Wednesday, January 25, 2012


As a raving mad Joan Crawford fanatic, Mildred Pierce is beloved by me.  Not only because Joan won a much deserved Academy Award for her penultimate role but because the movie is a top notch film noir, slickly done. 

Imagine my excitement and hysteria upon learning that HBO was filming a 5 hour miniseries of Mildred Pierce and starring the incredible Kate Winslet.  Barely could I wait for the DVD release (as we do not currently have HBO).  I spent all afternoon last Sunday watching the miniseries and it left me . . . disappointed. 

Let me explain.  Part of the reason the 1945 version (hereafter known as the Crawford version) is so well done is its incredible tautness and the quick pacing of the slow burn that's happening.  Sounds like an oxymoron but watch it and you'll see.  The film opens with a murder, drawing you in immediately, and it moves rapidly in flashback for the next 2 hours. 

The 2011 version (or the Winslet version) has a very, very slow burn.  So slow in fact that the first hour was covered in the first ten minutes or so of the Crawford version.    In fact, the first hour was dull.  I'm sorry but there it is.  I kept waiting for something to happen and was still waiting as the second hour began.  The real action, as I see it, didn't really start until the final (fifth) hour.  Four hours is a lot of time to invest for the last hour's payoff, let's be honest. 

However, to be fair to the Winslet version, the period detail was stunning.  Everything looked like 1931 (at least from my eye - - not that I was around in 1931 but as a serious connoisseur of 1930s movies, it appeared legit), from the hairstyles to the clothing to the furnishings and cars.  I also loved, loved the detail of Mildred's Spanish style house (the first and second ones) and was seriously jonesing for my own Spanish hacienda after the viewing. 

Not that the Crawford version was lacking.  In that film, Mildred also had a pretty little Spanish bungalow, complete with the arches and tile floors.  What daughter Veda may have bemoaned as common Glendale drudgery is sought after today.  However, this version had two hours to tell its story, rather than five leisurely ones, and so the attention to set detail was not as strong.

So let's break it down, piece by piece, on which Mildred Pierce is the better (with the Crawford version's players being listed first).  Warning:  possible spoilers ahead.

Joan Crawford vs. Kate Winslet:  Both are well known and respected thespians.  Crawford was not considered a serious actress in her lifetime, despite winning the Academy Award for her portrayal of Mildred and receiving another two nods after, while Winslet has been considered one of the better actresses of her generation since the start of her career.  Watch Winslet as Marianne in Emma Thompson's Sense and Sensibility and no one else will ever be able to be as convincing and heartbreaking a Marianne as she.  Both beautiful women, Winslet was made plainer for the role while Crawford still looked stunning (even while wearing dresses from Sears Roebuck).  Winslet had more than double the time Crawford did to make Mildred work and make the audience sympathize with, relate to and love Mildred.  Crawford, as mentioned, won an Academy Award for her portrayal; Winslet won an Emmy.  So who emerges victorious in the battle of the Mildreds? 

The Winner:  Joan Crawford.  Crawford is simply amazing and mesmerizing in the role.  Say what you will about her early parts and cookie cutter MGM roles but damn, the woman could act in the right role (see also Possessed and A Woman's Face for further support).  Her Mildred's quiet desperation comes off the film like a stink, as well as her unwavering support and blind adoration of Veda and her steely determination as a sharp businesswoman.  She was Mildred, in every sense of the word and watching her is an absolute delight.  She owns this role.  This is the role she is most remembered for and deservedly so.  While Kate Winslet, as always, delivers and turns in a wonderful performance, her Mildred is just lacking in that special something that Crawford delivered in spades. 

Jack Carson vs. James LeGros:  The character of Wally (Wally Fay in the Crawford version; Wally Burgan in the Winslet version) is a pivotal one and despite LeGros doing a fine job with what he had, there was simply no way to top Carson, who stole every scene he was in of nearly every movie he was in.  The Crawford version had Wally as a "Hi, howya doin'" kind of guy, the kind of guy who would remark on Mildred's legs but wouldn't necessarily get up close and personal with those legs.  The Winslet version depicted Wally as much more of a dishonest businessman who had no qualms stiffing his business partner, Bert Pierce, of commission and then stiffing his wife Mildred when the couple split. 

