Glen or Glenda (1953)

Misunderstood

Note: This is the earliest film review of mine which I still have. While my other early attempts make me cringe in how amateurish they are, this one I find has an appealing innocence to it, therefore I present it as I originally wrote it back in 2011.

 

I might sound insane, but I’m giving an Ed Wood movie a positive score from an artistic point of view. Glen or Glenda marked Wood’s first film, which he not only written and directed but also starred in. The film was originally slated to be a biopic on Christine Jorgensen, the propriety of the first publicly known sex change operation (in this case from male to female) Wood, however, took over production and instead turned it into a film about his own transvestism.

Whether you’re conservative or liberal on issue of cross-dressing and trans-sexuality, Glen Or Glenda manages to do something which I’ve seen many sacred cows fail to do, create emotional interest in its main characters, and succeeds to raise question on what it means to be normal, with an issue which is just as relevant today as it was in 1953.

The movie’s production values are surprisingly good for a film of this calibre. The surreal dream-like sequence in the 2nd half of the movie features some impressive filmmaking techniques and manages to engage you in the character’s descent into insanity. Even the film’s acting is decent, certainly better than in the likes of Plan 9 from Outer Space.

Lugosi’s character is widely regarded to be a scientist representing God. At first, I didn’t understand the character’s role in the movie (plus the use of the stock of footage is completely random). However, I was impressed with how his catchphrase which he utters throughout the course of the movie actually finds its way to having relevance with the plot.

I’m not the type of person who over analyzes movies looking for their deeper meaning, but in Glen or Glenda it really came through quite obviously and did leave an impression on me, as well as changing my opinions on Wood as a director. I can defiantly sense Ed Wood put a lot legitimate feeling into this movie, and certainly comes through in the finished product.

Advertisements

Funny Face (1957)

Astaire at His Bes…Worst

It disappoints me that for many people Funny Face will be their only encounter with Fred Astaire due to the fact that it is an Audrey Hepburn film. I first watched Funny Face for the Hepburn factor (unfamiliar at the time with Fred Astaire) and was left unimpressed with the film. Later on, I became infatuated with Astaire thanks to his partnership with Ginger Rogers and other films such as The Bandwagon. Due to this, I revisited Funny Face in the hope that I would appreciate it more; unfortunately, the opposite happened. Boy is this movie a waste of talent:

First and foremost, dancing, or should I say the lack of it. When I watch a Fred Astaire musical I expect to be memorised by his dancing moves. Yet every time a musical number began in Funny Face, Astaire does nothing. There are times when I expect him to bust a move but nothing happens. Eventfully when he does start dancing, the choreography is about as basic as it gets.

Secondly, comedy. I’ve always thought Fred Astaire is very undervalued as a comedic actor. In the films, he did with Ginger Rogers his timing and ability to come up with a witty comeback to everything is right up there with the likes of Groucho Marx. Typically in these films, he would be playing off high society snobs and in Funny Face, these same snobs exist, but Astaire is now one of them! Whenever a character in this film is being superficial or snobbish, Astaire just stands there and does nothing! In the past, he would have been all Groucho Marx on them.

Next, chemistry. Being a huge fan of both these stars, perhaps just seeing them together could help elevate the film above its flaws? Nope! Astaire and Hepburn have no chemistry at all. While Hepburn does fair better in this film than Astaire, having one musical number which I quite liked, The Basal Metabolism. But that’s enough lavishing praise on this movie.

Finally, the plot. Granted many musicals have silly plots, that’s part of their charm. But the plot in Funny Face goes beyond silly, it’s flat out insulting. Well ignoring the fact that in the reality of the film, Audrey Hepburn is considered unattractive, they take an intellectual girl who works at a bookstore and turns her into a superficial model. Also, why can’t Audrey just call the police and tell them that the bookstore she works at was trespassed, used for unauthorised photography and vandalised, oh never mind, the plot just sucks. Also, I’m so sick of Paris being used as a setting for romantic comedies. Choose a different city!

If this is the only Fred Astaire film you’ve seen, please I beg of you, watch the films he did with Ginger Rogers or The Bandwagon in order to see what he is really like.

The Country Girl (1954)

Bing on a Binge

It’s good enough when a movie can impress me with an excellent performance delivered from an actor whom I didn’t think had the chops to do so, now multiply that by three and you’ve got The Country Girl.

