Monday, May 30, 2011

THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH(1952)







THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH (DIR: CECIL B. DEMILLE) (SCR: FREDRIC M. FRANK, THEODORE ST. JOHN, AND FRANK CAVETT)

There is a general consensus that 1952's THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH is the least deserving best picture winner ever, and I must say that that is an opinion I agree with whole heartedly, and I'll go further: it's one of the worst all star, big budget movies ever.  From it's terrible script to its leaden direction, it's truly a bloated, dumb, loud awful film.  The only possible entertainment it provides is in laughing at its ridiculous excesses.  Excesses brought to you by the king of overblown movies, Cecil B. DeMille.
DeMille's cinematic career stretched all the way back to the days of silent films, of which he directed many, and in which he showed a flair for big spectacle scenes.   Personally, I think DeMille hit his peak in those  days, (I consider his 1927 film KING OF KINGS to be the best version of the Christ story ever  filmed) when his gift for strong visuals and big crowd scenes overcame his poor direction of actors in more intimate scenes.  Indeed, many of the actors in his sound films seemed to use the same broad and dramatic gestures that silent actors used, to often laughable affect.

James Stewart, Cornel Wilde and Charleton Heston display some not so subtle acting
  
Matters of opinion aside, one thing was true, by the time he made THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH, DeMille was one of the most famous directors in Hollywood, and one of the few who's name was known to the general public, as he often made radio and TV appearances as himself, and he also played himself in 1950's SUNSET BOULEVARD.  He was so successful that he had his own production company (called Cecil B. DeMille productions, he never lacked in ego!), and, in 1948, when David O Selznik's attempt to raise money for a behind the scenes look at the circus failed, he stepped in and bought the rights, holding a press conference to announce the start of production with none other than John Ringling of The  Ringling's Bros. Circus attending.  (He would also pay that circus $250,000 for the use of their facilities and rights to the film's title that the circus used in promoting itself.)  It is no surprise that DeMille would be attracted to the material, given his own penchant for hyperbolicly narrating his own films like a ringmaster, and he embarked on a tour with the circus for research purposes, while various writers worked on the script.  Eventually, writers Frederic M Frank, Theodore St. John and Frank Cavett would cobble together a bunch of show business stereotypes and cliche's and work them into a circus setting, while being sure to add a big (and utterly ridiculous) train wreck at the film's end to satisfy DeMille's need for spectacle, and he was satisfied. 
With a lousy script all set, he went on to some terrible casting: first, there is Charleton Heston as Brad, the idealistic circus owner.  Now you would think that a guy so dedicated to entertaining people might be a fun, good natured person, but instead he comes across as so dour, self righteous and stoic that he's hard to care about.  Honestly, his performance as Moses three years later would be less serious! Then there's Cornel Wilde as trapeze artist The Great Sebastian, an egotistical womanizer with a fake French accent that resembles that of the cartoon skunk Pepe Le Pew.  Although Wilde does try to bring a little humor to the role, he's so unlikable that when an accident occurs that may lead to his never being able to perform again, DeMille's attempts to wring drama from the situation are utterly false; as with the Heston character, it's difficult to care. Then there is Betty Hutton as Holly, another trapeze artist; Hutton uses her brand of over the top perky blandness to an annoying extent, and even worse, she is at the center of a love triangle between Wilde and Heston in which nobody seems to deserve anybody!  Dorothy Lamour appears as generic circus performer Phylis, and fails to make any kind of impression, still she should be mentioned because she sings a song called "Lovely Luawana Lady" with lyrics that are as idiotic as its title.  Slinky Gloria Grahame as animal trainer Angel gives the film's least embarrassing performance, but even she has to suffer through a scene in which her jealous animal trainer boyfriend (Lyle Bettger) threatens to have her face stomped in by an elephant.  Finally, there is Jimmy Stewart as the clown Buttons, who never takes off his makeup because of his mysterious past(!).  Stewart is one of the great movie stars, but one thing he was never known for was physical comedy; casting him as a clown was an enormous error, as we see when none of his clowning scenes are even remotely funny (although, in all fairness to Stewart, none of the clowns in the film are funny, no not even the famous Emmett Kelly). And if casting Stewart as a clown was a mistake, having him sing was an even bigger one: yes, there is a moment when Stewart, Hutton, Kelly and a little person bounce on a trampoline  while singing a song intitled "Be a Jumping-Jack". (A typical lyric: "Keep on the hop, and if you flop, and everything looks black, stand on your head and holler 'hi there!' Be a jumping jack!" ) This moment is so jaw droppingly awful, so utterly misguided (it's not even performed before an audience, it's just supposed to show how circus performers spend their free time!) that it must be seen to be believed.  I consider it one of the worst musical numbers in a big budget Hollywood film ever.

