“RAINTREE COUNTY” (1957) Review

“RAINTREE COUNTY” (1957) Review

As much as some people would hate to admit it, “GONE WITH THE WIND”, the 1939 adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel, had really cast a long shadow upon the Hollywood industry. Before its release, movies about the Antebellum and Civil War period were rarely released. And by the mid-1930s, Civil War movies especially were considered box office poison. Following the success of “GONE WITH THE WIND”, many Hollywood studios seemed determined to copy the success of the 1939 movie. 

Although “GONE WITH THE WIND” was definitely a Selznick International product, it had been released in theaters by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) Studios, thanks to a deal that allowed the latter to help producer David Selznick finance the movie. Although MGM had released a few movies set during the mid-19th century – including “LITTLE WOMEN” and “SOUTHERN YANKEE” – it did not really try to copy Selznick’s success with “GONE WITH THE WIND”, until the release of its own Antebellum/Civil War opus, “RAINTREE COUNTY”.

Based upon Ross Lockridge Junior’s 1948 novel, “RAINTREE COUNTY” told the story of a small-town Midwestern teacher and poet named John Shawnessy, who lived in 19th century Indiana. Although most of Lockridge’s novel is set in the decade before the Civil War and the next two-to-three decades after the war, the movie adaptation took a different direction. The movie began with John’s graduation from his hometown’s local academy. Many people in Freehaven, Indiana – including John’s father, his teacher/mentor Professor Jerusalem Webster Stiles, and his sweetheart Nell Gaither – expect great things from him, due to his academic excellence. But when John meet a visiting Southern belle named Susanna Drake and has a brief tryst with her during a Fourth of July picnic, his life unexpectedly changes. Susanna returns to Freehaven a month or two later with the news that she is pregnant with his child. Being an honorable young man, John disappoints both Nell and his father by marrying Susanna. Their honeymoon in Louisiana starts off well, but John becomes aware of Susanna’s mental instability and her suspicions that she might be the daughter of a free black woman who had been Susanna’s nanny for the Drake family. However, the Civil War breaks out. Susanna’s emotional state becomes worse and she eventually leaves Indiana for Georgia, the home of her mother’s family. John joins the Union Army in an effort to find her.

After viewing “RAINTREE COUNTY”, a part of me wondered why it was regarded as a Civil War movie. The majority of the film’s action occurred between 1859-1861, the two years before the war’s outbreak. A great deal of the film’s Civil War “action” focused on the birth of John and Susanna’s son – the day the war started, one night in which Susanna informed John about her family’s history, and his rescue of young Johnny at a cabin outside of Atlanta. Otherwise, not much happened in this film during the war. Hell, John eventually found Susanna at a Georgian asylum . . . right after the war. Why this movie is solely regarded as a Civil War movie, I have no idea.

I realize that “RAINTREE COUNTY” is supposed to be about the life of John Shawnessey, but he came off as a rather dull protagonist. Some critics have blamed leading actor Montgomery Clift’s performance, but I cannot. I simply find John to be a rather dull and ridiculously bland character. Aside from losing control of his libido when he first met and later married Susanna, and being slightly naive when the movie first started; John Shawnessey never really made a mistake or possessed a personal flaw. How can one enjoy a movie, when the protagonist is so incredibly dull? Even if the movie had followed Lockbridge’s novel by exploring John’s post-war involvement in politics and the late 19th century Labor movement, I would still find him rather dull and slightly pretentious. Characters like the volatile Susanna, the mercenary and bullying Garwood P. Jones, the witty Professor Stiles, the gregarious local Orville ‘Flash’ Perkins and even Nell Gaither, who proved to harbor flashes of wit, malice and jealousy behind that All-American girl personality were more interesting than John. How can I get emotionally invested in a movie that centered around such a dull man?

I find his goal in this movie – the search for the “raintree” – to be equally dull. Thanks to Lockridge’s novel and Millard Kaufman’s screenplay, the “raintree” symbolizes the Tree of Knowledge, whose golden boughs shed fertilizing blossoms on the land. In other words, John’s goal is to search for self-knowledge, maturity, wisdom . . . whatever. Two main problems prevented this theme from materializing in the story. One, Kaufman barely scratched the surface on this theme, aside from one scene in which Professor Stiles discussed the “raintree” to his students and how its location in Indiana is also a metaphor for American myth, another scene in which John foolish searches for this tree in the local swamp, a third scene in which John and Susanna discusses this myth and in one last scene featuring John, Susanna, their son James, and Nell in the swamp at the end of the movie. Am I to believe that the movie’s main theme was only featured in four scenes of an 182 minutes flick? And the idea of John spending most of the film finding self-knowledge, wisdom, etc. strikes me as superfluous, considering that he comes off as too much of a near ideal character in the first place.

To make matters worse, the movie had failed to adapt Lockridge’s entire novel. Instead, it focused on at least half or two-thirds of the novel – during John Shawnessey’s years during the antebellum period and the Civil War. Let me re-phase that. “RAINTREE COUNTY” has a running time of 160 minutes. At least spent 90 minutes of the film was set during the antebellum period. The next 40 minutes was set during the war and the right after it. at least half or two-thirds of the film during the antebellum period. The rest focused on the Civil War, which struck me as something of a rush job on director Edward Dmytryk’s part, even if I did enjoyed it. In fact, I wish that the film’s Civil War chapter had lasted longer.

Since the John Shawnessey character and his story arc proved to be so boring (well, at least to me), I did not find it surprising that Dmytryk and screenwriter Millard Kaufman ended up focusing most of the film’s attention on the Susanna Drake Shawnessey character. After all, she emerged as the story’s most interesting character. Her childhood neuroses not only made her complex, but also reflected the country’s emotional hangups (then and now) with race. And there seemed to be a touch of Southern Gothic about her personal backstory. But in the end, both Kaufman and Dmytryk fell short in portraying her story arc with any real depth. It is obvious that the conflict between Susanna’s love for her nanny Henrietta and her racism, along with the survivor’s guilt she felt in the aftermath of family’s deaths had led to so much emotional trauma for her. But Kaufman’s screenplay failed to explore Susanna’s racism, let alone resolve it one way or the other.

In fact, the topic of race is never discussed or explored in “RAINTREE COUNTY”. I found this odd, considering how Susanna’s emotional trauma played such a big role in the film’s narrative. The movie featured two African-American actresses – Isabel Cooley and Ruth Attaway – who portrayed the maids that Susanna brought with her from Louisiana. Their presence in the Shawnessey household created a major quarrel between the pair in which John had demanded that Susanna free them or he would leave. And yet . . . Kaufman’s screenplay never gave the two maids a voice. John Shawnessey never really explained or discussed his reasons for being an abolitionist. Although the movie did point out both Southern and Northern racism, no one really discussed slavery with any real depth. Racism only played a role in Susanna’s emotional hangups about her family and nothing else.

In one of the movie’s final scenes; John’s father, Professor Stiles, and Nell were among those who tried to encourage John, a former abolitionist, to run for Congress. To protect the South from the post-war Republicans like Garwood Jones . . . who was definitely a Copperhead Democrat during the war. Watching this scene, I found myself scratching my brow. To protect . . . which South? All of the South? Or the white South? One would think that a former abolitionist and pro-Lincoln supporter like John would be a Republican. I can understand him not being interested in “punishing the South”, or white Southerners. But what about the former slaves of the South? Kaufman’s screenplay did not seem the least interested in pointing out how the freedmen would need protection. And John Shawnessey seemed like the type of character – judging from his pre-war and wartime views on abolition – who would be interested in the fate of those former slaves. Unfortunately . . . the topic never came up.

I have two last complaints about “RAINTREE COUNTY” – its score and title song. I was surprised to learn that Johnny Green had earned an Academy Award nomination for the score he had written for the movie. How in the hell did that happen? I found it so boring. And bland. It was a miracle that the music did not put me to sleep while watching the film. Producer David Lewis had hired Nat King Cole to perform the movie’s theme song, also written by Green. Look, I am a big fan of Cole’s work. But not even he could inject any real fire into this song. Like the score, it was dull as hell. And the song’s style struck me as a bit too modern (for the mid 1950s) for a period movie like “RAINTREE COUNTY”.