I had only previously seen Bing Crosby in several musicals and comedies. He’s never struck me as an enigmatic screen presence but serviceable none the less. Thus surprise performance # 1 in The Country Girl. Why didn’t Crosby do more dramatic roles in his career? This is one of most powerful performances I’ve ever seen as a washed-up alcoholic performer who has hit rock bottom. Like Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend and Jack Lemon in Days of Wine and Roses, Crosby’s performance has helped convince me never to start drinking (or at least that would be the case since I’ve never had any intention of starting).

Yet I would still say he’s outdone by William Holden, surprise performance #2. I’ve found Holden to be very hit or miss as an actor, possibly relying on great directors to get a good performance out of him otherwise he comes off to me as forgettable. The jury is still out on his abilities as an actor but never less after watching The Country Girl again, I can say this is my favourite performance I’ve seen him deliver giving so much raw energy as a driven stage producer.

Finally in the triangle of surprise is Grace Kelly. Prior to watching The Country Girl, I was becoming increasingly anti-Grace Kelly, questioning if she was even a very good actress. Here in this dowdy, playing against type role, my opinion of her changed. I have a rule when it comes to reviewing not to talk about Oscars as I see complaining about awards to be futile and cliché. Yet this is one exception in which I’m forced to break it due to the controversy surrounding her win. Judy Garland’s role in A Star Is Born is one of my favourite film performances of all time and should have won her the Oscar that year however if The Country Girl had been released most other years I would have been more than happy to see Grace Kelly get the Oscar.

Without delving into a mindless praise fest I really was left flabbergasted by this trio of performers aided with the help of the film’s unforgettable sense of atmosphere as Grace Kelly puts best herself: “There’s nothing quite so mysterious and silent as a dark theatre, a night without a star.”

The Band Wagon (1953)

Fred Astaire 1953!

The Band Wagon is the film Fred Astaire’s career was culminating to: his best film in my view. Like Ninotchka with Greta Garbo or A Star Is Born with Judy Garland, this was the role he was born to play; one catered to his on-screen persona. Fred Astaire is Tony Hunter! An ageing hoofer who no longer is the star he once was. The Band Wagon contains little references to Astaire’s past: from Bill Bojangles Robinson to the opening credits feature an image of a top hat and cane, to the mentioning of a fictional movie “Swinging Down to Panama” perhaps a reference to Swing Time and Flying Down to Rio (although I do wish there could have been a little reference to Ginger Rogers herself in there).

The Band Wagon provides Astaire with some of the best musical numbers of his career. However, the film also allows him to showcase other avenues of his talent, such as his outburst scene over his dissatisfaction over rehearsals – a fine example of the acting prowess he possessed. While Ginger Rogers is obviously Astaire’s greatest partner Cyd Charisse is his most accomplished; could there be a more graceful figure?

Was I gullible that when I first watched The Band Wagon that the movie manipulated me into thinking the pretentious and egotistical stage director Jeffrey Cordova’s (Jack Buchanan) idea of a musical inspired by the Faust legend was a good idea? This isn’t the same old backstage musical plot; The Band Wagon is a thinking person’s musical. Likewise, Charisse’s Gabrielle Gerard has a mature subplot of her own involving her trying to deal with her dominating boyfriend and her feeling towards Tony; giving the film that extra mature edge.

Not only is there a great story, but there is also great comedy with a cast gels so well together. Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray as a bickering couple and their hysterical fanboy reactions to meeting Tony Hunter, to Jack Buchanan’s over the top histrionics and his terrible ideas for a stage musical. My favourite moment in comedy in The Bandwagon is the scene in which Jeffrey Cordova manipulates Gabrielle’s boyfriend from being dead set against allowing her to be cast in his stage production to then begging him to allow her to be in the show. It’s like a Bugs Bunny-Yosemite Sam type moment but on a much more subtle level and made even more impressive by occurring in an uncut shot. Likewise, the sets in The Band Wagon have an astounding level of detail that scenes near the beginning of the film taking place on the street had me wondering where they sets or real-world locations.

