Category Archives: Film

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I started this blog in 2011 to report back on events I have attended, mainly theatre but also some concerts and sporting events.

It has also become a vehicle for some film, television (current and archive), book reviews, and some more personal pieces.

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On a professional level I worked for many years as a librarian, and also am a published writer and spent five years editing a journal for a major publisher. If you would like to know more, see my LinkedIn profile.

As of 2019 writing and editing has become my main job, and I am very keen to engage with productions, outlets, and arts organisations to expand my coverage and my reviews.

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1920s film musical reviews

My I L<3ve Musicals! list on Letterboxd.

Applause (1929)

‘Applause’, starring a young Helen Morgan made up to look like a washed up burlesque star, is about a singer, Kitty Darling, who has a lowlife husband and a daughter hidden away in a convent. Things change when the money runs out and the daughter is recalled from her safe and cosy world.

From the first scenes of large legged chorus girls wearily high kicking before slavering customers, to the scenes in the railway station where young April Darling sends her sailor lover away so she can bump and grind to save the family pride, ‘Applause’ is never anything other than engrossing.

But the acting honours go to Morgan, who is simply wonderful and heartbreaking. The ending, where she lies dying in her dressing room after overdosing on sleeping tablets, while April and her lover plan an escape for the three of them, is powerful and shocking. A hard hitting early talkie which you’ll remember for a long time.

The Big Revue (1929)

The six-year old Judy Garland making her debut on camera with her sisters (‘The Gumm Sisters’) is just one of the acts on show in this film, which showcases a few juvenile musical performers. She displays star quality even in this one number, which makes The Big Revue worth watching. I just love stumbling across these historical nuggets!

Broadway (1929)

An early backstage musical with wisecracking girls, a choreographer ‘with personality’, a gangster producer, a murder, and sweet little Billie (Merna Kennedy).

Brought to the screen from the stage show, this includes Paul Porcasi reprising his role as the nightclub owner Nick, and survives in both silent and talkie versions.

Director Paul Fejos displays an early affinity for the medium, with interesting camera shots and a few sequences which experiment with sound.

The musical numbers are sound enough, although Glenn Tryon is a bit, well, trying when he isn’t singing. Kennedy and Evelyn Brent go well enough, and the chorus line are decent, but the plot is confused and doesn’t really lift itself from the mundane.

The opening credits are unusual as the giant Devil laughs and stomps around the theatres and clubs of the great White Way. Men of power are corrupt and without morals, and the ambitious girls survive on a smile and the attention of a string of sugar daddies.

There’s also a Technicolor sequence, but it is in poor condition and by this time every other film seemed to have a similar showcase to keep the interest.

I liked this one, and the acting isn’t bad, while the pre-Code naughtiness pokes through here and there.

The Broadway Melody (1929)

This was the first big musical of the talkie era, in the days when musical numbers were still performed live rather than to playback, and before camera booths could allow the same kind of movement which existed before 1927, and before microphones could be small enough and portable enough to catch everyone’s voices.

Bessie Love (1898-1986), who was a marvellous actress still appearing in character parts fifty years later, and Anita Page (1910-2008). a pretty, pouty cutie who appeared to have the same slight eye problem that also afflicted Norma Shearer, are the leading ladies alongside the debonair Charles King (1886-1944), who despite his singing talents was finished in films and back on the stage by 1930.

The songs are by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown, and you’ll recognise a couple of them from the later homage to the silent era, Singin’ in the Rain. They’re sparkling and well-performed, and if the bits in-between are a bit forced, and the plot is next to nothing, there’s lots of pre-Code fun including shots of the girls in their underwear, and a few naughty nods.

I like a lot of the early musical features and revues from 1929 into the early 30s, and this is one of the best, gaining itself a Best Picture win because of the way it revolutionised the industry, and to us nine decades on, we can see that the early talkies, despite some limitations, were not the clunky disasters which were parodied mercilessly in later years.

Broadway Scandals (1929)

Not actually ‘watched’ as this film is sadly lost, but thanks to the fact its soundtrack was done on Vitaphone discs, that aspect survives, and with a musical, of course the sound is more than half of the magic.

I can’t rate it, however, as it isn’t the complete thing. It sounds like a fairly bog standard revue of the period with diverting enough tunes.

The Cocoanuts (1929)

Directly lifted from their stage show, this was the first film appearance of the Marx Brothers, at this point a quartet with Groucho, Chico and Harpo being joined by Zeppo, and the long-suffering Margaret Dumont.

As this was made in 1929 it is undoubtedly creaky, but as a new screen team the boys definitely have their personalities sketched out and Groucho and Harpo in particular are great fun.

The Desert Song (1929)

This is a review based on seeing roughly half of this early talkie, a musical starring John Boles, Carlotta King and Louise Fazenda. The story within this operetta is around ‘The Red Shadow’, an outlaw who is also a quiet and unassuming chap when he’s out of his mask.

The songs are superb but their staging is rather static, filmed with one facing camera and microphones which are rather obviously placed – many actors talk to the spaces the microphones are in rather than to their peers on the screen!

‘The Desert Song’ duet is one highlight, ‘One Alone’ is another. And those musical sequences can easily be viewed online, even if the film in toto is harder to find.

Glorifying the American Girl (1929)

Viewing the censored version on the Mill Creek Classic Musicals set, which has some cuts for taste and decency, and no Technicolor sequence.

