A Night at the Opera – An OCF Classic Movie Review

The Marx Brothers have the reputation for producing some of the funniest movies of the 1930s and 1940s.  This is in some ways deserved but it is by no means justified for all of their films.  In addition, no one would claim that the entirety of any of the movies is consistently funny.  After all, the number of people who would laugh through a three-minute harp solo is extremely small, probably zero.

But I consider A Night at the Opera their best effort.  For that reason, I’ll start with a review of it and if I decide to tackle any of the others it will involve comparing them to the qualities of A Night at the Opera.

The story starts out in Italy with Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho Marx) trying to convince the wealthy widow Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont) to donate $200,000 to the New York Opera in order to cement her place in high society.  With the money, the opera company’s director Herman Gottlieb, can sign a famous Italian tenor Rodolfo Lassparri for the upcoming season production of Il Trovatore.  There is a love triangle between the soprano Rosa Castaldi, an unknown but brilliant tenor, Ricardo Baroni and the villainous Lassparri.

Tomasso (Harpo Marx) and Fiorello (Chico Marx) work to get Ricardo Baroni signed by Driftwood to the New York Opera instead of Lassparri but fail and the two of them are forced to stow away along with Baroni on the steam ship heading for New York.  Driftwood hides them in his closet sized stateroom and this gives rise to one of the funniest scenes in the movie when a troop of cleaning, maintenance and wait staff along with other miscellaneous persons end up crowding into the stateroom with the Marx Brothers and eventually explode out into the ship corridor when Mrs. Claypool opens the door.  This scene contains one of Groucho’s trademark wisecracks.  With about ten people already in the room a knock comes on the door and Groucho opens it to discover a young woman.

Groucho – Yes?

Girl – Is my Aunt Minnie in here?

Groucho – You can come in and prowl around if you want to.  If she isn’t in here, you can probably find somebody just as good.

Girl – Could I use your phone?

Groucho – Use the phone?  I’ll lay you even money you can’t get in the room.

The whole plot including the love story is a thin pretext for the Marx Brothers to sow chaos everywhere they go.  The climax of the movie is the opera opening night and the three brothers doing everything imaginable to sabotage Lassparri’s performance and provide Baroni with an opportunity to sing as the lead tenor in his place.  Harpo (or more likely his stunt double) ends up performing swashbuckling acrobatics in the manner of Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and eventually kidnaps Lassparri right off the stage to allow the climactic aria duet to be sung by Baroni and Castaldi.

And just as it looks like the brothers will be carted off to jail by the NYPD, Baroni blackmails Gottlieb into hiring himself, Castaldi, Driftwood, Fiorello and Tomasso and calling off the police in exchange for Baroni and Castaldi agreeing to perform an encore that is being thunderously demanded by the overjoyed audience.

This absurd story line is actually one of the tighter Marx Brother movie plots.  Their movies were sort of like a variety show out of vaudeville.  In between dramatic scenes you would get Chico playing the piano or Harpo playing the harp.  And most of the movies had several comic songs sung by Groucho.  In this movie there is also a number of songs and arias sung by the Baroni and Castaldi characters.  So, depending how you feel about songs in a movie will decide whether you can tolerate any Marx Brothers movie at all.

As indicated initially I like this movie.  That is not to say I wouldn’t prefer to cut out the harp solo.  And that is not saying all the comedy routines are equally successful for me.  But taking the whole movie together I would call A Night at the Opera a funny movie.  And I would say, compared to many of the Marx Brothers movies, the personalities of the brothers are much less obnoxious than they typically are.  And it is notable that the production values for this movie produced by MGM are much higher than their previous movies for Paramount.  If you are already a fan of the Marx Brothers and have never seen “A Night at the Opera” then I can unreservedly recommend this movie for you.  For everyone else, especially those born in the 21st century your mileage may vary.

The Films of Alfred Hitchcock – Part 9 – Rope – A Classic Movie Review

This is a very strange film, even for Hitchcock.  It’s an adaptation of a stage play that Hitchcock turns into a claustrophobic one set crime drama.  Brandon Shaw and Phillip Morgan (played by John Dall and Farley Granger) are upper class New Yorkers living together in an East Side apartment with a panoramic view of the city.  They are the products of a prep school and Ivy League education and are convinced that they are Nietzschean supermen who thereby have the right to murder ordinary men with impunity.  As the movie opens, they are seen strangling one of their school chums David Kentley with a piece of rope in their apartment.  After hiding the body in an antique wooden chest, they go about setting up their apartment for a dinner party that will feature David’s father (played by Sir Cedric Hardwicke) and aunt and David’s fiancée Janet.  The other cast in the play and party attendees are Mrs. Wilson who is Brandon’s housekeeper, Kenneth Lawrence who is another school friend and also a former boyfriend of Janet’s and Rupert Cadell (played by Jimmy Stewart) who was Brandon and Phillip’s prep school housemaster and the inspiration for their Nietzschean philosophical justification for murder.

