Sunday, 24 April 2011

The 202 greatest performances of all time

... well, 202 of my favourites, anyway. It was supposed to be 100 male and 100 female, but there's always one it hurts too much to leave out - in this case one of each. I put this together for a poll over at Empire Online, and thought: 'Well, why not tack it up here as well?' I've added links to those films reviewed on the site.

Your comments are very welcome below. Put together your own top 20s, if you like. Or top 21s.


1. Emily Watson as Bess McNeill in Breaking the Waves (Lars von Trier, 1996)
2. Wendy Hiller as Major Barbara Undershaft in Major Barbara (Gabriel Pascal, 1941)
3. Barbara Stanwyck as Lee Leander in Remember the Night (Mitchell Leisen, 1940)
4. Anjelica Huston as Gretta Conroy in The Dead (John Huston, 1987)
5. Lillian Gish as Letty in The Wind (Victor Sjöström, 1928)
6. Dorothy McGuire as Helen Capel in The Spiral Staircase (Robert Siodmak, 1945)
7. Dorothy McGuire as Katie Nolan in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Elia Kazan, 1945)
8. Fairuza Balk as Shade in Gas Food Lodging (Allison Anders, 1992)
9. Judy Holliday as Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday (George Cukor, 1950)
10. Thora Birch as Enid Coleslaw in Ghost World (Terry Zwigoff, 2001)

11. Peggy Ann Garner as Francie Nolan in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Elia Kazan, 1945)
12. Beulah Bondi as Mrs. Sargent in Remember the Night (Mitchell Leisen, 1940)
13. Thelma Ritter as Moe Williams in Pickup on South Street (Samuel Fuller, 1953)
14. Barbara Stanwyck as Sugarpuss O'Shea in Ball of Fire (Howard Hawks, 1941)
15. Kate Hepburn as Terry Randall in Stage Door (Gregory La Cava, 1937)
16. Jean Arthur as Babe Bennett in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (Frank Capra, 1936)
17. Lillian Gish as Anna Moore in Way Down East (D. W. Griffith, 1920)
18. Myrna Loy as Nora Charles in six films (1934-47)
19. Hayley Mills as Kathy Bostock in Whistle Down the Wind (Bryan Forbes, 1961)
20. Judy Garland as Vicki Lester/Esther Blodgett in A Star Is Born (George Cukor, 1954)

21. Jane Darwell as Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath (John Ford, 1940)
22. Samantha Morton as Morvern Callar in Morvern Callar (Lynne Ramsay, 2002)
23. Emily Lloyd as Lynda Mansell in Wish You Were Here (David Leland, 1987)
24. Samantha Morton as Hattie in Sweet and Lowdown (Woody Allen, 1999)
25. Norma Shearer as Kathi in The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (Ernst Lubitsch, 1927)
26. Lillian Gish as Rachel Cooper in The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955)
27. Myrna Loy as Connie Allenbury in Libeled Lady (Jack Conway, 1936)
28. Carey Mulligan as Kathy H in Never Let Me Go (Mark Romanek, 2010)
29. Joan Fontaine as Lisa Berndle in Letter from an Unknown Woman (Max Ophüls, 1948)
30. Kate Hepburn as Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor, 1940)

31. Wendy Hiller as Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion (Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard, 1938)
32. Cynda Williams as Fantasia/Lila in One False Move (Carl Franklin, 1992)
33. Lili Taylor as Rose in Dogfight (Nancy Savoca, 1991)
34. Leslie Caron as Lili Daurier in Lili (Charles Walters, 1953)
35. Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa Lund in Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942)
36. Frances Fuller as Amy Lind Grimes in One Sunday Afternoon (Stephen Roberts, 1933)
37. Dorothy McGuire as Laura Pennington in The Enchanted Cottage (John Cromwell, 1945)
38. Michelle Rodriguez as Diana Guzman in Girlfight (Karyn Kusama, 2000)
39. Jane Horrocks as LV in Little Voice (Mark Herman, 1998)
40. Vivien Leigh as Myra in Waterloo Bridge (Mervyn LeRoy, 1940)

41. Shirley MacLaine as Fran Kubelik in The Apartment (Billy Wilder, 1960)
42. Anna Lee as Mac in The Crimson Kimono (Samuel Fuller, 1959)
43. Fairuza Balk as Dorothy Gale in Return to Oz (Walter Murch, 1985)
44. Wendy Hiller as Pat Cooper in Separate Tables (Delbert Mann, 1958)
45. Emily Watson as Jackie in Hilary and Jackie (Anand Tucker, 1998)
46. Ginger Rogers as Jean Maitland in Stage Door (Gregory La Cava, 1937)
47. Emily Watson as Martha Stanley in The Proposition (John Hillcoat, 2005)
48. Lizabeth Scott as Antonia 'Toni' Marachek in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (Lewis Milestone, 1946)
49. Jean Arthur as Clarissa Saunders in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Frank Capra, 1939)
50. Mia Farrow as Hannah in Hannah and Her Sisters (Woody Allen, 1986)

51. Emily Watson as Ruby Compton in Wah-Wah (Richard E. Grant, 2005)
52. Julie Walters as Rita Susan White in Educating Rita (Lewis Gilbert, 1983)
53. Margaret Sullavan as Luisa 'Lu' Ginglebuscher in The Good Fairy (William Wyler, 1935)
54. Kate Hepburn as Ethel Thayer in On Golden Pond (Mark Rydell, 1980)
55. Björk as Selma Ježková in Dancer in the Dark (Lars von Trier, 2000)
56. Patricia Neal as Alma Brown in Hud (Martin Ritt, 1963)
57. Judy Holliday as Doris Attinger in Adam's Rib (George Cukor, 1949)
58. María Casares as Nathalie in Les enfants du paradis (Marcel Carné, 1945)
59. Claudette Colbert as Mrs. Anne Hilton in Since You Went Away (John Cromwell, 1944)
60. Emily Watson as Lena Leonard in Punch-Drunk Love (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2002)

61. Jean Arthur as Miss Nora Shelley in The Talk of the Town (George Stevens, 1942)
62. Ida Lupino as Lana Carlsen in They Drive by Night (Raoul Walsh, 1940)
63. Eileen Brennan as Genevieve in The Last Picture Show (Peter Bogdanovich, 1971)
64. Jobyna Ralston as Mary Powers in The Kid Brother (Ted Wilde and J. A. Howe, 1928)
65. Sarah Bolger as Christy in In America (Jim Sheridan, 2003)
66. Mia Farrow as Cecilia in The Purple Rose of Cairo (Woody Allen, 1985)
67. Mia Farrow as Tina Vitale in Broadway Danny Rose (Woody Allen, 1984)
68. Andrea Leeds as Kaye Hamilton in Stage Door (Gregory La Cava, 1937)
69. Jane Wyman as Helen St. James in The Lost Weekend (Billy Wilder, 1945)
70. Glenda Farrell as Missouri Martin in Lady for a Day (Frank Capra, 1933)

71. Debbie Reynolds as Tambrey ‘Tammy’ Tyree in Tammy and the Bachelor (Joseph Pevney, 1957)
72. Jean Arthur as Marian Starrett in Shane (George Stevens, 1953)
73. Audrey Tautou as Amélie Poulain in Le fabuleux destin d' Amélie Poulain (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001)
74. Kate Hepburn as Linda Seton in Holiday (George Cukor, 1938)
75. Audrey Hepburn as Princess Ann in Roman Holiday (William Wyler, 1953)
76. Halle Berry as Nina in Bulworth (Warren Beatty, 1998)
77. Deborah Kerr as Edith Hunter/Barbara Wynne/Johnny Cannon in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1943)
78. Giulietta Masina as Maria 'Cabiria' Ceccarelli in Le notti di Cabiria (Federico Fellini, 1957)
79. Sissy Spacek as Margie Fogg in Affliction (Paul Schrader, 1997)
80. Katrin Cartlidge as Sophie in Naked (Mike Leigh, 1993)