The Winner:  Jack Carson.  He made Wally fun and someone that Mildred could truly count on while building her empire.  He seemed larger than life and brought a much needed lightness to the seriousness of the film.

Zachary Scott vs. Guy Pearce:     Monte Beragon was a horribly sympathetic character to me in the Crawford version, perhaps due to Zachary Scott's portrayal, while he was less so in the Winslet version (not that it was necessarily any fault of Guy Pearce's).  Scott's Monte was a man who had been a member of that infamous upper crust, who had fallen and fallen hard.  He still retained his charm and I could easily understand how Mildred would fall for him.  I could also understand how Mildred could support him for years and eventually marry him.  Pearce's Monte had a sexual vibe Scott's did not (thanks, perhaps, in part to HBO's ability to showcase nudity and sex scenes) and I felt less like Pearce's Monte was a man on the edge than just a grifter.  Pearce was good looking, yes, but I couldn't quite fathom why Mildred supported him and eventually married him.  Mildred's decision to marry Monte was explained quite well in the Crawford version but was left unclear in the Winslet version. Scott's turn also left me in no doubt of his love, as well as his resentment, of Mildred and I didn't quite get the same feeling from Pearce's turn.

The Winner:  Zachary Scott.    Pearce did an admirable job but the win goes to Scott for making what could have been a pathetic unsympathetic character into a likable one that I wanted to redeem. 

Ann Blyth vs. Morgan Turner and Evan Rachel Wood:  Other than Mildred herself, the character of Veda was the most important character in both productions (as well as the book).  Veda was supposed to be a manipulative, charming devil who appeared a sweet and pretty angel.  Even her mother Mildred was blinded by her faults and selfish behavior for years.  Blyth portrayed Veda in the Crawford version from about age 14 until 18 or 19, as the script had the action take place over the course of a handful of years rather than the 10 year or so span depicted in the Winslet version . . . and she did a stellar job.  She easily handled Veda as a young teen who aspired to be a member of society, wanting more than having a mother who baked pies for neighbors and waited tables.  Her method of speaking "upper class" felt genuine, as a girl who wanted to be someone she was not.  Blyth also smoothly transitioned into Veda as a scheming young woman who would do anything for money and status.  Crawford's reaction to realizing exactly how manipulative and scheming Veda was is utterly flawless and breathtaking, as is her chemistry with Blyth.  Blyth's end scene, with her almost complacent acceptance of her actions and future, is chilling and perfectly done.  By comparison, the Winslet version had two actresses portraying Veda.  Morgan Turner portrayed Veda throughout the majority of the miniseries, as a young teen.  While Turner did a very commendable job on the piano she didn't quite sell Veda as the spoiled and social climbing teen.  Her scenes with Winslet felt a bit forced and they lacked the cool smoothness that Blyth brought across.  Evan Rachel Wood, portraying Veda as an adult, honestly just looked and felt too old for the part.  She lacked the soft vixen quality Blyth had and came across as a self absorbed party girl who would be on the prowl for her own father if she could make a dime off it.  Her emotional scenes bordered on hysteria versus controlled manipulation.

The Winner:  Ann Blyth, who was rightfully nominated for an Academy Award for this career changing role (although she lost to Anne Revere).  After Blyth's turn as Veda, it's hard to imagine any other actress capable of pulling off the perfect combination of sweet innocence and evil charm. 

Eve Arden vs. Mare Winningham.  Along with Wally, the character of Ida gave some much needed comedy and lightness to Mildred Pierce.  In the Crawford version she was more of a humorous sidekick, providing such classic lines as "Personally, Veda's convinced me that alligators have the right idea. They eat their young." and "When men get around me, they get allergic to wedding rings."  Eve Arden was the perfect foil to the simmering Crawford and her comedic timing and talent would go on to serve her well on television.  Mare Winningham is a first rate actress (she was the only saving grace in that addictive hot mess St. Elmo's Fire)  and her Ida followed suit, with a much more dramatic turn.  Rather than providing Winslet's Mildred with witticisms she managed the businesses and did so with the directness of a drill sergeant. 

The Winner:  Eve Arden.  Winningham gave a solid performance but I felt as if I knew much more about Ida in the Crawford version.  Arden's performance was more likeable, more down to earth and infinitely more entertaining.  She can run a restaurant, balance the books and crack a mean joke?  Winner! 