Was there anything about “RAINTREE COUNTY” that I enjoyed? Well . . . I enjoyed the art direction and set decorations featured in it. Both teams received deserved Academy Award nominations for their work. Academy Award winner Walter Plunkett (who had won for “GONE WITH THE WIND”) had received an Oscar nomination for his work in this film:

However, I have noticed that like his costumes for female characters in “GONE WITH THE WIND”, Plunkett’s costumes for “RAINTREE COUNTY” have touches of modern fashion in them . . . especially some of the hats worn by Elizabeth Taylor and Eva Marie Saint.

The movie also featured scenes and sequences that I enjoyed. I thought the Fourth-of-July foot race between John Shawnessey and “Flash” Perkins rather permeated with the atmosphere of a mid-19th century Midwestern town. I also enjoyed the humor featured in this sequence. I was also impressed by the New Orleans ball that John and Susanna had visited during their honeymoon, along with John’s visit to a New Orleans “quadroon ball” (I think it was) in order to privately speak with Susanna’s cousin Bobby Drake. Thanks to Dmytryk’s skillful direction and the production designs, I was impressed with the sequence that began with the celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s election as president on Freehaven’s streets and ended with the party as the Shawnessey home held in honor of Susanna’s emancipation of her two slaves. Another sequence that impressed me featured Susanna’s revelations about the true circumstances of her parents’ deaths to John. I found it very dramatic in the right way and it featured a fine performance from Elizabeth Taylor.

But the one sequence I actually managed to truly enjoyed featured John Shawnessey’s experiences as a Union soldier with the Army of the Cumberland. The sequence began with John’s humorous and enjoyable reunion with both “Flash” Perkins and Professor Stiles (who had become a war correspondent). The film continued with a fascinating montage featuring John and Flash engaged in battles at Chickamauga, Resaca and Atlanta, punctuated by Professor Stiles’ grim and sardonic commentaries on the warfare. The action and suspense, along with my interest, went up several notch when John and Flash had become two of Sherman’s “Bummers” (foragers) during the general’s march through Georgia. The entire sequence featured the pair’s arrival at Susanna’s Georgia home, the discovery of young Jim Shawnessey and their encounter with a Georgia militia unit led by a wily Confederate officer. This sequence featuring John’s Army experiences proved to be the movie’s high point . . . at least for me.

“RAINTREE COUNTY” featured some decent performances from the supporting cast. Walter Abel and Agnes Moorehead portrayed John’s parents, T.D. and Ellen Shawnessey. I found Moorehead’s performance satisfactory, but I thought Abel’s portrayal of the idealistic Shawnessey Senior rather annoying and a bit over-the-top. I have to say the same about John Eldredge and Jarma Lewis, who portrayed two members of Susanna’s Louisiana family. DeForest Kelley (who was eight or nine years away from “STAR TREK”) seemed both sardonic and witty as the Confederate officer captured by John and Flash. Rosalind Hayes gave a poignant performance as the housekeeper formerly owned by Susanna’s Georgia family, who rather “delicately” explained Susanna’s emotional turmoil to John.

The supporting performances in “RAINTREE COUNTY” that really impressed me came from Lee Marvin, who was a delight as the extroverted and good-natured Orville “Flash” Perkins. A part of me wishes that his role had been bigger, because Marvin’s performance struck me as one of the film’s highlights to me. I heard that Rod Taylor had went out of his way to be cast as the local scoundrel (read: bully) Garwood Jones. Taylor gave a first-rate performance, but his role struck me as a bit wasted throughout most of the film. I was impressed by Tom Drake’s restrained, yet sardonic portrayal of Susanna’s Cousin Bobby, especially in the scene in which he revealed that Susanna had been somewhat older at the time of her parents’ deaths. Nigel Patrick gave a very memorable performance as John’s mentor, Jerusalem Webster Stiles. Mind you, there were times when I found Patrick’s performance a bit theatrical or overbearing. But I also found his performance very entertaining and humorous – especially his monologue for the Army of the Cumberland montage in the film’s second half.

Eva Marie Saint had the thankless task of portraying the one character that most moviegoers seemed inclined to dismiss or ignore – local belle and John Shawnessey’s first love, Nell Gaither – the type most people would dismiss as some bland All-American girl. And yet, the actress managed to add a good deal of fire, passion and intensity in her performance, transforming Nell into a surprisingly complex character with some semblance of tartness. Elizabeth Taylor was luckier in that she was cast as the movie’s most interesting character – Susanna Drake Shawnessey. Taylor, herself, had once pointed out that she seemed to be chewing the scenery in this film. Granted, I would agree in a few scenes in which I found her Susanna a bit too histronic for my tastes. And Taylor’s Southern accent in this film struck me as somewhat exaggerated. I found this surprising, considering that I found her Upper South accent in 1956’s “GIANT” more impressive. But in the end, I could see how Taylor had earned her Oscar nomination for portraying Susanna. She took on a very difficult and complex character, who was suffering from a mental decline. And I was especially impressed by her performance in that one scene in which Susanna finally revealed the details behind her parents and Henrietta’s deaths. No wonder Taylor ended up receiving an Oscar nod.

Poor Montgomery Clift. He has received a great deal of flack for his portrayal of the film’s main protagonist, John Shawnessey. Personally, I agree that his performance seemed to be lacking his usual intensity or fire. There were moments when he seemed to be phoning it in. Many critics and moviegoers blamed his alcoholism and the car accident he had endured during the movie’s production. Who knows? Perhaps they are right. But . . . even if Clift had not been an alcoholic or had been in that accident, he would have been fighting a losing battle. John Shawnessey never struck me as an interesting character in the first place. Perhaps Clift realized it and regretted his decision to accept the role. However, the actor actually managed to shine a few times. He was rather funny in one humorous scene featuring Saint’s Nell Gaither and Taylor’s Garwood Jones. He was also funny in the moments leading up to John’s foot race against Flash Perkins. Clift certainly seemed to be on his game in the scene featuring John’s angry confrontation with Susanna over her slaves. Also, he managed to create some good chemistry with Marvin and Patrick during the Civil War sequence.

Yes, “RAINTREE COUNTY” had some good moments. This was especially apparent in the film’s Civil War sequences. I found the movie’s production values up to par and I was especially impressed by Walter Plunkett’s costume designs. Most of the cast managed to deliver excellent performances. But in the end, I feel that the movie was undermined by lead actor Montgomery Clift’s listless performance and uneven direction by Edward Dmytryk. However, the real culprit for “RAINTREE COUNTY” proved to be the turgid and unstable screenplay written by Millard Kaufman. Producer David Lewis should have taken one look at that script and realize that artistically, it would be the death of the film.

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“SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY” (2018) Review

“SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY” (2018) Review

Following the release of Lucasfilm’s ninth film, “STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII – THE LAST JEDI”, the STAR WARS fandom seemed to be in a flux. Although the film received a positive reaction from film critics and was a box office hit, for many reasons it created a division within the franchise’s fandom. And many believe that this division, along with a few other aspects, may have produced a strong, negative impact upon the next film released by Lucasfilm, “SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY”

Why did I bring up this topic? Easy. “SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY” proved to be Lucasfilm’s first box office flop. Certain film critics and defenders of “THE LAST JEDI” had claimed that the negative reaction to the latter film had an impact on the box office performance of “SOLO”. In fact, many of “THE LAST JEDI” detractors claimed the same. Perhaps. Then again, I disliked “THE LAST JEDI”. But that did not stop me from seeing “SOLO” at the theaters. Personally, I suspect other factors played a role in the box office failure of “SOLO” – media coverage of the film’s chaotic production (that included the firing of its first directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller) and the fact that Lucasfilm/Disney had released it five months after “THE LAST JEDI”.

