Tuesday, November 18, 2008


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


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.