Monday, August 29, 2016

Harrison Find the Ark

This year, the American Film Institute awarded its Lifetime Achievement Award to John Williams.  In celebration of this event, and of the 35 anniversary of its release, AFI ran Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) at their Silver Theatre.  I saw Indie in his first run, back in 1981, and it was with great pleasure that I returned to see the film again on a big screen.  Yes, I have the DVD (for all the Indiana Jones films, as it happens), but the lure of a big screen was enough to get me into a theatre to revisit this amazingly enjoyable film.

It's 1933.  Dr. Indiana Jones  (Harrison Ford), an archaeologist of some renown, is approached by the U.S. government to begin a dig of some importance:  find the Ark of the Covenant, the receptacle of the 10 Commandments that God bestowed upon Noah.  The Ark, which is alleged to possess mystical powers, is being sought by the Nazi government, and the American officials want Indie to find it before the Nazis.  To do this, Indie must revisit his past, in the form of Marion Raven (Karen Allen), daughter of his former mentor, and Indie's one-time lover.  Much more than hijinks ensue, as Indie has to face Marion, the Nazis, and his rival, the unscrupulous Dr. RenĂ© Belloq  (Paul Freeman).
I'm going to spend a moment venting my minor annoyance at the American Film Institute's Lifetime Achievement Award.  Not that I think the folks who have received it aren't worthy - they most certainly are (and Mr. Williams is no exception).  But what annoys me are the huge gaps.  They won't give the award to someone deceased (it's hard to have a dinner given for you if you are dead) or to someone who won't COME to the dinner (so Katharine Hepburn never got the Award. She wasn't about to get dressed up for an award), so the people that, for example, Mr. Williams admired (like Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Miklos Rosza, and Alfred Newman), will never enter the pantheon.  Plus, out of 44 awards, only one has gone to a person of color (Morgan Freeman) and only eight have been given to a woman (Bette Davis, Lillian Gish, Barbara Stanywck, Elizabeth Taylor, Barbra Streisand, Meryl Streep, Shirley MacLaine, Jane Fonda).  It really irritates me.  Rant ended.
Many stories on the history of this film exist.  Perhaps the most famous is that Harrison Ford was not the first choice (or even the second or third choice) to play Indiana Jones.  Tom Selleck was the initial selection for the role, but he had a contract with CBS for an already filmed (but not optioned) pilot, Magnum, P.I.  CBS decided to exercise their option, Selleck decided to honor the contract, and the rest, as they say, is history (both film and television.  After all, the Smithsonian Institute has both Magnum's and Indie's hats!).  Among the many actors considered for the role were: Nick Nolte, Steve Martin, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Tim Matheson, Nick Mancuso, Peter Coyote,  Jack Nicholson, and Jeff Bridges (who was offered the part, and declined).  These articles on Raiders trivia from Moviefone and Business Insider (which also has a clip from Tom Selleck's screen test) have more information. 
Ford is such an overpowering presence in the film, that we sometimes forget about the other wonderful actors who appear in supporting roles.  Denholm Elliott as Indy's boss at the University, Dr. Marcus Brody is just delightful.  Alfred Molina, in his screen debut, appears as Satipo, in the first segment of the film (Satipo does not fare very well in the caverns).  But, stealing the show is John Rhys-Davies as Sallah, Indy's friend and colleague in Cairo.  A big bear of a man, Sallah is smart and resourceful.  At one point, he uses his children to rescue Indy from the clutches of Belloq and the Nazis.  The character would appear again in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  John-Rhys Davies has had a broad career - he appeared as Gimli in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, in Star Trek: Voyager (as Leonardo da Vinci), as Joe Gargery in the BBC Great Expectations (1991), and in I, Claudius (1976). 

Let's not forget the wonderful Karen Allen, who makes Marion a force to be reckoncame back to the franchise in Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull, though she is less involved with acting presently - she now runs Karen Allen Fiber Arts, which among other things sells Ms. Allen's knit products.

