Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Ivanhoe (dir by Richard Thorpe)


Welcome to England in the 12th century!

That’s the setting of the 1952 best picture nominee, Ivanhoe.  It’s a green and healthy land, full of chivalrous knights and corrupt royalty and outlaws who steal from the rich and give to the poor.  King Richard the Lion Heart (Norman Wooland) left on a crusade and he hasn’t been seen for a while.  Richard’s evil brother, the cowardly King John (Guy Rolfe), rules the country and has little interest in making sure that Richard returns.  Even when Wilfred of Ivanhoe (Robert Taylor) discovers that Richard is being held for ransom, John declines to do anything about it.

Ivanhoe is determined to raise the money to pay the ransom and restore Richard to the throne of England, even if he has to secretly compete in a tournament to do it.  Of course, before he can do that, he’ll have to buy a horse and some armor.  Fortunately, he comes across Isaac (Felix Aylmer) and his daughter, Rebecca (Elizabeth Taylor).  Isaac and Rebecca give Ivanhoe the money necessary to purchase a good horse and equipment.  Rebecca falls in love with Ivanoe, despite the fact that Ivanhoe is in love with Rowena (Joan Fontaine, who spends most of the movie looking rather bored).

Speaking of love, the king’s favorite knight — the hot-headed but honorable Sir Brian De Bois-Guilbert (George Sanders) — has fallen in love with Rebecca.  That, of course, complicates matters when the anti-Semitic King John attempts to have the Jewish Rebecca burned at the stake for witchcraft.  When Ivanhoe invokes the “wager of challenge,” in an effort to save Rebecca’s life, Sir Brian is chosen as the court’s champion.  Needless to say, this leads to some awkward moments….

Listen, I would be lying if I said that it was easy for me to follow the plot of Ivanhoe.  It seemed like every few minutes, someone else was plotting against either Ivanoe or King John and it got a bit difficult to keep track of what exactly everyone was trying to accomplish.  By the time Robin Hood (Harold Warrender) showed up, I have given up trying to make sense of the plot.

Instead of worrying about the exact details of the plot, I decided to just enjoy the film as a spectacle.  If nothing else, Ivanhoe is gorgeous to look at.  The colors are lush and full and the costumes and the sets are all wonderfully ornate.  Apparently, 12 Century England was a very colorful place.  There’s a lot of battles and jousts and sword fights.  I couldn’t always keep track of who was fighting who but at least the film moved at a steady pace.

Robert Taylor and Joan Fontaine make for a dull leading couple but a young Elizabeth Taylor is stunning in the role of Rebecca and George Sanders transforms Sir Brian into a truly tragic figure.  Guy Rolfe is memorably evil as King John, though he’s perhaps not as much fun as Oscar Isaac was in Robin Hood.  Everyone in the movie looks good in their period costuming.  Really, that’s the most important thing.

Ivanhoe was nominated for Best Picture but lost to The Greatest Show On Earth.

Gothic Art: Alfred Hitchcock’s REBECCA (United Artists 1940)


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REBECCA is unquestionably a cinematic masterpiece. I remember watching it for the first time in a high school film class, enthralled as much by its technical aspects as the story itself. This was Alfred Hitchcock’s  first American film, though with a decidedly British flavor, and his only to win the Best Picture Oscar. There’s a lot of film noir shadings to this adaptation of Daphne DuMaurier’s  Gothic novel, as well as that distinctive Hitchcock Touch.

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”, begins Joan Fontaine’s narration, as the camera pans down a dark road overgrown with brush and weeds, fog rolling in all around, as we come up on the once majestic castle called Manderley, now lying in ruins. This first shot was all done with miniatures, another wonderful example of Hitchcock’s innovative use of the camera, looking and feeling totally believable (take that, CGI!). Flashbacks bring us to when Fontaine’s character, who’s…

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Cleaning Out the DVR Pt 11: Five from the Fifties


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The 1950’s were a time of change in movies. Television was providing stiff competition, and studios were willing to do anything to fend it off. The bigger budgeted movies tried 3D, Cinerama, wide-screen, and other optical tricks, while smaller films chose to cover unusual subject matter. The following five films represent a cross-section of nifty 50’s cinema:

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BORDERLINE (Universal-International 1950; D: William A. Seiter)

BORDERLINE is a strange film, straddling the borderline (sorry) between romantic comedy and crime drama, resulting in a rather mediocre movie. Claire Trevor plays an LAPD cop assigned to Customs who’s sent to Mexico to get the goods on drug smuggler Pete Ritchey (Raymond Burr , being his usual malevolent self). She’s tripped up by Ritchey’s rival Johnny Macklin (Fred MacMurray , channeling his inner Walter Neff), and taken along as he tries to get the dope over the border. What she doesn’t know is he’s also…

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Embracing the Melodrama Part II #14: Suspicion (dir by Alfred Hitchcock)


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First off, a warning.  The following review of the 1941 best picture nominee Suspicion will include spoilers.  So, if you haven’t seen the film and you’re obsessive about avoiding major spoilers, then don’t read the review.  Simple, no?

