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Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees's Blog
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Fantasy Box Set #4: Victorian Gothic Films
As another hot, muggy summer settles in, I find myself longing for mist-shrouded moors and chills of suspense. In that spirit, I offer this fantasy Victorian Gothic DVD set. The ingredients for a good gothic story as I see it are an isolated, mysterious setting (preferably a mansion or castle with lots of locked doors and shadowy corridors); an innocent young heroine whoís in peril; and an older, enigmatic, often sinister man who may represent love, sex, danger, or some combination of the three. Victorian novelists like the Bronte sisters really mastered this formula, and to this day the Victorian setting seems most appropriate for these plots. Iíve also restricted my selection to black-and-white movies, which seem to me so much more appropriate for this genre than color.
1. Wuthering Heights, 1939. An undisputed classic whose absence on DVD is both baffling and agonizing. Although it doesnít try to cover the entirety of Emily Bronteís novel, its bleakly captivating visual landscape and the passionate performances of Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon still make it probably the most satisfying and atmospheric filming of the novel. (Actually, the omitted chunk of story is the part that contains the standard gothic situation as Iíve described it, but never mind.) The only real liability is the inappropriately sentimental musical score by Alfred Newman, which tries to make this fierce story of obsessive love into a conventional romance. (The Ryuichi Sakamoto score for the 1992 remake is far more effective.) Fortunately, everything else about the film resists that sappy interpretation. A must see.
2. Jane Eyre, 1944. The Charlotte Bronte novel this film is based on is probably the most influential gothic romance in literature. Like the previous title, this film version cuts out a big chunk of the source novel, but itís hard to beat the brooding atmosphere and the casting of Orson Welles as saturnine Mr. Rochester. When his deep, resonant voice calls out ďJane...Jane,Ē youíll understand how it can pull Joan Fontaine straight across the country to him. The 1983 miniseries starring Timothy Dalton and Zelah Clarke (recently released on DVD) is more faithful to the novel and very satisfying in terms of story and performance, but it doesnít match this classic for gothic mood.
3. Dragonwyck, 1946. Gene Tierney plays Miranda Wells, a restless farm girl whoís always dreamed of something more in life. When her mysterious cousin Vincent Price invites her to his mansion to be governess to his daughter, she gets a taste of the glamorous life, but also a lot more than she bargained for. Price is marvelous as the arrogant, elegant aristocrat, both sexy and dangerous. This is the only title in my set based on a 20th-century novel (although the setting is the 1840s), and the film improves substantially on the episodic, digressive parent work by Anya Seton. Dragonwyck is apparently widely available on DVD outside the U.S.--what gives?
4. Uncle Silas (a.k.a. The Inheritance), 1947. This little-known English film is based on a gothic novel by 19th-century writer Sheridan Le Fanu (author of ďCarmilla,Ē the inspiration for every lesbian-themed vampire film ever made). It features Jean Simmons as the innocent young girl who finds herself in danger when her sinister Uncle Silas decides to get his hands on her inheritance. The very, very young Simmons is a touching heroine, and there are some genuinely creepy sequences. Donít settle for the god-awful 1987 remake, The Dark Angel, in which Peter OíToole camps it up as the wicked uncle. Another Le Fanu gothic novel, The Wyvern Mystery, was more recently (and very loosely) adapted with Naomi Watts, Derek Jacobi, and Jack Davenport. Itís available on DVD and is worth a rental.
5. The Woman in White, 1948. This adaptation of the classic novel by Wilkie Collins features Gig Young (Teacherís Pet) in one of his rare leading roles. He and Alexis Smith are the protagonists, who must save fragile Eleanor Parker from the wicked machinations of Sidney Greenstreet. Greenstreet is, as always, a wonderful villain who relishes his wickedness; check out the scene where he ogles Smith while sheís undressing! The 1997 remake with Tara Fitzgerald and Justine Waddell isnít bad either (and has a different ending)--but it, too, is unavailable on DVD. It looks as if the real villains are the studios, for hoarding these movies instead of releasing them.
Coming soon: Fantasy Box Set #5...
Fantasy Box Set #3: Olivia de Havilland
This vibrant beauty is one of my all-time favorite actresses. Whether sheís playing it gentle and saintly, as in Gone with the Wind; lively and spirited, as in Captain Blood; fragile and troubled, as in The Snake Pit; or even cunning and ruthless, as in Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte, de Havilland is always a joy to watch. Even when sheís sharing the screen with high-powered actors like Errol Flynn or Bette Davis--or both--she always holds her own; she has undeniable screen presence as well as versatility. The real woman behind all the roles also warrants admiration, having successfully sued Warner Bros. in 1945 to end the forced extension of actorsí contracts beyond their legal limit due to the time the studio placed them under suspension. Now retired from the screen, she is still as charismatic and engaging as ever.
