Film Review: Pride and Prejudice (dir by Robert Z. Leonard)


On this date, in 1813, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was first published.  The book was published Thomas Egerton, who bought the rights for £110.  Apparently, Austen didn’t expect the book to become the success that it did.  As a result, she ultimately only made  £140 off of the book.  (Egerton made considerably more.)  When the book was originally published, Austen’s name was nowhere to be found on the manuscript.  Instead, it was credited to “the author of Sense and Sensibility.”

(When Sense and Sensibility was originally released, it was simply credited to “A Lady.”)

The rest, of course, is history.  205 years after it was first published, Pride and Prejudice remains one of the most popular and influential novels ever written.  Every year, new readers discover and fall in love with the story of outspoken Elizabeth Bennet, the proud Mr. Darcy, the pompous Mr. Collins, and the rather sleazy George Wickham.  There have been countless film and television adaptations.  My personal favorite is Joe Wright’s 2005 version, with Keira Knightley as Elizabeth.  My least favorite would have to be Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

The very first film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice was released in 1940.  Originally, the movie was envisioned as being a George Cukor film that would star Norma Shearer and Clark Gable.  However, the film’s production was put on hold after the death of Shearer’s husband, the legendary Irving Thalberg.  When the film finally resumed pre-production in 1939, Gable was now busy with Gone With The Wind.  Cast in his place was Robert Donat (who, interestingly enough, would have played Rhett Butler if Gable had refused the role).  With the film originally meant to be filmed in Europe, the outbreak of World War II led to yet another delay.  By the time production resumed, Cukor had been replaced by Robert Z. Leonard and Norma Shearer had also left the project.  With Gone With The Wind breaking box office records, MGM came up with the idea of once again casting Vivien Leigh opposite of Clark Gable.  However, Gable eventually left the film and Laurence Olivier, looking for a chance to act opposite Leigh, agreed to play Darcy.  However, the studio worried that casting Olivier and Leigh opposite each other would lead to negative stories about the two of them having an affair despite both being married to other people.  So, Leigh was removed from the project and Greer Garson was cast.  Olivier was so annoyed with the decision that, after Pride and Prejudice, it would be eleven years before he would work with another American studio.

Despite all of the drama behind-the-scenes, MGM’s version of Pride and Prejudice is a thoroughly delightful film, one full of charming performances and witty lines.  Though she was 36 when she made Pride and Prejudice, Garson is still the perfect Elizabeth, giving a lively and intelligent performance that stands in stark contrast to the somewhat staid films that she was making at the same time with Walter Pidgeon.  As for Olivier, from the first minute he appears, he simply is Darcy.  That said, my favorite performance in the film was Edmund Gwenn’s.  Cast as Mr. Bennet,  Gwenn brought the same warmth and gentle humor to the role that he would later bring to Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street.  I also liked the performances of Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane and Edward Ashley as disreputable Mr. Wickham.

Pride and Prejudice is not an exact adaptation.  For one thing, the movie takes place in the early Victoria era, supposedly because MGM wanted to cut costs by reusing some of the same costumes that were previously used in Gone With The Wind.  As well, Lady Catherine (Edna May Oliver) is no longer as evil as she was in the novel.  Finally, because the production code forbid ridicule of religion, the theological career of Mr. Collins (Melville Cooper) was considerably downplayed.  Not even Jane Austen (or, more specifically, the film’s screenwriter, Aldous Huxley) could defy the Code.

Seventy-eight years after it was first released, the 1940 version of Pride and Prejudice holds up surprisingly well.  It’s an enjoyable film and one that, despite a few plot changes, remains true to the spirit of Austen.

The Fabulous Forties #40: Smash-Up, The Story of a Woman (dir by Stuart Heisler)


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The 39th film in the Fabulous Forties box set was 1947’s Smash-Up, the Story of a Woman.  I have to say it was a little bit strange going from watching the hilarious and life-affirming My Man Godfrey to watching the very serious and rather depressing Smash-Up.

