Monday, November 28, 2011

SUNDAY IN NEW YORK (1963)



A film review by Dan Navarro
Copyright Dan Navarro 2011


Produced right on the cusp of the sexual revolution in America, Sunday in New York (1963) probably stirred the libidos of many viewers. Previously, it was considered improper for young people to indulge in sex before they got married. But by 1963, with many couples challenging that taboo, the subject was due for another assessment. And it got one, in this clever and charming Peter Tewksbury romantic comedy, based on a script by Norman Krasna.

Jane Fonda plays a 22-year-old virgin, Eileen. She's just lost the man of her dreams, Russ (Robert Culp) because he wanted sex before marriage and she refused. Now she's traveled from her home town of Albany to New York City, to visit her brother Adam (Cliff Robertson). Little sis wants to get big brother's views on the subject of extra-marital sex.

On the 5th Avenue bus, Eileen meets Mike (Rod Taylor), and they go to get coffee together. Caught in a rainstorm, the two are drenched, and with no umbrellas and no taxis in sight, they have no choice but to repair to Adam's apartment to dry off.

After some nervous conversation, Eileen decides to try and seduce Mike, if only to get the "virginity" monkey off her back. He's all for the sex, until he discovers -- at apparently the last moment -- that she is, er, a "beginner." Infuriated, Mike retreats to the safety of his bathrobe, then lectures the girl on the perils of seduction when one is a virgin. Eileen asks, logically, "Well, how is a girl supposed to learn?"

Good question. But there's no time to discuss it, because just then, who should burst into the apartment but Russ, all the way from Albany to propose marriage to Eileen, whom he has decided he cannot live without. Russ has never met Eileen's brother, so seeing the two together in the apartment -- in their robes -- he assumes that Mike is Adam, and begins joshing with him and treating him like a future brother-in-law.

The fun escalates when the real Adam comes home and discovers that Mike has co-opted his identity, and must now call himself "Mike" and pretend to be his own best friend.

Rod Taylor is very game about his role in this film. He gets punched and knocked down by both Culp and Robertson, is drenched repeatedly in New York City's rainstorms, and is made to be Eileen's fall guy when the whole charade falls apart. Still -- SPOILERS AHEAD -- at the end Taylor's Mike gets to romance Fonda's Eileen, and the film appears headed for a happy ending.

But Mike had to go through hell before he could find his heaven, in the arms of Eileen.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO (2002)





THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO (2002)

A Film Review
by Dan Navarro

Copyright 2010 Dan Navarro

When a motion picture is based on a literary work of art, film critics invariably separate themselves into two opposing camps. One insists that the film must be a rigorous adaptation of the book, a near-slavish adherence to the words on the page. The other camp allows the film to be a film, with all the cinematic flair that makes the movie attractive to audiences of the time.

Kevin Reynolds' The Count of Monte Cristo (2002) belongs in the second category. Based on the renowned classic by Alexandre Dumas, it tells an epic tale of love, betrayal and retribution. Purists may deride the modern liberties taken in the name of entertainment, but they cannot deny that the basic outline of the book remains intact... and yes, a modern film viewer who hasn't taken the time to slog through the more than 1,500 pages of the original work, can still enjoy this story of sweet revenge, exacted in a most colorful fashion.

Dumas' classic has been adapted for the screen no fewer than a dozen times, beginning with a one-reel silent version in 1908. Before the Reynolds film, perhaps the 1934 version starring Robert Donat was considered the best adaptation, especially in the last half, where Edmond Dantes' fearsome vengeance is being carried out. (The worst adaptation, hands down, is the sappy 1975 TV version starring Richard Chamberlain.)

Edmond Dantes (played by James Caviezel in the 2002 version) was a lovable but simple and perhaps naive French sailor in Napoleonic times. He and his friend Fernand Mondego (Guy Pearce) sail out to the island of Elba, and there Dantes meets the famous exile Napoleon, who gives him a letter to deliver to a friend back in France. The guileless Edmond meekly accepts the letter and promises to tell no one about it.

But back in France, the letter falls into the hands of Villefort, the local magistrate, who immediately charges Dantes with treason. He has the gullible sailor arrested and shipped off to the infamous prison island, the Chateau d'If, there to spend the rest of his life in lonely captivity.

Edmond spends the next 13 years in his dungeon cell, but fortunately meets a fellow prisoner, an old priest named Faria (Richard Harris, in his final role). Faria is no ordinary priest. Apparently he is skilled in the martial arts, in philosophy, in literature. Over a period of several years, Faria teaches Edmond the art of swordplay, teaches him to read, and tells him of an uncharted island on which is hidden a limitless fortune, more money than one could spend in 20 lifetimes. Even better, Faria has a map showing the location of the treasure.

But the Abbe Faria is growing old, and his long confinement has taken its toll on his lungs. He dies in his cell, leaving Edmond the treasure map. Edmond knows the prison guards will take away the body, so he substitutes himself in its place. The guards obligingly carry the shroud out to the cliffs and toss it into the ocean. Once underwater, Edmond cuts his way to freedom.

After acquiring an assistant, Jacopo (Luiz Guzman), in a knife fight with some pirates, Edmond sets sail for the tiny island of Monte Cristo, uncovers the hidden treasure, and becomes wealthy beyond his wildest dreams. But the desire for revenge against his betrayers festers in his heart. Dantes harbors resentment not only against Villefort, but also Danglars, a former ship captain who sold him out, and especially against his former "best friend," Fernand Mondego, who not only aided in the villainy to get Dantes imprisoned... but who has also married Dantes' former love, the beautiful Mercedes (Dagmara Dominczyk).

Edmond hatches a devious plan. Renaming himself the Count of Monte Cristo and buying the grandest estate in Paris, he hosts an elegant "coming out" party, inviting all the nobles and their ladies, including two men he has particular interest in seeing again: Mondego and Villefort.

Make no mistake, Caviezel earns his acting stripes here. In the first act, Dantes had been a humble, soft-spoken working sailor. Now, more than 13 years later and enriched with not only a fortune but also with a grand new sense of confidence, the formidable "Count" dazzles his party guests, impressing one and all. No one from his past recognizes him, partly because of the passing years but also because he now sports a handsome, neatly trimmed mustache and beard. He is sophisticated and bold, as unlike the old Dantes as night is from day. Caviezel makes us believe it.

