Monday, November 23, 2020

Classic Films in Focus: SABRINA (1954)

After her breakout success in Roman Holiday (1953), Audrey Hepburn cemented her image as a charming romantic heroine with Sabrina (1954), in which she plays a beautiful ingenue who pines for affection from a wealthy, older man. Along with its love story, Sabrina offers a very tame exploration of upstairs downstairs concerns unfolding in a world of extravagant power and privilege, but few people come to the movie looking for thoughtful class analysis. Instead, Sabrina offers the irresistible appeal of Hepburn herself and the love triangle created by William Holden and Humphrey Bogart as the two brothers who both fall for her. As its "once upon a time" opening makes clear, Sabrina is a modern fairy tale, a Cinderella story about a chauffeur's daughter and a New York prince, and if fairy tale romance is what you seek then this picture certainly delivers. I enjoy Sabrina mainly because of Hepburn's powerful charisma as its star, but I'm not romantic enough to ignore its various flaws.

Hepburn plays the title character, who grows up on the estate of the fabulously wealthy Larrabee family where her father (John Williams) serves as the chauffeur. From childhood Sabrina has yearned for the younger of the two Larrabee sons, the feckless playboy, David (William Holden). He finally pays attention once she returns, all grown up, from two years at cooking school in Paris, even though she arrives just before his intended marriage to a socialite whose family interests will merge beautifully with the Larrabee empire. Elder brother Linus (Humphrey Bogart), eager for the match and its financial benefits, decides to intervene by courting Sabrina himself, but he ends up falling in love with her for real, much to his dismay.

I admit that I'm always bothered by the frequent decision to pair Hepburn with much older men, and it spoils some of my enjoyment, even if the leading man is as fine an actor as Humphrey Bogart (or Cary Grant or Fred Astaire). There's no ignoring the 30 year difference between Hepburn and Bogart in Sabrina; Bogart looks every year of it, especially when contrasted with the much younger Holden, who seems like a better match in spite of his bad habits. That said, Bogart's performance is still a Bogart performance, full of world weariness and lost chances that make Linus a sympathetic character even though he spends most of the movie deceiving Sabrina about his intentions. Holden is having a lot more fun as the younger brother, just like the baby of such a family would, but we know his track record with wives ought to be a warning about his ability to change for Sabrina. Neither brother is really a perfect match, but they're the only contenders on offer, since Sabrina apparently managed to spend two full years in Paris with only an elderly baron for company.

A fairy tale, however, isn't really about the princes; Sabrina Fairchild is the one we're meant to care about, and Hepburn is radiantly lovely in the role, full of wistful yearning and ardent feelings even after her transformative time in Paris. She comes back with sufficient sense of irony to name her pet poodle David but is still naive enough to fall for him all over again the minute she sees him. Once she returns to New York, Sabrina appears to advantage in beautiful clothes that suit Hepburn perfectly, but I like her just as much in the simple black outfit that she wears to Linus's office near the end. Like many other Cinderella heroines, Sabrina is motherless but enjoys the devotion of almost every member of the household, among whom we find familiar character actors like Ellen Corby and Nancy Kulp. Their enthusiasm for Sabrina's cause provides a nudge in case we need help overlooking her willingness to disrupt David's marriage, but they seem just as happy with Linus as long as Sabrina gets her promotion to American princess. Since Sabrina always maintains her romantic innocence, she never comes across as a Becky Sharp sort of opportunist, ready to hook either rich brother for the bank account he embodies, but I do wonder how a handsome young gardener or stable groom might have altered the course of this story.