The glorious Mary Eaton (1901-1948, of the ‘Seven Little Eatons’, five of which were vaudeville performers from childhood) is the lead in the rags to riches story of Gloria Hughes, who progresses from the counter of a sheet music store to the Ziegfeld Follies. She is a great little hoofer with a nice voice, and she’s a cute little blonde chorine into the bargain.

There’s a nothing story about her predatory dancing partner, Danny Miller (Dan Healy, 1888-1969, another Follies veteran), who wants her body and soul, enough to agree to a contract, but of course there’s better pickings for her out there. It was the crowning glory of any girl performer to join the Follies in the 10s and 20s, and the final third of this film is a pretty good record of what these shows involved (‘personally supervised by Ziegfeld’).

You’ll spot some familiar faces if you’re quick, including Johnny Weissmuller, Irving Berlin, Helen Morgan, and Mrs Ziegfeld, Billie Burke, but the lion’s share of the show is given to Eddie Cantor, whose comedy was popular enough to keep him in stardom on stage and screen well into the 1930s, and remembered with enough affection for a film to be made about his life in 1953. It might be hard to understand his appeal now, but in 1929 he was a huge attraction.

This film was fully restored by UCLA some years ago, with the censored pre-Code bits reinstated, and the finale put back to its original two-strip Technicolor state, but it remains unavailable, while these flat public domain prints can be found on the Internet Archive, YouTube, and budget sets like Classic Musicals.

Gold Diggers of Broadway (1929)

Lost except for ‘Tiptoe Through The Tulips’ and the finale, this is a difficult film to review, but from what’s available the musical sequences were sumptuous. It’s a moot point whether the rest of the film would stand up today.

Happy Days (1929)

The most disappointing of the anthology shows put out by the major studios at the dawn of talking pictures, and the birth of the movie musical.

This entry into the genre comes from Fox (not yet ‘Twentieth Century Fox’), showcasing a roster of stars including Will Rogers, Charles Farrell, Marjorie White, El Brendel, George Jessel, Dixie Lee (the first Mrs Bing Crosby), Janet Gaynor, and Edmund Lowe.

Its notability is mainly from being the first feature film to be shown in a widescreen process (these prints are now lost), but even at 80 minutes it tends to drag, although there are a couple of musical highlights (White’s ‘I’m On A Diet Of Love’, Lee’s ‘Crazy Feet’, the minstrel finale of ‘Mona’).

The ill-fated White, killed in a car crash in the mid-1930s, is a sparkling delight, but you might struggle to put names to some of the ‘stars’ on show here, and even with a paper-thin plot this film doesn’t really go anywhere. I’m being generous giving it a three-star score because I am a sucker for musical revues, but you might not be so accommodating.

The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (1929)

Admittedly slow-paced and dated, there is a certain charm to this film that makes it very enjoyable.

I particularly liked the novelty acts and comedy routines – Bessie Love, Marie Dressler, Laurel and Hardy and Buster Keaton’s Egyptian lady.

And the Gilbert/Shearer Romeo and Juliet section is worth sitting through the rest for anyway (despite its washed out colour, which oddly looked better in the little snippet showed in When The Lion Roars).

I can’t say I was disappointed with any of it – you get mind-boggling acrobats, you get weedy voiced Marion Davies, you get Jack Benny playing his violin and Conrad Nagel as smooth master of ceremonies, and Charles King singing that hideous song about mothers, and Ukelele Ike, well, playing a ukelele, and Joan Crawford’s ungainly dancing … it’s just a real treat, and nice to see from a technical point of view that the sound isn’t bad at all and despite its advanced age it is still watchable.

The Jazz Singer (1927)

The Jazz Singer has crossed into popular culture as the film which finally killed off the silent screen, and it was the first film to include musical moments as part of the plot.

Your view on this film will solely depend on your liking, or not, of star Al Jolson. If you find him unbearable, you might well find this film a difficult watch; on the other hand, if you enjoy his brand of humour and song, this might have some moments you will like.

The silent drama which surrounds Jolson’s excursions into song seems a little laboured, although Eugenie Besserer is touching as his mother, and that’s the first Charlie Chan, Warner Oland, as the Cantor.

Perhaps the best moment in this piece of cinema history is Jolson’s break into ‘talking’ before his song. The ‘wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet’ has passed into folklore.

The Love Parade (1929)

I love Maurice Chevalier and his films with naughty Jeanette Macdonald just sparked and sparkled.

This early Lubitsch talkie is a musical and if the songs are not top notch, and if the plot is a bit silly (she is the Queen of some mythical Kingdom, he is a randy and disgraced French courtier), then no matter.

Much has been made of the gender politics where she has to relinquish power to her mate – but she does it in the same way Mary Pickford’s Kate did in The Taming of the Shrew.

Macdonald is a revelation here if you have only ever seen her in her teamings with her later singing sweetheart pairing with Nelson Eddy (although those films were sweet and romantic).

With Chevalier the sparring is sexy and resolutely Pre-Code – they make a fine pair and they fizz under their director’s firm touch.

A Plantation Act (1926)

A valuable record of the minstrel act which made Al Jolson famous.

Blackface was the first form of entertainment that could be described as typically American, and became the most popular art form during the 1840s. The songs and dances included may have attempted to be authentically black, but it was the use of spirituals (such as Swing Low, Sweet Chariot) that became more prevalent in later years. There were also influences from other traditions such as the circus.

