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.

 

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Magical Mystery Tour, 1967 – ★★½

‘Magical Mystery Tour’ sees the Beatles on one of those dull, dull, bus trips around the countryside.

Except of course this trip keeps getting interrupted by strange happenings and visions, and has some classic Beatles tracks including ‘Flying’ (with lots of colour filter changes which would have really looked rubbish when this film first aired on TV, in black and white!); ‘Blue Jay Way’ (in which George drones on while playing a keyboard drawn on a rock); ‘Your Mother Should Know’ (with the cheesy ‘coming down the stairs’ bit); ‘The Fool on the Hill’ (where Paul stands on a hill, natch); and, best of all, ‘I Am The Walrus’ (with eggmen, walruses, and other strange beings, and some funky spaced out camera work).

The fab four also appear as some irritating magicians, all big hats and silly voices, and not that funny, while Ringo’s ‘aunty’ dreams about hitting it off with Buster Bloodvessel (played by the very odd Ivor Cutler). Nat Jackley gets in there too, as well as Victor Spinetti playing a manic Sergeant major who talks so fast thatnoonecankeepupwithawordheissaying…

If you’re bored with The Beatles, you can always catch the Bonzo Dog (Doo Dah) Band near the end doing ‘Death Cab For Cutie’ while singer Viv is distracted by a stripper (the very alluring Jan Carson).

Is the ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ worth your time. Well, it’s different.

I can just see a 1967 audience watching this on the box and thinking ‘what the…?’. It’s on a par with ‘Yellow Submarine’ although I think this time they didn’t take themselves quite so seriously.

The ‘Magical Mystery Tour’, with its tent, muddy spaghetti on the restaurant table, very white beaches, and static cows, is a candy coated, multi-coloured, goggle-eyed, very silly bundle of fun.

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Mr Sherlock Holmes

The much-hyped third series of ‘Sherlock’ has come to an end and I have to say, I wasn’t that impressed.  When Benedict Cumberbatch hit our screens with his sociopathic amateur sleuth in the clever ‘A Study in Pink’ back in 2010 we all thought “wow’ and were blown over by the mix of modern situations and locations, technology, and the central friendship between the detective who keeps clear from people and the doctor invalided out from Afghanistan.   The first series picked elements from Conan Doyle’s stories like ‘The Dancing Men’ and brought a believable dynamic between characters we knew (Mrs Hudson, Inspector Lestrade) and those created for the series (Molly the nurse) and our central duo.  And despite being an extremely annoying character as played by Andrew Scott, the swimming pool stand-off between Sherlock and Moriarty at the close of the third episode, ‘The Great Game’ (with plot elements taken from ‘The Bruce-Partington Plans’) was excellent.

The second series had our heroes escaping from their nemesis, meeting the famous ‘Woman’, Irene Adler (here a dominatrix), doing their revision of ‘The Hounds of Baskerville’, and eventually came to a close with ‘The Reichenbach Fall’ in which Sherlock falls to his death from St Bart’s Hospital … or did he?  Our expectations of finding out just how he escaped was thwarted by the non-revelations of ‘The Empty Hearse’, the opener to series three, which had a throwaway reference to the ‘Moran’ of the Conan Doyle story, a nice bit with a video dealer which echoed the bookseller’s “bargains” of Jeremy Brett’s Holmes three decades earlier, but little else.

Cumberbatch was never going to be my favourite Holmes – half a dozen names would make the list before his (Brett, Arthur Wontner, Douglas Wilmer, Peter Cushing, Rathbone, and Eille Norwood in the Stoll silents).  His tedious pseudo-autism is wearing thin after the charming cleverness of a fish out of water of the early first series episodes, and I hope that the planned series four gets him back on track and stops our ‘Great Detective’ being the tedious show-off you want to avoid at parties.  There have been many actors who have tackled the role of Sherlock Holmes: some excellent one-shot performances of which I would have loved to see more, including Nicol Williamson and Robert Stephens, Jonathan Pryce and John Neville, Raymond Massey and Tom Baker.  Of series level Holmes, the Russian Vasily Livanov is excellent, while in cheap 1950s and 1980 TV series retrospectively I rate Ronald Howard and Geoffrey Whitehead very highly, even if they have to work with scripts of the calibre of ‘The Baker Street Nursemaids’ or ‘Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard’.  John Barrymore made a decent stab at the role in the silent era, just the once (in a play remade less successfully years later with Frank Langella).

Of the trio of modern Holmes brought to the screen (not two, as the recent Timeshift documentary had it, ignoring the US reboot named ‘Elementary’ in which Jonny Lee Miller is proving an excellent 21st century Holmes), I haven’t much time for Robert Downey Jnr, as he is only really good at playing himself and his own personality is miles away from the complex contradiction needed to depict Sherlock Holmes.  His Watson (Jude Law) is good though.  Miller’s Watson is a woman (not the first – Joanne Woodward was a Dr Watson to George C Scott’s delusional Sherlock character in ‘They May Be Giants’ and Margaret Colin was the granddaughter of the original John Watson in 1987’s ‘The Return of Sherlock Holmes’) played by Lucy Liu, and she’s brilliant, easily a match for her strange friend.  Cumberbatch is blessed with Martin Freeman as Watson, although I still find his acting technique limited – his Watson is the same as Bilbo Baggins, is the same as Arthur Dent, but it hardly matters.

So who failed to present the creation of Conan Doyle as we would expect him to be?  Christopher Lee may be a devotee of the stories, but his trio of films in which he plays Holmes suffer from bad dubbing (‘The Deadly Necklace’) and poor scripts and Watson (‘Leading Lady’, ‘Victoria Falls’, with Patrick McNee, himself a terrible Holmes in ‘The Hound of London’).  Stewart Granger looked as if he belonged in the Wild West in his ‘Hound of the Baskervilles’, and the less said about Peter Cook’s Jewish Holmes and Dudley Moore’s Welsh Watson in their ‘Hound’, the better.  Reginald Owen was poor in ‘A Study in Scarlet’, Charlton Heston may have played the role on stage in ‘The Crucifer of Blood’ but was far too old for the film.  Richard Roxburgh and Rupert Everett were miscast opposite Ian Hart’s solid Watson in a TV ‘Hound’ and an original story ‘Case of the Silk Stocking’.  John Cleese was, well, John Cleese for Comedy Playhouse’s ‘Elementary, My Dear Watson’ and ‘The Strange Case of the End of Civilisation as We Know It’.

I like my Holmes, and I’ll watch any of them, from the odd defrosted versions of Michael Pennington and Anthony Higgins, the pouty youth of James D’Arcy, the clipped tones of Clive Brook, the teenage sleuths of Guy Henry and Nicholas Rowe, and the intensity of Christopher Plummer in ‘Silver Blaze’ and ‘Murder by Decree’.  And although the third series of ‘Sherlock’ has made me lose the love and admiration I had for Cumberbatch’s performance, just a little bit, I will be back to watch him when he returns.

There’s something about our detective that brings us back time and time again.  Long may he live to be adapted and enjoyed, and long may his intellect and odd view of the world endure.

Scarlett O’Hara’s leading men

Yesterday I watched ‘Gone With The Wind’ for the second time on the big screen, this time at the BFI Southbank in a new 4k restoration, as part of the celebration to mark 100 years since the birth of Vivien Leigh.  I’m not going to use this post to review the film, or even to say how much I love it (I do), nor am I going to talk much about Vivien Leigh’s performance as Scarlett.  It was by far her best role, and the one which won her the first of two Oscars during her nineteen-film, one television play, career.