The film garnered a number of awards, including Oscars for Art-Set Direction and Sound, and a Special Oscar for Sound Effects Editing. It was also nominated for Picture, Director, Cinematography, and Music.  The list of other awards and nominations is too long to go into here.  I suggest you visit the IMDB Awards page for the film, to see the extensive list.  The AFI has also honored the film outside of its achievement awards to George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and John Williams: it is #60 AFI Greatest Movies and #10 100 Years, 100 Thrills

I'll leave you with the trailer to the film.  It's been announced that there will be an Indiana Jones #5, with a tentative release date of 2019.  I'm (not so patiently) waiting!

Monday, August 22, 2016

Olivia is an Italian Widow

Told that another English winter will kill him, Ambrose Ashley (John Sutton) leaves his estate in the hands of his cousin, and adopted son, Philip (Richard Burton).  Promising to return in the spring, Ambrose initially delays his return, followed by a letter announcing his marriage to the widow Rachel Sangalletti (Olivia de Havilland).  The letters stop; but finally, one arrives, written in a shaky hand, telling Phillip that Ambrose's life in in danger - and that the culprit is his wife, Rachel.  Philip rushes to Ambrose's side, to find that his cousin is dead (supposedly of a brain tumor), Mrs. Ashley has left the area, and Philip is the heir to Ambrose's vast estate. Convinced that Rachel murdered his beloved cousin, Philip returns to Cornwall, and waits to revenge himself on My Cousin Rachel (1953).

Based on a novel by Daphne du Maurier, author of Rebecca, the film has the distinction of being the third du Maurier film featuring a member of the de Havilland/Fontaine family, as Ms. de Havilland's sister Joan had already appeared in Rebecca (1940, for which she was nominated for the Best Actress Academy Award) and in Frenchman's Creek (1944).  Like the other films, My Cousin Rachel, set on the Cornish coast, has the wild English seaside feel to it.  And, like the other two films, we have a character who is ambiguous.  Is Rachel to be trusted?  Or is she, as we eventually discover about the title character in Rebecca, a manipulative woman, out only for money and position?
This was the Hollywood film introduction of Richard Burton (he had already appeared in a few films and television shows in the UK), who was only 26 at the time.  Commentary by Ben Mankiewicz, which preceded the movie noted that he was unfamiliar with film and the camera.  He wanted to play out the entire scene, though only certain shots were needed for close-ups and other angles.  Director Henry Koster spent time teaching Burton to save himself up for the big scenes, and not waste his energies on shots that required only a look or a line, a lesson that would stand Burton in good stead in his 77 film and television appearances.  Burton was nominated for best supporting actor for his performance in this film, and deservedly so (he lost to Anthony Quinn in Viva Zapata!).  He is able to turn the character of Philip on a dime, going from mature, thoughtful man, to petulant child in a heartbeat. 

Though not nominated for the Oscar that year (sad but true), Ms. de Havilland gives a masterful performance as Rachel.  She plays her as a question mark.  Is she guilty of murder?  Is she in love with Philip? Was she in love with Ambrose?  What is her relationship, really, with Guido Ranaldi (George Dolenz)?  The audience is never sure. We delight in her, we admire her, and we even like her, but we are really never sure if we can trust her. 
The AFI Catalog notes that the story was initially serialized in Ladies Home Journal, and though filmed versions of du Maurier's novels had a proven record of success, the major studios shied away from her asking price of $80,000.  George Cukor and Vivien Leigh were original considerations for director and for the part of Rachel, but Cukor disliked the script (as did du Maurier, who offered her own screen treatment) and withdrew.  But Ms. Leigh was not the only contender for the title role - the part was allegedly offered to Greta Garbo, and David Selznick wanted it for his wife Jennifer Jones. 

Director Koster's son Nicholas plays the young Philip.  Also in the cast is George Dolenz, whose son is know to many of us - future Monkee Micky Dolenz.  Audrey Dalton makes her screen debut as Philip's best friend and neighbor,  Louise Kendall, and is quite good in a small part.  Ms. Dalton would go on to appear in Titanic (1953) as Barbara Stanwyck's daughter Annette Sturges, and to a total of 59 film and television appearances. Born in Ireland, she married assistant director James H. Brown in 1953. The marriage lasted until 1977; they had four children.  In 1979, she remarried, this time to an engineer (Rod F. Simenz), at which point she seems to have retired. 