But many would point out that the true reason behind the film’s box office failure was its quality. That it was simply not a good movie. Did I agree with this assessment? I will answer this later. But first, I might as well recap the movie’s plot. Written by Hollywood legend Lawrence Kasdan and his son, Jonathan Kasdan; “SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY” is basically an origins tale about one of the franchise’s most popular and legendary characters, Han Solo. The movie began some thirteen years before the events of “ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY” and “STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE”, when a young Han and Qi’ra, his childhood friend and first love, attempt to escape the clutches of a Corellian gangster named Lady Proxima and her White Worm gang. They fail in their first attempt, but manage to make it to Corellia’s space port with a stash of stolen coaxium, a powerful hyperspace fuel. The pair manages to bribe an Imperial officer with the coaxium in exchange for passage off the planet. Unfortunately, only Han manages to make it past the gate, due to Qi’ra being snatched by the pursuing White Worm gang. Before he can be detected, Han signs up with the Imperial Navy as a flight cadet.

Three years later, Han is serving as an infantryman on Mimban, due to being expelled from the Imperial Flight Academy for insubordination. He spots a criminal gang posing as Imperial soldiers and tries to blackmail the leader, Tobias Beckett, into taking him with them. Instead, Beckett exposes him as a deserter and Han is tossed into a pit to be fed by an enslaved Wookie named Chewbacca. Since he is able to understand the latter’s language, Han is able to plot an escape with the Wookie. Both make their way to Beckett’s newly stolen starship and convinces the criminal to allow them to join his gang. The group plots to steal a shipment of coaxium on Vandor-1. The plan goes awry, thanks to a group called the Cloud Riders led by Enfys Nest. Both Beckett’s wife Val and their pilot Rio Durant are killed and the coaxium destroyed. A grieving and desperate Beckett is forced to face his employer Dryden Vos, a ruthless and high-ranking crime boss in the Crimson Dawn syndicate. Aboard Vos’ yacht, Han has a reunion with Qi’ra, also working for Vos. He also comes up with a plan to steal another shipment of coaxium to help Beckett repay the debt to Vos.

So . . . did I enjoy “SOLO”? Or did I dislike it? There were certain aspects about the film that left me scratching my head. And these aspects had a lot to do with Lucasfilm and Disney Studios’ decision to declare the Extended Universe (EU) novels as no longer part of the franchise’s canon. The Kasdans the screenwriters of “SOLO” had decided to make changes to Han’s backstory. Instead of being the abandoned scion of a well-to-do Corellian family, Han was literally re-written as an orphan with no surname. An Imperial Navy recruiter ended up providing his surname. The Kasdans made Han three years older. I found these changes unnecessary, especially the age change. Perhaps the Kasdans had felt that a nineteen year-old Han would not work in the movie’s narrative. If that was the case, all they had to do was set the movie seven years before “A NEW HOPE” and not ten years. Also, characters like Han’s old crime boss, the pirate Garris Shrike, and the female Wookie who served as the latter’s cook, Dewlanna. Shrike was not missed. But without Dewlanna as part of the franchise’s canon, how did Lucasfilm and the Kasdans planned to explain Han’s knowledge of Shyriiwook, the Wookies’ language? He not only understood it, but also knew how to speak Shyriiwook . . . somewhat.

But despite my quibbles regarding “SOLO”, I enjoyed it. Who am I kidding? I loved it. For me, “SOLO” was a breath of fresh air after the disappointing “THE LAST JEDI”. What I found ironic about the movie is that many claimed that a backstory about Han Solo was unnecessary for the franchise and not particularly original. First of all, none of the nine movies that followed “A NEW HOPE” were necessary. Neither was the 1977 movie, for that matter. As for originality . . . despite the movie being about Han Solo’s youth, I thought “SOLO” proved to be a surprisingly original entry for the franchise. Although the galaxy’s criminal element has been featured in past STAR WARS films, “SOLO” marked the first time that the franchise delved deep into the galaxy’s criminal organizations. And this is because “SOLO” is basically a heist film. Well . . . “ROGUE ONE” was also a heist story . . . at least in the last third of the film. But that was a tale of politics and espionage. And although politics made a few appearances in this film, “SOLO” was basically a story about criminals – including one Han Solo.

And because this film is basically a story about criminals, one would expect to encounter a good deal of back stabbing and double crossing. To be honest, one could find plenty of such action in political films. It certainly happened in “STAR WARS: EPISODE III – REVENGE OF THE SITH”. The ironic thing is that aside from Beckett exposing Han as a deserter to the Imperial Army, no such betrayals or back stabbing occurred until the film’s last act on the planet Savareen. And when the betrayals and back stabbings finally unfolded . . . God, it was a beautiful thing to behold! And the whole sequence was capped by a familiar figure from the past.

The production values for “SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY” seemed top-notched. Well, most of it. I must admit to feeling somewhat disappointed by the visuals for Corellia. From the drawings I have seen of the planet online, I had imagined that Han’s home world to be a little more colorful than what was seen onscreen:

But I certainly had no problems with the visuals for other planets like Vandor-1, the Fort Ypso village on said planet, the Kessel Run’s maelstrom and Savareen. But I really have to give kudos to production designer Neil Lamont and the film’s art direction team for their creation of the interior sets that served as Dryden Vos’s yacht. Need I say more?

When the media first announced that Alden Ehrenreich had been cast as the young Han Solo, many STAR WARS fans had denounced the casting and insisted that actor/impressionist Anthony Ingruber, who had portrayed the younger version of a character portrayed by Harrison Ford in a movie called “THE AGE OF ADALINE”, should have won the role. I have seen Ingruber do an impressionist of Ford in a You Tube video clip. But I thought that the movie required more than an impressionist and I had seen Ehrenreich in three previous movies. I believed he would do a great job as a young Han Solo. As it turned out, Ehrenreich was more than great. He gave a SUPERB performance than ended up knocking my socks off. Oh my God, he was just brilliant. Ehrenreich captured all of the essence of Han’s personality and traits with very little effort. All I can say is that I am very happy that he had more than lived up to my expectations.

But Ehrenreich was not the only one who knocked it out of the ballpark. The movie also featured a first-rate and enigmatic performance from Emilia Clarke, who portrayed Han’s first love Qi’ra. The character is one of the few instances in which I am glad that Lucasfilm did not use any characters from the Expanded Universe. In the EU, Han’s first love was Rebel Alliance officer Bria Tharen. I am certain that Bria was an interesting character, but she reminded me too much of Leia. Qi’ra, on the other, struck me as a more interesting and complex personality and romantic interest for Han. And Clarke did a marvelous job with the role. Another great performance came from Woody Harrelson, who portrayed Han’s reluctant mentor, a professional thief known as Tobias Beckett. Like Clarke, Harrelson did an excellent job in portraying a morally complex thief who seemed to be a combination of an easy-going personality who was also avaricious and ruthless. No one seemed to mind Donald Glover’s casting as Han’s future friend, Lando Calrissian. Glover gave a very entertaining and first-rate performance as the witty and smooth-talking smuggler, who seemed to harbor a low opinion of Han and a high opinion of himself, the Millennium Falcon, and his droid companion L3-37.

“SOLO” also featured excellent performances from other supporting cast members. Paul Bettany was both entertaining and dangerous as Crimson Dawn’s criminal leader Dryden Vos. Joonas Suotamo’s first-rate portrayal of Han’s life long friend, Chewbacca, struck me both poignant and emotional. More importantly, his character was fully fleshed out and not treated as some glorified Thandie Newton gave a sharp and witty performance as Beckett’s wife Val. Erin Kellyman was surprisingly commanding as Enfys Nest, the young leader of a gang of pirates called Cloud Riders. Ray Park surprised the hell out of me when he briefly repeated his role as former Sith apprentice, Darth Maul. The movie also featured some very entertaining voice performances from Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who was hilarious as Lando’s emotional and sharp-tongued droid L3-37; Jon Favreau, who gave a charming and funny performance as a member of Beckett’s crew, Rio Durant; and Linda Hunt, who was sinister as the criminal leader of the White Worms gang on Corellia. The movie also featured cameos – live and voice – from STAR WARSveterans like Anthony Daniels and Warwick Davis.

