Sunday, July 24, 2011


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In a complete turnaround from the more subtle charms of the previous year's MARTY, the Academy's choice for best picture of 1955 was AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS, a huge budgeted extravaganza, shot on over 140 locations with a literal cast of thousands; producer Micheal Todd would describe it as a fairy tale for adults, certainly an apt description.  And, while it takes far too long to tell such a simple story, it holds up well overall, and is, quite simply, a fun watch.
Although veteran English director  Micheal Anderson would eventually be credited with the direction, (replacing original director John Farrow), the film was Todd's baby all the way.  He had already produced a Broadway musical version of Jules Verne's 1873 novel in 1946 that was a flop, but he was determined to get it right.  Years later he brought the rights to the novel from director Alexander Korda, who was having trouble getting it made, to take another try at it, realizing that for the story to work it would have to be told in the grandest possible manner.  This meant developing a new style of 70 millimeter projection that came to be known as the Todd-AO process; he would also demand that movie theaters treat it as a special production, with reserved seats and playbills handed out before the movie started.  His strategy would work as the film returned over 20 million dollars on a budget of around six. 
Set in 1873, the film tells the story of the English upperclassman Phlieas Fogg, who bets his friends at his exclusive men's reform club 20,000 pounds that he can travel the entire world in 80 days, a then unheard of feat.  Along with his faithful manservant Passepartout, he travels by train, ship, elephant and, most famously, hot air balloon to make the journey, and they encounter everything from bullfighting in Spain to hostile Native Americans in the US, while saving the life of an Indian princess(Shirley MacLaine) who joins them on their trip.
 Todd cast  David Niven to play Fogg, and really, the stuffy, punctual Fogg seemed like he was written for Niven to play, and he would later say it was his favorite role.  Todd made an even better choice when he hired the Mexican comedy star Cantinflas, in his first American film, to play Passepartout, even though the character in the novel is French.
Over the years this film has often been criticized for being too long, and while I agree with that to a certain extent, it should be remembered that the film was intended to only be seen in theaters with 70 MM screens.  I've seen the film twice, once on a TV screen, and once as it was meant to be seen at the beautiful Stanford University theater in Palo Alto, California, and it certainly plays better on the big screen.  The many long shots of stunning scenery and huge casts of extras don't seem as dull in the proper format.  Indeed, the film's most impressive visual moment, a long tracking shot of an enormous parade down the streets of San Francisco that seems to constantly expand to include more and more people, is downright eye popping in 70MM.
The Oscar winning script by James Poe, John Farrow and S.J. Perelman follows the source novel closely, and the additions that were made are welcome, such as the ride in the hot air balloon, and Passepartout's bout of bullfighting.  More importantly, it  never takes the story too seriously, and therefore it's easy to forgive it's occasional absurdities (like the incredibly easy way that Passepartout saves the Indian princess).

David Niven and Cantinflas

Still, at 167 minutes, the film's story often feels padded, far too much time is spent on a subplot in which Fogg is wrongly believed to be a bank robber by policeman Mr. Fix (Robert Newton), which does nothing but slow the film down.  Also, the script draws the film's climax out to an extreme level that grows frustrating for the audience, while it's final scene seems oddly rushed.  Even worse, I often find it hard to like the character of Fogg: he is stuffy, sometimes rude and condescending, and often uses his money to buy his way to victory, which seems unfair.  He also doesn't seem to have any interest in exploring the exotic places that he travels in, preferring to stay inside and play cards, a trait I find particularly annoying.  True, he does have one noble moment when he leads the charge to save Passepartout from the Native American tribe, but other than that, I find him a bit of a prig.  Worst of all is the ludicrous casting of Shirley MacLaine as an Indian princess who has white skin and blue eyes!  Not only is MacLaine unbelievable, her character is a real bore; while she is in the novel, and the movie just had to have a romance, I wish she had more to do than stand around and look concerned while the male characters save the day.  And at the end of the movie, she abruptly mentions her love for Fogg, partly because he saved her life, when actually it was Passepartout who did all the work saving her (and he would have made a better romantic match for her, too).
 Along with the impressive wide screen look of the film, it's best characteristic is in Cantinflas's winning performance as Passepartout.  Although unknown in America, Cantinflas was a huge star in Latin America, where he was given star billing.  And really, that's how it should be, it really is Passepartout's film more than Fogg's, as we often see the exotic sites of the places they go through his eyes, and he seems to be the one who winds up in dangerous situations more than Fogg (one can see why Jackie Chan was hired for the role in Frank Coraci's disappointing 2004 version of the same story).  Cantinflas was known as the Spanish Charlie Chaplin (the outfit he wears in most of the film resembles Chaplin's famous tramp costume), and his flair for physical comedy is apparent from the first time we see him skillfully riding an enormous wheeled bicycle.  His character claims that he has 12 professions, including trapeze artist and athletic instructor, and we believe him; in the course of the film we will see him do a flamenco dance, climb on a moving train, ride on an ostrich, and become a reluctant matador (for which he did his own stunts).  He is so good in the role that it's a shame he didn't work in Hollywood more, but we do have this film as a tribute to his talent, which is its biggest strength.