Up until The Band Wagon, it was uncommon for a film musical to have a soundtrack entirely composed for it rather than having songs and compositions taken from other sources; which makes it all the more impressive that the entire soundtrack to The Bandwagon is superb. If I was to choose my three favourite musical numbers of all time, in terms of epic scope they would be The Broadway Melody Ballet from Singin’ In the Rain, The Lullaby of Broadway from Gold Diggers of 1935 and The Girl Hunt Ballet from The Band Wagon in all its 13-minute glory. Here noir meets musical, with Astaire at his most badass. His line delivery could be in an actual crime film itself, plus it inspired the music video for Michael Jackson’s Smooth Criminal. There’s also the Shine on Your Shoes number, one which I could watch again and again just to look at all those gizmos in the background and the genuine reactions on people’s faces at seeing Fred Astaire dance; while That’s Entertainment has become a semi-official anthem for Hollywood. Oh and there’s the Triplets number; one of the weirdest musical numbers ever filmed and they’re actually dancing on their knees!

The early to mid-1950’s where a phenomenal period for the musical genre. Hollywood produced some of its finest musicals in these years before television brought this era of film musicals to an end. Films like The Band Wagon elevated the genre to new heights. A Fred Astaire musical which has everything and more!

Auntie Mame (1958)

Live! Live! Live!

It’s hard for me not to be complete enamoured by a movie and a character like Auntie Mame. Two and half hours of zany histrionics with a central character who is a free-thinking, non-conformist and constantly has a joyous, optimistic outlook on life; oh, and did I mention she is a total screwball. Few other fictional characters seem to lead such an exciting life that I as the viewer am actually is jealous off (“Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are just starving to death!”). If I ever amass a huge fortune then perhaps I can try to emulate the lifestyle of Mame. Ok even with a huge fortune that probably wouldn’t be possible in this mundane realm that is reality but I can at least try.

Auntie Mame is one of the most liberal movies to come out of the 1950’s. Mame’s carefree, flamboyant, free thinking and non-conformist lifestyle clashes with a decade which is thought of as being the most conformist of the 20th century. It should come as no surprise this movie has a huge gay following as the title character is essentially a drag queen. At the beginning of the movie, we see Mame throwing a party full of bohemians, intellectuals and champagne socialists (“Karl Marx, is he one of the Marx Brothers?”), essentially the predecessors to the modern day hipster. During the first 50 minutes of Auntie Mame the liberals are the ones having fun while the stuffy, puritan conservative Mr Babbock is being driven mad by Mame’s antics and instance that her nephew be sent to a be sent to a progressive school over a conservative prep school, a school with ancient Greek principles, has no uniforms and as the movies implies, teaches sex education in a very odd manner.

However, Auntie Mame isn’t a total demonisation of conservatives. In the middle portion of the movie she does end up getting married to a southern gentleman and an oil tycoon of whom lives on a plantation and goes fox hunting, which does show you that love can overcome ideology. Likewise, when Mame returns to her apartment after the death of her husband, the next few incarnations of her constantly redesigned apartment as well as her outfits are not as camp, possibly suggesting her husband’s influence on her. Well at least until the second last incarnation of her apartment which is very avant-garde.

With the movie’s references to sex and homosexuality among other things, Auntie Mame falls into the category of “how did they get away with that?”. Yet as liberal as the movie is for its time (and in many respects still is), the liberal of today is the conservative of tomorrow. Some of Mame’s actions wouldn’t rub with the modern left such as her desire to settle down with a man and her motherly instincts.

The Kaleidoscope opening credits set the stage for a film which is a feast for the eyes and ears. They really put effort into these early widescreen era title sequences in one of many attempts for a film to compete against television. Likewise, Mame’s lavish apartment is a masterpiece of set design as it evolves throughout the movie, with each incarnation being as impressive as the last. The movie doesn’t lose its stage roots which each act ending with the dimming of the lights with the spotlight on Mame before completely going to dark.

I am a huge Rosalind Russell fan and I know it’s a cliché expression but it usage couldn’t be any more adept here: this is the role she was born to play! How is it possible of a human being to talk at such a voracious rate? I do wonder how long the script for Auntie Mame must have been. There are probably more words in this movie than the Encyclopedia Britannica. Whenever there is a moment free of any dialogue I have little think to myself, “Oh yes, silence, I forgot what that feels like”.  When Roz’s motor mouth isn’t running, she’s pulling at my heartstrings; there are times when I wish I could just go into the screen and hug her. I can’t stress enough my love for the actress, the performance and the fictional character. Auntie Mame is an encapsulation of pure unmitigated joy. When I’m feeling down, I know what movie I’ll be turning to.