Bruce Bennett vs. Brian F. O'Byrne.  Mildred's husband Bert is vital to the story, although he is very much a secondary character all things considered.  His infidelity and ultimate leaving is the impetus for Mildred waiting tables and eventually becoming a businesswoman so in a sense he drives all the action for the remainder of the story.  Bruce Bennett does a respectable job with his part, which was really a supporting role moreso than anything else.  He is seen at the beginning of the Crawford version, at the end and a few shots in between but really doesn't garner much screentime.  Brian F. O'Byrne is given much more of an opportunity to make Bert Pierce his and give the character some depth.  Despite his leaving fairly early on, he does pop up and show why Mildred fell in love with him as he's shown to have a decently solid character.

The Winner:  Brian F. O'Byrne.  O'Byrne wins this one through no fault of Bennett's.  He had much more to work with as Bert Pierce was far more developed in the Winslet version.  He gave a nuanced and subtle performance as a husband who, sick and tired of going to work day in and day out, returning home to a wife making pies and a spoiled rotten daughter, turns to a neighbor for excitement.  Bert Pierce is hardly the most sympathetic character in the story but O'Byrne manages to make him a good guy, one that I actually wished Mildred would give another chance to and get back together with. 

Ranald MacDougall vs. Todd Haynes.  Ranald MacDougall is credited as the main screenwriter for the Crawford version, adapting James M. Cain's novel for the screen (although there were uncredited writers also working on the script, including William Faulkner).  MacDougall not only had to make his version fit in the standard and acceptable two hour window he also had to make it digestible for the post-war audience who demanded women's films with a strong lead and a relatively happy ending.  Therefore, MacDougall had to stray from Cain's novel version and "film noired" Mildred Pierce with spectacular results.  The murder that began his film never existed in the book, nor did the ending that wrapped everything up and gave a satisfying ending to Mildred, as well as giving Veda was what coming to her.  Todd Haynes, on the other hand, remained faithful to Cain's version, with no murder and a somewhat unsatisfying and non-ending ending.  He had five hours in which to tell Mildred's story and he was able to utilize and create characters that did not make it into the Crawford version. 

The Winner:  Ranald MacDougall.  Despite being unfaithful to the Cain version, MacDougall's script is snappy, fast paced and keeps you on the edge of your seat - - compared to Haynes' script which is positively bloated and lethargic by comparison.  Although Haynes gives us more detail than MacDougall could provide, some of the scenes seem unnecessarily long and/or just plain unnecessary.  MacDougall managed to write what was important to keep the story interesting and fresh and it remains so, nearly 70 years down the road. 

Michael Curtiz vs. Todd Haynes.  Michael Curtiz famously did not want to direct Crawford, whom he considered a has been, but by the end of the shoot adored her.  While it speaks volumes on Crawford's professionalism, talent and overall character it also speaks as to Curtiz' ability to turn Crawford from a movie star into a legitimate actress.  He was able to draw noteworthy and career making performances out of not only Crawford but also Eve Arden and Ann Blyth.  Haynes did direct a beautiful performance from Kate Winslet but he did not manage to get the necessary performances from Morgan Turner and Evan Rachel Wood as Veda, either due to miscasting or just inability on one or all parts. 

The Winner:  Michael Curtiz.  Curtiz turned out a much higher quality film, with less time and resources.  His direction, along with camera angles and brilliant casting, makes his version far superior to Haynes'.  He also had a few other notable films under his belt before shooting Mildred Pierce, such as The Adventures of Robin Hood, Casablanca and Yankee Doodle Dandy

1945 vs. 2011.  Given all of the above, I think it's clear.

The Winner:  1945!  You simply can't top a classic and the original is the far better version.  From the cast to the script to the overall feel of the movie, Crawford's version trumps Winslet's version in nearly every way.  Winslet's version left me feeling exhausted (although I did watch the entire thing in one sitting) although it did give me a serious yen for Crawford's version.  And the ending of Winslet's version, again while true to Cain's tale, was such a supreme disappointment it very nearly ruined the entire event for me.  I only hope that someone watching the Winslet version without having seen the Crawford version would not judge the original by the remake.  There is simply no comparison.