Itís my fervent hope that something like this imaginary box set will in fact materialize. Since de Havilland is still active today and has contributed to the DVD releases of Gone with the Wind and the recent Errol Flynn box set, it would make perfect sense to get her to go ahead and record some reminiscences or commentary tracks for some of her other classic films. In fact, it would be criminally foolish to neglect to ask her to do so.
Fortunately, de Havilland is beginning to see some respectable representation on DVD; of the titles I mentioned above, all are currently or soon to become available. Nevertheless, thatís just a start. Of de Havillandís impressive body of work, here are the five titles currently unavailable on DVD that most urgently demand it--in my opinion, of course.
1. Hold Back the Dawn, 1941. One of my all-time favorites, this romantic drama features de Havilland as an innocent schoolteacher who marries Charles Boyer after a whirlwind courtship, not knowing he only married her to attain entry into the U.S. so that he can reunite with his sexy old flame, Paulette Goddard. Boyer is excellent as the gigolo who comes to genuinely love his wife-in-name, and the local color provided by the setting--a Mexican border town populated by hopefuls waiting to get into the U.S.--makes the film distinctive. A moving and surprising love story, this deserves to be more widely known. De Havilland was nominated for an Oscar for her role but lost to sister Joan Fontaine in Suspicion.
2. The Strawberry Blonde, 1941. This was a remake of the Gary Cooper film One Sunday Afternoon. Although de Havilland doesnít play the title role--thatís Rita Hayworth--she turns in one of her most delightful performances as a pert faux feminist who turns out to be a marshmallow underneath. She and James Cagney (who is terrific) make a charming couple, even though heís too busy mooning after Hayworth to fully appreciate sweet, loyal de Havilland until itís almost too late. Enjoyable Gay Ď90s atmosphere adds to the fun. De Havilland fought hard to land this role, and itís lucky for us she did.
3. To Each His Own, 1946. Get out those hankies--this is a classic weepie. Innocent young Olivia falls in love with a flyer, who goes off to die in World War I, leaving her pregnant. Her child grows up believing heís another womanís daughter, and de Havilland becomes a cosmetics mogul, hoping to be able to offer him a home when she becomes financially independent. De Havilland won an Oscar for her performance, in which she progresses from naive teenager to driven career woman to hearty middle-aged spinster. The last line will leave you with a lump in your throat.
4. The Heiress, 1949. In this adaptation of Henry Jamesís Washington Square, de Havilland stars in an Oscar-winning performance as the shy, plain heiress who falls deeply in love with handsome charmer Montgomery Clift. Her cold-hearted father, Ralph Richardson, tells her that Clift is just a fortune hunter--and he turns out to be right. An excellent screenplay and fine performances all around, including an effective supporting turn by Miriam Hopkins as de Havillandís interfering aunt. The final scene is unforgettable, and the soaring score by Aaron Copeland is exceptional. Thereís really no excuse for this not to be on DVD already.
5. My Cousin Rachel, 1952. Is she innocent or guilty? Thatís what leading man Richard Burton, in his American movie debut, has to decide about bewitching older woman de Havilland after she marries his guardian and then becomes a widow all too quickly. Based on the gothic novel by Daphne du Maurier (Rebecca), this drama features brooding period atmosphere and a nicely ambiguous performance by de Havilland, who looks very elegant in her 1840s costumes (and won a Golden Globe for her performance).
Coming soon: Fantasy Box Set #4...
Fantasy Box Set #2: George Sanders
Is there any actor now working who can do suave like George Sanders? I doubt it. In films like Rebecca, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, and especially All About Eve--all of which, thankfully, are available on DVD--Sanders perfected the role of the smooth-talking, urbane schemer. He was an expert at playing outright villains, which he did in a number of films, including Son of Fury (1942) and Ivanhoe (1952), but he brought the same relish and panache to many of his less-remembered good-guy roles. He had style and wit, and that makes him stand out all the more in contrast to todayís ďstars.Ē
Here are five titles Iíd love to see released as a George Sanders DVD box set. I donít think itís coincidence that so many of the films Iíve included have period settings; unlike some male actors, Sanders looked right at home in the elegant costumes of earlier times--and he also handled period dialogue with aplomb. Pour yourself a dry martini and dive into these Sanders films...if you can find them.
