Wednesday, August 20, 2014


AFI Silver Theatre recently hosted a series of 70mm film extravaganzas.  In part three of this series of films, the 1996 Hamlet, with screenplay and direction by Kenneth Branagh (who also took on the title role) was featured.  As is noted on the AFI page, it's nearly impossible to see a 70mm film in a theatre any longer.  Many of the prints are not available, and the hardware to project them is virtually extinct.  I had seen this film when it opened on Christmas Day, 1996 in New York City at the Paris Theatre (on 58th Street, near 5th Avenue).  As the film is a rendering of the complete play (all 4 hours and 10 minutes, with a 15 minute intermission), I was excited to see it again (sure, I own the DVD, but even my big screen TV doesn't do it justice).  It is a major commitment,  to be sure, but one I was thrilled to make again. Shakespeare, Hamlet, Branagh, a movie theatre - it doesn't get better than that!

It should be noted that we attended this prior to Robin Williams untimely death.  Mr. Williams' appearance as Osric is short, and might have only warrented a brief comment, but combined with the events of last week, an extra poignancy was brought to the role. That Branagh mixes American and British actors in this production has always been a delight for me (Branagh did the same thing in his excellent Much Ado About Nothing).  Having Robin Williams in the part of a nonsensical fool brings a delightful humor to Osric.  He plays up the silliness of the character, but also gives him a degree of pathos.  So often noted for his remarkable comedy sense, we sometimes forget what a gifted dramatic actor Robin Williams is.  I am of the opinion that he is an excellent Osric. I would have loved to have seen him tackle another Shakespeare role - perhaps Jacques in As You Like It, the Fool in King Lear, or Malvolio in Twelfth Night.  Alas for the loss of such a gifted man; for the roles he will not play; but gratitude for the joy and revelation he brought to all our lives.
I did my master's degree in English literature; my specialization was Renassiance drama and Shakespeare.  Thus, I did a lot of coursework surrounding the works of the Bard (and, just as an aside - Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare!).  One of my instructors once said that he could never envision a Hamlet in which Hamlet and Ophelia were not lovers.  Until I saw this film, I was not of the same opinion, but as enacted by Branagh and Kate Winslet, I now find it difficult to see the play any other way.  Winslet's mad scene is especially cogent within the context - Ophelia's bawdy songs now have a great deal of meaning. One wonders if her madness is the loss of her father or her lover. And one other little thing.  This Hamlet is set in the winter in Denmark.  Not a flower to be seen; yet Gertrude still tells of Ophelia on the river bank playing with flowers.  Were they the imaginary flowers she toys with in the scene with Laertes? Or did something more sinister happen to the madwoman?  It's up to you to decide. 
The performances of Derek Jacobi as Claudius and Julie Christie as his bride, Gertrude are wonderful.  Casting Christie is quite insightful - this is a Gertrude worth murdering for!  And Jacobi is remarkable in portraying the ambiguity of Claudius.  He gives us a character who initially does want the good regard of his new stepson.  Flashbacks within the film show us a family relationship prior to King Hamlet's death that was convivial; thus Jacobi's Claudius is surprised at the change in his nephew's attitude towards him.

Besides Robin Williams, other American actors in the cast include Jack Lemmon as Marcellus, Charlton Heston as the Player King, and Billy Crystal as the First Gravedigger.  Mr. Lemmon doesn't have a lot to do in his part, but Heston and Crystal certainly do.  Mr. Heston is extremely good doing the Hecuba speech - he is an actor one forgets has a deep history with Shakespeare.  His Antony and Cleopatra is available on DVD; he in fact not only starred as Marc Antony, he was part of the writing team on the production and directed it.  It is, in fact, an excellent version of the story.  And Billy Crystal gives us a wry Gravedigger - humorous, but also quite intelligent and insightful.
Branagh is also includes in the film several actors who have themselves tackled the role of Hamlet.  Derek Jacobi is well known for his rendition in the 1980 BBC version of Hamlet.  We also have John Mills as Old Norway, who played Hamlet at the Old Vic in 1929, and John Gielgud, noted as one of the finest Hamlet's of his generation as Priam. Gielgud also directed another splendid Hamlet - Richard Burton - in his notable stage production (the Richard Burton Hamlet is available on home video).   For those of you who would like to see more of some of these other performances, snippets of other Hamlets are available on YouTube, including Richard Burton, Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud.