What else is there to say about “SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY”? It is a pity that it did not perform well at the box office. Then again, I saw it twice in the theaters and felt more than satisfied. It is not the best STAR WARS movie I have ever seen. But I do believe that it was one of the better ones, thanks to Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan’s screenplay, a superb cast led by the talented Alden Ehrenreich and director Ron Howard, who I believe may have saved this film, following the firing of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller as the film’s directors. For me, “SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY” is another prime example that Disney Studios and Lucasfilm seemed to be better at stand alone films, instead of serial ones.

 

“Unnecessary Time Periods”

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“UNNECESSARY TIME PERIODS”

I am a big fan of the DCEU or at least the franchise’s first phase. I am also a fan of the 2017 hit film, “WONDER WOMAN”. I was also pleased to discover that the film has managed to convince Hollywood studios – especially Warner Brothers and Disney – to create more comic book movies with a female protagonist. 

But my pleasure in both has somewhat been muted by what seemed to be a growing trend in Hollywood – to have these upcoming movies set in the past. Why? Because the successful “WONDER WOMAN” film was set in the past – during the last week or two of World War I? I had no problems with this, considering that “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE” had established Diana Prince aka Wonder Woman’s presence during that conflict with a single photograph. Hell, the television series from the 1970s had established Wonder Woman’s origin story during World War II during its Season One and brought her character into the present (late 1970s to early 1980s) in the seasons that followed.

However, I learned that the second Wonder Woman movie starring Gal Gadot will be set in 1984. To drive home that point, it is called “WONDER WOMAN 1984”. Personally, I do not understand this decision. Was this Warner Brothers and Patty Jenkins’ attempt to cash in on the first movie’s success? Was it to undermine the back story for Wonder Woman that was established by Zack Snyder in both “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN” and “JUSTICE LEAGUE” in order to make her seem like a more ideal character? Who knows. But this movie will definitely establish a plot hole in the franchise’s overall narrative.

Warner Brothers also plans to create and release “SUPERGIRL”, who happened to be Kara Zor-El, the first cousin of Clark Kent aka Superman. And they plan to set this movie in the 1970s. Why? Apparently, Supergirl is the older cousin and to the movie’s screenwriters, it made sense that she would reach Earth before him. But . . . “MAN OF STEEL” and “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN”had already established that Superman was the first powerful alien to become known to Humans. In fact, there have been others before the arrival of General Zod and his followers who were aware of Clark’s powers. You know . . . like Jonathan and Martha Kent, some of Smallville’s citizens and Lois Lane. By setting “SUPERGIRL” in the 1970s, Warner Brothers would again . . . undermining a narrative point established in previous films. Why not follow the example of the television shows like “SUPERGIRL” and “SMALLVILLE” on the CW by having Kara aka Supergirl’s spacecraft knocked off course and forced into the Phantom Zone for a decade or two? So, by the time Kara finally reached Earth, her cousin Kal-El would have grown up and become Superman. Why not use this scenario?

“WONDER WOMAN”, Marvel’s Kevin Feige had finally decided that the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) will feature a comic book movie with a woman in the starring role . . . namely “CAPTAIN MARVEL”. Mind you, I still find it cowardly that Feige had decided to wait until the success of another studio to produce a movie featuring a comic book heroine in the lead. Especially since the character Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow has been part of the franchise since the 2010 movie, “IRON MAN 2”. However . . . I discovered that “CAPTAIN MARVEL” will be set in the 1990s. And I ask myself . . . why?

The official word is that the movie’s time period is being used to set up Nick Fury’s trajectory toward forming The Avengers years later. After all, both Samuel L. Jackson and Clark Gregg as future S.H.I.E.L.D. Directors Nick Fury and Phil Coulson will be in the film. But this is so unnecessary. I realize that Tony Stark aka Iron Man was not the first enhanced being or metahuman (so to speak) to attract the attention of S.H.I.E.L.D. Fury must have known about Steve Rogers aka Captain America’s war service in “CAPTAIN AMERICA: FIRST AVENGER”. He must have known about Hank Pym and Janet Van Dyne’s S.H.I.E.L.D. activities in the 1980s as Ant-Man and the Wasp. And her certainly knew about Dr. Bruce Banner’s experiments in gamma radiation and eventual transformation into the Hulk before the events of “THE INCREDIBLE HULK”. After all, 2008’s “THE INCREDIBLE HULK”was not an actual origin movie. So, I find myself wondering why Feige found it necessary to set up Fury’s trajectory with enhanced beings with Carol Danvers aka Captain Marvel . . . in the 1990s. Unless “CAPTAIN MARVEL” is simply another attempt by a studio or producer – in this case, Kevin Feige and the MCU – to cash in on the success of “WONDER WOMAN”. Why not just admit it? Especially since it seems so obvious.

And by the way, why are all of these films led by a comic book heroine? Just because “WONDER WOMAN” was set in the past, there is no reason why every single comic book movie with a woman in the lead have to be set in the past? What is the point in all of this? Yes, “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER” was set in the past. However, the following two movies featuring Captain America were set in the present. So, why did Marvel feel it was necessary to set “CAPTAIN MARVEL” in the past? Why is it that none of the other MCU movies led by men set in the past? Why did Warner Brothers believe it was necessary to set its second Wonder Woman and Supergirl films in the past? Has this been the case for any of their movies with a male lead or ensemble-oriented movies like “SUICIDE SQUAD”?

I found myself wondering if there is another reason why these three upcoming comic book heroine movies are being set in the past. But I could not find any. The time periods for these films are so unnecessary and an obvious attempts to copy the success of “WONDER WOMAN”. The thing is . . . Wonder Woman’s past during World War I and the photograph discovered by both Bruce Wayne aka Batman and Lex Luthor allowed them to recognize her as a possible metahuman or enhanced being. For me, there is no good reason for “WONDER WOMAN 1984”“SUPERGIRL” or “CAPTAIN MARVEL” to be set in the past.

“SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN” (1952) Review

“SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN” (1952) Review

There are certain movies in this world that I cannot be objective about – one way or the other. One of those movies happened to be the 1952 MGM musical, “SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN”

Directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, “SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN” was the brain child of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) producer and songwriter, Arthur Freed. While his 1951 musical “AN AMERICAN IN PARIS” was in its last stages of production, Freed came up with the idea of a musical that depicted – somewhat – the transition from silent films to talking pictures in Hollywood, during the late 1920. He recruited Broadway playwrights Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who had written three previous musicals for the studio, to write a screenplay that revolved around a collection of songs he had co-written with Nacio Herb Brown during the same period that the movie is set.

“SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN” begins at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood, where a premiere is being held for Monumental Pictures’ latest release – “The Royal Rascal”. Starring the film’s protagonist Don Lockwood and his leading lady, Lina Lamont, the movie is a big hit with the audience. On his way to a party held by the studio’s head, R.F. Simpson, Don manages to avoid a group of screaming fans by hitching a ride with a young woman named Kathy Seldon. The two have a brief argument over the merits of screen and stage acting before Kathy delivers him to Simpson’s home. During the party, Simpson reveals his plans to convert the studio to talking pictures following the success of Warner Brothers’ 1927 release, “THE JAZZ SINGER”.

Monumental’s employees and contract players finally realize that Simpson was serious when orders for Don and Lina’s next assignment – “The Dueling Cavalier” – to be converted into a talking picture. However, the production is beset by a few problems. One, Don has to contend with his leading lady, the shallow and conniving Lina Lamont, being convinced that they are meant to be great lovers in real life. Two, Don has fallen in love with Kathy Seldon, whom he discovers is a minor contract player on the Monumental lot. Three, no one – including the film’s director Roscoe Dexter – has no idea of how to film a talking picture, let alone deal with the new sound equipment. And worst of all, Lina possesses a grating voice and strong New York accent that no diction coach can erase. Despite these problems, Don continues to pursue Kathy and Monumental Pictures soldiers on in its attempt to produce and release its first talking picture.