Jolson was undoubtedly the most famous blackface performer of the early 20th century, and well beyond the mid-point of the century minstrel shows commanded huge audiences. I can recall seeing the Black and White Minstrels on television as a child in the 1970s.

It is perhaps worth noting as well that even African-American performers became minstrels, in many cases as a first route into showbusiness.

So, minstrel shows and blackface performance is historical fact and important to the understanding of the evolution of showbusiness, music and live stage routines.

This short presents Jolson performing three of his most enduring numbers, including “April Showers” (which I will always associate with my grandad, who used to sing it). His character is the predicatable happy slave worker, content with his lot, which although it makes for uncomfortable viewing today, was nothing unusual at the time.

Viewing this as an example of early talkie entertainment, it is fairly static in its presentation, but the Vitaphone sound disc is clear, and Jolson puts his songs across well. There’s an attempt to make a farm/plantation setting believable, with strategically placed chickens and a barn, and the print available is tinted.

Hard to rate, but it isn’t awful, and it isn’t outstanding. Rating against other Vitaphone shorts of the period it is average.

Red Hot Rhythm (1929)

This film is lost so I am commenting purely on the one clip that is available, a Multicolor number featuring either Alan Hale or James Clemmons (no one seems really sure), a line of flame-haired dancers, an orchestra, and some fiery effects. The dancing is somewhat hyperactive and the song (the title song) is catchy.

Photoplay back in 1929 said the colour sequences and dance numbers were the only thing of importance about this. Thanks to Vivian Duncan of the Duncan Sisters this – very low quality – clip has been saved, but director Leo McCarey thought this was one of his worst films.

Rio Rita (1929)

Bebe Daniels, with a ridiculous accent and a trilling voice to rival Jeanette MacDonald, is Rita, being romanced by mysterious gringo John Boles. Their operetta duets are fairly pretty and Bebe gets to wear some good costumes.

In another storyline interwoven with that of Rita are Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey (with little Dorothy Lee) in a comic divorce-based plot. Woolsey is the wise-cracking cigar-chomper with the glasses, Wheeler the little guy with the high voice and a nice line in song ‘n dance.

Rio Rita is a fun early musical with primitive Technicolor bits and one Berkeley-esque overhead shot with the frilly girlies doing their thing round Wheeler. Dorothy Lee’s voice reminded me of Helen Kane (the lady who introduced I Wanna Be Loved By You before Marilyn got her hands on it).

My favourite bit music-wise is the catchy ‘Sweetheart, We Need Each Other’; otherwise the invisible girl only seen by the boys after quaffing some seriously strong plonk is a really funny bit.

And I did like the fact that for 1929 this wasn’t as primitive as other early talkies I’ve seen. Good stuff (and an invaluable record of a Ziegfeld show of course).

Sally (1929)

Originally filmed in 2-strip Technicolor, this film now survives as a mainly black and white print with some colour footage intact. This rags to riches story (Sally starts from an orphanage and ends up with her own show on Broadway) stars Marilyn Miller – little seen and perhaps only known to film buffs because of Judy Garland’s impersonation of her in ‘Till The Clouds Roll By’. Miller was a beautiful and talented artist, as ‘Sally’ proves.

Supporting her is a very young Joe E Brown (best known as Captain Andy in the third film version of Show Boat) who is a lot of fun, and Alexander Gray, who like many other leading men of the early talkies is a bit of a stuffed shirt. You’ll also spot the Keystone Kops’ Ford Sterling as ‘Pops’.

‘Sally’ is a hugely enjoyable early talkie. The colour sequence is lovely and bright – it is a pity that we lose the impact from the rest of the film. The songs are good and Miss Miller is a treat to watch.

Show Boat (1929)

The first film version of the Kern-Hammerstein musical, which had premiered on stage in 1927, from the Edna Ferber novel published a year before.

What remains of this film (and it is sadly incomplete) is a part-talkie with a prologue of songs from the original show (including Helen Morgan singing ‘Bill’ – she would get to play Julie in the 1936 film). I know I have seen the ‘Hey Feller’ segment with picture as well as sound before, but this version shown on TCM retains an ‘overture’ title card to accompany the songs.

The first sound segment begins after around half an hour and centres on Gaylord and Magnolia acting on stage together, then planning to marry, and eloping. Laura La Plante is far too mannered as Magnolia – although this is not as noticeable in the silent sequences – I much prefer Irene Dunne’s playful take on the character, or Kathryn Grayson’s haughty naivete, while Joseph Schildkraut is a little bit stiff with his Germanic accent as Gay, lacking the charm of either Allan Jones or Howard Keel.

The second sound segment is after Gay loses their money on an expensive horse and starts to ridicule Magnolia for wanting to sing, but this is where the track has been lost, so we get subtitles, and it doesn’t really work to paper over the cracks.

Emily Fitzroy is a priceless Parthy (she can be comic, cruel, and tragic, often at the same time), and Alma Rubens does well as Julie (although the racial storyline is completely removed, and she is fired from the Cotton Blossom simply for being too fond of the infant Magnolia, who – it is strongly hinted – might be her child).

Of the songs in the musical, we hear ‘Old Man River’ and ‘Goodbye My Lady Love’ as background music, but there are no songs as such (in the original print there were five songs, but not in the same context as in the stage show). Joe and Queenie, in this surviving version, are purely peripheral, and unlike any other version, we lose Captain Andy quite early on, during the raging storm in which Magnolia gives birth to Kim. No ‘After The Ball’ reunion for father and daughter here.

