Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Arizona Raiders

Arizona Raiders stars Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier in World War II.


Arizona Raiders, a post-Civil War story of two men who join the Arizona Rangers to hunt down those members of Quantrill's Raiders, who are still at large after breaking up into smaller groups to continue their murderous raids.

Arizona Raiders was filmed in Arizona in 1965. It stars Audie Murphy--one of the most decorated heroes in World War II--when Murphy was approximately 17 years into his acting career. In his earlier films, even To Hell and Back, the true story of his experiences in World War II, Murphy seems inexperienced as an actor, unsure of his abilities. In Arizona Raiders he shows a maturity that is impressive.

Maturity is one thing, emotion is quite another. Murphy's performance in this films, as in most of his films, lacks the emotional connection that allows viewers to suspend their disbelief. When Murphy's brother dies in his arms, he shows no emotion in his face, body, or voice. He immediately seeks revenge on his brother's killers, men who trusted that Murphy was part of their outlaw gang, but Murphy still shows no emotion.

I think one of the reasons I feel so compelled to watch Audie Murphy's performances, even when he does show little emotion, is because of his public admittance that he suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In fact, he was one of the first public figures to fight against the prejudices attached to soldiers with PTSD. When I watch this film, I wonder if his lack of emotion in his acting performance is due to his PTSD--perhaps he was afraid that if he allowed himself to relate to the character's situation for the film, he might lose control.

One of the unique aspects of this film is the outstanding monologue at the beginning of the movie by the Ohio Gazette editor, played by Booth Colman. Colman's speech is passionate and convincing. His eyes flash with anger as he recounts Quantrill's ride of terror through Lawrence, Kansas. Colman's talent has served him well through the years with appearances on a wide variety of television shows, from Death Valley Days and Cheyenne, to Frasier.

This film also stars Ben Cooper as Murphy's best friend, Willie Martin. Cooper had a long television career, as well, with appearances in shows such as Rawhide and Gunsmoke. He was also in the cult film Johnny Guitar, appearing as Turkey Ralston. The Western, Johnny Guitar, starred Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge in a feud that likely inspired the cliched-phrase "cat fight." It is best remembered as a film where every actor, including Ben Cooper, overplayed his or her role to such extremes that film-goers are sometimes confused about whether they should laugh out loud or cling to the edge of their seats.

In Arizona Raiders, though, Cooper is cool, collected, and competes with Colman for the best performance in the film.

I recommend Arizona Raiders--entertainment with a bit of history, effectively capturing the tension and drama of post Civil-War America.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Santa Fe Trail: Guest Blogger Gregory Hasman

As a special treat we have a guest blog from Gregory Hasman, author of the blog Ramblings From a Road-a-Holic, who reviewed the 1940 Western film Santa Fe Trail, starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland.

The 19th Century saw the proliferation of Americans out West. They traveled via railroad and overland trails, one of which was the famous Santa Fe Trail. In 1941, Errol Flynn and future president Ronald Reagan were part of an all-star cast, who took their talents across the trail called, drum roll please, The Santa Fe Trail.

While the movie began along the Santa Fe Trail, it more or less used the title as a motif to describe the triumphs and failures that come along with a journey. Flynn as J.E. B. Stuart, and Raymond Massey as John Brown, delievered the two most memorable performances, although the acting throughout was outstanding.

The story took place during the tumultuous year of 1854. It was a time marked by secular tension. In the South, people wanted to preserve and even expand the “peculiar institution” known as slavery. While the North had two different goals in mind: one group known as the Free-Soilers wanted to expand west without slavery, but did not care whether slavery ended or not. Another sector known as abolitionists wanted to destroy the system of slavery forever. The film explores these different tenets very well.

The year 1854 began with the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which should have created popular sovereignty among the citizens. Many thought this was a travesty because it violated the Missouri Compromise of 1820, where anything about the 36 degree 30 foot line in Missouri would be a free state. This conflict became the catalyst in the bitter Border Wars between Missouri and Kansas. Additionally, it helped bring about John Brown, a staunch abolitionist. Brown’s goal was to annihilate slavery and those who were for it in any way. He brought his sons and supporters across the land in hopes to create a resurrection.