Smash-Up is pure, tear-jerking Hollywood melodrama.  When the film starts, Angie Evans (Susan Hayward) is in a hospital, with her face totally covered in bandages.  Just by looking at her, we already know that her story is not going to be a happy one.

Flash back time!  Angie was a nightclub singer and a pretty good one at that.  The audiences loved her and she loved performing but she loved one thing more.  (See how overwrought my prose was there?  That’s a reflection of Smash-Up’s style.)  She loved Ken Conway (Lee Bowman, who may be related to me but probably isn’t).  Ken was a singer himself, though he was nowhere near as successful as Angie.  However, after Ken and Angie married, Angie put her career on hold while Ken went on to become a huge success.

Angie was already a drinker before she met Ken.  Having a few drinks before going out on stage helped to calm her nerves.  It helped her to relax and become the performer that the audiences loved.  However, once Ken became a star and Angie found herself continually alone in their home, she started to drink because it was the only thing that made her happy.  Whenever she started to regret giving up her career, she drank.  When she was worried that Ken was having an affair with his secretary (Marsha Hunt), Angie drank.  Ken’s best friend and songwriter, Steve (Eddie Albert), could see that Angie was losing control.  However, Ken refused to accept that his wife had a drinking problem.  Accepting that Angie was drinking to be happy would mean accepting that she wasn’t happy in the first place.

Trapped in the middle of all this was their daughter, Angel (Sharyn Payne).  When Ken, finally admitting that his wife could not control her drinking, demanded custody of Angel, Angie was determined to get back her daughter.

But, even though she wanted to, Angie could not stop drinking.  Or smoking.  And the smoking, the drinking, and the kidnapping did not make for a particularly good combination.

According to Wikipedia, Smash-Up was a failure at the box office and I can actually see why.  1940s American cinema can basically be divided between the earnest, patriotic, and optimistic films that were released during World War II and the dark and pessimistic films that came out after the war ended and the world realized just how evil and dangerous human beings could be.  Smash-Up is one of those dark films.  It’s not a happy film, nor is it at all subtle.  In fact, as much as I love a good melodrama, Smash-Up occasionally seems like a bit much.  Absolutely every bad thing that could happen does happen and it’s typical of the approach of Hollywood in the 40s that, for all the trouble Angie suffers as a result of her drinking, the film still has to find an excuse to send her to hospital with her face in bandages.  The film is often very empathetic in its treatment of Angie but, in the 1940s, mistakes still had to be punished.

Fortunately, Susan Hayward gives a great performance in the role of Angie, capturing the aching sadness that leads her to drink in the first place.  She saves the entire film and, quite justifiably, she received a nomination for best actress for her performance here.  She didn’t win but she still made Smash-Up worth seeing.

The Fabulous Forties #30: Cheers for Miss Bishop (dir by Tay Garnett)


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The 30th film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set is the 1941 melodrama, Cheers For Miss Bishop.  Cheers For Miss Bishop is a bit like an Americanized version of Goodbye, Mr. Chips.  The story of Cheers For Miss Bishop, largely told via flashback, deals with a retired teacher who never quite got what she wanted out of life but still had a profound impact on all of her students.

The film opens with elderly Miss Bishop (played by Martha Scott) alone in her house.  The time is the 1930s and Miss Bishop is nearing retirement and somewhat bitter over ending her years having never married.  Prominent businessman Sam Peters (William Gargan) comes to the house and they start to recollect.  We flashback to the 1880s, when Miss Bishop was preparing to go to college and Sam was just the local grocery boy.  Sam was in love with Miss Bishop and, it’s suggested, that she loved him as well.  But she was determined to go to college whereas Sam was determined to go straight into business.