Brandon brazenly uses the chest that David’s body is hidden in as the buffet table for the dinner that the guests feed on during the party.  Brandon makes several sly allusions to Kenneth that maybe Janet may be available again for his romantic interest.  All the guests are acutely aware that David is unexpectedly late for the party and unaccounted for.  Phillip from the start of the movie is extremely nervous about the prospect of being caught.  And as the party proceeds, he becomes more and more agitated and begins drinking heavily.  In the middle of the proceedings Brandon steers the conversation to his Nietzschean theory of the superman and his right to kill with impunity.  When Rupert agrees with this logic at least theoretically Brandon gets heatedly enthusiastic about its validity and this elicits a response from Mr. Kentley to the effect that he is offended by the disrespect for human decency and morality.  This snaps Brandon back into a more normal mode and alerts Rupert that something very strange is going on at the party.  Rupert starts to put together the various threads of the scene.  He recognizes that Brandon is trying to bring Janet and Kenneth together romantically in David’s absence.  He recognizes the anxiety in David’s friends and family at his very unusual disappearance and he keys in on Phillip’s anxiety, anger and drunkenness as the way to pry into what was going on below the surface of the gathering.

Rupert corners Phillip as he is playing the piano to cross-examine him about David’s absence, Brandon’s strange behavior and Phillip’s own anxiety.  And as the climax of his investigation he witnesses Phillip’s panic when he sees that Brandon has used the murder weapon, the piece of rope to tie up some old books that Brandon is giving as a gift to Mr Kentley as the old man is leaving to go home to his panicked wife.  Right before everyone leaves, Rupert has a talk with Mrs. Wilson, who is an old friend of his.  She tells Rupert about the fact that her employer told her to take the afternoon off and then decided at the last minute to serve the dinner off of the chest instead of the dining room table.  As Mrs. Wilson is cleaning up and about to open the chest to put some books back into it, Brandon hurriedly stops her from opening it and tells her to hold off her cleaning until the next day.  And finally, as Rupert is leaving, he takes the wrong hat from the closet and looking into it he sees a monogram DK (David Kentley).

Once the guests and Mrs. Wilson have left Brandon and Phillip have an argument.  Brandon upbraids Phillip for getting drunk and about his fear over being caught.  Phillip angrily blames Brandon for risking discovery by throwing out hints that Rupert was able pick up on.  Suddenly the phone rings and Phillip panics when he finds it’s Rupert returning to find his cigarette case.  Brandon tells Phillip to get ahold of himself and before Rupert arrives Brandon puts a revolver in his jacket pocket.  When Rupert comes in, we find out he hasn’t misplaced his case but instead hides it behind some books on the chest and “discovers” it.  He takes the excuse of a drink to continue his questioning of Brandon and Phillip.  He shows pretty quickly that he thinks they are responsible for David’s disappearance and reasons how they could have knocked out David and hidden him.  When Rupert confronts Brandon with the fact that he has a gun in his jacket, Brandon laughs it off as just the protection he will be taking with him to his house in the country.  Brandon throws the gun on the piano and Rupert continues his cross-examination and suddenly takes the piece of rope out of his pocket.  Phillip screams out that Rupert knows everything and grabs the pistol.  Rupert and Phillip fight over the gun.  The gun goes off and grazes Rupert’s hand but he gets control of it and takes control of Brandon and Phillip.  He opens up the chest and finds David’s body.  Brandon tries to justify the murder by virtue of their mutually acknowledged Nietzschean philosophy.  Rupert rejects Brandon’s justification and reviles as a monster whose inhumanity would ensure that he and Phillip would both be executed by the law.  Rupert goes over to the window and opens it.  He fires three rounds into the air and all three wait for the police to arrive.  Rupert moves a chair next to the chest and places his arm and the gun on it as if to protect David from his killers.

As I stated at the beginning, this is a very strange movie.  The only character that I found altogether admirable is Mr. Kentley.  He represents normal human feelings and ordinary sensibilities.  The worst characters are of course Brandon and Phillip.  But only slightly less objectionable is Rupert.  His elitist attitude toward his supposed superior intelligence is contemptible.  The rest of the characters are shallow characters with various foibles and ticks.  During the argument over Nietzschean superiority only Mr. Kentley displays the strength of character and humanity to revolt at the cruel indifference displayed by Brandon, Phillip and Rupert.