It will be a couple of weeks before our next posting (several members of the group are off on vacations).  In the meatime, we leave you with the remarkable Kenneth Branagh discussing his rendition of the "To Be or Not to Be" soliloquy.  Don't let the length of this production dismay you.  With superb acting, beautiful sets, and cinematography to die for, this is worthy of your time.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Eleanor Meets Herself

The setting is a small English village in the 1850s.  A young man arrives by train late at night.  No transportation is available, so he walks to his new residence, Limmeridge House, where he will be working as an art instructor.   En route, he meets an odd young woman, dressed all in white, who disappears when a carriage approaches.  Thus begins the mystery that is The Woman in White (1948), based on the novel of the same name by Wilkie Collins.

As a huge fan of Wilkie Collins and of the novel, I have mixed feelings about this film, which changes so many aspects of the original story (later on, I'll detail some of those changes).  My colleagues were not familiar with the book, nor with the 1997 BBC production (which appeared on PBS); as a result of our discussion, one member is planning to read the book, the other to take a look at the more recent adaptation.  Since our discussion of the film did look at the book as well, readers should be warned that spoilers will be included.  I usually try to avoid them; in this case, it would be impossible.

By and large, the group felt that the movie was disjointed, and once information about the book was included, they all said they would have liked a film that more closely followed the novel.  However, the change in the character of Laura Fairlie (Eleanor Parker) from namby pamby to someone who actually has a backbone, was a vast improvement.  Wilkie Collins painted his main heroine as the helpless blonde female - she is gorgeous and gentle, and therefore does not have a brain in her head, or the ability to do much more than faint in the face of adversity.  Eleanor Parker does a good job of portraying Laura, and of showing her attempted resistance of the dastardly Count Fosco.  Her Anne Catherick is a bit more mannered, and resulted in a number of jokes about "identical cousins".  In the novel, Anne and Laura are probably half-sisters.

Both book and film give us a strong, capable Marian Halcombe (Alexis Smith), here described as Laura's cousin; in the novel they too are half-sisters (Mr Fairlie was a busy man!)  But Ms. Smith is a beautiful woman, and Marian really should not be.  Walter Hartright (Gig Young) describes her thus in the novel:
The lady is ugly. . . . [her] complexion was almost swarthy, and the dark down on her upper lip was almost a moustache. She had a large, firm, masculine mouth and jaw; prominent, piercing, resolute brown eyes; and thick, coal-black hair, growing unusually low down on her forehead.

However, Walter also says that Marian appears "bright, frank, and intelligent."  And while Ms. Smith certainly appears "bright, frank, and intelligent," she is NOT ugly.  So, it is no surprise that at the end of the film, Walter ends up with the lovely, smart Marian, while in the novel, he weds the gorgeous, vapid, helpless Laura.  Alexis. Smith is excellent in the role; she projects an intelligence and engagement that is essential for the role to be successful.
Sydney Greenstreet as Count Alesandro Fosco, stays very close to the character as written in the book.  He has the same rather overpowering charm, and the same sinister demeanor.  His sincere admiration for Marian is also retained.  We meet him almost immediately, and, of course, are immediately suspicious of his intentions.  In the novel, we are not introduced to the character until after the marriage of Laura and Sir Percival Glyde.  He is not married to Anne Catherick's mother (the Countess Fosco, as played by Agnes Moorehead), and it is Walter, not Marian, who forces him to confess his intentions. 

All of these changes, and others, serve to diminish some of the power of the book, and it is unfortunate.  The book is quite cinematic; like Dickens, his friend and sometime collaborator, Collins was a very visual writer, and his descriptions would lend themselves well to film.