In this post I want to talk in detail about Miss Leigh’s leading men in the film, notably Clark Gable (1901-1960) as Rhett Butler, and Leslie Howard (1892-1943)  as Ashley Wilkes.  Both were major film stars at the time of the casting of the film version of Margaret Mitchell’s popular novel.  Gable had been moulded into a sexy leading man who had shared screen time with Jean Harlow, Barbara Stanwyck, Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer and, most memorable of all, Joan Crawford.   He was practically the only choice for the Charleston adventurer whose only cause is himself and whose only great passion in life is Scarlett, the Southern belle who treats him with disdain.  Howard had come into films via the stage, playing a mixture of artistic dreamers and sensitive souls in both Britain and America (with Mary Pickford, Norma Shearer, and Heather Angel), as well as making the occasional successful foray into comedy (‘Stand-In’, with Joan Blondell; ‘It’s Love I’m After’, with Bette Davis).  His biggest successes prior to being offered the role of Major Wilkes were as Henry Higgins in ‘Pygmalion’, and as Romeo opposite a cast all scaled up in age for MGM’s adaptation of ‘Romeo and Juliet’.

rhettstairs

If Gable was the eye candy and the stuff of women’s dreams, then Howard was the intellectual with integrity.  Critics throughout the intervening years between the release of ‘Gone With The Wind’ and now have been much more complimentary about Rhett than Ashley, questioning why a free spirit like Scarlett would be drawn to such a low-key, unadventurous man as ‘the wooden headed Mr Wilkes’.  However I value both men’s performances – and the characters may be polar opposites but despite Rhett’s dismissal of ‘stupid Ashley, who can’t be mentally faithful to his wife, but won’t be unfaithful to her technically’, Ashley is a true Southern gentleman, a man of honour who can see that the world he lives in is changing.  He claims that he would have freed his father’s slaves at Twelve Oaks, but he also laments the loss of everything he held dear.  He’s also proved himself brave in battle when the Civil War comes.  Rhett, in contrast, has no honour, is sardonic and brazen (until the birth of his daughter, Bonnie Blue, softens his heart).  His scenes with his ‘old friend’, the whore Belle Watling (beautifully played by Ona Munson), hint at something more akin to values you would attribute to Ashley and his Southern friends, and you sense that he has supported their son despite the impracticality of him living a respectable life in Charleston.

Howard’s range was wider than Gable’s, and in my opinion, his screen presence has improved over the years.  He also discovered Humphrey Bogart and gave him his first real chance in films, in ‘The Petrified Forest’. Gable, according to David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film was ‘sexy for his time (the only time for that trick)’ and we agree with Scarlett when, at Captain Butler’s first appearance at the bottom of those stairs at Twelve Oaks, he ‘looks as if he knows what I look like without my shimmy’.  He’s a predator, a chaser and discarder of women, and ‘not the marrying kind’.  Of course a well-brought up Southern lady would give him short shrift while looking for someone like her (i.e. Ashley, for all his hesitations and faults).  Scarlett’s only attraction to Rhett initially is as a provider of the money she needs, and only after that is she drawn to him from pure sexual frustration (no wonder, after her first two marriages, although it is interesting that the film presents these as barren when in Mitchell’s novel both Charles Hamilton and Frank Kennedy gave Scarlett children, even if she didn’t love them).

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Gable as an actor (or as a star) has become the stuff of legend.  The King of Hollywood.  No matter than his early films are often dreadfully dated and his style of acting is only a short step away from the silent swashbucklers like Fairbanks.  You may see ‘The Misfits’, his final film, bloated and overrated and only valued for the final hurrah of Monroe and Monty Clift, or ‘Mogambo’ (a colour remake of his 1932 hit ‘Red Dust’).  He tried comedy in later years, with Doris Day in ‘Teacher’s Pet’, and it worked, but he was never as alluring or as romantic again as he was as Rhett Butler.   Howard’s films, if revived at all, present his patriotic side in the last couple of years of his life (‘Pimpernel Smith’ a Nazi nose-tweak version of his 1935 ‘Scarlet Pimpernel’; ‘The First of the Few’ as the inventor of the Spitfire) and his early films are hardly ever seen, although they are worth seeking out.  Howard was a 19th century gentleman (born Hungarian but somehow quintessentially English) and his acting style has something of that era.  His Ashley is beautifully drawn, but somehow lost with all the Gable bluster and charm.

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As Scarlett’s hapless first and second husbands, a couple of names forgotten in time – Rand Brooks (1918-2003, who seemed to be a fixture in Westerns from Hopalong Cassidy to the Cisco Kid through the 1950s and 1960s) is the twittering Charles Hamilton, and Carroll Nye (1901-1974, an actor the same age as Gable but playing much older, who had done next to nothing before this film, and only a handful of titles after) is the ‘old maid-in britches’ Frank Kennedy.  They’re both good in cypher roles and are both mincemeat for the manipulative Scarlett!

NaBloPoMo November 2013

BBC2’s early morning RKO films

Since the start of 2013, BBC2 have been showing double bills of old RKO movies on Saturday and Sunday mornings, starting at around 6am.  They’re hidden in the schedules, but have included some gems, some turkeys and even some TV premieres.

I can only assume the BBC has finally decided to exploit this rich archive of early films!  So far we have had westerns, musicals (two with Frank Sinatra), dramas (several with Ginger Rogers), a Hildegard Withers mystery with Edna May Oliver, and comedies (including a brace with theatre agents Alan Mowbray and Donald MacBride.  We’ve had Bette Davis, Anna Neagle, Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck and Rosalind Russell films too.

A great way to start the weekend, or to record and keep to enjoy whenever you have a spare hour or so.

Here’s more about it from the Digital Spy forum earlier in the year: http://forums.digitalspy.co.uk/showthread.php?t=1777326

Thank you BBC – I hope this continues into 2014.

NaBloPoMo November 2013

Great character: a tribute to Dinsdale Landen

Dinsdale James Landen was born on 4th September 1932 in Margate, Kent, one of twin boys (his brother Dalby practised as a solicitor).  From his first appearance on television as a juvenile lead playing Pip in ‘Great Expectations’ (1959), through to stage and screen roles over the next four decades, he became well-regarded as a character player in drama as well as an accomplished comedy actor, especially in farces.

In recent years much of Landen’s work has become available on DVD or been shown in archive cinema screenings, which has allowed this unusual performer’s talent to become ripe for assessment.  An early film role in ‘The League of Gentlemen’ and a leading appearance in the Edgar Wallace Mystery ‘Playback’ show promising screen presence, but it seems to me that it was when his roles allowed him to drop the ‘mockney’ accent and take on a more cultured persona that he came into his own.

One exception to this run of comedy silly-asses which could be seen to great effect in productions from Marty Feldman’s ‘Every Home Should Have One’, TV plays ‘Absent Friends’ (by Alan Ayckbourn) and ‘What The Butler Saw’ (by Joe Orton), and the flamboyant detective Matthew Earp in two episodes of Brian Clemens’ anthology series ‘Thriller’ is Landen’s appearance as a bisexual pub landlord in John Mortimer’s play written for ‘Thirty Minute Theatre’, called ‘Bermondsey’.  In this play Landen and Edward Fox share a lengthy screen kiss, and the play is disarmingly frank about this character’s love for his wife and his old friend Pip, during a Christmas Eve where lots of secrets tumble into the open.