With respect to the success of the movie as entertainment I’ll have to say I can only watch this movie every few years.  It’s a fictionalized account of the Leopold and Loeb “thrill killing” from the 1920s.  From that point of view, it holds interest as an almost sociological and psychological statement.  It’s depressing, annoying and as noted above claustrophobic.  One of the more annoying aspects of the film is the tune that Phillip plays almost endlessly on the piano.  I grew to really hate that tune rather quickly.  Another annoying aspect of the movie is the homosexuality of Brandon and Phillip.  It’s never mentioned, of course because this movie was made in 1948.  But the dialog between them makes it clear that they don’t have a normal friendship.  And their personalities, especially Brandon’s are extremely unpleasant in a catty womanish way.  It’s not fun to see.  I would have to say I would only recommend this movie for a fan of Hitchcock who is interested in his technical skill.  The way the scenes are melded together at the film cuts is interesting but the story as I’ve described is a mess.

A Letter to Three Wives – An OCF Classic Movie Review

IMDb lists this 1949 film as a romance drama.  Today we’d call such a film a “chick flick.”  The director,Joseph Mankiewicz  was also responsible for “All About Eve,” which was another movie that centered around women.  Mankiewicz received Oscars for both of them so it seems this type of movie was his specialty.

The plot revolves around three married couples, the Bishops, the Phipps and the Hollingsways.  They live in a suburb of New York City and the three wives Deborah, Rita and Lora Mae, respectively, all have an uneasy relationship with a fourth woman, Addie Ross who has always been admired by their husbands for her beauty, intelligence and taste.  As the story opens it’s the morning of the first big country club dance in town and the wives are in various stages of annoyance with their husbands.

Deborah is angry at Brad because he’s going on a business trip and doesn’t even know if he’ll return in time for the dance.  In addition, he has selected an evening gown for his wife for the dance that she has discovered is identical to a dress Addie Ross recently wore.  Rita is angry with George because he is dismissive of her job as a radio script writer whereas she resents that he works as a low paying teacher at the high school.  She is also surprised to see him leaving that morning in a suit, something he never does.  And Lora Mae is dismissive of her husband Porter strictly on general grounds.  Their relationship is a continuous stream of digs and jibes by both of them.

The wives are engaged that day as chaperones for the grammar school annual outing at the lake.  But right before the boat leaves the dock a letter arrives for the three women addressed from Addie Ross.  In it she ironically says goodbye to them as her three dearest friends.  She’s leaving town forever but as a memento of her life with them she says that she’s running away with one of their husbands.

The bulk of the movie is the reminiscences of the three women on their history together as wives, friends and rivals for Addie Ross.  Brad and Deborah Bishop are played by Jeffrey Lynn and Jeanne Crain.  Brad is the rich, handsome aristocrat of the story.  Deborah is a farm girl that Brad met in the Navy in WW II.  She has always been intimidated by the more sophisticated background of his friends and their shared experiences as longtime residents of the town.  Honestly, I find these two characters the least interesting of the six.  Kirk Douglas and Ann Sothern are George and Rita Phipps.  They are the intelligent couple.  He’s a school teacher and a wit.  She’s a hard-working career mother trying to push George into a more ambitious and better paying career.  Paul Douglas and Linda Darnell are Porter and Lora Mae Hollingsway.  Based on their way of speaking and information you learn from the story they are both from “the wrong side of the tracks.”  In fact, in a comical scene from her past we see that Lora Mae’s mother’s apartment was practically on top of the elevated train tracks adjoining it.  Porter is a very wealthy retailer with a chain of appliance stores and a mansion.  And when Porter and Lora Mae meet, she is his employee and he is a cynical divorced man on the make.  She is a painfully beautiful young woman to his gruff 35-year-old cynic and she skillfully uses her charms to negotiate a marriage.  And after he can no longer resist her, he grudgingly agrees to marry her but in terms so unflattering and unromantic that their married life is guaranteed to be a vicious cycle of hurt feelings.  Porter and Lora Mae are the most interesting part of the movie.  Paul Douglas’s characterization of Porter as the gruff regular guy and Linda Darnell’s Lora Mae as the wise-cracking shrew are very amusing.  And Linda Darnell is a remarkably beautiful young woman in this film.  A small supporting part in this movie is played by Thelma Ritter as a friend of Lora Mae’s mother and housekeeper to the Phipps.  Ritter is always the most interesting character on screen in any scene she is in and this movie is no exception.

The movie has a surprise ending at the country club dance when we find out that love can be found in unexpected places.

One of the things I find interesting about this movie is the “types” that the various characters represent.  Brad Bishop and apparently Addie Ross are the “to the manor born” aristocrats of the town.  They both have money and refined taste.  George and Rita Phipps are the educated middle class.  They are the product of the egalitarian World War II generation who believe in the virtues of enlightened modernism.  Porter and Lora Mae are from the working class and for both of them buying into refinement of the upper class is one of their highest motivations.  Porter is constantly talking about Addie’s “class” and disparaging Lora Mae for her lack of class.  And when she goes to Porter’s house for the first time Lora Mae tells Porter that she wants to be a lady so she can have a big house with a piano with a photo of her in the silver frame just like Porter has of Addie Ross.  Deborah Bishop is the farm girl who is completely intimidated by Brad and Addie’s sophistication.  Instead of aspiring to become like them she just fatalistically assumes that someday brad will cast her aside for her social superior, Addie.