With the support of the kindly Prof. Corcoran (Edmund Gwenn, giving a performance that pretty much epitomizes what we mean when we call someone a kindly professor), Miss Bishop got a job teaching English at Midwestern College.  She was a popular teacher, one who not only inspired her students but who was also willing to stand up for them.  Eventually she met and became engaged to a local lawyer, Delbert Thompson (Don Douglas).  However, her heart was broken when Delbert ran off with another woman.  Years later, she fell in love with another professor (Sidney Blackmer), with the only problem being that he happened to be married.

But that’s not all that Miss Bishop had to deal with.  She also ended up adopting and raising Hope (Marsha Hunt) after Hope’s mother died in childbirth.  As she got older, she became frustrated when the younger college administrators demanded that she adapt with the times.  Miss Bishop also had to deal with her frequent romantic rival and cousin, the impulsive Amy (Mary Anderson).

Amy, I should mention, was my favorite character in Cheers For Miss Bishop, even though I don’t think that was the film’s intention.  Some of that is because Mary Anderson totally embraced the melodramatic potential of her character, often going totally over-the-top in a way that still seemed perfectly natural.  But there’s also the fact that Amy, as opposed to the often painfully inhibited Miss Bishop, had no boundaries.  She knew what she wanted and she went for it, without apology.  Amy may not have been a big role but she still dominated every scene that she appeared in.  Amy demanded attention and good for her!

That said, the title of the film is Cheers For Miss Bishop and not Cheers For Amy.  Ultimately, it’s a tribute to Miss Bishop and to teachers everywhere.  It’s an extremely predictable and sentimental film but it does what it does fairly well.  Occasionally, I got frustrated with Miss Bishop as a character (she was always so prim, proper, and respectable!  Plus, there’s a scene where she gives a student from North Carolina some trouble about his accent, saying that he needs to take her English class and, if you know how I feel about actors from up north trying too hard to sound like they’re from the South, you can imagine how I felt about that scene) but Martha Scott gave a good performance.  In the end, it’s a sweet little movie.  And you can watch it below!

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Blossoms In The Dust (dir by Mervyn LeRoy)


Blossoms_dust_movieposterDid you know that up until the year 1936, if a child was born to unwed parents, it was common practice to actually put the word “illegitimate” on that child’s birth certificate?  As you all know, I am perhaps the biggest history nerd in the world and, while I knew that there was once a huge stigma associated with being born outside of marriage, I did not know just how institutionalized that stigma was.

I’m also proud to say that my home state of Texas — the state that all the yankees love to bitch about — was the first state to ban the use of the word “illegitimate” on birth certificates.  This was largely due to the efforts of Edna Gladney, an early advocate for the rights of children.  Along with starting a home for orphans and abandoned children in Ft. Worth, Edna also started one of the country’s first day care centers for the children of working mothers.

That’s right — there was a time when day care was itself a revolutionary concept.

I have TCM to thank for my knowledge of Edna Gladney, largely because TCM broadcast a 1941 biopic called Blossoms in The Dust.  According to Wikipedia, the film was a highly fictionalized look at Edna’s life but, to be honest, I would have guessed that just from watching the movie.  While Blossoms In The Dust gets the important things right (and it deserves a lot of credit for sympathetically dealing with the cultural stigma of being born to unwed parents at a time when it was an even more controversial subject that it is today), it’s also full of scenes that are pure Hollywood.

In real life, Edna knew firsthand about the challenges faced by children of unwed parents because she was one herself.  Apparently, at the time, that was going too far for even a relatively progressive film like Blossoms In The Dust so, in Blossoms, Edna (played by Greer Garson) is given an adopted sister named Charlotte (Marsha Hunt).  When the parents of Charlotte’s fiancée discover that she was born outside of marriage, they refuse to allow Charlotte to marry their son.  In response, Charlotte commits suicide.