In the film, Flynn plays future Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart. Stuart, along with fellow West Point classmate George Custer (Ronald Reagan) are among the graduates whose first mission is to protect the settlers from the American Indians. When they get to Independence, Missouri, however, they find they have another group to contain, Brown and his men.

Meanwhile, in Missouri, both Stuart and Custer encountered a charming young lady named “Kit Carson” Holliday (Olivia de Havilland) who suits both men's fancies. However, while Stuart is charming, and Custer attempts to be, there is no time to court the beautiful young lady as they have a mission to accomplish.

Along the way, the men encounter Brown’s sons who are afraid of their persistent father, a man who feels he has a calling from God to rid the country of slavery. After being injured, one of Brown's sons notifies Stuart back in Missouri of his father’s whereabouts.

Another interesting side plot features one of Brown’s men, known as Rader (Van Heflin). While at West Point he extolled the virtues of the anti-slavery cause, which stirred trouble among the Southern cadets, including the Virginian, Stuart. He later joins with Brown to promote his values, philosophical and economical. After each venture, however, he grows more incessant of receiving payment for his services. This leads to Brown’s downfall, and his eventual capture at Harper's Ferry in Virginia.

After Brown destroys the Kansas town of Pottawatomie, Stuart, Custer, and the Army go after him with all they have. They again meet with Miss Holliday. At a formal party in the Nation’s capital, Holliday introduces Stuart to two people who will play huge roles in the war in a few years--General Robert E. Lee (Moroni Olsen) and Secretary of War Jefferson Davis (Erville Alderson). While Stuart is impressed, he still wants Holliday, and eventually succeeds in wooing and he gets her. The disappointed Custer winds up talking to the daughter of Secretary Davis without knowing who she is. After a dance, she introduces him to her uncle and his wild-eyed expression says it all. Not a bad consolation prize for Custer.

As mentioned, Rader turns on Brown. As an old adversary, while he disagrees with Stuart, he nevertheless walks onto the dance floor and tells Stuart, as one fellow West Point cadet to another, about Brown’s plan to gather weapons at the armory in Harper’s Ferry and arm slaves. This enables Lee to send troops to the Ferry and capture Brown, who surrenders and is hung.

Some have viewed the movie as a favorable portrait of the South. However, it portrays Brown as a man on a mission, and while he does enact extreme measures, he also delivers a beautiful soliloquy about the moral forecast of the nation.

All in all, the movie is well acted and historically accurate, providing an intriguing look into the events that led up to the capture and execution of John Brown.

Santa Fe Trail. 1940. Dir. Michael Curtiz. Perf. Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Raymond Massey, Ronald Reagan. Warner Bros. Running time: 110 min.

Thank you, Greg, for this wonderful assessment of an Old West favorite, and thank you for guest-blogging on Classic Films! Hope you come back! Darla Sue

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Darla's Top Five List of Favorite Jane Austen Movies

Jane Austen, 1873, Unknown artist.


Spoiler Alert: If you have not read the novels of Jane Austen, or seen the film versions, this discussion may reveal too many details.

I studied Jane Austen in college. After six months of reading her novels day after day, Jane Austen can become addictive. I really cannot choose any of her novels that I enjoy more than others. They all have unique qualities that make them special to me, for different reasons. I do, however, prefer some film versions over others.

The semester I took the Austen class, I was a single mother with two children struggling with childcare issues. I started taking my daughter to class with me. She read the novels and drew pictures of the characters while listening to the lectures of my exceptionally patient professor. So, now my daughter is an Austen fan, as well. We do not always agree on our favorite Austen movies, but that is part of the fun! Anyway, this is my list:

1)My number one favorite Jane Austen movie is Emma starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam. I believe Paltrow does an excellent job of capturing the somewhat naive, conceited, yet deeply compassionate personality of Emma Woodhouse, but I have always been impressed by Paltrow's performances.

It was Jeremy Northam who surprised me. There are other actors who I would have considered before him for this role, but now that I've seen the movie (close to 100 times) I cannot imagine anyone else as Mr. Knightly. Northam carries himself well and is a convincing gentleman, particularly in those times when he tries to speak to Emma about her behavior. Although his attraction to Emma Woodhouse is not as obvious in the book, Northam's subtle hints in the movie are well done--not too much to be sappy, just enough to make my heart dance.

