1954 – The Country Girl

 

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The Country Girl – 1954

Wow.  This movie was a complete surprise.  It was complex on multiple levels and well written.  But it wasn’t those qualities that made it stand out to me.  It was the acting, specifically, the acting of Bing Crosby.  I have only seen him in light hearted and wholesome films like Going My Way, White Christmas, and The Bells of Saint Mary’s.  But here he plays a character that completely went against the kind of character he is normally known for, and he knocked it out of the park.

The film also starred Grace Kelly and William Holden, both of whom did a fantastic job, themselves.  The story was about an actor who was once on the top of the heap, but whose star had fallen.  Stage play director Bernie Dodd, played by Holden, is in desperately in need of a leading man for his new show.  He chooses washed-up star Frank Elgin, played by Crosby.  But along with his star, he gets Mrs. Georgie Elgin, played by Kelly.

Frank is an alcoholic who is making an effort to revive his career.  But it is Georgie who seems to be the greatest driving force behind his comeback.  Bernie is a bit of an ass who thinks that Georgie is ruining everything because of her controlling ways.  He forces her away from Frank, not understanding that she is the only thing holding the man together.

Then Frank’s web of lies, the lies of an alcoholic, begin to emerge.  Crosby created a character with two faces.  One was the delightful facade of a man who has everything under control, blaming his wife for his own failures.  The other is the pathetic self-hating monster who mentally abuses his loving wife, despite her efforts to help him.

The dichotomy is fascinating to watch.  Screenwriter George Seaton won an Oscar for adapting Clifford Odets’ popular 1950 stage play.  He mislead me as the viewer and kept me guessing where the lies ended and the truth began.  The moment when the lies are all revealed is like a relief.  The real reasons for Frank’s alcoholism and his failed career are all brought to the surface.  The tragic death of his son, for which he blames himself, would be enough to drive any man to drink.

But the drama goes even deeper than that.  Frank’s secrets are just the most obvious ones.  Both Georgie and Bernie have their own secrets to spill before the film is over.  Georgie is tired of being the strong one in her marriage when all her efforts get her is blame and abuse.  She has reached a breaking point and is ready to walk out on her husband.  Bernie, impressed with Georgie’s fortitude and endurance, has fallen in love with Georgie.

The subplot of the prospect of romance between Georgie and Bernie becomes the main plot as the film draws to a close.  I use the word “prospect” because aside from a stolen kiss, they never cross the line of adultery.  Georgie is seduced by the feeling of real romance in her life.  Bernie only has to wait until Frank is a success on stage so that Georgie can leave him.

But what I loved about the ending is that it kept me guessing.  Frank has gotten control of his life once more but is not so blind that he can’t see what is going on, or at least what is not going on, between his wife and his director.  He knows that there is no changing how he has treated Georgie and is willing to walk away so that she can have a chance at happiness.  Who will Georgie end up with in the end?

Well, I am happy to say that the answer to that question satisfied me as both believable and appropriate.  All three actors did a fantastic job.  Kelly took home the Oscar for Best Actress while Crosby was nominated.  My research told me that Crosby would have won if not for Marlon Brando’s phenomenal performance in On the Waterfront.  This was a good movie with a wonderful script.  It is a story that could be told just as effectively today as in the 1950s.  But for me, it was Crosby’s incredible performance that surprised me the most.  I never knew he had ever taken on such a dramatic role with so much depth.  Well done, Bing!

1954 – The Caine Mutiny

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The Caine Mutiny – 1954

Not bad.  Not bad at all.  The story was compelling and complex, and I was pleased that it was not just about the mutiny, but about the reasons behind it and the legal consequences that the officers involved had to deal with.  The big question that the viewer is left with at the end of the film was: who was really to blame for the mutiny?

The film’s lead character, I believe, was Ensign Willie Keith, played by a young inexperienced actor named Robert Francis, because the whole thing seemed to be told from his perspective.  I say he was inexperienced because this was the first of his four major film roles.  Because of The Caine Mutiny’s success, Columbia Pictures was lining Francis up to be the next big Hollywood star.  Unfortunately, his career was tragically cut short when he was killed in a plane crash in 1955.

