Thursday, January 29, 2009

20 Actors Meme

Nicole and Sarah were kind enough to tag me in the 20 Actors meme, and I've given my word not to cheat this time. Luckily, this time I have all night.

Cary Grant

Claude Raines

George Brent

Gary Merrill

Spencer Tracy

Joseph Cotten

Clark Cable

Humphrey Bogart

James Stewart

William Powell

James Cagney

Fred Astaire

Errol Flynn

Melvyn Douglas

Gregory Peck

Sidney Poitier

Lee J. Cobb

Tyrone Power

George Sanders

Dana Andrews

Jack Lemmon

Since I'm permanently late to the party, I'll just tag anyone who hasn't done this yet.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Sometimes I do that, but my aim is better...

I'm not quite sure what it says about me that I won't go to class before noon but I'll gladly get up at 8 to watch some Bette Davis movies. In my defense, class doesn't happen in my living room, although I can't guarantee I'd get up for it if it did. Today, however, I arose hours ahead of my alarm clock, took a quick shower, and set up shop on the couch just in time to catch the second of five movies airing on TCM today from early in Miss Davis' career. I've only seen Bette as a blonde once before, in Dangerous, so this marathon was a particular treat for me.

I started out with The Girl From 10th Avenue, which features Bette in one of her rare good-girl roles. As a rich businessman's wife of not-quite-convenience, Miriam is a sympathetic character who nonetheless gets to exhibit all the passion and temper of Bette's later performances but with the benefit of being the innocent (or at least well-intentioned) party. I'd never actually heard of this movie until I saw it on TCM's schedule for today, so I don't know if it's really underrated or I'm just really uninformed, but it was an enjoyable, relatively light film and a nice contrast to the more dramatic roles I'm used to seeing Bette play.

The Petrified Forest seems to be one of the best-known movies of her early career, at least among the sources I've encountered. I've wanted to see this one for a long time, and although I had high expectations it definitely did not disappoint. Bette plays a good girl here, too, and although she's also a bit of a snob I can relate to her anywhere-but-here mentality as a lot of my peers seem to feel the same way. The idea of a free-wheeling intellectual, an arteest not bound by earthly possessions, coming in and whisking her off to France is quite appealing, I have to admit. I also liked that said intellectual didn't actually know everything there is to know about everything, after all. The fact that Alan missed the most important point of all -- that he found something to live for, and someone whose life could be made better by his presence -- demonstrated such a basic human flaw in his character that I sympathized with him all the more. That might not be what the film was going for, but it's what I got out of it. Well, one of many things, and maybe eventually I'll see it again and give it its own post (which it definitely deserves), but for now this'll do.

The last movie I watched before I had to go to class was Satan Met A Lady. Here Bette plays the darker type of character that she tended to gravitate towards, and she does so with the kind of self-assuredness that makes a truly great villain. This comedic version of The Maltese Falcon may be a bit over the top, but I thoroughly enjoyed it -- and yes, I've seen the 1941 version already. My favorite part was the final scene, wherein Bette's Valerie Purvis outsmarts Detective Shane even as he's sending her up the river. Really, any scene with Bette Davis and Warren William facing off had my attention. Their mutual charm in increasingly absurd situations had me rooting for a quite different outcome. Check out this scene and I think you'll see what I mean.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Just a couple of rose-colored glasses. Let's try them and see how the world looks...

I had to choose tonight between doing laundry and getting home in time to watch 42nd Street. I'll bet most of you can guess which activity I picked. Clean clothes are overrated*; this movie certainly isn't. I saw my first glimpse of it in that film history class I'm always going on about. We didn't have time to watch the whole thing, but I got to see the "Young And Healthy" number as an example of pre-code musicals.

Now that I've seen the whole thing, I can say without a doubt that it's by far my favorite musical. The story, the cast, the choreography, the cinematography -- all wonderful. And so different from every other musical I've seen! Of course, I haven't had the opportunity to see many examples of the pre-code cinema at its best, but this was certainly an interesting place to start.

We all know how much I love classic movies, but what struck me while I was watching this one was that although it's the oldest musical I've seen, it's also very much the most modern. Don't get me wrong, a lot of supremely witty and creative work came out of the Code era and the need to work around those restrictions, but for someone around my age who hadn't been exposed to classic musicals before, I really think that 42nd Street would be the perfect way to ease into it. Some of the costumes and even the script in some places ("Sexy ladies from the 80's," anyone?) would almost feel right at home in a theater today, if not for obvious changes in style and slang. If and when I finally convince my friends to sit down and watch a movie with me, this would definitely be in the running for which one I'd show them.

