Thursday, December 5, 2013
IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946)
Sure, it's the obvious choice, but for me the Jimmy Stewart classic is a holiday necessity because I often feel down during the Christmas season, and George Bailey's story reminds me that Christmas is a hard time for a lot of people. Besides, it has such a fantastic cast, and every year as I watch more classic movies I appreciate the actors more, from Lionel Barrymore and Thomas Mitchell to Beulah Bondi and Gloria Grahame.
I love pretty much everything about this musical, but I'm especially fond of Danny Kaye and the movie's depiction of soldiers' lives after the war. "Snow" is a beautiful tune (they should play it on the holiday radio stations more often), and Mary Wickes is such a hoot as the nosy housekeeper. The drag performance of "Sisters" by Crosby and Kaye cracks me up, and the finale's salute to Dean Jagger's character always gets me right in the old ticker.
My taste in Christmas Carol adaptations tends toward the bizarre, and this is certainly one of the weirdest and funniest versions. I just can't resist Carol Kane's sadistic sugar plum Ghost of Christmas Present or David Johansen's hilarious cab driver Ghost of Christmas Past - "Niagara Falls!" It even has Robert Mitchum in it! I don't love everything Bill Murray has done, but this picture and Groundhog Day are right up there with Ghostbusters in the comedian's canon. I laugh, I cry; it's better than Cats.
THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL (1992)
As the co-editor of two books about Jim Henson, I'm definitely a Muppet fan, and this twist on Dickens is such a fun outing for the familiar cast of characters. Gonzo, my favorite Muppet, gets an especially good part as Charles Dickens himself, and the Ghost puppets represent some of the Henson group's most beautiful creative designs. Michael Caine is a delight as Scrooge, even if he experiences his essential change of heart rather too quickly to be as mean as he's supposed to be. When I saw this movie in the theater after its original release, it made me sad because Jim Henson had died in 1990, and this picture was the first to appear after his passing. Today, its bittersweet quality has softened, but like the original story it remains a sentimental experience.
What movies make your Christmas holiday complete? Let me know in the comments!
Tuesday, December 3, 2013
Like Carroll's original story, the Disney adaptation follows the adventures of young Alice (Kathryn Beaumont) as she chases the White Rabbit (Bill Thompson) into Wonderland. Once there, Alice encounters all sorts of odd inhabitants, including the grinning Cheshire Cat (Sterling Holloway), the Mad Hatter (Ed Wynn), and the Caterpillar (Richard Haydn). She also makes the acquaintance of the murderous Queen of Hearts (Verna Felton), who invites Alice to play croquet but also threatens to cut off her head. Alice wants to return home, but first she must stand trial before the Queen's court and confront her strange adversaries.
Carroll's two books, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, revel in in-jokes and clever wordplay, and most of this gets streamlined or eliminated in the Disney film, although the core story about a girl's adventure remains the same. Alice is grappling with the strangest adventure of all, that of growing up, and to her the world of adults is as bizarre and incomprehensible as anything Wonderland has to offer. Like Wendy in Peter Pan, Alice stands on the edge of leaving childhood behind, but unlike Wendy Alice doesn't have to play second fiddle to any boys. She must navigate complex social rules, conquer etiquette, and learn to deal with false friends. That might not sound as exciting as fighting pirates or slaying a dragon, but for Alice it turns out to be quite a challenge, and her reward is not a prince but a reclamation of herself and her place in the real world. In an era when most Disney heroines passively waited for their princes to save them, Alice's story makes a very refreshing change.
Aside from its proto-feminist heroine, Alice in Wonderland offers plenty of charms in its bouncy tunes and crazy characters. "A Very Merry UnBirthday," "I'm Late," and even "Painting the Roses Red" have an infectious energy that makes them irresistible earworms (don't let your kids watch the picture if you aren't prepared to listen to them sing the songs for days afterward). Kathryn Beaumont, who would also provide Wendy's voice for the 1953 Peter Pan, gives Alice a very proper English accent without laying it on too thick, but the veteran character actors steal the show, especially Sterling Holloway as the mischievous Cheshire Cat. Ed Wynn, Verna Felton, and Richard Haydn are joined by Heather Angel, Thurl Ravenscroft, J. Pat O'Malley, and The Mellomen as some of Wonderland's other residents, and hardcore Disney fans will have no trouble recognizing most of their voices.