Interestingly this is the only one of the films which includes Hetty the whorehouse madam who is the Belle Watling to Gay’s Rhett Butler (he really is a river rat, and a cheat in all senses as well as a gambler), and this is how Julie comes back into the story, not as a lounge singer missing her man. There is also no reunion for Gay and his daughter Kim, so ultimately this film is more downbeat than the others.

Because it is no longer a musical in its surviving form (it kills the scene where Magnolia sings ‘Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man of Mine’ towards the end to see her sing it but not hear it!), I cannot give it a higher score, but the differences in storyline, some excellent performances, and that inclusion of Morgan’s song in the prologue, nudge it up just a tad, and TCM’s attempt to salvage lost sound sequences is laudable.

Show of Shows (1929)

Some marvellous musical numbers jostle with low comedy (MC Frank Fay is an acquired taste) and snatches of high drama (John Barrymore as Richard III).

This was the Warner Brothers entry into the revue anthology films of the early days of talking pictures, showcasing most of their stars – Mary Astor, Richard Barthelmess, Monte Blue, Hobart Bosworth, Chester Conklin, Lupino Lane, Myrna Loy, Chester Morris, Rin Tin Tin, Ben Turpin, and Loretta Young.

Enjoyable, even if it is now a shadow of what it was (it was originally presented in colour), it only survives from a black and white copy for television.

Splinters (1929)

Fun army revue film which, despite ageing sound and worn-out visuals, still manages to be entertaining. It is based on the stage revue of the same name, and was one of the first sound films to be released in Britain.

Nelson Keys and Sydney Howard star, Jack Raymond directs and Herbert Wilcox produces. The musical numbers have survived in better condition than the scenes around them.

Sunny Side Up (1929)

One of the early talkie musicals, this one teams silent sweethearts Charles Farrell and Janet Gaynor, and gives them both the chance to share their questionable musical gifts.

This film shouldn’t work at all, but Gaynor has charm, and Farrell is watchable, and there are other compensations including the sparky Marjorie White (who should have had a long and fruitful career, but sadly died early, in 1935).

Recently given a lavish restoration, this musical sends its audience away humming the tunes, and in between has made them laugh and forget their troubles, just a bit. Why ask for more?

Syncopation (1929)

Who knows now there was a third Bennett sister who was born between Constance and Joan? But there was, and Barbara Bennett plays the female lead here, Flo.

It is fairly clear why her screen career didn’t endure, and sadly her personal life was no better and her life ended by suicide in 1958.

Alrhough the perennial impersonator of Hitler, Bobby Watson, plays Bennett’s nice as pie husband, your eye will get drawn to Morton Downey’s crooning and to the cutie who plays Peggy: that’s the bubbly Dorothy Lee, who found fame with Wheeler and Woolsey.

Word has it that Bert Wheeler saw Syncopation and looked all over town for Dottie, knowing she was just right for his sweet and silly musical comedy romance schtick. You can see here what Wheeler saw in her.

Ian Hunter is the impresario who offers Flo and Benny a break: he’s always a bit stiff, but has his english charm to pull him through.

Director Bert Glennon became a cinematographer for the likes of John Ford, and this film certainly looks good, even if it is stilted by the technical limitations of the time.

“Do Do Something” is the musical highlight of this film, which was RKO’s first musical, while Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians are top-billed as the band.

Trivia note: Watson is the diction coach tormented by Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor in 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain.

 


The Walk, 2015 – ★★★★

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is perfect for the role of daredevil wire-walker Philippe Petit, who rigged up a wire between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, shortly before the complex was fully open.

Written and filmed in both comedic style and 3D (I watched the standard version) this is clever, subversive, and just as mad as Petit’s stunt – although I would have enjoyed more work similar to the slow-mo shots, splashes of colour in a grey universe, or the Gilliamesque commentary of our hero out on the Statue of Liberty.

In support we have Ben Kingsley as a crotchety circus performer, Charlotte Le Bon as a street artist, and Steve Valentine as the man on the inside.

The WTC will always been synonymous with their destruction but here their height is something to celebrate and conquer.

An enjoyable film which utilises CGI to develop its universe, without spoiling the story arc. As for Petit, he was crazy enough to walk way above the streets of New York on a wire shot from a fishing line and a bow and arrow!

You can keep your Spiderman. This is what your real heroes are about.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews


Book review: Strolling Player by Gabriel Hershman

Albert Finney was one of the young Northern actors who gained fame in the so-called ‘kitchen sink’ dramas of the 1960s.  From Salford, and blessed with a memorable name few would associate with a movie star, he has shone in a parallel career on the stage, starting after RADA graduation with a spell with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Gabriel Hershman’s book is the second of three books focusing on British actors with interesting careers and private lives; we have already seen Ian Hendry profiled in Send in the Clowns – and next year we will see Hershman’s authorised biography on Nicol Williamson.

Strolling Player puts Finney centre stage, with an appraisal of his acting CV alongside anecdotes of a more personal nature; with this being a living subject you might have anticipated cooperation and an interview, but sadly that’s missing from the book: however, colleagues and friends fill the gap nicely and try to shed some light on the elusive actor.

Highly recommended to theatre and cinema fans, and those who have caught one of Finney’s rare television appearances. Hershman’s writing style is accessible and interesting and this is a fine addition to anyone’s biography shelf.

Strolling Player: the life and career of Albert Finney is available from The History Press, Amazon and some bookshop chains.