With the help of Jacopo and his pirate friends, Dantes sets up Danglars and gets him arrested by the French military. Next, he takes his vengeance on Villefort, in the unlikely setting of a steam room where Villefort is basking. Dantes, though fully clad, turns up the heat to an unbearable degree, and Villefort is cooked until done.

But the juiciest revenge is saved for the final act, when Dantes confronts his former "friend," Fernand Mondego. After letting Mondego learn his true identity, Dantes engages him in a rousing, prolonged sword fight. Years earlier, Mondego had easily bested Dantes in swordplay; but now, Edmond uses all the moves and cunning taught to him by the Abbe Faria during his long imprisonment. Furiously, the two men buckle their swashes in a grandly choreographed and lengthy duel that begins indoors, then moves outside... where Edmond gets his final revenge at last.

There is one other surprise at the ending, but it's best for you to discover it for yourselves. I've written that Jim Caviezel comes of age as an actor in this film; but Guy Pearce also shines, serving up what is, in context, the best line in the movie. It's only one word, but Pearce's delivery will make you shiver. The word is: "Premature."


Tuesday, February 23, 2010

SWITCH (1991)









SWITCH (1991)

A film review by Dan Navarro

Copyright 2010 Dan Navarro


Have you ever wished for a modern movie that could deliver a strong, uplifting spiritual message without being boring? Once upon a time, Hollywood could accomplish that feat with ease. But in today's sex-and-sensationalism market, films with spiritual themes are mocked, patronized, or even worse, ignored. That's why Blake Edwards' 1991 comedy Switch (Warners-HBO Films) is such a serendipitous find: A bawdy rib-tickler with ribald humor aplenty, yet one that delivers the spiritual goods too.

To be sure, the fabled Edwards raunch is intact in Switch. The film is sexy, funny, and cheerfully vulgar. But there is a sweetness here also, a frank admission that some things are more important than animal appetites, for example the salvation of one's soul. Against all odds, Switch not only delivers that message, but does it in a positive, exhilarating way that rivals the best work of Preston Struges and Frank Capra.

In Switch's opening reel, a smug chauvinist named Steve (Perry King) is murdered by three women who once loved him. Steve's soul descends into purgatory, where he is informed by God that he cannot gain admission to Heaven until he atones for his many offenses against womankind. So Steve is returned to Earth for his second chance, with the admonition that he cannot enter Heaven until he finds one female who likes him. To make things tougher, the womanizing Steve is reincarnated as Amanda (Ellen Barkin), a gorgeous blonde with the sort of dynamite body that has been Steve's lifelong playground.

What ensues is a comedic tour-de-force by Barkin, who is splendidly funny as a man trying to cope inside a woman's body. She wobbles shakily on stiletto heels, struggles to sit demurely in short skirts, and suffers a storm of sexual confusions when confronted with Steve's former girlfriends. Even when Amanda is with a genuinely nice guy (Jimmy Smits), she cannot warm up to him, because inside she still thinks like a man.

But the comedy is being played out against a deadly serious bass motif, the struggle for Steve/Amanda's immortal soul. Satan wants it too, and he appears to Amanda with an offer to release her from her tortured existence, if she will consent to join him forever in Hell. Horrified, she refuses. But she knows, and we know too, that her time is growing short; for after weeks of searching, she has failed to find one female who likes her in either incarnation.

Edwards, who wrote and directed Switch, was a prolific filmmaker who often turned out edgy comedies (The Pink Panther, S.O.B., Victor/Victoria), but with Switch he seems to be going for something new: mixing farce and spirituality. Even the way he treats the Devil is witty. Satan, played by Bruce Martyn Payne, seems to show up everywhere Steve/Amanda goes, sometimes in disguise, sometimes not. Audaciously, Satan even shows up in drag, playing the piano at a lesbian party.

In the early 1940s, Preston Sturges' seriocomedy Sullivan's Travels told the story of a man who is thrust into a world completely alien to his own, but a world in which he learns truths that would enrich his life forever. Frank Capra's superb It's a Wonderful Life (1946) used the same idea in a different way, making that movie a perennial favorite, one of the most loved films of all time.

Unlike the Sturges and Capra heroes, Switch's protagonist is no innocent, but an unrepentant heel suddenly challenged by fate to amend his miserable life. But this is precisely what makes the message even stronger. All souls are equally precious to God, are they not? Because Switch is a comedy, it does not seem unfair to disclose that in the end, the redeemed sinner does, indeed, gain admission to Paradise. But the twist that leads to this happy ending is wondrous, a plot element strikingly outside the standard routine of modern sex comedies. It is nothing less than an example of what is meant when people speak of the all-conquering love of God.

Edwards' deus ex machina is no heavenly puppetmaster pulling strings, but a benevolent God who helps those who help themselves. Seek and you shall find. To find that point driven home so forcefully in a '90s sex farce like Switch is more than surprising, it is miraculous. Sturges and Capra would have approved.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

CALAMITY JANE (1953)