This is not the only telling of the story of My Cousin Rachel.  On 7 September 1953, Olivia de Havilland reprized her title role (with Ron Randall as Philip) in a Lux Radio Theatre presentation of the story. In 1982, the BBC produced a four-hour series starring  Christopher Guard and Geraldine Chaplin as Philip and Rachel.  A new feature film version is in post-production, with Rachel Weisz and Sam Clafin in the lead roles. It is currently listed as having a release date sometime in 2017. 

Though perhaps not a glowing one, this New York Times review is quite impressed with the film. Our group was much more so, with one of the members saying it was "the best film [she had] seen in a long time".  We strongly recommend it, and leave you with this trailer to whet your appetite.  

Monday, August 15, 2016

Olivia's Trip to Italy

Six years ago, our group reviewed Light in the Piazza (1962) when we began looking a the films of Olivia de Havilland.  As the film is one that several of us love, and a newer group member had never seen it, we decided to revisit this excellent film.  Ms. de Havilland plays Margaret Johnson, an American visiting Italy with her daughter Clara (Yvette Mimieux).  As they see the sights in Florence, they are approached by Fabrizio Naccarelli (George Hamilton), a young Florentine who is captivated by Clara.  Margaret attempts to avoid Fabrizio, but to no avail - he is not to be dissuaded.  Meg's problem? Clara suffered a traumatic brain injury when she was 12; as a result, though she is a lovely young woman of 26, she has the mental age of a pre-teen.

Based on the novel The Light in the Piazza by Elizabeth Spencer (New York, 1960), the story first appeared in The New Yorker.  Reviews in the Hollywood Reporter and Variety praised the film (see TCM article), but the New York Times review is scathing.  A shame, really, because it is a moving film, with an exceptional cast - Bosley Crowther just didn't get it.

It's interesting how several years distance from the film, and new discussants adds to one's appreciation.  In our prior discussion, we were very critical of Barry Sullivan, who played Clara's father, Noel Johnson.  Noel is a hard man to like, primarily because of his attitude towards his daughter - he is both jealous of her and embarrassed by her.  His solution: ship her off to Maryland (he's a tobacco executive in Winston-Salem, NC), where visits will be limited, and she will be "safe" in something that is not "an institution" (he describes it as a "country club, or should be for the amount we're paying").  It also means his wife will be all his, not the guardian of their daughter.  Did we like Noel any better? Of course not, but we were more appreciative of the way Mr. Sullivan played him.  He's not afraid to make him unattractive, and it works well.
Our opinion of Signor Naccarelli, as portrayed by Rossano Brazzi, didn't change all that much.  We still found him somewhat shady.  Signor Naccarelli does, however, bring a bit of humanity to Meg;  Meg is so tied up in knots over her fears for her daughter's future, that it is only the flirtatious Signor who is able to finally loosen her up a bit, with his flattery and attempt at lovemaking. But his efforts to blackmail Meg for a larger dowry are rather petty - he's not a poor man, and it is likely Noel will happily supply plenty of money to his daughter's upkeep (though, of course, Signor Naccarelli is not aware that Noel will pay pretty much anything to have Clara out of sight).

Some years ago, two of us saw the Broadway musical version (2006) Light in the Piazza at Lincoln Center.  We enjoyed it, but somehow it didn't click the way the film did.  I think perhaps that the film had more intimacy than the play.  Regardless, it was a good night of theatre, and we appreciated that they would want to tell this story again.  Here is a clip from that version.
Light in the Piazza does a good job in portraying a difficult subject, and we were especially impressed by Yvette Mimieux and George Hamilton.  Originally, Italian actor Thomas Millian was cast as Fabrizio, but Hamilton actively campaigned for the role.  Hamilton is not afraid to make Fabrizio a simple man - not stupid, but a man who wants a loving wife, a home and a family.  He sees in Clara the child bride he yearns for - a playmate of sorts, but a loving one who will revel with him in his love of home and family.  He also makes him a bit of a stalker (with his relentless ability to find Clara and Meg, no matter what part of Florence into which they venture), making Meg's distrust of him eminently understandable, but also providing the audience with a chuckle.