If Landen was vulnerable and touching in ‘Bermondsey’, despite his obvious weakness for infidelity, he could play darker characterisations too, none more so than the abusive stepfather in Henry Livings’ play for ‘Plays for Britain’, called ‘Shuttlecock’.  Here the gifts he used in comedy make the character more frightening and grotesque.  This also gave strength to his wheelchair-bound possessed scientist in the ‘Doctor Who’ story ‘The Curse of Fenric’, an episode from the Sylvester McCoy era which seems to divide viewers.

Landen was not an unattractive man, so often played lotharios (and lushes) – the bored lecturer in ‘The Glittering Prizes’ who eventually returns to his loveless marriage, the adulterous and boozy executive in Simon Gray’s ‘Two Sundays’ (for ‘Play for Today’), Diana Rigg’s unreliable lover in ‘After You’re Gone’ for ‘Three Piece Suite’.   Eventually he got a comedy lead, in ‘Devenish’, and was torn between Liza Goddard and Joanna Van Gyseghem in ‘Pig in the Middle’ (he’d been a sitcom Alfie-type in the 1960s series ‘Mickey Dunne’ but sadly no episodes survive).

By the time the 1980s came around character parts (mainly military) in long-running series (like ‘Lovejoy’) and period dramas (Catherine Cookson’s ‘The Wingless Bird’ and Edith Wharton’s ‘The Buccaneers’) were more the norm but he was still seen in the classics like Bernard Shaw’s ‘Arms and the Man’ and the acting workshop series ‘Shakespeare Lives!’.

There was even a foray into the musical stage, alongside Michael Ball in ‘Aspects of Love’.  Watching the production from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sydmonton Festival, it is clear that although Landen might not have been able to hit the notes required for George’s songs,  as an actor his portrayal even in a ‘reading’ of the part gets to the heart of the character.

In the mid-1990s an enforced break from the stage and screen due to oral cancer pretty much ended the long career of this versatile player – just one rather sad swansong appearance in an ‘Inspector Linley’ episode was to follow.

Long married to classy Welsh actress Jennifer Daniel (they’d met on ‘Great Expectations’ and wed within weeks), Dinsdale Landen passed away just after Christmas 2003 from pneumonia.  There are few character players with the range he had displayed throughout his career – whether as a blustering military man in ‘Morons from Outer Space’, the eccentric Uncle in children’s series ‘Woof!’, or a chilling assassin in ‘The New Avengers’.

Incidentally, that ‘Great Expectations’ from 1959 survives almost complete.  The missing episode is right in the middle.  Frustrating, isn’t it?

Review grab-bag #1

The first in an occasional series, looking at a group of titles from my viewing collection. These may include titles available in Region 1, 2, 4 or 6, or items transferred from videotape (commercial VHS or off-airs).

1. Bloomers. 1979. 5 episodes recorded and broadcast out of a planned series of 6. Richard Beckinsale stars in his final role as resting actor Stan who is currently working in a florist’s shop (the ‘Bloomers’ of the title). Anna Calder-Marshall appears as his wife Lena, with David Swift as his boss Dingley. This series was unfinished after its star’s untimely death and although it has elements of the ‘cutes’, it just doesn’t have the laughs it could have had. Watchable, but not very memorable. Not available commercially.

2. Anne of Avonlea. 1975. 6 episodes. This was a sequel to the 1972 series Anne of Green Gables, also starring Kim Braden as Anne, but unfortunately now wiped. Based on the novel by Lucy Maud Montgomery. Notable for featuring 11 year-old Nicholas Lyndhurst as Davy. Often compared unfavourably to the 1987 version with Megan Follows citing a low budget and poor locations. It drags a bit and Braden doesn’t quite convince in the lead. Curious how the sequel has survived but the earlier series has not. Available Region 1/2 DVD.

3. Lady Killers / Ladykillers. Two series – 1980, focusing on women who kill; 1981, focusing on men who kill women. With introductions by Robert Morley which are often archly amusing (inappropriately, given the gravity of the subject matter), these dramas are showcases for actors – John Fraser as Dr Crippen, Joan Sims as Amelia Dyer, Elaine Paige as Kate Webster. Not the kind of drama to watch before bedtime but good for Crown Court addicts as there is plenty of courtroom action, verbatim from transcripts. Available Region 2 DVD.

4. Shock Treatment. 1981. Musical film sequel to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, also written by Richard O’Brien. Where Rocky Horror was a parody of horror films, Shock Treatment pokes fun at TV game and reality shows. Brad and Janet are recast from the original film, the sultry Jessica Harper replacing Susan Sarandon. Little Nell and Patricia Quinn return alongside O’Brien. The score is more modern and varied than the fun pieces in the earlier film. Looks great too. Available Region 1/2 DVD.

5. Person to Person: Edward R Murrow. 1953-1961 TV series where Murrow interviews movie stars in their homes – they have a camera there, while he is in the studio. Interviewees include Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart, Marlon Brando (and Brando Snr), Frank Sinatra, JFK, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren. Murrow is perhaps best known now for Good Night and Good Luck, the George Clooney film. Here he shows his lighter side, on a best of DVD collection. Available Region 1 DVD.

The 50 films that didn’t quite make the cut!

My last post here was about my ‘greatest fifty films’ list. But since then I have been thinking about other films which would have sneaked in had I the luxury of choosing one hundred titles.

So, here are the fifty which ‘got away’. No less revered and loved, but not quite making the main cut. Again, sorted by decade.

1920s

51 The Big Parade (King Vidor, 1925). Hard to see these days due to no official DVD release, but still one of the best films about the Great War.
52 The Lodger (Alfred Hitchcock, 1926). Hitch’s ‘first film’ by his definition, and despite an ending which didn’t convince, it has enough innovation going on to keep it fresh.
53 Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927). In any and all versions, the ultimate science fiction film.
54 Safety Last (Fred C Neumeyer, Sam Taylor, 1923). Harold Lloyd at his best. Other films might have tighter plots but this is the iconic image we have of him.

1930s

55 The Adventures of Robin Hood (Michael Curtiz, William Keighley, 1938). The blueprint for all adventuring swashbuckers to follow, and what glorious Technicolor.
56 Freaks (Tod Browning, 1932). A stunning and creepy achievement.
57 Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931). The character and premise should be ridiculous, but it isn’t.
58 I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (Mervyn LeRoy, 1932). The strongest of the social drama pre-Code films.
59 The Merry Widow (Ernst Lubitsch, 1934). Chevalier, Macdonald. This musical sparkles with energy.
60 Peach-O-Reno (William A Seiter, 1931). A Wheeler and Woolsey comedy, naughty, spicy and fun.
61 Queen Christina (Rouben Mamoulian, 1933). Garbo in perhaps her best remembered (and parodied) role.

1940s

62 The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, 1946). This film shows the return home of war veterans without sinking to cliche or sentiment. Known for its use of deep focus shots.
63 Brief Encounter (David Lean, 1945). Noel Coward’s timeless romance.
64 Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941). The best debut film of any director or actor.
65 Hamlet (Laurence Olivier, 1948). A truly cinematic Shakespeare.
66 The Thief of Bagdad (Michael Powell, Ludwig Berger, Tim Whelan et al, 1940). A film which doesn’t quite gel, but remains curiously entertaining.
67 Without Love (Harold S Bucquet, 1945). A Tracy-Hepburn comedy romance with added pep from Lucille Ball.

