Criterion Sunday 110: Les Vacances de M. Hulot (Mr Hulot’s Holiday aka Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, 1953)

The Mr Hulot character is probably director-writer Jacques Tati’s most enduring comic creation. He’s a bumbling, almost speechless chap bent over a cane, with a distinctive floppy hat and long pipe, who wanders around getting involved in comedy situations, though just as often merely witness to the these (certainly by the time of later films like Mon oncle and Play Time, he’s more audience than actor). With a plot that sees Hulot off on his holidays in a rickety old car to the beach, we get to see him striding around the guest house, eating in the restaurant, taking sun on the beach — all very reminiscent of, and undoubtedly mined by, later British comedies like Fawlty Towers and Mr Bean. There’s an implicit contrast between Hulot’s backward ways and the big modern cars, private cabins, and antisocial behaviour of the aspirational holidaymakers. It all moves along in a very likeable way, with nice careful use of sound effects, creating a very quiet, almost contemplative, atmosphere in which the comedy unfolds.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jacques Tati | Writers Jacques Tati and Henri Marquet | Cinematographers Jacques Mercanton and Jean Mousselle | Starring Jacques Tati | Length 86 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 24 July 2016 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, December 2001)

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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.


Bathing Beauty (1944)

FILM REVIEW

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 (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 (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

Neptune's Daughter (1949)

On 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)
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 (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

Dangerous When Wet (1953)

Million 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)
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

Roman Holiday (1953)

It’s a classic trope, the fantasy of royalty cutting loose and partying with the plebs, like normal people. I’m not even sure if this was the original iteration, but you can’t possibly help but watch it 60 years on and think of A Royal Night Out (2015) or The Princess Diaries (2001) or the hundred other films of that ilk which share the theme, including Notting Hill (1999) which updates the formula from royalty to celebrity. Still, this one has Audrey Hepburn being utterly delightful as Princess Ann from some unspecified Ruritanian country (she’s convincly regal too, although she did have an aristocratic background, after all), and Gregory Peck being all solid and leading-man-like as American reporter Joe. They have an easy rapport as they spend the day together, which begins when he finds her the night before, curled up in the street sleeping, having snuck out of her comfy palatial digs, then makes the royal connection from a photo in the paper. I feel like most people probably already know this film far better than I, but suffice to say there’s a simple enjoyment to the everyday activities they cram in, going sightseeing, going out dancing, getting a haircut, and flirting. It’s a comfortable classic, and works well with the easy charisma of its stars and the photogenic quality of the setting.


FILM REVIEW
Director William Wyler | Writers Ian McLellan Hunter and John Dighton [and Dalton Trumbo, uncredited] | Cinematographers Henri Alekan and Franz Planer | Starring Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck | Length 118 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 12 December 2015

The Bigamist (1953)

Taking up some of the stylistic traits of the film noir, this early-50s film is from London-born actor/director Ida Lupino, and — I admit this is of quite incidental interest to most people I imagine — casts a number of actors who are originally English, not that you’d spot it. In any case, Lupino plays the femme fatale role, although the insight of the film is that it’s not quite so simple to categorise the women as simply free-spirited sexual adventuress Phyllis (Lupino) and frigid careerist businesswoman Eve (Joan Fontaine), though this is how the film sets them up initially. The title character is Harry, played by the solidly-built but slightly shambolic Edmond O’Brien, and if there’s obviously no surprise about his predicament, perhaps that’s because it’s not really about him. Finding himself sidelined in his own business by his more talented wife Eve, he embarks on a new life with Phyllis in Los Angeles while on the job as a travelling salesman. Class is enfolded into the mix, as Phyl (for short) leads a precarious existence of short-term work and unstable living conditions and relationship status. And if Eve is the one who’s hard done by, there’s a strange bond between her and Phyl by the film’s close. It may finish with a moral pronouncement from on high (a literal judge in a courtroom), but the messy tangle of relationships promises to carry on beyond the film’s snappy running time.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Director Ida Lupino | Writers Collier Young, Larry Marcus and Lou Schor | Cinematographer George E. Diskant | Starring Edmond O’Brien, Ida Lupino, Joan Fontaine, Edmund Gwenn | Length 80 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Thursday 5 November 2015

Criterion Sunday 36: Le Salaire de la peur (The Wages of Fear, 1953)

You can understand, watching it, why The Wages of Fear is so well-regarded as a thriller, but it takes its time to get going. For about the first hour, the film is firmly engaged in scene setting, flitting amongst its close-knit group of down-on-their-luck European grifters stranded in a remote Mexican town where the only way in and out is an airfield. Their problem is that they don’t have enough money for an airfare and the only local source of jobs is a US-run oil corporation that shuts itself away from the rest of the squalid town and doesn’t want anything to do with the local population. A leader of sorts emerges with Frenchman Mario (Yves Montand), who is soon joined by the older Jo (Charles Vanel), hopping off a plane hoping for a break, but quickly finding himself stuck like the others he meets. Director Clouzot picked a remote French location to film, near the Spanish border (so the voices heard are as likely to be Spaniards as Mexicans), but he sets up his one-horse town well, with some scene-setting lifted almost wholesale by Sam Peckinpah for The Wild Bunch (kids taunting some bugs in the first shot, for example). The sense of mud and heat is pervasive and intense, so only when this has had a chance to really sink in does Clouzot and his fellow screenwriter (his brother, using a pseudonym) introduce the plot: some locals are needed by the American company to convey a dangerous shipment of nitroglycerine in trucks across the mountains to put out an oil fire. It’s a simple setup and the kind of thing that’s influenced generations of stripped-down action films: you’ve got the omnipresent danger (here, the nitroglycerine) hanging like Damocles’ sword, and you have an equally combustible mix of strong-willed personalities (or weak-willed ones, as Jo increasingly turns out to be). But in allowing some time to set his scene, the film ends up being something of an attack on the futility of capitalism — a society in which its inhabitants are trapped by a lack of money, and whose only salaried opportunity to escape is almost literally rigged to kill them. Whatever happens, no one wins: such are, after all, the wages of fear.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Henri-Georges Clouzot | Writers Henri-Georges Clouzot and Jean Clouzot [as “Jérôme Géronimi”] (based on the novel by Georges Arnaud) | Cinematographer Armand Thirard | Starring Yves Montand, Charles Vanel | Length 147 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Wednesday 13 May 2015