Cantinflas and Marlene Dietrich

Finally, I should mention the film's gimmick of having big stars like Frank Sinatra and Peter Lorre appear in cameo roles; inevitably, this dates the film, but it is fun for fans of old movies to pick them out, and it probably was a thrill for audiences at that time.  The best of the lot is sultry Marlene Detrich as a leggy saloon gal of the old west who flirts with both Passepartout and Fogg, while glowering gangster actor George Raft looks on in anger; it's a clever scene that works even if you don't know who the stars are.


While it's clear that I do have a fondness for AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS, I don't think it holds up as well as George Steven's epic GIANT, Laurence Olivier's RICHARD III, or Stanley Kubrick's THE KILLING.  But it's hard for me to dislike a movie that's so eager to please, so I won't complain about the Academy's choice.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

MARTY (1955)


By choosing MARTY for best picture of 1954, the Academy rewarded what it easily one of the least glamorous best picture winners ever; it's a modest, low budget, black and white romantic drama with blue collar characters, no big stars and a mere 90 minute running time.  Yet, despite (or maybe because of) its unassuming nature, it remains a touching and worthwhile film that holds up well decades later.

Before it  was  a movie, MARTY  was a television episode of the same name on "The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse", broadcast in 1953.  Hollywood producer Harold Hecht enjoyed it and thought there was a movie in it, but it took some convincing to get writer Paddy Chayefsky to agree to it, since he feared that it would be commercialized by Hollywood; Hecht offered to have Chayefsky involved in the entire process of the film, and hired Delbert Mann, who had directed the original TV episode, to also direct the film, and Chayefsky relented (along with being the writer of the film, he would be credited as an associate producer).  Originally the writer and director wanted Rod Steiger, who had played the lead in the television version, to reprise the role, but he refused.  When Ernest Borgnine's name came up, they were at first unsure; up to that point in his career he was known mainly for playing the brutal sadist Sgt. Judson in 1953's FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, and the idea of him playing a goodhearted man in a lead role seemed unlikely.  But Borgnine's  audition for the role convinced them, and he would go on to win a best actor Oscar for it. 
At one point during the film's shooting, due to mismanagement by Hecht and co producer Burt Lancaster (yes, the movie star), funds dried up, and the film was only completed when a deal was struck with United Artists.  After its completion, the studio was unsure what to do with it, and it was dumped in theaters with little promotion, but strong reviews (including one by famed columnist Walter Winchell) and word of mouth would eventually turn it into a hit, and it wound up returning over three million dollars on a budget of under half a million.