The Piano, 1993 – ★★★★★ (contains spoilers)

This review may contain spoilers.

My first viewing of this film since about 2010, and it still warms my heart with its sensuality, silence, and sexual intrigue.

Holly Hunter plays the mute Ada, who communicates with her daughter (Anna Paquin) in sign language; they’re shipped out from Scotland to New Zealand as Ada has been all but sold, sight unseen, to Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill), a man who is straight-laced and repressed.

Ada has one love in her life, a full-sized piano which has travelled with her on the ‘stinking tub’ which has churned her across the ocean. White as porcelain, Ada’s dark expressive eyes and small stature looks swamped and lost in the wilds and the sea.

We first meet George Baines here (Harvey Keitel), an Englishman who has turned native and who displays, early, the empathy that Stewart lacks – the husband sees only a ‘stunted’ woman, but Baines recognises her as ‘tired’ and so he finds a connection to her from the first.

Jane Campion’s direction and Michael Nyman’s beautiful music lift this lush and unusual romance, in which there is barbarity, nudity, and sheer eroticism. It was my introduction to Keitel’s work and it is probably the highest point of his career, giving a complex (and on the surface, unsavoury) character a heart and fire that, slowly, surely, opens up Ada’s reserve and breathes life back into her broken soul.

Paquin, aged just ten years old, was fantastic as Flora, her mother’s voice and a constant watcher and interpreter of life around her. Quite rightly, she took the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, while Hunter won the Best Actress Award, the film won Best Picture, and Campion won Best Screenplay (but sadly not Director, no woman would win that for a further sixteen years).

There’s a lovely and hot scene in the film where Baines and Ada make love while Stewart watches through a gap in the wall; as he has no intimacy with his wife (and indeed, recoils from it when she instigates, with curiosity, a sensual touch) he is jealous and angry, but it was the piano which led Ada to Baines, through a business arrangement which turned to love rather than making her ‘a whore’ and him ‘wretched’.

The ending, for me, still feels wrong, and I would have been happy with Campion’s original idea of letting Ada go to the bottom of the ocean with her beloved piano, rather than starting a new life with Baines. But either version works just as well.

A masterpiece of eroticism, this remains Campion’s best feature, and it is beautifully detailed; there is a core tension which is heightened by the silence, by the music which is Ada’s song into the world (if we believe Flora, she had been an opera singer before trauma and widowhood), and ultimately there is a joy in the way Stewart’s misunderstanding and meddling gives his wife her chance of happiness.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews


The Little Foxes, 1941 – ★★★★½

This rarely seen Bette Davis drama is the ultimate study of greed within a family, with the monstrous Regina (Davis) plotting the life and fate of her winsome daughter Alexandra (Teresa Wright, making her screen debut).

This story of the old South does not move much from its stage origins – in which Tallulah Bankhead played Regina. It cries out for colour but with Gregg Toland’s camera work and William Wyler’s direction it looks fairly sumptuous as it is.

A fizzing plot keeps this family saga going, and when the estranged and ill man of the house (Herbert Marshall) comes back we can sit back and enjoy a couple of stars at their best.

Davis was Oscar nominated for her turn as the austere, white-faced matriarch plotter, but lost the big prize to Joan Fontaine, who won for Suspicion .

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews


West Side Story, 1961 – ★★★★★

UK viewers, this is on right now on My5. So if you haven’t seen it, tune your television this minute!

Romeo and Juliet in New York. Natalie Wood wasn’t Puerto Rican, nor could she sing (she’s dubbed by Marni Nixon), but she’s, as her character Maria tells us ‘so pretty’, she falls in love so sweetly, and her last sentence is absolutely heartbreaking.

Richard Beymer couldn’t sing either (he was dubbed by Jimmy Bryant) but his Tony is chiseled perfection, the gang member who would rather have a job, who grows up but still stands up for his best friend Riff (the Mercutio of this tale, played by ever-acrobatic Russ Tamblyn), and in doing so, pitches both sides into tragedy.

Leonard Bernstein provided the music, a fusion of Latino with street slang, and a young Stephen Sondheim started his lifelong flirtation with wordplay on the lyrics. Jerome Robbins did most of the choreography, and directed key pieces although Robert Wise gets the credit. Robbins did ‘The Jet Song’, ‘America’, ‘Cool’ …

Tucker Smith plays Ice, and he also sings for Riff in the opening number, and his flicked hair and pale blue eyes make you look out for him in scenes. Eliot Feld, a glorious dancer, is Baby John, and just watch him go in the ensemble numbers. Rita Moreno and George Chakiris, real-life lovers in 1961, sizzle as Anita and Bernardo, both gaining Best Supporting wins at the Oscars for their trouble. Moreno is a sensation in the role most comparable to Juliet’s Nurse.

Then there’s the song ‘Maria’. Maria, Maria, Maria. The most beautiful song for the most beautiful girl sung by the most beautiful boy after their eyes have locked across a crowded dance floor and everyone else melts away to blurs. It’s a shout-out of love and joy and one of the greatest musical movie moments ever put on the screen.

Tony and Maria in the wedding scene, in the bridal shop, in the evening. Doc (Ned Glass) in the Friar’s role, letting the lovers meet even though he knows and understands the dangers. The tenements that gleam when they should be downtrodden. John Astin trying to keep order at the dance, while the boys and girls spit and hiss at each other, sometimes with hate, sometimes with lust.