81. Helena Bonham Carter as Kate Croy in The Wings of the Dove (Iain Softley, 1997)
82. Arletty as Garance in Les enfants du paradis (Marcel Carné, 1945)
83. Kristin Scott Thomas as Katharine Clifton in The English Patient (Anthony Minghella, 1996)
84. Deanna Durbin as Penny Craig in Three Smart Girls (Henry Koster, 1936)
85. Doris Day as Ruth Etting in Love Me or Leave Me (Charles Vidor, 1955)
86. Mary Astor as Mrs. Nancy Gibson in Smart Woman (Gregory La Cava, 1931)
87. Maria Falconetti in La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928)
88. Shirley Temple as Bridget 'Brig' Hilton in Since You Went Away (John Cromwell, 1944)
89. Gloria Grahame as Laurel Gray in In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray, 1950)
90. Margaret O’Brien as Beth in Little Women (Mervyn LeRoy, 1949)

91. Tatum O'Neal as Addie Loggins in Paper Moon (Peter Bogdanovich, 1973)
92. Olivia de Havilland as Catherine Sloper in The Heiress (William Wyler, 1949)
93. Melanie Griffith as Lulu/Audrey Hankel in Something Wild (Jonathan Demme, 1986)
94. Bonita Granville as Nancy Drew in four films (1938-39)
95. Lena Horne as Georgia Brown in Cabin in the Sky (Vincente Minnelli, 1943)
96. Dianne Wiest as Stephanie in September (Woody Allen, 1987)
97. Una Merkel as Petunia Pratt/Cobb in The Cat's Paw (Sam Taylor, 1934)
98. Peggy Dow as Miss Kelly in Harvey (Henry Koster, 1950)
99. Greta Garbo as Marguerite Gautier in Camille (George Cukor, 1936)
100. Hilary Swank as Brandon Teena in Boys Don't Cry (Kimberly Peirce, 1999)

101. Joan Leslie as Pat Dixon in Thank Your Lucky Stars (David Butler, 1943)

Most appearances: Emily Watson (5); Jean Arthur (4); Wendy Hiller; Dorothy McGuire; Lillian Gish; Mia Farrow (all 3).



1. Henry Fonda as Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath (John Ford, 1943)
2. Jason Robards, Jr. as Murray in A Thousand Clowns (Fred Coe, 1965)
3. Jason Robards, Jr. as Theodore 'Hickey' Hickman in The Iceman Cometh (TVM, Sidney Lumet, 1960)
4. Roger Livesey in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1943)
5. Richard Burton as Thomas Becket in Becket (Peter Glenville, 1964)
6. James Dunn as Johnny Nolan in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Elia Kazan, 1945)
7. Stephen Rea as Fergus in The Crying Game (Neil Jordan, 1992)
8. Fred MacMurray as John Sargent in Remember the Night (Mitchell Leisen, 1940)
9. David Thewlis as Johnny in Naked (Mike Leigh, 1993)
10. Jason Robards as Jamie Tyrone in Long Day's Journey Into Night (Sidney Lumet, 1962)

11. Jack Nicholson as Robert Eroica Dupea in Five Easy Pieces (Bob Rafelson, 1970)
12. Robert Mitchum as Jeff McCloud in The Lusty Men (Nicholas Ray, 1952)
13. Lee Tracy as Alvin Roberts in Blessed Event (Roy Del Ruth, 1932)
14. Ben Johnson as Sam the Lion in The Last Picture Show (Peter Bogdanovich, 1971)
15. Balthazar* in Au hasard Balthazar (Robert Bresson, 1966)
16. Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954)
17. Peter O'Toole as T. E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962)
18. Salvatore Cascio as Salvatore 'Totò' Di Vita – child in Cinema Paradiso: Director's Cut (Giuseppe Tornatore, 1988/2002)
19. Jacques Perrin as Salvatore 'Totò' Di Vita – adult in Cinema Paradiso (Giuseppe Tornatore, 1988/2002)
20. Charlie Chaplin as The Tramp in countless films (1914-36)

21. Richard Farnsworth as Alvin in The Straight Story (David Lynch, 1999)
22. Klaus Kinski as Don Lope de Aguirre in Aguirre, the Wrath of God (Werner Herzog, 1972)
23. Matthew Macfadyen as Paul Prior in In My Father's Den (Brad McGann, 2004)
24. Christian McKay as Orson Welles in Me and Orson Welles (Richard Linklater, 2008)
25. River Phoenix as Mike Waters in My Own Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant, 1991)
26. Lee Marvin in Monte Walsh (William A. Fraker, 1970)
27. Jean-Pierre Barrault as Jean-Baptiste Debureau in Les enfants du paradis (Marcel Carné, 1945)
28. Spencer Tracy as Joe Wilson in Fury (Fritz Lang, 1936)
29. Henry Fonda as Norman Thayer, Jr. in On Golden Pond (Mark Rydell, 1981)
30. Leslie Howard as Basil Underwood in It's Love I'm After (Archie Mayo, 1937)

31. William Holden as Max Schumacher in Network (Sidney Lumet, 1976)
32. Cary Grant as Walter Burns in His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940)
33. Jack Lemmon as Shelley Levine in Glengarry Glen Ross (James Foley, 1992)
34. Joel McCrea as Steve Judd in Ride the High Country (Sam Peckinpah, 1962)
35. Jimmy Stewart as Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey (Henry Koster, 1950)
36. Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)
37. Lee Tracy as President Art Hockstader in The Best Man (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1964)
38. James Cagney in as Rocky Sullivan in Angels with Dirty Faces (Michael Curtiz, 1938)
39. James Murray as John in The Crowd (King Vidor, 1928)
40. Monty Clift as George Eastman in A Place in the Sun (George Stevens, 1951)

41. Conrad Veidt as Gwynplaine in The Man Who Laughs (Paul Leni, 1928)
42. John Wayne as Ethan Edwards in The Searchers (John Ford, 1956)
43. Harry Dean Stanton as Travis in Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders, 1984)
44. Lew Ayres as Paul Bäumer in All Quiet on the Western Front (Lewis Milestone, 1930)
45. Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)
46. William Powell as Nick Charles in six films (1934-47)
47. Marlon Brando as Ken in The Men (Fred Zinnemann, 1950)
48. River Phoenix as Danny Pope/Michael Manfield in Running on Empty (Sidney Lumet, 1988)
49. Robert Mitchum as Eddie 'Fingers' Coyle in The Friends of Eddie Coyle (Peter Yates, 1973)
50. Chris Eigeman as Nick Smith in Metropolitan (Whit Stillman, 1990)

51. William Powell as George Carey/Larry Wilson in I Love You Again (W. S. Van Dyke II, 1940)
52. Frank Morgan as Dr. Buchanan Prescott in The Nuisance (Jack Conway, 1933)
53. Trevor Howard as Harry Scobie in The Heart of the Matter (George More O'Ferrall, 1953)
54. Henry Fonda as Gil Carter in The Ox-Bow Incident (William A. Wellman, 1943)
55. Gary Cooper as Dr. Lucius Griffith 'Biff' Grimes in One Sunday Afternoon (Stephen Roberts, 1933)
56. Gary Cooper as Prof. Bertram Potts in Ball of Fire (Howard Hawks, 1941)
57. Keye Luke as Lee Chan in 12 films (1935-49)
58. Gary Cooper as Marshal Will Kane in High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952)
59. Chester Morris as Boston Blackie in 14 films (1941-49)
60. Kieran Culkin as Igby in Igby Goes Down (Burr Steers, 2002)