Although Toni Collette's role seems minor in the novel, she is more prominent in this film, and should be. Collette is a talented actress who is often seen in the background, so the fact that she was pushed more to the front in this film as Emma's protege was a pleasant surprise.

2) My second favorite Austen film is Pride and Prejudice starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen. The first time I rented this movie, the clerk at the movie store said, "The man who plays Mr. Darcy might throw you off at first, but give him a chance. He grows on you."

And of course, she was right. Now that I've seen the movie dozens of times, I think he is adorable. I was surprised to realize Macfayden is the Sheriff of Nottingham in Ridley Scott's version of Robin Hood--he looks nothing like Mr. Darcy in that film! But in Pride and Prejudice, his body language, stance, speech, everything is perfectly matched to the character as described in the novel. I can understand how someone who has never read the novel might find him a bit too reserved, but that is the entire point of the novel--Mr. Darcy is shy, and Elizabeth Bennet, Keira Knightley's character, judges him harshly, believing him to be a snob because of his great wealth.

The one scene in this movie that bothers me annoyed me equally in the book. When Elizabeth discovers that her sister, Lydia, has run off with the despicable Mr. Wickham, and announces the tragedy to Mr. Darcy, he says simply, "I will leave you," and disappears! This is not the actions of a gentleman, but this scene is poorly written in the novel, as well, in my opinion. I think the best scene in this movie, one of the most unforgettable scenes in romantic movie history, is when Mr. Darcy walks through the field in the morning mist and Elizabeth sees him and sighs. Ah, love!

3) My third favorite Austen movie is Sense and Sensibility with Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet. Kate Winslet has earned every Oscar nomination she has received, and ho so much more. She is wonderful as the overly-sensitive Marianne Dashwood. There were so many times when I was on the edge of my seat, eager to reach into the screen, grab her, shake her, and shout at her, "please do not do this, you fool! He is playing with your heart!" And yet, Emma Thompson, her careful, reserved sister, Elinor, speaks calmly to Marianne, trying to reason with her in gentle, loving ways, which is so obviously the wrong way to respond to a younger sister who rips her own heart from her chest and tosses it onto the ground to be stomped on by the boots of any handsome young man who gives her a passing glance! My only criticisms of this film are in regards to the leading men.

I thought Hugh Grant as Edward Ferrars was too reserved. In fact, he was a dud. And Alan Rickman as Colonel Brandon was too eager and unconvincing. I have never seen a Colonel Brandon that I liked on film. In my opinion, in the book, Brandon was a noble and honorable gentleman. In film, most actors tend to play him as a bit too eager for the much younger Marianne. Thompson and Winslet were both nominated for Oscars for their performances in this film, and rightly so. Emma Thompson did win an Oscar for Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium.

4) Number four is Persuasion starring Amanda Root as Anne Elliot and Ciaran Hinds as Captain Wentworth. Filmed in 1995, this is probably the least-known film version of Persuasion. So, why do I like it? I love it! To me, it is realistic. It matches the novel precisely. Anne Elliot is not a young, seductive, impetuous beauty, she is an older woman who made a decision based on finances when she was young instead of following her heart, and now, as an older woman, she not only realizes she still feels great passion for her first love, but she also realizes that this may be her last chance to have a relationship with any man at her age.

Amanda Root correctly portrays the crisis that most of Austen's characters suffer when they must choose between what is right for their heart, and what is right in the eyes of society. Ciaran Hinds is not a young, bold lover, he is a man who has lived a single life building a fortune at sea and is ready to settle down with a woman and spend the rest of his days a bit more calmly. He is also perfect for this role. He does not come across as the angry, jilted lover. He understood why Anne Elliot rejected him so many years before, so he made his fortune and tried again. I like this movie so much that I think it is tied with Sense and Sensibility. Although it did not win any awards, it should have because it was true to the novel, and the performers were true to their characters.