1950s

68 Ben-Hur (William Wyler, 1959). When we talk about epics, the genre cannot be better represented than with this superbly shot and directed classic. Bloated it may be, but still very watchable.
69 The Seven Year Itch (Billy Wilder, 1955). Monroe at her vulnerable best.
70 A Star is Born (George Cukor, 1954). The film which should have gained Judy Garland an Oscar, but instead proved to be the last hurrah for her musical career.

1960s

71 If … (Lindsay Anderson, 1968). An evocative fable of school and authority.
72 Judgement at Nuremberg (Stanley Kramer, 1961). For many great cameo performances, especially Montgomery Clift and Burt Lancaster. This film uses, but doesn’t abuse, star power.
73 The Lion in Winter (Anthony Harvey, 1968). Historical soap with great locations and a good example of taking theatre into the cinema, effectively.
74 The System (Michael Winner, 1964). Oliver Reed in his first leading role, a Brighton mod/rocker piece which remains challenging and provoking today.
75 Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (Ken Annakin, 1965). For pure enjoyment and a great theme tune.

1970s

76 Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979). Preferable in the original version rather than the Redux. A beautiful nightmare of ‘Nam, helped by The Doors and Brando.
77 Death in Venice (Luchino Visconti, 1971). Dirk Bogarde’s best performance in a hymn to Mahler and the beauty of the young.
78 Jesus Christ Superstar (Norman Jewison, 1973). Difficult to get a rock opera right on the screen, but opening out the locations and making the story relevant to modern times nailed it.
79 Mary, Queen of Scots (Charles Jarrott, 1971). Historically inaccurate, but by far the best Tudor film made, with lovely performances, and colourful locations.
80 The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Jim Sharman, 1975). A guilty pleasure if only for Tim Curry’s Sweet Transvestite.
81 Scum (Alan Clarke, 1979). Powerful, bleak, disturbing drama.
82 The Tempest (Derek Jarman, 1979). Shakespeare for the 70s. It looks great and doesn’t betray the play.
83 Wake in Fright (Ted Kotcheff, 1971). A tale of the Australian Outback and the weakness of humanity. A truly beautiful film in every shot.
84 Woodstock (Michael Wadleigh, 1970). The best of all the music films, especially in the director’s cut. Contains all the drama and power of this greatest of rock festivals.

1980s

85 Brazil (Terry Gilliam, 1985). Flawed, but interesting.
86 The Last Metro (François Truffaut, 1980). Thoughtful, subversive, melodramatic, and wonderful.
87 Nijinsky (Herbert Ross, 1980). Ballet does not always transfer well to cinema, but this biographical piece remains strong in the mind even after one viewing, although it is difficult to find these days.
88 Le retour de Martin Guerre (Daniel Vigne, 1982). The original of what became ‘Sommersby’ and the ‘Martin Guerre’ musical. Touching, yearning, and very accessible.

1990s

89 Brassed Off (Mark Herman, 1996). A nostalgic love letter to the industrial north and their brass bands.
90 The Field (Jim Sheridan, 1990). King Lear in Ireland, and a career best performance from Richard Harris.
91 The First Wives’ Club (Hugh Wilson, 1996). Pure fun, guaranteed to lift the spirits.
92 Guinevere (Audrey Wells, 1999). An age gap romance which is celebratory, not creepy.
93 Michael Collins (Neil Jordan, 1996). Disturbing history lesson about the partition of Ireland.
94 Ran (Akira Kurosawa, 1995). King Lear in Japan, perhaps the greatest Shakespeare film ever made.
95 Life is Sweet (Mike Leigh, 1990). Leigh’s funniest and most charming film.
96 Trojan Eddie (Gillies MacKinnon, 1996). A film of contrasts, shocks, and blarney.
97 Wilde (Brian Gilbert, 1997). Up there with the best of all biopics, with a great central performance.
98 Wrestling Ernest Hemingway (Randa Haines, 1993). A quirky celebration of ageing.

2000s

99 The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008). An action feature with some intelligence and stunning CGI.
100 The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Peter Jackson, 2001). Purely because it brought together actors, models, CGI and a great script to create something very special.

Films matter to me if they make me laugh, cry, feel scared, feel revolted, make me think, stay in my mind. All the above meet at least one of these criteria, and so they deserve their place.

50 greatest films: my nominations

Every ten years, a section of film aficiandos and experts receive an invitation to submit their selections for the Sight and Sound ‘Greatest Films of All Time’, and 2012’s selections were announced yesterday, with the big news being that after fifty years, Citizen Kane has been toppled from the top spot by Vertigo.

To me, a film becomes ‘great’ if it is innovative, interesting, or informative – in short, if it has something to say, and stays in my memory. This can apply whether the film is a silent romance, a musical, a war film, a women’s weepie, or a kitchen sink drama. In my list you will find examples of all of these, and more. It is a purely personal list, however, and rather than sort it by numbers, I have chosen to break down my selections into decades.

The 1910s

1 The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1919). Innovative, and still feels fresh.

The 1920s

2 The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Dreyer, 1927). Contains perhaps the greatest acting performance of all time, from Maria Falconetti.
3 Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (FW Murnau, 1927). Not necessarily better than Nosferatu or Faust, but engrossing on many levels.

The 1930s

4 Dinner at Eight (George Cukor, 1933). A bubbly comedy of manners with Jean Harlow, Marie Dressler and the two Barrymore brothers.
5 Fury (Fritz Lang, 1936). An early Spencer Tracy film with a message about vigilantes and lynch mobs.
6 Gold Diggers of 1933 (Mervyn LeRoy, 1933). The greatest of all pre-Code musicals.
7 Gone With The Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939). A great, epic, glossy soap opera of the American Civil War.
8 Intermezzo (Gustaf Molander, 1936). The Swedish original of the great romance between musicians.
9 Mr Deeds Goes to Town (Frank Capra, 1936). A charming slice of Capra-corn whimsy.
10 Ninotchka (Ernst Lubitsch, 1939). Garbo laughs!
11 Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939). A career defining performance from John Wayne in Ford’s memorable Western.
12 Top Hat (Mark Sandrich, 1935). Polished floors, inky canals, and Fred and Ginger.
13 The Women (George Cukor, 1939). The greatest ensemble cast of ladies in the history of cinema.

The 1940s

14 Bambi (James Algar & Samuel Armstrong, 1942). Disney’s most emotional achievement, and one of the funniest.
15 Black Narcissus (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1947). The Archers’ colourful and over-wrought production set in a house of nuns.
16 A Canterbury Tale (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1944). A quirky, unique, and unusual war film.
17 The Clock (Vincente Minnelli, 1945). Judy Garland in her first non-musical role in this charming romance.
18 It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946). Perhaps the best of all ‘what if’ films.
19 Kind Hearts and Coronets (Robert Hamer, 1949). A delicious crime caper with a twist.
20 Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944). A drama of obsession.
21 Lifeboat (Alfred Hitchcock, 1944). Hitch’s claustrophobic and clever anti-Nazi film.
22 The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941). A remake, but an excellent one, and the first film by Huston.
23 Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945). Joan Crawford suffers in a typical ‘women’s picture’.
24 Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper, 1942). And Bette Davis does the same.
25 Odd Man Out (Carol Reed, 1947). Deeply subversive and beautifully performed British classic.
26 Pimpernel Smith (Leslie Howard, 1941). The Scarlet Pimpernel set in wartime.