Alice in Wonderland has been adapted many times both before and after the 1951 Disney version, with the most recent big screen treatment also coming from Disney in 2010. For the sake of comparison, you might also have a look at the 1985 and 1999 TV movies, although the 1933 version might appeal more to classic movie fans, since it features W.C. Fields as Humpty-Dumpty and Cary Grant as the Mock Turtle (Sterling Holloway is in it, too, but in this earlier outing he plays the Frog). Brooke Shields plays Alice in a quick but crazy adaptation on a 1980 episode of The Muppet Show, and that's a fun one if you can track it down. Listen for Verna Felton as unpleasant matriarchal types in Dumbo (1941) and Lady and the Tramp (1955) and as the sweeter Fairy Godmother in Cinderella (1950). Don't miss Ed Wynn in Mary Poppins (1964), and be sure to appreciate Sterling Holloway's distinctive rasp in Dumbo, Mickey and the Beanstalk (1947), and, of course, the original Disney stories about Winnie the Pooh.
Monday, December 2, 2013
You probably know the story. Dumbo is a baby elephant born into the circus, where his oversized ears become a source of embarrassment and endless abuse. As much as his mother loves him, she cannot protect him from the cruelty of others, and eventually she winds up imprisoned. Poor Dumbo, alone and frightened, has to find his own place in the circus, but he gets some help from a tiny mouse named Timothy and a flock of friendly crows. When Dumbo finally discovers his talents, he’s ready to confront those who mistreated him and take pride in his unique identity.
It seems like a simple story, and it is simply told, but there’s a lot of heartbreak and soul-searching in Dumbo. Anyone who has ever been teased or bullied will recognize the psychological damage that Dumbo endures. His mother’s peers criticize and reject him, the circus patrons mock and provoke him, and the clowns assume that nothing they do to him matters because “elephants ain’t got no feelings.” Dumbo is the individual as outcast, the lonely soul cast adrift on a cold sea. Neither his innocence nor his youth protect him. Difference marks him as the object of scorn and derision, and thus the little elephant stands in for all of the oppressed. His moment of terror and sacrifice, high on the burning circus platform, might as well be a crucifixion.
Think that’s reading too much into a children’s film? Look at Dumbo’s cinematic peers. Like Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp, he is a silent everyman, sweet-natured but suffering. Compare him to the iconic martyr in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928); clown makeup takes the place of shorn hair and a straw crown. Despite his appeal to preschoolers, Dumbo is a deep character, embodying existential and spiritual questions of the most profound nature. His happy ending is hard won, and maybe even at odds with his essence, but that’s the one place where the story defers to its audience’s desire for poetic justice. Before that triumphant finale, Dumbo will break your heart, and that’s what makes it such a powerful and enduring film.
Forgive the stereotyped crows (at least they sing well), and listen for Disney voice regulars Sterling Holloway and Verna Felton as Mr. Stork and the elephant matriarch. Dumbo won an Oscar for Best Musical Score, and it should have won Best Original Song for “Baby Mine,” which could wring sentimental tears from a turnip. For more circus stories, see Chaplin’s The Circus (1928), the Marx Brothers’ At the Circus (1939), The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), and Jumbo (1962).
Saturday, November 30, 2013
The story, more or less inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale, The Snow Queen, revolves around two sisters. The elder, Elsa (Idina Menzel), was born with magical powers over ice and snow, although she struggles to control them. The younger, Anna (Kristen Bell), is a rambunctious, impulsive people person who doesn't understand why her beloved sister pulls away from her as they grow up. When Anna rushes into an engagement with Prince Hans (Santino Fontana), Elsa is so horrified that she loses control over her powers right in the middle of her own coronation ball, thus revealing to everyone the strange and dangerous ability that she possesses. Elsa flees, accidentally throwing the whole country into deep winter as she goes, and Anna pursues her in hopes of reconciling with her sister and ending the magical ice age. Along the way, Anna gets some help from the rustic Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), as well as a friendly reindeer, an enchanted snowman, and a family of trolls.
One thing that sets Frozen apart from other Disney princess stories is the focus on sisters. Yes, romance develops over the course of the story, but the relationship at the movie's heart is that between Elsa and Anna. That makes Frozen a thoughtful follow-up to Brave, which was about a young heroine's relationship with her mother. At long last, Disney is moving us away from narratives where women only have poisonous, competitive relationships with each other and the goal is to snag the prince and the throne. Elsa doesn't need a prince to be queen; in fact, she doesn't need anything except acceptance of herself and a repaired relationship with her sister. Anna does need romantic love, but her narrative arc also rejects the traditional Disney formula in some very surprising - and welcome - ways.
The voice actors really bring a lot to their characters without being celebrity distractions from them. Veronica Mars star Kristen Bell is a delightful, spunky presence as Anna, and it's great to hear her perform the character's musical numbers. Idina Menzel, however, really knocks it out of the park as Elsa, especially on the power house theme, "Let It Go." Her Broadway voice soars and raises the bar for every Disney heroine song that will come after this, so much so that I'm unclear why Disney felt the need to have Demi Lovato perform a single version for the picture's closing credits. As annoying as Olaf the snowman is in the trailers, he's actually very funny in the film, especially during his ironic musings on the nature of warmth and summer. Josh Gad, who provides Olaf's voice, does a fantastically funny job with "In Summer," which will make you laugh and wince at the same time. Santino Fontana and Jonathan Groff both have excellent voices for their characters, although the scene stealer of the picture is definitely Alan Tudyk as the Duke of Weselton.
The third act contains many shocks and twists, and I'll refrain from indulging in spoilers. I will say that Frozen is good enough and nuanced enough to be worth seeing even if you don't have children. Ignore the trailers, let go of what you think Disney princess movies are like, and make time to see Frozen while it's still in theaters. The excellent and very meta Mickey Mouse short that opens the movie is just the icing on a cold but delicious holiday treat.
Monday, November 25, 2013
Powell plays dancer Tallulah Winters, who accepts a secret mission carrying a valuable item for men pretending to be American agents. While sailing to Puerto Rico as part of Tommy Dorsey’s act, Tallulah meets serial author Merton Kibble (Red Skelton), whose hypochondria doesn’t stop him from being smitten by her charms. Tallulah likes Merton, but her friend Fran (Virginia O’Brien) seems less taken with Merton’s pal, Skip (Bert Lahr). Unfortunately, the romantic atmosphere is threatened by misunderstandings and Tallulah’s unintentional involvement in enemy espionage.
The spy plot is unashamedly thin and implausible, taken as it is from one of Merton’s own serials. It does give Red Skelton the chance to do quite a few pratfalls and even play hero a bit, although of course his efforts don’t work out the way he would like. Skelton and Lahr make an oddly amusing comedic pair, both of them pulling crazy faces and having particular fun with a drunk scene inside a well-stocked ship’s hold. Skelton is also appealing enough as a leading man; we like him and want to see him win Tallulah in spite of his clumsy antics. Lahr, on the other hand, seems like the short end of the stick for Virginia O’Brien’s character, since he’s not only older and homely but also an incorrigible skirt chaser.
The comedy shtick winds around the musical numbers, and these are really the reason to see the picture. Powell performs each with tremendous energy, although the best might be the poolside sequence for “I’ll Take Tallulah,” which includes some very sharp drumstick tricks. The matador dance is also a highlight, and it certainly shows off Powell’s impressive legs. Tommy Dorsey’s band gives Powell swinging backup throughout, and you’ll even find Frank Sinatra singing two tunes. Sinatra’s version of “Poor You” gets a typically nutty twist from Virginia O’Brien, which is always fun, and Ship Ahoy might actually be one of the better places to see O’Brien, who made a lot fewer movies than she should have.
Edward Buzzell, who directed Ship Ahoy, also worked with Powell on Honolulu (1939), and his other efforts include the Marx Brothers’ At the Circus (1939) and Go West (1940) as well as the Esther Williams feature, Neptune’s Daughter (1949). For more of Eleanor Powell, see Born to Dance (1935) and Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940). Powell and Skelton both appear in Lady Be Good (1941), I Dood It (1943), and Thousands Cheer (1943). Bert Lahr is best remembered today as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz (1939), and Virginia O’Brien has a noteworthy, if truncated, supporting role in The Harvey Girls (1946).
Ship Ahoy is currently available for streaming on Warner Archive Instant, along with several other Red Skelton films and a handful of movies featuring Eleanor Powell.
Saturday, November 23, 2013
Of course, Peter Cushing was the actor who brought the Doctor to the big screen in Doctor Who and the Daleks (1965) and Daleks' Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. (1967), but these two films are non-canonical for Whovians. Cushing was certainly a bigger star than any of the actors who had played the character up until that time, but even Cushing fans admit that these two movies aren't his best work. You're better off seeing him in Hammer pictures like Horror of Dracula (1958) or even the original Star Wars (1977), in which he makes a memorable appearance as Grand Moff Tarkin.
Here are the first four actors who played the Doctor and some of the films in which you can find them.
William Hartnell - The first Doctor has a remarkably long filmography, including a number of credits under the name "Billy Hartnell." His film career dates all the way back to 1932, but many of the British movies in which he appeared are hard to find today. Look for him in The Pickwick Papers (1952), Carry On Sergeant (1958), and The Mouse that Roared (1959), as well as the Richard Harris film, This Sporting Life (1963), for a glimpse of his work before he became the original Doctor in 1963.