5) My final choice would be Mansfield Park with Frances O'Connor as the adult Fanny Price and Johnny Lee Miller as the adult Edmund Bertram. I think O'Connor is captivating. She holds the audience in the palm of her hand from the moment she first appears on screen. It is a good thing she is the star, too, because Johnny Lee Miller is a bit boring in this film, but O'Connor picks up the slack with her energy and charm. Like Amanda Root, O'Connor's portrayal of her character is true to the novel. She shows Fanny Price to be creative, imaginative, and far more intelligent, graceful, and noble than her wealthy relatives.

Alessandro Nivola took my breath away. His character is handsome, and he knows it. He is also convincingly in love with Fanny Price, but too much of a flirt to be able to convince her, or the audience, that he would ever be faithful. Fanny Price does make the right choice in following her heart, which Austen's characters rarely do their first time around, but Nivola's character is certainly tempting, even to the audience. Again, this is why I liked this film, because Fanny Price is true to herself, which is true to the character as written by Jane Austen. She knows she will never be happy with a man with roaming attentions, no matter how handsome he might be. The only part of this movie I did not like was the ending. It was too simple, tied up in a pretty bow.

I think the greatest difficulty in making a film out of a Jane Austen book is the fact that your primary audience will be fans of the Jane Austen novels. It is difficult to judge any of these movies--and there have been dozens of film versions of all of the Austen novels--without comparing them to the books. I chose the five on my list, though, because in my mind, the writing and acting represented Austen's original novels and characters most accurately.

However, if you disagree, I would love to hear from you!

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Birds: Man vs. Nature

I love photographing birds, but some of the pictures come out rather...spooky. They always remind me of my favorite "scary" movie: Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds.


This, of course, is a Common Grackle, a gregarious, and stunningly beautiful creature. Although the recent Great Backyard Bird Count showed that the overall Grackle population in the United States is down, population is booming in our area of the Texas Hill Country. In fact, we have a large, healthy flock that lives in the trees around our house. They have a sharp, loud call that could be seen as intimidating by those who are unfamiliar with bird calls.

The Grackle is in the Black Bird family. Black birds are mentioned throughout The Birds, as are crows. When it comes to spooky, black birds work best. Just ask anyone who has seen The Birds and they will tell you there is nothing scarier than row after row of large black birds sitting on wires, staring down into the camera. And as Black Birds, Grackles and Crows are all extremely intelligent, curious creatures, it is easy to train them to stare into the camera!

A flock of Grackles is called a "Plague." A flock of Crows is called a "Murder." Oh, the horror!

The Birds, released in 1963, is loosely based on Daphne du Maurier's 1952 classic novella. It takes place in Bodega Bay, California, a quiet, little seaside village, occasionally visited by tourists, those wishing to escape big city life, businessmen who drink heavily in the afternoon, and a quirky ornithologist who is inexplicably stunned by the strange behavior exhibited by the birds in this movie--rather than intrigued and excited by the rare opportunity for study.

Bodega Bay is under attack. The attacks start small, and coincide with the arrival of a spoiled rich girl from the city played by the famous scream queen Tippi Hedren, mother of actress Melanie Griffith. Coincidentally (or perhaps not) Hedren's character in the film is named Melanie Daniels.

Rod Taylor stars as Mitch Brenner, the lead male role in this film, though Tippi Hedren is the true star. The legendary Jessica Tandy plays Brenner's mother, Lydia Brenner, and the very talented Veronica Cartwright plays his little sister, Cathy. Suzanne Pleshette plays the dark-haired, deep-voiced, seductive, though not too sexy, schoolteacher/former girlfriend of Taylor, Annie Hayworth. Pleshette has always been one of my favorite actresses, capable of switching easily from a comedy role to drama. In The Birds, her most dramatic scene is not shown. We, the audience, see the aftermath. Like all great classic horror films, the most terrifying aspects of the schoolteacher's demise take place in the viewer's imagination.

Alfred Hitchcock makes his signature appearance in the opening scene of the film when Mitch Brenner meets Melanie Daniels in a pet shop where he is looking for a pair of love birds for his sister's eleventh birthday. Hitchcock walks past the pet shop with a dog on a leash.