The 1950s

27 All About Eve (Joseph L Mankiewicz, 1950). An acerbic drama of theatrical poison.
28 An American in Paris (Vincente Minnelli, 1951). For the dance sequence at the end alone, and Gene Kelly’s enthusiasm.
29 Born Yesterday (George Cukor, 1950). One of the rare handful of appearances by Judy Holliday as the scatty Billie Dawn.
30 From Here to Eternity (Fred Zinnemann, 1953). Career-defining on so many levels, and remembered largely for Deborah Kerr in the sea, but has much more to it.
31 High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952). Anti-McCarthyism at its best. I could have picked the much later film of The Crucible, for the same reasons.
32 Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950). The strange story of Norma Desmond, and her iconic close-up.
33 Twelve Angry Men (Sidney Lumet, 1957). A stifling and wordy courtroom drama which never tires.

The 1960s

34 A bout de souffle (Breathless) (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960). For Jean Seberg’s smile.
35 Les demoiselles de Rochefort (Jacques Demy, 1967). High energy and enthusiasm in this French love letter to the American musical film.
36 Mary Poppins (Robert Stevenson, 1964). Simple perfection, and a perfect marriage of live action and animation.
37 This Sporting Life (Lindsay Anderson, 1963). Angst on the rugby field and by the kitchen sink.
38 The Trap (Sidney Hayers, 1966). Notable for Rita Tushingham’s mute performance.
39 West Side Story (Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins, 1961). The greatest of all dance films, and a potent love story based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
40 Witchfinder General (Michael Reeves, 1968). A chilling horror film which does not have its tongue in its cheek.
41 Zulu (Cy Endfield, 1964). An example of the stirring ‘boy’s own’ epic, with great music and three-dimensional characters.

The 1970s

42 The Devils (Ken Russell, 1971). Derek Jarman’s designs and Ken Russell’s direction lift this film to greatness.
43 The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972). The blueprint for all crime epics to follow.
44 Network (Sidney Lumet, 1976). A blackly comic exploration of the influence of television on the masses.
45 Sunday, Bloody Sunday (John Schlesinger, 1971). A milestone in gay cinema, and full of unusual shots and ideas.

The 1980s

46 Chariots of Fire (Hugh Hudson, 1981). The greatest and best film about sport, which still feels relevant today.
47 Educating Rita (Lewis Gilbert, 1983). Michael Caine’s best performance and a touching portrait of adult education and self-awareness.

The 1990s

48 The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Stephan Elliott, 1994). A vibrant musical comedy, and perhaps the defining image of a transsexual character on screen, who gets her happy ending.
49 Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze, 1999). Bonkers, clever, unnerving.
50 Trois couleurs bleu (Three Colours Blue) (Krzysztof Kieślowski, 1993). All the trilogy could be included, but this is the best of the three on all levels.

Cinema review: South Riding (1938), BFI Southbank

The latest screening in the BFI Southbank’s ‘Projecting the Archive’ series is Victor Saville’s 1938 film of the Winifred Holtby novel ‘South Riding’, which centres on council corruption and an unusual love story, and stars Ralph Richardson, Edna Best, Edmund Gwenn, Marie Lohr, John Clements, Milton Rosmer, and a very young Glynis Johns.

We first meet the main cast in the council chamber, and in the schoolroom. These are a mix of business-minded councillors and fair-minded socialists, and the core of the matter is a housing project to replace the slums (here an estate called ‘The Shanks’ where downtrodden women with large families age prematurely and die in poverty, while their children are taken out of education to support them). In contrast to The Shanks we see the palatial home of the family Carne (Richardson and Johns), and discover Cllr Carne’s secret (a wife institutionalised after a series of breakdowns – badly played in flashback by the wooden Ann Todd).

‘South Riding’ has been tackled twice for television, first in 1974 with Dorothy Tutin and Nigel Davenport in the roles taken here by Best and Richardson, and in 2011 with Anna Maxwell Martin and David Morrissey. Obviously both had more scope to develop the story than this 88 minute film, but Saville’s direction, a tight script, and – Todd aside – strong performances, make this a typical entry in the group of patriotic British films which attempted to shed light on the changing political landscape. The print shown at the BFI includes the deeply jingoistic ending which deals with the Coronation of King George V and Queen Mary, but this is cut from other versions available.

The perfect butler: a tribute to Gordon Jackson

Prompted by the recent showing of ‘The Unforgettable Gordon Jackson’ on ITV1, this time we’re taking a look at this incomparable Scottish actor (1923-1990). Best known for his television roles as the pious butler Angus Hudson in the long-running series ‘Upstairs Downstairs’, and CI5 head George Cowley in ‘The Professionals’, Gordon Cameron Jackson had achieved prominence as something of a sensitive character in a range of war films (a good example being ‘Millions Like Us’, in 1943), plus typical Scots parts in films like ‘Whisky Galore!’ in 1949.

Never a showy lead or a romantic face, Gordon Jackson was seen as a professional actor, modest and level-headed, which kept him in constant work in the films. He might have appeared in small character parts, but he was always memorable, and classy. In ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ (1962) and ‘The Great Escape’ (1963) he contributed memorable performances to major draw movies. By 1965 he was starring opposite Michael Caine in ‘The Ipcress File’, and followed this by stage roles including Horatio to Nicol Williamson’s Hamlet at the Roundhouse Theatre (later filmed).

The role of Edwardian butler Hudson, however, made Gordon a household name and a most recognisable face. In the stiffly proper and religious persona of the Scottish head of the Bellamy staff, he became the quintessential butler. It’s a marvellous performance, full of nuances – we even see him having something of a breakdown during the Great War (in the episode ‘The Beastly Hun’), and falling in love with a young housemaid (in ‘Disillusion’). Without this actor in the cast, ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ would still have been a great series, but he certainly helps to make it rather more.

By ‘The Professionals’ Gordon was ready for a change of scene, and if anyone worried about his typecasting as Hudson their fears were allayed once he took on the mantle of Cowley, the tough professional taking charge of the young agents Bodie and Doyle. The series ran from 1977 to 1983, and was another great success for the unassuming actor.

Following his award of OBE in 1979, he went into his final years still appearing in memorable dramas – he was a police detective in the film of Holmes and Watson’s later years, ‘The Masks of Death’ (1984); and one of his final roles was as the father of ‘The Winslow Boy’ in 1990. This popular and mischevious actor died at the age of 66 later that year, of bone cancer. He would be greatly missed by television viewers and friends alike, and left behind his actress wife of forty years, Rona Anderson, and their family.

The man from The Establishment: a tribute to Peter Cook

Born on 17 November 1937, Peter Edward Cook was one of the brightest lights in British satirical comedy in the 1960s. Born in Torquay and educated at Radley College and Cambridge University, the young Cook was set for diplomatic service but during his undergraduate studies he discovered a flair for both writing and performing skits, and so eventually followed the lights of showbusiness.

His club The Establishment, which opened in 1961, showcased many comedians from other countries, such as the USA’s Lenny Bruce and Australia’s Barry Humphries (perhaps best known now as Dame Edna Everage). He also provided financial backing for the magazine Private Eye, which remains Britain’s best-selling news and current affairs magazine, again with a satirical slant.