Ensign Keith is an officer in the U.S. Navy, assigned to the battle-scarred destroyer-minesweeper, the Caine.  He is disappointed in the dilapidated state of the ship’s condition, its crew, and its commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander DeVriess, played by Tom Tully.  But he is determined to do his duty.

Keith is pleased when Devriess is replaced by Lieutenant Commander Philip Queeg, played by Bogart.  Queeg’s by-the-book attitude and style of command seems to be just what the lackadaisical ship needs.  But Queeg begins to show signs of instability when his orders cause damage to the ship, for which he refuses to take responsibility.  He obsesses over details which, on the surface, seem inconsequential.  He ignores the advice of his officers and considers them to be insubordinate.

Most notable of the other officers under his command are Lieutenant Steve Maryk, wonderfully played by Van Johnson, and Lieutenant Tom Keefer, played by Fred MacMurray.  They, along with Ensign Kieth, notice Queeg’s irrational behavior.  Keefer’s character was a writer and a self-proclaimed expert on human behavior.  It was he who first broached the subject of Queeg’s unfitness to command.

Van Johnson’s performance was subtle, but so well done.  He created a character that had complexity and depth, though there was no apparent back-story for him to work with.  I really enjoyed his performance.  MacMurray, played a character that I originally thought was unusual for him, a man who instigated a mutiny, a coward, and a liar when it came time to defend the men who carried the mutiny out.  But as I am getting to know his career apart from his famously wholesome TV role of Steve Douglas on My Three Sons, I am realizing that he often played questionable characters.  He was a murderer in Double Indemnity and a philanderer in The Apartment.

But it was Bogart who really made the film shine.  His performance as the mentally unstable commander was perfectly played.  It could have so easily been over-the top or even ridiculous, but it wasn’t.  It was believable.  Queeg was mentally stable and capable, on the surface, but paranoid and incompetent underneath.  There is a scene in which the disappearance of some strawberries, a minor issue of petty theft, is turned into a major, ship-wide manhunt.  Bogart’s performance was incredible as he allowed the crazy to brush against the thin veil separating his paranoia from the outside world.  Brilliant!

But what I liked about the film was the ending.  OK, so Queeg’s incompetence nearly sinks the ship during a typhoon and Lt. Maryk relieves him of duty to save the lives of its crew.  The following trial proves that Queeg was mentally unstable, and Maryk is acquitted.  But his lawyer, Lieutenant Greenwald, played by Jose Ferrer, hits the nail on the head, saying that the mutiny might never have been necessary if the crew had given Queeg the support that he needed when he had asked for it, and shame on the men for not giving it to him.  But I have to wonder:  Would Queeg have listened to their advice if they had?  He had never listened to them before.

1953 – Shane

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Shane – 1953

This was an OK movie.  It wasn’t great, but it also wasn’t bad.  It was altogether average.  Some things were good, like the cinematography, the costume design, and the music.  But other things were lacking, like some of acting, the lighting, and the fact that the film had a lot of set up for a climax that was far too short.

Alright, I’ll start with the good things.  The story took place in Wyoming, and cinematographer Jack Schaefer took home an Oscar for his work on the film.  He really did a great job of showing of the natural beauty of the landscape.  Plus it was filmed in Technicolor, giving him a wonderful pallet with which to work.

The costume and set design was spot on.  At first I was a little confused by Shane’s costume.  I was expecting a western and his outfit looked like it belonged in a film about Louis and Clark.  But upon reflection, the film’s plot took place in 1862.  This was a period of transition, when the trappers, traders, and explorers were becoming ranchers and farmers.  The film was definitely a Western, but had more to do with frontier pioneers and less to do with classic cowboys.

The story was really about a group of farmers who owned land next to a mean old cattle rancher named Rufus Ryker, played by Emile Meyer.  The unspoken leader of the farmers was Joe Starrett, wonderfully played by Van Helfin.  Ryker gathered a group of friends and brutally oppressed the farmers, trying to drive them and their families off their land so he could have it for himself.  The farmers were all men of peace and did little to fight back.

Then along came Shane, played by Alan Ladd.  He was the strong and silent type with a dark past as a dangerous gun-slinger.  He showed up and became a farm hand for Joe, trying to leave his past behind him.  He meets Joe’s wife, Marian and his little boy, Joey, played by Jean Arthur and Brandon deWilde.  The child falls in love with Shane as only a young and innocent youth can.  Even Marian falls in love with him, though maybe just a little too much.  It was a little awkward, but that was on purpose because it becomes a minor plot point in the latter half of the film.

Shane raises his fists to defend the oppressed farmers, making an enemy of Ryker.  Despite that, everything seems to be going alright until Ryker hires a cold-blooded killer named Jack Wilson, played by Jack Palance to help him drive off the farmers.  When Wilson murders one of the farmers, the game is up and the peaceful farmers start packing up their belongings.

But here is where the filmmakers seemed to drop the ball.  The big climactic gun fight at the end lasted for all of ten seconds, if that.  It was over so quickly that it was almost anticlimactic.  Incidentally, the DVD provided that film’s original trailer, which I watched.  The entire gun-fight was included in the trailer, so if I had watched that first, the ending would have been ruined for me.

Another thing that really got on my nerves about the movie was the little boy, Joey.  Now, I know that there was a certain amount of realism in his whiney voice, dialogue, and behavior, but he was so incredibly annoying that I was hoping he would get killed by a stray bullet.  Every time he called out with that high-pitched, sing-song, “Shaaaaain?”  I wanted something bad to happen to him.

This is the first movie in which I have not rolled my eyes at Jean Arthur’s performance.  I have never been a huge fan of her acting, but here she played a more dramatic role that had a little realism and depth so I applaud her for a job well done.  My research uncovered an interesting tidbit about her participation in the film.  This was the first film she ever did that was in color, but it was the last feature film she was ever in.

The lead, Alan Ladd did a good enough job, though his character was a little one-dimensional.  But it was his final parting words to little Joey that I found interesting.  He said “There’s no living with a killing.  There’s no goin’ back from one.  Right or wrong, it’s a brand… a brand sticks.”  In other words, a tiger can’t change his stripes?  I disagree, Mr. Shane.  You were put into a bad situation, but now that it is over, there is no reason you can’t settle down.  Oh well.

1953 – Roman Holiday

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Roman Holiday – 1953

On a general scale of one to ten, I’m confident in giving Roman Holiday an eight.  As a romantic comedy, actually on par with many movies made today, it was a bit predictable, and yet sweet in its own way.  It had an ending that, though it was completely appropriate, wasn’t exactly expected, and for that, I have to give the film proper credit.

It starred Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn in her first American movie role.  The plot was simplistic and has been used in many different films, in many different ways.  A poor little rich girl, in this case, an actual princess, escapes her overly-structured and pampered life.  While she is exploring the outside world and discovering how the common folk live, she finds love, which inevitably leads us back to the ending.  Will she get to stay with him, or will the lovers be forever parted by their separate stations in life?

The young ingenue, Hepburn, who was bubbling over with sweetness and innocence, stole the show.  She was incredible as Princess Ann of an unspecified country.  She was a mere 24 years old when the film was released, and she charmed all of Hollywood with her beauty, poise and innocence.  She had that long, graceful neck, natural beauty and a smile that could light the world.  In fact, she was so good that she took home the Oscar for Best Actress.

Peck, did his usual good job, though it was a slight departure for the actor who normally did not perform comedic roles.  He had an easiness about him that was disarming and pleasant to watch.  He played Joe Bradley, an American newspaper reporter in Italy.  When Ann falls asleep on a park bench, Joe takes her to his apartment rather than letting her get arrested.

He doesn’t realize who she is until the next morning.  Then he decides to make some money by getting the “exclusive” story on the Princess.  He takes her all over Rome, giving her the experiences she has never had but has always wanted.  Of course, they fall in love.  Why wouldn’t they?

To complete his exploitation of Ann’s secret escapades around the city, he enlists the help of his photographer friend, Irving Radovich, played by Eddie Albert.  Albert was like the comic relief in a mildly comedic film.  He did a few pratfalls and got drinks spilled on him several times.  He also got a few laughs in his exaggerated efforts to snap candid photos of the Princess.  The two men go out of their way to hide their true motives from the girl, just as Ann tries to hide her identity from her new friends.

The movie was filmed on location in Rome and shows off a few of the great attractions the city has to offer: The Colosseum, the Mouth of Truth, a street-side café, or even the Palazzo Barberini, which was actually used as the exterior of the Princess’s embassy.  The beautiful locations seemed to be just as much a part of the storytelling as were the actors and the script.  Director William Wyler did a fantastic job of showing them all off.

By the end of the movie, I was expecting the typical Hollywood ending.  I thought I would see the two lovers find a way to make the relationship work.  Somehow, they would stay together and throw caution to the wind.  But I was happily surprised that Wyler did the right thing.  There was no way that such a relationship would be allowed, and both Joe and Ann knew it.  They made their peace with their situation and said their goodbyes, sharing a teary-eyed kiss before parting.  Joe never wrote his exclusive story, deciding not to exploit the girl with whom he had fallen in love.

The film was a wonderful blend of romance and humor, making it the perfect example of a romantic comedy.  But therein lies its only flaw.  Romantic comedies are generally very predictable.  You usually know how the story is going to end before the film is half over.  But that being said, its realistic ending was one of its saving graces.  That, and the fact that Hepburn was incredibly beautiful and mesmerizing to watch.  She was young, fresh, and vivacious, and Roman Holiday was a wonderful way to introduce her to the American movie-going public.

1953 – The Robe

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The Robe – 1953

Here we are with another Biblical Epic, on par with other great films like Quo Vadis, Ben-Hur, and The Ten Commandments.  It was well made and had a competent cast of actors.  This one had a rather unique perspective and was the story about the Roman soldier who won the Robe of Christ after the crucifixion

He was Marcellus Gallio, played by Richard Burton.  He was a very young and very attractive lead who was not portrayed as a saint until the end of the film, though I suppose that is part of the point.  He started out with very human, or should I say “Roman” flaws.  But he also has that classic transformation in which he changes from a dim-witted heathen to a Christian.  Burton did a fine job.  He was not overly dramatic, nor was his performance lacking in energy or skill.

Opposite him was the character of Diana, played by the beautiful Jean Simmons.  The two had been lovers since before the time of the plot and, of course, they ended up together in the end.  Still, the writer did a fine job of doing it in a slightly unexpected way… slightly.  Simmons seemed to have a good on-screen chemistry with Burton, and they looked natural together.

But it was the next most prominent role that I didn’t particularly care for.  Demetrius, played by Victor Mature, Marcellus’s Greek slave, just didn’t sit right with me.  First of all, Mature’s acting didn’t seem up to par with his co-stars.  It was almost as if he had been used to acting for the stage, and didn’t seem to know how to act in front of a movie camera.  I am well aware that this was not the case.  This film came right in the middle of his busy career as an actor.  But for my tastes, he just seemed slightly hammy and overdone.

Jay Robinson also did a good enough job as the Roman Emperor, Caligula.  He had that edge of childish insanity and pulled it off fairly believably though, to be honest, there were moments where he seemed to be a bit over-the-top.  But I’ll be the first to admit that maybe I am being a little too harsh.  Maybe the wild and grandiose portrayal was more accurate than I am giving it credit for.

The Robe was interesting in that it took a nearly negligible character from the Bible and made up a complete story around the small part he played in the crucifixion.  Not only did Marcellus win the garment, they also made him the soldier that did the actual crucifying.  He gives the robe to his slave, Demetrius, who is already a follower of the teachings of Christ.  Demetrius takes the robe and runs away.

Marcellus becomes haunted by the experience and loses his mind.  In order to regain his sanity, he is sent on a mission to find the robe, thinking that it was the bewitched cloth that cursed him with madness.  He finds it, and Demetrius, in the company of the Christians.  He learns of their gentle, peace-loving ways and gradually begins to see the evil inherent in the leaders of Rome.  His conversion to Christianity ends up getting him, and subsequently, his girlfriend Diana, put to death, and who doesn’t appreciate the noble deaths of martyrs.

I’m not sure if I would call the plot inspirational or stirring, but it was certainly interesting and cleverly written.  It was complete fiction, but it had just the right mixture of religious mysticism and reality to draw me in to the story.  Grand or not, it was a well-made film.  The sets and costumes were good and the sweeping cinematography really stood out.  The film’s score, written by Hollywood veteran Alfred Newman, was always appropriate and did a fine job of enhancing the action taking place on the screen.

And just as an interesting note, this was a pretty special film in cinema history.  It has the distinction of being the first movie released in the widescreen process CinemaScope.  However, it should also be noted that because very few movie theaters were equipped to show widescreen films, many scenes were filmed a second time.  Actors and sets had to be crowded closer together to accommodate the smaller screens in most movie houses.  In fact, some of the dialogue between the two versions was even different.

1953 – Julius Cesar

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Julius Cesar – 1953

I finally understand the context of the famous line, “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.”  It is the beginning of a speech given by Mark Antony after the death of the Emperor Julius Cesar, during which he uttered another famous line.  “Et tu, Brute?”  Somehow, Shakespeare never seems to get old. Over the years, there have been at least six filmed version of the famous tragedy and one TV miniseries.  That’s pretty good for a play that was written 415 years ago.

The stories are good and the characters have depth.  This version of Julius Cesar, starring Marlon Brando, James Mason, John Gielgud, and Louis Calhern, kept the original text and appeared to be pretty accurate with the costumes and sets.  It all seemed to be done with respect to the original play, although it did seem a little odd to hear Elizabethan speech coming from the mouths of men dressed as Roman soldiers.

Brando got top billing, though he was not the main character.  The real main character was Brutus, played by James Mason.  Mason did a great job and handled the language well.  It seemed almost natural for him, as opposed to Brando’s portrayal of Mark Antony.  While Brando wasn’t struggling with the language, he did sound like he was putting on a performance, especially compared to Mason.

There were also two women in The Bard’s play, Portia, Brutus’s wife, played by Deborah Kerr, and Calpurnia, Cesar’s wife, played by Greer Garson.  The two women turned in good enough performances, but their parts were so small as to be almost negligible.  Portia’s part can be summed up as, “Brutus, tell me what’s troubling you.”  Likewise, Calpurnia’s can be summed up as, “Cesar, I dreamed you were going to die if you left the house.  Stay home today.”  That was about it for the women.  I don’t know the original play well enough to be sure, but I would guess that their parts were somewhat bigger.

For the most part, the acting was all top notch.  Critics praised all the performances, especially Brando’s, which is something I don’t totally agree with.  When he was cast, everyone was dubious, since he had just come off of portraying Stanley Kowalski so believably in A Streetcar Named Desire the year before.  In that film, his accent was almost a mumble, and people were concerned that he didn’t have good enough diction to do Shakespeare justice.  However, he had veteran Shakespearean actor and co-star, John Gielgud coach him, and he apparently did everything just like he was told.  So I stand by my earlier statement.  He gave us a competent performance, but had to work at it.  It wasn’t natural for him.

Mason, however, was incredibly good and, really, the play was about his character, Brutus, and the crisis of conscious that he goes through both in deciding to murder the Emperor, his friend, and then dealing with the consequences of that decision.  Then, after the citizens of Rome condemn him for his actions, which he believes were fueled by patriotism, he flees Rome and is pursued by Mark Antony.  When he is defeated in battle, he commits suicide to avoid capture.

However, Brando was the big name in Hollywood and kept stealing scenes from him.  Brando seemed to want the focus of the plot to be Mark Anthony, and it simply wasn’t.  Mason reportedly asked director Joseph L. Mankiewicz to stop Brando from dominating the film and “put the focus back where it belongs.  Namely on me!”  Mankiewicz tried to do just that, but when Brando saw what he was doing, he threatened to walk off the film.  However, Brando was nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role instead of Mason, which makes no sense to me, since Mark Antony was a supporting role.  But hey, what do I know?

If I had any complaint it would be in a small aspect of Shakespeare’s original play.  Cesar is shown refusing the crown over and over again, but Brutus agrees to become part of the murder conspiracy just in case Cesar ever decides to take it.  That doesn’t make sense to me.  He might become powerful someday, so let’s kill him now… because you never know.  Wow.  With friends like that, who needs enemies?

1952 – Moulin Rouge

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Moulin Rouge – 1952

This was a surprisingly dark and depressing film which starred Jose Ferrer as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.  He is portrayed as the epitome of the tortured artist.  But his case is special.  He is physically crippled and in constant pain.  He sees himself as a monster and is filled with self-loathing.   He is also an emotional cripple, unable to love or be loved.

The film starts out in the bohemian pleasure palace, the Moulin Rouge, famous for its burlesque decadence.  There are acrobats, musicians, and of course, can-can dancers.  The star of the show is the songbird, Jane Avril, played by Zsa Zsa Gabor.  But she is only a minor character.  Peter Cushing plays Marcel de la Voisier, a dancer with a somewhat deformed face.

Toulouse is a patron who comes to watch the entertainment and draw his drawings.  He is an artist with a unique style, one that seems to capture the essence of the times, and specifically of the Moulin Rouge, itself.  In his art, there is a strange mix of the beautiful and the grotesque, the result of which is a profound truth that is impossible to deny.  Toulouse has a habit of drinking heavily to dull both the pain of his body and of his soul.

The plot then follows his tempestuous relationship with a wretched and crazy prostitute named Marie Charlet, played by Colette Marchand.  He loves her but she cannot love him in return.  She stays with him because he gives her money.  But she eventually leaves him, and he becomes more depressed.  He drinks even more.  Then he meets a woman who truly loves him, but because of his experience with Marie, he cannot see it, though he has fallen deeply in love with her.  When she gives up on him and leaves, Toulouse becomes so depressed, he drinks himself to death.  The end.

The film was shot in Technicolor, but it was done so in such a way as to minimize the brightness of the film’s palette.  Technicolor, while not new, was still not the industry standard.  Many films were still being shot in black and white.  The Technicolor Motion Picture Corporation was responsible for other bright film spectacles like Robin Hood and The Wizard of Oz, movies that were known for their over-saturated, vibrant colors.  However, director, John Huston wanted the film to be more realistically colored, something the developing company was reluctant to do.

But the result was a gritty realism which, much like the paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec, held an unusual amount of truth.  Ferrer was very convincing, as long as he was shown from the waist up.  Huston made use of clever camera angles, cut-outs in the floors of the sets, and prosthetic legs to create the illusion of Toulouse’s dwarfism.  There were even scenes in which Ferrer had his legs strapped behind him while he walked on his knees.  Unfortunately, the false appendages always looked incredibly fake.

A small sub-plot involving the star can-can dancer from the Moulin Rouge, La Goulue, excellently played by Katherine Kath, was utterly pathetic and yet very poignant at the same time.  She is shown several years after the Moulin Rouge has evolved from a bawdy nightclub for the misfits of society to a respectable upper-class establishment, thanks to one of Toulouse’s paintings.  She has become a crazy, drunken hag on the streets, yelling at the scoffing crowds that she used to be the most famous dancer of the Moulin Rouge.  It was a pitiful and heart-wrenching scene to watch.

Moulin Rouge was a film that did an incredible job of bringing many of his most famous sketches and paintings to life.  The cast and their costumes so closely resembled Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings that they appeared to have jumped right off the canvases.

A rather daring thing that the film could have done would have been to include the fact that Toulouse’s death was more than just severe alcoholism and a fall down a flight of stairs.  In reality, there was no fall and he died from complications with syphilis along with the alcoholism.  But maybe that would have been too much for the audiences of the 1950s.  I guess they only wanted to take their realism so far.