1. The Saint Strikes Back, 1939. Sanders took over the role of the ďRobin Hood of modern crimeĒ with this entry in the series of films based on Leslie Charterisís books. His suave charm was never better displayed than in these adventurous tales. He later left the series for a very similar one about a character called the Falcon. The Saint movies themselves would make a great boxed set; studios, are you listening?
2. The House of the Seven Gables, 1940. ďGod has given him blood to drink!Ē An effective gothic drama based on the novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne, featuring Sanders in a wonderfully wicked performance as Jaffrey Pyncheon, who frames his good-hearted brother Vincent Price for murder. Price also turns in a great performance--as the good guy, for once. Their final showdown is a doozy.
3. The Lodger, 1944. Iím being a bit disingenuous in including this film in my fantasy set, since I understand that itís on its way to DVD. And thatís something to be glad of: Itís a suspenseful Jack the Ripper story featuring creepy Laird Cregar as the titular lodger and Sanders on the side of law and order, trying to keep showgirl Merle Oberon safe from harm. If you like seeing Sanders represent the law, check out the flawed but interesting thriller Lured, with Lucille Ball, available on VHS.
4. The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1945. This is a genuine movie classic, and the fact that itís not already out on DVD just makes the whole industry look bad. Hurd Hatfield plays the beautiful young man of the title in this excellent adaptation of the Oscar Wilde novel; Sanders is the smooth, morally bankrupt Lord Henry Wotton, whose influence leads Gray to depart from the path of virtue--but the depths of Grayís depravity end up shocking even his mentor. Young Angela Lansbury is touching as the innocent singer who falls for Gray.
5. The Private Affairs of Bel Ami, 1947. Sanders plays the lead for once in this interesting mixture of comedy and drama about a turn-of-the-century French womanizer whose philandering ways catch up with him. Based on the story by Guy de Maupassant, it also features Angela Lansbury. Itís been far too long since Iíve seen this one, but I remember it as being unusual--and featuring an effective death scene.
Coming soon: Fantasy Box Set #3...
Fantasy Box Set #1: Kay Francis
There are so many neglected movies and stars that deserve DVD attention, Iíve decided to help out the studios by putting together some box sets. So far these are just wishful thinking, but perhaps putting the idea out in the universe will exert some influence, however small, on the powers that be. My self-appointed rules for my imaginary boxed sets are that they shall number five titles that arenít available on DVD in region 1.
For my inaugural entry, Iíve chosen the exotically lovely but largely forgotten Kay Francis, a clotheshorse and popular star of ďwomenís picturesĒ in the 1930s. With her drowsy dark eyes, husky voice, and slinky way of wearing clothes, she was always a striking presence -- and she was adept at both sophisticated comedy, as in 1932ís Trouble in Paradise (released by Criterion), and melodrama. She also turned in memorable performances as liberated women in some refreshingly adult pictures made before the enforcement of the Hays Code, and played an outspoken Florence Nightingale in The White Angel in 1936. Sadly, there are many of her films Iíve never even had the chance to see, so there may be many more gems deserving of DVD release that I donít even know about.
1. One Way Passage, 1932. Francis stars with William Powell in this timeless tearjerker about a dying heiress who falls in love with a convict under sentence of death on an ocean cruise. Deceptions abound! The drama is lightened by the comic supporting characters -- a couple of con artists who sniff out the truth behind all the noble lies. Recommended.
2. Mary Stevens, M.D., 1932. Francis plays an independent single woman, a doctor and -- eventually -- single mom. A great example of the kind of intelligent drama dealing with complex real-life womenís issues that got totally outlawed by the Production Code.
3. Mandalay, 1934. Squeaking in before the Hays Code was enforced, this is a completely implausible and irresistible drama in which Francis is sold into white slavery by her dastardly lover. She becomes the most notorious and powerful prostitute in Mandalay, and parlays her hold over a government official into a brand-new start -- at which point her ex-boyfriend turns up again to ruin it all. The plot gets even more implausible from there.
4. Stolen Holiday, 1937. This isnít as good a movie as it could have been, but between her costar, Claude Rains, and a terrific opening sequence -- not to mention some stunning Ď30s fashions on parade -- itís one of my favorite Francis dramas. She stars as an ambitious fashion model who teams up with shady businessman Rains and later marries him when his reputation needs a boost -- even though sheís fallen in love with a bland diplomat. Uneven but bookended by suspenseful, atmospheric sequences; based on a real-life scandal.
5. In Name Only, 1939. Francis takes a bitchy turn as the doe-eyed but ruthless wife of Cary Grant. When Grant falls in love with sweet widow Carole Lombard, Francis refuses to give him a divorce, since that would mean giving up her status and wealth. Oooh, sheís evil. Terrific drama with great performances all around.