CALAMITY JANE (1953)
A film review by Dan Navarro
Copyright 2010 Dan Navarro

It’s unsettling to read modern reviews of the Doris Day film Calamity Jane (1953) and find that critics use terms like “sexist,” “racist,” and “Sapphic” applied to this innocent musical entertainment.
None of those terms were used then, and the public found favor in Calamity Jane, making it one of the year’s biggest grossing films.
Doris Day stars as the eponymous heroine, but at first she is just barely recognizable under the grimy buckskin clothes she wears. She’s the rootin’ tootin’ facsimile of a Billy the Kid, but with a winning smile. She can outshoot any man in the Dakota territory – all except one, that is. Her friendly rival Wild Bill Hickok (Howard Keel) is number one in that department, but he allows Calamity Jane (she goes by the name Calam) to continue struttin’ and spittin’ and riding shotgun on the Deadwood stagecoach, from which she regularly shoots down dozens of Sioux warriors. (She calls them "redskin naked heathens.")
She’s brash too, at one point bragging to the local saloon owner that she can travel to Chicago, Illinois, and snag the biggest musical star around, one Adelaid Adams, and bring her back to perform in the Deadwood saloon, known as the Golden Garter.
Calam does get to Chicago, and visits Adelaid's (Gale Robbins) dressing room. Unfortunately, Miss Adams has left for Europe, and the girl Calam finds in that room is Katie Brown (Allyn Ann McLerie), Adelaid's maid and assistant.
Now there is a double deception, and it's delicious. Calamity thinks Katie is Adelaid, and Katie looks at this dusty person in buckskin and thinks it's a man. Calam laughs heartily at Katie's confusion, then suddenly realizes that maybe it ain't so funny, bein' took fer a feller. That's the beginning of Calamity's sexual awakening. For the rest of the movie, she becomes more feminine by the reel.
Katie goes with Calam to Deadwood, and appears on the Golden Garter stage in front of an SRO crowd of rowdy cowpokes, eager for a look at the pretty chanteuse from the big city. At first, Katie sings off-key and is just awful; but after she tearfully tells the audience that she isn't Adelaid Adams, the star they had expected, she lets them know that she's just Katie Brown, a working girl hoping for a break in show business. The cowpokes' bitterness and disappointment is almost palpable. Calam jumps on stage and encourages Katie to sing the way she wants to -- as just Katie Brown instead of an ersatz Adelaid -- and Katie pulls out the stops, sings and dances in her own style, and scores a major hit.
A hit in more ways than one. Katie is now an artiste, but she's also charmed the hearts of the two best-looking guys in Deadwood: Bill Hickok and Lieutenant Danny Gilmartin (Philip Carey), an officer stationed at the fort nearby. Both begin wooing her, and once again Calam has to step in... because she's been secretly in love with Lt. Danny all along.
The score of Calamity Jane is filled with hummable tunes, all sung by Doris Day, Keel, and Miss McLerie. Miss Day proves herself an able hoofer, too, in her soft-shoe solo to "Windy City," danced partly on a bar room floor covered in salt.
The four principals -- Calamity, Wild Bill, Katie, and Lt. Danny -- go to a fancy-dress ball, and for the first time ever, Wild Bill gets a look at his friend Calamity Jane wearing a (gulp!) dress! She's still pining for her shiny lieutenant, though, and hopes to snare him before the ball is over. But then she spies him kissing Katie Brown, and Katie enthusiastically kissing him back. Furious over this "double cross," Calamity challenges Katie to a gunfight... until Wild Bill talks some sense to her, saying "Who are you to tell people who they can love?"
It's good advice, but at the same time Bill's heart is breaking, for he craved Katie's love for himself. To console each other in their grief, Bill and Calamity kiss. We surmise it's their first kiss ever.
Here is where Doris Day, singer and popular recording star, earns her acting laurels. As Bill and Calam break after the kiss, we see her lovely face as we have not seen it before. Her expression is one of wonderment, of ecstatic realization. Can it be? Can this man who has always been like a brother to her actually be the man she will love for life?
This, of course, leads to Miss Day's most enduring hit song, "Secret Love." If you hear it on a record or on the radio, it sounds like a nice tune. But hearing it here, in the film where she discovers the man of her dreams was right next to her all along, gives it a charm we never suspected. Her secret love's no secret any more.


Monday, December 21, 2009

TRAMP, TRAMP, TRAMP


Tramp, Tramp, Tramp

(1926)


A film review by Dan Navarro

Copyright 2009 Dan Navarro


Harry Langdon was a supernova. As far as silent cinema is concerned, he was – this is the dictionary definiton – “an extremely bright, short-lived object that emits vast amounts of energy.”

Short-lived is right. Over the years, film researchers have remarked on the brilliance of this comic who came along and almost instantly challenged the greats of film comedy – Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd – and then quickly disappeared. Film historian Kevin Brownlow called Langdon “the fourth genius of screen comedy.” He was that, but for a very short period of time.

Langdon came to films late – in 1924, when he was already 40 years old – and soon became a favorite in Mack Sennett short comedies. Two years later, he branched out as an independent producer and starred in a feature-length comedy, Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926).

In character, Langdon was as grotesque as Chaplin’s Little Tramp or Keaton’s Great Stone Face. He played a doleful, innocent man-child, baby-like in his mannerisms and gestures. In Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, he plays Harry Logan, son of an elderly, handicapped bootmaker (Alec B. Francis) who is behind in the rent. To earn enough money to pay the landlord, Harry enters a coast-to-coast walking race, with the winner to receive a $25,000 prize.

The contest is sponsored by a shoe tycoon whose ads feature a picture of his beautiful daughter Betty (the 22-year-old Joan Crawford). Harry takes one look at Betty’s image and falls madly, impossibly, incongruously in love with her. I say “incongruously” because Langdon’s character looks so immature and fragile, you can’t imagine him having enough pep to love a woman. But he loves this woman.

The race begins. Soon all the best walkers in the world are on the path, heading from New York to California. Harry, naturally, is late… but he catches up. Then he makes a wrong turn and winds up on a ranch, surrounded by hundreds of sheep. To escape them, he climbs a nearby fence and clambers over the side… not realizing that he is now on the edge of a very steep cliff.

It’s a “thrill” moment that would do Harold Lloyd proud. Harry tries to escape his predicament by dismantling the fence with a hammer, but the darned thing falls apart and Harry rides it like a sled, down the hill, hundreds of feet down… and it lands right on the racing path, in front of the other contestants.

The racers rendezvous in Cleveland, Ohio. There, the shoe tycoon and his daughter greet the contestants and Harry, impulsively, steals a kiss from her. Joan Crawford reacts as if she’s just seen a wire coat hanger. But she lets it pass, and soon the racers are off again.

Tramp, Tramp, Tramp’s most spectacular scene comes after the racers have crossed what an intertitle calls “the great American desert.” A cyclone hits Sand City, and buildings are destroyed, cars are overturned, and the violent wind threatens to kill everyone in town. That would be too bad, because now Betty and her dad have arrived, and Betty finds herself trapped – alone – on the second floor of a building that is ready to collapse. Harry summons the nerve to climb the stairs and he carries Betty down to safety.