Patrick Troughton - The second Doctor is remembered for his bowl-cut mop of hair and his penchant for playing the flute, but the actor who portrayed him turns up in some surprisingly impressive places. Patrick Troughton first appeared in movies in the late 1940s, and his early roles included a part as the Player King in Laurence Olivier's Hamlet (1948). You'll also find him in a bit part in Disney's 1950 adaptation of Treasure Island. Troughton makes additional appearances in The Black Knight (1954), Richard III (1955), and The Phantom of the Opera (1962), but the best and most interesting places to see him are probably in Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and The Omen (1976). Be sure to catch him in another Ray Harryhausen classic, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977), which also stars Patrick Wayne and Jane Seymour. Although his filmography is filled with memorable work, Troughton really flourished with the rise of the small screen. He was a seasoned television pro by the time he assumed the role of the Doctor in 1966, and he continued to work in television until his death in 1987.
Tom Baker - The fourth Doctor is probably the most recognizable of the original incarnations, thanks to his trailing scarf, wild curls, and appetite for jelly babies. By the time Tom Baker began acting in the late 1960s, television was already a huge medium, and most of his roles would be on the small screen. Baker does, however, make a few interesting film appearances. In the 1971 movie, Nicholas and Alexandra, Baker plays Rasputin! The very best movie in which to see Baker is undoubtedly The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973); he has a great villain role as the evil magician Koura. Fans of British television will also know Baker as the narrator of Little Britain, and he had a recurring role on the popular series, Monarch of the Glen.
Thursday, November 21, 2013
Lancaster plays the free spirited Dardo, who has been left to raise his son, Rudi (Gordon Gebert), by himself after the defection of his wife, Francesca (Lynn Baggett). When his wife returns to Lombardy with her Hessian lover, Count Ulrich (Frank Allenby), Dardo gets himself and his friends into trouble by showing his contempt for the powerful lord, who seizes Rudi in retaliation. Dardo then leads his men in an effort to overthrow the Hessian oppressors and reclaim his kidnapped son, but his actions bring him unexpected company in the form of Ulrich’s lovely niece, Anne (Virginia Mayo).
Tall and powerfully built, Lancaster certainly looks good in tights, and he performs acrobatic feats almost casually, making them seem deceptively easy. The movie benefits from Lancaster’s skill in action scenes that would normally have to hide a stunt double’s face, and the camera stays close to assure us that Lancaster is, indeed, the heroic figure executing those jumps and swings. Nick Cravat makes a perfect foil to his friend and partner; short, funny, and mute because of his heavy New York accent, he plays a sort of swashbuckling Harpo Marx to Lancaster’s Lombard Robin. The two really get to show off their skills in the climax, when the Lombard rebels infiltrate the castle disguised as members of a traveling circus.
The supporting cast boasts fewer famous faces than the 1938 Robin Hood film, although its characters tend to fill the same functions. Frank Allenby is credibly snide as the Hessian count known as “the Hawk,” and Robert Douglas oozes moral ambivalence as the self-interested Marchese. Child actor Gordon Gebert has a few good scenes as Rudi, although a little of him goes a long way, while Lynn Baggett’s role as faithless Francesca could be more robust. Norman Lloyd proves something of a scene stealer as the wry Apollo, a minor character who obviously stands in for Sherwood’s Alan-a-Dale. Dardo’s Maid Marian is charmingly played by Virginia Mayo, who brings plenty of energy and a pair of well-displayed legs to her role as Anne of Hesse. While she appears in several stunning gowns requisite for this kind of historical pageant, Mayo looks best in the boyish costumes she adopts when riding or being held prisoner in the forest. Her experience as a bad girl in films like White Heat (1949) also gives her an edge in playing the scenes where she attempts to manipulate the Marchese and Dardo; we’re not always sure which side she’s really on, and that makes her character more interesting.
The Flame and the Arrow earned two Oscar nominations, one for Best Color Cinematography and one for Max Steiner’s score. Lancaster won his only Oscar of four Best Actor nominations for Elmer Gantry (1960). See more of Lancaster and Cravat’s acrobatics in The Crimson Pirate (1952), but don’t miss Lancaster in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), Sweet Smell of Success (1957), and The Professionals (1966). Virginia Mayo also stars in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), and you'll find Gordon Gebert in Holiday Affair (1949) and The House on Telegraph Hill (1951). For more from director Jacques Tourneur, see Cat People (1942), Out of the Past (1947), and Night of the Demon (1957). For even more swashbuckling action, try Captain Blood (1935), The Mark of Zorro (1940), and The Three Musketeers (1948).
The Flame and the Arrow is currently available for streaming on Warner Archive Instant.