In real life, Edna was born in Wisconsin but, following the death of her stepfather, moved to Ft. Worth to stay with relatives.  Edna was 18 at the time and eventually met and married a local businessman named Sam Gladney.  In Blossoms in The Dust, Edna is already an adult when she first meets Sam (played by Walter Pidgeon, who played Greer Garson’s husband in a number of films) and they meet in Wisconsin.  It’s only after Charlotte dies that Edna marries Sam and it’s only after they’re married that Edna moves to Texas.  Whereas the real life Edna had relatives in Texas, the film’s Edna is literally a stranger in a strange land.

That said, the film is actually rather kind to my home state.  The film spend a lot of time contrasting the judgmental snobs up north with the more straight-forward people who Edna meets after she moves to Ft. Worth and it’s occasionally fun to watch.  (Of course, I would probably feel differently if I was from Wisconsin.)

Blossoms In The Dust was nominated for best picture but it lost to How Green Was My Valley.  Greer Garson was nominated for best actress but she lost to Joan Fontaine in Suspicion.  However, just one year later, Garson would win an Oscar for her performance in the 1942 best picture winner, Mrs. Miniver.  Incidentally, her husband in that film was played by none other than Walter Pidgeon.

Ultimately, Blossoms in the Dust is typical of the type of movies that you tend to come across while watching films that were nominated for best picture.  Some best picture nominees were great.  Some were terrible.  But the majority of them were like Blossoms in the Dust, well-made, respectable, and just a little bit bland.  Blossoms in the Dust is not bad but it’s also not particularly memorable.  If, like me,  you’re a student of history and social mores, Blossoms in the Dust has some historical interest but, when taken as a piece of cinema, it’s easy to understand why it’s one of the more forgotten best picture nominees.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Human Comedy (dir by Clarence Brown)


The-human-comedy-1943Thanks to TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar, I now have several movies on my DVR that I need to watch over the upcoming month.  Don’t get me wrong — I’m not complaining.  I’m always happy to have any reason to discover (or perhaps even rediscover) a movie.  And, being an Oscar junkie, I especially enjoy the opportunity to watch the movies that were nominated in the past and compare them to the movies that have been nominated more recently.

For instance, tonight, I watched The Human Comedy, a film from 1943.  Along with being a considerable box office success, The Human Comedy won on Oscar (for Best Story) and was nominated for four others: picture, director (Clarence Brown), actor (Mickey Rooney), and black-and-white cinematography.  The Human Comedy was quite a success in 1943 but I imagine that, if it were released today, it would probably be dismissed as being too sentimental.  Watching The Human Comedy today is something of a strange experience because it is a film without a hint of cynicism.  It deals with serious issues but it does so in such a positive and optimistic manner that, for those of us who are used to films like The Big Short and Spotlight, a bit of an attitude adjustment is necessary before watching.

And yet that doesn’t mean that The Human Comedy is a bad film.  In fact, I quite enjoyed it.  The Human Comedy is a time capsule, a chance to look into the past.  It also features a great central performance, one that was quite rightfully nominated for an Oscar.  As I watched Mickey Rooney in this film, I started to feel guilty for some of the comments I made when I reviewed Mickey in The Manipulator last October.

2Mickey Rooney in The Human Comedy

The Human Comedy opens with an overhead shot of the small town of Ithaca, California.  The face of Mr. McCauley (Ray Collins, who you’ll recognize immediately as Boss Jim Gettys from Citizen Kane) suddenly appears in the clouds.  Mr. McCauley explains that he’s dead and he’s been dead for quite some time.  But he loves Ithaca so much that his spirit still hangs around the town and keeps an eye on his family.  Somehow, the use of dead Mr. McCauley as the film’s narrator comes across as being both creepy and silly.

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But no sooner has Mr. McCauley stopped extolling the virtues of small town life than we see his youngest song, 7 year-old Ulysseus (Jack Jenkins), standing beside a railroad track and watching a train as it rumbles by.  Sitting on the cars are a combination of soldiers and hobos.  Ulysseus waves at some of the soldiers but none of them wave back.  Finally, one man waves back at Ulysseus and calls out, “Going home, I’m going home!”  It’s a beautifully shot scene, one that verges on the surreal.