Coming up: Fantasy Box Set #2...
Saints preserve us, they do exist.
Had a blood-curdling moment today to add to the insult of having to work on Memorial Day--not that my company has any kind of anti-Yankee ideological beef with the holiday (that I know of), just that it's such a Scroogy place it wants to get all the work it can out of our hides...
I had taken in some DVDs to offer for sale to my coworkers. Strapped for cash, needing to clear some space. My fellow copyeditor reported to me a conversation he had with one of our coworkers:
Movie ignoramus: Hey, isn't that (indicating DVD) an old movie?
Copyeditor: Yes, it is.
Movie ignoramus: Why would they put a movie that old on DVD? Who'd want to watch it?
People like that scare me. I had hoped they were just a myth...but at least one is alive and well and living in this college town.
In Memoriam: Ruth Hussey
I was saddened to hear of the death of Ruth Hussey, who brought her memorably smart, sharp presence to The Philadelphia Story as Jimmy Stewart's destined mate. She also did fine work in the Joan Crawford vehicle Susan and God, and the classic haunted-house film The Uninvited, which is long overdue on DVD. True, I hadn't realized she was still alive, but it's still sad to see another talent from Hollywood's grand era go. I don't think I ever saw her play a lead--even in The Uninvited her romantic plot got upstaged by Gail Russell's--but she was an enjoyable presence in supporting roles. Goodbye, Ruth, and thanks...
Being Julia, Being Misunderstood
This weekend I rented Being Julia, which was not terribly bright since I had a busy weekend planned, but I managed to find time to watch it anyway. I only recently developed an interest in seeing this movie, since the title is so meaningless and the advertising art is so ill-judged: The photograph on the DVD cover makes it look like Annette Bening is missing half of her right arm, which made me think it was going to be one of those triumph-of-the-human-spirit dramas about a courageous woman overcoming her physical debility. No thanks. When I heard that it was actually a comedy with a revenge twist, however, my ears pricked up. And it turns out that she isnít missing any limbs; itís just a bad photo.
(Spoiler herein...) The movie turned out to be a good one, and quite fun, not least because of Michael Gambonís character and the performance by Lucy Punch, who was funny in Ella Enchanted and is even funnier here and in larger doses. And Juliaís revenge on the heartless young man who throws her over is beautifully appropriate and joyous. Thatís my kind of triumph of the human spirit.
But then I read Roger Ebertís review, which gets hold of the wrong end of the stick altogether. He claims itís a melodrama, whereas I saw it as comedy with some serious, but scarcely melodramatic, underpinnings. He further claims that itís a riff on All About Eve, which is utter hogwash. To boil things down to essences, and setting aside the total difference in tone, All About Eve is about an insecure aging actress being usurped by a cunning younger actress. We all know that. Being Julia, on the other hand, is about a self-confident but bored aging actress who falls in love with a young admirer, gets jilted, and avenges herself through the young actress he jilted her for. Hmm, a little different, no? Also, Ebert derides the final scene for lacking credibility, saying that the Lucy Punch character, Avice, isnít reacting as an actress would in real life to the improvisations of Julia. Again: hogwash. Iíve seen it many times, even done it myself when a fellow actor starts departing from the script during performance: freeze up, then desperately deliver the scripted lines in hopes that the other actor will find his way back to the script too. Itís the same thing that works to such great comedic effect when Nicolette Sheridan does it in Noises Off. Anyway, realism aside, Aviceís actions and reactions are totally in character for her.
All in all, Iím glad I rented Being Julia. First off, it was an enjoyable film to watch; but second, and hardly less important, it made me feel smarter than Roger Ebert--and thatís always satisfying. We have to take our triumphs of the human spirit where we find them.
Sin City sizzlesÖand sickens
I went into Sin City unprepared. I knew it was a noir based on -- or, rather, reproducing frame-for-frame -- an acclaimed graphic novel series. I knew it would be visually innovative, using a digitally created black-and-white world with selected touches of color for impact. I didnít know that it was going to contain eviscerations, cannibalism, a dog eating his masterís guts, dismemberments, decapitations, torture, and a character who remains talkative after having his throat slashed and getting the cartridge of his own gun lodged in his forehead.