As many know, “SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN” is considered one of the best Hollywood musicals ever made. And honestly, I would be the last to argue against this opinion. But upon my recent viewing of the film, I realized that I had one or two problems with the movie. Yes . . . definitely two. One of those problems proved to be the Cosmo Brown character portrayed by Donald O’Connor. Do not get me wrong. I love the character. But . . . what exactly was his position at Monumental Pictures? The movie began with flashbacks featuring Don and Cosmo’s careers as barely successful vaudevillian song-and-dance men, their arrival in Southern California, Don’s early career as a stunt man, Cosmo’s role as a studio musician, and Don’s start as a major star and Lina Lamont’s leading man. Also, Cosmo seemed to serve as Don’s sole member of his entourage in Hollywood. Yet, by the end of the film, he has become head of Monumental Pictures’ music department, due to a few ideas he had about saving “The Dueling Cavalier”? That was all it took for Cosmo to unintentionally force the studio’s previous music department’s head out of a job? That seemed a bit too much for me to swallow. I was also disturbed by one scene in which Lina Lamont managed to intimidate studio chief R.F. Simpson into acquiescing to her every demand. I found that scenario rather hard to swallow. I do not care what kind of contract she had. I simply cannot see any Hollywood studio willing to agree with one that would give any contract player that level of power. Not even in a movie.

My bigger problem with “SINGIN IN THE RAIN” proved to be the film’s second half. It seemed that by the time Cosmo, Don and Kathy discussed how to save the studio’s first talking picture, the movie’s narrative was in danger of running out of steam. Of course, we all know that the movie had to deal with Lina’s downfall and Kathy’s ascension as a star. But I found it disturbing that screenwriters had to include a seventeen-minute ballet – the famous “Broadway Melody” – to stretch out the film. Without it, the movie’s running time would have lasted roughly 86 minutes. Hmmm . . . one would think that screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green could have stretched out the film’s narrative a little better than that. Do not get me wrong. I enjoyed the “Broadway Melody” . . . well, most of it. I must confess that I am not a fan of the segment that featured Gene Kelly, Cyd Charisse and a long white scarf. Needless to say, I found it extremely boring! Every time the ballet came to this point, I have to press that FastForward button on my DVD remote to skip past it.

Despite these quibbles, I love “SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN”. Why deny it? One, I enjoyed the story. I thought Comden and Green had created a very entertaining and romanticized story about Hollywood’s transition from silent films to talkies in the late 1920s. Not only did I find it entertaining, I also found it extremely funny. Among the film’s best moments include Don Lockwood’s amusing and rather exaggerated recollection of his and Cosmo Brown’s years in vaudeville and their arrival in Hollywood; Don and Kathy’s rather funny first meeting on the streets; the revelation of Lina Lamont’s awful voice; the hilarious and chaotic filming of “The Dueling Cavalier”; and the equally hilarious test screening of the film that proved to be a disaster. There were just so many moments that left me in a state of uncontrolled laughter.

As for the film’s narrative – it is simple enough. “SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN” is about the Hollywood’s transition from silent movies to talking films via the experiences of a fictional movie studio. I realize that this might sound like pretentious bullshit, but there were times that I found myself wondering if Don Lockwood served as a metaphor for Monumental Pictures. Or if Lina Lamont and Kathy Seldon symbolized the silent and upcoming sound eras. Okay, that does sound like pretentious bullshit. But I do find it odd that Don eventually eases into a relationship with Kathy around the same time that Monumental embraces talking pictures. You know what? Perhaps I should back off and simply state that I enjoyed the film’s comedic narrative about the transition to sound and leave it at that.

Of course, I cannot discuss “SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN” without bringing up the film’s musical numbers. I learned that most of the songs were written by the movie’s producer, Arthur Freed and his former partner, Nacio Herb Brown. Comden and Green wrote two of the film’s songs – “Make ‘Em Laugh” (which strongly resembled Cole Porter’s tune, “Be a Clown”) and “Moses Supposes” (with Roger Edens). But if I had to be honest, the choreography that accompanied most of these songs made those songs memorable to me. This was especially the case for “Make ‘Em Laugh”“Moses Supposes”“Good Morning” and “Singin’ in the Rain”.

“Make ‘Em Laugh” featured a delightfully frenetic dance number by Donald O’Connor that still boggles the mind after 66 years. For a guy who claimed that he was basically a hoofer, this extraordinary dance number proved that he was a lot more. O’Connor was also featured in two dance numbers with star Gene Kelly. And one of them was “Moses Supposes”. Although I found the song amusing, but not particularly memorable, I thought Kelly and O’Connor’s dancing was superb. In fact, I would consider their dance routine to be among the best I have seen on film. “Good Morning”, a song that was featured in one of MGM’s past films, was also charming and peppy. I could say the same about the dance number by Kelly, O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds. I could . . . but I would also like to add that this dance number conveyed that the trio had a magical screen chemistry, which is why it has always been a favorite of mine. Now, the “Singin in the Rain” was a pleasant song written and published back in 1927 and if I must be honest, Gene Kelly did not utilize any special dance steps for his performance. And yet . . . there is something special about it. The entire number struck me as an ultimate expression of unadulterated joy. And it reminded me of a happy moment during my childhood when my sister, brother and I were outside of our apartment building scampering on the lawn during a rain shower.

There were other musical numbers that I enjoyed. “All I Do Is Dream of You” is a delightful song-and-dance number performed by Debbie Reynolds and a group of chorus girls. This scene must have marked the first time moviegoers saw how talented the actress truly was. I also enjoyed Kelly and O’Connor’s first dance number in the movie, “Fit as a Fiddle (And Ready for Love)”, which served as a part of Don Lockwood’s hilarious early recollections of him and Cosmo Brown as part of a vaudeville act. And of course, there was the “Broadway Melody” ballet. Yes, I admit that I did not care for one part of it; which involved Kelly, Cyd Charisse and a long scarf. However, the rest of the ballet struck me as outstanding . . . especially that sexy-as-hell dance number between Kelly and Charisse. I will be the first to admit that “Beautiful Girls” number struck me as a bit of a bore. However, I was entertained by the number’s fashion show (something that many studios used to include in their movies between the end of the 1920s to the beginning of the 1940s) that featured some of Walter Plunkett’s most colorful costume designs:

What can I say about the performances in “SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN”? They were outstanding. Even those performances from supporting characters like Millard Mitchell, a hilarious Douglas Crawley, Kathleen Freeman, Madge Blake and a very young Rita Moreno proved to be very entertaining. The movie’s best performance came from Jean Hagen, who hilariously portrayed the vain and talentless Lina Lamont, whose unattractive voice threatened to end her career with the emergence of talking pictures. Hagen, who had earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination, had based her performance on Judy Holliday’s Billie Dawn character from the play, “BORN YESTERDAY”. Hagen had been Holliday’s understudy. What I found impressive about Hagen’s portrayal is that not only did I find her Lina Lamont beneath contempt, a small part of me found her a bit pathetic and sad. Because she had only appeared in the “Broadway Melody” ballet, Cyd Charisse did not have a speaking role. But her superb and sexy dance number with Kelly re-charged her movie career for greater glory throughout the 1950s.

Another cast member who earned an acting award was Donald O’Connor, who won a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy for portraying Don Lockwood’s closest friend, the musically inclined Cosmo Brown. Aside from his brilliant dancing, O’Connor gave a delicious performance as the sardonic and witty musician, who seemed to take great pleasure at taking pot shots at Lina Lamont. Aspiring actress Kathy Selden proved to be Debbie Reynolds’ sixth role in her long film and television career. Was it the role that finally led her to stardom? Probably. For most of the film, Kathy Selden is a nice, peppy girl with ambitions to make it big in films. I would have dismissed Reynolds’ performance as that of a safe, leading lady if it were not for her dancing talents that had emerged in this film (thanks to Kelly’s tutoring). However, there is one scene – namely Kathy Seldon’s first meeting with actor Don Lockwood – that foreshadowed her brilliant talent for comedic acting.