Betty Hutton and James Stewart bounce through a terrible song

  And as a crowning glory to the lousy performances, DeMille himself narrates the film in such over the top, ham handed tones that he makes a circus moving into town sound like a play by play of the second coming.
Along with the terrible performances and moronic script, there is another, deeper flaw in the film's very conception; the reason that death defying circus performances are entertaining to a live audience lies in the fact  that the performers are risking life and limb right there in front of you, and that at any moment something might go wrong.  None of this excitement can translate to a movie, where watching actors pretend to perform dangerous tricks quickly becomes tedious, since we know nothing bad will happen until the script demands it.   Only live performance can give that sense of danger that's necessary to thrilling circus acts.  Other kinds of circus acts come across even worse on the big screen; honestly, the only thing in the world I find more boring than a never ending circus parade is a movie of one.  And  DeMille's desire to be authentic means that he usually places the camera in the circus audience's point of view  during the various acts; oddly, he gives the audience a lousy seat that's too far away from the action.  Even his direction of the extras playing the circus crowd is terrible; at one point we see a grown man get excited at the sight of a circus performer dressed as Mickey Mouse!

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

I think the reader can guess where I stand on that question; really, there is almost nothing good I can say about this film (unfortunately, it proved to an enormous box office hit, proving DeMille's quote: "Every time I make a picture the critics' estimate of American public taste goes down ten percent." ) The number of superior films released that year is long: HIGH NOON, THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL, THE QUIET MAN, VIVA ZAPATA!, LIMELIGHT, THE LAVENDER HILL MOB, and my personal favorite SINGIN' IN THE RAIN.  Really, I think almost any movie from that year chosen at random couldn't possibly be worse than THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH.




Monday, May 16, 2011

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS (1951)


AN AMERICAN IN PARIS (DIR: VINCENT MINNELLI) (SCR: ALAN JAY LERNER)

For the best picture of 1951 the Academy picked director Vincent Minnelli's AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, (the first musical to win since 1944's GOING MY WAY) and it's one of the most lighthearted best picture winners ever; with its lovely Ira Gershwin score, beautiful technicolor photography and talented cast, it was an obvious choice, but the film's flimsy story keeps it, in my opinion, just short of classic status. Unbeknownst to the Academy, Gene Kelly would team up with director Stanley Donen a year later and make SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, a better musical in every way.
While I am certainly a fan of the films of Fred Astaire, I think overall Gene Kelly was the best song and dance movie star ever; I find his more physical and masculine style of dance more engaging than Astaire's somewhat effete nimbleness.  And I think Kelly was a better singer and actor than Astaire, with Astaire's screen presence only really coming alive when he started to dance.   Kelly's career in Hollywood began when he left Broadway in 1942 to make the musical ME AND MY GAL with Judy Garland and decided to stay.  Minnelli's career also began in Broadway, and he moved to Hollywood in 1943 to direct CABIN IN THE SKY.  Before AN AMERICAN IN PARIS the two men had worked together in 1945's ZIEGFELD FOLLIES (in which Minnelli directed Kelly and Astaire dancing together for the first time) and 1948's THE PIRATE.  The idea for AN AMERICAN IN PARIS began when the two of them wanted to do a new kind of dance scene in a movie, a long, big, bold one that would feature ballet style dancing by a large cast, along with huge sets and many costume changes, and absolutely no singing or speaking.  (It's precedent can be seen in a short ballet fantasy scene in 1949's ON THE TOWN, directed by Stanley Donen and starring Kelly).  At first MGM studio executives were dubious on the idea, until Kelly and Minnelli screened 1948's Micheal Powell and Emeric Pressburger film THE RED SHOES for them to give them an idea of what they were looking for.
With the green light given, Alan J Lerner was commissioned to write a script around the star and the director's concept, and the rights to Ira Gershwin's score was bought.  Initially, Kelly hoped to shoot the film on location, but that was considered too complicated by the studio, and the film was shot entirely on MGM sets except for a few travelogue shots at the beginning.  (Personally, I think this detracts from the film quite a bit.)  One thing Kelly did get was his choice of leading lady: 19 year old Leslie Caron, a dancer he had seen while vacationing in Paris; this would be her film debut.