Susan Oakes as Anybodys, who might just be the first musical depiction of a trans boy. Gina Trikonis as Riff’s girl, Tony Mordente as Action, David Winters as A-Rab. Maria wanting her neckline lowered just a little bit, just a little bit, as she is no longer wanting her dress for playing.

The perfection of ‘A Boy Like That/I Have a Love’, where Anita glimpses the rumpled bed and where Maria asserts her newly found knowing-ness. Love is love is love even after the unthinkable has happened, and Anita in her grief can help or hinder just anything.

Jose DaVega is Chino, and he’s a decent sort, but he will cause us to cry by the end, and even sarcastic Lieutenant Schrank to take a breath, just a little. That ending, the saddest of all endings, but a glimmer of hope, just maybe, before we switch to the graffiti inspired credits.

Did I mention how much I love this film?

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews


Sense and Sensibility, 1995 – ★★★★

Watched for Valentine’s Night, of course!

I remember very clearly going to see this at the cinema twenty-two years ago.

It was the evening of ‘sighs’ with three factions of female viewers, interested in either Hugh Grant (Edward Ferrars, the nice brother of the ghastly Fanny Dashwood, whose selfishness has turfed the second family of the dead Mr Dashwood from their family home), Greg Wise (the gentleman cad John Willoughby, who sets aflame the youthful heart of silly Marianne), or Alan Rickman (the solid, dependable and quaintly romantic Colonel Brandon).

This adaptation of the Jane Austen novel was scripted by Emma Thompson and directed by Ang Lee, and does its best to cover the emotional ground of the story within a couple of hours. The Dashwood sisters are played by Thompson herself (Elinor), a youthful and rather delightful Kate Winslet (Marianne), and Emilie François (Margaret).

Aside from the burgeoning romances (which are beautifully done) there are lots of simple pleasures: Robert Hardy’s blustering cleric, Elizabeth Spriggs’ gossip, Imelda Staunton’s twittering gossip’s daughter, Gemma Jones’s stately widow, Imogen Stubbs’s scheming fortune-hunter and Harriet Walter’s awful snob do great supporting work in bringing Austen’s strong characterisations to life.

All is well that ends well, of course, and off the screen, too, as Thompson and Wise started their own romance which has endured since then, while Richard Lumsden (who plays Fanny and Edward’s brother Robert) married Thompson’s actress sister Sophie.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews


The Cuckoos, 1930 – ★★★½

“I love you so much, I can’t conceal it. I love you so much, it’s a wonder you don’t feel it.”

This film adaptation of the 1920s stage musical The Ramblers was the second teaming of the vaudeville comedy team Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey, and their first as the stars, following their successful supporting turn in Rio Rita the year before.

The team’s brand of cross-talk, cutesy spiel, and musical routines may look a little clunky now, but before RKO launched their series of musicals starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, these two were the biggest money-spinners for the studio.

I personally enjoy them very much, and here there is the benefit of some scenes in two-strip Technicolor, plus the kewpie doll Dorothy Lee and the statuesque Jobyna Howland in support. Hugh Trevor and June Clyde play cloying young lovers who are secretly engaged, but the real interest as ever is in seeing Bert and Dottie find their way through tentative flirting.

Raymond Maurel leads an opera chorus, while there are fiery Gypsy routines in front of an admittedly static and stage-bound set. This musical comedy is sparky, cute, fun and leaves you with a smile on your face, if you’re so inclined.

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Her Man, 1930 – ★★★½

A nice restoration for this Pre-Code film, directed by Tay Garnett and showing at the BFI Southbank as part of a season curated by Martin Scorsese.

Ricardo Cortez is the psychopathic Johnny whose girl, Frankie, the sad-eyed and down at heel thief who entices chaps in the bar with promises of gin and companionship, dreams of a new life away from the filth and grime of the island on which she was born and is trapped.

James Gleason and Harry Sweet provide the comedy, in a long running gag about an one-armed bandit game and the fey Franklin Pangborn’s hat.

Hot Toddy (Thelma) isn’t a blonde for a change but she’s bad through and through, while Dan the hero sailor, played by a singing Phillips Holmes with ever increasing holes in his shirt, charms Frankie, eventually replacing her worn old shoes and praying next to her in church.

Dark as pitch in places (Johnny’s knife throwing, and glowering watching of Frankie), with clever sand and sea wave titles, this has a nicely done if obvious drunk old broad routine from Marjorie Rambeau, whose cackling laugh in the film’s closing scene is oddly moving.

Perhaps not a lost masterpiece, but certainly worth a second look.

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The Tragedy of Hamlet, 2002 – ★★★★

Peter Brook adapted two Shakespeare plays for the screen, and both are very interesting experiments. The 1971 ‘King Lear’ with Paul Scofield is perhaps the best known, but this version of ‘Hamlet’ is my favourite of the two.

Pared down to two and a quarter hours, with a third of the text removed and other passages moved around, characters cut, and with a multi-ethnic cast (black Hamlet and Ghost/Claudius, Indian Laertes/Ophelia, Oriental Player King, white Polonius/Horatio), this is a minimal production, sparsely staged, but with weight on the words without distraction.

Adrian Lester plays the Dane, and he is every inch the bleakly indecisive student. This was an early role for him but he ranks with the best of interpreters of this greatest of Shakespeare leads. Natasha Parry (Brook’s wife) makes a stately Gertrude, but without the artifice or middle-aged lust other actresses have given her. She is a tragic by-product of the dark court of Denmark.

