Friday, February 21, 2014

indelible moment: Ross's "Goodbye, Mr. Chips"

Perhaps I'm a cynic but only a precious few sad films manipulate me. I'm too aware of the mechanations to be reduced to tears. But Herbert Ross's 1969 musical remake of James Hilton's "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" never fails to tear me up. Perhaps I relate to the delicate acting duet shared by Peter O'Toole and Petula Clark, respectively introverted and extroverted here.

Hilton's 1934 novel (also the source of the 1939 Sam Wood film with Robert Donat and Greer Garson) is an incredibly sad tale of a man (O'Toole), a reserved teacher at a British boys' boarding school, who is fated to be alone. For one brief moment, a woman (Clark), a music-hall entertainer, comes into his life, igniting it, but her presence proves to be wrenchingly brief. Mr. Chips' life ends the way it began - in solitude.

Hilton aptly described his tale as "a long short story."

The shot of Mrs. Chips speeding off in a jeep to participate in the war effort as entertainer to the troops, waving a seeming temporary farewell to her husband is fleeting. It will be Chips' last image of his beloved wife. She will never return. It is a genuinely sad, truly indelible moment.

O'Toole brings immense dignity and feeling to his reading of Terence Rattigan's dialogue and Leslie Bricusse's lyrics. Clark, meanwhile, demonstrates that she was made to be a leading screen soubrette. Alas, that never happened. Much like her character in the film, this is one of the last times we would see Petula Clark. At least, on screen.

Monday, February 17, 2014

cinema obscura: Gene Kelly's "Gigot" (1962)

Ah, Gene Kelly.  That dancing representative of the American Work Ethos - accessible leading man, choreographer extraordinaire, creative genius, occasional director and, arguably, Hollywood's most affable showoff.

They're all Gene Kelly.

I'm concerned today with Gene Kelly, the  occasional director and his lesser-known work behind the camera.

Of the handful of movies that Kelly directed, either in tandem with Stanley Donen or solo, the one title that's always fascinated me is his simplistic, deceptively disarming "Gigot," from 20th Century-Fox in 1962 - a film that, until just recently, couldnot be seen anywhere.

I say the film is "deceptively disarming" because it's near-silent and was shot modestly on location in Paris by the estimable French cinematographer, Jean Bourgoin. Complicating matters, Bourgoin photographed the film in wide-screen and Fox opened it at the cavernous Radio City Music Hall. A small, yet large, film, so to speak.

Two incredible talents joined forces for the occasion - star Jackie Gleason, who provided the idea for John Patrick's screenplay, and Kelly.

Gleason plays a mute Parisian hobo named Gigot who becomes involved with a little street gamine, named Nicole (the charming Diane Gardner), the daughter of a prostitute (Katherine Kath). The entire supporting cast is French. Nicole is the one denizen of Paris who doesn't mistreat Gigot.

The shots of the tiny Gardner scampering around the massive Gleason, hugging his legs, and of Gigot attending his own funeral make for a series of indelible, sentimental images.

It would be easy to classify "Gigot" as Chaplin-esque, but it is actually a hybrid of Jacques Tati and Gleason's own Poor Soul creation.

Gleason also composed the film's music score, which is given a distinct, tinkly French reading by orchestrator Michel Magne.

Yes, Kelly's filmography as a film director is scant - but also eclectic and fascinating. He, of course, is best known for having co-directed "Singin' in the Rain" (1952) along with "On the Town" (1949) and its pseudo-sequel, "It's Always Fair Weather" (1955), all with Donen, and Barbra Streisand's "Hello, Dolly" (1969) and "Invitation to the Dance" (1956) on his own.

But he also helmed a handful of songless films like "Gigot."

These include the France-based "The Happy Road"/"La Route joyeuse" (1957), in which he also starred; "Tunnel of Love" (1958), with Doris Day and Richard Widmark; the Walter Matthau-Robert Morse farce, "A Guide for the Married Man" (1967) and "The Cheyenne Social Club" (1970), a comic Western starring Henry Fonda, James Stewart and Shirley Jones.

Kelly also took to the stage to direct the original 1958 production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Flower Drum Song," recruiting Carol Haney to do the choreography and her husband, Larry Blyden, to star - as Sammy Fong. (Ross Hunter's wonderful 1961 film version was directed by Henry Koster and choreographed by Hermès Pan.)

Perhaps, one day, an enterprising young repertory specialist will organize a program exclusively around Gene Kelly, the director.