Leslie Caron and Gene Kelly

The film's story deals with Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly), a former GI who chose to stay in Paris and paint after World War II.  He eventually meets Milo Roberts(Nina Foch),  a wealthy, attractive American woman  who likes both him and his art.  But instead he falls for pretty Lise Bouvier (Caron), not knowing that she is already involved with cabaret singer Henri Baurel (Georges Guetary).  This simple story is really just framework to hang the musical scenes on, but that's not entirely a bad thing, given how good those scenes are.  In contrast to the big ballet fantasy at the end, (which is clearly supposed to be inside Jerry's imagination) the other big dance moments in the film have a charmingly offhand manner about them, as if Kelly's dancing springs from an honest spontaneous desire by his character to tap dance in his apartment room or show off different moves to impress a group of children.  And I like the film's romanticized view of Paris, where struggling artists living in charmingly ramshackle apartments, while cafe society is in full swing.  I also enjoy the casting of Oscar Levant as Jerry's American friend Adam; Levant gets a chance to show off his excellent musical skills in a solo piano number, and his hang dog expressions and dour line delivery make him an excellent foil to the sunny, optimistic Kelly.

The pure spectacle of the final dance scene


Finally, there is that final ballet fantasy sequence, the moment that the entire film is building up to; it is indeed, one impressive spectacle, that reportedly took an entire month to film and cost half a million dollars.  In it, Kelly pursues Caron thorough numerous gorgeous sets based on paintings by famous French impressionist painters like Toulouse-Lautrec.  At seventeen minutes, it never seems to lag, with costume and set changes coming quickly as Minnelli's camera swoops around the dancers, as graceful as their movements. Impressively, intimate dance moments between the two leads are often followed by a cast of literally hundreds of dancers moving in unison.  Still, I think that Kelly topped even this excellent scene with the "Broadway Rhythm" sequence from SINGIN' IN THE RAIN a year later.

I mentioned the thinness of the story, and while it doesn't ruin the film, it certainly is noticeable at times, with the romance between Jerry and Lise moving in a predictable way, while poor Nina Foch's Milo, a far more interesting character than Lise,  is barely used.  Even worse is the way that are two lovers meet: Jerry spies Lise in a cafe, is immediately smitten, and pursues even when she shows no interest.  His aggression seems downright rude!  And while Caron is obviously a talented dancer, her acting here is not particularly impressive, and her chemistry with Kelly only really works when she dances.  Still, this film features Kelly in some of his best onscreen dance scenes ever, bursting with energy and grace, and for that alone it is terrific and worth seeing.  I've already compared it to SINGIN' IN THE RAIN more than once, and it's hard not to do since both films star Kelly and were released back to back, so let me compare them one last time:  AN AMERICAN IN PARIS is a very good Hollywood musical, SINGIN' IN THE RAIN is perhaps the best Hollywood musical ever.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?
It's easy to see while the Academy was impressed with this film, and, given it's classy style (sets inspired by French impressionist painters!) it was a safe choice for best picture.   But there were better films that year, such as Alfred Hitchcock's STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, Elia Kazan's A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, John Huston's THE AFRICAN QUEEN, and Billy Wilder's THE BIG CARNIVAL.  Still, the Academy could have done much worse than AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, as they would show in their choice for the next best picture award...



Saturday, May 7, 2011

ALL ABOUT EVE (1950)



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ALL ABOUT EVE (DIR: JOSEPH L. MANKIEWICZ) (SCR: MANKIEWIZC, BASED ON THE SHORT STORY "THE WISDOM OF EVE" BY MARY ORR)

After picking ALL THE KING'S MEN in 1949, which cast a cynical eye at modern politics, the Academy turned to a film that looked at the Broadway theater world with the same harsh gaze, but this time the cynicism was coated with acidic wit.  ALL ABOUT EVE's win for best picture seemed inevitable, given that it was nominated for a then record breaking fourteen awards, and, while it's box office was relatively modest,(around four million dollars on a million and a half dollar budget) it quickly became a cult film, especially for fans of star Bette Davis, or for anyone who enjoys sharp, clever dialogue well delivered by an attractive cast.
It's life began when a 1946 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine ran a short story by Mary Orr entitled "The Wisdom of Eve".  Orr based the story on actress Elisabeth Bergner, who, after hiring an admiring fan to be her personal assistant, found that the young woman was using her to advance her own acting career.  Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz read the story and believed that he could combine it with an idea he had about an aging actress, and he convinced 20th. Century Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck to buy the rights to the story. Mankiewicz's career stretched back to writing title cards for silent films, before he began screenwriting, and finally, directing (with 1946's BACKFIRE).  By the time he started working on EVE, he was at the top of his game after winning Oscars for both the writing and the direction of 1949's A LETTER TO THREE WIVES.  On the strength of that film, he became known as a writer and director of films for and about women, a reputation which EVE would certainly confirm.