By the middle of the 1960s, Cook had started a partnership with Dudley Moore which led to a number of television, film and other projects including ‘Not Only … But Also’, ‘Goodbye Again’, ‘Bedazzled’, and ‘Derek and Clive’. These projects allowed both Cook and Moore to venture into music – Moore with his jazz band, and Cook with his single ‘Spotty Muldoon’. However this partnership came to an end once Moore found some success on screen in Hollywood in projects such as the film ’10’. In many ways it was curious that the diminutive Moore found success in leading roles – he was by far the most talented of the two when it came to music but Cook was very much the pin-up of the moment and looked far more of a Hollywood lead during his twenties.

It seems clear that Cook’s alcoholism and rocky personal life (divorce from Wendy Snowden and subsequent marriage to actress Judy Huxtable) affected his career which went in odd directions during the 1970s, with appearances on punk programme ‘Revolver’ and a couple of brilliant, but uneven, performances for the ‘Secret Policeman’s Ball’ stage franchise in support of Amnesty International. A 1970 film in which he starred, ‘The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer’, showed flashes of brilliance but was a failure at the box office.

By the 1980s, following an abortive and unsuccessful TV series in the USA, ‘The Two of Us’, Cook’s star had begun to rise again as he was acknowledged as a comedy leader by his younger followers – an appearance in ‘The Black Adder’ as King Richard III was inspired, as was the eponymous role in the Comic Strip’ ‘Mr Jolly Lives Next Door’, a black comedy about a serial killer.

Settled in a happy third marriage to Lin Chong at the end of the 1980s, the 1990s saw a further resurgence in the career of Peter Cook – performing as Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling for radio, and portraying a range of characters in a special edition of ‘Clive Anderson Talks Back’. Sadly, it was the final hurrah, as death came to the funnyman on the 9 January 1995, at the age of just 57.

Peter Cook was the golden boy of 1960s British comedy, and eventually came to be regarded as a high point of satirical wit to aim at. His television programmes and films are timeless, and there is still a lot of fun in watching the Devil, George Spiggott, proclaiming the magic words “Julie Andrews” while sending Stanley Moon on a never-ending quest to win his ideal girl.

Classic cinema review: Laura (1944)

Otto Preminger’s film looks on the surface to be a typical murder mystery – Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) has been murdered by a shotgun blast in the face at her flat, and Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) has been assigned to the case.  There are a handful of likely suspects including Laura’s mentor and friend Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), her fiance Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), and friend Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson).  The film was started under the direction of Rouben Mamoulian but after his dismissal, Preminger took the film to a whole new level.

Parallels may be drawn with the likes of ‘Vertigo’ and ‘Angel Face’ if you wish, and Lydecker is a direct ancestor of the waspish Addison de Witt of ‘All About Eve’, but ‘Laura’ stands on its own merits.  Dana Andrews did much of his best work for Preminger, and here is a really good example: McPherson is a cop who doesn’t seem to be easily rattled, but it is clear that this particular case, and victim, has got under his skin.  Clifton Webb is a joy to watch in every scene, while Vincent Price is something of a curio – there is no sense here of his future to come in horror classics, but he is capable of menace in this early showy role.

But it is the mysterious Laura who rules this film, even before the delicious twist which turns the mystery on its head and McPherson into quite a different person than the one we first met who talks about dames with some distain.  The script (by Jay Dratler, Betty Reinhardt, and others) is sharp, witty, and complex, and so many rewatchings are possible without the chance of getting bored.  Gene Tierney’s Laura is mysterious, beautiful and compelling, just as she should be – and when the murderer is unmasked, we can understand why they have been driven to madness by her.

A wonderful, elegant, sexy and funny film, now showing at the BFI Southbank in an extended run into March 2012.

For Merlin: a tribute to Nicol Williamson

Nicol Williamson (1936-2011)  was one of the most unique and dynamic actors to appear on stage or screen.  Born in Hamilton, Scotland, to an industrial family, he was brought up in Birmingham but never lost his Scottish burr or roots.  After training at the Birmingham School of Speech and Drama, and completing his National Service, his professional debut came in 1960 at Dundee Rep.

By the end of the 1960s he was already marked out as a major and interesting performer on the stage, and with his film debuts in 1968 (The Bofurs Gun, Inadmissable Evidence, The Reckoning) a star was born – or at least should have been.  However Williamson was known for being difficult and often walked out in the theatre during performances.  His talent was perhaps eventually as legendary as his temper.  However, when he focused and produced the best of his work, he had no equal.

He played ‘Hamlet’ in the film directed by Tony Richardson (1969), and Sherlock Holmes in ‘The Seven Per Cent Solution’ (opposite Robert Duvall as Watson, 1976, directed by Herbert Ross).  For Richard Lester he appeared as Little John in ‘Robin and Marian’ (with Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn in the leads) and acquitted himself well, producing a sympathetic yet tough character.  But it was in 1981 when he appeared as the sorcerer Merlin in the film ‘Excalibur’ where his edgy personality and unusual voice took centre stage and provided one of his most memorable roles.

By the 1990s Williamson’s career was taking some diverse directions – he appeared on stage as John Barrymore in the play ‘Jack: A Night On The Town’, while on film he essayed a great comic performance as Mr Badger in Terry Jones’ ‘The Wind In The Willows’.  His final film performance came in 1997 in ‘Spawn’ – since then, he has concentrated on his music (he was a fine singer) and recordings with his band were completed shortly before his death.

Williamson was married once (1971-77) to the actress Jill Townsend.  The official website for Nicol Williamson, run by his son Luke, can be found at http://www.nicolwilliamson.com, which includes a number of rare recordings and information.

The original Avenger: a tribute to Ian Hendry

Born in Ipswich in 1931, the late Ian Hendry is one of the UK’s lost screen stars, only really remembered now by archive television buffs.  While others in his peer group became household names (Judi Dench and Vanessa Redgrave in particular, who were both in the same year at Central School of Speech and Drama), his career floundered into character parts after a strong initial start.

Now thought of as something of a cult actor (if at all), he seems to have been a complex character, ambitious, something of a hellraiser (but one who wrote songs and poetry), and with a love of the sea (spending most of his life in the spotlight living on Pharaoh’s Island in the River Thames, near Shepperton).

His full name was Ian Mackendrick Hendry, reflecting his roots with a Scottish father.  His early jobs included working as an estate agent, a stunt motorcyclist, and working in amateur dramatics as a clown’s stooge – his professional debut took place in 1956, when he was already a mature twenty-six years old, with an uncredited role on screen in the film ‘Up in the World’, and the following year appearing in a succession of stage roles at the Oxford Playhouse.

Further small roles in 1957 (in the film ‘The Secret Place’), 1958 (in a succession of episodes of the early medical soap ‘Emergency: Ward 10’), and 1959 (a small role as a rehearsing actor in the Laurence Harvey film ‘Room at the Top’; an appearance in the film ‘The October Wedding’, and episodes of ‘The Invisible Man’ and ‘Television Playwright’) led to his first major role, as the physician assisting with crime in ‘Police Surgeon’, in which he played Dr Geoffrey Brent – the surviving episode shows an actor with a raw sex appeal and personality.  Also in 1960 were appearances in episodes of ‘Probation Officer’ , ‘Inside Story’, and ‘In the Nick’, with another uncredited role in the film ‘Sink the Bismarck’ as a naval officer.