Then, seeing that the cyclone is still wreaking havoc, Harry starts throwing bricks at it. That’s right, bricks. He is thinking as a child would; but lo and behold, the cyclone responds by moving away from town and dissipating into the desert.

An intertitle reads: “David slew Goliath; Daniel tamed the lions; Joshua stopped the sun; and Harry made a cyclone take the air.”

At the finish line, the world’s champion walker, Nick Kargas (Tom Murray) appears to be on his way to victory… but this time, the perpetually late Harry puts on a determined sprint, passes him up, and finishes first. He wins not only the prize money, but also Betty’s hand in marriage. And that’s love.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

MY BEST GIRL (1927)

My Best Girl

(1927)

A Film Review by Dan Navarro

Copyright 2009 Dan Navarro

If you’ve heard of the Mary Pickford legend and wondered what all the fuss was about, look no further than My Best Girl (1927), Miss Pickford’s last silent film and, arguably, her best film ever.

Mary Pickford appeared in almost 250 movies and produced 30, besides several uncredited stints as writer and director. By 1920, the year she helped establish United Artists, she was the most popular female movie star in the world. In 1927, she became one of the founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In a word, she was Hollywood.

It’s ironic that this Very Big Star – probably the biggest of them all – was physically tiny, standing just a shade over five feet tall.

In the wonderfully warm romantic comedy My Best Girl, Miss Pickford is Maggie Johnson, a stock room girl employed at Merrill’s Department Store. There’s a clever early scene where Maggie is asked to bring some kitchen pots from the stock room, and finds she can’t carry all of them; so she wears one of them as a shoe and brings it out that way.

Maggie falls for Joe Grant (Charles “Buddy” Rogers), a new co-worker with a charming smile. His smile may be a winner, but as a stock room worker Joe seems a bit slow to learn. At one point, Maggie teasingly tells him: “You know, you’re awfully dumb!”

What Maggie doesn’t know is that Joe Grant is really Joe Merrill, the son of the store’s owner, working incognito to learn the business from the ground up. Young Joe is “engaged to be engaged” to an upper-crust girl named Millicent (Avonne Taylor), but she doesn’t seem to light Joe’s fire the way Maggie does. The two co-workers eat lunch together, sometimes sitting in a large crate in the stock room, and we can feel their love for each other growing.

There’s a charming scene where Maggie is riding in the open bed of a truck and Joe chases after her, running pell-mell down the street, trying to keep up with the moving truck. Director Sam Taylor and cinematographer Charles Rosher keep things lively with a long tracking shot that follows Joe on his run, with Maggie and the truck bed framed in the foreground. When Joe finally catches the truck, he climbs aboard and, thoroughly smitten, builds a “throne” for Maggie out of the crates and barrels on board. He even fashions an ersatz tiara for her to wear. It’s as if Rogers and Miss Pickford invented meet-cute.

Eventually, after a comic subterfuge that lands Joe and Maggie at the Merrill mansion, the truth comes out when Mr. and Mrs. Merrill return home unexpectedly. The terrified Maggie jumps into hiding under the dining room table, but to her surprise, Joe remains standing to greet the Merrills. Hearing their conversation, Maggie finally gets the picture: She’s been romancing the store owner’s son!

Maggie’s own family is what nowadays we would call dysfunctional. Her dad (Lucien Littlefield) is a mailman and a reliable breadwinner, but his wife (Sunshine Hart) and younger daughter Liz (Carmelita Geraghty) are a pair of world-class flakes, and Pa can’t deal with them. So, Maggie’s the one who puts dinner on the table night after night, even after working a full day at the store.

One night, flapper Liz and her loser boyfriend get in a jam with the law and wind up in night court, possibly facing jail terms. When Maggie hears of it, she rushes to the court and, putting on her best Clarence Darrow impersonation, pleads a sob story that utterly melts the judge’s (Mack Swain) heart and leads to the dropping of all charges. Because this is a silent film, we can’t hear Maggie’s words, but we don’t have to. Her facial expressions, especially the puckishly pursed lips and sad eyes, convey her sincerity and tell us all we need to know.

My Best Girl is lovely, witty… and busy. Taylor sees to it that the screen is never idle; in nearly every scene there is some bit of business going on in the background. And there’s a whirlwind climax, when Joe proposes to Maggie in front of her family and the two lovers have to scurry to the docks in time to catch the ship that will take them to their honeymoon – all in just ten minutes! With this sequence, Taylor emulates the best of Mack Sennett, Hal Roach, and Leo McCarey, as the screen is packed with comic action during a frenzied final reel.

And, in case you’ve come late to the party and didn’t know this, the romance between Mary Pickford and Charles “Buddy” Rogers was repeated in real life, though not right away. Ten years after they made My Best Girl, Mary and Buddy tied the knot and remained a loving married couple for life.

Friday, June 26, 2009

TRUE HEART SUSIE (1919)


True Heart Susie

(1919)

A film review by Dan Navarro

Copyright 2009 Dan Navarro

There is a story – perhaps apocryphal, perhaps not – about the 1987 film The Whales of August , starring the graceful, willowy Lillian Gish. She was then 94 years of age, appearing in her final movie after a remarkable 75-year film career. Lillian co-starred with the 81-year-old Bette Davis, playing her sister.

Someone remarked on the wonderful close-ups of Lillian in that film, and the tart-tongued Bette Davis supposedly replied: “They should be. The bitch invented them.”

Movie close-ups have, of course, been around since the 1890s. But they were honed to a fine art by D.W. Griffith, who utilized these and other innovations in his epics The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916). His muse was the delicate, angelic-faced Lillian Gish.

In Griffith’s True Heart Susie (1919), Miss Gish plays the title role as a young rustic who’s enamored of a neighbor boy, gangly William (Robert Harron), but doesn’t know how to convey the affection she feels for him. She has some money, and secretly finances William’s college education so that he can make something of himself. But once he’s found success, she lets him slip off the hook, and he marries a gold-digging flirt (Clarine Seymour), leaving Susie’s love unrequited.