Bette Davis

His skill at casting would prove to be perfect, with stars like Anne Baxter, Celeste Holm and George Saunders breathing life into his smart script, not to mention a young Marilyn Monroe in her first substantial role. And of course there was Bette Davis; considering how perfect Davis was for the major part of Margo Channing, it seems hard to believe that Claudette Colbert was initially cast, and that Davis was called in on a week's notice when Colbert suffered a ruptured disc.  Colbert's loss would be Davis' gain; although she would lose the best actress award that year to Judy Holliday in BORN YESTERDAY,  Margo Channing would probably prove to be the legendary star's best remembered and most revered role.


The movie begins at a theatrical award banquet being given in honor of Eve Carrington (Baxter), a pretty young new starlet.  In voice over, Addison Dewitt (Saunders), setting the tone of sharp humor that will continue through the film, tells the audience a little about the evening's guests, and then in flashback we see how they all got there.  About a year earlier, Karen (Holm) wife of playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), met Eve standing outside the dressing room of big theatrical star Margo Channing.  Karen recognizes  Eve because the young woman  has gone to each performance of Margo's current play without fail.  Karen invites the shy woman in to meet Margo, and when Eve tells them all the sad story of the death of her soldier husband, and how she has become entranced by Margo on the stage, Margo is touched, and before you know it Eve has become her personal assistant.  At first, Eve seems innocent and supportive of Margo, but slowly but surely he begins to intrude upon her life, even trying to seduce Margo's boyfriend,  Bill Sampson(Gary Merrill).
Although Davis's performance  is mostly  remembered for the way she gleefully rips through her catty lines ("Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night!" and "I detest cheap sentiment!"), it should also be noted for her more subtle moments, her Margo is vain and self pitying, but also likable and vulnerable in her fear of aging and loneliness.  She wonderfully delivers a moving speech to Karen about her fear of being alone when she thinks she's losing Bill, and there is  excellent romantic chemistry between her and  Merrill (which was not all pretend, she would marry Merrill shortly after the film wrapped).  And, while she looks great, wearing gowns designed by famed costume designer Edith Head, she's also willing to show her natural age, especially in a scene where she is awakened from a deep sleep.
While Davis may dominate the film, Baxter is every bit as good as the duplicitous Eve; hers is in many ways the trickier role, since Eve so rarely displays her real emotions,  and Baxter believably gives a performance within a performance, perfectly playing the wide eyed innocent and completely fooling Margo and her friends(except for Thelma Ritter's Birdie, who is on to Eve from the start).  I love the way that Eve poses in the mirror with one of Margo's stage costumes when she thinks no one is looking, or the way that she turns from kind to cruel when she tries to blackmail Karen.

Anne Baxter

While the film is full of virtues, it is not perfect; at two hours and fifteen minutes, it drags at times, especially towards the end.  (Eve's final, unnecessary speech at the awards show is a good example of this).  And I think Mankiewicz's skills as a screenwriter exceed his skills as a director; for a film with so many memorable lines, there are no memorable images.  And at times, the characters onscreen seem crowded in;  he also often allows static takes to go on for too long.  And even the script has some problems:  while I enjoy Addison Dewitt's narration, further narration from Margo and Karen adds nothing and could easily have been cut.  And why does Thelma Ritter's very funny Birdie character disappear from the second half of the film?  She steals every scene she's in, so I would have liked to have seen more of her, especially since she is proven right about Eve.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

While it's easy to see why the Academy would award such a intelligent and sophisticated film, there was another film that year that also took a harsh look at the underbelly of show business, and it too would go on to become a cult film: Billy Wilder's SUNSET BOULEVARD.  While it's not surprising that the Academy would avoid awarding Wilder's film, seeing as it was Hollywood itself that Wilder was criticizing, I think that his film holds up just a little bit better than ALL ABOUT EVE.  (Interestingly, both films would eventually be adapted into Broadway musicals). Still, EVE is far from a bad choice.  I should also mention Carol Reed's outstanding thriller THE THIRD MAN, with Orson Welles playing one of the best movie villains ever, would also have been a good choice.