That opening pretty much epitomizes the experience of watching The Human Comedy.  For every overly sentimental moment, there will be an effective one that will take you by surprise.  The end result may be uneven but it’s still undeniably effective.

The majority of the film deals with Homer McCauley (Mickey Rooney).  Homer may still be in high school but, with his older brother, Marcus (Van Johnson), serving overseas and his father dead, Homer is also the man of the house.  Homer not only serves as a role model for Ulysseus but he’s also protector for his sister, Bess (Donna Reed).   (At one point in the film, she gets hit on by three soldiers on leave.  One of them is played by none other than Robert Mitchum.)  In order to bring in extra money for the household, Homer gets a job delivering telegrams.

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In between scenes of Homer in Ithaca, we get oddly dream-like scenes of Marcus and his army buddies hanging out.  Marcus spends all of his time talking about how much he loves Ithaca and how he can’t wait for the war to be over so he can return home.  One of his fellow soldiers says, “I almost feel like Ithaca is my hometown, too.”  Marcus promises him that they’ll all visit Ithaca.  As soon as the war is over…

With World War II raging, Homer’s job largely consists of delivering death notices (and the occasional singing telegram, as well).  Telegraph operator Willie Grogan (Frank Morgan) deals with the burden of having to transcribe bad news by drinking.  Homer, meanwhile, tries to do his job with compassion and dignity but one day, he has to deliver a telegram to his own house…

The Human Comedy is an episodic film, full of vignettes of life in Ithaca and Homer growing up.  There’s quite a few subplots (along with a lot of speeches about how America is the best country in the world) but, for the most part, the film works best when it concentrates on Homer and Mickey Rooney’s surprisingly subdued lead performance.  By today’s standards, it may seem a bit predictable and overly sentimental but it’s also so achingly sincere that you can’t help but appreciate it.

The Human Comedy was nominated for best picture but it lost to a somewhat more cynical film about life during World War II, Casablanca.

Horror Film Review: Dracula A.D. 1972 (dir by Alan Gibson)


(I originally wrote and posted this on February 5th, 2011.  Seeing as how we’ve been taking a look at the other Hammer Dracula films, I figured I might as well repost it for Halloween!)

Dracula A.D. 1972 opens in 1872 with a genuinely exciting fight on a runaway carriage that ends with the death of both Count Dracula (Christopher Lee) and his nemesis, Prof. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing).  However, as Van Helsing is buried, we see one of Dracula’s disciples (played by Christopher Neame, who had an appealingly off-kilter smile) burying Dracula’s ashes nearby.  The camera pans up to the clear Victorian sky and, in a sudden and genuinely effective jumpcut, we suddenly see an airplane screeching across the sky.

Well, it’s all pretty much downhill from there.  Suddenly, we discover that a hundred years have passed and we are now in “swinging” London.  The city is full of red tourist buses, hippies wearing love beads, and upright policemen who always appear to be on the verge of saying, “What’s all this, then?”  We are introduced to a group of hippies that are led by a creepy guy named Johnny Alculard (also played — quite well, actually — by Christopher Neame). One of those hippies (Stephanie Beacham) just happens to be the great-great-granddaughter of Prof. Van Helsing.  Apparently, she’s not really big on the family history because she doesn’t notice that Alculard spells Dracula backwards.  Then again, her father (played by Peter Cushing, of course) doesn’t either until he actually writes the name down a few times on a piece of a paper.

Anyway, the film meanders about a bit until finally, Alculard convinces all of his hippie friends to come take part in a black mass.  “Sure, why not?” everyone replies.  Well, I don’t have to tell you how things can sometimes get out-of-hand at black mass.  In this case, Dracula comes back to life, kills a young Caroline Munro, and eventually turns Johnny into a vampire before then setting his sights on the modern-day Van Helsings.