Noir and violence have always gone hand in hand, of course; I expected the hard-boiled denizens of Sin City might encounter gunplay, beatings, maybe even knifing and broken necks. But the way the film revels in unusual brutality reminds me not of its film noir antecedents but of the old horror comics, where stories like ďStrop! Youíre Killing Me!Ē would feature characters getting sliced into pieces by a giant razor, or a dying fugitive getting his eyes plucked out by vultures. You can do these things in comic books and graphic novels: A panel or two with a nastily violent image has dramatic impact. But seeing the same thing played out in real time, with sound effects and photorealism -- even without the use of color -- is stomach-churning and left an unsavory taste in my mouth (and I donít mean just stomach acid). Itís, literally, overkill.
Thatís not to say that I didnít like a lot of things about Sin City -- like them a lot. It looks simply fabulous; there are compositions that would make you catch your breath in admiration, if not that the momentum of the story keeps propelling you forward. Itís made me a fan of Mickey Rourke, which I never thought would happen, and itís convinced me that Bruce Willis, with his sad, weary, seen-it-all eyes, is the closest weíve come yet to another Bogart. (As for Clive Owen, itís more clear than ever that he should be the next Bond.) The dialogue is unforgettable, the pacing and structure smart. But the way the film seemed to revel in viscera disturbs me deeply.
I could deal with the gore in the Kill Bill films; those movies had a touch of the absurd about them that redeemed them from seeming pornographic in their violence. Thatís not the case in Sin City. Thereís nothing tongue-in-cheek about the horrors it unfolds in such detail. Iím amazed, too, that reviews Iíve read since seeing it donít comment on this. Have The Cell, Seven, and the Hannibal Lecter films inured critics to shock? If thatís the case, I donít think theyíre the sort of people I want to hang out with -- or eat dinner with.
All This and Heaven Too
I recently finished reading Rachel Fieldís book All This and Heaven Too, which she based on the life of her notorious great-aunt, Henriette Desportes -- the French governess who became embroiled in a scandalous murder case when her employer, the Duc de Praslin, murdered the crazy beyotch he was married to. Fieldís novel was the basis for the wonderful 1940 Bette Davis film, in which Davis portrayed Henriette.
As I read the novel, I was intrigued by the changes the film made to Henrietteís character. In the book she comes across as more beautiful, more worldly, and more assertive than in Davisís characterization; a highlight in the novel is Henrietteís articulate defense of herself during the interrogations to which she is subjected after the murder. In the filmís sole interrogation scene Davis is presented as a figure of pathos; the scene focuses more on the injustice and cruelty of the persecution than on her rising to meet it with courage and intelligence.
At the same time, Iím very fond of Davisís performance in this film. Her characterization of the governess as a modest, principled, yet sensitive woman is greatly appealing and less mannered than many of her better-remembered performances. And she stands up against the paranoid Duchess with quiet strength in one terrific confrontation. As much as Iíd have enjoyed seeing a film adaptation that portrayed a Henriette closer to the novelís depiction, I can understand why the film made the changes it did: They create a stronger contrast between the governess and the Duchess.
The change works, at any rate, and the film is a very satisfying one. Charles Boyer turns in one of his best performances as the tormented Duke, who finds in his childrenís governess the kindred spirit (and maternal figure for his children) that his hysterical wife never was. The love between Henriette and the Duke -- which they can never act on -- is tender and bittersweet, making this one of the most poignant screen romances of Hollywoodís golden age. The Duchess is played by Barbara OíNeil, in a total 180-degree characterization from her portrayal of Scarlett OíHaraís gentle, saintly mother in Gone with the Wind; you really want her to get murdered. The impossibly adorable child actor Richard Nichols brings his American Southern accent to the French locale of the story and still tugs at the heartstrings, just as he did in Kitty Foyle and A Womanís Face (in which he was so cute Joan Crawford found she couldnít murder him after all).
Thinking about Charles Boyerís excellent performance reminds me of how neglected his career is on DVD. Public-domain copies of Love Affair, are in circulation, and the release of Gaslight made available one of his most memorable performances. He is good in Garden of Allah, even if the film is pretty overheated stuff. But we need to see DVD releases of more movies, like All This and Heaven Too, that show his range. His comedic turn in Tovarich opposite his old friend Claudette Colbert is deft and delightful, and his performance in Hold Back the Dawn as a calculating gigolo who falls in love with innocent Olivia de Havilland (who is also shockingly underrepresented on DVD) goes from slyly humorous to deeply moving. Cluny Brown and History Is Made at Night are also greatly entertaining. I think a Boyer boxed set is overdue. And perhaps a miniseries remake of All This and Heaven Too that could follow the fortunes of Henriette Desportes as she makes a new life for herself in America. One of the most enjoyable things about the book is seeing how much more there is to her story after the Praslin tragedy is resolved.
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