So what do you say?  Have you seen both Mildred Pierces?  If so, which one is the clear winner in your book? 

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Birthday Chick: BILLIE DOVE

May 14, 1903

Born Lillian Bohny in New York City, Billie Dove had a silent film popularity that rivaled that of Mary Pickford, Marion Davies and Clara Bow.  Despite not being able to dance or sing, this lovely lady appeared in Florenz Ziegfeld's Follies, racking up some impressive credits before being sent west to Hollywood by Ziegfeld's wife, actress Billie Burke, when Burke discovered the close relationship between her husband and Dove.   Once in Hollywood, Dove would co-star with some of the biggest talents of the time - - John Gilbert, Warner Baxter, Tom Mix, Lon Chaney and Douglas Fairbanks.  It was co-starring opposite Fairbanks in the classic silent adventures The Black Pirate that Dove skyrocketed into superstardom.  Fame, however, would not last as she retired from the screen in 1932 after her last film role was significantly cut by William Randolph Hearst in order to showcase Hearst's mistress, Marion Davies.   Dove would return to the screen in a small, uncredited cameo role opposite Charlton Heston in 1963 and would die at the ripe old age of 94.

Best Known For . . .

The Black Pirate (1926)
The Marriage Clause (1926)
Sensation Seekers (1927)
The American Beauty (1927) (where she earned her nickname after appearing in a movie of the same title)
Blondie of the Follies (1932) (her last credited film role)

Did You Know?

Billie Dove's second marriage would last thirty-seven  years (from 1933 until 1970).  Her third marriage, in 1975, would last a mere three months.

Billie Dove had an intense, three year long affair with Howard Hughes in the early 1930s. 

Most of her films were destroyed in a studio fire.

She outlived her only son, Robert, who predeceased her in 1995.

Singer Eleanora Holliday, a big Billie Dove fan, changed her first name to Billie and the rest became history.

Steel Magnolias (1989)

Steel Magnolias

Starring: Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis, Julia Roberts, Tom Skerritt, Sam Shepard and Dylan McDermott

Director: Herbert Ross

Writer: Robert Harling (play and screenplay)

Release Date: November 15, 1989

Runtime: 117 minutes

Flick in Five (Sentences or Less): A comedy-drama full of revelations, love, tears and grief following several years in the lives of women who regularly see one another at a beauty shop in their small Louisiana town.

Flick Facts:

* The movie is based on a play written about playwright Robert Harling's sister.

* Meg Ryan was under contract to play the role of Shelby but producers let her out in order for her to play the part of Sally in When Harry Met Sally.

* Winona Ryder, a breakout star by 1988, was offered the role of Shelby before it was given to the then relatively unknown Julia Roberts.  

* Director Herbert Ross thought Daryl Hannah was too attractive to play the part of Annelle and turned her down, but asked her to come in and read anyhow.  She showed up at the studio dressed as Annelle and security refused to allow her in when they didn't recognize her.  She got the part.

* Both Dolly Parton and Darryl Hannah studied hair stylists so their scenes in which they are doing hair would be real and authentic.

Producers believed that the audience would not believe Sally Field as the mother of a 22 year old until she pointed out that in real life, she was the mother of a 22 year old. 

* After a bungled take, director Herbert Ross scolded Dolly Parton and asked her if she could act. The irrepressible Dolly replied "No, but it's your job to make me look like I can!"

* The movie was shot in the small Louisiana town of Natchitoches, with locals being used for background and extra parts.  When The Man in the Moon was filming in Natchitoches in 1991, extras were difficult to find as they had been so strained by the Steel Magnolias crew. 

* Between the film's six female principals, there are twelve Academy Award nominations and five wins.  Only Darryl Hannah and Dolly Parton have not won awards. 

Chick Speak:

* "In a good shoe I wear a size six but a seven feels so good I buy a size eight." 

* "Janice Van Meter got hit with a baseball.  It was fabulous."
         "Was she hurt?"
    "I doubt it.  She got hit in the head."

* "Honey, time marches on and eventually you realize it's marching across your face." 

* "I do not see plays, because I can nap at home for free. And I don't see movies 'cause they're trash, and they got nothin' but naked people in 'em! And I don't read books, 'cause if they're any good, they're gonna make 'em into a miniseries."

*  "Miss Truvy, I promise that my personal tragedy will not interfere with my ability to do good hair." 