But it was the role of Brent, in a dozen episodes of ‘Police Surgeon’, that led directly to his breakthrough role in one of the great iconic series of the 1960s, ‘The Avengers’.  We may think now of this series as being about the bowler-hatted John Steed and a succession of strong-willed and physically-adept ladies, but the original premise was avenging the murder of the fiancee of Dr David Keel (Hendry), and Steed was simply a second lead.  Of the twenty-five episodes recorded for series one of ‘The Avengers’ only two and a half remain, a sad reflection of the policy of wiping unwanted television programmes no longer required for repeat screenings or overseas sales.  The sole remaining episode for years was ‘The Frighteners’, which was a revelation to me when viewing on a Channel 4 repeat screening in 1993.  It was exciting stuff, it was proper action, cops and robbers yes, but not a comedy as the series became in its later seasons.  The loss of most of the first series of ‘The Avengers’ and thus of Hendry’s compassionate, calm and yet tough Dr Keel is one of the great tragedies of archive television wipings.   He is the embodiment of my ideal television hero.

At the same time as ‘The Avengers’, Hendry would be cast in a television play called ‘Ben Spray’, an entry in the ITV Television Playhouse.  This would seem to have survived, but I have been able to track down very little information about it.

Production of ‘The Avengers’ being held up during the 1962 Equity strike, the dazzling young actor would gain the prize of a film contract, and temporarily turn his back on the security of a television lead role.  In hindsight it might be true to say that this was a huge mistake, but surely at the time it must have seemed the pinnacle of a career which had begun to catch fire – and the first film in which he played the lead, ‘Live Now, Pay Later’, a prototype of the now more familar ‘Alfie’, would seem to support that theory.  As Albert, a salesman who ascends the ladder while romancing the lady clients he encounters, Hendry is a mix of charm and energy, a wide boy who overreaches himself but picks himself up again to try another day.  In support were names like June Ritchie, Nyree Dawn Porter, and, making his screen debut, a very youthful Peter Bowles.  The film stands up well today but because of ownership issues and poor distribution is not remembered and has become rather obscure.

A frustratingly missing television role in the play ‘A Case for Treatment’ (later filmed with David Warner), followed, then an ‘Armchair Theatre’ entry, ‘Afternoon of a Nymph’ (which paired him with the actress Janet Munro, who would become his second wife, following his divorce from film make-up expert Joanna), and ’54 Minute Affair’ (an entry in the Drama ’63 series) hot on its heels.  A trio of films which were really at best comfortable B entries premiered in 1963 – ‘Girl in the Headlines’ (a decent enough watch, but not spectacular), ‘This is My Street’, and ‘Children of the Damned’.  Although still gaining leads, Hendry’s career was beginning to slow down and his descent into a character player was already in evidence.  It could be argued that ‘Afternoon of a Nymph’ was his last really interesting leading role, a drama which is frustrating to watch but also extremely absorbing due to the obvious screen chemistry between him and Munro, with whom he would go on to have a turbulent and ultimately tragic marriage.

1965 saw two memorable supporting roles, as Michael, the married boyfriend of Yvonne Furneaux in Roman Polanski’s horror thriller ‘Repulsion’, and as the sadistic Staff Sergeant Williams in the tough Army prison film from Sidney Lumet, ‘The Hill’.  In both he was excellent and managed to upstage his more showy co-stars, particularly Sean Connery in the latter film.  During the same year he appeared in two plays for television on ‘Theatre 625’, Strindberg’s ‘Miss Julie’ and Clive Exton’s ‘Are You Ready for The …’, plus a final appearance for ‘Armchair Theatre’ in ‘A Cold Peace’, and an excellent guest spot in the Patrick McGoohan vehicle ‘Danger Man’ in ‘Say it with Flowers’.

In 1966 Hendry again landed a major television role in ‘The Informer’ – of which all twenty-one episodes are sadly lost.  This was a very popular series which led to an appearance on the greatest showcase on children’s television at the time, the storyteller on ‘Jackanory’.   Then it was back to the familiar tread of character roles in the films ‘Cry Wolf’ and ‘The Southern Star’, while also finding time to appear in Roger Moore’s tongue in cheek series ‘The Saint’ in the two-part episode ‘Vendetta for the Saint’, enjoyable fluff as you would expect for that series.

In 1969 he first teamed with his future ‘Lotus Eaters’ co-star Wanda Ventham in an episode of ‘The Gold Robbers’, while a sci-fi re-imagining of the story of Don Quixote in 1970 placed him in the comedy ‘The Adventures of Don Quick’ (of which one episode of six survives).  1971 was a year of some disappointment as he lost out on the plum lead role of Jack Carter in ‘Get Carter’ to Michael Caine (the second such loss, as he had been considered for ‘Zulu’ back in 1963; however, this time he had been cast before Caine came along).  He had to be content with a supporting role of driver Eric Pace instead, a pivotal role, but clearly a crushing disappointment, and the tension between the actors made for a couple of crackling scenes in the finished film.

By 1971 Hendry’s marriage to Janet Munro had disintegrated, with both of them reported as having problems with alcohol.  Their divorce was quickly followed within a year by Munro’s death at the age of thirty-eight from an heart attack, a blow from which her ex-husband never recovered.  They had two daughters together, Sally and Corrie.  Hendry went on to marry Sandra Jones, who had been the girls’ nanny, and a further daughter, Emma, was born to the couple.

Appearances in ‘The Persuaders’, ‘Suspicion’, the film ‘The Jerusalem File’, and ‘Tales from the Crypt’ eventually led to what he (and I) consider to be his best role on television, that of Erik Shepherd in ‘The Lotus Eaters’.  His portrayal of the recovering alcoholic settled in Crete with his mysterious wife was outstanding.  This series should have propelled him back to the public consciousness, but it does not seem to be the case, and although well received, the series ended in 1973 after 15 episodes, partly due to his failing health due to alcoholism and his growing reputation for being difficult to work with (a perception Wanda Ventham dismisses, however, in an interview on the DVD release of the series).

The Vincent Price film ‘Theatre of Blood’ was the first time I ever saw Ian Hendry in anything, as the head of a group of critics who had given their honest opinion on the acting talents of the ham actor Richard Lionheart, who then vows to dispatch them all in the manner dictated by Shakespeare.  Fellow critics include Harry Andrews, Dennis Price, Robert Morley, Arthur Lowe, and Coral Browne, and they were dispatched in inventive and gory methods.  In an interesting twist of fate, Lionheart’s daughter was played by Avengers lovely Diana Rigg.  Anyway, once I saw this film I was smitten by this attractive and dynamic actor (who had died by the time I first saw the TV showing) and I have been interested in him ever since.

His last really good film role was as the geek in ‘The Internecine Project’ in 1974, which starred James Coburn – another film which does not get much exposure nowadays.  Nervy and bespectacled, Hendry was as watchable as ever, and definitely a high point in a starry cast.  But by the time he guested in ‘The Sweeney’ (and played stooge to Tommy Cooper on one of his shows) he was starting to show signs of deterioration on the screen, which was sad to watch.  There would be occasional glimpses of the old Hendry in appearances in ‘Thriller’ (in the episode ‘Killer With Two Faces’) and ‘The New Avengers’ (in the episode ‘To Catch A Rat’, where he is greeted by Patrick McNee’s Steed as ‘old friend’) but they were getting few and far between.  A double episode of ‘Supernatural’ is probably best left in the past, as should his appearance with moustache as Thrush Feather in Joan Collins’ ‘The Bitch’ in 1979.  However in 1978 he appeared on stage at the Yvonne Arnaud in Guildford in a production of ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’, so he must have still be able to perform with lucidity at times.

