Criterion Sunday 82: Hamlet (1948)

If Olivier’s 1945 Henry V was filled with brightly patriotic colours, Hamlet plunges us back into Stygian monochrome gloom, albeit very attractively shot. However, for such a canonical text of English literature, it’s very difficult to inspire a viewer (well, me) to any great excitement, and this feels like a dutiful adaptation of the original, if thankfully somewhat shorter. No doubt many generations of schoolchildren have been marched into this and left feeling bored and uninspired, which isn’t really fair to the play, which has much to like in its writing. However, no one comes off as particularly likeable or sympathetic, least of all its petulantly entitled title character, and it really needs a younger actor to make the drama work (Olivier here is older than the actor who plays his mother). Still, the film is not entirely without merit, and there are some fine supporting turns.

Criterion Extras: Absolutely nothing whatsoever, except for a short essay in the booklet. Still, it’s a fine transfer of the film.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Laurence Olivier (based on the play by William Shakespeare); Cinematographer Desmond Dickinson; Starring Laurence Olivier, Basil Sydney, Eileen Herlie, Jean Simmons; Length 155 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 28 February 2016.

Esther Williams at MGM

A couple of box sets document swimming star Esther Williams’ career at its late-40s and early-50s heights, via a series of boldly Technicolor films shot for MGM studio. It can’t be claimed that all are masterpieces, but they seem to give a sense of this lost era of filmmaking, with its charms as well as its evident weaknesses. The latter largely involves Williams’ male co-leads, not least a stiff Howard Keel in Pagan Love Song (1950) and the perpetually unfunny Red Skelton in both Bathing Beauty (1944) — which, despite the title, largely focuses on Skelton’s annoying songwriter twit Steve — and Neptune’s Daughter (1949), and while the latter at least is a far more supporting role, it’s still hard to see what the laughs are supposed to be, and these end up being the weakest films in the set. Still, it’s not all bad for the men, as Esther’s pairing with Ricardo Montalbán in this latter film, as well as On an Island with You (1948) and the Mexico-set Fiesta (1947), is the strongest through-line to her films of this era. She doesn’t always end up with him, mind, but aside from some of Fiesta (in which both play Mexicans, somewhat less convincingly in Williams’ case, though her skills as a female toreador are rather more in question), the films are largely free of any ethnic stereotyping.

Fiesta, in particular, points up Williams’ proclivity to ‘brown up’ for a role (undoubtedly forced on her by the studio, as it’s more a sad reflection of the era), which is at its worst in Hawaii-set Pagan Love Song. It seems initially that something similar is taking place in On an Island with You, but her Hawaiian temptress in that film’s opening scene turns out to be a swimming-based acting star in a film within the film, though hardly one that makes any particular argument about the dubious practice, and when the film takes a turn into ‘romantic kidnapping’ on the part of the boring (white) US Navy love interest played by Peter Lawford, it gets a little bit hard to accept, even under the veil of historical difference. Among these 1940s films, 1945’s Thrill of a Romance almost passes without notice, feeling more like an excuse to bundle a bunch of disparate acts (a Danish opera singer, the Tommy Dorsey Band, a teenage pianist) together in a wartime variety revue, though Williams does at least shimmer in the Technicolor.

If anything, it’s the saturated colours of the celluloid process which is the most impressive star of all these films — no one looks quite so good in Technicolor as Esther Williams — though the early-50s features The Million Dollar Mermaid (1952) and Dangerous When Wet (1953) are the best of the lot for more traditional reasons. In the former, Williams is playing a version of herself in the real-life story of silent film star Annette Kellerman, an Australian, not that you’d guess it from Williams’ accent (she thankfully doesn’t try for an accent either her or in her Mexican role in Fiesta). It also features probably the most spectacular swimming sequence of any of the films, in a grand Busby Berkeley-choreographed setpiece. And then there’s Dangerous When Wet, which may even be her best film, and is certainly most charming in a celebrated Tom and Jerry sequence. Williams plays a young woman who takes up a challenge to the swim the English Channel, with romantic entaglements very much in the background. The plot means there’s some genuine tension in the way things unfold, and it ends up finishing rather neatly.


CREDITS

Bathing Beauty (1944)Bathing Beauty (1944)
Director George Sidney; Writers Dorothy Kingsley, Allen Boretz and Frank Waldman; Cinematographer Harry Stradling Sr.; Starring Red Skelton, Esther Williams; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s flat (DVD), London, Sunday 31 January 2016.

Thrill of a Romance film posterThrill of a Romance (1945)
Director Richard Thorpe; Writers Richard Connell and Gladys Lehman; Cinematographer Harry Stradling Sr.; Starring Esther Williams, Van Johnson, Carleton G. Young; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 15 February 2016.

Fiesta film posterFiesta (1947)
Director Richard Thorpe; Writers George Bruce and Lester Cole; Cinematographer Wilfred M. Cline; Starring Esther Williams, Ricardo Montalbán, Mary Astor, Fortunio Bonanova; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 17 February 2016.

On an Island with You film posterOn an Island with You (1948)
Director Richard Thorpe; Writers Charles Martin, Hans Wilhelm, Dorothy Kingsley and Dorothy Cooper; Cinematographer Charles Rosher; Starring Esther Williams, Peter Lawford, Ricardo Montalbán, Cyd Charisse; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 21 February 2016.

Neptune's Daughter (1949)Neptune’s Daughter (1949)
Director Edward Buzzell; Writer Dorothy Kingsley; Cinematographer Charles Rosher; Starring Esther Williams, Ricardo Montalbán, Red Skelton, Betty Garrett; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 27 February 2016.

Pagan Love Song film posterPagan Love Song (1950)
Director Robert Alton; Writers Robert Nathan and Jerry Davis (based on the novel Tahiti Landfall by William S. Stone); Cinematographer Charles Rosher; Starring Esther Williams, Howard Keel; Length 76 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s flat (DVD), London, Sunday 31 January 2016.

Million Dollar Mermaid film posterMillion Dollar Mermaid (1952)
Director Mervyn LeRoy; Writer Everett Freeman; Cinematographer George J. Folsey; Starring Esther Williams, Victor Mature, Walter Pidgeon; Length 115 minutes.
Seen on a train (DVD), Friday 4 March 2016.

Dangerous When Wet (1953)Dangerous When Wet (1953)
Director Charles Walters; Writer Dorothy Kingsley; Cinematographer Harold Rosson; Starring Esther Williams, Fernando Lamas, Jack Carson; Length 95 minutes.
Seen on a train (DVD), Sunday 6 March 2016.

Criterion Sunday 44: The Red Shoes (1948)

Powell and Pressburger’s classic fairy tale adaptation of a ballerina pushed to breaking point by a possessed red pair of shoes is a film I’ve taken quite some time to warm up to. It’s certainly easy to appreciate the spectacular Technicolor framing of master cinematographer Jack Cardiff, not to mention the resplendent set and wardrobe design, which along with the exotic locales must have seemed all the more luxurious in post-war England. However, it’s that melodrama at the film’s heart — the battle of its protagonist Vicky (former ballet dancer Moira Shearer of the beauteous red locks) to dance her way to success in life and love, putting herself in conflict with two powerful men, the composer Julian (Marius Goring) and impresario Boris (Anton Walbrook) — that has been difficult for me to appreciate fully. For Vicky is, like her character in the ballet-within-a-film, a pawn to forces which she cannot control, making her story a tragic and saddening one. Yet, thinking about the way The Red Shoes sets it up, these forces are explicitly patriarchal. One is tempted to cheer the love that blossoms between Vicky and Julian, yet from the start it’s clear that falling for him will destroy her by putting her on a collision course with her boss and patron Boris. As cruel and controlling as Boris may be, his demands are never unclear, meaning it’s Julian who ends up being the chief villain of the piece for the unfair burden he places on Vicky to subordinate her desires to his own career. Much of this only comes out in the film’s denouement, meaning the bulk of the film is about Vicky’s slow rise to fame, and there’s much to enjoy in the staging and the performances, particularly of Walbrook as the nominal stage villain, not to mention the extended ballet sequence at the film’s heart, which in some ways decisively changes the destinies of all the characters within the film.

Criterion Extras: Martin Scorsese has filmed a brief introduction to the film and particularly its restoration, presenting comparisons of how the film was beforehand (rather patchy) and afterwards. It’s this stunningly restored print that forms the basis of the Criterion edition, and it really is beautiful to look at. Of course, Scorsese loves the film. He loves it more than I ever will, and probably more than you. In fact, his personal memorabilia is also presented in another extra, a series of photographs, which also includes lobby cards, posters and stills from the production. There’s a short documentary made by British TV which features interviews with the (at that time) surviving personnel like cinematographer Jack Cardiff and his assistant Chris Challis, which is intermittently interesting, as well as a fawning interview with Powell’s widow Thelma Schoonmaker. There’s also a commentary, which takes the form more of an essay about the film by Ian Christie, intersplicing commentary from the ubiquitous Scorsese as well as from Shearer, Goring and Cardiff again (who despite his age at the time sounds in good health and is sharp about his artistry on the film). Finally, there are storyboards of the ballet sequence, and a reading from the original fairy tale by Jeremy Irons (which is an alternate soundtrack to the film, so it’s quite long).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors/Writers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (based on the fairy tale De røde sko by Hans Christian Andersen); Cinematographer Jack Cardiff; Starring Moira Shearer, Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring; Length 133 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 12 April 2014 (and more recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 19 July 2015, not to mention years earlier on VHS at home, Wellington).

Criterion Sunday 32: Oliver Twist (1948)

After Great Expectations of a few years earlier (reviewed last week), comes another David Lean adaptation from the works of Charles Dickens and it is far superior. Guy Green outdoes his earlier cinematographic efforts with vast inky pools of blackness from which characters emerge into a shadowy, grey lost world, immured deep in England’s memory, as orphan Oliver is born at a workhouse to a mysterious woman who dies in childbirth, and inducted into a life of poverty and hard grind. It all resolves itself neatly by the end, but it’s given vivacity by the acting, particularly Robert Newton as a frantic Bill Sikes, Kay Walsh as his moll girlfriend, and of course the young John Howard Davies as Oliver. Nowadays the film is most known for Alec Guinness’s creepy comedic turn as Fagin, though I feel Criterion’s liner notes suggesting it’s not anti-semitic because he’s never called a Jew within the film is somewhat disingenuous: it’s clearly a caricature and a fairly unflattering one at that. Still, Fagin is a fairly small element within the whole film, which remains impressive most of all for its beautifully filmed vision of a world that must have felt within reach in 1948 given the ravages of the era in which it was made.

Criterion Extras: Aside from those liner notes, there’s just a trailer and English subtitles, so this is a bare bones package.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director David Lean; Writers Lean and Stanley Haynes (based on the novel by Charles Dickens); Cinematographer Guy Green; Starring John Howard Davies, Kay Walsh, Alec Guinness, Robert Newton; Length 116 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 5 July 2015.

小城之春 Xiao Cheng Zhi Chun (Spring in a Small Town, 1948)

When Chinese cinema is discussed, there’s a lot of love shared for this little film, a sort of proto-neo-realist take on Chinese peasantry via the medium of what is outwardly a melodramatic story of a three-way love affair. It wasn’t at all successful when released, but has since come to be seen as a key text, encapsulating through its beautifully subtle staging all the potential pitfalls of its story with far from the expected restraint but rather a bold acknowledgment of all its erotic potentials. Which isn’t to say it’s a bodice-ripper, just that it has the kind of candour you might naïvely think wouldn’t be present in this era and setting, a bombed-out rural house (calling it a village wouldn’t do justice to the fact that no one else aside from the four central household figures is even glimpsed). Here, following the war, Liyan (Shi Yu) recuperates from an unspecified illness, and with his young sister is looked after by his patient wife Yuwen (Wei Wei). An attractive doctor, Zhichen (Li Wei), arrives at the home, and it turns out he and the wife had some previous history, memory of which is provoked by his reappearance. There are no bad guys or overt judgements made on this three-way relationship, but as it unfolds — in scenes at the dilapidated house, and at some nearby ruined fortifications (a sort of objective correlative to her own heart, perhaps) — we get a sense of how conflicted Yuwen feels about Zhichen’s arrival and about her own husband. It’s such a small and minutely-observed drama that it can sometimes seem as if little is happening, but its slowly-unfolding and underdramatised style gradually grows on the viewer. If it doesn’t seem to me like the kind of masterpiece it’s often acclaimed as, that’s probably as much due to my own weariness when I saw it as anything else, and I have no doubt it would reward repeat viewing.

Spring in a Small Town film posterCREDITS
Director Fei Mu 費穆; Writer Li Tianji 李天濟 (based on a short story); Cinematographer Li Shengwei 李生偉; Starring Wei Wei 韦伟, Li Wei 李纬, Shi Yu 石羽; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Friday 27 June 2014.