“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.

 

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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 set in motion the chaos that followed and Mary Poppins’ 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 </i>”Step in Time”</i> 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 vowell, 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.

 

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.

“SHANE” (1953) Review

“SHANE” (1953) Review

The history behind the production for the 1953 classic Western, “SHANE” is a curious one. At the time, it was one of the most expensive Westerns ever made in Hollywood. And director George Stevens’ first choices for the film’s two male leads never panned out. Yet, despite the expenses and Stevens’ initial bad luck with his casting choices, “SHANE” became one of the most famous Westerns ever made in Hollywood. 

“SHANE” was based upon Jack Schaefer’s 1949 novel of the same title. Many film historians and critics believe the narrative’s basic elements were based upon a historical event, the 1892 Johnson County War. Although this was never acknowledged by Stevens, Schaefer or the film’s screenwriter, A.B. Guthrie Jr. And yet . . . the film’s setting turned out to be the same one for the famous cattlemen-homesteaders conflict, Wyoming. The plot for “SHANE” proved to be simple. An experienced gunfighter named Shane, weary of his violent past, arrives at a county in Wyoming Territory and befriends a homesteader/rancher named Joe Starrett and the latter’s family. Despite Starrett’s revelation of a conflict between homesteaders like himself and a ruthless and powerful rancher named Rufus Ryker, Shane accepts a job as Starrett’s ranch hand. Before long, Shane not only finds himself emotionally drawn to the Starretts, but also pulled into the range war that is raging.

Anyone with any knowledge about old Hollywood or American Western films will automatically tell you that “SHANE” is highly regarded and much-beloved movie. The American Film Institute (AFI) has list it as one of the top three (3) Hollywood Westerns ever made and it is ranked 45 on the list of top 100 films. The movie earned six Academy Award nominations and won an award for Best Cinematography (in color). Many people believe Alan Ladd should have received an Academy Award for his performance as the mysterious “former” gunslinger Shane and consider the role as his best performance. How do I feel?

I cannot deny that “SHANE” is a first-rate movie. Who am I kidding? It is an excellent look at violence on the American frontier. And thanks to George Stevens’ direction, it is also brutal. Unlike many previous movie directors, Stevens did not stylized the violent deaths depicted in the film. A major example of this peek into life on the frontier is a scene that featured the brutal death of Frank “Stonewall” Torrey, a small rancher portrayed by Elisha Cook Jr., who was killed by Jack Wilson, a villainous gunslinger portrayed by Jack Palance:

 

Contrary to what one might originally believe, I do not believe “SHANE” preached against violence. Yes, the screenplay written by Guthrie questioned the constant use of violence to solve problems. But the movie made it clear that sometimes, one has no choice but to fight. Does this rule apply to the situation in “SHANE”? Hmmmm . . . good question.

Another aspect of “SHANE” that I found fascinating was Shane’s attempts to put his violent past behind him in his interactions with the Starrett family. Whether Shane was working or riding beside Joe, befriending Joey and struggling to suppress his obvious sexual desire for Marian; it seemed pretty obvious that he had developed close feelings for the entire family. And it would also explained why he would hang around, despite the danger of being dragged into a range war.

I cannot deny that “SHANE” featured some first-rate performances. I also cannot deny that Alan Ladd was in top form as the soft-spoken gunslinger who tried to hang up his gun belt, while staying with Starretts. I have always believed that Ladd was an underrated actor. Many critics have regarded his role as Shane as a singular example of how excellent he was as an actor. Do not get me wrong. I also admire his performance as Shane. It was a prime example of his skills as a movie actor. But I have seen other Ladd performances that I found equally impressive. Van Heflin’s portrayal of the determined small rancher, Joe Starrett, struck me as equally impressive. I could never really regard his character as complex, but Heflin made it easy for me to see why Shane had no problems befriending Joe . . . or why other ranchers regarded him as their unofficial leader. Jean Arthur had been lured out of an early retirement by Stevens for the role of Marian Starrett. I thought she did a superb job of conveying her character’s complicated feelings for Shane. Thanks to Arthur’s performance, Marian seemed to be torn between her love for Joe, her attraction to Shane and her revulsion toward his violent past.

Brandon deWilde had received an Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his role as the Starretts’ young son, Joe Jr. (Joey). Do not get me wrong. I thought deWilde gave a very good performance as the impressionable, yet energetic young Joey. But an Oscar nod? Honestly, I have seen better performances from a good number of child actors – then and now. Another Best Supporting Actor nomination was given to Jack Palance for his role as the villainous gunslinger, Jack Wilson. When I re-watched this movie for the last time, there seemed to be two faces to Palance’s performance. Most of his appearances featured the actor projecting the stone-faced villainy of his character. But there were moments when Palance managed to convey the more human side of Wilson – whether it was his boredom toward his employer’s other minions or weariness at the idea of facing another person to kill. It is strange that I had never noticed this before.

I also have to give kudos to Elisha Cook Jr. as the doomed Frank Toomey, who spent most of the movie aggressively expressing his anger at Ryker’s attempts to drive him and other small ranchers out of the valley. And yet . . . Cook’s best scene featured Toomey’s last moments, when he began to silently express regret at his quick temper and his realization that he was about to meet his death.“SHANE” also featured some first-rate performances from Emilie Meyer as the ruthless and greedy Rufus Ryker; Ben Johnson as one of Ryker’s ranch hands, whose early encounter with Shane made him see the light; and the likes of Ellen Corby, Edgar Buchanan, Douglas Spencer and Edith Evanson.