Scott Handy is Horatio, and his verse-speaking is excellent, as befits a regular cast member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Last seen in the TV series ‘Hunted’ and ‘The Village’ he is the blank canvas on to which Hamlet can project his angst and dissatisfaction; he is the devoted friend who will not question even the madness that seems to afflict the Prince, causing his cruelest actions and thoughts.

This is not a starter Hamlet for those new to the play; rather one for those who are familiar with the piece and open to see it tweaked and explored for a new audience.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews


Remember the Night, 1940 – ★★★★

Everybody’s favourite Stanwyck (to Letterboxders, anyway), and one I hadn’t seen until today. Putting aside the fact that bits of it remind me of ‘The 39 Steps’, others of ‘Susan Slept Here’ and others of ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ and ‘Mr Deeds Goes To Town’, I have to add my praise to that of the general majority.

Barbara Stanwyck is Lee, a jewel thief (must be something in the air, as yesterday I was watching a film with Myrna Loy in a similar profession), and here she is teamed for the first time of three with Fred MacMurray, here playing a prosecuting attorney, John, who succeeds in getting her trial postponed for decision til after Christmas, and ends up taking custody of her over the festive season instead.

MacMurray isn’t one of my favourite actors, but he’s very good here, and Stanwyck is in good form as the career criminal who opens proceedings in the court by watching her defence lawyer with barely-disguised amusement.

She’s no victim here, and in fact she is perhaps better than she was in femme fatale mode in ‘Double Indemnity’. Her gift for fun eventually paid off as Preston Sturges, screenwriter here, went on to write and direct ‘The Lady Eve’ for her, which gave her a chance to broaden her range.

Willard Robertson’s speech as the flowery defence chap is hilarious, and even more so when you note in real life he gave up a career in law for the stage. Sterling Holloway, always fabulous, and with the weirdly musical voice, is fun as a cousin of MacMurray’s. ‘Snowflake’ Toones plays John’s slightly slow servant but he isn’t quite as daft as he first appears. And Beulah Bondi ages up yet again to play MacMurray’s mother.

This is a romance, a festive one, and a courtroom drama, and succeeds at all of them. What a happy discovery!

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews


Whipsaw, 1935 – ★★★½

Spencer Tracy had switched studios from Fox to MGM in 1935, and this role has more in common with his tough guy programmers than the more sophisticated fare his new studio would eventually offer him.

This is a fairly minor crime picture but it’s lifted by the sparkling chemistry between Tracy (as a G-man posing as a crook) and Myrna Lou (as a hard-boiled jewel thief). They positively crackle in their scenes together, which makes this film a pleasure to watch.

Director Sam Wood is content to let his stars just do their thing, and they do it well. Romance beckons by the halfway point, and the whole story of the stolen pearls sinks into second place.

A happy discovery, currently available on YouTube.

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Whistle Down the Wind, 1961 – ★★★★★

“I said yeah. You’ll hear about me again.”

I gave this just shy of a five star score last time, but now I can’t find any fault with this film.

Fourteen-year-old Hayley Mills is absolutely superb as the girl who thinks she has discovered Jesus living in her barn, and Alan Bates (in his first starring role) matches her scene for scene as the convict whose desperation, fatigue and confusion leads him to play the part she has created for him.

The joy of this film is the simple allegory about Christianity and the evolution of the young girl who finds herself attached to the mysterious man, and the huge group of children who become his followers.

Filmed in Clitheroe and Burnley in Lancashire, largely using local children, this showcases the performance of young Alan Barnes as Charlie, who brings an innocent and deadpan humour to the situation.

Magical, moving, and just as relevant to an audience of adults as it is to children (I first saw it aged about eight, and I’m watching it now more than thirty years later), this is one of Brian Forbes’ best films, beautifully directed and photographed.

This is a film which gives back more with each viewing. Quite simply one of the perfect examples of British cinema of the 1960s.

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The 39 Steps, 1935 – ★★★★½

#38 in the Reverse Hitchcock project.

John Buchan’s novel puts our hero Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) in mortal danger when a mysterious female spy in black finds herself with a dagger in her back, in his flat, shortly after he has met her at the music hall.

On the run, he meets sulky blonde Madeleine Carroll on a train, but has to break and escape when she threatens to give him away. Events across the country conspire to reunite them, though, where they eventually become handcuffed together to their mutual discomfort – and the audience’s amusement at that scene with the stocking.

This is such a rich film, with a wide array of characters populating the fringes (notably Peggy Ashcroft as the unhappy crofter’s wife, dreaming of the well-dressed ladies in town, but cowed by her Bible-bashing and domestically violent husband – played well by John Laurie).

It’s a wrong man theme, and one which Hitchcock referred to again and again over the years. Donat gives Hannay an air of strictly English bewilderment at his predicament while keeping a sense of amusement.

The scene where Hannay addresses a political rally due to a mistake of identity prefigures Holly’s book club appearance in Reed’s ‘The Third Man’.

Incidentally the bad guy’s distinguishing feature has been used several times in lesser films which followed this, while the Mr Memory close (not in the novel) is a clever twist, and the spy theme cropped up in comic fare such as ‘Let George Do It’ (1940) and ‘The Goose Steps Out’ (1942).

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews


The Scarlet Tunic, 1998 – ★★★

A disappointing adaptation of one of my favourite Thomas Hardy stories, ‘The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion’.