Although Hedren was called a "scream queen," she does not scream in The Birds. She gasps, and cries out, but does not scream. In fact, in the one scene where she is trapped in a bedroom with the birds and you would hope that she would scream, or at least call out for help, she raises her arms and says "oh, eh, gasp."

Oh well. That scene aside, it is still a very scary movie. The term "Scream Queen" is most often used to describe the beautiful damsel-in-distress in horror films anyway and has less to do with actual screaming than it does with the image of a helpless female.

Back to the movie. The birds begin to flock, large flocks containing every imaginable kind of bird, but the birds seen most often throughout the movie are crows and black birds, though considering the large population of Grackles in the United States at that time, I would venture to guess there were a few Grackles involved in this dirty deed. Nevertheless, crows and black birds are mentioned most often by the characters in this film. Perhaps because, typically, crows, like vultures, are used as a symbol for death.

The most important aspect of this film that is left to the viewer's imagination is trying to determine why the birds attack in the first place. The audience is clear from the beginning about one thing and one thing only--all of the birds are acting strangely, including pets, and there is nothing about the behavior of these birds that could be considered normal in any sense.

It is hinted, or insinuated, that the birds are rebelling against abuse of the earth by humans, in one scene in the bar when a professional ornithologist, who happens to be in Bodega Bay at the time of the attacks, explains to Tippi Hedren's character, "Birds are not aggressive creatures, Miss. They bring beauty into the world. It is mankind, rather, who insists upon making it difficult for life to exist upon this planet."

The theme of rebellion against human encroachment is explored more deeply in the 1994 remake, The Birds II: Lands End. The remake received poor reviews and the director removed his name from the film and used a pseudonym, Allen Smithee, instead. The remake was too graphic. It failed in those areas where the original succeeded greatly by showing more than implying. Another remake starring George Clooney and Naomi Watts was discussed in 2007, but nothing has happened as far as production. Tippi Hedren's response was, "Why?" And I have to agree. The original was a classic in every sense of the word. There are so many talented writers on this planet, why does Hollywood insist on remaking the same films over and over? Take a chance, use some imagination, try something new!

Speaking of something new, the techniques used in the original The Birds were both unique and creative. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for special effects that were created by a true genius in film, Ub Iwerks, who co-created Micky Mouse with Walt Disney. Iwerks used a technique called Sodium Vapor Process to combine actors with background footage by having the actors perform in front of a white screen lit with vapor lights.

Birds do attack humans. I have a friend who had his right collarbone rebuilt after he was attacked by a flock of Canadian Geese while riding his bicycle. A male Canadian Goose can weigh 12 pounds. An attack by a small gaggle of geese could be deadly.

There are more than 10,000 species of birds in the world, and 925 in North America. If they ever do decide to mass together and attack humans, we could be in serious trouble!

Monday, May 30, 2011

A Memorial Day Salute: Soldiers and War Movies

"A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself."--Joseph Campbell

This post is dedicated to the memory of my uncle, Hubert W. Chesher, Private First Class, U.S. Army, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, who died December 18, 1944. Hubert survived the Normandy Invasion, but died on the second day of fighting during the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium. He was awarded a Purple Heart and is buried in the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery in Belgium.

This post is also dedicated to my ancestor, Balthazar Leffel, who served our country during the Revolutionary War, survived the war and lived into his seventies. It is dedicated to my son-in-law, Aaron, who served with the United States Army and was deployed twice to Iraq, and to his sister, Ryan, who continues to serve in the United States Coast Guard. It is dedicated to Edward Agnew, my children's grandfather, who, as a Navy Seabee, set a record for years of service. It is dedicated to my daughter-in-law's grandfather, John W. McKenney, who served with the U.S. Army in World War II and died two years ago. It is dedicated to my many friends and coworkers who have served, and continue to serve, in the United States Military. To each and every one of you, thank you.