Two years ago, I was having lunch with some of my fellow administrative assistants.  One of them was talking about how she had watched an “old movie” the previous night.  From listening to the vague details that she offered up, I was able to figure out that she had apparently stumbled across TCM for the first time in her life.  From listening to her talk, I would not be surprised if she was literally describing the first time she had ever actually seen a black-and-white movie.  Needless to say, my first instinct was to correct everything she was saying but I resisted.  (For some reason, at that time, I was feeling self-conscious about being perceived as being a know-it-all.)  But, as she kept talking, I found it harder and harder to keep quiet.  Listening to her talk about old movies was like attending an art history lecture given by someone who had flunked out of a finger painting class.  Finally, when the conversation had moved on to someone who we all knew was sleeping with her much older boss, our self-proclaimed old film expert announced that age didn’t matter.  “I’d go out with Cary Grant,” she said, “and he’s old.”

Before I could stop myself, I added, “He’s also dead.”

Oh my God, the look of shock on her face!  I actually felt really guilty because I could tell that she had apparently taken a lot of happiness from the idea that suave, witty, and handsome Cary Grant was still out there.  And can you blame her?  In a career that spanned three decades and included several classic dramas and comedies, Cary Grant epitomized charm.  Some of his movies may seem dated now but Grant was such a charismatic and natural actor that it’s impossible not to get swept up in his performances.

(Who would be the contemporary Cary Grant?  I’ve heard some people compare George Clooney to Grant.  And it’s true that Clooney has Grant’s charm but, whereas Grant always came across as very natural, you’re always very aware that George Clooney is giving a performance.)

It was Grant’s charm that made him the perfect choice for the male lead in Suspicion but it was that same charm that made the film so controversial.  In Suspicion, Grant plays Johnnie.  Johnnie meets, charms, and — after the proverbial whirlwind courtship — marries Lina (Joan Fontaine), a sheltered heiress.  It’s only after Lina marries Johnnie that she discovers that he’s broke, unemployed, and addicted to gambling.  With everyone from her family to her friends telling her that Johnnie is only interested in her money, Lina starts to worry that Johnnie is plotting to kill her.  Lina starts to view all of Johnnie’s actions with suspicion, wondering if there’s an innocent explanation for his occasionally odd behavior or if it’s all more evidence that he’s planning to kill her.  When he brings her a glass of milk, Lina has to decide whether or not to risk drinking it…

Suspicion was based on a novel in which Johnnie was a murderer and which ended with Lina voluntarily drinking that poisoned milk.  In the film, however, Johnnie is not a murderer.  Apparently, it was felt that Grant was so charming and so likable that audiences would never accept him as a murderer.  Instead, he’s an embezzler and all of his strange behavior is due to him being ashamed of his past and feeling that he’s not worthy of Lina.  Once Lina realizes that Johnnie isn’t trying to kill her, she promises him that she’ll stay with him.

And a lot of people (including director Alfred Hitchcock, who claimed it was forced on him by the film’s producers) have criticized that ending but you know what?

It works.  If I had to choose between Joan Fontaine essentially committing suicide or Joan Fontaine promising to love Cary Grant even if Grant goes to prison, I’m going to go with the second choice.  Ultimately, Suspicion works because you can imagine being swept off your feet by Grant’s character.  But what makes Suspicion enjoyable, to me, is that Johnnie ultimately turns out to be exactly who we were hoping he would be.

Needless to say, Suspicion works as a great double feature with Rebecca.  Watch one after the other and have a great night of menace and romance.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #13: Rebecca (dir by Alfred Hitchcock)


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Well, here we are, less than a week into Embracing the Melodrama, Part II, and I’m already running behind!  The plan, as I mentioned back on Monday, is to review 128 melodramatic films over the next three weeks.  And, even though I know that sounds a like a lot, I had it all planned out so that I’d be able to get all that done in just 21 days.  All I had to do was make sure that I reviewed 6 films a day.

And …

Well, life happened.

But no matter!  It may now take me 3 and a half weeks to review 128 films but that’s no great tragedy.  And besides, regardless of how long it takes, I’ve got some pretty good films scheduled.

Take, for instance, the 1940 best picture winner Rebecca.

Rebecca is a film that all women can relate to.  The heroine is played by Joan Fontaine.  I say “heroine” because we never actually learn the character’s name, nor do we learn much about her background.  When we first see her, she’s defined by her job, which is to basically be a paid companion to a wealthy woman.  Later, she’s defined by her whirlwind romance with the brooding and aristocratic widower Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier).  When, after two weeks, they get married, she becomes known  as the second Mrs. de Winter.  She becomes defined by both who she married and who she is not.

She’s not Rebecca, the first Mrs. de Winter.

As soon as Maxim takes his new wife to his estate, the second Mrs. de Winter discovers that she’ll always live in the shadow of the deceased Rebecca.  Everyone she meets describes Rebecca as being a vibrant, lively figure — in other words, the complete opposite of the meek second Mrs. de Winter.  The coldly imperious housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), has perfectly preserved Rebecca’s room and makes little attempt to hide the scorn that she feels for the second Mrs. de Winter.  Even worse, once they return to the estate, Maxim reveals himself to be moody and tempermental.  With the help of the manipulative Mrs. Danvers, the second Mrs. de Winter becomes convinced that Maxim will never love her as much as he loved Rebecca.