Esther Minciotti and Ernest Borgnine

MARTY tells the story of Marty Piletti (Borgnine) a sweet, heavy, thirty four year old Italian butcher who is unmarried and still lives with his mother.  He has resigned himself to a life of loneliness, but, one night, after reluctantly going to a  dance hall with his friend Angie (Joe Matell), he meets a schoolteacher named Clara (Betsy Blair), who has been abandoned by the man who brought her there.  The two of them spend hours together talking, and an immediate connection is formed.  After taking her home, Marty promises to call her the next day, but reconsiders when Angie and Marty's mother (Augusta Ciolli) voice their disapproval of her.  But he can't stop thinking about her, and finally does call her, even telling Angie that he may want to marry her sometime soon.
In keeping with the blue collar nature of its characters, much of the film was shot on location in Brooklyn in real bars and dance halls, and director Mann often fills the frame with crowds of people to show the hectic nature of big city life.   Chayefsky's Oscar winning script is heavy on dialogue and simple situations (not a surprise given its TV origins), but that's not a problem since his dialogue is straightforward, believable, and never dull.  And he makes sure that his characters are neither too perfect or too horrible, like Marty's mother who is sometimes overbearing, but means well.

The film really hangs on Borgnine's performance, and he is marvelous, practically radiating patience and sweetness as he suffers through the indignities of his life: having women in the butcher shop berate him for not being married,  or having to beg for a date with an uninterested woman on the phone.  And there is fine romantic chemistry between him and Blair's Clara; we completely believe that these two lonely people can be drawn to each other so quickly, and that they would be so open to each other within hours of meeting (Marty even admits to her that he has at times considered suicide).  It's charming the way that Borgnine talks too fast after first meeting Clara, or the way that he joyfully swings on stop sign after saying goodnight to her.  Blair is also very good, especially in the scene where she sits alone and cries when she thinks Marty will never call her; the fact that Blair underplays the moment and doesn't go for obvious sympathy actually makes it all the more moving.

Betsy Blair and Ernest Borgnine

The film's main flaw is that in the transition from fifty one minute television show to ninety minute film, there is some obvious padding: scenes with Angie searching for Marty are pointless, and too much time is spent on a subplot involving Marty's aunt (Augusta Ciolli).  I also object to the idea that Betsy Blair is plain, even if she has a (purposely?) unattractive hairstyle and matronly clothes, she is far from the unattractive woman that the characters in the film describe her as.  But these are minor points in what is a mostly successful film.


While I love the fact that the Academy awarded a low budget sleeper like MARTY, and I obviously enjoy the film, I think there were other films released that year that made more of an impact, such as Nicholas Ray's REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE and Charles Laughton's THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER.  Still, MARTY certainly isn't a poor choice.

Monday, July 11, 2011


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The Academy's pick for best picture of 1954, the tough drama, ON THE WATERFRONT, was the second best picture winner for director Elia Kazan, seven years after GENTLEMAN'S AGREEMENT. More importantly, it is one of the best remembered best picture winners ever, with Marlon Brando giving a legendary performance that is still being studied in film and acting schools.
It's Genesis began in 1949 when reporter Malcolm Johnson won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles entitled "Crime on the Waterfront", about mob influenced corruption on the New York City docks.  The articles caught the interest of playwright Arthur Miller, who wrote a script entitled HOOK for Kazan to direct,  but when Miller refused to make the villains communists,  Kazan replaced him with screenwriter Budd Schulberg instead.  Schulberg spent two years on the dockyards researching the film for his eventually Oscar winning script, which was initially turned down by more than one studio until producer Sam Spiegel set up a deal with Columbia.  It would go on to gross about four times its million dollar budget.
For the lead role of Terry Malloy, Frank Sinatra was considered, but Brando was eventually convinced to do it, as he was a bigger box office draw at the time than Sinatra.  Brando began his brilliant (but wildly uneven) acting career on the stage, breaking through into the big time in 1947 with his role as Stanley Kowalski in Tennesee Williams's,  Broadway hit, A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, which was directed by Kazan.  Brando was the first actor to popularize what came to be known as "method" acting, in which the performer attempted to immerse his or her self into the character being portrayed, and it is a style still used today by actors like Sean Penn.  He made his cinematic debut as a handicapped world war two veteran in 1950's THE MEN, followed a year later by the inevitable movie version of STREETCAR, with Kazan directing the film version also.  By 1954 Brando was a big star (and sex symbol) who had given several memorable performances,  but his Terry Malloy in ON THE WATERFRONT would prove to be his most famous role (perhaps tied with THE GODFATHER) , and it would garner him his first Oscar for best actor.
The film tells the story of Terry Malloy, a dim witted former boxer and dock worker, who's brother Charlie(Rod Stieger) is the right hand man for Johnny Friendly (Lee J Cobb), a gangster who runs the docks with an iron hand.  When Terry inadvertently sets up a friend to be killed by the mob, he at first shrugs it off, but then later, when he finds himself falling for Edie(Eva Marie Saint), the dead man's sister, he finds himself drawn towards going to the police.  This leads to tragic consequences, but it eventually ends the mob's control over the shipyards.