Although Brad is obviously friendly with the Phipps and not noticeably a snob his character is very sparsely sketched in.  And likewise, Deborah’s inferiority complex makes her a very one-dimensional character.  The Phipps are a more fully drawn pair of characters and their husband/wife dynamic is also more believable and therefore enjoyable.  I especially like how Kirk Douglas describes his low status and not very well-paying job as making him a comic figure and almost unmanly.  George is the modern man, comfortable with his wife as a bread winner.  When she complains that he bought cheaper whiskey because he can’t afford scotch, she hints that she can afford to buy it instead.  To this George replies, “I forget sometimes that I’m merely the titular head of the household.”  But even Rita is insecure of George’s relationship with Addie.  When Rita forgets George’s birthday Addie sends him a present of a rare symphony recording that has a romantic inscription that inspires Rita’s jealousy.

But the most fully drawn characters are Porter and Lora Mae.  He is the self-made man who worked his up to success.  He is proud of his success and desires to be measured by his material possessions and by the “class” that he tries to surround himself with.  Addie Ross is his ideal of an aristocrat who wouldn’t covet his wealth and would add the class that he was born without.  He was formerly married to a gold digger and he assumes because Lora Mae forced him to marry her that she is looking for the same kind of “pay day” where she can divorce him for all she can get.

Lora Mae is a woman born poor but blessed with the gift of great beauty.  She likes Porter but she refuses to enter into an intimate relationship with him without the promise of marriage.  She knows this will torture him but she tells him openly that is her price.  When he finally grudgingly agrees, he tells her that she is making a “good deal” without any illusions of love.  The bitterness this statement elicits from her is the poison that haunts their every married day with each of them sniping at the other about their shortcomings.  Here is an almost Shakespearian scenario where misunderstanding blinds love on both sides.

The movie is quite enjoyable and is an excellent date movie for married couples since the war between men and women is on full display and is resolved very agreeably.  I highly recommend this film.

Shakespeare in Film – Part 10 – Richard III – Olivier’s 1955 Version

This is not one of my favorite plays.  Part of that is my allegiance to the House of Lancaster.  Henry IV and Henry V seemed like my kind of guys so I was sorry to see the House of York pry back the crown from their side in Henry VI Parts I, II & III.  But more than that, it’s the spectacle of a monster like Richard crushing the people around him, his family in fact, without any compunction or even much difficulty.  His brothers Edward and George are oblivious to his treachery even as it is being accomplished.  His other enemies are more aware but equally powerless to save themselves from his malice.  He moves from outrage to outrage upping the ante at each stage.  Finally, he assigns a merciless assassin to smother his nine and twelve-year-old nephews with their own pillow to ensure that they never have the chance to revenge themselves on Richard for his usurpation of their father’s crown.  And then there’s the matter of Lady Anne.  She is the widow of the Lancaster heir to the throne, Henry VI’s son Edward.  And it was Richard who killed Edward.  Having Anne agree to wed Richard is the final outrage that just makes the play a bridge too far for me.  I mean, come on! Richard is a hunchbacked, withered armed, monster.  Anne spits in his face and calls him a fiend and then willingly marries him.  This is a tough play to understand.

Anyway, Olivier plays Richard to the hilt.  He is actually comical at certain points in his jocular, two-faced portrayal of the monster.  Olivier has surrounded himself with an all-star cast of Shakespearean professionals.  Cedric Hardwicke is his brother King Edward IV, John Gielgud is his brother George, Duke of Clarence, Ralph Richardson is Duke of Buckingham and Claire Bloom is Lady Anne.  The acting is good.  It’s just that I can’t stomach the plot.  To see evil just dance along while well meaning people are led to the slaughter irks me.  The ending should be consolation enough.  Richard gets his comeuppance and pays the price.  But the play rubs me the wrong way.  It’s the way that good seems to be powerless to resist evil.  It’s almost as if it gives up without a fight.  Oh well.

So, as you can tell I don’t love this play but I recognize that it’s really about me and my way of looking at the world.  I acknowledge that this is a well-acted version of the play and the production is full of nice touches.  The chanting monks, the cinematography of the battle scene, the excellent set design, the skill of the cast.  Olivier’s elocution and mastery of the part demands it be seen.  He gives us a consummate and thoroughgoing villain.  All of it recommends this play to the Shakespeare devotee.  So, I do recommend this version.  It is well done and deserves high praise.

But I’d rather watch Hamlet.  I’d rather watch Henry V.  Richard III rankles me no little bit.