My children's grandfather takes great pride in his work with the Navy, and he should. The Seabees serve an important and high-risk role in the military. They are among the first soldiers to arrive during fighting as they are the ones who build the bases, roads, and shore facilities. I learned this, of course, as a child watching John Wayne and Susan Hayward in The Fighting Seabees. Released in 1944, The Fighting Seabees takes place on a Japanese island, and although it is also a love story, the film does portray the dangers these soldiers encounter when performing their very important tasks. The film's dedication, posted on IMDb, states: "Proudly and gratefully we dedicate this picture to the Civil Engineer Corps and the Construction Battalions - the Seabees of the United States Navy who have fired the imagination of the world with their colorful exploits throughout the Seven Seas."

I often think of my own ancestor, Balthezar Leffel, when I watch another one of my favorite war movies, which takes place during the Revolutionary War. Released in 1939, at the beginning of World War II, Drums Along the Mohawk stars Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert. This film stars many other Hollywood greats, such as Edna May Oliver, who received an Oscar nomination for the film, and John Carradine, father of the equally famous Carradine brothers--Robert, David and Keith.

I think one of the reasons Drums Along the Mohawk impressed me so deeply is because of the stark realism of the film. Perhaps to those more familiar with the graphic realism of modern war films, Drums Along the Mohawk may seem amateurish, but it is not. The emotional realism in this film is shocking.

In Drums Along the Mohawk, at one point, the men in town all march down the road, leaving for the battleground, proud and determined, waving goodbye to their loved ones. They stumble and crawl back into town, severely injured, some dying, some carrying the bodies of fallen comrades.

Henry Fonda is one of the stragglers. When he sees his wife, impressively portrayed by Claudette Colbert, he collapses at her feet. At this point, Fonda, in my opinion, gives one of the finest performances of his career as he explains the horrific details of the battle to his young wife. He tells her of the death of a young man who stood beside him, and describes the death of another man who Fonda's character killed in battle, Fonda's voice, his facial expressions, his body language--everything he says and does is so convincing that the audience feels the character's pain, terror, and suffering.

Although there are moments of comedy and romance in this film, the stark realism is astounding. The importance of Drums Along the Mohawk is timeless. It speaks to all American soldiers and their families, and will continue to impact many generations to come.

There are many great war movies with plots, scripts, and performances that left me breathless, but they are so realistic that I could never watch them a second time. Cold Mountain is one such movie. Set during the American Civil War, Cold Mountain stars Nicole Kidman, Jude Law, Renee Zellweger, and an endless list of Hollywood greats for a supporting cast.

This movie is also profound in the intensity of its realism. At one point, the character, Mrs. Swanger, portrayed by Kathy Baker, is tortured. The torture, and its consequences, haunted me with nightmares.

For some reason, the scene reminds me of my great+grandfather, David Leffel, who was killed in a mob lynching during the American Civil War when he moved from Ohio to Texas with his family. There were so many tragic moments during the American Civil War.

Renee Zellweger won an Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for this film, which was nominated for an additional five Oscars. Jude Law was also nominated for an Oscar, but in my opinion, Cold Mountain deserved every honor offered by the Academy Awards in 2003.

Another great war film that I could never watch twice is Saving Private Ryan. Saving Private Ryan, released in 1998, won five Academy Awards and was nominated for six others, including a Best Actor nomination for Tom Hanks. The film stars Tom Hanks as Captain John H. Miller, and again, an impressive list of actors in supporting roles, such as Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Giovanni Ribisi, Dennis Farina, and the great, yet often under-acknowledged, Paul Giamatti. Private Ryan is portrayed by Matt Damon. His role is minor compared to the others in this film, though his character's presence on the battlefield is the basis of the entire plot. Saving Private Ryan was so successful it sparked a mini-revival in World War II films, such as the romantic, and shockingly realistic, Pearl Harbor.

Saving Private Ryan takes place during the Normandy Landings. As soon as I realized this, I immediately made the connection with my Uncle Hubert, eighteen-years-old, fighting desperately for his life and surviving the Normandy landings only to die during street fighting in Belgium. My father, though he was only a young child at the time, clearly remembers the moment my grandmother received the notice from the military that Hubert had died. Some memories last forever.

