehow, during all this excitement, Haverstock also has time to fall in love with peace activist Carol Fisher (Day).

As Foreign Correspondent begins, there is no indication that this is an Alfred Hitchcock film. The opening prologue, written on screen, glorifies the role of the foreign correspondent, leading the audience to believe the ensuing drama will be a realistic portrayal of the sacrifices made by a man living away from home as he attempts to heroically inform the people of his home country of the most important news abroad. And the first twenty minutes or so of the film do well to maintain this charade. Then, suddenly, almost without warning, there is a cold-blooded public murder and our hero becomes involved in chasing the assassin. Throughout the course of the film, he escapes several attempts on his life, as well as surviving a plane crash. While many real-life foreign correspondents might find themselves in dangerous situations, especially in wartime, I suspect there are precious few who have dealt with these kinds of circumstances.

That is not a complaint, by the way. Hitchcock is well-known for surprising his audience, and the political assassination that sparks off the events of the film is enticingly unexpected. The scenes that immediately follow are classic Hitchcock, full of heart-stopping suspense, but the story disappointingly only allows for a few more sequences with that level of tension and, consequently, the picture drags a little in between these moments. The plot is not as simple as it could be and often includes characters making seemingly unjustifiable decisions. Nonetheless, Hitchcock shines when he is given the opportunity. The plane crash sequence is particularly brilliant.

Despite the story flaws, the dialogue is witty and playful, evidenced by an exchange between Haverstock and ffolliott, in which Haverstock informs the other man of Van Meer's death. ffolliott offers a typically British, "Bad show," to which Haverstock replies, "Couldn't be much worse from his point of view."

Joel McCrea as Haverstock is eager and charming. George Sanders plays the British reporter with his usual caustic brilliance. German actor Albert Bassermann delivers a moving performance as Van Meer that earned him a Best Supporting Actor nomination. Spotting Hitchcock's standard cameo is relatively easy in this one. He's on the street reading a paper (pictured) when Haverstock first notices Van Meer. And if I didn't know any better, I could have sworn that was Danny DeVito as the excitable Latvian.