In the end, the film hinges on whether or not we can accept the sincerity of Ms. Mimieux's Clara.  We have to believe that Meg is right in her decision with regards to Clara's future.  Can she be a wife and mother? Can she live in the Florentine world, among adults, and not be ridiculed?  Ms. Mimieux gives us a picture of a girl who, though disabled, is going to be able to grow and adapt, as long as she has the help of those who love her.  Currently retired, Ms. Mimieux made a total of  24 films (most in the 1960s and 1970s), as well as many television appearances.  Her appearance in 1964 as Pat Holmes, the epileptic surfer in the episode "Tyger, Tyger" of Dr. Kildare was very memorable (she was nominated for a Golden Globe in the category of Best Female TV Star).  She currently works in real estate and is married to her second husband of 20 years, Howard Ruby.

We'll leave you with this trailer from the film.  Next time (there will be a bit of a gap, as I'm off to a wedding), we'll return with another Olivia de Havilland film.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Lieutenant Larry

Captain Geoffrey Roberts (Adolphe Menjou) is engaged in a torrid affair with the very married Alva Sangrito (Lili Damita).  Roberts loves her, and wants to marry her; he encourages her to divorce her husband, Victor (Erich von Stroheim).  After returning her to her home following an alleged outing to the opera, he is appalled to discover that Sangrito is fully aware of his relationship with Alma, and is happy for it to continue as long as Roberts pays for the privilege.  Roberts supplies the required funds, then leaves for his assignment in India, where he is met by his friend Lieutenant Ned Nichols (Laurence Olivier).  It's not long before both men discover that Alma has seduced them both.  After much soul searching, the men agree to banish Alma from their lives, choosing friendship over romance. Friends and Lovers (1931) is the story of that bromance.

Originally titled  The Sphinx has Spoken, the film did not do well upon release, losing $260,000.  Olivier, in his first American film, later claimed that the film "died the death of a dog." (Complete Films of Laurence Olivier); it has also been related that Olivier was having a horrible time converting his acting to a more filmic style.  According to this TCM article, director Victor Schertzinger spent much of his time getting a decent performance out of him:  "It was apparent right from the start that Olivier was completely out of his element acting in movies. He had absolutely no camera sense - my god, we often had to stop takes because he'd look at the camera in the middle of a scene. And he acted the way he did on the stage - all broad gestures and a face forever busy with expressions. He was totally unnatural, an amateur....He was uncomfortable being asked not to 'act,' but just be himself."  In spite of Schertzinger's efforts, Olivier is still obviously uncomfortable in the role.  It would take him years to finally discover the key to screen acting, but when he did - in Wuthering Heights (1939) - it was magic.
But Olivier is not the biggest problem in the film; far more damaging is Lili Damita.   Her Alma not all that attractive, or all that interesting, yet she has every man on the planet hovering over her.  Her husband is making a good living on her "charms," two men who are best friends almost kill one another over her, and despite her reputation, another man is willing to marry her.  Our question was, WHY?  What does Alma have that we don't see? The picture assumes we will take the words of these men that she has something to give, but quite frankly, it weakens the picture. A constant flirt, one wonders of Alma is capable of being in love.
Between 1922 and 1938, Lili Damita made 35 films in France and in the United States, most of them not well remembered today.   She is better remembered for her personal life: in 1935, Damita married Errol Flynn (the same year in which Flynn shot to fame in Captain Blood).  Shortly thereafter, Damita retired from film to raise the couple's son, Sean.  Divorced from Flynn in 1942, Damita would remarry Allen Loomis (who owned a dairy in Fort Dodge, Iowa. They were married until 1983) and left Hollywood for good.  In 1970, Sean, a photojournalist working in Cambodia during the Cambodian Civil War and Vietnam War, disappeared.  Damita never gave up hope that her child was alive, and spent a fortune trying to locate him, however in 1984, Sean was declared dead. Damita died 10 years later of Alzeimer's Disease at age 89.
From an historical perspective, this is a film of interest, since it was Olivier's first film in the U.S., but as a movie, it's not all that impressive.  We'll leave you with a clip from the film - the entrance of Laurence Olivier.  Next time, we'll return with an Olivia de Havilland film from the 1960s.