Sunday, December 20, 2009

Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

It's that time of year again - the third annual Movietone News Christmas Movie post, and this time I thought that, rather than highlight just one or a few titles, I'd give my complete rundown of my favourite Christmas classics.

Gathered below are the essential ingredients for a magical cinematic Christmas. I would suggest that first you stop off for a glass of something warming at Harmonie House, before making your way through the snow to Robby's, where the finest seasonal fare is available all year round, and then settle down by a roaring fire to join me in any of the following.

I should stop here and point out that, for me, the season of goodwill is synonymous first and foremost with the Marx Brothers and Hammer Horror films, purely because of the joyous accident of my first encountering both at Christmastime. So if like me you are fortunate enough that your first glimpse of Santa instantly gets you thinking about Monkey Business or The Curse of Frankenstein, then do please join me here with the Brothers and here with Chris and Peter.

Now, in previous years I've chosen my favourite movie versions of Dickens's Christmas Carol: let me again draw your attention to R.W. Paul's version - a thing of true primitive beauty... (see here), and highlighted a true masterpiece of sleazy British horror tat (here).

Looking back over past posts, however, I find that I've never written anything about It's a Wonderful Life. Not that there's much left to be said, even so: everyone knows it, everyone knows what's great about it, everyone knows the story of how if was little-favoured at first but became cherished on tv because it fell into public domain.
All I can add is that it's worth noting just how much of it takes place before Clarence turns up: like all Capra films it is structured in his patented unequal-thirds: first long and lazy, second snappy and magnificent, third unduly hurried. That it is his style seems inarguable - it transcends mere screenwriting credit. Not sure if it's a good thing or not: sometimes it works very well, sometimes - Mr Smith for instance - I really do find myself feeling a little short-changed by the haste with which it pays off our initial investment and says goodnight. Nonetheless, Wonderful Life is an interesting watch indeed if you imagine you have no idea of just what kind of a turn it's going to take at the halfway mark. Are we genuinely engrossed in Bailey's story, or are we just looking for the things Clarence will exploit when he finally shows? My own feeling is that the first half does contain some truly beautiful moments: the dance floor opening into a swimming pool, the scenes by the old house, in particular. It is precisely because we do feel we are watching a perfectly charming and satisfying film in its own right in this section that the finale plays as magnificently as it does. Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building and Loan!

Next, Jimmy Stewart takes us neatly to Bell, Book and Candle, a witchy comedy set in Greenwich Village, pairing Jimmy with Kim Novak for the second time in a year; and what a relief to see them having fun after Hitchcock's doomy, good-but-surely-not-as-great-as-they-all-claim Vertigo. This one feels a bit flabby like most late-fifties Hollywood, and certainly does not play as delightfully as Rene Clair's I Married a Witch, to which it looks back, or a really good episode of Bewitched, to which it looks forward. Where it scores over both however is in atmosphere, both witchy atmsophere and Christmassy atmosphere. It looks amazing, as does Novak, in beatnik fashions and frequently barefoot. But what is it with her and those drawn-on eyebrows? She looks like Mal Arnold in Blood Feast.
It also has a great support cast, including Elsa Lanchester as the obligatory dizzy witch, kind of like Samantha's Aunt Clara, and a bongo-playing Jack Lemmon, just on the brink of stardom.
Lemmon takes us to probably my favourite Christmas movie of all: The Apartment (which I discuss here). The combination of mordant, cynical observation and tremendous heart makes this one just about unique, with one of those all-time great movie endings on which Wilder so prided himself, and his films' customary attractions of flawless script and performances. He also has Fred MacMurray play a bastard for the second time: no other director saw beyond his lovable goofy exterior to show us what he might really be capable of. Jack as CC Baxter is the kind of role Fred might have played in the thirties; it brilliantly underlines the point that Mr Sheldrake is what Baxter might so easily turn into. But he doesn't, thanks to Shirley's radiant Miss Kubelik and Wilder's unwavering belief in the redemptive power of empathy and compromise.
Incredibly, I watched White Christmas for only the second time in my life this year. (I discussed my first encounter with it here).
No room for Wilder's cynicism here, not even Capra's hesitant social realism - but it's no great loss with this cast and these songs, such painterly Technicolor and Mary Wickes hanging about on the margins.
I always thought that Holiday Affair and I had a strictly private love affair: it's reassuring to see from the blogosphere that this unusually flab-free Howard Hughes delicacy is steadily growing in popularity and acclaim. With a bit of luck we could be in on the birth of a Wonderful Life-style renaissance, with future generations noting with glib condescension that there really was a time when nobody seemed much to care for it at at all. It certainly deserves it: it is that good. Yes it's basically cute, but there are some real surprises and great moments - like Robert Mitchum and Wendell Corey making antagonistic small-talk while Janet Leigh is out of the room, and the bombshell moment when Mitchum interrupts Christmas dinner to say that Leigh should leave her fiancee and marry him. The cast are great: Leigh was never prettier or more charming, Mitch is delightfully warm and laid back, Corey is, as ever, quietly faultless. In general, this is a sharper, infinitely more rewarding watch than any reference book currently allows.
And here is Janet to wish you all a cool yule:
.And, apropos of nothing much, other than the fact that it's my blog and I can basically do what I like, here's Fay Wray doing likewise:
.And finally, two films that are not explicitly Christmassy, but for some reason always seem to me suffused with a distinctly seasonal kind of magic. In some ways even more that the above, they suggest themselves to me as the perfect accompaniment to a Christmas afternoon. Coincidentally, they both star Joseph Cotten.
The Magnificent Ambersons (which I discuss in detail here) is many things. For one, it has always seemed to me by far Orson Welles's best film, studio interference notwithstanding. It is an immensely involving, moving and good-hearted meditation on the relentless march of time, and just the thing for pondering on with memories to the fore and familiar things all around. There is also, of course, that superb snowy sequence to underline the seasonal mood.
And then there's Portrait of Jennie. It's the essence of Hollywood at its most perfect: its every asset and its every excess; the most dazzling, absurd, delirious, intense and beautiful product ever of its golden age, when transcendence was achieved so simply they took it for cheap sentiment. None of this makes sense, and all of it distills emotion with the knowing mass-appeal of a Hallmark card. But was there ever a film more haunting, beautiful to look at, and moving, despite your every fibre screaming that it is sheer manipulative gibberish...?
Jennifer Jones, unconvincing but mesmerising, Ethel Barrymore, charm distilled, the great David Wayne, and Cecil Kellaway, the plain-clothes Santa. The visual texture. The music. That finale. That strange song...
Where I come from nobody knows and where I am going everything goes. The wind blows, the sea flows, nobody knows. And where I am going, nobody knows...
There has never been another film quite like it. If you haven't seen it, or haven't seen it lately, give it a try this Christmas.
.Well, that's it. Movietone News is shutting down now for Christmas. Thanks for all your support. See you next year.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

We all have an important job to do

This Christmas sees the release of what looks set fair to be the most appalling film ever made by humans.
It's called Sherlock Holmes.
Perhaps you recognise the name.
Perhaps you may have read, or seen, something of the title character before.
Well, if you want future generations to have similar recollections it is vital that you stand up and say enough is enough. No longer can the talentless squirts of modern filmdom piss on the heritage they plunder without being answerable to we, its self-elected custodians.
Because if this monstrosity is allowed to pass unimpeded into the culture then nothing and nobody we love will ever be safe again.
You must do everything in your power to ensure that this film fails. But not just fail: it is not enough that it does disappointing business. It must belly-flop. It must disappear through a crack in the earth, leaving just a faint, foul smell where once it wallowed. It must make Ishtar, Waterworld and Hudson Hawk look like respectable minor hits.
If you have any regard whatsoever for the notion that cinema has a duty to show at least a soupcon of respect for its literary sources; if you have any affection whatever for Sherlock Holmes and his cinematic legacy, then please - do not under any circumstances see this film. Plead with everyone you know to do likewise. I don't care if Jude Law does things to you. Do not go even out of morbid curiosity. Every box-office dollar, every filled seat counts. You wouldn't have voted for Hitler out of morbid curiosity as to what the Third Reich might actually, rather than theoretically, have been like. Theoretically was plenty enough.
But if you have the least doubt, take a look at this trailer. It's all you need.
Admittedly the omens look good. The retakes were done in response to bad preview feedback, and if it's disaster we're after there are few safer hands for it to be in, directorially speaking, than Guy Ritchie's. But hope is not enough.
Let's go to work.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Over the top...

Thanks so much to Meredith, of the always fascinating L.A. La Land (go here for one of the best things I've ever read about poor, lovely Elizabeth Short) who has bestowed an Over The Top Blog Award upon Movietone.
Assuming that being over the top is a good thing in this context, we are pleased as punch to accept.
However, the rules insist that I answer a series of questions with only one word each.
So here they are without any further ado...
Where is your phone? Banished
Your hair? Departing
Your Mother? Indefatigable
Your Father? Consummate
Your favourite food? Curry
Your dream last night? Indescribable
Your favourite drink? Vino
Your dream/goal? Self-sufficiency
What room are you in? Bedroom
Your hobby? Agoraphobia
Your fear? Stamp-collecting
Where were you last night? Whitechapel
Something that you’re not? Guilty
Muffins? Where?
Wishlist item? Calabash
Where did you grow up? Plymouth
Last thing you did? Fret
What are you wearing? Out
Your TV?
Your pets? Forthcoming
Friends? Tolerant
Your life? Self-parodying
Your mood? Apprehensive
Missing someone? Everyone
Something you’re not wearing? Well
Your favourite store? Here
Your favourite colour? Plaid
When was the last time you laughed? Today
The last time you cried?
Your best friend? Imaginary
One place that you go to over and over? Freedonia
Facebook? Raincheck
Favourite place to eat? Mouth
Now to pass the award on... As always, I shall refrain from tagging anyone else tagged by Meredith at the same time as me - but that still gives me license to pester Monty, Lolita, Mykal, Maggie, Elizabeth, Amanda and Casey.
(I'll wait and see how many of them spot their names before sending out invites...)
If any of you'd rather not spoil the purity of your most excellent sites by indulging in the questionnaire, feel free to either a) post your responses in the comments below, or b) tell me to take a running jump and simply accept the award with no strings attached. (Not sure if I'm allowed to do that, but what the hell. All the same, I'd love to see what you come up with...)
Thanks to you all, and thanks again, Meredith.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Six reasons to be grateful for Richard Todd

Richard Todd, the great British actor who for some reason tends to get left out of the shuffle whenever the talk drifts to great British actors, died this week at the age of ninety.
Here are six great reasons for remembering him - starting with the one we're all agreed on.
1. He was Guy Gibson in The Dam Busters (1955).
Todd is most remembered for his stoic heroes in British war films, and this one remains among the most popular as well as famous of its breed, in part because of the manner in which it celebrates both sides of the British war effort: invention, represented by Michael Redgrave’s eccentric inventor Barnes Wallis who devised the revolutionary bouncing bomb, and bravery, represented by Todd’s Wing Commander Gibson who, together with the men of 617 Squadron, was entrusted with the task of using it to flood the Ruhr dams and destroy the adjoining Nazi industrial complexes.
Viewed dispassionately today, the dramatic sweep of the film is perhaps fatally compromised by the transparency of its climactic special effects, but the final scene in which Redgrave and Todd meet after the mission - the former confessing that had he known how many pilots would not return he would never have instigated it, and the latter assuring him that not one of the lost men would have turned it down had they known the outcome - remains quietly moving in the best British manner, and is an acting triumph for Todd every bit as much as Redgrave.
And speaking of the war...
2. Like my grandfather, he served in the British 6th Airborne Division during World War 2, and was one of the first British officers to land in Normandy on D-Day.
Interestingly, in the film The Longest Day he played the officer in charge of my grandfather's mission: the taking and securing of Pegasus Bridge, a vital arterial link between the coast and Normandy proper. In reality, he was the officer from his battalion who made contact with the character he plays in the film. As historian Stephen Ambrose puts it in his book on the events of that day: if the Pegasus Bridge mission had failed, D-Day would have failed. So thanks, grandad; thanks, Richard.
3. He's brilliant in Never Let Go (1958).
.Anyone who doubts his range should seek out this sleeping gem among sleazy British crime films. Todd, with Morrissey quiff and glasses, plays a meek and wimpy perfume rep, kicked out by his smug boss after he misses too many appointments with clients. In order to be more reliable he pours all the money he has into a Ford Anglia, only to have it stolen by a teen gang under orders from a sadistic minor gangster played, equally well and against type, by Peter Sellers. After the police prove useless, he slowly finds the courage to take the matter into his own hands, and the surprisingly brutal film ends with a massive fist fight between the two main characters that leaves Todd looking like a crushed grape, but the victor. It's incredibly stirring and compelling stuff that failed at the time simply because it was ahead of its time. It not only anticipates Straw Dogs, but pretty comprehensively cocks its leg over it too.
4. He worked with Bette Davis, Dietrich, Hitchcock, Michael Winner and Pete Walker.
He was Sir Walter to Bette's Virgin Queen, and co-star with Dietrich in Stage Fright, perhaps Hitchcock's least-seen film of all. Winner cast him in his fascinating Big Sleep remake, and the best of his two jobs for Walker is as the wily publisher in House of the Long Shadows, the maestro's delightful take on Biggers's Seven Keys to Baldpate. Though remembered almost solely for its historic teaming of Lee, Price, Cushing and Carradine, Todd is just as important an ingredient, and he carries the film in its opening scenes, before the horror boys show up.
5. He did odd stuff, too.
However associated he may be with berets and stiff upper lips, there's no getting around the fact that he was happy to report for duty in some very strange places. Pete Walker is far from the most disreputable name he worked for.
He's Sir Basil in Harry Alan Towers's weirdsville remake of Dorian Gray, takes a small part in that strange Dennis Hopper film among strange Dennis Hopper films Bloodbath, and an unbilled cameo in Blood Bath, this time the 1966 Jack Hill and Stephanie Rothman horror film. He's also in Number One of the Secret Service, one of Lindsay Shonteff's excruciating James Bond spoofs, and the man who chops his wife up and wraps up the bits in brown paper, only to be killed by them when they come supernaturally back to life, in Asylum.
And one perhaps better forgotten:
6. He was the original choice for James Bond, but had to turn the role down due to other commitments.
The thought of this great, ideally suited star in Dr No, in place of that oaf Connery, is almost too heartbreaking to contemplate.
.Richard Todd, 1919 - 2009