Sabrina netted Oscar nominations for Hepburn as Best Actress and for Billy Wilder as Best Director, along with three additional nominations and a win for Best Costume Design, so there was no shortage of love for the picture from the Academy. Although she's best remembered for movies like Funny Face (1957), Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), and My Fair Lady (1964), I particularly like her more dramatic performance in Wait Until Dark (1967), which brought her fifth and final nomination for Best Actress. For a more age appropriate romance with Humphrey Bogart, see him in The African Queen (1951) with that other iconic Hepburn, Katharine, or find Audrey and William Holden reunited for another round in Paris When It Sizzles (1964). Sabrina got the remake treatment in 1995 with Julia Ormond in the title role and Harrison Ford and Greg Kinnear as the smitten brothers, but you're better off with the original.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Classic Films in Focus: THAT TOUCH OF MINK (1962)

 It's hard to imagine a more charming duo than Cary Grant and Doris Day, and That Touch of Mink (1962) is a perfectly entertaining example of their respective talents in the romantic comedy genre, even if both stars made more memorable outings in other pictures. Director Delbert Mann's comedy of errors is more upfront about sex - especially the extramarital kind - than many movies of the 40s or 50s could have dared, but it's all talk and no action as the protagonists constantly fail to consummate their intended tryst. Grant and Day have plenty of delightful comedic moments as the wealthy businessman and out-of-work single girl trying to get together in spite of their own moral objections, but the supporting cast also brings the laughs with fun performances by Gig Young, Audrey Meadows, John Astin, Dick Sargent, and John Fiedler. 

Grant plays philanthropic tycoon and playboy bachelor Philip Shayne, who meets the energetic but unemployed Cathy Timberlake (Doris Day) after his luxury car splashes mud on her raincoat. When a smitten Philip proposes a romantic getaway, Cathy thinks he means marriage but then manages to talk herself into agreeing to a fling, against the advice of her roommate, Connie (Audrey Meadows). The affair, however, doesn't go as planned, with Philip and Cathy repeatedly trying to get together or calling it quits until Philip's friend, Roger (Gig Young), convinces Cathy that running off with an unsuitable suitor (John Astin) will shake Philip into a real proposal at last.

The leads are the main attraction, of course, with Grant giving a very fine late career performance and Day still in her prime. They're both a good bit older than their characters ought to be, but as a pair they look natural together, which a is a nice change from the many May-December couples of late 50s and early 60s romances. Day's Cathy is quite a hothead, which gives her plenty to do in her best scenes, especially when she gets the star players of the New York Yankees - including Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra! - thrown out for arguing with the umpire. She's also horrified that people will know about her intended intimacy with Philip, and one of the funniest bits in the picture occurs when Cathy imagines that everyone knows as each conveyance she rides in becomes a bizarre replica of the bed where the deed is meant to be done. Grant's character unbends somewhat later in the picture, but when he finally takes off after Cathy and her pretend paramour he really gets to come undone. His appearance in nothing but a towel as he rushes to a taxi proves that late career Grant still has "it" in spades and makes the audience understand why Cathy might agree to that fling, morals notwithstanding.

Of the supporting players, Gig Young has the best part as Roger, Philip's friend and right hand man. Roger is a delightful mess, a neurotic alcoholic who wants to quit his job with Philip but is too in love with the luxurious life it brings. His unscrupulous therapist milks Roger for stock tips as well as hourly sessions, which gives rise to a running joke in the second half of the picture that might well come across as homophobic, even if the misunderstanding reflects much more on the therapist than Roger. Cathy's loyal friend Connie is perfectly played by Audrey Meadows, an actress best remembered for her TV role as Alice Kramden on The Honeymooners, and classic TV fans will also delight in seeing John Astin of The Addams Family as Cathy's sleazy suitor and Dick Sargent of Bewitched in a brief appearance. John Fiedler, a character actor with hundreds of roles but most beloved as the voice of Piglet in many Disney productions, has a small but funny part as a bridegroom whose marriage consummation is interrupted by a case of mistaken identity.  