Halfway through the film, there is a moment when Susie realizes that her hopes are dashed, her sacrifice has been for naught, and the love of her life can never be hers.

This may be the shot that got Bette Davis so worked up. Griffith gives Miss Gish a giant close-up and lets it run for 37 seconds – an eternity in the silent era. During that time, we see Susie’s face register a panoply of emotions: stunned surprise; resentment; sorrow; puzzlement; wry amusement over what a fool she’s been; then her large eyes open wide as she contemplates the emptiness of her own future; supreme heartbreak; and finally, bitter resignation. All this, with only the finely honed delicacy of her beautiful face. We watch in awe, and we know what it’s called: acting.

In all the years I’ve been watching films, I’ve never seen another virtuoso performance that comes close to matching that one Lillian Gish close-up. Katherine Hepburn had her moments, and so, too, did Emma Thompson. Perhaps there were others.

But Lillian Gish, I think, did it best.

True Heart Susie is standard Griffith, meaning it is superbly organized, photographed and directed. At the beginning, Miss Gish and Harron appear as teenagers, and quite convincing they are. They enjoy walking down the country lanes together, and he even carves their initials on a “friendship tree.” But he never gets up enough nerve to kiss her, though she seemingly gives him every opportunity to do so.

Near the end of the film, William’s cheating wife dies from the pneumonia she contracted during a rainstorm while out with her boyfriend. The grieving widower does the right thing, arranging for a proper funeral. Then, and only then, does he learn that his education had been arranged by his teenage gal-pal, Susie, and that she has always been madly in love with him.

William’s own love for Susie, long denied, rushes to the surface, they embrace, and finally – after 87 minutes of mounting audience tension engineered by Griffith – William takes his life-long friend into his arms for the first time, and they enjoy their first kiss.

Most directors would end it there, but Griffith shows us no mercy. He fades on the kiss, then opens a new scene: William and Susie, walking together down the country lane, youngsters again. On this wishful note, the film ends.

True Heart Susie has been restored by David Shepard’s Film Preservation Associates and is available in DVD format from Image Entertainment.

Monday, February 02, 2009



SILENT MOVIE (1976)
a film review by Dan Navarro
Copyright 2009 Dan Navarro



Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie (1976), the first silent picture to be made in 40 years, strives to blend the director’s manic sense of humor with silent film conventions. Surprisingly, they make a good fit. Brooks’ comic repertoire doesn’t begin and end with witty double-entendres; here, he proves himself a master of physical comedy, too.

Brooks (who also co-wrote and directed) plays Mel Funn, a former film director who’s hit the skids, by way of the bottle. Now sober and seeking a comeback, he teams with his buddies, Marty Eggs (Marty Feldman) and Dom Bell (Dom DeLuise), to try to sell Big Pictures Studio (“If it’s a big picture, it was made here”) on the idea of making the first silent movie in 40 years.

The Studio Chief – er, make that the current Studio Chief (in Brooks’ universe, everything echoes the turmoil of real life) – played by Sid Caesar, thinks it’s insane to try to make money these days (“these days” meaning 1976) with a silent picture… unless the intrepid trio can talk some really big movie stars into appearing in it.

So off they go, in search of stars. Some of Hollywood’s big names do appear in this film, as themselves, and Funn and his pals nab all of them – Paul Newman, Liza Minnelli, James Caan, Anne Bancroft, Burt Reynolds – and they begin production of the picture.

But trouble lurks around the corner. Big Pictures Studio is on the verge of bankruptcy, and is a take-over target of Engulf and Devour, a ruthless conglomerate. (Brooks has stated, publicly, that any resemblance to Gulf & Western, which had recently swallowed up Paramount Pictures, is purely coincidental.) The only thing that can save Big Pictures is a major hit, and that’s just what Funn & Co. aims to deliver… unless Engulf and Devour can stop them.

That’s where E. & D.’s weasely CEO (Harold Gould) steps in and plots sabotage. Knowing that Funn’s two big weaknesses are women and liquor, he hires a “bundle of lust” – one Vilma Kaplan (Bernadette Peters) – to seduce Funn and drive him back to drink.

Silent Movie captures the spirit of the silent era amazingly well, for a film made in 1976. The opening scene shows the trio of Funn, Eggs, and Bell driving down a sunny, palm-lined Southern California street, and we don’t hear a single sound. I’ll admit that I suspected something must have gone wrong in the projection booth, because I was watching a motion picture, but hearing no sound, not even music. Brooks got me good, with that one.

We don’t hear any sound until their convertible coupe passes a giant billboard… and then the camera lingers on that billboard, to show us: “20th Century-Fox”… and the music begins, followed by the opening credits.

In 1948 James Agee wrote an essay, “Comedy’s Greatest Era,” extolling the virtues of silent era comedies when compared to the limp humor of talkies of the current period. Agee described the four main grades of a laugh: the titter, the yowl, the bellylaugh and the boffo.

An ideally good gag, wrote Agee, “would bring the victim up this ladder of laughs by cruelly controlled degrees to the top rung, and would then proceed to wobble, shake, wave and brandish the ladder until he groaned for mercy….”

Mel Brooks may have read that essay, for in Silent Movie he builds on his gags at every opportunity. In one scene, for example, Eggs (Feldman) is trying to board an elevator, but the door snaps shut just before he can get into it. He pushes the button again. Another elevator door opens and Eggs is ready to run – no, sprint – to it before it closes. But inside the elevator are dozens of doctors and nurses, filing out. Eggs must wait for them. He waits for what seems an eternity, but they keep coming. And coming. Nearly one hundred people, all emptying out of this one elevator. Finally only one person is left: a gigantic nurse with a malevolent glare. Eggs tries to sidestep her, but she’s too quick for him. Face to face, they continue to dance, her glare darkening all the time. Finally she moves away and the elevator door closes, leaving Eggs without a ride. Again.

That scene is a nice spin on a turn in a Harold Lloyd comedy, Girl Shy (1924), in which Harold is trying to board a trolley car but is shoved aside by hundreds of men who materialize out of seemingly nowhere. Later in Silent Movie, Brooks appropriates a gag of Charlie Chaplin’s, from Chaplin’s 1916 short, One A.M., when he does battle with a recalcitrant Murphy bed. (In a shabby edifice known, naturally, as the Hotel Sleez.)