61. Buster Keaton as the projectionist/Sherlock, Jr. in Sherlock, Jr. (Buster Keaton, 1924)
62. River Phoenix as Chris Chambers in Stand by Me (Rob Reiner, 1986)
63. Steve Buscemi as Tommy in Trees Lounge (Steve Buscemi, 1996)
64. Fred Astaire as Jerry Travers in Top Hat (Mark Sandrich, 1935)
65. Spencer Tracy as John J. Macreedy in Bad Day at Black Rock (John Sturges, 1955)
66. Walter Brennan as Kris Barden in Blood on the Moon (Robert Wise, 1948)
67. Kirk Douglas as Col. Dax in Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick, 1957)
68. Dirk Bogarde as Hugo Barret in The Servant (Joseph Losey, 1963)
69. Peter Lorre as Hans Beckert in M (Fritz Lang, 1931)
70. Gregory Peck as Jimmy Ringo in The Gunfighter (Henry King, 1950)

71. Alastair Sim as Hawtrey Murington in Lady Godiva Rides Again (Frank Launder, 1951)
72. Lew Ayres as Ned Seton in Holiday (George Cukor, 1938)
73. John Garfield as Charley Davis in Body and Soul (Robert Rossen, 1947)
74. Johnny Mills as Lt. Col. Basil Barrow in Tunes of Glory (Ronald Neame, 1960)
75. Al Pacino as Michael Corleone in The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972-4)
76. Jimmy Stewart as Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Frank Capra, 1939)
77. Mickey Rooney as Homer Macauley in The Human Comedy (Clarence Brown, 1943)
78. Jean Gabin as Jean in Le quai des brumes (Marcel Carné, 1938)
79. Robert Williams as Stew Smith in The Platinum Blonde (Frank Capra, 1931)
80. Warner Oland as Charlie Chan in 16 films (four of them now lost) (1931-37)

81. Eddie Bracken as Woodrow Truesmith in Hail the Conquering Hero (Preston Sturges, 1944)
82. Tom Courtenay as Colin Smith in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (Tony Richardson, 1962)
83. Takashi Shimura as Kanji Watanabe in Ikiru (Akira Kurosawa, 1952)
84. Fernando Ramos da Silva as Pixote in Pixote (Hector Babenco, 1981)
85. Nick Nolte as Wade Whitehouse in Affliction (Paul Schrader, 1997)
86. Monty Clift as Robert E. Lee Prewitt in From Here to Eternity (Fred Zinnemann, 1953)
87. Mark Ruffalo as Terry Prescott in You Can Count on Me (Kenneth Lonergan, 2000)
88. Robert Ryan as Larry Slade in The Iceman Cometh (John Frankenheimer, 1973)
89. Marcello Mastroianni as Matteo Scuro in Everybody's Fine (Giuseppe Tornatore, 1990)
90. Paul Newman as Hud Bannon in Hud (Martin Ritt, 1963)

91. Burt Lancaster as Dr. Archibald 'Moonlight' Graham in Field of Dreams (Phil Alden Robinson, 1989)
92. Gene Kelly as Jerry Mulligan in An American in Paris (Vincente Minnelli, 1951)
93. Frank McHugh as Erwin Trowbridge in Three Men on a Horse (no director credited, 1936)
94. Robert De Niro as Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy (Martin Scorsese, 1983)
95. Cary Grant as Jerry Warriner in The Awful Truth (Leo McCarey, 1937)
96. Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Brendan in Brick (Rian Johnson, 2005)
97. Bob Hoskins as George in Mona Lisa (Neil Jordan, 1986)
98. Jess Lee Brooks as the church preacher in Sullivan's Travels (Preston Sturges, 1941)
99. Sig Ruman as Col. Erhardt in To Be or Not to Be (Ernst Lubitsch, 1942)
100. Ralph Fiennes as Justin Quayle in The Constant Gardener (Fernando Meirelles, 2005)

101. Robert Mitchum as Jeff Bailey in Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947)

Most appearances: Henry Fonda; Jason Robards, Jr.; Gary Cooper; Marlon Brando; River Phoenix; Robert Mitchum (all 3).

There you go. Now it's your turn.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

The way it crumbles, cookie-wise - Reviews #64

"Shut up and deal."

The Apartment (Billy Wilder, 1960)

Mea culpa. That's Latin for "OK, a swift about-face coming up." I've really warmed to Jack Lemmon's performance here, the only aspect of this wondrous film that ever lodged in my critical craw. There is still that annoying bit where he sings the stupid song and does his nervous laugh as he's making the spaghetti, but that's really the only false note in a characterisation that sees his Buddy Baxter shift from neurotic nebbish to marvellous mensch as he casts off the shackles of corporate weaseldom. He's an ambitious, put-upon office worker whose journey up the greasy pole (that's not a euphemism) is quickened by lending his apartment to executives for their extra-curricular activities (that is a euphemism). Alas, his collaboration with all-time love-rat Fred MacMurray - superbly cast against type - means breaking his own heart, as the utter, utter bastard is getting it on with the love of Lemmon's life, sweet, bob-haired elevator girl Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine, giving the showing of a lifetime in an appealing but complex part).

I think there's an argument that this is Wilder's greatest film. The script and story, by the director and frequent later career co-writer I. A. L. Diamond, is remarkably original, both in its conception and execution, centring on several lengthy set-pieces that are like nothing ever seen before in American romantic comedy: the hero laboriously rescheduling a series of home-wrecking trysts, a suicide attempt and the subsequent rescue. It also features one of the best "trying on a bowler hat" sequences I've seen, part of a tradition begun by Cary Grant in The Awful Truth and continued by Giulietta Masina in La Strada and Gary Farmer in Dead Man. There are three scenes I particularly enjoyed. Fran's last-minute change of heart and Lemmon taking the flak (and two blows to the face) for her overdose are obvious sentimental high-spots, as lovely as anything you'll ever see. The other is the amazing first encounter between Lemmon and MacMurray, and Buddy's dawning realisation of exactly what it is his brazen boss is asking for. With measured desperation, MacMurray says he had been led to believe by Buddy's previous clients that the ambitious young buck was "alert, astute, and quite imaginative". "Oh," replies Lemmon. "Oh!" It's a brilliant comic two-hander.

Gloriously, every scene is packed with that kind of Lubitsch-y invention and innuendo, aided by some sublime running references. There's Buddy's reputation with his neighbours as a medical miracle, of course, due to the amount of drinking and shagging going on his apartment. And then there is the suffix "-wise", which begins as management speak, soundtracks absurdity and despondency, and winds up as romantic poetry. In the final minutes, warming to the idea that Buddy really, truly loves her, Fran's face breaks into an excited grin. "What's he got against you, anyway?" asks MacMurray, missing the point by several blocks. "I don't know," she replies, eyes shining, before plucking a cherished Buddy line from her memory. "I guess that's the way it crumbles, cookie-wise." (4)

See also: Like Lemmon? Then witness his star-making turns in It Should Happen to You, Phffft! and My Sister Eileen, via the medium of text. To read about his finest hour, mosey on over here.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

The making of Buster Keaton - Part One

Having received The Greatest Box-Set in the World (TM) from my girlfriend, I've embarked on a 32-film journey that is going to change my life for the better. I've seen all of Buster Keaton's 1920s films, but only a handful of those he made before, acting as sideman to Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, the rotund slapstick merchant whose career would soon be destroyed by Hollywood's first major scandal.

So, in order to trace his journey from bit-part molasses victim to the greatest visual comedian the movies have ever seen, I'm watching Buster's early shorts in order, starting with:

The Butcher Boy (Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle, 1917) - Not Neil Jordan's transcendent, blackly fascinating 1997 coming-of-age film, but Buster's first appearance on celluloid. He gets his straw boater full of molasses and his foot stuck to the floor of a grocery store, before helping the villain try to kidnap Arbuckle's girl. And for fans of the Great Stone Face, there's a little glimpse of the heroics to come, as he clambers onto some high shop shelves, then casually flings a plate at someone, as well as the chance to see him laugh (it's just after the guy next to him gets a faceful of flour). The film as a whole is a bit inconsistent - with an over-reliance on footage of Arbuckle skipping about dressed as a girl - but not bad. (2.5)

Next-up, he said with unerring prescience: The Rough House.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Paper Moon, Christmas noir and Dorothy McGuire's untouchable year - Reviews #63

I've been taking up a lot of your time lately, with my daily behemoths, so here's a lighter, briefer, more easily digestible sprint through my recent viewing. No, what's a mixed metaphor?

The Male Animal (Elliot Nugent, 1942) – Henry Fonda is a professor accused of radicalism, whose wife (Olivia de Havilland) may be about to desert him for all-American hunk of meat Jack Carson. This intelligent comedy, based on the play by Nugent and James Thurber, mixes farce, character comedy and social commentary, aided by a brilliant cast, with Fonda unquestionably the standout. It's also great fun to see the vanity-free Joan Leslie, fresh from Sergeant York, playing a knockabout supporting role as an ingénue with two boyfriends. She's as attractive as ever. (3.5)


Paper Moon (Peter Bogdanovich, 1973) – Superb, exquisitely-shot comedy, set during the Depression, about a conman (Ryan O'Neal) who takes care of a precocious, uber-wily nine-year-old (his real-life daughter Tatum, who's absolutely wonderful) and finds she quickly becomes part of the business. Still about as much fun as you can have with Ryan O'Neal. (4)


I, the Jury (Harry Essex, 1953) – I like everything about this movie: the title, the Christmas setting, the unrivalled atmosphere – as punchy, violent and relentless as film noir ever got – the performances (especially Biff Elliot as the thuggish Mike Hammer) and genre pioneer John Alton's sometimes spellbinding photography. Originally in 3D! (3.5)


Our Wife (John M. Stahl, 1941)
– Peculiar movie that begins as an affecting romantic comedy – a touch weightier than most of Melvyn Douglas's of this period and welcome for it – then turns into a drama about his new girlfriend Ruth Hussey trying to prove his ex-wife (naughty Ellen Drew) is faking paralysis to win him back. I know what you're thinking: yes, she does set the house on fire, though it's by accident. The acting's good, but the plotting goes a bit awry, as you might have guessed. Charles Coburn gets at least three of his lines wrong, the unprofessional old cove. (2.5)


The Enchanted Cottage (John Cromwell, 1945)
– I recently made a list of the 100 greatest female performances of all-time. Dorothy McGuire appeared twice in the top 10, for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and The Spiral Staircase, released the same year. This is the other film she made in 1945 and dang it to flippety heck (please excuse the profanity), if she isn't just as good here. The film is a magical romantic drama about her dowdy spinster (though you wouldn't really know it to look at her), finding love with flyer Robert Young in the magical cottage of the title, after he's disfigured in an accident. It's incredibly powerful and affecting and the performances are just amazing, particularly from McGuire (was there ever a more sensitive actress?) and Herbert Marshall, playing the lovers' confidant, a blind composer. The early scene where McGuire is turned down by a succession of soldiers at a canteen dance is just heartbreaking. (4)


Two Guys from Milwaukee (David Butler, 1946) – I really like these old Jack Carson-Dennis Morgan comedies, full of (dis)agreeable banter, movie in-jokes and cameos, and directed with a fine comic touch by Butler, who had helmed the pick of the Road films (Morocco) for Hope and Crosby. Here, Carson's a taxi driver who introduces Balkan prince Morgan to the delights of American society, including Joan Leslie. I could watch her all day. And often do. The script was co-written by I. A. L. Diamond, who co-wrote many of Wilder's finest. (3.5)


Après Vous (Pierre Salvadori, 2003) – This is a tremendously entertaining, frequently very funny comedy that builds on a pretty unpromising premise - a man saves a stranger from committing suicide and tries to help him get his life back on track - through inventive plotting, matter-of-fact characterisation and a wealth of great jokes. Daniel Auteuil shows an unexpected flair for being silly, at one point pretending to be a lobster. (3.5)


Dangerous Money (Terry O. Morse, 1946) - Sidney Toler's penultimate Chan at cheapo studio Monogram is uncharacteristically well-shot and relatively well-written, though sadly the wrap up - as in too many of these Poverty Row entries - doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Like the Fox entries Honolulu and Dead Men Tell, almost the whole thing takes place on a ship. Toler is reunited with his Number Two Son, Victor Sen Yung, for the first time since Castle in the Desert, even if half of Yung's dialogue is just him telling Willie Best to shut up. Dick Elliot does his usual "suspiciously avuncular Southerner" bit in support. (2)

Friday, 15 April 2011

Windy poplars and Alexis Smith's sponsored poutathon - Reviews #62

Anne of Windy Poplars (Jack Hively, 1940) - RKO's belated sequel to its 1934 success, Anne of Green Gables, is a very different film. That was enchanting Americana, slightly undone by budgetary constraints and pacing issues. This one's a well-mounted, stylishly-directed tale of small-town bigotry, with portions of gothicism, that benefits from its straightforward narrative and relatively short time-frame. Anne Shirley, who borrowed her screen name from her character in the first film, returns in the lead - a little more restrained, somewhat fuller of face - and nails the character once more. Her Anne arrives in a small town to find herself cast adrift by a wealthy, all-powerful clan of malicious gossips, headed up by Ethel Griffies. Luckily, she's got a cast of classic character actors on her side, including Henry Travers, Elizabeth Patterson and Slim Summerville. They really did assemble a quality ensemble for this one, even if some of the more timeless performers (Patterson) are neglected at the expense of some of the more annoying ones (Summerville). Anne's beau, Gilbert, is played by English-born Patric Knowles (a staple of '40s comedy-dramas), her next-door neighbour is the excellent Joan Carroll (later Meet Me in St. Louis' Agnes) and her most troublesome student is Marcia Mae Jones (of These Three and the Shirley Temple version of Heidi), while Clara Blandick and Alma Kruger are also on board, albeit with nothing to do.

Purists may be offended by the liberties taken with L. M. Montgomery's narrative - there's a different ending, while in the book Griffies' character is won over by Anne, rather than remaining pungently unrepentant - but it's highly entertaining and there are plenty of effective scenes. Some are touching, like Shirley and Collins' heart-to-hearts through a hole in the fence. And some are bloody terrifying, as Griffies morphs into a creepily friendly old dear to bat away Anne's heartfelt pleas for clemency. Perhaps the film didn't strictly need its melodramatic climax, but it's quite well-handled, particularly Travers' boat escape. Style-wise, it's not clear if RKO were getting in the swizzy equipment ahead of Orson Welles' magnum opus, Citizen Kane, but there are a couple of uncharacteristically swish camera moves here. One is the neat (if slightly fuzzy) crane shot as Anne walks towards Windy Poplars for the first time. The other is an Altman-esque tracking shot that adds immeasurably to the final scene, guiding us through the vivid tableaux of a small-town picnic, its dappling sunlight and rustic allure calling to mind Renoir's Partie de campagne. A memorable way to finish a very satisfying movie. (3)


The Chevaliers of Texas? Now that I would watch.

South of St. Louis (Ray Enright, 1949) – Well, that was disappointing. A strong cast, a potentially intriguing premise and the usual nifty Warner trappings are powerless in the face of a cliched, incredibly confusing script. So who did what now? There's a lot of stuff about Civil War gun-running; that could have been interesting. And Mexico. And there's some kind of double-dealing, but I couldn't say exactly what. Why are those rival soldiers wandering about in supposedly secure areas? Where did those phony uniforms come from? Who the hell are those guys? Where's the script editor gone? Oh, you're just copying out bits of The Roaring Twenties now, are you? It's fun to see Victor Jory as a filthy, amoral pillager patterned about William Quantrill - he usually played suave, shaven villains - while lust interest Alexis Smith appears to be in a permanent state of arousal, but it's not enough. Not quite. (2)

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Buster Keaton, bouncing and why 'nice' is good - Reviews #61

It was my birthday this week and I was lucky enough to get Eureka's superlative Buster Keaton 1918-23 short films box-set from my girlfriend (is this the greatest thing ever released by anyone?), along with several '40s and '50s films. We started with:

Small Town Girl (László Kardos, 1953) is virtually unknown today, but two of its musical numbers have gone on to enjoy a life of their own. One is Ann Miller's 'I've Gotta Hear That Beat', included in the '70s smash-hit MGM compilation That's Entertainment!, which sees her prancing around a Broadway stage in that genuinely inimitable manner (and believe me, I've tried), accompanied by a string and brass section consisting only of arms thrust through the floor. The other, referenced in adverts and music videos and selected for That's Entertainment, Part II, is Bobby Van's spectacular four-minute jumping routine, in which he bounces around the whole town, shaking hands, banging dustbin lids and leaping over hedges. Beyond the simple joy of the spectacle (though it's worth noting that, rather subversively for the studio, Van is celebrating not having to get married), it's an impressive feat of endurance. Some of the takes within it are more than a minute long, which must have absolutely caned his knees and shins. With Tommy Rall and legendary choreographer Bob Fosse, Van was one of the trio of hoofers who lifted Kiss Me Kate from something very special to arguably the greatest MGM musical of them all, and he played a key part in another of my favourites, the blissfully entertaining college-set songfest The Affairs of Dobie Gillis, opposite Fosse and Debbie Reynolds.

Small Town Girl itself is fairly typical of producer Joe Pasternak's less thematically and creatively ambitious movies, which regarded small-town values as sacrosanct (as epitomised by Jane Powell), while somewhat contradictorily backing those who wanted to decamp to the big city to make something of themselves (like starry-eyed Broadway hopeful Van). The narrative is ye olde chestnut of a selfish urbanite - in this case boy racer Farley Granger, who passed away last month - getting trapped in an altogether more insular, innocent, slower-paced world, and being completely won over, thanks in part to a certain special lady. You think it might have been an influence on Doc Hollywood and Cars? I think you might be right.

Andre Previn famously said Pasternak had the "gift of mediocrity": never hitting the heights of a genius like Gene Kelly, but knowing what punters wanted and unfailingly giving it to them. I'm not sure that's quite true. Even aside from unassailable non-musical endeavours like Destry Rides Again and The Flame of New Orleans, several of the producer's films look simply wondrous today. Particularly Three Smart Girls - the intoxicatingly vibrant vehicle that launched teen singing sensation Deanna Durbin. And even after joining MGM in 1942 and slipping into a groove of fairly formulaic fare, Pasternak broke off to make trend-setting and artistically important smash-hits like The Great Caruso and Love Me or Leave Me, finding new protégés in Kathryn Grayson, Jane Powell and Mario Lanza, while giving Doris Day the opportunity - and the encouragement - to obliterate her screen image as vampy chanteuse Ruth Etting, opposite James Cagney's despicable crime lord, Moe Snyder.

Small Town Girl is one of Pasternak's safer endeavours; there are no morally repugnant gangsters on show here. It's a charming and straightforward musical full of pleasant characters, in which nothing too bad happens and the guy in need of reforming is just a bit of a flash git. To some, the existence of a film in which one of the characters has dimples, people go to church and no-one gets shot in the face is the gravest insult imaginable, and one they can only compute through a torrent of caustic cynicism. Let's ignore them, shall we? There's nothing wrong with 'nice' - on the screen or off it.

He's about to start bouncing again.

First up, the diminutive Powell is a very attractive lead on which to hang such a virtuous film. Sweet and engaging without being overly naive, she was a gifted soprano, a fine hoofer (though she only dances once in the film, presumably because she was pregnant during filming) and could spark off anyone. Even Granger, who's not really putting in the effort here. Considering his character is a smug, devilishly appealing six-footer with hazel eyes called Rick, I didn't warm to him at all. Not that it matters, though, thanks to Powell and a supporting cast that includes such welcome faces as S. Z. "Cuddles" Sakall (Carl, the waiter, in Casablanca), Robert Keith, Billie Burke, Chill Wills, King Kong screamer Fay Wray, two scintillating specialty dancers - Miller and Van - and Nat "King" Cole. Some of the comedy is disarmingly funny, especially the interplay between Sakall and screen son Van.

The numbers were staged by the incomparable Busby Berkeley, the chap who created those eye-popping kaleidoscopic dance numbers in 42nd Street and the Gold Diggers series, later adapting these into 'water ballet' set pieces for Esther Williams' aquatic escapades. In addition to Powell's enjoyable vocal performances, several with a backing choir, we get her routine with Van ('Fine, Fine, Fine'), his two solo spots - the bouncing and 'Take Me to Broadway', which is simply phenomenal, as he skips and taps around a grocery store - and Miller's shaky-shaky one-two of 'I've Gotta Hear That Beat' and the lyrically-nondescript 'My Gaucho'. Still not enough? Then here's Nat "King" Cole, somewhat incongruously slapped into the narrative with a syrupy-voiced nightclub rendering of 'My Flaming Heart'. Ooh yeah.

You can quibble with Small Town Girl's flimsy narrative - which has been utilised more effectively elsewhere - and look at Granger with a beseeching expression that says: "Come on, you were amazing in They Live by Night; could you try a bit harder?", but this is still top entertainment: an immersive diversion with a winning atmosphere and a stack of knockout musical numbers. So shut your face, Previn, you're mediocre*. (3.5)

*That's obviously not true, you're clearly very talented, but just give Pasternak a break.

The observant ones among you will notice that I just wrote 900 words about an old musical. I would apologise, but who's to say it won't happen again very soon?


I'm planning to watch the Buster box-set from start to finish, as that sounds like my idea of fun, but I couldn't help putting on Cops first, as I hadn't seen it in ages.

SHORT: Cops (Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton, 1922) is just brilliant. Once more, Buster is on the run, though unlike The Goat, the chase sequence is limited to the final five minutes. In that sense, this is more like one of his later features, with the acrobatics and extraordinary physical feats (grabbing a passing car and exiting horizontally, flipping along a perilous plank) offset by simple-but-sublime observational gags. Like stamping on a vase to make it fit into a suitcase. When we get to the frenetic finale, which has five or six of the best sight gags you'll ever see, there's an obvious parallel with Seven Chances, though in that masterpiece the identikit hordes pursuing our hero would be changed from thick cops to greedy would-be brides (see below). My favourite joke (and I'm sure this will definitely work just as well in text form) is the one that sees Buster trying to negotiate his way past a single cop, as we see dozens amassing behind him. As he turns around to face them, his only acknowledgement of their presence is to instantly change direction again, legging it off the right hand side of the screen. There's also an inspired twist ending, with the accent on weary resignation. If you want to be immediately converted to Buster's genius, check out The Goat, but if you're already a fan, this is yet more validation of your wise lifestyle choice. (4)

Take two: Buster pursued by excitable brides in Seven Chances.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Shelley Duvall, Charlie Kaufman and the movies' only amusing mambo - Reviews #60

"Actually, Shelley, I'm afraid this blog is non-smoking. Please could you put that out?"

Thieves Like Us (Robert Altman, 1974)
- Robert Altman was a busy boy in the early '70s, gleefully destroying the mythology of cherished genres with the enthusiasm of a little kid with a toy hammer. When he made a Western (McCabe & Mrs. Miller), his hero was a bearded pimp wandering a snow-covered land of Leonard Cohen songs and near-inaudible dialogue. When he turned his hand to film noir (The Long Goodbye), it was to introduce a scruffy, shambling Philip Marlowe whose messy hair matched his messy mind - and who couldn't even con his cat into eating an inferior brand of food. Thieves Like Us, released the next year, was something of a departure: less doggedly contrarian, with its aspects of realism allied to a certain heightenedness in style and atmosphere that smelled like folklore-fashioning.

The film is an adaptation of a 1937 Edward Anderson novel, filmed previously in 1949 as They Live by Night, director Nicholas Ray's brilliant debut and one of the most vivid evocations of young love - and Depression-era desperation - ever put on film. While the first movie made excuses for its desperate protagonist (Farley Granger), here murderer Keith Carradine has no regrets (except that he's never pitched pro-ball) and no intention of leaving behind his life of crime with two older desperadoes, despite having found love. This is a tougher film to fall for, then, but an easy one to admire.

Beginning with a shot of chain-gang convicts rumbling past on the rails, Altman effortlessly conjures a world of poverty, dirt and hopeless aspiration, shoving bottles of Coke into every scene and soundtracking his film with almost ever-present radios, playing light entertainment shows, crime serials, news broadcasts and political speeches. Occasionally it's too heavy-handed (the Romeo and Juliet sex scene, with its repetitive refrain), but more often it's perfectly-judged. The film follows the trio from the aftermath of their prison escape to their bullet-riddled fate, contrasting their presentation in the press with the less exciting, but more intriguing reality. In the midst of all that, there's time for numerous superb vignettes (the '36th robbery' being the highlight) and a touching romance between Carradine and gas-station attendant's daughter Shelley Duvall.

For those who only know Duvall as the perpetually-screaming would-be-victim of a large portion of ham (Jack Nicholson) in Kubrick's The Shining - which I seem to be alone in thinking is actually quite a poor film - this should be something of an eye-opener. For the first seven years of her career, Duvall appeared only in the films of Altman, evincing a rare kind of magic in her rich and sensitive characterisations. She's wonderful again here: needy, adoring and appealing. Her defining moment is a scene where a lesser performer could have blown it all, as she shifts from scorned fury ("You lied. Liar!") to longing and a desire for affirmation, cradling Carradine's head as he sits motionless on the bed. Carradine himself has been lacklustre more often than he's been impressive, but he did some of his best work for Altman (most notably in the following year's Nashville) and is extremely effective in a role that suits him well. John Schuck and Bert Remsen also do strong work as his partners in crime, though the pick of the supporting cast is Louise Fletcher (One Flew Over's Nurse Ratched), excellent as a put-upon relation sheltering the titular thieves.

In many ways, Altman was the key American director of the period, the one who both created and seized upon the unique opportunities of the period, realising the zeitgeist and pioneering its most important innovations, like overlapping dialogue and labyrinthine, novelistic narratives. Co-scripting here, he nails the period and the significance of this story, while throwing in some left-field touches that you'd swear were Coen brothers originals, leaving much of the main action sequences off the screen, and showing the crooks drawing straws to see who drives the getaway car... then deciding that's not going to work. It's a completely different take on Anderson's novel to They Live by Night, but just as incisive, rewarding and memorable. (4)


Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman, 2008) - So what's the purpose of existence? That's the jumping off point for Kaufman's vivid portrait of a theatre director's obsessive quest for love and truth-in-art; a film that's sprawling and meticulous, brilliant, maddening and desolate. Philip Seymour Hoffman is Caden Cotard, a gifted, complex, unhappy man who may be dying. Winning a "genius" grant from an arts board, he proceeds to mount a vast, unstaged, 17-year play about his own life, focusing on his relationships with an idolising actress (Michelle Williams), a cleaner as whom he himself poses (portrayed by an actress played by Dianne Wiest) and the love of his life (Samantha Morton), realised in the play by Emily Watson. Still with me? Oh well. Like the play-within-the-film, Synecdoche, New York is insightful, nightmarish, ambitious, often intelligent, sometimes very funny - though its jokes are largely confined to the opening half - and stuffed with ideas, acute observations and surreal touches. Like having Cotard's cute little daughter Olive become a sexually-aggressive tattooed lesbian nudie-booth dancer who speaks only in German. And having Hoffman claim - as an aside - that there are only 13 million people in the world. There are missteps, largely borne of a slight restlessness that wrenches the movie away from some of its more intriguing scenarios almost as soon as they've begun and moments of self-conscious oddity, but it's difficult to remember a film as bursting with imagination, frustration and human misery. And the acting is phenomenal. It's a shame that Watson is given relatively little to do - as I've said before, she's simply the best actress around - but Hoffman is faultless and Morton just irressistible, continuing to deliver on the remarkable promise she displayed in Sweet and Lowdown and Morvern Callar. At last directing one of his own scripts, Kaufman - the writer of Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Human Nature and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - has created something utterly unique. And really bloody miserable. (4), for its sheer boldness.


Phffft! (Mark Robson, 1954) - There was no-one quite like Judy Holliday and here she is again, the greatest screen comedienne of the 20th century, weaving pure gold out of whatever it is they put in front of her. In this case, it's a script from George Axelrod - the future writer of The Manchurian Candidate - offered to Columbia in place of what they really wanted, his stage hit The Seven Year Itch, then tied up due to its ongoing Broadway run. Holliday and Jack Lemmon, re-teamed after the glorious It Should Happen to You, play a divorced couple who engage in various ill-fated liaisons with amorous third parties (Jack Carson, Kim Novak), while recalling happier times and insisting they shouldn't get back together. It's nicely shot, fairly inventive and extremely well-played. Lemmon is very good value, showing just traces of the annoyingness that was to come (a wince here, a nervous giggle there), with the ever-underrated Carson in fine form and Novak showing top comic smarts in her bouncy, pouty, Monroe-esque supporting bit. It's Holliday's show, though. Her timing and delivery is just exquisite, especially in the mambo sequence, the sort of scene that's been done countless times elsewhere, but never with such spectacular results. (3.5)

Trivia note: The eponymous noise was gossip columnist Walter Winchell's shorthand for a couple splitting up. Winchell was one of the key cultural figures of '30s America - remaining in the public eye well into the '60s - and was fictionalised as the hero of numerous movies, including Blessed Event (for me, the greatest comedy of all time, where the character was played by Lee Tracy), Okay America! (starring Lew Ayres) and Is My Face Red? (Ricardo Cortez), before playing himself in Love and Hisses.


The King's Thief (Robert Z. Leonard, 1955) - This is sheer escapism, set during the reign of Charles II, as highwayman Edmund Purdom and noblewoman Ann Blyth join forces to bring down the King's trusted advisor, heinous, grasping David Niven. It's handsome - with expansive sets and rich Technicolor cinematography - fast-paced and full of ingenious little twists and turns, even if some key plot elements are introduced at too short notice and the MacGuffin of Niven's little black book is pretty juvenile. The big treat here is the performances: Niven charismatic and despicable playing the villain, Blyth sweet and deceptively powerful as the film's emotional centre and George Sanders fey but statesmanlike in an extended cameo as the monarch. (3.5)


Fort Worth (Edwin L. Marin, 1951) - Constrained to the city, Randolph Scott seemed a severely limited actor, but send him out West and a strange thing happened: his delivery changed from stilted to craggily imposing; his manner from uncomfortable to unbeatable. The pick of his Westerns were the Ranown cycle, the unforgettable pictures he created with director Budd Boetticher, but most of his '50s genre entries are worth a look, as are the contemporaneous efforts of Joel McCrea and Audie Murphy. Fort Worth has above-average production values and an interesting story, centring on the coming-of-age of the titular town, while David Brian keeps you guessing as "Mr Fort Worth", who's either a public-spirited rogue or a total crook. The film's philosophical concerns are poorly handled, precisely because no classic Western ever faced down the idea that physical violence is the solution to all the world's ills, and the opening scenes are quite poor in terms of both dialogue and some unnecessarily nasty plotting, but it's still highly watchable, with some lively face-offs and a nice performance from Phyllis Thaxter (who went on to play Superman's adoptive mother in the Christopher Reeve series) as the love interest. (2.5)

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Puppets, Peggy Dow and Judy Holliday's tour-de-force - Reviews #59

Another reviews round-up. Three films I'd seen before, then a few I hadn't...

Born Yesterday (George Cukor, 1950) - Even without Judy Holliday's astonishing characterisation, this might have been something special, with Garson Kanin's brilliant script - intelligent, forceful and so witty the rest of us may as well just give up now - and note-perfect turns from William Holden, Broderick Crawford and Howard St. John. That it also contains one of the three or four best female performances in American cinema in the shape of Holliday's endearing, eye-wateringly hilarious Billie Dawn is something of a bonus. She's a former chorus girl ("I also spoke lines. Ask me how many. Five") who's become the moll of a hulking scruple-vacuum (Broderick Crawford) in Washington to promote his latest shady deal. Embarrassed by her general ignorance, he hires crusading freelance journo Holden to smarten her up, but isn't ready for what happens next. Adapted by Kanin from his celebrated play, which Holliday starred in on Broadway, it's a dazzling film: a flawless metaphor about the working classes and the emancipating power of knowledge posing as an utterly delightful romantic comedy. (4)

See also: Kanin, Cukor and Holliday reteamed four years later for another incisive look at modern America: It Should Happen to You. For Kanin and wife Ruth Gordon's slightly less wonderful Adam's Rib - also featuring Holliday in a showy supporting part - clicky on here.


Team America: World Police (Trey Parker, 2004) - Well, it's clearly not perfect. There are a couple of jokes that push too far for me (shall I explain why rape isn't funny?), at least two duff songs and a surfeit of tedious material about Hollywood liberals, but despite all that, this is a fantastic film: brilliantly funny (as much so as any film I've ever seen) and often devastatingly satirical. The quotable lines and inspired sight gags are legendary - and legion. The hammer, the walk-out, the bit where Chris says: 'That's Carson's replacement? A fucking actor?', the undercover distress signal, the corporation-y corporations, "I promise I will never die", the vomit geyser (the hardest I have ever laughed in a cinema) and Gary's climactic monologue. I've watched the film five or six times now. This time I had a bad back and every time I laughed it hurt a little more. By the end I was in absolute finger-biting agony. It's that good. (4)


Boys Town (Norman Taurog, 1938) - So Who Framed Roger Rabbit? was "groundbreaking", was it? Released a whole half-century before, Boys Town also features a mugging, gurning cartoon interacting with real-life humans. Mickey Rooney. His hysterical, one-man assault on the realism of the piece leads it somewhat astray. I'm a big fan of Rooney (particularly his work in The Human Comedy and National Velvet) and he excels in the straightforward emotional stuff here, but surrounded by naturalistic performers like Spencer Tracy and Bobs Watson he opts to play the rest of the film with a scenery-devouring style of acting that does away with much of the titular village. Tracy won a deserved Oscar as Father Flanagan, the real-life priest who established a home for lost boys, with Rooney playing Whitey Marsh, his toughest case, Watson as the diminutive, charming Pee Wee, who "likes everyone", Gene Reynolds (Ted Nickerson in the Bonnie Granville Nancy Drew series) as the current mayor, and Henry Hull as Tracy's friend and sponsor. There are dozens of wonderful scenes and deeply moving moments - the opening scene is an absolute knockout, and Pee Wee's toothbrush tale is another - it's just a shame that someone didn't rein in Rooney's excessive posturing. I still think it's a lovely film. Some deride it as corny or sentimental, but I think that's rather the point. (3.5)

See also: The fascinating Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn vehicle Keeper of the Flame: fascism, fire and flabbiness.


Starlift (Roy Del Ruth, 1951) - A handful of superb musical numbers lift this propagandist musical, which is like a live action recruiting poster for the air force; and one which finds time to repeatedly plug Louella Parsons' Hollywood gossip column. The best see bear-like Baloo-voicer Phil Harris narrating a saloon story with Gary Cooper as a Texas Ranger, Day duetting with familiar foil Gordon McRae on 'You're Gonna Lose Your Gal', and Gene Nelson and Janice Rule doing 'It's Magic', complete with a succession of neat conjuring tricks and optical illusions. Del Ruth, who began his career at Warner helming Pre-Code comedies like Blessed Event - starring Lee Tracy - and Blonde Crazy shows little of his trademark razzle-dazzle and pacy panache, but the songs and some fun cameos (including Cagney being teased by a Cagney impersonator) make it. (2.5)

And another thing: Starlift is available as part of the TCM Spotlight: Doris Day Collection, which I got from my girlfriend for Christmas. It's a Great Feeling is also on there and is a must for Hollywood-on-film buffs, or indeed anyone else. It's a truly joyous mix of music, comedy and insider references, with a roll call of gag appearances that includes Coop, Patricia Neal, Edward G. Robinson, Eleanor Parker, Joan Crawford, Sydney Greenstreet, Danny Kaye, Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman, along with directors David Butler, King Vidor and Raoul Walsh! There's also an AMAZING surprise cameo that I won't give away. That was among the best movies I saw last year (#38 on the list here).


This poster is beyond great.

Woman in Hiding (Michael Gordon, 1950)
is an entertaining but heavily flawed crime melodrama. It mistakes repetition for relentlessness and has a plot that really doesn't stand up to scrutiny, but there are eye-catching performances from the iconic Ida Lupino and Peggy Dow, some nice stylistic touches and chase sequences and a pleasing mid-section that's lighter and brighter than the rest. London-born Lupino was a remarkable actress whose name became a by-word for eye-rolling intensity, thanks largely to her explosive supporting performance in They Drive by Night, the only film truly deserving of the title "trucker classic". She appeared in many of the best films of the '30s, '40s and '50s - being an assuredly classy presence in A movies like The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (the pick of the Rathbone-Bruce pictures) and High Sierra and superb B films both comedic (The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt) and otherwise (Private Hell 36) - while embarking on a successful career as one of the business's few female directors.

Here she appears to depart this shadowy world in the opening sequence, as her car goes through a fence and over a cliff. As she tells us via voiceover, those folks blasting the river with an antique cannon are looking for her body. We get 20 minutes of flashback detailing her travails at the hands of stone cold psycho Stephen McNally - who totals her dad (Nancy Drew's father, John Litel), then cuts her brakes - before we catch up to the opening and find that she (wooh yeah!) totally escaped. Fleeing, her terrified bride ends up being pursued by a good-hearted, wrong-headed, love-struck drifter (Howard Duff), who thinks McNally's nice and Lupino's imagining things and should really go home. Their courtship, which has a slight whiff of It Happened One Night, is really nicely handled (and the chemistry is no illusion - Lupino and Duff were married soon afterwards), though the bizarre lurches in tone reach a head with the introduction of some drunk conventioneers, including Don Beddoe, who's billed as "Fat Salesman", which is just rude. There are two strong set-pieces. The best is the Hitchcock-esque stair chase, which is really cleverly directed, with great use of sound and shapes. The other is the more conventionally noirish train sequence, utilising such genre staples as the scary-face-in-the-mirror, the conk-on-the-head and the standing-with-your-back-to-the-wall-near-an-open-train-door-looking-frightened pose.