The African Queen (1951)

Steamboat Bogie

The African Queen is one of those perfect, anti-boring, instantly emotional engaging films that you never want to end. I never want Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn to leave that tiny broken down old boat in an African rain forest. The African Queen is the film I measure all “man and woman who hate each other at the start but gradually fall in love” movies against. With the power of these actors, the transition comes of completely organically without a contrivance in sight. Bogart gets the opportunity to get out his usual urban dwellings and into the African jungle, showing how he was one of the most adaptable actors in cinema. The scene in which he goofs around with his intimation of various animals is surely the silliest moment of his career, but it’s all good fun. Even with as scruffy as he appears, he still acts the gentleman, although I do have to ask am I the only one who gets some Bugs Bunny vibes with his performance here?

Katharine Hepburn’s Rose is one tough dame, and does seem like a very unlikable character during the first portion of the film, not treating Charlie with any respect because he won’t agree with her demands and interfering with what ain’t her property! But she’s Kate, she can do whatever she wants and get away with it, and we still love her for it, or at least that’s the case with me. Although Fanboying aside, Katharine Hepburn’s on-screen personality seems to turn many off as I’ve discovered;. you’re likely either indifferent to her or not. I do wonder if Hepburn herself, an atheist had any reservations about playing a missionary in Africa converting the local natives to Christianity, or imposing their faith on any cultures as I see it.

Jack Cardiff’s Technicolor cinematography has such striking vibrancy, a style distinctive from Hollywood Technicolor and one which captures Bogart and Hepburn’s rough, beat up faces in such detail. Along with the sound effects of nature in the background and the occasional bit of wildlife, The African Queen gets as close as a movie can get to making me feel like I’m a riverboat in East Africa. The African Queen was one of my earliest exposures to classic cinema, aeons before these movies took over my life, although I only saw the remaining 40 minutes. However, it stuck with me, particularly the scene in they start getting eaten by insects; that scene always gives me the heebie-jeebies. It’s one of those rare films which feels like a different (but equally brilliant) film on every viewing.

12 Angry Men (1957)

…and Justice for All

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

I don’t think I can bestow a higher statement of praise on a film than to call it a life changing experience. 12 Angry Men influenced me not to believe everything I hear, instead to question things and ultimately turning me into a more skeptical person; there is more to life than meets the eye (or ear). It’s one of few films which helped shape who I am as a person.  When watching it I constantly visualise the details in my head of the events and locations of the murder case described in the film. I enjoy never knowing what really happened; did the kid commit murder or not? It’s up for the viewer to decide.

12 Angry Men is a movie which is hard to write a review for; I wouldn’t be surprised if I come back to add more since I find myself watching 12 Angry Men at least once a year. With layer upon layer upon layer, this is a movie I could talk about hours, and always finding new aspects to discuss on each viewing. Ah the joy of an engrossing, wordy, civil debate. As the exposition reveals more details of the case I am left saying in the words of Milhouse Van Houten, “Tell me more!” 12 Angry Men is like Pringles, once you pop you just can’t stop, stop watching that is.

Every time I watch 12 Angry Men I find myself focusing in on a different character. I’d have to watch the 12 times in order to fully explore every character, all representative of personalities we’re likely to encounter in real life’; I’m sure I’ve encountered each one at some point in my life. This is a movie which needed a cast comprised of character actors (aside from Henry Fonda) in order to create such personalities. The characters are believable without being two dimensional stereotypes. Not all of them leave prejudice at the door; it’s more obvious with some than others. Not all of them really take much interest in the case or have much pride being part of a jury and even treating it as a bit of a joke at times; even the judge at the beginning doesn’t to be very enthusiastic about the case at hand. They also have different levels of levels of confidence and surety in their opinions.