I even loved the musical numbers. That may seem obvious, considering the genre, but I'm not a fan of musicals in general. Usually I watch them for the plot or the acting or even the dancing, but the songs themselves I can take or leave with very few exceptions. However, how could I not sit up and pay attention to this?

I can't believe it took me a full year to finally see the rest of this movie. Hopefully it won't be so long before I see another Busby Berkeley flick.

*That makes me sound disgusting. I promise, not everything I own is actually dirty. It can wait until tomorrow.

Ring the bell, close the book, quench the candle...

As a child, my favorite part of summer was getting to stay up late for "Bewitched Be-Wednesdays" on Nick at Nite. I spent every Thursday night of the fourth grade hiding under my blankets with the remote control, keeping the volume down as low as possible to avoid getting caught watching Charmed way past my bedtime. When I discovered the Harry Potter books in middle school, well, I don't think I need to explain how quickly I took to that particular phenomenon. I've just always loved stories about magic, so Bell Book and Candle is right up my alley.

The story is in many ways similar to every other portrayal of withcraft I've seen churned out by Hollywood. A group of decidedly odd and garishly dressed individuals who keep more or less to themselves go around casting spells until one of them decides not too anymore, and hilarity ensues. My fantasy-related fandoms have gotten increasingly complex as I've grown older, and this movie reminded me of the very simplest of them. I don't mean that negatively; it was like slipping on an old robe, but less tattered and more comfy.

Of course, clichés are sometimes necessary as a means of avoiding too much exposition. Director Richard Quine uses certain clichés to the best possible effect in this film. Immediately through the opening credits, the audience sees what kind of artifacts are for sale in Gil's shop and knows that these are Not Normal People, before any of the characters are even seen. The shot of Pyewacket jumping onto Gil's shoulder clarifies exactly what type of Not Normal we're dealing with; where there's a cat, there's usually a witch.

Before I give anyone the wrong impression, there are also a lot of original and interesting ideas at work here. Many fantastical works pay lip service to the notion that magical beings are a distinct species, but in this movie they have qualities apart from their powers to back that up. Witches and warlocks have no emotions, including love. If a witch experienced love, she would cease to be a witch -- at least, according to Queenie. The idea of magical powers coming with a high and very real price was interesting to me, because it's a concept that many stories flirt with but few truly follow through. I was glad to see this one did.

Overall, this is a good movie with a great cast. Anyone who has ever enjoyed a good witchcraft-and-broomsticks yarn should definitely check this one out.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

She feels that every one of our children will be President of the United States, and they'll all have colorful administrations...

Guess Who's Coming To Dinner has, at least on the surface, a very simple plot. However, befitting the movie's main theme, one must look below the surface to truly appreciate the film.

The central theme of the movie is very clear. Race relations was and continues to be an important social issue, and this movie gives a sensitive and realistic portrayal of one such conflict. Though interracial marriage is no longer the taboo (or crime, in some places, as one of Matt Drayton's arguments went) that it was in the 1960's, the private reactions of both John's and Joey's parents are just as applicable today. In fact, I found it almost eerie how modern this 40-year-old film really is; the quote I used as the title of this post, for example, makes it almost too perfect to watch today, the day that the son of a black man and white woman (exactly the interracial pairing being depicted) was in fact sworn in as President of the United States.

Because that part of the movie is so powerful it may be easy to overlook the plot's other aspects, but something else caught my eye. The relationship between parents and children is also a very important theme, although the struggle between the couple and their parents seems secondary to the conflict the parents are experiencing within themselves, but I found Joey's relationship with her family and John's relationship with his to be very compelling.

What first caught my attention was the scene when John and his father speak privately in Matt's office. Mr. Prentice argues that after all he sacrificed for John's well-being, John owes him respect and obedience. John counters that his father was required to provide for him every opportunity that he could, and that he is owed nothing in repayment for doing his parental duties. What struck me about this conversation was how clearly I could understand and even agree with both sides. The problem, and it is a common problem that plagues all kinds of relationships between all kinds of people, is that both Mr. Prentice and the younger Prentice take the most extreme viewpoints on their respective sides of the argument, rendering them each incapable of seeing the other's point of view. It's especially interesting to examine this type of conflict against the background of the racial tension in the film, in which each person takes a far more complex position that results in a difficulty understanding themselves as well as each other.

