Monday, October 24, 2011

Little Boy Lost circa 1948

This week, we begin a brief look at children during the Second World War with two outstanding flims.  Our first film is The Search, a quasi-documentary about a little refugee boy after the war.  Ivan Jandl gives a wonderful performance as Karel/James, a child whose only memories of life have been been his years at Austhwitz.  His story is told parallel to that of his mother, Hanna Malik (Jarmila Novotna), who, since her release from a camp, has been wandering throughout Europe trying to find her only surviving relative - her little son.

This is an immensely powerful tale.  The pain of mother and child is told without melodrama; we learn very little of what they actually suffered, but their suffering is apparent, most prominently displayed by the haze which now protects Karel from the world.  In the midst of this, "Steve" Stevenson (Montgomery Clift, in his first starring role) appears.  This scarecrow of a child intrigues Steve, and he brings the boy home with him.  He feeds him, bathes him, clothes him, and begins to teach him. And begins to love him.  Clift's performance, like that of all our actors, is both subtle and controlled.  We read his emotions in his eyes.  Again, there is no over-dramatics in his performance - just pure, human emotion.
Finally, we tip our respective hats to the ever wonderful Aline MacMahon as Mrs. Murray, the head of the UNRRA camp in which both Karel and Hanna find themselves.  She is all calmness and restraint as she listens to horror stories told with frightening matter-of-factness by children who should be worried about their homework, not whether they can survive another day.  Watch her as she listens to her translator relate the story of a young girl who learned of her mother's death when she was forced to sort the clothing of victims of the Nazi death chambers.  It will bring tears to your eyes. This trailer will give you just a brief impression of the impact of this impressive film:

A couple of interesting pieces of trivia: Jarmila Novotna was an opera singer, as well as an actess, and Ivan Jandl spoke no English - he learned his lines phonetically.  

Next week, we visit with an earlier film about children in the War.  Please join us.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Real Joan Crawford

As we leave Ms. Crawford for awhile, we ended our viewing with Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Movie Star, a TCM production from 2002. The documentary, narrated by the wonderful Angelica Huston, looks at Crawford's life, through the lens of her films.  It does not shirk the issues that came from Joan's daughter's autobiography, Mommie Dearest. In fact, Christina is interviewed, and at times does shed some insight into her mother. Of course, Christina's bitterness towards the difficult mother-daughter relationship is quite obvious. The documentary also looks at the issues that resulted from Joan's inclusion in the notorious "box office poison" list.  Luckily for us all, Ms. Crawford managed to prove that she was far from being a has-been - some of her greatest roles, of course, came after that horrid incident.

It was a treat to see clips of some of the films we were unable to see, like Crawford's early silents, and films like Mannequin (which I personally have wanted to see for awhile).  The documentary presents, in a 90 minute slot, a real look at the many faces of Crawford - the flapper, the party girl, the romantic lead, the melodrama actress, and the scream queen.  It also demonstrates the breath of her work; she really covered a wide range of film genres.  Taken over several months, one can lose track of how versatile she was.  Seen in such a short time, her talent is even more evident.

We thought that some comment on the whole Mommie Dearest controversy deserved some notice here.  Having read her autobiography, I had no doubt that Christina was abused.  However, I think that, on some levels, she vilified her mother for things that, in another circumstance, would not be looked at twice.  Take Crawford's determination to not overindulge her children with Christmas gifts.  The children publicly opened all the gifts they were sent (by fans, co-stars, fellow film studio workers, family); afterwards, the gifts were taken away. Most were given to charity. Is this cruelty? When one thinks of the number of gifts these kids probably received, probably not? Did Crawford take it to extremes? I think probably she did.  And then, there is the incident of the 60ish Crawford replacing her 30ish daughter on a soap opera, when Christina took ill.  Did Christina never consider that it is possible that her mother saved her job? Crawford stepped out when Christina recovered.  How many other actresses on soaps lost their roles to their successors? Luckily, Christina never found out.

