Wednesday, April 30, 2014

1934 - The Gay Divorcee

As I mentioned in the last post, I'm now officially a published author. Well, an e-published author. A handful of reviews from Matt vs. the Academy have made their way into the Take2 Guide to Steven Spielberg. And now, the good people at Take2 Publishing are offering a discount to Matt vs. the Academy readers. So, if you want to read what dozens of bloggers and reviewers have to say about Spielberg movies, you can now get 20% off the regular price by visiting this link and applying the discount code mva2020 during checkout. Enjoy!

Let's take a look now at another contender for 1934's Best Picture prize...

The Gay Divorcee
Mark Sandrich
George Marion Jr., Dorothy Yost and Edward Kaufman
(based on the Broadway musical "Gay Divorce" by Dwight Taylor, Kenneth Webb and Samuel Hoffenstein)
Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Alice Brady, Edward Everett Horton, Erik Rhodes, Eric Blore
Academy Awards:
5 nominations
1 win, for Best Song

After an impossibly adorable meet-cute in London, famous dancer Guy Holden (Astaire) is besotted by fellow American Mimi Glossop (Rogers). She, however, is entirely uninterested in him. After a second chance meeting, Mimi, still impervious to Guy's charms, reluctantly accepts his phone number. Excited, Guy waits impatiently by the phone for weeks to no avail.

Meanwhile, Mimi is in the midst of attempting to secure a divorce, employing the services of a somewhat incompetent divorce lawyer Egbert Fitzgerald (Horton), who also happens to be Guy's best friend, unbeknownst to Mimi. On Egbert's advice, Mimi agrees to travel to Brightbourne, a seaside resort where Egbert has hired a guileless Italian (Rhodes) to act as her lover, hoping this will convince Mimi's husband to grant the divorce. Unaware that Mimi is in fact the mysterious woman that Guy hasn't stopped talking about for weeks, Egbert invites Guy along to Brightbourne, causing an inevitable spanner in the works.

Yet another romantic comedy from the not-so-short list of 1934 Best Picture nominees, The Gay Divorcee finds its humour by engaging that classic farcical trope, the misunderstanding. And it does it rather successfully, eliciting some solid laughs from its audience. It is also unashamedly musical. Of course, what else would you expect from Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers? But unlike some of the other films with which it competed for the Academy's top honour, this picture doesn't try to surreptitiously insert gratuitous musical numbers into an otherwise naturalistic style. The Gay Divorcee, by contrast, wears its musical style on its sleeve. There are larger-than-life dance numbers and emotional solos, and people break into song and dance for no particular reason.

Despite its liberal serving of music and choreography, however, many of the songs seem irrelevant to the story. Some, even, are clearly just filler - silly interludes with no other purpose than to entertain. (So, I suppose this film is also guilty of gratuitous musical numbers, after all.) One such culprit is the picture's featured song, The Continental. It may have won the Academy's first ever Best Song award, but from my perspective, the lyrics and melody are a little bland, and considering it's not a particularly well-known song today, it evidently didn't stand the test of time. Thankfully, though, the song is followed by a grand dance sequence that is pure delight.

What is perhaps most disappointing about the film's soundtrack is that only one song from the original Broadway musical made its way to the screen - all the more astonishing when you realise that Cole Porter was the composer and lyricist of the stage version. His classic Night and Day is the sole number that survived the adaptation, and it shines as the most memorable song in the film.

Fred Astaire's agility and charisma are on full display, as you would expect from such a spectacular showman. His tap dancing prowess is especially phenomenal, and his ability to make it appear so easy is simply astounding. He seems amazingly comfortable when he moves, obviously enjoying himself. Together with Ginger Rogers, the couple (pictured) are elegant and graceful, divine to watch. The same cannot be said for their costar Edward Everett Horton. While he is a delightfully funny and amiable actor, his vocal and movement skills leave much to be desired. He seems awkward and uncomfortable in his only song, a silly and superfluous duet with a pre-famous Betty Grable. Paving the way for Rex Harrison, Horton half speaks the lyrics and is often out of time. Erik Rhodes and Eric Blore, both reprising their roles from the Broadway musical, deliver playfully entertaining performances as the clueless Italian would-be lothario and the eager British waiter, respectively.

Sunday, April 20, 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.

Monday, April 14, 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.