Despite my admiration for “SHANE”, George Stevens’ direction and A.B. Guthrie Jr.’s screenplay . . . the movie is not a particularly favorite of mine. I like the film, but I do not love it. There are certain aspects of “SHANE” that prevents me from fully embracing it. One is Loyal Griggs’ cinematography. I realize that he had won an Academy Award for his work. And I must say that he did an excellent job in capturing the beauty of the movie’s Wyoming and California locations. But I found his use of natural lighting for the interior shots very frustrating, especially since I could barely see a damn thing in some shots. Another aspect of “SHANE” that annoyed me was its message regarding violence. I have no problem with any story declaring the use of violence in certain situations. My problem is that I did not find the local ranchers’ situation with Ryker dire enough that they had to insist upon fighting it out. Granted, if they had agreed to sell their land to Ryker and leave, it would have meant his victory. I do not know. Perhaps I did not care. Or perhaps this feeling came from my contempt toward the Frank Toomey character, who had stupidly decided to give in to his anger and aggression by facing Ryker and Wilson.

Another aspect of “SHANE” that annoyed me was the Joey Starrett character. I have seen my share of on-screen precocious children in movies and television. But there was something about Joey Starrett that truly got under my skin. I do not blame Brandon deWilde. He was only following Stevens’ direction. But before the movie’s last reel, I found myself wishing that someone would push dear Joey into the mud . . . face first. If there was one aspect of “SHANE” that truly annoyed me, it was bringing the U.S. Civil War into the narrative. I can only recall three characters who were established as Civil War veterans – Shane, Frank Toomey and Jack Wilson. Of the three, guess which one fought with the Union? That is correct. The evil and slimy Wilson. And to make matters worse, Guthrie’s screenplay had Shane utter these words to Wilson before shooting him – “I’ve heard that you’re a low-down Yankee liar.” In other words, “SHANE” became another example of Hollywood’s subtle, yet never-ending reverence for the Confederate cause. And considering that only three characters in this film were established as war veterans, why on earth did Schaefer, Guthrie or Stevens had to drag the damn war into this story in the first place? It was so unnecessary.

Regardless of my frustrations, I must admit that “SHANE” is a first-rate Western. Director George Stevens, screenwriter A.B. Guthrie Jr. and the excellent cast led by Alan Ladd did an exceptional job in creating a Western that many would remember for decades. If only I had enjoyed it more than I actually did.

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1840s

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Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1840s: 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1840s

1 - The Heiress

1. “The Heiress” (1949) – William Wyler directed this superb adaptation of Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s 1947 play, which was an adaptation of Henry James’ 1880 novel, “Washington Square”. The movie starred Oscar winner Olivia De Havilland, Montgomery Clift, Ralph Richardson and Miriam Hopkins.

2 - All This and Heaven Too

2. “All This and Heaven Too” (1940) – Anatole Litvak co-produced and directed this excellent adaptation of Rachel Fields’ 1938 novel. The movie starred Bette Davis and Charles Boyer.

3 - Half-Slave Half-Free Solomon Northup Odyssey

3. “Half-Slave, Half-Free: The Solomon Northup Odyssey” (1984) – Avery Brooks starred in this emotional television adaptation of Solomon Northups’ 1853 memoirs, “12 Years a Slave”. Directed by Gordon Parks, the movie co-starred Rhetta Greene, John Saxon, Lee Bryant, Art Evans and Mason Adams.

5 - The Mark of Zorro

4. “The Mark of Zorro” (1940) – Rouben Mamoulian directed this superb adaptation of Johnston McCulley’s 1919 story called “The Curse of Capistrano”. The movie starred Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell and Basil Rathbone.

4 - The Liberators

5. “The Liberators” (1987) – Robert Carradine and Larry B. Scott starred in this Disney adventure film about Underground Railroad conductor John Fairfield and his fugitive slave friend, Bill; who escort Kentucky slaves north of the Mason-Dixon Line to freedom. Kenneth Johnson starred.

6 - The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin

6. “The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin” (1967) – Roddy McDowall and Suzanne Pleshette starred in this Disney adaptation of Sid Fleischman’s 1963 children’s novel called “By the Great Horn Spoon!”. James Neilson directed.

7 - Camille

7. “Camille” (1936) – George Cukor directed this lavish adaptation of Alexandre Dumas fils’ 1848 novel and 1852 play called “La Dame aux Camélias”. The movie starred Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor.

8 - Cousin Bette

8. “Cousin Bette” (1998) – Jessica Lange starred in this loose adaptation of Honoré de Balzac’s 1846 novel. Although unpopular with critics and moviegoers, it is a favorite of mine. Directed by Des McAnuff, the movie co-starred Hugh Laurie, Elisabeth Shue and Kelly MacDonald.

9 - Jane Eyre

9. “Jane Eyre” (2011) – Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender starred in the 2011 movie adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel. The movie was directed by Cary Fukunaga.

10 - 12 Years a Slave

10. “12 Years a Slave” (2013) – British director Steve McQueen helmed this Oscar winning second adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoirs about the latter’s experiences as a slave in the Deep South. The movie starred Chiwetel Ejiofor, Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o and Michael Fassbender.