When people discuss Gene Kelly’s performance in “SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN”, they usually talk about his . . . well, his dance numbers. Especially the “Broadway Melody” ballet, his duet with O’Connor in the “Moses Supposes” number, and of course . . . the “Singin’ in the Rain” dance. As much as I enjoyed his dancing performance, I had to admit that I also enjoyed his portrayal of Don Lockwood. I liked how Kelly made it clear that although Don’s wit is not as sharp as Cosmo’s, it still existed and that he can be a very good comedic actor. This was especially clear in those scenes in which he has to fight off Lina’s constant pursuit of him. One truly funny moment featured a sequence in which he shot a series of insults at Lina, while they filmed a scene from the silent version of “The Dueling Cavalier”. Kelly was also very funny when his character, Don Lockwood, gave a hilarious account of his and Cosmo’s early years on the vaudevillian circuit and in Hollywood. More importantly, I enjoyed how Kelly skillfully conveyed Don’s insecurities and fear of the latter’s career fading, after his initial encounter with Kathy Seldon’s faux pretentious attitude toward movie acting.

Yes, “SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN” is not perfect. But . . . I cannot deny that I believe it is one of the best movie musicals I have ever seen, hands down. It is a masterpiece, thanks to Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s entertaining and funny screenplay, Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s direction of both the narrative and musical scenes and wonderful performances by a cast led by Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor. To this day, I find it hard to believe that following its initial release, it was only a modest hit.

 

Favorite Films Set in the 1800s

Below is a list of my favorite movies set during the decade between 1800 and 1809: 

FAVORITE FILMS SET IN THE 1800s

1. “Emma” (1996) – Gwyneth Paltrow starred in this very entertaining adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel about an upper-class Englishwoman’s attempts to play matchmaker for her friends and neighbors. Co-starring Jeremy Northam, the movie was adapted and directed by Douglas McGrath.

2. “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” (2003) – Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany starred in this Oscar-nominated adaptation of several of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey–Maturin series. The movie was co-written and directed by Peter Weir.

3. ‘Buccaneer’s Girl” (1950) – Yvonne De Carlo starred in this entertaining romantic adventure about the relationship between a Boston singer and an elite sea trader/pirate in old New Orleans. Directed by Frederick de Cordova, the movie co-starred Philip Friend and Robert Douglas.

4. “Captain Horatio Hornblower” (1951) – Gregory Peck and Virginia Mayo starred in this adaptation of three of C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower novels. The movie was directed by Raoul Walsh.

5. “Mansfield Park” (1999) – Patricia Rozema adapted and directed this adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1814 novel about an impoverished young woman living with her wealthy relations. Frances O’Connor and Jonny Lee Miller starred.

6. “The Duellists” (1977) – Ridley Scott directed this adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s 1908 short story, “The Duel” about a small feud between two Napoleonic officers that evolves into a decades-long series of duels. Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel starred.

7. “Lloyd’s of London” (1936) – Tyrone Power was featured in his first starring role as a young man who worked for the famous insurance corporation, Lloyd’s of London, during the Napoleonic Wars. Directed by Henry King, Madeleine Carroll and George Sanders co-starred.

8. “Carry On Jack” (1963) – Bernard Cribbins, Kenneth Williams and Juliet Mills starred in this eighth entry in the “Carry On” comedy series, which is a spoof of the high-seas adventure genre. Gerald Thomas directed.

 

 

“THE GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ” (1954) Review

“THE GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ” (1954) Review

A few years ago, I had reviewed an old 1953 Tyrone Power movie called “THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER”. This 1953 movie proved to be a mixture of a costume melodrama and adventure that chronicled the adventures of a Northern-born gambler who moves to New Orleans to start his own casino. The following year saw the release of another movie with a similar theme called “THE GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ”

There are differences between “THE GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ” and “THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER”. The latter film featured a top film star – Tyrone Power. And I can only assume that it was one of Universal Pictures’ “A” films for 1953. It was certainly a big hit. On the hand, one glance at “THE GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ” and a person was bound to regard it as a “B” movie. The film’s lead, Dale Robertson, was never big as Power. He was mainly known as a television star during the 1950s and 1960s. And his Hollywood career had only started five years before this film.

“THE GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ” began in 1848 Baton Rouge with the arrival of a discharged Army militia officer named Captain Vance Colby, who had fought in Texas and Mexico during the Mexican-American War. In response to a message from a close family friend, Vance planned to travel down to New Orleans on horseback to meet his father, a famous and successful professional gambler named Chip Colby. During his journey, he meets a beautiful Creole aristocrat named Ivette Rivage and comes to her aid, when her carriage’s horse becomes lame. She invites him to her family’s plantation, Araby, where he meets her brother Andre Rivage and her fiance Claude St. Germaine. The two men react coldly upon learning of Vance’s relation to his father, who has recently been accused of being a card cheat.

Following Vance’s departure from Araby, he is attacked by Andre’s hired thug, Etienne. Riverboat captain Antoine Barbee and his daughter Melanie, whom Vance had first met in Baton Rouge, come to the wounded Vance’s aid. Upon his arrival in New Orleans, Vance learns that his father was killed and framed for card cheating by three men – casino owner Nicholas Cadiz, Claude St. Germaine and Andre Rivage. Colby Sr. had won half interest in a new gambling vessel that the three accusers had plans to launch. Upon learning this Vance vows revenge against his father’s enemies.

I first saw “THE GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ” on late night television when I was a teenager. Which means that MANY years had passed since my recent viewings. I wondered if my opinion of the film would change. To my surprise, I discover that it had not. As I had earlier stated, “THE GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ” struck me as a “B” swashbuckler. Although the film was released through Twentieth Century Fox, it was made by a production company called Panoramic Pictures that released a series of low budget films during the 1950s. And yes . . . it was quite obvious that “THE GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ” was a low budget film.

I noticed that for a movie set in the lower Mississippi River Valley, I cannot recall seeing any hint or sign of water in it, aside from the swamp (or a back lot pond) where Vance Colby was wounded and the body of water (or back lot pond) where one of the villains fell from a riverboat. I am still amazed that Chester Bayhi’s set decorations and art director Leland Fuller managed to convey the movie’s late 1840s setting with some plausibility – especially in scenes featuring the interior sets for the Araby plantation, Nicholas Cadiz’s New Orleans casino and the parlor of Andre Rivage’s new steamboat.

On the other hand, I had a problem with Travilla’s costumes. His costumes for the movie’s actors, especially leading man Dale Robertson. Travilla did an excellent job in recapturing the men’s fashion for that era, including the U.S. Army officer uniform that Robertson wore during the film’s first half hour. I wish I could say the same for the women’s costumes in the movie. Well, I found most of them a somewhat adequate representation of women’s fashion in the late 1840s – especially those costumes worn by actress Lisa Daniels. But Travilla’s designs for leading lady Debra Paget’s costumes . . . what on earth?

Paget wore at least two or three more costumes in the film that struck me as a bit more tolerable. But she wore the one featured in the image above more than the others Now, I realize that her character, Melanie Barbee, was the daughter of a man who owned and operated a minor steamboat. But this is the 1840s we are talking about. Melanie was definitely not a prostitute or daughter of a poor backwoodsman. Her father owned a steamboat, even if it was second-class. A woman of her background and time would never be caught dead wearing such an outfit out in the open for everyone to see, let alone in the lobby of an exclusive New Orleans hotel.