Each of the guest stars gets a generous share of screen time, but the most sparkling is Anne Bancroft (Mrs. Mel Brooks in real life). She does a table-top dance in a night club, tangos with all three principals… and guts it out though she’s taking quite a beating. One moment, Funn is dancing with her and, when they dip, he bangs her head on a table. Later, she is being carried off stage – horizontally – by the three funnymen, who “accidentally” ram her head into a wall.

Vilma, the Bernadette Peters character, converts from femme fatale to a loving partner for Mel Funn. With Engulf and Devour now out of the way, the trio follow through and complete their movie. The night of the Sneak Preview, however, it is learned that the film has been stolen – and it’s the only copy!

Cue up some more jokes from Brooks & Co., enlivened by an encounter with a vicious Coke machine. That’s right, a Coke machine! This gag defies description; it must be seen to be believed. But with Mel Brooks at his manic best, the whole crazy cavalcade delivers some of the heartiest laughs since the real silent era ended.

Silent Movie was released to the public on DVD by Twentieth Century-Fox Video, making this consistently funny grab bag of comedy routines available for the first time.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

FIRST A GIRL (1935)


First a Girl (1935)

A film review by Dan Navarro

Copyright Dan Navarro 2008



By now, it is probably not possible to review the sparkling Jessie Matthews musical First a Girl (1935) without referencing Blake Edwards’ 1982 smash hit Victor/Victoria, since they were both based on the same story (by Reinhold Schünzel). The Edwards film became so popular, it threatened to erase memory of Miss Matthews’ 1935 tour-de-force as well as the original film of the story, Germany’s Viktor und Viktoria (1933). Ironically, a modern viewing of the Matthews vehicle actually wins new respect for Miss Matthews' performance.

For one thing, First a Girl makes no mention of homosexuality. While the Edwards film is fueled by gay jokes, the Matthews version shows us that the subject of female impersonation is perfectly legitimate outside the lavender world.

Miss Matthews, who had her breakthrough role in the spectacular British musical Evergreen (1934), is here serviced by the two gents who helped to secure her star persona in that film: director Victor Seville and cinematographer Glen MacWilliams.

In First a Girl, Jessie is Elizabeth, a girl with a good singing voice and dancing talent who yearns for a show business career, but keeps getting turned down at auditions. Frustrated, she breaks down and cries one rainy afternoon at a coffee shop in a seedy London neighborhood. There, she is comforted by Victor (Sonnie Hale), an aspiring Shakespearean actor (read: ham) who pays the bills by doing a drag act on stage.

As it happens, Victor has caught a cold in the rain, and he’s lost his voice. So, he convinces Elizabeth that she could replace him in the act, with himself as her "manager," and no one need be the wiser.

Elizabeth, desperate for work and a place to stay, agrees to spell Victor in his act for one night only. She becomes “Victoria,” a girl pretending to be a man pretending to be a girl – on stage.

Her act gets off to a rocky start due to stage fright, but eventually she belts out her song with confidence, and wins over the raucous audience. All manner of things go wrong in the wings, though, and soon a flock of geese are swarming the stage; someone knocks over a vat of liquid paste that coats the performing area, and Elizabeth (as Victoria) slips and falls – a neat pratfall that is shown in one take, meaning it was really Jessie Matthews who took the tumble and not some anonymous stunt woman. The audience roars its approval, thinking it’s all part of the act.

When, at the end of the act, Victoria removes her wig and reveals the short haircut that marks her as a “man,” the audience is stunned for a moment… and then, they go wild again, applauding the performer who had them so badly fooled.

A certain Mr. McLintock, a high-class impresario who’s slumming in hopes of finding a good act for his upper-crust audiences, happens to catch “Victoria’s” act. He visits her and her “manager” back stage, and offers them a contract. Elizabeth, it seems, is on her way to fame and fortune – just as long as she continues pretending she is a man pretending to be a woman.

Fame and fortune does come her way, and Victor’s too. Together they tour the continent, wowing audiences everywhere they go. At a ritzy stop on the French Riviera, they encounter the glamorous Princess Mironoff (Anna Lee) and her wealthy fiancé Robert (Griffith Jones). Robert is much taken by Victoria when he sees her on stage, much to his fiancée’s amusement. She knows that “Victoria” is really a “man," but Robert does not… until the end of the act, when “Victoria” takes off her wig and exposes the impersonation.

But the deception ends one sunny afternoon in the waters of the Mediterranean, when Elizabeth goes for an ocean swim. It seems Robert is out for a swim that day too. When she encounters trouble and begins to drown, Robert rescues her and carries her to shore. There, as he deposits her unconscious body on the sand, he cannot help but notice her swimsuit and the feminine curves it displays. Now the secret is out.

Following this exposé, she returns to the club to perform her act as usual. And it is one of the strengths of First a Girl that here, when Elizabeth’s fear of her future is so severe, she delivers the film’s most glorious number: “Everything’s in Rhythm With my Heart,” a beautiful song (by the team of Maurice Sigler, Al Goodhart and Al Hoffman) that should have become a popular standard and might have, had it been performed in an American musical of that era. The song is followed by an elaborate dance routine involving dozens of chorus girls, highlighted by a brilliant solo turn by Jessie Matthews, the “Dancing Divinity” of English cinema.

Now that the cat’s out of the bag, Robert proposes to Elizabeth, she accepts, and together they set out to motor back to England. At a border stop, they are asked to show their passports. When the official sees her passport, he exclaims: “But this passport is for a MAN!” To which the beaming Elizabeth replies, “Yes, but first a girl!” And they drive off.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

THE FALLING (2007)







The Falling

(2007)

a film review by Dan Navarro

copyright Dan Navarro 2008

For years now, movie fans have been exposed to allegorical films about the battle between the forces of God and the forces of evil. The devil always gets the best lines, whether played by Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, or Tilda Swinton. A new independent film, The Falling (2007), by first-time director Nicholas Gyeney, continues that tradition.