So, for a look at the real woman, keep an eye out for this excellent documentary.  And join us next week as we view another film.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Joan Shines (Well, not quite)

Our film this time is Crawford's 1938 melodrama The Shining Hour. Crawford is Olivia (Maggie) Riley, a nightclub singer who weds Harry Linden (Melvyn Douglas) and moves with him to his farm (really big, wealthy farm) in Wisconsin.  The new couple moves in with Harry's brother David (Robert Young), sister-in-law Judy (Margaret Sullavan), and much older sister Hannah (Fay Bainter).  Unfortunately, what we have here is not one big, happy family - it rather more resembles the Ewings of Dallas - lots in infighting, jealousy, and sexual tension.  It seems that David, who is one of these guys who is never satisfied with what he has, develops an infatuation of Olivia. She begins to respond, but fights it, by urging her husband to build them a new home away from the family mansion, which he does.  And then there is Hannah, who hates this competition for her brother's affection, and makes it perfectly clear that Olivia is not welcome.  Moving out seems like it should be the perfect solution, however, problems pursue them to their new abode.

The real problem with the movie is that the characters just don't ring true, especially our supporting characters.  Judy is just WAY too sweet and self-sacrificing.  Our group felt that David needed a good swift kick - or the corned Judy demanding BIG alimony.  And then there is Hannah. Without giving too much away, her bitchy treatment of Olivia, her domineering attitude towards her brothers and her home were one thing, but then there is a scene close to the end where she gets, well, VERY strange indeed.  We won't even talk about the last scene.  We wondered if the character had had a brain transplant; we though manic-depression medications might actually be in order.  As to Robert Young, whom we all like as a general rule, he is annoying and self-centered  throughout the film. Then again, David is supposed to be annoying and self-centered, so Young is doing his job. 
Douglas and Crawford are good here, but the script makes it hard to really sink ones' teeth into anything.  What we really enjoyed was the relationship between Crawford and Hattie McDaniel (here playing Belvedere, Maggie's maid and confidante).  One thing that really surprised us was a scene in which Olivia leaps out of her car, runs to Belevedere and embraces her.  1938, and a white woman is hugging a black woman!  It was lovely, genuine and somewhat astounding.  And, of course McDaniel makes YOU want to hug Belvedere as well.

Next  time, we'll be doing a film that is slightly different from our norm.  Join us then. In the meantime, here is a trailer:

Monday, October 3, 2011

Joan Visits Montana

This time, we visit with a VERY early Crawford talkie, Montana Moon.  Released in 1930, Montana Moon immediately calls up images of Singin' in the Rain with all the scenes of the beginning of talkies that we think of in that movie.  Joan plays Joan Prescott, a party girl who abandons her friends while in Montana.  Her sister has fallen in love with Jeff (Ricardo Cortez), but he keeps making advances on Joan, so she escapes, planning to return to New York.  However, she runs into local cowboy Larry, lives his free and easy outdoor life, falls in love, and marries him.  Then, she tries to convert him to her wild, party ways.  Of course, Larry is a fish out of water; and then there is Jeff, who is still in hot pursuit of Joan, regardless of her marital status and his relationship with her sister Elizabeth (Dorothy Sebastian).

The movie tries to be a little bit of everything. We have a love story, a cowboy yarn, dancing (Cortez and Crawford to a mean tango), singing (Cliff "Ukulele Ike" Edwards, better known as the voice of Jiminy Cricket), comedy (banter by Edwards and Benny Rubin), and drama. In a sense, the movie really doesn't KNOW what it wants to be.  But, we know that the film is also testing its talking "legs" here.  A little bit of everything, one suspects, will help the studio to understand just what the public expects from a talking film.

The fact that the actors are just out of silents is very obvious here. We still have some of the grand hand gestures and facial emphasis that we are used to in silent films.  An early scene between Crawford and Sebastian is a case in point, as they seem to flail around to make their point.  You can see this scene here:

Gestures that in silents were used to good purpose seem out of place here, when the words are telling us the story.  Crawford would quickly learn how to better use her body when she was speaking. In this film, you can see her practicing.  The film will also introduce you to future cowboy star, Johnny Mack Brown.  Brown would spend most of his long (40 year) career in westerns.  Another actor to watch is Ricardo Cortez; born Jacob Krantz.   He was introduced to the public as a "Latin Lover", but had a decent career well into talkies (finally retiring to his roots - Wall Street, where he had started as a runner).

This isn't a great movie, but we enjoyed it for it's historic value.  It's a glance into a period we've all experienced in other films.  It is nice to see the results of the change to sound.