Poor Caroline Munro

Dracula A.D. 1972 was Hammer’s attempt to breathe some new life into one of its oldest franchises and, as usually happens with a reboot, its critical and (especially) commercial failure ended up helping to end the series.  Among even the most devoted and forgiving of Hammer fans, Dracula A.D. 1972 has a terrible reputation.  Christopher Lee is on record as regarding it as his least favorite Dracula film.  And the film definitely has some serious flaws.  Once you get past the relatively exciting pre-credits sequence, the movie seriously drags.  There’s a hippie party sequence that, honest to God, seems to last for about 5 hours.  As for the hippies themselves, they are some of the least convincing middle-aged hippies in the history of fake hippies.  You find yourself eagerly awaiting their demise, especially the awkward-looking one who — for some reason — is always dressed like a monk.  (Those crazy hippies!)  But yet…nothing happens.  All the fake hippies simply vanish from the film.  Yet, they’re so annoying in just a limited amount of screen time that the viewer is left demanding blood.  Add to that, just how difficult is it to notice that Alculard is Dracula spelled backwards?  I mean, seriously…

To a large extent, the charm of the old school Hammer films comes from the fact that they’re essentially very naughty but never truly decadent.  At their heart, they were always very old-fashioned and actually quite conservative.  The Hammer films — erudite yet campy, risqué yet repressed — mirrors the view that many of my fellow Americans have of the English.  For some reason, however, that Hammer naughtiness only works when there’s the sound of hooves on cobblestone streets and when the screen is populated by actors in three-piece suits and actresses spilling out of corsets.  Dracula A.D. 1972 did away with the support of the corset and as a result, the film is revealed as a formless mess with all the flab revealed to the world.

The Party Scene

Still, the film isn’t quite as bad as you may have heard.  First off, the film — with its middle-aged hippies — has a lot of camp appeal.  It’s the type of film that, once its over, you’re convinced that the term “groovy” was uttered in every other scene even though it wasn’t.  As with even the worst Hammer films, the film features a handful of striking images and Christopher Neame is surprisingly charismatic as Alculard.

As with the majority of the Hammer Dracula films, the film is enjoyable if just to watch the chemistry between Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.  Both of these actors — so very different in image but also so very stereotypically English — obviously loved acting opposite of each other and whenever you see them on-screen together, it’s difficult not to enjoy watching as each one tried to top the other with a smoldering glare or a melodramatic line reading.  As actors, they brought out the best in each other, even when they were doing it in a film like Dracula A.D. 1972.  In this film, Cushing is like the father you always you wished you had — the stern but loving one who protected you from all the world’s monsters (both real and cinematic).

Christopher Lee as Dracula

As for Lee, he’s only in six or seven scenes and he has even fewer lines but, since you spend the entire film wondering where he is, he actually dominates the entire movie.  Lee apparently was quite contemptuous of the later Hammer Dracula films and, oddly enough, that obvious contempt is probably why, of all the Draculas there have been over the years, Lee’s version is the only one who was and is actually scary.  F0rget all of that tortured soul and reluctant bloodsucker crap.  Christopher Lee’s Dracula is obviously pissed off from the minute he first appears on-screen, the embodiment of pure destructive evil.  And, for whatever odd reason, the purity of his evil brings a sexual jolt to his interpretation of Dracula that those littleTwilight vampires can only dream about.  Even in a lesser films like Dracula A.D. 1972, Christopher Lee kicks some serious ass.

So, in conclusion, I really can’t call Dracula A.D. 1972 a good film nor can I really suggest that you should go out of your way to see it..  I mean, I love this stuff and I still frequently found my mind wandering whenever Cushing or Lee wasn’t on-screen.  However, it’s not a terrible movie to watch if you happen to find yourself trapped in the house with 90 minutes to kill.

Dracula A.D. 1972