Shakespeare in Film – Part 9 – Henry V – Branagh’s 1989 Version

Sunday, I wrote the review of Olivier’s Henry V.  I watched Branagh’s version that night.  I watched a while ago but I wanted to have it fresh in my mind especially because I would be contrasting it to Olivier’s film.

When Branagh’s movie came out in 1989 it made him a star.  He was a young dynamic character and the world wanted to believe in heroes again.  He was married at the time to Emma Thompson and she played Katherine to his Henry.  They were seen as an exciting couple in Hollywood circles and there was great interest in their films together.  Putting all that aside, people were ready to take a fresh look at Shakespeare.  Branagh adapted the play for the screen and directed himself in the lead.  Branagh was young enough and active enough to make King Harry believable.  The movie was a critical success.

Interestingly, Branagh’s Henry V left in some of the smaller incidents that Olivier omitted.  The three conspirators who planned to assassinate Henry on behalf of the French are duly exposed and condemned.  The hanging of Bardolph, one of Prince Harry’s former companions is a stark reminder that King Henry is a changed man.

But the major thrust of the film of course runs in the same vein as Olivier’s.  And yet there are clear differences in tone and emphasis.  Despite the theme of war Olivier’s play is the more light hearted and optimistic of the two by far.  A good point of comparison is the St Crispin’s Day speech.  When Olivier gives the speech, he exudes confidence and a controlled enthusiasm.  But when Branagh speaks he impresses on the audience the sense of passion and energy he feels.  It’s a rush of adrenaline that he captures in words.

And the action of the play mirrors this same difference.  Olivier’s cinema is typical of what the 1940s would do to portray the late middle ages.  It reminds you of how Hollywood would give us Robin Hood or Ivanhoe.  It was a sunlit world of grassy fields and picturesque castles with banners flapping in the breeze high above the fields.  Branagh gives us explosions, fire, battles in the dead of night and lots and lots of mud.  Mud on the ground, mud on the soldiers and mud on the King.  And he keeps some of the lines on the war that Olivier left out.  When the English besiege the city of Harfleur, Henry harangues the town elders with the horrors that resisting the besiegers would entail if they failed to surrender in advance.  He mentions rape, plunder and the vicious destruction of human life from the youngest infant to the oldest inhabitants.  So, we can see that Branagh has made the more accurate version of the play.  He’s left all the warts in plain sight.

Now in addition to the grittier nature of Branagh’s production it should be said that his handling of the romance between Henry and Katherine is also more naturalistic.  Branagh has an earthier, more openly comical approach to Henry attempting to woo Katherine in terribly halting French.  Olivier’s approach is calmer and more restrained.  So, all in all let’s call Olivier’s a more formal and austere approach to the story and Branagh’s a more naturalistic and emotional version.

How do they compare?  In my opinion they are both excellent films.  And they have different strengths.  I watch the Olivier version when I want to enjoy Olivier’s language.  He is the gold standard, in my book, for what Shakespeare’s dialog should sound like.  No one else makes the text sound real the way he does.

But if I want to see the story of the war, I will watch Branagh’s version.  Branagh and his excellent cast bring the war to life.  By the end of the battle of Agincourt you can feel the exhaustion that the English feel as they struggle to bury their dead.  Even the miraculous victory they’ve won is almost beyond their strength to grasp.  Branagh has done a very fine job of making a Henry V that is faithful to the text and conveys the reality of a King going to war in the Hundred Years War.

Shakespeare in Film – Part 8 – Henry V – Olivier’s 1944 Version

Another Olivier film in which he starred and directed.  He also was one of the producers and had a part in the screenplay.  Shakespeare’s plot revolves around young King Henry (or Harry to his friends) defending his claim to the throne of France.  His Norman ancestors shared lineage with the French kings and here Henry is demanding from the French king that he be named his successor.  But the Dauphin (the king’s son and heir) answers for his father by sending an insulting “gift” to substitute for Henry’s claim.  He sends him a box of tennis balls.  That starts the war.

The action is divided between Henry’s prosecution of the war, scenes among the French leaders and several personal vignettes.  One set of vignettes involve Henry’s former companions; Ancient Pistol, Bardolph, Nim, Mistress Quickly and Sir John Falstaff.  In his youth Henry was an irresponsible wastrel that associated with these disreputable characters.  But these knaves were very popular from two earlier plays, Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, and here they are brought back for a final curtain call.  Their actions are for comic relief and as a contrast to the heroics of Henry and his warriors.  Then there are scenes with the three captains Fluellen, MacMorris, and Jamy from respectively Wales, Ireland, and Scotland.  These three men speak in heavily accented dialects reflecting their ethnicities.  They are also provided for comic relief with mockery of MacMorris being the primary focus.  And finally, there is the scene of Princess Katherine and her Duenna talking about King Harry in a scene where the Princess attempts to learn a few words of English seemingly in anticipation of meeting Henry.