And "Gigot" would be included.

And how about a double-bill of late-in-his-career cameo performances?  I'm thinking of  his dances with Shirley MacLaine in J. Lee Thompson's "What a Way to Go!" (1964) and with Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac in Jacques Demy's "The Young Girls of Rochefort"/"Les demoiselles de Rochefort" (1967). Or maybe a pair of his straight-dramatic roles in Stanley Kramer's "Inherit the Wind" (1960) and Irving Rapper's "Marjorie Morningstar" (1958). Just thinking/suggesting.

Gene Kelly - the everyman who mastered everything.

Friday, February 14, 2014

in praise of "days of wine and roses" - almost

Jack Lemmon and I used to engage in friendly debates about the merits of Blake Edwards' "Days of Wine and Roses" (1962), a film of which Jack was very proud. And with reason. His first truly dramatic role on screen (not counting Robert Parrish's "Fire Down Below"), the Edwards melodrama on alcholism inched the actor closer to the kind of credibility and respectability that usually evades affable light comedians and, of course, brought him his fourth Oscar nomination, third as best actor.

Personally, I appreciated anything that earned Lemmon kudos but, for me, "Wine and Roses" always plays as a rather facile polemic, a little too obvious and lacking in any subtlety whatsoever. This is epitomized by Jack's big scene where he tears apart a greenhouse looking for the booze his character hid there. It never fails to make me squirm and cringe.

Frankly (and I hate to say this), all of Jack's "harrowing" scenes in the film are rather cartoonish. Oddly, Lee Remick, as the adoring wife his character pulls into alcoholism, is much more effective in her moments of deterioration, poignantly so. Jack's best sequence in the film, hands-down, is the one where he comes home from a company party drunk, wakes up Remick and their baby and then, mortified by his own behavior, begs for forgiveness, clutching Remick and burying his head in her stomach. This scene leads to the film's downward-spiraling second half.

The film's first half, lighter and more naturalistic, is really quite wonderful, with the playful interplay between Jack and Remick during their courtship scenes setting up both of them as sympathetic and likable characters. That's important because we're supposed to care about these two people, especially as they are enveloped by evil alcohol.

Lemmon's Joe Clay in these scenes seems like a cousin to his Bud Baxter in Billy Wilder's "The Apartment" (1960). Both are ambitious careerists and one can see Clay as an extension of Baxter as they share the same wrong-headed path. Clay is what Baxter surely will turn into.

Having just come off Richard Quine's "The Notorious Landlady," Jack is still in his nimble, boyish mode in these early sequences and Remick's natural girlishness complements him, shrewdly coaxing the innocence hidden beneath his Public Relations Man swagger to the surface.

BTW, Turner Classic Movies will telecast "Days of Wine and Roses at 10 p.m. (est) on 15 May. Check it out - and feel free to disagree.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

signed sid

Yesterday's death of  Sid Caesar brought back a vivid memory of seeing Stanley Kramer's "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" in its Cinerama presentation at Broadway's RKO Cinerama Theatre at a 2 p.m. Sunday matinee on - I'm seriously dating myself here - November 24th, 1963.

Fifty years ago?  Oy.

The theatre was packed and teeming with anticipation to see The Biggest Comedy of All Time (despite the dismal reviews).  It was electric.

Apart from the hustle and bustle and hum of moviegoers waiting to be easily pleased, there was one corner of RKO's orchestra section that was particularly full of chaos. My college date was overwhelmed with curiosity and had to see exactly what all the noisy commotion was about.

Sid Caesar was in the house!

Signing autographs!

She could care less about Caesar but she wanted his signature.  So she grabbed my souvenir program and got a Sid Caesar autograph.  I've no idea what happened to my resourceful autograph hound but, as you see, I still have the autograph she so wisely solicited from that comic great.

Monday, February 10, 2014

cinema obscura: Two with Julie Andrews

Andrews and Bates in an acting duet
I've met Julie Andrews only once - for an interview session at the 1986 Toronto Film Festival (aka, Festival of Festivals) when her husband Blake Edwards' "That's Life!" had an unscheduled screening there.

I can't recall what I asked her - that's if I asked her anything at all - or what she said because I was so struck by her beauty. You've heard of someone having alabaster skin. Well, that was Julie Andrews. And her profile!