The film has in-built problems: a complete humourlessness in its first and final reels, lapses in logic that almost make you give up on it, and elements of dialogue and performance that seem terribly contrived. But it's still an interesting, watchable piece and it's a real treat to see Peggy Dow in one of her few film roles. Dow, who remains best-known as the entirely lovely Miss Kelly in Harvey, gave up her hugely promising film career when she got married the following year. Her turn here, flitting between drunken desperation, vulnerability and sensual villainy in the blink of an eye, is just yet more evidence of what a talent Hollywood lost when she resolved to devote herself to oil-drilling and charity work in Tulsa, Oklahoma. (2.5)


I also watched these two shorts on the Starlift disc:

SHORT: Sleepy Time Possum (Robert McKimson, 1951) – Strange Merrie Melodies cartoon in which a mild-mannered possum dresses up as a dog and tries to beat up his child, to stop him napping all day. A few cute bits with the sleepy kid, who's surprisingly quick, but that’s all. Voices by Mel Blanc. (1.5)


SHORT: So You Want to Be a Bachelor (Richard L. Bare, 1951) – An uncredited, trivial retelling of the old One Sunday Afternoon/The Strawberry Blonde story, this time done in one reel as part of the Joe McDoakes series. Seeing as we already have a classic version of this story, and another that's pretty good, the only way I can see anyone opting for this one is if they’re going to die in 10 minutes. (1.5)

Monday, 4 April 2011

Review: Thea Gilmore at Fibbers, York

Sunday, April 3, 2011

I first saw Thea Gilmore at Manchester Academy in 2003, a few weeks after the release of Avalanche, the slick mission statement that looked set to send her crashing into the big leagues.

"If we grow up, we're all going to be famous," screams the legend on the t-shirt I bought that night. Thea was 23 and already fully-formed as that spiky, sweet-voiced singer-songwriter with the singular worldview and the devastating turn of phrase. I think the plan then was for my friend Phil to marry her, but like Gilmore's ascent to a stardom that matched her talent and critical acclaim, it never quite panned out like that.

She continues to play superb shows, put out fine records and garner four-star reviews, ploughing her particular furrow without staleness in theme or tone and attracting fans like Bruce Springsteen and Joan Baez, but the expected explosion never arrived. Her battle with depression (described with admirable honesty in a hugely endearing newspaper interview) put her out of commission for the best part of 2005. After that, she found a stable, happy family life with musical partner Nigel Stonier and their son, pioneered a cottage-industry music model with subscription service Angels in the Abbatoir and got back to touring a succession of venues that seem irrationally small for someone who's doing what she's doing. Yesterday she pitched up at Fibbers in York to sing and play her guitar a bit. That's what this is about.

The most jaw-droppingly impressive thing about Gilmore remains her distinctive lyrical style. Just as there's such a thing as a recognisable Bob Dylan line ("She knows there's no success like failure/And that failure's no success at all") or Tom Waits couplet ("So when I was 13, I said: 'I'm rollin' my own/I'm leavin' Missouri and I'm never comin' home'"), so you can spot a Gilmore zinger a mile off. Like this one from Saviours and All: "It's too late now to even out the score/As you drain the glass and raise your hand for more/So I'll take cover while you just take the floor..." Or from the same tune: "Baby, is it drama? Is it comedy?/You know my character witness just went down for perjury/Has anyone else got any good ideas?/Or will we just lay low until the black smoke clears?" If e-thea-reality is an adjective (and it nearly is, but it doesn't mean this), it's about double-meanings, stylised, cinematic language and the subversion of expectation. It's also about dizzyingly creative ambition.

And this sublime gift is coupled to a remarkable, unimpeachable voice.

If her records have a shortcoming, it's that they can be let down by sounding too sanitised, or making concessions to commerciality that seem to compromise her artistic vision. Like spoiling a sensational take on the St. Stephen's Day Murders (one of the most wonderful things I've ever seen live) by letting chum and out-of-tune Radio 2 DJ Mark Radcliffe share vocal duties on the album version. Or releasing a single called You're the Radio. It must be frustrating seeing shit like Florence and the Machine cavorting up the charts and knowing you're a thousand times more talented, but stick to your guns, Thea. We'll get you up there yet.

Live, she's a simply unmissable proposition: ebullient, boisterous and bursting with emotional energy, with those twin virtues - words and warbling - thrown up front. Last night's gig at Fibbers was the fourth time I'd been to watch her - following further forays to Sale Waterside Arts Centre in 2004 and her Christmas show at The Duchess, York in 2009 - which, for fans of incredibly boring trivia, is as many times as I've seen anyone, except Bob Dylan. But more about him later.

The latest gig began with a nice supporting set from Nigel Stonier, Gilmore's husband, accompaniest and producer, who has an increasingly easy stage manner and some good songs. His voice is perhaps more suited to harmonising than carrying a track (at least to my ill-educated ears), but it's pleasant enough to put across standout numbers like Josef's Train (which Gilmore covered on Loft Music), Messin' with Fire and Whole Lotta Nothin' Goin' On.

We got right down the front for the main event, leaning against the rail, as an over-exuberant machine spewed out dry ice in such quantities that I wondered whether they were trying to smuggle the band out of the building. Happily not. The four-strong combo came on stage a little before nine for a riotously enjoyable 90-minute set that mixed most of the best tracks from current album Murphy's Heart (Due South, Mexico, Love's the Greatest Instrument of Rage, a pouting, sexually-provocative Jazz Hands) with selected excerpts from past triumphs (Juliet, the heartbreaking Icarus Wind) and covers of Guns N' Roses' Sweet Child o' Mine and Dylan's I'll Be Your Baby Tonight - the inspiration for Thea's decision to cover the whole of his 1968 roots classic John Wesley Harding.

Other highlights included an eggshell-treading Old Soul - perhaps the best song she's ever written, with words and intonation that inadvertently recall Ma Joad's impassioned pleading near the close of The Grapes of Wrath ("How am I gonna know, Tommy?") - a rip-roaring Rags and Bones, a sing-along Saviours and All and the heart-stopping closer, Thea's transcendent rendering of the Irish ballad The Parting Glass, performed - as ever - a capella. I'd never heard the song before her Manchester gig in 2003, and despite tracking down versions by artists as diverse as Sinead O'Connor, The Pogues and The Bay City Rollers (that one's not real), for me Gilmore's version is definitive. If she ever recorded an album of Celtic standards (and why not? That stuff's in her blood), I'd pick it up in a heartbeat. Though seeing as I buy all her albums, that's kind of a given. It would be awesome, though.

I went to say hello at the end, which - much like any encounter with someone you really admire - was essentially a high-stakes game of "you have 30 seconds not to say anything stupid". I told her that her version of The Parting Glass was absolutely incredible, asked whether her John Wesley Harding record is going to be put out (it is; it's coming out on Dylan's birthday and is available to pre-order on Amazon now) and said it had been a great show, with pretty much my dream setlist (Old Soul, Saviours and All, and all). It really had. She signed my copy of Murphy's Heart too - what a nice lady. And then I got out of there... effortlessly avoiding the pillar as I turned round. Yeah, pretty smooth.

Then myself and my considerably cooler half had to pay £45 for a taxi home, which is the most extravagant thing we've ever done, but public transport wasn't running and I can't drive a car. It was worth it, anyway. Thea has created some indelible memories for me over the years - her solo performance of Phil Ochs' When I'm Gone during the Academy show being one of the most intensely moving musical experiences I've had - and this was yet another superb show from a truly uncommon talent.