The story’s climax is the momentous battle of Agincourt where according to Shakespeare’s reckoning an army of 12,000 Englishmen, mostly infantry and archers, defeated an army of 60,000 Frenchmen that included a large contingent of heavy cavalry.  After the English victory we have a scene where the French King agrees to make Henry his heir in exchange for Henry’s marriage to Princess Katherine.  And this is completed with Henry winning Katherine’s heart in a scene that is meant to signify his passionate and determined nature.

So how does Olivier handle this complicated and fragmented plot?  After all, some scenes take place in a palace, some in an inn but others are in the middle of a pitched battle and others in a bivouac.  In Shakespeare’s day, in his little circular theater, interior scene changes were hard enough but battle scenes could only be handled by suspension of disbelief and by heralds arriving to announce distant action.  Olivier pays homage to this by starting the play in the Globe Theater.  We see the actors behind the scene dressing and preparing to enter the stage.  Even Olivier as Henry is shown first as an actor about to enter his first scene.  The following scene at the inn between Ancient Pistol and company are also handled as scenes in the theater.

But once the action moves afield, we get exterior shots of the English and French countryside (actually Irish, this was shot right before D-Day and England was on a war footing while neutral Ireland was not).  And it’s outdoors that Olivier gets to give the rousing St. Crispin’s Day speech.  And the big battle includes an actual cavalry charge.  After the battle they use a strange combination of exterior shots with painted backgrounds that are sort of picturesque in conjuring up a theater.  And a theater is where the finale happens, right back in the Globe Theater where the Narrator closes the curtain on Henry and Katherine and reads the epilogue.

So, how did I like this mess?  Well, actually, quite a lot.  I can’t help but admire the way Olivier takes the conventions of a Shakespeare play like the exits and entrances of the cast and makes them part of an internal joke by showing the cast as actors going onto a stage.  He even takes the speech that explains his claim to the throne and makes it a comic scene with bishops and clergymen dropping and finally throwing ancient manuscripts at each other in their confusion at trying to prove Henry is the legitimate King of France.  To a modern audience the base and crude friends of ancient Pistol seem strange and exotic but Olivier has his Globe audience filled with Pistol’s spiritual kinsmen who cheer and catcall in approval of their low antics.

By modern standards the battle scenes are somewhat theatrical.  After you’ve seen elves and men mowing down orcs in one of the Lord of the Rings movies the knights on horseback can’t be very convincing.  And Olivier is no Errol Flynn swashbuckling with a sword.  But what Olivier has is the ability to take Shakespeare’s lines and turn them into dramatic speech.  I think the fact that Olivier had done Shakespeare on the stage with the best English actors of his generation was what gave him the ability to give the words the inflection and cadence that turns them from a museum piece into a dramatic scene.  I’ve seen the St. Crispin’s Day speech done by Branagh and Olivier.  Branagh gives it all the intensity and emotion he can.  Olivier is calmer and quieter but he infuses his speech with the storyteller’s charm of what it will be like to look back at a victory from the vantage point of many years.  Maybe my admiration of his skills is idiosyncratic to me.  But even though he is an actor from an earlier time I do not think our modern method actors can compare.  They always reach for emotional affect and seem to overdo it.

Henry V is a special play in Shakespeare’s list.  Everything but the epilogue is a reflection of the will and fortune of a fortunate king.  All his ventures succeed and his reign is fortunate.  Only the epilogue reminds us that the War of the Roses is yet to revive in his son’s time and erase all his glories and end the English sovereignty on the mainland.  But the play gives the audience a chance to hear of victory as a contrast to the tragedies that will follow.  Olivier made his production as a morale boost for the English who were about to join the Americans in the D-Day invasion of France.  The story of an earlier invasion of France by Henry was supposed to provide hope for the nation worn out by years of bombing raids and setbacks in the war.  And so, Olivier omitted the defeats from the epilogue.  Wise decision.

This version is dated in terms of cinematography and stylized in some aspects of the acting but I recommend it to those who enjoy Shakespeare’s plays.

 

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Shakespeare in Film – Part 5 – Hamlet – Olivier’s 1948 Version

Olivier won the Academy Award for Best Picture and directed himself to the Best Actor award too.  That is still a unique circumstance.  Despite this acclaim purists condemned the excisions that Olivier made to the plot eliminating the sub-plots involving Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Fortinbras.  This shaved an hour and half from its length and concentrates the play into a personality study.

Despite Olivier’s modifications it remains a very formal telling of the tale from the aspect of the acting.  Olivier spent a number of years in London’s Old Vic Theatre Company performing Shakespeare’s plays with the greatest living British actors of his generation.  Comparing his portrayal with an American version such as Mel Gibson’s excellent 1990 version defines the two schools of acting.  The American method acting version requires the actor to submerge himself into the personality he “discovers” for the character.  He feels the part.  The British actor learns the techniques needed to portray the character and emotions he desires to project to the audience.  Olivier himself once described a circumstance that highlighted this difference.  During the making of the film Marathon Man his co-star Dustin Hoffman tortured himself with various discomforts to help him feel the part of a man exhausted and at the end of his strength.  When Hoffman noticed that Olivier was sitting comfortably in anticipation of his scenes Hoffman asked him how he could get into his part without some physical method.  Olivier was said to have answered, “Dear boy, it’s called acting.”