Anyway, I bring this up because in those days, Andrews' film career had been given a second life by Edwards. Her Hollywood career in general could be neatly divided between her pre-Edwards films ("Mary Poppins," "The Sound of Music," "Hawaii" and "Thoroughly Modern Millie") and those titles she made for her beloved Blake ("The Tamarind Seed," "10" and "S.O.B.). Neatly divided, indeed: Robert Wise's "Star!" (1968), the last film of her superstar phase, was followed two years later by Edwards' "Darling Lili" (1970).

Although she was decidedly Edwards' house leading lady during this period, she also dabbled in interesting work for other filmmakers. Two come to mind, both forgotten titles.

In Andrei Konchalovsky's "Duet for One," based on the play by Tom Kempinski and released the same year as "That's Life!" (1986), Andrews plays Stephanie Anderson, a world-famous violinist who has developed Multiple Sclerosis and is slipping into depression. Kempinski, who wrote the adaptation with Konchalovsky and Jeremy Lipp, based his stage play on the life of cellist Jacqueline du Pré, the wife of conductor Daniel Barenboim. (Frances de la Tour played the role in the 1980 play; and Juliette Stevenson in the 2009 revival.)

The film's first-rate cast also includes Alan Bates as Andrews' husband; Rupert Everett as one of her pupils; Liam Neeson as a man with whom she has an affair, and Max von Sydow as her psychiatrist - four men who come with edges that might not make them entirely likable but who are uncompromisingly realistic.

Andrews, in a rare dramatic turn, plays her part with a steady grit and a willfulness that should have brought her more acclaim. This is a level-headed performance that doesn't beg for sympathy, only a little empathy, which Stephanie feels is evasive for the people around her.

In 1992, Andrews joined director Gene Saks and co-star Marcello Mastroianni for the film version of the play, "Tchin-Tchin," adapted by Ronald Harwood from the French work by François Billetdoux (by way of Sidney Michaels' Americanized version for Broadway).

By the time it got to the screen (and it played precious few screens), it was retitled the more generic "A Fine Romance."

The material here is stuff of a typical boulevard farce: A gegarious Italian man, Cesareo Grimaldi, and a stiff-backed British woman, Pamela Piquet, come together when their respective spouses run off with each other. The Broadway version, which opened at the Plymouth Theatre on October 25, 1962, starred Margaret Leighton and Anthony Quinn (who was quite ubiquitous that year, what with "Requiem for a Heavyweaight," "Barabbas" and "Lawrence of Arabia" playing on screen).

The play enjoyed only a brief Broadway run and lasted as long as it did because of its stars and their chemistry. The film version, which took 30 years to get to the screen, magnified the material's age and, while Andrews and Mastroianni sparkled together, they couldn't breathe life into it. A fine romance, it wasn't. Anyway, I prefer the title "Tchin-Tchin."

Sunday, February 02, 2014

making the right music

Credit: Will Hart/NBC

Nuns, Nazis and kids.

Is it any wonder that Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The Sound of Music" is so popular in whatever form that it's presented?

Robert Wise's elephantine 1965 film tends to be the dominating version, a movie so elusive to criticism that it managed to snare an Oscar for Best Picture.  Full disclosure:  I find it highly resistible.  Highly.

Another admission:  Naysayers bring out the contrarian in me. 

Now that the dust, hype and prejudgment have settled, it’s time to assay NBC’s recent telecast of the 1959 musical, a production that scored huge numbers for the network – 21.3 million viewers, not counting the encore presentation, and a 5.5 rating for the all-important viewers between the ages of 18 and 49. These numbers more than balance out the carping by the telecast's critics, including, sadly, some ungenerous (and unnecessary) comments by certain cast members of the '65 film version.

There are those who never fully appreciated the challenge that producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan rather courageously addressed – namely, a live mounting of material that not only is beloved (and indelibly printed in the collective mind of its legion of fans), but that also has become iconic.

In terms of musical theater, this was a potential suicide mission.

Exacerbating matters,  Meron and Zadan elected to stage the original Broadway production – which was billed tellingly as “a musical play” – and not the wildly sucessful film version which Disneyfied the material, making it so cloyingly family-friendly that, for years, one of the film’s stars,  Christopher Plummer, was fond of calling it “The Sound of Mucus.”

Plummer wasn’t being completely original:  He borrowed that line from critic Pauline Kael, and he seemed to stop using it when it became apparent that the film’s fans weren’t amused. After all, who remembers any Christopher Plummer film other than "The Sound of Music"?