Mr. Prentice did work hard and sacrifice to give his son every possible chance at success, and I found John's ingratitude appalling. However, there is a point at which parents lose the right to dictate their children's decisions, and that point comes long before the child reaches age 37. At the same time, although I firmly believe that parents owe their children nothing less than the best shot at a good life that the parent can provide, they also deserve respect for carrying out that arduous duty. Respect does not mean living your life according to your parents' terms, but it does require keeping a civil tongue even when disagreeing with them. When John told his father to "Shut up," I cringed -- and come to think of it, I felt similarly when Matt uttered the same expression to Joey, although in that case it was played in a humorous light. I wasn't quite uncomfortable the second time, however, because overall the relationship between Joey and her father had been one of mutual respect throughout the film. That element was certainly missing from John's relationship with his dad.

Although the movie revolved around an interracial relationship, I thought that this side point added an interesting commentary on the nature of relationships in general, whether romantic, parental, platonic, or whathaveyou. It's just one more way that this amazing film continues to be very much relevant today, and one more reason why it's such a classic.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

We don't need each other anymore. When that happens to two people, there's nothing left...

As I mentioned once before, my interest in classic movies began when I caught a late-night airing of Penny Serenade on one of the local PBS channels. I was in high school at the time and had no idea who Irene Dunne was; I recognized Cary Grant's name in the credits but couldn't begin to guess which character he played, and afterwards couldn't remember whether it had been him or Clark Gable. Without a title or even clear memory of the film's stars, it took me ages to even figure out what I'd seen.

I haven't seen the movie since, so naturally when I came across the title in the TV listings -- another 2 a.m. showing on PBS, of course -- I couldn't resist staying up to watch it. And, because it was so important in my own personal film history, I decided to pull myself out of this blogging slump I've fallen into over winter break. I can't promise to stay up and watch the whole thing this go-around (I'm actively trying to break the habit of staying up until 4), but as long as I'm watching I thought I'd try making a live post. We'll see how that goes.

I'm about twenty minutes in, and... hi there, foreshadowing. I missed the beginning of the movie last time, so I remember that they were in financial trouble but I thought they'd just always been broke.

Aaand, the earthquake was a huge surprise. I clearly still have a lot to learn about social standards of the era, because I had no idea that they could portray a miscarriage in film back then. The hospital scene was superbly acted, not that I could expect anything less. Irene Dunne's quiet grief and Cary Grant's fumbling attempts at consoling her with the idea of material things were heartbreaking.

It's a little disconcerting to hear children spoken about like goods to be shopped for, but I like that the caseworker pointed out how many parents want blue-eyed blonde-haired toddlers, because that's a trend that continues even today. I'm glad that they don't get exactly the type of child they want, but the way the caseworker describes their baby as "unique" and "like no other child" kind of grates. Can infants be Mary Sues?

The idea of a baby coming with instructions seems endlessly amusing to me. I'll admit I know less than nothing about small children, but I'm pretty sure that doesn't ever happen. A schedule, okay, but... instructions? Really?

Now Roger's just leaving for court to finalize Trina's adoption, and I'm fairly certain this is where I started watching the first time I saw this movie. The hopeful not-quite-goodbye among the little family was probably what drew me in. Roger's speech to the judge is passionate and powerful, and one of the few movie scenes that was immediately imprinted onto my memory after just one viewing. Now, watching it for the second time around, I can also appreciate the way that Roger's character has developed over the course of the film from a frivolous bachelor into a devoted and responsible father.

I don't have much to say about the scenes with six-year-old Trina, because honestly I find the child actress completely distracting. Moving along, that mother and little boy just happening to break down on their way to a Christmas pageant is cruel even for fictional characters. It works as a catalyst for Roger's final decision to leave, but Julie's reaction seems strange considering she hadn't even wanted him to go out for a walk. I'm a little confused as to how Julie ended up being the one to walk out.

The conversation between Roger and Julie recounting their regrets about the last days of Trina's life is poignant and something most people who've lost loved ones can relate to. Even though I know the movie "has" to have a happy ending, it's still jarring when their dream child suddenly falls into their lap right after that. The whole ending makes me a little uncomfortable, from the designer baby factor to the grieving parents' immediate and enthusiastic repurposing of their deceased daughter's room. Still, that's just a brief scene tacked on to the end of an otherwise good movie. It was definitely worth seeing, and even worth staying up this late for. I'm sure I'll watch it again.