So, all that said.  I consider this the best version I’ve seen.  The dialog, the acting, the staging, all excel the other two versions I’ve seen.  The story flows and the characters live in front of us in a way that often escapes other performances of Shakespeare’s plays.  Every little phrase and movement works the way it should.  Olivier is a craftsman walking us through his weird world of pain and revenge.  The lines are alive and sound like dialog and not museum exhibits.  They fit perfectly with the action that attends them.  They are poetry and human speech both.

And I actually have no complaints with any of the actors.  All were skilled and none fell short that I can remember.  That is not a small thing.

And despite the formal theater there are naturalistic touches that work well.  My favorite is the gravedigger.  When Hamlet comes upon him he fits completely with what you would expect of a son of the soil.  He is contrary and defers not at all to the high-born questioning of his Lord and better.  He is witty and authoritative in his knowledge of graveyard ecology.  Another technical advantage of this version is the dagger and rapier duel in the final scene.  Olivier and Terence Morgan who plays Laertes do an impressive job of simulating a sword fight.  No special effects either.

My advice to anyone coming to Hamlet for the first time, watch this version first.  Measure the other ones by it.  It will actually make the others easier to understand and thereby improve them.  Olivier is truly a master at his work.

Shakespeare in Film – Part 2 – Julius Caesar (1953)

This version of Julius Caesar is interesting to me because it contains two contrasting acting types.  With John Gielgud as Cassius you have a British Shakespearian actor steeped in the conventions and knowledge of the traditional theater.  With Marlon Brando as Mark Antony you have a great American method actor who approaches his performance as a process of absorbing the soul of the character and living the part.  And because Mark Antony’s part is so bound up with a revenge motive, he is able to bring the set speech, his “friends, romans, countrymen” speech, to life.  Gielgud’s Cassius is a more intellectual character and it requires a great deal of nuance to render the part interesting.  His character is of an angry disappointed man who is motivated by fear, jealousy and spite.  The fine British actor James Mason is Brutus and does a masterful job of portraying the honest, intelligent patriot who slays his friend for the good of his country.  Louis Calhern another American actor has the pivotal but relatively minor part of Julius Caesar.  Greer Garson as Calpurnia and Deborah Kerr as Portia are Caesar’s and Brutus’s wives respectively.  And there are several other good performances but essentially the main action consists of Cassius and Brutus on one side and Mark Antony on the other.  Cassius draws Brutus into a conspiracy against Caesar and Mark Antony stirs a popular rebellion against the assassins.

The play is cut in half by the murder, with the first half concluded by Brando’s funeral oration for Caesar.  It is one of Shakespeare’s most memorable speeches and Brando plays it to the hilt.  His voice is saturated with emotion, by turns, sorrow, scorn then anger.  He plays the Roman crowd and stirs them to mutiny against the “honorable men” who slew Caesar.

For Brutus and Cassius, the speeches are smaller but they still allow the characters to display their personalities.  Cassius shows us his pettiness and his genuine feelings of affection for his friend.  Brutus is a more austere character.  Intelligence, integrity and a slightly cold persona is displayed.  But at the end when his whole world starts to collapse, he allows his personal feelings to emerge somewhat and these do him credit.

This play is a study of personalities.  The battle scenes are short and stylized so there isn’t a dynamism as you would see in a modern rendition of this story.  Instead you have what Shakespeare would show on a stage.  I don’t think Julius Caesar will appeal to everyone.  It’s not exciting enough for many people.  They will find it boring.  But for those interested in seeing how a dying world drove friends against each other in a civil war this gives a flavor of it.

Personally, I like the play and this version of it.  I’m not the biggest Brando fan but I like what he did with Mark Antony, especially the big speech.  And I’m always glad to see James Mason in a production.  His presence and the remarkable sound of his voice were perfect for this part.  So, there’s my first Shakespeare review.  That wasn’t so bad after all.

31OCT2019 – Happy Halloween!