Anyway,  it was obvious that Meron and Zadan’s version was decidedly not going to be your grandchild’s “Sound of Music.”

The result was a “Sound of Music” that restored the show’s dignity and honored its innate seriousness, something that was apparently oblivious to the filmmakers back in ’65.  Either willfully or unconsciously, neither Wise nor his scenarist Ernest Lehman understood the material. 

They illustrated this by dropping two of the show’s best songs (“How Can Love Survive?” and the great “No Way to Stop It,” both sung by Elsa in the show – or The Baroness, as the movie calls her), enlisting Richard Rodgers to pen some pale new songs (Oscar Hammerstein was long gone by this time), and needlessly fattening the roles of the Von Trapp children.

A case in point: There's a jaw-droppingly inane sequence added to the film by Lehman during which Plummer interrogates the children about where they've been. They lie and claim that they were out picking berries.

Blueberries to be exact.

"It's too early for blueberries," Plummer intones, catching them in their fabrication.

"They were strawberries," one of the kids explains. "It's been so cold lately, they turned blue!"

"Very well.  Show me the berries," Plummer pushes on.

"We don't have them."

"You don't have them.  What happened to them?"

"We, we ate them!"

This foolish, gratuitous sequence goes on seemingly forever.  There's a reason the Wise film runs a whopping 174 minutes.

Abetted by directors Rob Ashford (who handled the cast) and Beth McCarthy-Miller (who tended to the crew) and adapter Austin Winsberg,  Meron and Zadan eschewed such padding and went back to the basics of Howard Lindsay-Russell Crouse lean source material - and to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s careful distribution of the songs.

“My Favorite Things” was back where it belonged in the show’s narrative, not sung by Maria and the children, but used as it was originally intended – as a song of bonding between Maria and her Mother Superior.  This duet is crucial to that relationship.  The restored “No Way to Stop It” – sung by Elsa, Max and Captain Von Trapp – is a lilting polka with a chilling lyric that clearly defines the Captain and makes clear that his breakup with Elsa may have less to do with Maria and more to do with their clashing politics. 

It’s the best song in the show, hands-down.

The drab “An Ordinary Couple,” sung by Maria and the Captain, was cut from the ’65 film and replaced by Rodgers’ equally bland “Something Good.”   And the TV hands made the same decision.  Frankly, I could do without both.  Meron and Zadan could have done what they did with their 1997 TV version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella” and borrowed the all-purpose “The Sweetest Sounds” from Rodgers’ “No Strings.”

I never thought I’d say this but I sort of missed “I Have Confidence,” a song Rodgers wrote for the film.  Originally titled “The Walking Soliloquy,” it defines Maria (much more so that the opening title song) as much as “No Way to Stop It” explains the Captain.

Finally, about the cast… Stephen Moyer (as the Captain), Christoper Borle (as Max), Audra McDonald (as the Mother Superior) and particularly Laura Benanti (as Elsa) all turned in admirably scaled-down, realistic performances.  They played dramatic characters who just happened to sing.  Benanti was so good that she almost made me forget Eleanor Parker,whose natural comic elegance helped me survive the movie.

Frankly, the two performances could not be more dissimilar, with Benanti finding a redeeming poignancy in Elsa, while Parker plays her for some deliciously brittle villainy. Both interpretations work.

And then there’s Carrie Underwood, a quiet revelation as a girlish Maria, in contrast to Julie Andrews’ tomboy.   Underwood got a raw deal from the critics.  To the best of my knowledge, this was the first time she's ever acted and she made her debut on live TV – and she pulled it off with grace.  Yes, her line readings were a little wooden, but she used her face and her gift as a singer in ways that made her real.  Arguably, the most memorable element in this production of “The Sound of Music” was the touching expressiveness always present in Carrie Underwood’s eyes.

Note in Passing:  NBC was so impressed with the response to “The Sound of Music” that the network is already planning a production of “Peter Pan,” originally televised by Producers’ Showcase in both 1955 and 1956 and videotaped in 1960 for an NBC presentation, all starring Mary Martin. 

Presumably, it will want a crossover star like Underwood to bring in another huge audience.  I’ve a suggestion.  Now, don’t laugh – think about this for a bit - but Mylie Cyrus could make a really sensational Peter.

Aside from potentially bringing in a hulking audience, she has the right personality and demeanor for role.  She’s got spunk in spades. 

Plus, that great voice.