Monday, September 24, 2018

Harry's Third Year

As young Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is about to enter his third year at Hogwarts Academy, he is in trouble. Infuriated at Uncle Vernon's (Richard Griffiths) sister Marge (Pam Ferris) after she has insulted Harry's parents, he has literally blown her up. Though magic outside of school is forbidden to Hogwarts students, Harry is amazed that Minister Cornelius Fudge (Robert Hardy) is not the least concerned. But the Minister is worried that Harry was out on his own; later, Harry is warned to stick close to Hogwarts from Arthur Weasley (Mark Williams). Does all this have something to do with the recent escape of Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) from Azkaban Prison?

We had the opportunity to hear the score of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) played by the National Symphony Orchestra at Wolf Trap. The glorious music by John Williams is even more impressive with a full orchestra and choir behind the film. (Here's a sample of the song Double Trouble from the film itself). Added was a very enthusiastic audience, who showed their appreciation for the film - and for the orchestra. The crowd by and large stayed through the credits to listen to the NSO play the closing music.
Perhaps my favorite character in the Harry Potter novels is the most conflicted one - Severus Snape, as brilliantly portrayed by Alan Rickman. I'm not the only one - his first appearance was greeted by loud applause, as was his name on the credits at film's end. As with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, we still don't know why Snape is so disagreeable, but one scene towards the end is rather remarkable. Without injecting too many spoilers, our young heroes, Harry, Hermione (Emma Watson), and Ron (Rupert Grint) are in danger. Snape throws himself in front of the trio to protect them. Nothing is said, but it is a moment that foreshadows the future relationship of Harry and Snape.

This is Michael Gambon's first outing as Professor Dumbledore; he took on the role after the death of Richard Harris. Personally, I prefer Mr. Harris - he seems more like the rather whimsical Dumbledore of the books. But Mr. Gambon has a strength of character that makes you appreciate his role as Headmaster of the school. He is only in the film briefly, but he makes his presence felt.
Having seen the film several times, a new question arose about Aunt Petunia Dursley (Fiona Shaw). Given that she resents her late sister, Lily (Geraldine Somerville) and doesn't much like her nephew Harry, it's still hard to believe that she would allow her sister-in-law to call Lily a bitch with bad blood. At times, Petunia takes on the demeanor of an abused woman. She is so eager to please her rather nasty husband, that she allows all kinds of insults to be thrown in her direction. The scene ALMOST makes you feel sorry for her (almost).

I hope that we will be able to see more of these concert-driven films. In the meantime, I'll leave you with the film's trailer.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Rita Gets Shot

Who Killed Gail Preston? (1938) is the question when the rather unpleasant singer (Rita Hayworth) is shot during a performance in the Swing Swing Club. Just before her murder, Gail called Inspector Tom Kellogg (Don Terry), so it’s up to him to find the killer.

Without being too snide, this film works primarily because it is short (it's 61 minutes). Though a few smoother transitions would have been helpful, it has a fast enough pace that you don't immediately notice the holes in the plot.  It's a B movie, with a cadre of actors who, with the exception of Ms. Hayworth, never made it out of Bs; like most B films, the sets on this are run of the mill, except for the club set where Ms. Hayworth stars. Called the Swing Swing Club, it's a prison setting, with the band and emcee wearing the striped garb of inmates and the guests seated in cells. One can almost see an imaginative set designer working with the scriptwriter to re-use a prison set within the film. It's quite an imaginative design.

In her approximately 20 minutes of screen time, Ms. Hayworth does a good job of making you loathe the nasty Gail. We're not sorry she is killed by the time she gets it (no spoiler here - the title tells you what is going to happen!). But there are a lot of red herrings scattered through the film that seemingly lead nowhere. If the screenwriters had ever talked to a police investigator, we'd be surprised. Gail's apartment, which should be under police protection after the murder is more like Grand Central Station than a crime scene - there are more people coming and going from it than from the nightclub!
The same year this was made, Ms. Hayworth had appeared in There's Always a Woman, where she made an uncredited appearance as a secretary. The following year, she played another villain in The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt. She still doesn't look quite like the Rita Hayworth we are used to. In this film, the studio decided to make her up to look more like Hedy Lamarr (who had just come out with Algiers, her first American picture). (AFI Catalog) And it is not Ms. Hayworth singing (it's Gloria Franklin); in fact, she only got to sing in her films once - the guitar solo in Gilda is actually her singing and playing the instrument. (TCM article).  