It was probably wise for me to wait until this movie was out on DVD to watch it at home. I sobbed throughout Saving Private Ryan, and I don't mean a few teary-eyed moments, I literally sobbed. This movie reaches into your heart like fingers, wraps tight around it, and never lets go. It leaves you gasping, speechless, unable to sleep for days, and praying for the safety of all of our soldiers, and for peace, and healing for those who have served, and healing for the families of those who have died in service of our country.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Thursday Thriller: Leave Her to Heaven

A train rushing down the tracks in the darkness, the perfect setting for the start of a mystery. This is where writer, Richard Harland, meets his stunning, young, socialite wife, Ellen Berent in Leave her to Heaven.

Richard Harland and Ellen Berent are soon happily married. Ellen is passionately devoted to Richard, the man who reminds her of her father, reminds her in a way that borders on obsession.

Obsession is an important word for this film, an apt description of Ellen Berent Harland's relationships with the men she loves. Based on the best-selling novel by Ben Ames, the femme fatale, Ellen, is portrayed to perfection by Gene Tierney, who actually struggled with mental illness for many years in her personal life, which may have brought a certain element of truth to her acting. Rita Hayworth was the first choice for the film, but viewing the finished product it is easy to see that no one could have played this role except Gene Tierney. Cornel Wilde was cast as Richard Harland, his quiet, reserved demeanor the perfect foil to Tierney's unpredictable emotional responses in the film. http://www.suite101.com/content/gene-tierney-depression-and-mental-illness-a167032

Released in 1945 by American Twentieth Century Fox Technicolor, Leave Her to Heaven is a classic film noir. Film noir was first used by French film critic Nino Frank in 1946 to describe the dark, downbeat, post-war American films focusing on murder and mystery, and Leave Her to Heaven fits perfectly in this category.

Produced hortly after her first film noir, Laura, Gene Tierney's performance in Leave Her to Heaven stunned the audience with its intensity. Her Oscar nomination for Best Actress was not a surprise, the surprise came when she did not win! The film was nominated for a total of four Academy Awards.

As a dedicated fan of Gene Tierney, this film was difficult for me to watch, at first. I adored Tierney in so many of her films, particularly The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, my all-time Tierney favorite, and when I first started watching Leave Her to Heaven, I expected to see the same, sweet, refined character that eventually fell hopelessly in love with the handsome Rex Harrison. (Of course, who could resist Rex Harrison?)

Tierney'a portrayal of Ellen Brent Harland, however, is more than convincing, it is chilling. I highly recommend this film for its representation of the film noir classic and the outstanding performance of Tierney, as well.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Bell, Book, and Candle

My older sister and I spent many weekend nights in our childhood watching Frankenstein and Dracula movies. What can I say--she loved to scare me!

One night, she told me we would be watching a movie about witches, and I slid beneath the blanket on the couch, fully prepared to see black-gowned women performing sacrifices over campfires as their black cats peered from behind the forest trees, their green eyes glowing in the dark.

However, from the very first moments of Bell, Book and Candle I knew this would be a very different type of witchcraft movie! Bell, Book and Candle is a fun, charming romance starring Kim Novak as Gillian Holroyd, a bewitchingly beautiful witch who casts a love spell on San Francisco publisher Shep Henderson, played by Jimmy Stewart. Novak and Stewart also starred together in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo the same year Bell, Book and Candle was released.

Bell, Book and Candle is based on the hit Broadway play written by John Van Druten. Released in 1958, the film makes good use of the beat culture--one of the early scenes takes place in an underground bar with a French dancer gyrating provocatively on stage while Jack Lemmon plays the bongos with the band. It is Jack Lemmon's performance in this film that intrigues me the most, but then, Jack Lemmon's performances always intrigue me!

Lemmon plays Novak's brother, Nicky Holroyd, who wants to expose the family's secrets in a tell-all book. Lemmon's performance in this film is as powerful as ever, and almost overshadows Kim Novak. It is only be reducing his time on-screen that the director, Richard Quinn, managed to prevent Lemmon from becoming the star instead of the supporting role. The director is careful to restrain Lemmon's high energy, and at some points in the film, to use this energy to move the plot. In one scene, Stewart rushes into the smoky, noisy, basement bar and, without audible dialoque, the audience clearly understands the conversation taking place between Stewart and Lemmon through Lemmon's skilled use of body language.