"Well, you know what they say: if you don't have anything nice to say about anybody, come sit by me!"

*  "I don't like her. I don't trust anyone who does their own hair. I don't think it's natural. "

* "Ouiser, I'd recognize this penmanship anywhere. You have the handwritin' of a serial killer."

"The only thing that separates us from the animals is our ability to accessorize."

"I'm not crazy, I've just been in a very bad mood 40 years!" 

*  "Oh, Sammy's so confused he don't know whether to scratch his watch or wind his butt." 

"Ouiser's never done a religious thing in her life."
    "Now that is not true.  When I was in school a bunch of my friends and I would dress up as nuns and go bar hopping."

Flick Flove:  Steel Magnolias had the tagline "The Funniest Movie Ever to Make You Cry" and no matter how many times you see it, it holds true. This film is a wonderful mix of witty and moving writing and the uttery phenomenal acting by every principal actor and actress.  Not one miscast, not one poorly directed scene, not one piece of poor writing.  You just can't get much better than that.

Julia Roberts received an Academy Award nomination, well deserved, but in my humble little opinion, she's not even the best part of this film.  Neither is the always strong and dependable Sally Field.  This film boasts a trifecta of fabulous in Shirley MacLaine, Olympia Dukakis and Dolly Parton.  Their inteaction and exchanges are still classic, still humorous, still touching, even more than 20 years after this flick was filmed and released.  They are so endearing it makes me want to tease up my hair, plant a garden of tomatoes, bestow the nickname "Spud" on my husband and drink Coca-Cola from the bottle.

Flick Flack: The height of 80s fashion rears its ugly head here and it's memorialized on film.  Big bows, big shoulder pads, big hair.  Everything is big here, including the personalities.  It doesn't detract from the wonderful down home charm though. 

I personally have never cared much for Daryl Hannah and think she is much overrated as an actress.  Seriously, how hard is it to pretend to be a mermaid with no speaking ability, at first (Splash) or a bimbo piece of arm candy (Wall Street)?  However, as Anelle, Hannah is understated and, surprisingly, it works.

Spawns and Sequels: There has not been a sequel to Steel Magnolias, however the film continues to charm old and new audiences alike through DVD and cable. 

The Final Word: Steel Magnolias was one of the best movies of 1989 and the cast is a veritable "who's who" for that decade (and in the case of Julia Roberts, for the next decades to come). This flick completely and utterly defines a "chick flick" - - it's about relationships, relationships, relationships and the relationship focuses are primarily those between the females, as mothers, daughters, neighbors and friends.  The core cast of females is remniscent of one of my favorite films of all time, 1939's The Women.  Unlike that classic, though, Steel Magnolias does have actors in the cast and they provide solid supporting roles.  The wonderful Sam Shepard makes one of his (sadly) few film appearances.  Don't be fooled though - - the women own  this movie. 

Steel Magnolias is available for purchase at major retailers, including Amazon.  I am an Amazon affiliate. If you make a purchase through my link, I will receive a small commission.

For the trailer from Steel Magnolias:

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Strangers May Kiss (1931)

Strangers May Kiss

Starring:  Norma Shearer, Robert Montgomery, Neil Hamilton, Marjorie Rambeau, Hale Hamilton

Director:  George Fitzmaurice

Writers:  Ursula Parrott (novel), John Meehan (screenplay)

Release Date:  April 4, 1931

Runtime:  81 minutes

Flick in Five (Sentences or Less):  Lisbeth (Norma Shearer) is a modern woman who is having a passionate affair with footloose and fancy free journalist Alan (Neil Hamilton), both claiming that the dreadfully traditional institution of marriage is not necessary nor wanted in their world.  However, Lisbeth has fallen in love, and fallen hard, for Alan, who leaves her alone in Mexico to pursue a story with no promises for the future and Lisbeth goes on the rebound through Europe, changing men as often as she changes her lingerie, where good friend Steve (Robert Montgomery) who has long had a thing for Lisbeth, finds her and provides a tuxedo-ed shoulder for her to cry on.  Naturally, Alan reappears and he and Lisbeth both find that he is not nearly the open-minded free thinking modern man presumed when confronted with Lisbeth's very modern affairs. 

Flick Facts: 

*   Author Ursula Parrott also wrote the novel Ex-Wife, the book The Divorcee was based on.  That film, released the year before Strangers May Kiss, won Shearer her first and only Academy Award.

*  Actor Ray Milland has a brief uncredited, and yet memorable, role as one of Lisbeth's European admirers who cheekily states that she "changes her men with her lingerie".

*  Norma Shearer was married to MGM's "Boy Wonder" Irving Thalberg from 1927 until his death in 1936.   She was also the sister of the head of MGM's Sound Department, Douglas Shearer - - making Norma and Douglas the first brother-sister team of Oscar winners.

*  Shearer had just given birth to her first child when Strangers May Kiss began filming.  She was deathly afraid that her fans would notice changes in her appearances and went to extremes in dieting and exercise, as well as (needlessly) attempting to position her body behind set props, to disguise her post-partum figure.

*  Neil Hamilton began his career as the Arrow (Shirt) Collar Man in print ads for the shirts; by the time of his death in 1984 he had appeared in 268 silent and sound films.

*  Hamilton is perhaps best remembered as Commissioner Gordon from the 1966 television series Batman.

Hamilton had a rare long-lasting Hollywood marriage, from 1922 until his death. 

*  Strangers May Kiss is the third of five movies in which Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery co-starred. 

*  Robert Montgomery was widely considered to be one of the best dressed men in Hollywood  and for years didn't carry a wallet because it ruined the drape of his suit.  In many of his 1930s roles, Montgomery is seen exclusively in suits and tuxedos.

*  Montgomery joined the Navy during World War II, becoming a Commander and seeing action in both Europe and the Pacific.

Montgomery was the father of actress Elizabeth Montgomery, television's beloved Samantha of Bewitched.   

Flick Flove:  Nobody did fashion like the glamorous Hollywood leading ladies of the 1930s or set designers.  I could drool all day long at the stunning gowns and hats that Norma sports, and the fabulous Art Deco sets.  From the evening gowns to casual day attire to the jewels to the elaborate headwear . . . sigh.  I can't imagine living in such amazing apartments, lounging in the incredible clothes, working when I want (a la Lisbeth) and then jetting off to Mexico and Europe.  I sure would like to try though. 

Norma absolutely makes this movie a must-see.  Yes, I have a film crush on her but how gorgeous does she appear?  She's so endearing, so fun, so lovely, any movie with her during this Pre-Code period is worth the price of popcorn. 

Robert Montgomery is dependably solid as the sidekick Steve.  I much prefer him to the self-centered Alan and he has sure chemistry with Norma although in this film their chemistry is better suited to a brother-sister type of friendship.  While she had a little "tussle" with Montgomery in The Divorcee, Norma is strickly hands off with him here. 

Flick Flack:  I love Norma but what on earth was she thinking, pining away for Neil Hamilton when Robert Montgomery was waiting around?  Granted, Montgomery's character was a lovable drunk - - a common type during the early 1930s when drunks were merely bumbling and joking.  Maybe Hamilton translated better to 1930s movie audiences but I thought his character of Alan was a real jackass and Norma's Lisbeth deserved better.  Perhaps it's just me, as I've never gotten Garbo's appeal and she's immensely popular.

Can you say double standard?  This movie is rife with it.  Robert Montgomery's Steve tells Norma's Lisbeth that "we like our women straight".  Not straight, as we take it today, in a sexual orientation way but straight, as in no nooky before marriage, no history, no nothing, ladies.  Old fashioned?  You betcha.  Where's the double standard?  That men are expected to run around, sow their wild oats, do whatever they like while "their women" are staying prim, proper and tidy. 

And it's insinuated that Lisbeth has been tramping all over Europe with little discretion.  Steve informs her that he's heard "600 or 700 times" about her antics and she's supposedly well known throughout the region.  Seriously?  Was Lisbeth the only woman in the free world giving up the goose? 

Spawns and Sequels:  Strangers May Kiss is a virtual rewrite of sorts of The Divorcee and Let Us Be Gay, both starring Shearer, but without marriage being involved.  In The Divorcee, Shearer gives her husband a taste of his own medicine by "balancing their accounts" when she finds that he cheated on her.  In Let Us Be Gay, Shearer divorces her unfaithful husband and gallavants around Europe as a revitalized and revamped woman. 