Even a Man who’s pure at heart
And says his prayers by Night
May become a wolf when the wolfsbane blooms
And the Moon is full and bright

Wolfsbane Blooming in October 7

There haven’t been any really good horror movies lately so I think this year I’ll just put up my links to the Universal Classic Monster Movies.

http://orionscoldfire.com/index.php/2018/10/12/universal-classic-monster-movies-an-ocf-classic-movie-review-part-1/

http://orionscoldfire.com/index.php/2018/10/12/universal-classic-monster-movies-an-ocf-classic-movie-review-part-2-dracula/

http://orionscoldfire.com/index.php/2018/10/14/universal-classic-monster-movies-an-ocf-classic-movie-review-part-3-frankenstein/

http://orionscoldfire.com/index.php/2018/10/17/universal-classic-monster-movies-an-ocf-classic-movie-review-part-4-wolfman/

http://orionscoldfire.com/index.php/2018/10/19/universal-classic-monster-movies-an-ocf-classic-movie-review-part-5-the-mummy/

http://orionscoldfire.com/index.php/2018/10/21/universal-classic-monster-movies-an-ocf-classic-movie-review-part-6-the-invisible-man/

http://orionscoldfire.com/index.php/2018/10/23/universal-classic-monster-movies-an-ocf-classic-movie-review-part-7-the-lesser-works-and-a-final-verdict/

http://orionscoldfire.com/index.php/2018/02/22/dr-jekyll-and-mr-hyde-1931-version-a-classic-monster-movie-review/

http://orionscoldfire.com/index.php/2018/10/28/psycho-an-ocf-classic-movie-review/

 

Happy Halloween.

 

Destination Moon – An OCF Classic Movie Review

The 1950 motion picture Destination Moon is in several aspects an odd duck.  It was an independent production under George Pal’s control.  He worked with Robert A Heinlein to adapt his novel Rocket Ship Galileo into a screen play.  In point of fact the plot changes involved make the movie and the book completely different stories.  For Pal who would go on to make such sci-fi classics as War of the Worlds, The Time Machine and When Worlds Collide this was a chance to make a realistic space flight movie with Heinlein providing the scientific accuracy.

After a government project to build an advanced rocket motor is sabotaged and abandoned a plan is hatched to overcome the loss of government funding in rocket design by recruiting patriotic business leaders to pool their resources to pay for and build a Moon rocket.  General Thayer and Dr. Charles Cargraves were the moving force behind the earlier government project and Jim Barnes is the principal industrialist who uses his aircraft design facilities to build the atomic powered rocket.  Along with Joe Sweeney who provides radio and communication expertise (along with Brooklyn-accented comic relief) these men will be the crew to travel back and forth to the Moon.

When local bureaucracy threatens to tie up the launch in the courts, the team decides to launch immediately.  Just as the sheriffs are arriving to serve the launch injunction the crew is riding the elevator up to the cockpit.  The ship takes off and the crew gets to experience the pain of eight gee take off acceleration and the nausea associated with zero gravity conditions.  Shortly after taking off they discover the need to do a space walk to repair equipment.  One of the astronauts carelessly allows his magnetic boots to become separated from the ship’s hull while not holding onto his tether and begins floating away from the ship.  One of his mates has to use an oxygen cylinder as a makeshift rocket to rendezvous with the lost man and bring him back.

As the rocket approaches the Moon, errors in the navigation (or should I say astrogation) force the crew to expend to much reaction mass from the rocket to land in their planned destination.  Mission control on Earth begins calculating how much weight must be removed from the ship to balance the reduced capacity of the ship’s fuel load.

Meanwhile the crew investigates the Moon.  The first thing they do is claim the Moon for the United States (for the good of all mankind).  Using a Geiger counter General Thayer discovers large deposits of uranium.  Later on, one of the astronauts takes a picture of Joe Sweeney holding his arm up in such away that it looks like he is holding up Earth in the sky behind him.

The calculations on the fuel are distressing.  The ship has to be lightened by over a ton.  The crew starts removing everything that isn’t required to get the ship back to Earth.  But even after sawing off any metal components of the ship that can be removed, they’re still short by one hundred ten pounds.

Barnes, Cargraves and Thayer realize that someone has to stay behind and each one of them tries to convince the other two that he is the one to stay based on authority, age or responsibility.  Meanwhile Sweeney takes it upon himself to take the last space suit and leave the ship.  He tells them to leave without him.  But Barnes figures out a trick to get them below the weight limit.  With a rat-tailed file Sweeney puts a notch in the outer door frame of the air lock.  A heavy oxygen cylinder is hung outside the ship from a line that runs through the notch in the door.  With the door closed the airlock is pressurized with only a slow leak from the notch.  Then Sweeney ties the space suit to the other end of the line.  Once Sweeney reenters the ship the outer door is opened and the weight of the cylinder drags the space suit out the door.  Then the ship launches back to Earth.

And the movie ends with the words THE END followed by “of the Beginning.”

Destination Moon is a landmark.  It is the first reasonably accurate portrayal of actual space flight.  Coming nineteen years before Apollo 11 it is remarkably realistic.  Now as cinema it definitely isn’t King Lear or even King Kong but it’s excellent propaganda for a space program.  And it does contain all the correct tropes of the time.  If you are a sci-fi fan this movie is a must see.