The love story between the lonely German hussar and the girl trapped into an unwanted engagement should simmer with passion as it moves to the eventual tragedy, but this all feels just a bit too chocolate box and safe.

Emma Fielding, as the girl whose head is turned, looks and sounds too modern and isn’t my idea of the character of Frances at all. Jean-Marc Barr is slightly better as Matthaus. There are character actors a-plenty in the cast: Simon Callow (too much bluster), John Sessions, Jack Shepherd, Lynda Bellingham, Gareth Hale, Andrew Tiernan.

Perfunctorily directed by Stuart St Paul, best known for his 1980s pop videos and as a stuntman, this was an attempt to cash on the period boom which followed ‘Pride and Prejudice’, but it failed to provide the requisite happy ending – there are few of those in the works of Hardy.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews


Wuthering Heights, 1967 – ★★★½

I’m giving this an extra star on today’s rewatch as it is a lot better than I remembered. The outstanding performance in this is that of the late Angela Scoular as Cathy, who is quite remarkable in her hysteric passion for the Gypsy boy Heathcliff (a smouldering and petulant Ian McShane).

The Lintons are a bit dry (Edgar, played by Drewe Hedley, and Isabella, by Angela Douglas, although she has a moment or two of presence) but play their part in this tragic tale. William Marlowe’s Hindley is more roundly characterised than usual and his grief at the death of his wife is well portrayed, as is his eventual drunken collapse.

Directed by Peter Sasdy (who directed Countess Dracula, the Adrian Mole TV series and the creepy Viktoria for the ‘Supernatural’ TV anthology), and adapted by Hugh Leonard (who also dramatised the 1978 version of this story), this is a superior television drama which benefits from being one of the last shot in black and white, giving the wild moors and dour Yorkshire setting a focus you might not have got in colour.

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Two Sundays – ★★★★

Two Sundays’ is Simon Gray’s companion piece to ‘Plaintiffs and Defendants’ – both were presented in the Play for Today series in 1975, with roughly the same casts.

Some characters are mirror images of those they played in the earlier play, some lines appear in both works, and there are areas in which they – the characters and the situations – overlap.

This play involves flashbacks into a past which two middle-aged friends can’t quite acknowledge, as well as some more mundane family things with wives and children. Memories fade into each other, thoughts bring back things which are buried.

Really, this is a two-hander between Alan Bates as Charles, with a pregnant wife but putting his guilt at a wasted life into a first novel, and Dinsdale Landen as Peter, a boozy, bored, adulterous executive who can’t quite reconcile what he was with what he is.

Of the two plays, this is the most accomplished, although as a pair they are very interesting. And with support from Georgina Hale, Simon Cadell, and others, it has a cast which keeps you watching through its tight one-hour running time.

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Plaintiffs and Defendants – ★★★½

‘Plaintiffs and Defendants’ was the first of a pair of plays written by Simon Gray for the Play for Today series in 1975. Both plays share the same casts but in different roles, some mirroring each other – a fascinating idea.

This play introduces us to Peter, a solicitor who is embroiled in a case of child custody. His wife Hilary is remote and irritated with him and their life together with teenage son Jeremy, while out of hours Peter has been carrying on with the unstable Joanna. The other characters are Charlie and Alison (who we don’t actually see as such), friends of long-standing of Peter’s, and Sallust, a quiet and dour legal pupil of Peter’s who can easily beat him at squash.

In a wordy 60 minutes, we find out about the state of mind of Peter and about things in his past that have impacted on his life – it is one of those plays which includes the type of conversations you’d only ever find in plays and not in real life. This being so it still feels very real and the characters stand up as fully-rounded.

Alan Bates (Peter) and Joanna (Georgina Hale) are probably seen on screen the most, although Simon Cadell (Sallust) and Dinsdale Landen (Charlie) also make a memorable impact. This is a tale of lost opportunities, of giving up things and starting them again, of boredom and routine, and it is played extremely well.

Followed by ‘Two Sundays’ in the same series, although the two plays can stand as separate works as well as a linked pair.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews


Gigi, 1958 – ★★★★½

One of my favourite musicals, and MGM’s last great hurrah of their Golden Age, this Lerner and Loewe score might suffer in places by not having traditional singers, but makes up for it by the charm and exactness of the casting.

Leslie Caron is a girlish delight as the would-be courtesan, being coached by her grandmother (Hermoine Gingold) and aunt Alicia (a spirited Isabel Jeans) to become the passive sport of kings. Louis Jourdan is the attractive leading man, Gaston, full of ennui and a lack of interest in the glorious females at ‘Maxim’s’ – his rendition of the title song is a high point of many in the film.

The film still belongs to that glorious Gallic ham, Maurice Chevalier, though, still playful and sparkling into his seventies (even though according to Caron in an interview I saw her give at the British Film Institute some years ago he was ‘grumpee’ throughout filming). His Honore welcomes us into a Paris full of lovers, thanking heaven for little girls, and he’s adorable.

Many have said this film is problematic because of its attitude towards women, and indeed perhaps creepy in its pursuit of the young, but I let that pass. I like to watch Chevalier and Gingold as they ‘remember it well’, and see Gigi’s blossoming from a sulky young thing into a beautiful woman, and the excellent score, even when it is mangled by talk-song.

Directed by Vincente Minnelli for the Arthur Freed Unit, in vibrant Metrocolor, this is well worth watching, and deserved the eight Academy Awards it was given.

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