When the devil (Michael Ayden) confronts the hero, Grayson Reed, in The Falling, he snarls:

“Do you know what God is? He preaches love, faith, and prosperity to his people. But that’s not what he is. He’s a selfish child who wants more. I want to make things the way they should be, but I need your help. Help me to take what is rightfully mine, and I promise you, you can change the world. He’s a tyrant, Grayson. He’s kept people blinded for so long. Help me free people.”

Those words could have been taken from the Gospel according to St. Matthew (4:1-11), in the passage where the devil tries to tempt Jesus in the desert. It is chilling to imagine that the prince of darkness could be so persuasive, though we know he probably does tempt someone in similar fashion, every day.

In Gyeney’s film – which he also wrote, produced, shot, and edited – Grayson turns down Lucifer’s enticements, just as Jesus did. Grayson, played by George Clooney lookalike Scott Gabelein, is a Seattle cop who has no connection to Satan until “The Five” – a group of Archangels – come down from Heaven in search of a warrior to stop the forces of evil.

Gyeney and his crew of actors and technicians – including his mother and his sister – shot The Falling in and around the Seattle area, and used elements of fantasy and mysticism to tell his story.

Visually, the film is gorgeous. Shots of the countryside flora, especially, are a treat for the eyes, captured in lush greens and yellows, probably in the Seattle springtime. The editing, too, is first-rate. My only nit with the look of the film is that frequently, Gyeney seems to be using hand-held cameras, even when the subjects on screen are stationary. If The Falling does good business, perhaps he should invest in a tripod or other steadying device.

Amid all this beauty, we find a world that is “in chaos,” to quote from a speech given by a spiritual leader in the first reel. Soon, we meet The Five, sent by a Higher Power to locate a human capable of standing up to the devil himself. Of course, Grayson has no idea what he’s in for. When he first meets their leader, the Archangel Michael (Rory Colin Fretland), he suspects the guy is wacko.

Grayson lives comfortably with his kid sister in the tidy home left to them by their parents, does his job by day, and relaxes by night. He doesn’t go to church, though the local parish priest (Donovan Marley) tries to coax him and his sister Kristy (Tellier Killaby) to rejoin the congregation.

The entreaties of their religious community go for naught, until the day Grayson realizes The Five are real, and their mission is to enlist him as a warrior for the Lord. This story could have been spun off from one of Frank Peretti’s apocalyptic novels, and the fact that Peretti was raised in the Seattle area makes one wonder if he had a hand in the planning of this film.

You may read reviews of The Falling that criticize some of the acting as “amateurish.” The fact that almost everyone in the cast is appearing in their first film may contribute to that view, but I found both the villain and the hero thoroughly compelling. Gabelein and Ayden put real intensity into their roles, and although I tried to catch them “acting,” I couldn’t.

There is some bloodshed in this film, but the part that I found particularly disturbing has nothing to do with physical violence, but rather the spiritual kind. In the creepiest scene, the devil tries to seduce Kristy – who knows nothing about his real identity – and actually gets to first base. Were it not for her brother’s timely intervention, Satan may have hit one out of the park.

Undoubtedly, The Falling will play better before an audience of true believers than before agnostics. Hopefully, it will reach those who are aware of the dangers posed by a secularist view of our earthly home… and open the eyes of those who aren’t.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS (1941)


SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS (1941)


A film review by Dan Navarro
Copyright Dan Navarro 2007


Writer-director Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels (1941), a wicked satire of Hollywood, is a masterpiece, one of the best films ever made.

The first time I saw this pinnacle of Sturges' estimable career was at an "aud call" when I was in grammar school. The teachers herded us kids into the auditorium to watch a 16mm print of it and, they hoped, get us out of their hair for an hour and a half. I was only about 6 years old, but I believe Sullivan's Travels is the first film that ever made me cry tears of joy. It's been more than half a century, but my eyes still well up when I watch it, a sign that either the film is effective or I'm an easy mark. I prefer to believe it's the former.

The plot tells of John L. "Sully" Sullivan, a Hollywood director who is a big success at turning out comedies, but then gets it into his head that he should direct a "serious" film with social significance, all about tragedy, hopelessness, and suffering. To prepare himself for this bleak scenario, he decides to go on the road dressed as a bum, with only ten cents in his pocket, to learn what it's like to be poor and hungry. Be careful what you wish for. Before Sullivan's travels come to an end, he will have visited the darkest corner of the deepest pit of the human condition.

This being a Preston Sturges picture, of course there's a happy ending. But he puts the hero through hell before that happens. There's also a romance of sorts, pairing Sullivan (Joel McRea) with a young woman we know only as The Girl (Veronica Lake). I say "of sorts" because there is no love scene per se, no kissing, not even any fond hugging. The closest they ever get physically is one evening when the two ersatz hobos (The Girl has joined him in his masquerade) stop to admire the moon... and put their arms around each other, lightly. Less is more. I think the love between them seems stronger than if they were pawing each other every few minutes.

Preston Sturges began his Hollywood career as a screenwriter (Never Say Die [1939], Remember the Night [1940]), but soon prevailed on the studio brass to put him on as a director, because he was frustrated at the way directors were reshaping his words. His first film as both writer and director, The Great McGinty (1940), was a hit, and won him an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Sturges was on his way.

There's an early scene in Sullivan's Travels that deftly shows off Sturges' skill with wordplay. McRea, Robert Warwick, and Porter Hall are having a vigorous debate over the wisdom of embarking on Sullivan's new, change-of-pace film. The rapid-fire dialogue is intoxicating to listen to, because it seems the actors never take a breath. As each line ends, a new one begins, as if we are watching a relay race with words instead of batons. That's not all: The entire scene, from beginning to end, is shot in one continuous take, with no cuts. The camera moves as necessary, to follow the actors, but essentially it is all a single shot. And Sturges manages to bring the scene in at four minutes flat. I have no idea how he did it, or how many retakes were needed to achieve this precision. But the effect is mesmerizing.