I might have some issues with “THE GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ”. But if I must be honest, my opinion of the film has not changed over the years. I still managed to enjoy it. During my review of “THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER”, I had complained about the film’s vague and episodic narrative. I certainly had no such problems with “THE GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ”. I thought Gerald Adams and Irving Wallace had created a solid and entertaining story about a mid-19th century gambler who sought revenge against the men who had killed his father and ruined the latter’s reputation. In fact, I cannot help but feel somewhat impressed by how Adams and Wallace had structured the movie’s plot.

The two screenwriters set up the plot by allowing the protagonist, Vance Colby, to encounter a series of mysteries surrounding his father. From the fight he participated in with another gambler during his arrival at Baton Rouge via steamboat to the discovery of Chip Colby’s death, Vance seemed encounter one mystery after another. Midway into the film, Adams and Wallace allowed Vance to finally discover the true mysteries behind Colby Senior’s recent reputation as a card cheat, Andre Rivage’s murder attempt on his life and Colby Senior’s death. Upon this point, the plot for “THE GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ” focused solely on Vance’s desire for revenge against the three men responsible for his father’s death. Through it all, Adams and Wallace created a light love triangle between Vance and two women – the steamboat captain’s daughter, Melanie Barbee; and Ivette Rivage, who proved to be more superior than her morally bankrupt brother.

The movie also benefited from a first-rate cast. By 1954, Dale Robertson had been around Hollywood for five years. Although he never became a big star like Tyrone Power, his excellent performance as the strong-willed and determined Vince Colby made it pretty obvious why his acting career lasted for the next four decades – mainly in television. He also managed to create a strong screen chemistry with his leading lady, Debra Paget. She gave a very entertaining and superb performance as the feisty Melanie Barbee, who quickly fell in love with Vance while saving his skin on at least two or three occasions. Robertson also had a strong screen chemistry with Lisa Daniels, the British actress who portrayed the Creole aristocrat, Ivette Rivage. I believe Ivette proved to be a more complex character than any other in this film. She had to be regarded as the wrong woman for Vance, yet portrayed in a more sympathetic light than her brother. And I believe Daniels managed to skillfully achieve this balance in her performance.

I find it odd that Kevin McCarthy ended up in a low-budget film some three years after appearing in the film adaptation of Arthur Miller’s play, “DEATH OF A SALESMAN”. Well . . . regardless of how he must have felt at the time, McCarthy proved to be the first-rate actor and consummate professional who portrayed Andre Rivage as the charming, yet violent aristocrat whose temper and gambling addiction set the story in motion. Another excellent supporting performance came from Thomas Gomez, who portrayed Vance’s new friend and Melanie’s father, steamboat Captain Antoine Barbee. Gomez did an excellent job in conveying Captain Barbee’s friendly and pragmatic personality . . . and providing a brief father figure for Vance. The movie also featured solid performances from Douglas Dick (who portrayed the spineless Claude St. Germaine), John Wengraf (who portrayed the intimidating Nicholas Cadiz), Jay Novello, Peter Mamakos, Donald Randolph, and Henri Letondal. And guess who else was in this film? Woody Strode, who portrayed Josh, one of Captain Barbee’s crewmen. Or only crewman. Hell, I am not even certain whether he portrayed a free man or a slave. But his character did help the main hero defeat the “Big Bad” in a way that will prove to be very surprising for a film made in the 1950s.

I realize that “THE GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ” is not perfect. But for a low-budget film, it proved to possess a very well-structured and well-written narrative, thanks to screenwriters Gerald Adams and Irving Wallace. Although I regard the story to be the backbone of any film, director Henry Levin could have have ruined it with bad direction. But he did not. Instead, I believe Levin and a cast led by Dale Robertson did more than justice to the screenplay. Perhaps this is why after so many years, I still managed to enjoy this film.

“MARY POPPINS” (1964) Review

 

“MARY POPPINS” (1964) Review

Looking at the 1964 movie about a magical nanny, one would be amazed that it took nearly 20 years to make it. I suspect that many did not predict it would become critically acclaimed. But if one is ever interested in the behind-the-scenes production of the film, one would have to read about it . . . or watch the 2013 movie, “SAVING MR. BANKS”. I am here to discuss the actual movie, “MARY POPPINS”

Based upon a selection of short stories written by P.L. Travers, “MARY POPPINS” tells the story of how two Edwardian Age children named Jane and Michael Banks, who request a particular kind of nanny after their latest one quits her job after enduring one too many pranks from the two siblings. Their father, a banker named George Banks, is too busy with his career and projecting the image of an ideal Englishman in order to pay attention to them. Their mother, although slightly more concerned about their welfare, is either caught up in the Suffregette Movement or too busy adhering to their father’s demands. After the departure of their latest nanny, Katie Nanna, Jane and Michael write a letter describing what they want in a new nanny. But Mr. Banks has different ideas – a nanny who is an effective disciplinarian – and tears up their letter.

However, the children’s letter magically reaches a woman named Mary Poppins. She appears at the Banks’ home the following morning to apply (or appoint herself) as Jane and Michael’s new nanny. Despite his initial reservation, Mr. Banks is impressed by Mary Poppins’ firm manner and hires her. With the help of friend named Bert, Mary Poppins introduces the Banks children to a new magical world. In doing so, she also manages to shake up Mr. Banks, his household and his livelihood.

I first saw “MARY POPPINS” as a child and immediately fell in love with it. For years, I have regarded the movie as one of the highlights of my childhood and one of the best films to be released from the Disney Studios. But recent criticism of Mary Poppins as a sugar-coated character of no substance, and of the film as an infantilization of P.L. Travers’ work and vision has led me to wonder if my childhood opinion of “MARY POPPINS” may have been overrated. After all, I had spent years judging the movie from the viewpoint of a child. How would I judge this movie from an adult who has spent the last ten to twenty years viewing movies with a critical eye?

As many have recently pointed out, the Disney Studios made a good number of changes to Travers’ stories. They also left out a great deal. To point out “all” of the changes and deletions would require an essay. And I am not interested in writing such an essay. Were there any aspects of “MARY POPPINS” that I disliked? Honestly? No. But there are aspects of the movie’s production that I wish could have been handled in a slightly different manner.

For quite some time, I never understood why “MARY POPPINS” was shot at the studio’s Burbank lot, instead of at England’s Pinewood Studios, where 1963’s “DR. SYN, ALIAS THE SCARECROW” and “THE THREE LIVES OF THOMASINA” were filmed. Like the two 1963 films, “MARY POPPINS” mainly featured a cast of British actors. Only four cast members were American born – Dick Van Dyke, Ed Wynn, Jane Darwell and Reta Shaw. I feel that if the movie had been shot in Great Britain, its exterior shots of the Banks and Uncle Albert’s neighborhoods and the City of London would have featured a bit more details – add more oomph to the movie’s visual British style. As for Tony Walton’s costume designs, I must admit that I found them rather charming, if not particularly mind blowing. However . . . I could not help but wonder why Mary Poppins’ skirts seemed a tad short for 1909-10 fashions. And I also end up wondering why Winifred Banks’ wardrobe seemed so limited. Unless I am mistaken, actress Glynis Johns wore only three costumes in “MARY POPPINS”. In fact, I suspect she wore one particular costume twice. And Walton designed her costumes either in yellow, powder blue or a combination of both colors. Although I found Johns’ costumes rather charming, they also struck me as a bit limited.

Although the film’s production designs struck me as a bit limited, I cannot help but admire the film’s cinematography and visual style. Edward Colman earned a much deserved nomination for his colorful and sharp photography for the film. Colman’s photography also enhanced Tony Walton’s pthe matte paintings created by Peter Ellenshaw. Since “MARY POPPINS” was filmed on the Disney Studios backlot in Burbank, Walt Disney and director Robert Stevenson not only had to depend upon Carroll Clark and William H. Tuntke’s art direction, but also the visual effects and special effects teams. But “MARY POPPINS” was set in Edwardian London. And since Disney, Stevenson and the film’s crew could not film in Great Britain, the production team had to rely on Ellenshaw’s beautiful and colorful matte paintings to add to the film’s visual look for its setting, as shown in the following images:

 

“MARY POPPINS” may not have been free of any flaws, but it still remains one of my favorite movies of all time. I had earlier pointed out that some critics have pointed out the movie’s failure to be completely faithful to Travers’ stories. Honestly? I do not care. It would have been near impossible for any screenwriter to be completely faithful. Travers did not write a single novel. She wrote a series of short stories and novellas. And since it is impossible for a screenplay to be completely faithful to a novel or stage play, what on earth made these critics believe Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi could have been completely faithful to Travers’ stories and still fashion a single narrative for the film? Ridiculous!