Eva Marie Saint and Marlon Brando

Kazan shot most of the film on location in Hoboken, New Jersey, and used real dockworkers as extras, and that along with the gritty black and white cinematography(by Boris Kaufman, who also won an Oscar) gives the film a documentary, you-are-there style,  that works perfectly for the story and complements the naturalistic performances. And Leonard Bernstein's booming, powerful score is excellent, especially in the heavy drumming that accompanies the film's opening, when Johnny Friendly, strutting like Mussolini, leads his gang down the dock.
Brando's performance dominates the film, and it is a wonder; although he plays another dense, physical character like his Stanley Kowalski in STREETCAR, Terry has a much more sensitive side, as we see in his love of raising pigeons and the fact that he is a kind of father figure to local street kids.  And his romantic chemistry with Edie (Saint also won an Oscar for best supporting actress) is fine and moving, even if they seem mismatched at first.  More importantly, he believably changes from a cynical, lazy man who gets easy jobs on the shipyards because his brother is a high ranking gangster, to someone willing to stand up for the right thing, even when his own life is at stake.
The film's most famous scene, of course, is when Terry and Charlie sit in the back of a cab and Charlie pleads with Terry not to go to the police; it truly is a classic moment, with Steiger's stern but almost gentle pleading matching Brando's conflicted sadness wonderfully.  The viewer truly senses the closeness between the two brothers, even when Charlie pulls a gun on Terry, he does it reluctantly, and Terry pushes it away in an almost tender gesture. 

Rod Steiger and Marlon Brando

As much as I love Brando's acting, I think Kazan makes a mistake at the film's ending, when he switches to a heavy handed, almost poetic style and turns Terry into a Christ figure; I also find the film's ending a little too neat, with the mob too easily defeated by Terry's bravery.  But the film's most glaring error lies in Karl Malden's crusading priest, Father Barry, an unnecessary character who's hammy speeches quickly become tiresome.  Although he clearly is there to help push Terry to the side of righteousness, I think Terry's love for Edie shows that clearly enough.
Finally, I can't write about this film without discussing the importance of its context in Kazan's life; in 1952 Kazan, an admitted former Communist, was called to testify in front of the House of UnAmerican Activities Committee.  To save his own career, he named names, (including playwright Clifford Odets) essentially ruining their ability to find work; he would later claim that the people he named had already been blacklisted, but the damage was done, and the stain of what many people in Hollywood saw as a betrayal would hang onto him for the rest of his life.  Indeed, in 1999 when he was given an honorary Academy Award, some people in the audience refused to applaud.  In regards to ON THE WATERFRONT, Kazan freely admitted that he was drawn to the material because he identified with Terry Malloy (screenwriter Budd Schulberg also named names at HUAC); "Every day I worked on that film, I was telling the world where I stood" he would later say.  Personally, I find this analogy difficult to swallow; does Kazan really expect us to believe that a man turning murderous gangsters who killed his brother in to the police is the same as his naming the names of people who joined the Communist party at a time when it was perfectly legal to do so?  Terry Malloy risks his life to go after the mob; by being a friendly witness, Elia Kazan risked nothing but his reputation.  So, for me,  the easiest way to enjoy this film is to dwell entirely in its own world and ignore Kazan's sub textural message, which has become easier to do as the years have passed by and Kazan's own passing has taken place.


1954 turned out to an impressive year for Hollywood: along with this film REAR WINDOW, A STAR IS BORN and SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS have all been remembered and revered.  But my personal favorite film of that year is Herbert Biberman's little seen SALT OF THE EARTH, a powerful film about racism and sexism; although it is rough around the edges, it was decades ahead of its time.