We spoke at some length about Gig Young.  The actor had changed his name about 6 years prior to this film, from Byron Barr to Gig Young, adopting the name of his character in The Gay Sisters.  This is the second film he made after returning from WWII, where he served in the Coast Guard.  He had a long and very varied career.  He was a talented comedic actor (in films like That Touch of Mink and Teacher's Pet), and a powerful dramatic actor, finally winning an Oscar in 1969 for They Shoot Horses, Don't They?  His death, at his own hand, at the age of 65 (he also murdered his new wife) remains a mystery to this day.

We leave you with an early scene, in which we get to meet several of the main characters:

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Kay Leaves Ronald

James Warlock (Ronald Colman) has been happily married to Clemency (Kay Francis) for 7 years.  He is eagerly anticipating their upcoming wedding anniversary, only to discover that she is going on an extended trip with her younger sister, Garla (Florine McKinney).  It seems the madcap Garla has become involved with a man to whom her family objects, and their parents have requested that Clemency get her far away from temptation.  When Jim's friend John Tring (Henry Stephenson) discovers that Jim is at loose ends, Tring invites him out to dinner; John also invites two young ladies to join them.  Jim resists the attractions of Doris Lea (Phyllis Barry) at first, but when he meets her again, weeks later, he is lost.  An affair, which will have disastrous results for all involved, begins.

Cynara (1932) is told in flashback.  In the film's first scene we learn that Clemency knows of Jim's infidelity and that Jim's successful law career has been destroyed.  What follows is a chronicle of deceit and guilt, as Jim descends into a morass of lies and betrayals from which there is no return.

It's hard to actually dislike Jim - yes, he cheats on his wife, but from the minute he meets Doris, he is honest with her: he tells her he is married, that he loves his wife, that their affair is temporary.  But Doris, who has been down this road before (a key plot point at the end of the film), is desperate and unstable.  Today, we would call her a stalker.  Though Jim rebuffs her advances when they first meet, she actively pursues him.  She is unable to compartmentalize her feelings about him; as a result, she loses her job, and ultimately destroys both of them.

Clemency, on the other hand, becomes a victim of her own neglect.  Though she genuinely loves her husband, she takes him for granted.  She leaves on the eve of their wedding anniversary, without even a by-your-leave - Jim comes home to find her packing.  She will be gone for several months, yet she does not even consider discussing this move with her husband (who is presumably paying for her trip!).  One doesn't dislike Clemency - she is a caring woman, but it seems that she is oblivious to her husband's needs

Colman is, as always, pitch perfect. He is a fantastic actor, with perhaps the most glorious voice in film.  It's hard to believe that he started in silents (imagine that impressive voice unheard!)  However, one suspects that, with the advent of sound, Samuel Goldman rubbed his hands with glee at the thought of Colman's transition to sound.  (A TCM biography of Colman likens his voice to "crushed velvet").  Colman had started his career in the theatre, and in his later years, transitioned to appearances on radio and television, often appearing with his second wife, Benita Hume.  He won an Oscar for his role in A Double Life.  He died at age 67 (from acute emphysema) in 1958. 

Unfortunately, Kay Francis doesn't have a lot to do in this film.  Clemency is in Italy for most of it, and when she returns, she merely gets to look pained.  On the other hand, Phyllis Barry has quite a bit of screen time.  Her casting is interesting - and telling - as she rather resembles Kay Francis.  It only serves to emphasize that Jim seems to be seeking his arrant wife, rather than looking for a lover.  Barry had a fairly long career, though mostly in very small parts.  She died in 1954 of barbiturate poisoning.  For more on Cynara and the careers of Colman and Francis, see this TCM article.

The title Cynara is taken from a poem by Ernest Dowson.  The poem, Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae (1894) contains the line "I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion."  It ALSO contains another famous movie title:  Gone with the  Wind.  Another Dowson  poem supplied the title of The Days of Wine and Roses.

All in all, we found this an enjoyable film, and recommend it.  It is a wonderful example of early Colman.  We leave you with the opening of Cynara, in which we learn of Jim's downfall: