1956 – The Ten Commandments

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The Ten Commandments – 1956

I need to start this off by saying that I liked the movie.  I had a few issues with some of its theology and some of its content, but overall, I enjoyed watching it.  I do so love a good epic, and this one sure qualified.  Charlton Heston played the lead as Moses, the iconic biblical figure.  The film follows the Hebrew’s rise to power as an unwitting Egyptian, his discovery of his true heritage, his exile, his conversion to the Hebrew religion, his mission to free the enslaved nation of Isreal, their exodus into the desert, and finally, his receiving of the Ten Commandments from God, himself.

There was a grandeur about the film.  It was made on a massive scale.  The sets were big, the colors were bright, the story was grand, and the characters were larger than life.  The costumes were elaborate and beautiful, thanks once again to Edith Head and a few others.  It was visually stunning and the special effects, though I’ll admit that some of them were cheesy by today’s standards, were quite impressive for the 1950s.  The big scene of the parting of the Red Sea was incredibly well done.  I’ll wager to say that nobody had ever seen anything like it.

But there were a few points that the three and a half hour movie skipped.  If I had the means to make a modern version of the film, I would do a few things differently.  I would show more than just three of the ten plagues.  I would take the time to show them all.  And I would make sure that the reasons for them were clearer.   I would make a greater point of showing Moses’s reluctance to be the Lord’s emissary.  I would do my best to minimize the irrelevant romantic subplot between Joshua and Lilia, and I would completely cut the man-hungry sisters of Sephora.

But in the scope of the big picture, those things are relatively minor.  There were no bad performances.  Heston’s Moses was overacted, but he somehow took on an air of mystery and even danger that served him well.  Yul Brynner played Rameses II, the heir to the Egyptian throne, and I thought he did an excellent job.  His father Sethi was wonderfully played by Sir Cedric Haredwicke.  The intended bride of the next Pharaoh is Nefretiri, played by Anne Baxter.  I actually loved her performance.  It was also over acted and melodramatic, but I thought it was just perfect for the overly dramatic personality of the character.  The made-up character of Dathan, played by Edward G. Robinson, was annoying, but somewhat understandable as a plot device.  The afore-mentioned Joshua was played by John Derek, and he did a pretty good job.  His fictional girlfriend, Lilia, was played by Debra Paget.  And finally, Yvonne De Carlo played Moses’ wife Sephora.

I also have to make special mention of the music, written by Elmer Bernstein.  It was grand and fit the epic nature of the film well.  But though the movie was nominated for 7 Academy awards, a Best Music nomination was not among them.  Aside from its Best Picture nomination, it was also nominated for Best Visual Effects, which was its only win, Best Color Art Direction, Best Color Cinematography, Best Color Costume Design, Best Film Editing, and Best Sound Recording.  A pretty good list in terms of production standards.  But notice how none of the actors received any nominations for their work.  Strange.

Still, I would think that one of the most popular films ever made would have earned more than one award from the Academy.  According to Wikipedia, it is “one of the most financially successful films ever made, grossing approximately $122.7 million at the box office during its initial release.  It was the most successful film of 1956 and the second-highest grossing film of the decade.  According to Guinness World Records, in terms of theatrical exhibition, it is the seventh most successful film of all time when the box office gross is adjusted for inflation.”

 

So what six movies are ahead of The Ten Commandments?  A pretty impressive list:  Gone With the Wind (1939), Avatar (2009), Star Wars (1977), Titanic (1997), The Sound of Music (1965), and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982).  Personally, I think it should have won the Best Picture award, but it lost to Around the World in 80 Days.

1956 – The King and I

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The King and I – 1956

This is one of those musicals that I have seen many times.  I know the story, the characters, and the actors.  I have my favorite parts and my not-so-favorite parts.  I remember first seeing The King and I as a young child, and it was one of the films that made me love the musical genre.  I like the music, the dancing, and the theatrical nature of the film.

The King and I was based on the Rogers and Hammerstein stage musical, which had the same name.  That was, in turn, based on Anna and the King of Siam, written by Margaret Langdon.  The story, is a simple one.  Anna, played by Deborah Kerr, and her son Louie, played by Rex Thompson, arrive in Siam by boat.  Anna has been hired by the King of Siam to be a school teacher to his many children and wives.  She falls in love with the children, though she has difficulty dealing with the strange country’s customs and beliefs.

The King, played by Yule Brynner, is a hard and haughty man on the outside, but a slightly insecure and soft-hearted man on the inside.  He has been born into a life in which he always gets his way, with slaves catering to his slightest whim.  But when Anna and her Western ideals refuse to be treated as a servant, the two personalities clash.

Eventually, they learn respect for each other, and maybe fall a little bit in love.  But a situation arises in which, Anna defies him and breaks his spirit.  The King’s pride is wounded.  He starves himself and dies, knowing that the heir to his throne will bring a new and more enlightened era to Siam.

The actors were all very well cast.  True, the film broke the cardinal sin of movie making, showing us overwhelming cuteness in the form of Anna’s pupils, but at least it was a plot point.  When the King goes back on a promise, and Anna threatens to leave, he parades his overly-cute children in front of her.  She is instantly won over by the darling little Siamese children and agrees to stay.

The dancing was very well choreographed by Jerome Robinson, the same man who choreographed the film West Side Story.  Robinson was obviously an insanely talented choreographer.  His dance steps seemed to help tell the story.  Nowhere is this more evident than the play within a play, the Uncle Tom’s Cabin sequence.

This was really my favorite scene of the movie.  Rita Moreno, playing the part of Tuptim, a slave who has been given to the King as a wife, despite her love for another man, narrates a staged production of the book by Harriet Beecher Stowe, which is a story of slaves that are mistreated by a wicked master.  The story was presented using traditional Siamese ballet.  The costumes and props were fascinating to watch, and the strange singing of the chorus was wonderful and exotic.   For me, the scene was captivating to watch and I love every minute of it.

The subplot of the romance between Tuptim and her lover, Lun Tha, played by Carlos Rivas, was mildly interesting, and wouldn’t have been very intriguing, except it was also a necessary aspect of the main plot of the film.  And of course, the most famous song from the show, Getting to Know You, is always superbly delightful, and I enjoy watching it, despite myself.  The children were almost sickeningly sweet, but I didn’t mind it so much.  It is still a charming scene.

But all that being said… Thank goodness for Marnie Nixon!  She does it again!  It seems that no matter what musical you are watching from the 1950s or 1960s, she was dubbing the leads, except maybe for Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music.  Her talent was amazing in that she had the uncanny ability to sound just like whatever actress she was dubbing, making it difficult to tell they were being dubbed.  Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Rueben Fuentes, the man who dubbed Lun Tha’s song.  I don’t know how I could have ever missed it, but it was so obvious that he was not the one singing, I was very nearly cringing.  Still, it is a fun film that is a pleasure to watch.

1956 – Giant

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Giant – 1956

Giant was a huge epic, and I do enjoy epics.  As most epics it follows the happenings of a group of characters over a long period of time.  It dealt with large, grand issues and did so in a very socially conscious way.  The three leads were each Hollywood legends in their own rights.  Rock Hudson played Jordan “Bick” Benedict Jr., a powerful land owner and cattle rancher in Texas.  He later becomes a wealthy oil baron.  His intelligent and opinionated wife Leslie was played by Elizabeth Taylor.  And in his third and final movie role, James Dean played ranch-hand-turned-rich, Jett Rink.

The acting was very good on all sides.  I have never been a huge Rock Hudson fan, but I thought he did a great job.  True, I didn’t particularly like his character until the end, but he played it well.  And the fact that he was an unlikable character until he had a change of attitude near the end of the movie was even addressed as part of the plot.

Taylor also did a remarkable job, as one of the films themes was the role of women in a male dominated society.  She was a strong and articulate character who hated being treated like a dumb woman.  She was opinionated and was angered when she wasn’t even allowed to listen to the men discuss business and politics.  But she was like the glue that held the fracturing Benedict family together.

Now, I’m going to give an unpopular opinion about James Dean.  He did a fine and competent job, but based on his performance, I don’t see what all the fuss is about.  He is always hailed as a Hollywood legend, and while he was able to keep up with Hudson and Taylor, I don’t think he surpassed them.  Had he lived to make any more films, I think he would have had an accomplished career, but I don’t find his performance any better or more captivating because he happened to have died mere days after filming wrapped.  He is often listed among other Hollywood greats like Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe, but why?  Sure Monroe also died young, but she was in many more films, and when she was on the screen, she was mesmerizing.  And Brando had a very long and illustrious career.  Ok, ‘nuff said about that.

I would say that the dominant theme of the movie was prejudice, in this case, the obvious discrimination of Mexican Americans.  The film actually did a wonderful job of displaying how horribly they were treated.  They were segregated, and looked upon as second-class citizens.  The movie didn’t shy away from the terrible slur, “wetbacks” and even the film’s dramatic climax couldn’t completely erase the term from Bick’s vocabulary.

The film actually looked at the discrimination from a number of different angles.  There is a sequence where several of the younger generation had to go to war, and the only one who died was the Mexican American boy.  One of the three children, Jordan Benedict III, played by Dennis Hopper, gets married to a Latina woman and has a child that is clearly of Mexican descent.  In fact, it is they that cause Bick’s change in attitude toward the racial minority.  He gets into a brawl with the owner of a diner because he refuses service to a Mexican family who he does not know.

The film’s other real conflict, aside from changing times, independent children, and outdated attitudes, was Bick’s long-standing rivalry with Jett.  Jett was one of Bick’s ranch-hands who was a racist and a jerk.  He lucked into a small piece of land that happened to contain millions of dollars in crude oil, but his subsequent riches just made him more and more unpleasant.  He became a self-destructive alcoholic with no friends.  His final pathetic scene, where he passes out in front of a posh banquet being given at the opening of his airport/hotel, was poignant to watch.

Just as a point of interest, I learned that this big drunken scene was very nearly ruined because of Dean’s extreme method acting.  To be a more convincing drunk, Dean showed up on the set three sheets to the wind.  Unfortunately, his lines were so slurred and mumbled that they could not be understood.  Tragically, he died before he could over-dub his own lines, and another member of the cast, Nick Adams, had to do it for him.  Dean, you are an actor.  You’re supposed to ACT drunk, not BE drunk.  Despite this, Dean was posthumously nominated for Best Actor at the Academy Awards.

1956 – Friendly Persuasion

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Friendly Persuasion – 1956

I’ve been having a difficult time deciding how to describe this film.  On the one hand, it had a plot that was good in that it posed the audience with an interesting moral dilemma.  If your religion is opposed any kind of violence, when does it become necessary to fight and kill?  It is a theme that has been explored in many other films like Sergeant York… which also starred Gary Cooper.  Hmmm…

On the other hand, much of the film was so sickeningly wholesome, I wanted to roll my eyes into the back of my head.  Granted, the main characters were Quakers, which is a religion that believes in a very strict code of conduct, a code that, when followed, produces overly-wholesome people.  Their polite and peaceful ways are how they live, and the film largely portrays an accurate depiction of Quakers in 1860.  But to my modern sensibilities, I saw their behavior as unrealistic.

But here is the problem I am wrestling with, and it might not be a problem with the film or its characters.  The challenge is to get past my own disbelief that there are people who would meekly allow their homes and families to pillaged and destroyed, saying that if bad men burn our farms to the ground, then we must simply accept it as God’s will.  But I digress.  I am here to give my thoughts on the merits of the film, not religions convictions of Quakers.  That’s not to say that those convictions were not an element of the film.  They most certainly were.  In fact, I would venture to say that they were the central theme of the movie.

Gary Cooper plays Jess Birdwell, the patriarch of a Quaker family in Southern Indiana, during the American Civil War.  His wife Eliza, played by Dorothy McGuire, is one of the parish ministers.  They have three children: precocious “Little” Jess, played by Richard Eyer, Mattie, the religiously devout daughter who falls in love with a Union soldier, and the oldest son Josh, played by Anthony Perkins.  Josh struggles with his desire to remain true to his Quaker beliefs and his desire to fight in the defense of his home and family.

The first three quarters of the film are devoted to showing two things.  The first is the Quakers’ deep commitment to their religion and their peaceful way of life.  They would rather die than resort to any kind of violence for any reason.  The second, and more troubling, part of the movie shows how the strict behavioral code of the religion is oppressive and restrictive, even to those who follow it.  I say disturbing, because each member of the Birdwell family goes out of his way, at one time or another, to stray from the code.

Then in the last quarter of the film, the stakes become higher as the Confederate soldiers arrive and Josh makes a conscious decision to fight and to kill, despite his mother and father’s protestations and pleas that he do no violence.  Eliza says that if he chooses to fight with the Union militia, then he is not only rejecting his religion, he is rejecting her and her beliefs.  Pretty strong stuff.

And though he fought and killed in defense of his home, in the end, it all worked out just fine.  Nobody except one of Jess’s friends was killed.  Mattie’s Union soldier boyfriend survived, and Josh was only wounded in the shoulder, though he had to live with the stain of killing on his conscious.  Even that silly goose survived and became friends with Little Jess.  OK, my eyes are rolling again.  The ending would have been more poignant if either Josh or Gard Jordan, Mattie’s love interest, played by Peter Mark Richman, had died.  The film really would have packed a punch if they had both died.

The acting was good, and I point to McGuire and Perkins, and stand-outs.  I was a little annoyed with Little Jess, because he came dangerously close to breaking the cardinal rule of movie-making, which says that cute for the sake of cute is never cute… never.  But they didn’t cross that line very often.

And just as an afterthought, the entire sequence with the Hudspeth family could have been completely removed from the film and nothing would have been lost.  The three country-bumpkin girls were portrayed as a ridiculously man-hungry trio, like caricatures in a Tex Avery Cartoon.  It was like desperate comic relief in a film that didn’t need any.  Watch the movie and you’ll see what I mean.

1955 – The Rose Tattoo

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The Rose Tattoo – 1955

This was a strange, quirky, little movie.  I would be surprised if many people today have ever even heard of it.  I certainly had not when I watched it.  It was based on a play by Tennessee Williams, so right off the bat you know that you are going to have an extreme character or two.  Williams also wrote other famous plays like A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Glass Menagerie, Orpheus Descending, and Sweet Bird of Youth.  Typically, his plays are extremely well written, but incredibly intense.  The Rose Tattoo was no exception.

It starred, and was actually written for, Italian actress, Anna Magnani.  She plays the role of Serafina Dellle Rose, an Italian mother living in Florida.  The story opens as she is praising her husband to the neighbors.  But that night, her husband, who has a rose tattooed on his chest, is killed in a way that reveals that he is a criminal, smuggling something illegal in his banana truck.  It is also made clear that he is cheating on his wife as his mistress also has a rose tattooed on her breast.

Upon learning of her husband’s death, Serafina goes into a crippling depression.  She continues her business as a seamstress, but refuses to leave her home.  She thinks of her dead husband as a saint that loved her more than anything.  In her loneliness, she becomes an unkempt recluse, much to the embarrassment of her teenage daughter, Rosa, played by Marisa Pavan.  When Rosa falls in love with a sailor named Jack, played by Ben Cooper, Serafina is overly-protective and harsh.

Well, to sum up the rest of the plot, an unsatisfied customer reveals to Serafina the fact that her husband had been unfaithful.  In manic fear and depression, she goes to the priest and demands that he tell her if her husband had ever confessed to the affair.  He refuses to tell her and she goes into an uncontrollable rage.  In comes Bert Lancaster, playing Alvaro Mangiacavallo, a working class man who takes her back to her home.  Unfortunately, he is an idiot whose extreme loneliness causes him to fall hard for Serafina.  His advances are clumsy, forceful, and desperate.  Drunken awkwardness and near rape ensues and Rosa runs off with the sailor.

Now, all that being said, I’m having a hard time deciding whether I liked the film or not.  Anna Magnani gave a good performance, and did the intense role justice.  I didn’t like Burt Lancaster at all.  Not only did I not like the character, I didn’t like the way Lancaster played him.  He made the character of Alvaro seem like he belonged in a loony bin.  Someone that moronic would not be able to function in a normal society, and it didn’t have to be that way.  His desperation could have been much more subtle and it would have come off as much more believable.

The plot was interesting enough.  Not only did it delve into the interesting psychosis of a widow who had never really known how to face reality, but it also showed how her craziness put an incredible strain on her daughter.  And while I’m on the subject of Rosa, I’ll also say that Pavan did a pretty good job as well.  The character was hopelessly confused.  One minuet she hated her mother, the next, she loved her and desired her approval.  She kept flip-flopping back and forth, which must have been difficult to portray.

The film was actually nominated for 8 Academy Awards, and won 3 of them.  As I mentioned, Magnani won for Best Actress, but it also won for Best Cinematography, and Best Art Direction.  Today we would know the Best Art Direction category as Best Production Design, and is awarded for things like set design and decoration.  The category at the time was still divided between Black and White, and Color, and the only one of its competitors I have seen was that year’s Best Picture winner, Marty.  But I don’t get what was better about the set design and decoration for The Rose Tattoo.

I guess I would have to say that the film was interesting, as opposed to great.  Maybe I just don’t know enough about what makes a technically great film.  It was good enough to keep my attention, but I didn’t come away from it with a good feeling, either about the plot, or about Lancaster’s acting, though when I think about it, that might not have all been Bert’s fault.  Sure he decided to play the part that way, but the director also gave it his stamp of approval.  Or maybe… maybe I should be blaming Tennessee Williams!

1955 – Picnic

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Picnic – 1955

I’ve never once thought of William Holden as sexy… until now!  Holy cow!  Picnic is the first film that I have seen that was nominated for Best Picture that has been overtly sexy.  Romantic, sure, but never as sizzling as Picnic.  That being said, I’ll admit that the sexy aspect was really only a single scene, but man, they really turned up the heat!

I liked the film for that, but I liked it even more because it had some great characters, some fantastic acting, and an engaging plot.  This was really a great film.  I only have one complaint, and since it is such a minor one, I’ll just get it out of the way right here.  The story took place in the 50s and some of the lingo of the decade was a little hokey, at least to my modern ears.  But don’t worry.  It was easy to get past it.

The film starred, William Holden, of course, along with Kim Novak, Rosalind Russell, Cliff Robertson, and Susan Strasberg.  Holden played Hal Carter, a young hobo.  In search of a better life, he makes his way to a small, sleepy town in Kansas where one of his old college buddies lives.  Robertson plays Alan Benson, the wealthy town snob who welcomes Hal and offers to give him a job working for his family’s business.  Alan’s gorgeous girlfriend, Madge, is played by Novak.  As soon as Hal meets Madge, sparks fly and the two fall in lust with each other.

So here is the great thing about Hal’s character.  He knows he is a bum, but he puts on a good face and really makes an effort to do the right thing.  He goes out of his way to be friendly with Madge without making any advances.  He doesn’t want to get in between her and Alan.  But Madge isn’t in love with Alan.  That love triangle is the main plot, but the sub-plot brought in by Rosemary, played by Rosalind Russell, is nearly just as interesting.  She is an old-maid school teacher who often boasts about the many men in her past who have wanted to marry her.  She claims to have no need of any man, but the truth shows her to be positively desperate for a husband.  The only man interested in her is Howard Bevans, played by Arthur O’Connell.  She treats him horribly, but when Hal comes to town, Rosemary loses control as she is reminded of all the suitors who no longer desire her.

Russell blew me out of the water.  Her part was so well written and she did an incredible job.  The desperation of her character when she drunkenly throws herself at Hal was uncomfortable to watch, and the bitter anger she portrays when he rejects her is raw and real.  But it was the scene in which she breaks down and pathetically begs Howard to marry her that was absolutely captivating.

The film’s centerpiece, of course, was the town picnic.  Everything that happens before the picnic is set-up and character development, for which the Daniel Taradash, the man who wrote the screenplay, deserves an honorable mention.  Then, during the picnic, emotions are high and the sexy, sexy, “Moonglow” sequence takes place.

Just a quick setup: Hal has actually taken Madge’s little sister, Millie, played by Susan Strasberg, to the picnic.  They are on a dock by the river and listening to the music of the jazz band.  The music turns softer and more romantic.  Hal is trying to teach the awkward young girl a few moves.  Then from behind him, Madge appears and starts dancing to the bands gentle sounds.  She and Hal lock eyes as she approaches the dock.  The two take each other’s hands and it is all over.

The slow and sensual dance that follows is made all the more steamy because they never once stop looking into each other’s eyes.  The expressions on their faces are ones of passion, desire, hunger, and need.  Even though Holden was far too old to play the part, this scene made me buy it, hook, line, and sinker.

The whole movie was so well done.  Great drama!  So why didn’t it win Best Picture?  Well, it was up against Marty with Ernest Borgnine.  Kind of hard to beat that one.

1955 – Mister Roberts

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Mister Roberts – 1955

I’ve seen this film before.  The first time, it was called Mutiny on the Bounty.  The second time, it was called The Cain Mutiny.  This time it was called Mister Roberts, but it had a twist.  There was no actual mutiny.  This time, James Cagney’s Captain Morton joins Captain Bligh, and Captain Queeg, as the ridiculously tyrannical captain of a navy vessel.  He is mean, paranoid, and utterly unreasonable, just like the rest.

The leader of the oppressed crew is Lieutenant, Jr. Grade, Doug Roberts, played by Henry Fonda.  He is a good man who is close with the sailors under his command, going out of his way to protect them from the raving tirades of Captain Morton.  It is a story that has been told many times before and it’s starting to get old.  Hollywood, I’m talking to you!  One would think that all naval Captains are sadistic bastards.

Well, that being said, I have mixed feelings about the film, as a whole.  I liked the film’s ending, but I didn’t like the moronic antics of the movie’s middle.  So, I’ll start with that.  I understand that sailors have a reputation of being rude, crass, Neanderthals that are rough and tough.  But these characters behaved like Tex Avery cartoon characters.

Sure, the men are forced to work in grueling conditions, and the evil Captain Morton has not given them any shore leave for more than a year, but they do not have to turn into panting, slobbering, retarded, caricatures when they see a woman.  Then, when Mr. Roberts makes a shady deal with the Captain so that they can finally have their shore leave, they do not have to become criminals who are violent drunkards, destroying property, molesting women, and terrorizing the port town.  They are so bad that they are actually kicked off the island.  And to make it even more unbelievable, Mr. Roberts actually laughs it all off as “guys just being guys.”  Seriously?  The real U.S. Navy wouldn’t stand for that kind of behavior and the men involved would be severely disciplined.

But the tragic ending was actually good.  Mr. Roberts was stuck on a cargo ship while there was a war going on that he believed in.  He wanted to be a part of the fight, wanted to make a difference.  At least, that was the way he was portrayed.  In the end, he gets his wish.  The crew forges the Captain’s signature so that Mr. Roberts gets transferred to a Destroyer in Okinowa.  While there, he is killed in action.  That much, at least, was realistic enough.

I also have to mention the two other big names that were in the film.  William Powel played the part of Doc, the voice of reason and understanding.  This was actually Powel’s final film appearance.  He, as always, did a great job, and stood out to me as one of the better parts of the film.  He was like the wise sage that comforts Mr. Roberts when he is feeling like he can’t take any more of being the Captain’s whipping boy.

The other was Jack Lemmon, playing the part of Ensign Pulver.  He was the comic relief of the movie, going out of his way to have romantic encounters with any woman within reach.  Lemmon won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in the film, and I’m guessing that it was mostly because of the last few minutes, after the crew learned of Mr. Robert’s death.  His comical character turned serious and he stopped being funny.

Fonda did a good enough job, though his part wasn’t that dynamic.  There were only a few times when any strong emotion rose to the surface, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.  The emotion was generally there, but played very subtly.  The scene in which he throws that Captain’s palm tree overboard was nicely done, as was the big fight with Captain Morton, in which the secret deal was made.

And as for Cagney… well, I don’t have much to say about him.  His character was very one-note.  He was an angry tyrant and that was about it.  The character had no redeeming qualities preventing the actor from displaying any emotion except rage.  But I don’t blame Cagney for that.  I blame the script.  Apparently, Fonda, who had played the role of Mr. Roberts on Broadway, said that though the film was still good, the stage play script was better.

1955 – Love is a Many-Splendored Thing

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Love is a Many-Splendored Thing – 1955

This was a romance done right.  It was about two people who fell in love at the wrong time.  They were both complex, flawed characters, making them believable, and they tried to make their romance work, despite the insurmountable odds.  The ending was unfortunately tragic, but also all too believable.  But that didn’t make it a bad ending, just a sad one.

The story takes place in Hong Kong in 1949 and 1950.  William Holden plays Mark Elliot, a married but separated correspondent, assigned to cover the Chinese Civil War.  While there, he meets Doctor Han Suyin, played by Jennifer Jones, a Eurasion woman who is a widow.  Mark falls in love with the beautiful Han and pursues her aggressively.  At first, she refuses his advances, saying that she has closed her heart and does not desire love.  But his constant calls and overtures of desire, show her that she still has the capacity to love, after all.

There were no other big names in the film, but the rest of the cast did a fine job.  You see, the big conflict of the film dealt very specifically with the supporting cast.  Prejudice is apparently not just a white man’s affliction.  The Chinese people were shown as incredibly prejudice against Han and her foreign lover. Her family practically shunned her and her employers at the hospital actually fired her, all because of her love affair with the American.

The romance was well thought out and did a good job of not being sappy or sloppy.  The characters knew they were asking for trouble but braced themselves to face it with courage and sense.  It was a plot that was well thought out and it was no wonder.  The script was based on the autobiographical book A Many-Splendored Thing, by the real Han Suyin.

I have gotten used to seeing William Holden in this kind of role, but he was good at it, so why not?  He was handsome but not gorgeous, giving him an air of the common man.  His character was sometimes like a bull in a china shop, and sometimes he was annoyed with his Eurasion lover’s propensity toward superstition, which only makes sense.  As far as I can tell, in Chinese culture, superstition is quite common.  Mark was slightly insensitive, but passionate and sincere.  His love was honest and true, and because of the quality of Holden’s acting, I liked him.

Jones also did a fantastic job.  At first I had a hard time believing that she was Chinese, but her western eyes were easily explained by a few lines of dialogue which told of Han’s parentage.  Her mother was Chinese, but her father was English.  Jones, as you might remember, did a wonderful job as Bernadette in the 1943 Best Picture nominee, The Song of Bernadette.  Here, she played a completely different character, but once again she proved that she was a more than up to the challenge.

The film was shot in color, and had some pretty wonderful cinematography.  The sets and costumes were just fine, but I have to make mention of the score.  Sure there was the chart-topping song that shared its title with the film, but it was the incidental music that really caught my attention.  It was hard to watch the drama taking place without a sense of impending doom.  Any time there was even a hint of trouble, the romantic theme shifted into a minor key.  There was very little subtlety in the background music.  I knew that the romance was never going to work because the score refused to give me any reason to believe that it would.

Unfortunately, when the tragedy happened in the film’s climax, I was unsurprised.  All the little warnings were too easy to see.  That’s not to say I didn’t feel bad for the characters.  I did.  But that was due to Holden and Jones and their wonderful acting.  But at least the tragedy was not exactly what I was expecting.  I was actually expecting them to be torn apart by the prejudices that surrounded them on every side, though that isn’t what happened.  Mark was assigned to cover the Korean War, and was sent to the battle zone where he was eventually killed.  But I wonder if their love would have lasted if he had been able to remain with her.  Would she be happy with him if she was forced to give up the career she loved?  Would he be able to marry her when his ex-wife refused to grant him a divorce?  I would like to think so, but I guess we’ll never know.

1954 – Three Coins in the Fountain

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Three Coins in the Fountain – 1954

Well, I have to start off this review by noting that the film was misnamed.  It should have been titled Two Coins in the Fountain.  Either that or Rome: a Travelogue.  I liked the film and its romance, despite the shallow nature of the plot.  I’ll explain.

The plot follows the romantic adventures of three American women working in Rome, Italy.  Newly arrived Maria, played by Maggie McNamara, has been hired to work as an executive secretary at the United States Distribution Agency.  She is replacing Anita, played by Jean Peters.  Maria moves in with Anita and her older roommate, Miss Frances, played by Dorothy McGuire, personal secretary to a famous author.

The women stop at the famous Trevi Fountain and they make wishes as they throw coins into the fountain… well, two of them do, at any rate.  Anita, who moving back to America to get married, declines to make a wish, saying that hers is already coming true.  This is, we learn, a lie, but it doesn’t matter.  Her true wish, like those of her compatriots, comes true in unexpected ways by the film’s end.

As you might guess, they each find love and happiness, though neither comes easily.  Maria goes on an aggressive man-hunt and sets her sights on playboy prince Dino de Cessi, Played by Louis Jourdan.  Anita falls for her handsome co-worker who dreams of becoming a lawyer, Giorgio, played by Rossano Brazzi.  And Miss Frances has long been carrying a torch for her employer, author, John Shadwell, played by Clifton Webb.

And there you have the players.  They each did a good job, though I have to credit McGuire and Brazzi as stand-outs in their acting abilities.  Webb was good, but he didn’t seem to stretch himself as an actor, compared to other similar roles I have seen him play.  Jourdan was the worst of the lot.  His acting seemed more forced or contrived than the others.

But the acting and the plot all took a back seat to the film’s real star, the cinematographer.  Milton Krasner took home the Oscar for best Cinematography, Color.  The scenic shots of Rome with a small sequence filmed in Venice sometimes took over the story – literally.  The Venice section is a perfect example to illustrate my point.  When Prince de Cessi flies Maria and Miss Frances to Venice for the day, the plot stops dead in its tracks and makes way for a five or six minute tour of the Canals, the architecture, and the grandeur of the famous city.

In fact, the entire movie opens with an uncredited Frank Sinatra singing the popular song that shares its name with the film’s title.  The three minute song is beautifully sung while we are shown nothing but random images of various fountains in Rome.  When the song is done, the opening credits begin to appear on the screen.

The plot was slightly shallow and, at some points, predictable, but it was actually harmless enough.  So often in Hollywood films, characters are allowed to do whatever is necessary to serve the plot without regard for plausible consequences.  For example, when the office policy of the United States Distribution Agency says that women are not allowed to date any of the locals, any disregard for the policy should be met with proper disciplinary action.  In fact, Georgio is fired without any recommendation.  Having no job, he is poor and has no money with which to support a marriage with Anita.  When Maria’s scheme to ensnare the Prince into marriage is ended and she tells him of her lies, he actually leaves her.  Consequences.

But all is saved by Mr. Shadwell.  He not only decides that he is in love with Miss Frances, after all, he convinces Prince de Cessi that Maria truly loves him, despite her deceits, and convinces the Distribution Agency to give Georgio his job back, allowing him to afford to marry Anita.  Only one scene seemed to be missing.  The scene showing Mr. Shadwell saving Anita’s romance was included, but the scene in which he saves Georgio’s career is not.  I would have liked a cleverly written scene covering that.

1954 – Seven Brides for Seven Brothers

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Seven Brides for Seven Brothers – 1954

This was a fun movie with an abysmal plot.  The acting was questionable, the singing was passable, and yet the dancing was incredibly clever.  I keep telling myself that I didn’t like the film, but I keep coming back to certain things that I can’t help but like.  I seem to be a bit conflicted.

First off, the music was largely unmemorable, at least to my modern ears.  The cast was, fortunately, made up of professional dancers, which was good, because there was a lot of high-energy, complex dancing.  However, it is interesting to note that a couple of the brothers and almost all the brides had to have their singing voices dubbed by other vocalists.  Still, there were a few songs that, while I can’t remember the melodies, were cute and perky.

The ridiculous plot starts off with the eldest brother, Adam, played by Howard Keel, as he goes to town to get food, a wife, and some supplies.  The guy is such a moron that he thinks that he can pick any woman he sets his eyes on and take her home as his bride.  Reality be damned!  He decides on hard-working and beautiful Milly, played by Jane Powell.  Having seen her serving food to a bunch of rowdy men at an inn, he corners her and asks her to marry him.  No woman in her right mind would say yes to a complete stranger.  But inexplicably, she does.  Reality be damned, indeed.  Fortunately, true love blossoms between them with lightning speed.

She wants to be able to cook and clean for just one special man instead of a bunch of uncouth rabble-rousers.  After the instant marriage, she finds out that she will be expected to cook and clean, not just for Adam, but for his six brothers as well.  But she uses her feisty, feminine ways to whip the rough and sloppy siblings into shape, within a matter of weeks, no less.  Really though, it only took one quick song and dance number to teach them all to be perfect gentlemen.  Reality be damned!

Then came the barn-raising.  There was two phases to this sequence: the dance and the fight.  The dance was intricate and fun to watch.  It seemed to be the centerpiece of the entire film.  There were the brothers who were going out of their ways to impress and dance with the young girls.  The young men of the town were also trying to dance with the maidens.  The back-and-forth squabble eventually turned into a contest to see which group of men was manlier than the other.  The choreography was incredible as the girls get pulled back and forth between the two factions.  Then, the fight sequence wasn’t so much of a dance as it was… a well-choreographed fight.

After that, the brothers were all in love and pining for their lovely young girls.  So, based on one of Milly’s books containing the ancient Roman legend, the Rape of the Sabine Women, they decide to get their brides.  In the context of the mythological story, the word “rape” actually means “abduct” and not sexual violation.  So they go to town and use force to kidnap the horrified young girls.  They whisk them away to their cabin up in the mountains, causing a snowy avalanche behind them, ensuring that the girls would be snowed in with them for the duration of the winter.

Milly is appalled by their behavior.  She welcomes the girls into her home while forbidding the brothers to enter.  What follows is the most ridiculous part of the plot of all.  In modern terminology, we might call it Stockholm Syndrome.  The traumatized women are, for some reason, so turned on by the masculine behavior of the men that they begin to, uh, lust after them… I guess?  Then when spring comes, every last girl falls madly in love with her particular captor, so much so that when the men of the town come to rescue them, they all run and hide, begging to be left where they are.  Reality be damned!

But it was the film’s dancing that made the movie fun for me.  The choreographer, Michael Kidd, really pulled out all the stops and came up with some wonderful dance numbers that were an integral part of the plot.  The dance actually helped tell parts of the story, which is no wonder.  The dance sequences, and the fight sequences for that matter, all had an air of ballet to them.  And what is ballet but stories told through nothing but a marriage of music and dance?  So that aspect of the film was good, but a Best Picture nomination?  I’ll just say I’m glad it didn’t win.