The Final Word:  Strangers May Kiss is not as popular or well received as The Divorcee but the movie is just as worthwhile.  The message is similar - - that the rules are different for men and women and women who share the wealth are deservedly shunned and for feminists, it's a frustrating message.  The message probably dates the movie more than anything else. 

That being said, Strangers May Kiss is a fascinating look at Pre-Code Hollywood.  The film, with its depictions of decadence, gin-swizzling and perceived sexual immorality, would never been made a few years later, after the Code came into play, so seeing it here, almost flaunted for the viewer's pleasure and Depression-era escapism, is a treat. 

Strangers May Kiss was filmed and released 80 years ago but Norma Shearer remains as fresh and lovely today as she did all those years ago. making this film a joy to watch. 

Strangers May Kiss is not yet available on DVD, unfortunately, but Turner Classic Movies has the film in its rotation. 

For a scene from Strangers May Kiss:

To watch the film for free in its entirety click here.  (What are you waiting for?)

Saturday, April 9, 2011

City Streets (1931)

City Streets 

Starring:  Gary Cooper, Sylvia Sidney, and Paul Lukas

Director: Rouben Mamoulian

Writers: Dashiell Hammett (story), Max Marcin (adaptation), and Oliver H.P. Garrett (screenplay)

Release Date: April 18, 1931

Runtime:  83 minutes

Synopsis: Nan is a racketeer's daughter and in love with the improbably named Kid, who also improbably makes his living as a shooting gallery showman.  Kid is happy with his career path, Nan wants him to join the family business so they can marry and she can continue living in the lifestyle to which she's become accustomed.  Her views change when her father implicates her in a murder, telling her she will never spend a day in the "stir", and Nan is convicted.  While incarcerated, Nan's father convinces Kid to join the gang in order to free Nan.  Upon her release, Nan wants nothing more to do with the mob and wants Kid out as well but she may be too late.

Flick Facts:

* Sylvia Sidney replaced infamous "It" Girl Clara Bow in the role of Nan when Bow failed to show up on the first day of filming.

*  Star Sylvia Sidney had an impressive career in Broadway, films and then television, spanning an amazing seventy years.  Her last appearance was in a televised remake of Fantasy Island in 1998, a year before her death at age 88 in 1999. 

*  Actor Gary Cooper had a high profile relationship with actress Clara Bow, his intended co-star, in the 1920s.  He would eventually have other high profile romances with actresses Lupe Velez, Marlene Dietrich, Grace Kelly and Patricia Neal, as well as with the socialite-spy Countess Carla Dentice di Frasso. 

* Gary Cooper was producer David Selznick's first choice to play Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind (1939).  Cooper turned down the role, publicly saying that "Gone With the Wind is going to be the biggest flop in Hollywood history.  I'm glad it will be Clark Gable who's falling flat on his nose and not me."

*  Gary Cooper won Academy Awards for his performances in Sergeant York (1942) and High Noon (1953) and received an Honorary Oscar in 1961, which was emotionally accepted by good friend James Stewart, as Cooper was too ill with cancer to accept.

*  Actor Paul Lukas had a successful stage and film career in Hungary, Germany and Austria before arriving in Hollywood, where he specialized in womanizers and villians.

* Paul Lukas won an Academy Award for his performance in 1943's Watch on the Rhine, beating out former co-star Gary Cooper.  

This was one of actress Paulette Goddard's first film roles, as an uncredited nightclub patron.  She would later go on to more prominance in Modern Times, The Women and The Great Dictator, among others, and as the third Mrs. Charlie Chaplin. 

City Streets was director Rouben Mamoulian's second film.  He would later go on to direct such notable flicks as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Queen Christina and Silk Stockings.  He was also fired from the classic noir Laura and resigned from the Elizabeth Taylor extravaganza Cleopatra.  Footage shot in both films was not used in the final product.

* City Streets has the distinction of being the first film to use the sound flashback.  It was director Rouben Mamoulian's idea to repeat dialogue heard earlier in the film over a huge close-up of Sylvia Sidney's tear stained face as she recalls the past. 

City Streets was shot at Paramount Studios in New York City.

* Writer Dashiell Hammett was creator of classic literary characters Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon) and Nick and Nora Charles (The Thin Man).  City Streets was his only original screenplay. 