If you find Doris Day as irresistible as I do, check out some of her earlier work in Romance on the High Seas (1948), Calamity Jane (1953), or Pillow Talk (1959). Cary Grant made only three more films after That Touch of Mink, but Charade (1963) would be an enduring favorite with fans; Father Goose (1964) and Walk, Don't Run (1966) would follow as his final bows before retirement. Gig Young, who took that stage name from his character in The Gay Sisters (1942), also appears with Doris Day in Young at Heart (1954), Teacher's Pet (1958), and The Tunnel of Love (1958), but his talent for playing alcoholics on screen sprang from tragic familiarity with addiction in real life. For another gem from director Delbert Mann, see the truly captivating Marty (1955), which earned Mann the Oscar for Best Director.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Classic Movies on CBS All Access

We picked up CBS All Access to watch the new Star Trek shows, which are worth the price of the service by themselves, but I've been pleasantly surprised by the classic movie offerings in their library. Streaming services have not generally been interested in the classic film audience, and those that specifically catered to us met premature ends for not raking in as much money as the owners wanted (Alas, Warner Archive and Filmstruck, our time together was too brief). CBS All Access might avoid the fates of those services since it offers exclusive new shows like Star Trek: Discovery, Picard, and Lower Decks and other more recent feature films, but it has the ability to give classic movie fans some great content as it launches its new Paramount Plus name in 2021 with a massive expansion of the available titles. Right now, though, you can get a taste of the pleasures that might be on the horizon by sampling the classic movies CBS All Access already has in its catalog.

Now owned by ViacomCBS, Paramount Pictures goes way back to the silent era, with a full century of movies in its vaults. That means that classic movie fans could get easy access to a lot of lesser gems from the golden age of Hollywood, including the Bulldog Drummond series of the 30s, the Hopalong Cassidy films, and the Hope and Crosby road pictures, not to mention big hits from director Preston Sturges, the classic noir genre, and dozens of great comedies, Westerns, and dramas. A quick perusal of the movies made by Paramount over the decades shows the depth and breadth of the titles that could be made available as the service seeks to increase subscribers by opening the treasure chest of offerings.

Early signs indicate that Paramount Plus WILL open that chest, even if classic movies aren't its core content. In the first place, it has too much good material not to use it, and, in the second place, some of those goodies are already on its current CBS All Access service. You can watch the 1927 silent hit, Wings, which won the First Oscar for Best Picture, or catch Humphrey Bogart and Fredric March in The Desperate Hours (1955). Sunset Blvd (1950), Sabrina (1954), The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1943), That Touch of Mink (1962), Father Goose (1964), and Teacher's Pet (1958) are also in the current library. With many of Hollywood's most iconic classic stars in its pictures, Paramount Plus can be sure that its older movies will appeal to casual viewers of the classics as well as diehard fans. You don't have to live and breath classic movies to appreciate Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn!

While Netflix continues to dominate the streaming market, it has zero interest in satisfying the tastes of our niche of viewers, and Amazon Prime can be very difficult to navigate when it has multiple bad prints of public domain films dumped into its catalog and a smattering of quality classics mixed in without a grouped category to make them easy to find. (I can spend HOURS hunting through Amazon in the hope of finding a decent print of a movie on Prime, and most of the time I don't have much luck.) Lately I've stopped trying to find something on the other services because CBS All Access has been more than happy to offer me a nice collection of classic movies that I can enjoy. I am hopeful that the relaunch in 2021 will bring me lots of options and make Paramount Plus the streaming service I know it has the library to become.

(PS - If you already have CBS All Access, go watch That Touch of Mink immediately! It's a delightful comedy with an absolutely adorable performance from Doris Day.)

Monday, November 16, 2020

Classic Films in Focus: HELLO, DOLLY! (1969)

Big, colorful musicals are my favorite antidote to troubled times. As much as I enjoy the black-and-white productions of the 30s, there's just something about a bright, splashy palette that makes everything else in a musical seem more cheerful. That's certainly the case with Hello, Dolly! (1969), which looks like a candy store with its rainbow of period costumes and sprightly dance sequences. Directed by Gene Kelly and headlined by Barbra Streisand, this adaptation of the Broadway show has its flaws and failures, to be sure, but it benefits from Streisand's magnetic screen presence and truly amusing performances by Michael Crawford and Danny Lockin as two store clerks set loose on the big city.

Streisand stars as widowed matchmaker Dolly Levi, whose entrepreneurial zeal extends to all kinds of business but is primarily invested in securing her own marriage to grumpy shop owner Horace Vandergelder (Walter Matthau), who in turn has his sights set on an attractive hat maker named Irene Molloy (Marianne McAndrew). Dolly thwarts Horace's plans by setting up Irene and her assistant, Minnie (E.J. Peaker), with Horace's two clerks, Cornelius (Michael Crawford) and Barnaby (Danny Lockin). At the same time, Dolly also thwarts Horace's desire to keep his niece, Ermengarde (Joyce Ames), away from her ardent beau, Ambrose (Tommy Tune), even though Dolly has been hired by Horace to make sure the lovebirds are separated. When everyone finally meets up at Dolly's old stomping grounds in New York City, the various romances play out against a backdrop of dancing waiters and musical chaos.

Despite its seven Oscar nominations and three wins, and its popularity at the box office, Hello, Dolly! still hammered nails into the musical genre's coffin because it was too expensive to be profitable, and it does have a certain late-stage quality about it. It's overlong, especially in the second half, thanks to extended dance sequences that don't advance the story, and most of the songs are nice enough but not really memorable (the title song excepted, of course). Ermengarde and Ambrose disappear completely for such a long time that it's a bit of a shock when they finally turn up again for the conclusion, and honestly it's never clear why on earth Dolly wants to tie herself to such a sourpuss as Horace, even if he does have enough money to provide a comfortable life. That might have something to do with the obvious lack of chemistry between Streisand and Matthau, who just don't look or act like they belong in the same room, much less the same marriage. Streisand is, undoubtedly, too young for the role, which had been played on Broadway by Carol Channing, and the age difference between Streisand and Matthau only increases the feeling that Dolly is settling for an unsuitable spouse for the sake of financial security.

Those problems, however, don't keep Hello, Dolly! from being genuinely charming and enjoyable, and Streisand holds its all together from start to finish. Dolly is in complete control of the narrative throughout the story, and Streisand is simply captivating in her performance, resplendent in red hair and a stunning array of grandiose hats and gowns to match. She's such a glorious presence that we understand the excitement when she returns to the Harmonia Gardens for the final act, where waiters leap into joyful chorus lines at the mention of her name. Streisand gets her best support from Crawford and Lockin as the clerks who take Dolly's advice and end up having the time of their lives; they have a delightful rapport with each other and their respective love interests, which goes a long way to make up for the absent Ambrose and Ermengarde. The mood of the whole picture is sunny and energetic, with a youthful enthusiasm that makes every obstacle seem surmountable, especially when it comes to love. It has that same charming if utterly fictional turn-of-the-century atmosphere that pervades at Main Street USA in Disneyland, where parasols and a can-do attitude are equally necessary equipment.

Given that comparison, it's fitting that you can currently stream Hello, Dolly! on Disney+, which is also appropriate because of the film's significance to the title character in the 2008 Pixar hit, Wall-E. Hello, Dolly! was Barbra Streisand's second feature film appearance, the first being Funny Girl (1968), which earned her an Oscar for Best Actress. She would go on to star in The Way We Were (1973), A Star is Born (1976), and Yentl (1983). I enjoy Walter Matthau more in other films, especially The Odd Couple (1968). Michael Crawford would become best known for his leading role in Andrew Lloyd Webber's stage production of The Phantom of the Opera, but Danny Lockin's career was tragically short and ended with his murder in 1977, when he was just 34 years old. If you enjoy the musical exuberance of Hello, Dolly!, try The Music Man (1962) or Paint Your Wagon (1969) for more of the decade's offerings in the genre.