12 Angry Men also provides an insight into avoiding group conflict. Like with a jury or a classroom full of people, this large variety of personalities are unlikely to converge elsewhere in a small space for a period of time in which they have to communicate with each other, such as what John Hughes would explore with his teen detention drama in 1985 with The Breakfast Club. You really get a sense of who likes who and who doesn’t as the heat beats down in that claustrophobic space. Director Sidney Lumet made the cast spend time with each other before filming and it certainly helped. I don’t feel like I’m watching actors, I feel like I’m watching a group of everyday people in a jury. As not all US states at the time opened their doors to having women present in juries; the film is not 12 Angry Men and Women. I imagine the feminine point of few would have influenced the examination of the proceedings; just think of Grace Kelly’s female instincts from Rear Window.

 

The cast:

Juror #1 (Martin Balsam):

The Jury Foreman. He doesn’t express any opinion or reasons for changing his vote, taking a neutral stance like a media presenter.

Juror #2 (John Fiedler):

Nerdy and socially awkward, reminds me of Rick Moranis. I find it interesting that he is placed sitting beside Lee J. Cobb’s juror #3 as the two are polar opposites. He finds it difficult to articulate an opinion at first but grows confidence and later stands up to the other jurors.

Juror #3 (Lee J. Cobb):

Lee J. Cobb is my favourite of the cast, in my view being the most interesting complex character with the biggest ark as the opinionated and brash Juror #3; ultimately stealing the show. He seems fair and rational at first until we gradually discover he wants to boy on trial found guilty for personal reasons. His breakdown at the end is a highlight in a film full of awe inspiring performances. His angry outburst to Fonda that he’ll kill him followed by Fonda’s response of “You don’t really mean you’ll kill me, do you?”, is surely one of the greatest zingers in cinema history.

Juror #4 (E. G. Marshall):

A cold hearted individual which is reflected by his wearing of a jacket throughout the whole 90 minutes despite the heat. A bit of a ‘know it all’ which makes it all the more interesting when he is proven wrong. Also the movies and stars mentioned during his cross examination by Fonda are not real.

Juror #5 (Jack Klugman):

Comes from a slum background although his appearance doesn’t suggest this. He votes guilty on two occasions despite the boy on trail coming from his same background.

Juror #6 (Edward Binns):

The most normal juror, doesn’t stand out – a very regular John Doe. He doesn’t have anything to add when asked for his opinion, just repeating points which have already been made in an unsure manner.

Juror #7 (Jack Warden):

Clearly doesn’t want to be there and doesn’t care about the case and even bullies and tries to intimidate other jurors. He has no respect for the grounds with his gum chewing and litter throwing and although he never outright says he wants to leave and go to the ball game which he has tickets for, but it’s painfully obvious from the beginning.

Juror #8/ Davis (Henry Fonda):

The outsider of the jury. A man who is brave enough to stand up to the collective and going against popular opinion, even when the rest of them get frustrated with him. Fonda like in many of his movies is a beacon of truth and justice here, but he doesn’t come off as unbelievable saintly – even with his wearing of a white suit. The scene in which he puts his knife in the table is a gasping moment if there ever was one.

Juror #9/ McCardle (Joseph Sweeney):

The most elderly member of the jury. Juror #1 states he should be respected because of that, and I believe this is deserved because of his knowledge and his confidence in Juror #8.

Juror #10 (Ed Begley):

The most obviously bigoted member of the jury and thus ultimately doesn’t prove to be a huge help to the proceedings with his prejudiced rants or his hypocrisy in defending the woman’s statement despite her also being “one of them” too. At one point he even suggests telling a funny story he heard rather than discussing the case and eventually gets expelled from the table for his prejudiced views.

Juror #11 (George Voskovec):

An immigrant who takes more pride in the democratic system than any of the American members of the Jury and defending it such as when Juror #10 demands that Juror #5 reveals his voting choice. Likewise I love his statement to Juror #2 in response to what side he is on: “I don’t believe I have to be loyal to one side or the other, I’m simply asking questions”.

Juror #12 (Robert Webber):

I get the impression he represents 1950’s conformity with his appearance, looking like a character from  a Rock Hudson/Doris Day comedy with his very 50’s glasses and hair. He goes along with the crowd, even changing his vote more than once.

Is Jury Duty really this incredible in the real world? At the end of the film I wonder if the jurors are aware that they’ve just experienced probably the most incredible 90 minutes of their lives.