Personally, I am amazed that Walsh and DaGradi managed to wring a single narrative out of so many short stories in the first place. That must have not been an easy task. As the 2013 movie, “SAVING MR. BANKS”, had pointed out, Mary Poppins’ purpose within the Banks’ household was to save George Banks and his relationship with his children. And she did this in the most interesting way. Mary Poppins used her role as the children’s nanny to indirectly affect the family’s patriarch. Instead of utilizing traditional means to care for the children, Mary Poppins exposed Jane and Michael to her world – using magic to clean the nursery, an excursion into a sidewalk chalk drawing of the English countryside, and an afternoon tea party on the ceiling with Mary Poppins’ Uncle Albert. The children’s revelations of their activities naturally shook up Mr. Banks, along with the magical nanny’s subversive and cheerful impact upon the Banks’ household.

Unable to accept Mary Poppins’ impact upon his family and servants, Mr. Banks threatened to fire her. And this is where Mary Poppins, as the film’s trickster, pulled off a pièce de résistance. Before Mr. Banks could fire her, Mary Poppins managed to manipulate him into agreeing to take the children on an outing to his bank. However, the night before this outing, she decides to sing a song to the children about an old beggar woman who sits on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral, selling bags of breadcrumbs to passers-by for twopence a bag, so that they can feed the many pigeons that surround her. Between the song and the children spotting the Bird Woman on their way to their father’s bank, Mary Poppins set in motion the chaos that followed and her plan to save Mr. Banks’ relationship with his family. Brilliant.

If the narrative that Walsh and DaGradi had created from Travers’ short stories had struck me as brilliant, the songs written by Robert and Richard Sherman seemed even more so. Aside from the performances, the Sherman Brothers’ songs seemed to be the heart and soul of the film. If someone was to ask me which song was my favorite, I honestly could not answer that question. Aside from two of them, I found most of their songs very memorable . . . even to this day. One of their songs – “Chim Chim Cher-ee” – was nominated for the Best Song Oscar and won. However, I must admit to being surprised that the beautiful and rather haunting “Feed the Birds” failed to garner any kind of nomination or award. Perhaps it was not as fully appreciated back in 1964-65 as it is today.

Both “Jolly Holiday” and “Step in Time” were not only entertaining songs, but they also provided the background for some very entertaining dance numbers. The first featured the very agile Dick Van Dyke and a quartet of animated pigeons. I found this dance sequence both funny and a joy to watch. You have to see it to believe it. As for the second song, it was featured in a show stopping dance routine that involved Van Dyke, Julie Andrews . . . and chimney sweeps. Between the song, the dance routines choreographed by the husband-and-wife team of Marc Breaux and Dee Dee Wood, and the London rooftops background, the entire sequence is one of the film’s highlights.

Another addition to the magic of “MARY POPPINS” proved to be its cast. The movie featured excellent voice performances in the chalk picture sequence from the likes of J. Pat O’Malley, Marni Nixon, Dallas McKinnon, and Alan Napier. Even Julie Andrews and David Tomlinson also provided voice performances. The supporting and cameo performances featured in this film were marvelous. The movie included excellent performances from Reginald Owen as the cankerous Admiral Boom; Elsa Lancaster as the disgruntled Katie Nanny; Arthur Treacher as the kindly Constable Jones; Arthur Malet as Mr. Dawes Jr., one of the board members of the bank that employed Mr. Banks; Hermione Baddeley and Reta Shaw as Ellen and Mrs. Brill, the Banks’ gregarious maid and cook; and a poignant cameo by Jane Darwell, who was convinced by Disney to make a brief appearance as the Bird Lady.

“MARY POPPINS” marked the second teaming of Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber, who portrayed the magical nanny’s charges, Jane and Michael Banks. It seemed pretty simple to me why Disney had used this pair in three movies. Not only were they were first-rate actors who more than kept up with the likes of Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke and David Tomlinson; they also had a great screen chemistry. In P.L. Travers’ books, Mrs. Banks was an easily intimidated woman who could barely maintain control of her household. In this movie, Mrs. Banks was a woman more occupied by her suffragette activities than her children. And she was portrayed by actress Glynis Johns. The latter gave a marvelous performance as a woman who seemed to hid her inability to protect her children from their father’s neglect with a few sympathetic words and her own brand of neglect.

If I had to select the most complex character in this movie, it would have to be Mr. George Banks of 17 Cherry Tree Lane and the Dawes Tomes Mousley Grubbs Fidelity Fiduciary Bank. Thanks to actor David Tomlinson in his first appearance in a Disney film, movie audiences were treated to a superb performance. Tomlinson skillfully transformed George Banks from a highly driven and disciplined man who was obsessed with order to an affectionate family man who had found a new lease on life. It almost seems criminal that the actor never received any kind of acting nomination for his performance.

Unlike Tomlinson, Dick Van Dyke did receive a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor, thanks to his performance as Bert, Mary Poppins’ closest friend and jack-of-all-trades. Whenever Van Dyke’s performance in “MARY POPPINS” is mentioned, people seemed to comment on his Cockney accent. Granted, it was not perfect. But I have never considered it to be a travesty. I have noticed that whenever he spoke words with a long vowel, his Cockney accent seemed exaggerated. Otherwise, I had no problems. And if someone like Sean Connery can win an Oscar for portraying an Irish immigrant with a Scots accent, I see no reason why Van Dyke’s portrayal of Bert should only be condemned for a questionable Cockney accent. Besides . . . accent aside, Van Dyke gave a superb performance in so many other ways. He captured Bert’s charm, wit and a slight talent for manipulation with such perfection. Van Dyke was also given the opportunity to portray another character in the film – namely Mr. Banks’ elderly boss, Mr. Dawes Senior of the Dawes Tomes Mousley Grubbs Fidelity Fiduciary Bank. How often does one find an actor in his late 30s effectively portraying a 90-something year-old man? In my personal experience, very rarely. And to put the cherry on the icing, Van Dyke was never criticized for his British accent, while portraying Mr. Dawes . . . for good reason. Although there have been hints of his talent as a song-and-dance man in his first television series, “THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW”, this movie really provided an opportunity to convey how truly talented he could be.

Julie Andrews managed to capture the big prize for her portrayal of the film’s leading character, Mary Poppins. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress. Whereas many were distracted from Van Dyke’s performance because of his accent, others have lamented on how Andrews’ portrayal of the magical nanny seemed a far cry from her literary version. Granted, the latter was a plain-looking woman, somewhat more pompous and strict. Although Andrews’ Mary Poppins was more beautiful looking and somewhat warmer, she could still be quite sharp-tongued – especially when disciplining Jane and Michael. Andrews also did a great job in conveying Mary Poppins’ no nonsense behavior and massive talent for emotional manipulation. That one scene in which the magical nanny manipulated Mr. Banks into taking his children on an outing to his bank was just a joy to watch. Thanks to her skillful and award winning performance, Andrews managed to convey the reason why Mary Poppins is regarded as a trickster.

What else can I say about “MARY POPPINS”? Over fifty years have passed since the movie’s initial release and it is still – at least to me – a magical movie to watch. Yes, it had a few flaws. What movie did not? But thanks to P.L. Travers’ stories, Robert Stevenson’s marvelous direction, Robert and Richard Sherman’s music, the movie’s visual effects teams and the superb cast led by Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke; “MARY POPPINS” remained timeless and magical as ever.