Although the film opens with a Christmas scene and most of the plot takes place during winter, the skilled performances by Stewart, Novak, and Lemmon make it enjoyable any time of the year.

The film also stars comedian Ernie Kovaks who appeared in shows as diverse as Laugh-In and Sesame Street before the tragic car accident that took his life in 1962. The famed British stage actress Elsa Lanchester plays Lemmon and Novak's quirky Aunt Queenie Holroyd.

One of my favorite lines from Bell, Book and Candle is a typical Cold War response belonging to Jimmy Stewart. When Kim Novak tries to explain to Stewart that she is a witch, Stewart, trying to understand her emotional distress, asks, "Have you been engaging in un-American activities or something?"

My second favorite quote is in the first bar scene, when Shep Hendersen and Merle Kittridge first join the group of witches in the basement. They are listening to Nicky Holroyd play the bongos, and Aunt Queenie Holroyd Says: "Nicky and the boys play very well together. Nicky's the one playing the bongos. Up to a few months ago, he'd never studied music."
Shep Hendersen: "Ahh, isn't that remarkable."
Aunt Queenie Holroyd: "Particularly when you consider that up to a few months ago, he used to work in an herb shop."
Merle Kittridge replies: "Looks to me as if he's eaten one herb too many."

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Happy Mother's Day, Mommie Dearest!

I loved Joan Crawford as a child. She had so much presence on the screen. I first saw her in the 1939 version of The Women. The accurate portrayal of social-climbing, catty, gossipy, backstabbing women; the obvious absence of men in any scene in the film; the real-life competition between Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford--everything about this film makes it a classic, but it is Joan Crawford's performance as the sly home-wrecker that moves the film into the realm of a true work of art.

Joan Crawford, one of the most ambitious women in Hollywood, was accurately cast in this role. She often played the aggressive, unfaithful friend. Perhaps this is why few found it surprising when her adopted daughter, Christina Crawford, released her scathing autobiography, Mommy Dearest in 1978. The book was made into a movie in 1981 starring Faye Dunaway and Diana Scarwid.

The movie received mixed to poor reviews, though it faired well at the box office. According to IMDb, they started with a budget of $5 million and ended with $19 million from box office sales, $8.6 million in video rentals and international sales of $6 million. The movie quickly gained cult film and camp fans, which Paramount capitalized upon by changing its advertising.

When I first saw Mommie Dearest, I was a little disappointed. At first, I thought my disappointment stemmed from the fact that Christina Crawford was clearly trashing a woman whose acting I had long admired. I also wondered if my disappointment was with the ending, when Diana Scarwid's character, Christina Crawford, makes it clear that she is going to seek revenge against her adoptive mother by destroying Joan Crawford's professional image.

Then I realized that my deepest disappointment came from my suspicions that it was all true, that Joan Crawford had, indeed, abused her daughter.

As I looked back at the many Joan Crawford movies I have seen over the years, truly great films, such as Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte, and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, I realized that it was easy to see the intensely driven actress who made these films as the same woman who ran into her daughter's room in the middle of the night shouting, "No more wire hangers!"

Joan Crawford wasn't always the star we remember. Lucille LeSueur was born in 1905 in San Antonio, Texas to parents who were already in the process of divorce. Her mother married at least three more times, and one of her husbands, a Vaudeville manager, changed Lucille's name to Billie Cassin. She started her career as a dancer, and was a stunning beauty in her younger years. She finally changed her name to Joan Crawford after a Photoplay contest. Acting was her life. It was a way that she could escape the mixed-up years of her childhood. She was an obsessive woman, and one of her obsessions was her career.

Joan Crawford was an exceptionally-talented actress, but she was also a bully, and although I do not admire bullies, in the time that she worked in Hollywood, I find it easy to believe that a mix of aggression, drive, talent, and yes, a bit of bully, was needed for a woman to be a success in her field. She was nominated for three Oscars, and won the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role for her 1946 performance in Mildred Pierce, which was recently remade starring Kate Winslet. She was obviously not the greatest mother to little Christina, however, from 1925 to 1972, Joan Crawford made 102 movies--a remarkable career for any Hollywood star.