Making things even more complicated, a man claiming to be Rebecca’s cousin comes by the house when Maxim is away.  Jack Flavell (played by George Sanders, at his most serpent-like) suggests that there may have been more to Rebecca’s death than the second Mrs. de Winter was originally told…

Rebecca is a classic film, for many reasons.  It’s well-acted, with Fontaine, Olivier, Anderson, and Sanders all bringing their characters to vibrant life.  It’s a gothic romance.  It’s a thriller.  It’s a mystery.  It is the epitome of old Hollywood style.  But, for me, the main reason that Rebecca is a classic is because it tells a story to which almost everyone can relate.  Every relationship that I’ve ever had, I’ve always been curious and occasionally even jealous of who came before me.  There’s nothing more intimidating than living in the shadow of someone who you will never get a chance to meet personally.  The second Mrs. de Winter’s insecurities are everyone’s insecurities and, in some fashion or another, we’ve all had a Mrs. Danvers in our life.  The second Mrs. de Winter’s struggles are our struggles and, as she grows stronger, the viewer grows stronger with her.

Alfred Hitchcock is one of the most influential and acclaimed filmmakers of all time but he never won a directing Oscar.  Rebecca was the only one of his films to win Best Picture.  Producer David O. Selznick brought Hitchcock over from England to direct Rebecca and it’s been reported that Hitchcock resented Selznick’s interference.  (And, while Rebecca is undoubtedly a good film that was directed by Alfred Hitchcock, it’s not exactly a Hitchcock film in the way that Shadow of a Doubt, Rear Window, or Vertigo are Hitchcock films.)  As a result, Hitchcock subsequently made it a point to edit future pictures in camera so that the studios would not be able to re-edit his films.

But, whether you consider it to be a Hitchcock picture or a Selznick production, Rebecca remains a wonderfully watchable melodrama.

Saying Goodbye To Three Cinematic Legends


 

We lost three legends this week.

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As I’ve mentioned on this site, I love the old Hollywood of the 30s and the 40s.  It’s a period of time that I love both for the films that were made and for the unapologetic glamour of the people who made them.  To me, the 30s and the 40s will always be the Golden Age of film because that was a time when actors and actresses felt no shame in looking good and living lives that literally seemed to be larger-than-life.

Joan Fontaine was one of the most beautiful actresses of the Golden Age, as well as one of the most talented.  She was also one of my personal favorites.  Whether she was playing the second Mrs. de Winter in Rebecca or a frightened wife in Suspicion, Joan Fontaine was a vibrant force on-screen.  Off-screen, she was best known for a long-running feud with her older sister, Olivia De Havilland.

Joan Fontaine passed away on December 15th, at the age of 96.  She was one of the last remaining stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

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Tom Laughlin was an actor who wasn’t happy with the roles he was getting in mainstream films.  He was a filmmaker who wasn’t happy with the way that the Hollywood establishment treated his films.  The same can be said about a lot of filmmakers and a lot of actors over the years.  The difference between them and Tom Laughlin is that Laughlin actually did something about it.

In 1971, Tom Laughlin produced, wrote, directed, and starred in a film called Billy Jack.  Laughlin played Billy Jack, an American Navajo who is also a former Green Beret, a veteran of the Viet Nam War, a master of the martial arts, and the self-appointed defender of the Freedom School.  When small town bigots and other assorted fascists try to destroy the Freedom School, Billy responds by kicking ass and reciting platitudes.

When the mainstream studios showed that they had no idea what to do with an anti-establishment film like Billy Jack, Laughlin released (and subsequently) re-released it himself.  Billy Jack ended up making more than 40 million dollars and changed the film industry forever.

Laughlin went on to produce, direct, and write two sequels and an unrelated film called The Master Gunfighter.  He also ran for President a few times but was never elected.  (However, he did get to play a Senator in Billy Jack Goes To Washington.)

He died at the age of 82 on December 12th.

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And finally, Peter O’Toole.  How does one sum up Peter O’Toole in just a few sentences?  As an actor, he appeared in everything from Lawrence of Arabia to Caligula to For Greater Glory.  He was great in good films and good in bad films and he had a unique screen presence that no other actor will ever be able to duplicate.   While it’s true that O’Toole had retired from acting in 2012 (and he was obviously frail in films like For Greater Glory and Venus), it’s still hard to believe that such a bigger-than-life character has passed away.

While there’s so much that can be written about Peter O’Toole’s life, career, and hell-raising reputation, I’m going to instead suggest that you watch Becket and The Lion In Winter and then wonder how Peter O’Toole could end his career with 8 Oscar nominations but no wins.

Peter O’Toole died on December 14th after a long illness.  He was 81 years old.

To Peter, Tom, Joan — rest in peace.  And thank you for the movies and the memories.