The television series ‘For Maddie With Love’ reunited him with Nyree Dawn Porter and took some focus away from his widely publicised money problems (following attempts to pay off former wife Munro’s debts), and recent sight of an episode (on the Network release ‘Soap Box’) confirms that this was a good role for him – if perhaps a little insensitive, as he was cast as a husband dealing with the impending death of his wife – and I hope the series gets a full DVD release.  In the same year, 1980, he appeared in the film ‘McVicar’ in an uncredited role, but a memorable one.

His final years, it seems, were troubled ones but he remained employed to the end, in episodes of ‘Smuggler’ and ‘Bergerac’, in a recurring role in ‘Jemina Shore Investigates’ (from which he was unfortunately fired due to his drinking and unreliability), and finally, in the soap ‘Brookside’.  Perhaps he was regarded with fondness by colleagues in the business who made allowances for any shortcomings.  A sad final public appearance on Patrick Macnee’s ‘This Is Your Life’ in 1984 closed the curtain on a long but sometimes rocky career, and Ian Hendry died on Christmas Eve that year from an internal haemorrhage, his health and looks destroyed at the age of just fifty-three.

I don’t believe in dwelling on the personal problems on those in the public eye, but the story of Ian Hendry and his decline is a heartbreaking one.  Blessed with good looks and talent when he first appeared on the screen, his star quickly fell (some say due to his refusal to wear a toupee once he started losing his hair), and he was unjustly replaced in some key roles in which he would have shone.  Perhaps he just never found the right role to keep him up there as a leading star.  I feel he has also been dismissed as simply a drunk or a tragic figure when there was undoubtedly much more to the man.  Much of his work has been lost or become unavailable, which means he can not properly be assessed alongside his peers born around the same time (Peter O’Toole, Richard Harris, Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Michael Jayston, Ian Holm, David Janssen, Robert Vaughn, Robert Shaw).  I feel that were more work to come to light he would be reassessed as one of our great acting talents.

For me, Hendry should have been one of our greatest film exports, and whether it was fate or his own doing, the fact that this did not happen is a missed opportunity.  I salute the original Avenger, with affection.

Ian Hendry’s television roles – the ones which were wiped:

  • Emergency: Ward 10 (all his appearances)
  • Television Playwright (27 episodes of 20 missing, including Ian’s)
  • Inside Story (complete series missing)
  • Probation Officer (78 of 109 episodes missing, including Ian’s)
  • Police Surgeon (12 episodes of 13 missing)
  • The Avengers (only 2 and a half episodes of series 1 remain)
  • BBC Sunday Night Play: A Suitable Case for Treatment
  • Blackmail: The Case of the Phantom Lover / The Man Who Could See
  • ITV Play of the Week: Beyond the Horizon
  • The Informer (complete series missing)
  • Jackanory: Stories from East Anglia and the Fens (all Ian’s episodes missing)
  • The Adventures of Don Quick (5 of 6 episodes missing)
  • Late Night Theatre: We’re Strangers Here

Existing, but not commercially available:

  • Drama ’63: 54 Minute Affair
  • Armchair Mystery Theatre: Time Out of Mind / Flight from Treason
  • Theatre 625: Miss Julie / Are You Ready For The …
  • ITV Play of the Week: Crossfire / On the Island
  • Armchair Theatre: Afternoon of a Nymph / A Cold Peace
  • ITV Sunday Night Theatre: A Summer Story / Dangerous Corner / Love Doesn’t Grow on Trees
  • ITV Playhouse: The Tycoon / A Splinter of Ice / The High Game / Thursday’s Child
  • Dial M for Murder: Contract
  • Churchill’s People: March on Boys
  • Shades of Greene: The Man
  • Killers (full series)

Classic cinema review: Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)

In 1970 a concept album appeared containing a rock opera based on the final days of the life of Jesus Christ, written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.  It was their second musical together following the production for schools of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.  Cast as Jesus was Deep Purple’s vocalist, Ian Gillan, with actor/singer Murray Head portraying Judas Iscariot.

It came to Broadway as a fully-fledged stage show in 1971, with Jeff Fenholt as Jesus and Ben Vereen as Judas, with a British production following in 1972 featuring Paul Nicholas as Jesus and Stephen Tate as Judas.  The interesting thing about the Broadway production was that the actors who eventually took the lead roles in the film version were understudies for the roles of Jesus and Judas (Ted Neeley, and Carl Anderson, who eventually took over the role of Judas when Ben Vereen fell ill).

Fast forward a year to 1973, and the film version.  The stage show had led to many protests from religious groups who felt that the treatment of Jesus as a ‘superstar’ was offensive – however, in following the story of Christ from the Bible through key scenes like the Temple, the beggars, and of course, trial and Crucifixion, the story was fairly reverent, using contemporary rock rhythms to put its message across.  It was more earthy and less of its time than Godspell, which was filmed around the same time, and which covered a wider story of Jesus choosing his disciples and eventually dying on the Cross.

The film version of Jesus Christ Superstar was directed by Norman Jewison, and retained some players from both the original concept album (Yvonne Elliman as Mary Magdelene) and Broadway (Barry Dennen as Pontius Pilate, Carl Anderson as Judas, Bob Bingham as Caiaphas).   For me, Ted Neeley is perhaps the greatest of all singers to have taken on the part – and his delicate looks and picture-perfect depiction of Jesus as seen in those Bible prints fit perfectly with the man who has ‘heaven on his mind’, according to Judas.  Anderson is also amazing in the role of Judas – and both men continued to portray the roles on stage for many years afterwards.

Filmed in Israel and other Middle Eastern locations, the film is atmospheric and offers much to believers and non-believers alike.  Perhaps it makes Judas a little too sympathetic (but it shows him as human being with a conscience, rather than a cardboard villain), and portrays Jesus as a misguided man with doubts (in his soliloquy song, Gethsemane, he asks God ‘why then am I scared to finish / what I started / what you started / I didn’t start it’), but that is all to its strength.

The music remains exceptional after all these years, although some of the period lyrics (‘what’s the buzz’, ‘cool it man’) sound rather anachronistic in the 21st century.  Elliman is touching as Mary in her big number (‘I Don’t Know How To Love Him’) and if her song with Peter (‘Could We Start Again, Please?) is a bit like a Coca-Cola advert, that is perhaps the only blip in an otherwise fine film.  Peter, by the way, is played by one Philip Toubas, who under the name of Paul Thomas followed quite a different career path as a successful porn actor and director.

Is Jesus Christ Superstar worth your time now?  Absolutely.  It opens out the stage production (which is powerful enough in its own right) and stands up as one of the last hurrahs of 1970s musical cinema.  Jewison, who had already brought Fiddler on the Roof to the screen, is a good choice for director, and the film benefits from Melvyn Bragg being involved on the screenplay, and Andre Previn on the musical scoring.

A further version was filmed for television in 2000 featuring Glenn Carter as Jesus and Jerome Pradon as Judas, which was closer to the stage production.