Sturges gives us many great scenes in Sullivan's Travels, but there is one that really put a lump in my throat. Sully has been imprisoned in a Deep South chain gang presided over by a ruthless warden (the great Alan Bridge). The warden won't brook Sully's independent attitude and resolves to crush his spirit by locking him in "the sweat box," a sadistic, one-man windowless cell where the hapless prisoner is forced to stand for hours, alone.

The prison trusty, played by Sturges regular Jimmy Conlin, visits the sweat box periodically and gives water to the dehydrated prisoner, and also gives him words of encouragement. Finally, at night, the trusty is allowed to open the sweat box and release Sullivan from this torture device. He unlocks the door, and the exhausted Sullivan collapses into his arms. The camera remains still for several seconds while the trusty cradles him gently. I don't know if Sturges intended this, but the shot reminded me of a Renaissance painting of St. John holding the body of Christ after the Crucifixion.

Sullivan's personal epiphany comes when he joins the other prisoners as guests at a local black church, where they are treated to an evening of Mickey Mouse cartoons. The prisoners, the warden, even the preacher, laugh uproariously at the antics of Mickey and his dog Pluto. Finally, Sullivan starts to laugh, too. And that's when this great comedy director realizes the truth: the best gift he can offer his audiences is not dour drama, but comedy -- pictures that enrich the human condition by offering a touch of happiness in a world too filled with tragedy.

McRea's final line in the movie is one of the greatest closers ever. After Sullivan's eventual escape and reunion with his Hollywood friends, he announces that he won't be making that "socially significant" picture after all. He'll stick to making comedies. Why? "There's a lot to be said for making people laugh. Do you know that's all some people have? It's not a lot, in this cockeyed caravan, but it's better than nothing. Boy!"

DERAILED (2005)


DERAILED (2005)




WHY is this film lambasted by the critics?

I've said I'm a big fan of classic films, but I still watch for good NEW films. One of the best I've seen lately is the 2005 thriller Derailed, starring Clive Owen and Jennifer Aniston.

I caught this on one of the Starz channels, got hooked on the film's noirish suspense, and watched it all the way through. When the film was over, I went straight to the computer to see what the professional critics had to say about Derailed.

But what a disappointment! With very few exceptions, the pros gave it a "thumbs down." They said it's "derivative." Well, yes, it is. Double Indemnity (1944) comes to mind. So does Fatal Attraction (1987). So too, intensely, does Lawrence Kasdan's Body Heat (1981). But the way things are handled is so entertaining, we should be able to just relax and enjoy this new riff on a familiar old tune.

The good news is that there are several independent commentaries posted to the IMDb, by individual viewers, and they are almost all positive.

As I've said, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and thought Clive Owen and Jennifer Aniston both did a good job of playing against type. Owen, so tough and mean in Sin City (also 2005), here plays a simple -- maybe even a little simple-MINDED -- married business exec who gets distracted by a lovely brunette. Cocktails lead to dinner, then to a hotel room where they plan to satisfy their lust. I did NOT expect that -- SPOILERS ALERT -- about one second before penetration, the would-be adulterers are disrupted by the entrance of a brawny thug who threatens to blow Owen's brains out, then pistol-whips him to unconsciousness.

And NO, I certainly did not predict that, once Owen has been dispatched, our little Jen -- the romantic sweetie from "Friends" and about a dozen movies where she played, essentially, the same role -- would then get brutally and graphically raped. Anyone who tells you they PREDICTED all this is, well... a liar.

I think that, when detractors of Derailed engineer their stories about how "predictable" this film is, they're thinking about what happens AFTER the rape. Yes, it did occur to me, in the minutes that followed, that the Jennifer Aniston character may have been "in on" the whole scheme to rob the Clive Owen character. It turns out that she WAS in on it. Big time.

But that revelation, startling as it is, doesn't come at the end of the movie... it comes two-thirds of the way through! There is still the dicey business of seeing how Owen's character will avenge the beating/robbery/rape, so there's really no reason to walk out of the theater, or to change the channel. With a setup like that, don't people want to see how the whole thing plays out? Does Owen get his revenge? Does the villain return to menace him again? All these issues are resolved, and, to my mind, resolved satisfactorily, by the final fade-out.

Sort it out, and you might just agree: Derailed is a Fatal Attraction for the 21st century.

Friday, November 17, 2006

SUNNY SIDE UP (1929)


SUNNY SIDE UP (1929)

A film review by Dan Navarro
Copyright Dan Navarro 2006



Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell were teamed again in Sunny Side Up (1929), one of the first film musicals. Farrell and Miss Gaynor had starred -- successfully -- as a romantic couple in three silent films, so it must have seemed a "natural" pairing when Fox cast them in this, their first musical film. Gaynor plays Molly, a girl who lives happily in the New York tenements, and she gets things rolling with a charming rendition of the title song. Farrell is Jack Cromwell, a handsome Long Island millionaire who drives into Molly's neighborhood on a lark one evening, and is instantly smitten with her.

He doesn't know, of course, that secretly, Molly has worshipped him from afar after cutting his photo out of the newspaper. They meet cute -- he wanders into her apartment while she's still in her lingerie -- and after that, they get along famously, though she's in love and he thinks merely that Molly is "a swell girl."

All that changes, though, after Molly goes to Long Island at Jack's request -- properly chaperoned by her best galpal and two trusted male friends. As they get to know each other, Jack comes to realize he truly loves Molly; but now there's a barrier between them, for she thinks he is merely pitying her for being poor.

There are plenty of good songs, all written by the formidable team of DeSylva, Brown, and Henderson: In addition to the title song, we hear "I'm a Dreamer (Aren't we All)" sung by Miss Gaynor; "If I Had a Talking Picture of You," sung by both stars; and, in a big production number, "Turn on the Heat," sung and danced by dozens of girls who go from wearing parkas and heavy boots to stripping down to bathing suits, as the set warms up to tropical temps.

Sunny Side Up is probably the first film musical that isn't a "backstage" musical. All the songs and dances take place in what passes for real life.

Farrell and Miss Gaynor can't really sing, of course. But they could both carry a tune, and they were both charmers. And, as Samuel L. Jackson would say, several decades later, of an entirely different creature, "A little charm can go a long way."