Ms. Hayworth unhappy life has been chronicled by biographer Barbara Leaming in If This is Happiness. Sexually abused by her father, threatened and prostituted by her first husband (Eddie Judson), cheated on by her second and third husbands (Orson Welles and Aly Khan), bankrupted and abused by her fourth husband (Dick Haymes, aka Mr. Evil), she was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's Disease in 1980. She died in 1987; she was 68. But she left us a legacy of magnificent performances, such as Virginia Brush in The Strawberry Blonde (1941), Vera Prentice-Simpson in Pal Joey (1957), Rusty Parker in Cover Girl (1944), Doña Sol in Blood and Sand (1941), and, of course, Gilda. She was the first person to dance with both Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire; truly, she was a remarkable performer on all levels.
One little incident we found interesting was the brief appearance of Gail's Maid (Mildred Glover). She's adamant in her unwilllingness to speak to the police. We realize quickly she is by no means stupid, in fact, she has rather a way with words.  But it seems pretty clear SHE is convinced that she will accused of the murder. Does she think she will be suspected because she is a woman of color?

The original title of the film was Murder in Swingtime (which might have been a better choice - it wouldn't have let us know the name of the victim before we entered the theatre!) It's an okay movie, with some clever bits, a little too much of the dumb police officer, but in the long run, not bad for a B film. If you are an aficionado of Ms. Hayworth, you may want to give it a viewing.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Clifton Leads the Band

Beginning during his tenure as leader of the Marine Corps Band, and continuing through the end of the Spanish-American War, the life of composer and band leader John Philip Sousa (Clifton Webb) is the subject of our movie this week, the biopic Stars and Stripes Forever (1952).

This is a fun movie, primarily because of fine performances by Clifton Webb, Robert Wagner (Willie Little) and Ruth Hussey (Jennie Sousa), and the interspersion of Sousa's rousing marches. Much of the story about Sousa himself is accurate (the dates of the creation of certain of his marches are changed (The Great Composers Portrayed on Film, 1913 through 2002 by Charles P. Mitchell)), though the Lily Becker (Debra Paget)/Willie Little story is completely fictitious. It was inserted to add some romance to the plot, and probably because Mr. Sousa's life was not in the least tumultuous. After a successful period in the Marines, he went on to a hugely renowned career as a bandleader. He was happily married to his wife for 53 years (until his death in 1932), and had three children.  As pointed out by Jeanine Basinger in I Do and I Don't: A History of Marriage in the Movies "a marriage story is a screenwriter's nightmare.... Marriage had no story arc..." Thus, the Sousas relatively trouble-free union had little for the screenwriters to build on.
To give the story some spice, we have the insertion of Lily and Willie. Willie is an eager beaver who pursues everything - a job with Sousa, his relationship with Lily - with verve. He invents the Sousaphone to get a position with the Marine band (the Sousaphone was actually invented by J.W. Pepper, with input from Sousa, as a means of marching with a tuba. It was lighter and smaller, and the sound went OVER the heads of the other musicians, resulting in better music for the audience, and less chance of deafening the other marchers), pursues the career-driven Lily even when told that his wife cannot travel with him while he is with the band, and convinces Sousa that Lily is an asset to the band as a singer. Robert Wagner is delightful in the part. This was a huge role for him. He'd come to the attention of the public that same year with a small part in With a Song in My Heart, which resulted in his being cast here (Rory Calhoun had been an early choice.) (AFI catalog)
The women in the film - Debra Paget and Ruth Hussey - don't get a lot of screen time. Certainly Ruth Hussey is hardly present, but she makes the most of the screen time she is given. One particular scene, in which she plays piano for her husband's latest ballad, was delightful. Mr. Sousa wanted to write successful ballads (TCM articles), but he was obviously much better at marches; so, his wife begins to play his latest ballad to a much catchier march beat. Another scene involves Mr. Sousa observing Willie sneaking into Lily's train cabin. Ms. Hussey's blasé response is perfect. 

We weren't as impressed with Ms. Paget, who is okay as the volatile Lily. Most of the time, we really wanted her to relax a bit. However, a scene between her and Ms. Hussey is excellent, as the two women discuss men and marriage. June Haver was first choice for the part, but we suspect it is more the way the character is written than the actress' performance.
Which brings us to the star of the film, Clifton Webb. As always, he is excellent. We get to see him dance and sing (which is always a pleasure. As we mentioned in a prior post, Mr. Webb began his career as a professional ballroom dancer, and he had lost none of his ability in that area). Mr. Webb very much wanted this part, and the reviews and the success of the film must have been gratifying to him. There is a strength and warmth to his performance that makes Sousa quite endearing. (Sitting Pretty: The Life and Times of Clifton Webb by Clifton Webb)

We discovered that George Chakiris has an uncredited role as a Ballroom Dancer; blink and you'll miss him (we did). Stars and Stripes Forever was a critical and financial success, and propelled both Mr. Webb and Mr. Wagner into Titanic the following year. We'll leave you with this trailer from the film. It's certainly worth a viewing.