How to Marry a Millionaire (1953)

One Million Dollars!

How To Marry a Millionaire was the first movie filmed in Cinemascope (second to be released) and thus is a bit like the Avatar of 1953; a technological showcase but provides little in the way of interesting story or characters. The first five minutes of the film is comprised of composer Alfred Newman and his orchestra showcasing the visual and stereophonic capabilities of the new technology and trying to get audiences away from their televisions and into the movie theatre. TV is square and in black & white, movies are in colour and on a big widescreen. I can imagine this being quite a spectacle for audiences back in 1953 but why is it part of the movie and not a separate short? As for the visuals in the film itself, they do take advantage of the frame showing New York in full cinemascope although the use of a fisheye like lens in many shots is a little bothersome.

How to Marry a Millionaire was the first film I saw William Powell in and he didn’t leave any impression on me despite me later becoming a huge fan of his. As Roger Ebert put it, “William Powell is to words as Fred Astaire is to dance”, but he has not killer material to work off here. The three leading ladies do have their own personalities but there is not much in the way of playing off each other nor is there any fast and witty dialogue. Overall the screwball comedy type plot isn’t hugely fleshed out and there’s no real sense of urgency although there are a few laughs to be had. I do particularly like Betty Grable’s grouchy, grumpy date played by Fred Clark. I find Marilyn Monroe, however, gets the most interesting dynamic in the film playing a woman who is afraid to wear glasses which feels like a statement on conformity in the 1950’s.

How To Marry a Millionaire is a prime example of what you would call an ‘ok’ film; a time passer, not terrible but not great either. The most enjoyment I do get from it is largely superficial as I do love me some 50’s fluff with the colourful aesthetic and the high fashion. Plus three beauties in cinemascope, as a heterosexual male I’m not complaining.

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White Heat (1949)

Get Up Stand Tall, Put Your Back Up Against the Wall

To date, White Heat remains the only instance in which my first encounter with an actor instantly turned me into a fan. Typically for me, I become a fan of a performer over a period of time and after seeing a number of their films. Not James Cagney though. The scene early during White Heat in which Cody Jarrett gets a headache and needs to be comforted by his mother, my instant reaction was, “I need to watch any movie with this guy I can get my hands on”. I have no hesitation putting Cagney’s performance as Cody Jarrett in my ten favourite movie performance of all time. At this point in my movie watching life I had never seen an actor so on fire, so electrifying. His twitchy mannerisms, machine gun way of speaking his violence against women and possibly above all, his mother complex, exposing an unsettling, adorable side. Like wow, you do not want to be stuck in an elevator with this guy. I would later discover White Heat came after the classic Warner Bros cycle of gangster movies, making White Heat a nostalgic revival of the genre, making Cody and his mother products of a different age. Margaret Wycherly as Ma Jarrett is the next great stand out performance for me, a character who appears as the stereotypical “aw shucks” mother common in classic Hollywood, but her attitude could not be more different.

Boy is this movie fast paced. White Heat is one of the few times my heart my beating so much out of how exciting the movie was. When the film was over I had the closest I could fell to that sense you get after coming off a rollercoaster, expect to get it from watching a movie. I feel that’s the best way, to sum up White Heat, a rollercoaster of violence and emotions. Even the scenes of police officers discussing Cody’s psychological tendencies and the examination of their late 1940’s tracking techniques are riveting, but they do save the best for last. The Warner gangster movies ended with incredible final scenes with brilliant closing lines, White Heat’s may be the best of them all. I question if I’ll ever experience such a high level of movie watching euphoria on a first time viewing again.

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

It’s a Scene Right Down on Sunset Boulevard

Despite Louis B. Mayer’s comments to Billy Wilder that “You have disgraced the industry that made and fed you!” – I feel Sunset Boulevard enhanced the Hollywood mythos. Who knows what Norma Desmonds may have existed; crazed celebrity lunatics living in their run-down ghostly mansions in the Hollywood area, not just back then but in the decades which have followed. However, the film also makes you feel sentimental for the silent era, that something really was lost when Hollywood made the transition to sound.

Gloria Swanson’s role as Norma Desmond is my favourite female performance of all time. Overblown, over the top, flamboyant, fantastic! A performance which could have been unintentionally comical (ala John Barrymore’s Oscar Jaffe) but her insanity can be taken completely seriously; same goes for her butler Maxilillian played by Erich von Stroheim. In many ways she is that character, as Gloria Swanson has even said so herself; just looks at her reactions to watching her own pictures. Desmond is a character whose relevance for the modern world has not been lost, in an age when people are obsessed with celebrity, youth, and beauty more than ever. Likewise, Cecil B. deMille’s performance feels entirely genuine, as if two old friends have just met for the first time in years.

I also find the dynamic shared between William Holden and Gloria Swanson to be of fascination; an older woman seducing a much younger man who eventually gives into her when in classic Hollywood films it was often the other way around. It’s clear from their actions as the film progresses the two characters are likely sleeping with each other, such as Joe happily flaunting his shirtless body in front of Norma by the poolside and she even starts drying him with a towel; there is a bit of Mrs. Robinson to her.

Sunset Boulevard is possibly the most quotable film of its genre, although none its lines have become as famous in the pop culture lexicon as a film like say Casablanca, in which everyone knows its famous quotes whether or not they’ve seen the film or are even interested in classic cinema. Yet among circles of classic Hollywood fans, Sunset Boulevard is one of the most widely quoted films in discussions. Joe Gillis (William Holden) narrates the film despite his character being dead but it still works in an otherworldly way, like he’s narrating from the afterlife. Holden holds an ideal narration voice to showcase Billy Wilder’s ability to turn exposition into poetry. Likewise, Buster Keaton’s appearance may be my favourite celebrity film cameo ever; there’s something about his reaction when playing poker (“pass!”).

For as cynical a film as Sunset Boulevard is, ultimately it is a movie for movie lovers. Particularly the scene in which Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson) tells Joe Gillis of how there is no shame working behind the camera while walking through the empty back stages of Paramount Studios at night as she tells him about her childhood spending time on studio back lots, is very life-affirming. It’s such a beautiful and romantic scene; it’s easy why these two were paired in several films together. Olson’s character is the opposite of Norma Desmond, humble and down to Earth, not concerned with her looks or fame and fortune; and unlike Norma she can actually write movie scripts.

Say goodbye to Hollywood, say goodbye my baby.

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.