Monday, October 25, 2010

We Welcome Ms. Crawford

We begin today a series of viewing devoted to the films of Joan Crawford.  We are rather bound to what is in our personal collections, but I think we can promise you some interesting choices. 

We begin with one of her odder films - 1954's Johnny Guitar.  First off, it is rather strange to see Joan in a Western.  I don't believe she had ever done one before, nor  did she ever do another one.  As directed by Nicholas Ray, this is also a very peculiar western.  For one thing, the lead protagonists are two women:  Vienna, as played by Joan Crawford has opened a gambling saloon just outside town, as she waits for her land's value to appreciate with the arrival of the railroad; and Emma Small, a local rancher who loathes Vienna for a number of reasons, not the least of it is Emma's attraction to The Dancing Kid (Scott Brady), who rather has eyes for Vienna.  In this scene, Johnny and Emma hint at their past:

The whole movie is centered around the conclusion, the battle between Vienna and Emma.  More than a simple catfight, it is the kind of battle one normally expects of the male rivals in the film.  In fact, for the most part, the men are rather weak. Sure, Vienna has hired Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) to work for her - he is a reformed gunfighter and her former lover - but he revolves within her orbit, not she around his.  Vienna and Emma are clearly alpha females.  The men do their bidding.

The personal antagonism of Ms. Crawford and Ms. McCambridge has become the stuff of legend.  On screen, they spit fire at one another.  The film is both electric and fascinating for its oddness.  It verges on film noir, yet it isn't quite.  

Costuming is an important feature in Johnny Guitar.  Witness Vienna, posed in her flowing white dress, positioned next to Emma in her black mourning weeds:  Even when Vienna switches to clothing that is less conspicuous, she puts on a blazing red shirt - matched precisely to Ms. Crawford's bold red lipstick.  Crawford looks tall and stately (though she was only 5'4"), next to the "tiny" Mercedes McCambridge (who was 5'3").  Even Ms. McCambrige's name in the story - Small - speaks to her personal and physical attributes.  As a result, Vienna always stands out.  Ms. Crawford makes sure of that!

Next time, we'll go on to a much earlier Crawford film.  Please join us.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Olivia Goes to Italy

We close our Olivia de Havilland film festival with a film that is a personal favority of mine, 1962's Light in the PiazzaMargaret Johnson (Olivia) and her daughter Clara (Yvette Mimieux) are traveling in Italy, when they meet Fabrizio Naccarelli (George Hamilton), a young Florentine who is immediately besotted by the dazzling Clara.  Unfortunately, Clara has a secret: injured as a child, she has the mental capabilities of a 12-year old.  Though Margaret initially discourages the growing connection between the couple, as Clara falls more deeply in love with Fabrizio Margaret finds her opposition weakening.

I think this is a beautifully romantic movie.  Ms. de Havilland's role is a tricky one.  You have to believe, with Margaret, that her choices are the best ones for both Clara and Fabrizio, not merely the romantic imaginings of a delusional mother.  Most of this is achieved by the genuine caring that Ms. de Havilland shows for her child.  But a great deal is accomplished by her co-star, George Hamilton, who portrays Fabrizio with such beauty and sensitivity.  Watch the scene where Clara becomes hysterical, and look at the way Fabrizio gently pulls her back from her attack.  And then there is the final scene. In both cases, it is Margaret's commentary that provide the complement to Hamilton's caring scenes.  

In this scene, the lives of Clara and Margaret Johnson change forever:

We all thought that Barry Sullivan (as Clara's father, Noel) is the weak link in the movie.  Sullivan plays Noel as rather cold and distant towards his child.  We felt that we should understand his frustration with his wife's obsession towards his daughter, but that some of the lines (like his comment "Don't skip, dear" to his naive daughter) just made him distasteful.  You almost would rather the lovely Margaret would remain in Italy, and find herself a nice guy (though NOT Fabrizio's father, Rossano Brazzi. He's a bit of a cad - and married).

Light in the Piazza was made into a Broadway musical some years ago.  Though engaging, it is not comparable to the movie.  Somehow, the musical did not really portray the romance of this film.  

Next week, we'll begin a new series with another Hollywood lady. Please join us.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Olivia Enters the Asylum

As we near the end of our Olivia de Havilland Festival, we have saved the best for next to the last (we have one more to go after this one). It's The Snake Pit - Olivia's Academy Award nominated performance as the tortured Virginia Stuart Cunningham, whose mental collapse lands her in a mental institution.  This is truly a tour-d-force performance.  What Ms. de Havilland does with a brief glance, other actors could not do with their entire bag of tricks.  Watch her reactions change from ignorance to disbelief to suspicion to anger in the briefest second - it is truly magnificent.  That Ms. de Havilland did not win the Oscar for 1948 is due perhaps to the fact that her competition was fierce - she lost to Jane Wyman in Johnny Belinda.  

This film is full of wonderful performances, and features some of the premiere actresses of the day.  Let's start with Celeste Holm and Betsy Blair as Grace and Hester, the bookends to Virginia's confinement.  Holm's Grace cares for Virginia as she begins her confinement; as Virginia heals, she becomes mentor to the disturbed Hester (Blair).  Other patients in the hospital are portrayed by Beulah Bondi, Ruth Donnelly, Lee Patrick, and Isabel Jewell. Though their parts are small, each adds to the atmosphere of the hospital in their own unique way. Another interesting performance is that of Natalie Schafer as Virginia's mother, certainly high on the list of dysfunctional parents!

On the distaff side, we have Leo Genn as Dr. Kik, Virginia's psychiatrist, Mark Stevens as her husband Robert, and Leif Erickson as her one-time boyfriend, Gordon.  The men however, merely serve as window-dressing.  It is the women who rule this picture. It is their performances you will remember.

Here, we see a trailer from the film:

Next time, our final Olivia picture.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Bloomer Girl Olivia

The Strawberry Blonde from 1941 is one of those wonderful movies that I think people just don't know about.  Here our Ms. de Havilland plays Amy Lind, a gutsy nurse whose best friend is Virginia Brush (Rita Hayworth), the titular Strawberry Blonde.  Olivia is just a delight as she attempts to shock James Cagney (as T.L. "Biff" Grimes) with her suffragette ideas and outspoken manners.  One of my favorite scenes is Virginia, laying out her plan to entice Biff and Hugo Barnstead (played as a complete slime by Jack Carson) over, without looking forward.  "That will show them we're good girls and they can't trifle with us" asserts Virginia. "What did we come for if not to be trifled with?" questions Amy with some indigence.  Here is part of that scene:

It is rather a shame that Olivia and James Cagney did not get to do more pictures together. They are a quite delightful pair.  And again, combined with the stellar character actors that inhabit this movie, this movie is a lot of fun.  Rita Hayworth, in what is essentially a supporting part, is excellent as the at first naive, and later hard-as-nails Virginia.  Watch her in the final scene.  Her very voice will make you cringe.  George Tobias as Nick, Biff's best friend Nick, is adorable.  And then there are the always wonderful Alan Hale (as Biff's father) and Una O'Connor (as a next door neighbor to Mr. Grimes).  Oh, let's not leave out George Reeves as the obnoxious college man who lives next door to Biff and Amy.

The movie is told in flashback, a technique that works beautifully here, as we see the growth of Biff and Amy.  We know something really awful has happened to them, but not what or why.  We know that Biff has reached a crossroad, but not how he will deal with it.  The ending is satisfying, and we come to love these two people, who discover their love for each other though adversity and conflict. If you've never seen it, do yourself a favor and try to catch it the next time it is on.  I think you will like it.