* Dashiell Hammett would begin a thirty year long afffair with playwright Lillian Hellman in 1931, the same year City Streets was released.  The affair would be memorialized in the film Julia, where Jason Robards, playing Hammett, won an Oscar and Jane Fonda, playing Hellman, was nominated for an Oscar.  Julia also has the distinction of being Meryl Streep's first film performance. 

Chic Chick Sounds:

There is no soundtrack for the Pre-Code City Streets but there is a small variety of music played during scenes that is uncredted.  "Sobre las olas (Over the Waves)" is played during a scene at the shooting gallery.  "Sing, You Sinners", "Happy Days Are Here Again", and "I'm Yours" is played by the band during the nightclub scenes.  "Prelude to Act I of 'Die Meistersinger'" is played at the end of the film.

City Streets is one of many gangster/crime noir films that were released during the early 1930s.  What makes it notable in my opinion is the presence of Gary Cooper.  This was "Coop's" first and only role as a gangster and the long, lean actor makes an interesting one.  He is lacking the dark, sinister look that was so common with cinematic gangsters during that time and resembles more a man fresh off the farm, or horseback, than racketeer.

There are definitely flashes of the future Coop to come and you cannot help but be attracted to the warm approachability and All American good looks and toothy grins exhibited by him.

Sylvia Sidney is lovely, if a bit aloof .  She's a good actress but didn't connect with me the same way other actresses of her era like Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford did. 

The storyline is a bit stereotypical, the prison scenes very clean and sanitary, with Sidney looking coiffed and nicely attired and the ending is no real surprise but it's still a neat little picture to view. 

Best Parts of City Streets: The young, poised on stardom Gary Cooper, who is amazing to watch.  He simply steals any scene he is in.  The names of certain characters is also delightfully 1930s Pre-Code (Kid; Pansy; Big Fellow Maskal).  I also thoroughly enjoyed the 1930s ladies' fashions and the interior design. 
Worst Parts of City Streets: Predictability!  There are no real surprises thrown at the viewer, with the exception of Gary Cooper making his living working at a shooting gallery.  And Sylvia Sidney's character at times seems a bit too meek for a racketeer's daughter.  Example:  Wanting to prevent the man she loves from walking into a trap, she runs after him, telling him not to go.  For about  five feet.  Then she stops and looks worried.  Huh? 

Spawns and Sequels: City Strees itself was actually a remake of a 1928 film.  While there was no sequel of City Streets, there were many films before and after City Streets that followed its basic format.

The Final Word: If you're a fan of Gary Cooper, Sylvia Sidney, Paul Lukas and/or Rouben Mamoulian, City Streets should be required viewing.  The film was shot while talkies were still relatively new but this film doesn't suffer from the scratchy, jumpy issues that can plague some early talkies.  There are certain aspects of the film that are very dated (Cooper makes his living at a shooting gallery; Sidney seems to have no real purpose in life other than getting married; Sidney's father is borderline ridiculously comical and very nearly unbelievable as being in the mob) but it is still an enjoyable film to view.  An interesting aside:  I came to the conclusion that radios in cars must have been a novelty at the time with the repeated shots of Cooper tuning the car's radio each time he drove.  

City Streets is not yet available for purchase or rental on DVD but is shown periodically on Turner Classic Movies.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Letters to Juliet (2010)

Letters to Juliet

Starring: Amanda Seyfried, Christopher Egan, Gael Garcia Bernal, and Vanessa Redgrave

Director: Gary Winick

Writers: Jose Rivera and Tim Sullivan

Release Date: May 14, 2010 

Running Time: 105 minutes

Synopsis: An American girl on vacation in Italy finds an unanswered "letter to Juliet" -- one of thousands of missives left at the fictional lover's Verona courtyard, which are typically answered by a the "secretaries of Juliet" -- and she goes on a quest to find the lovers referenced in the letter.

Flick Facts:

* Juliet's secretaries really do exist. They are called the Juliet Club and they volunteer to reply to letters left in Verona, as well as organize events in honor of Romeo and Juliet

* Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero, playing starcrossed lovers in this film, are a real life couple.

* Hugh Dancy was originally cast as Victor but dropped out and was replaced by Gael Garcia Bernal.

* Ashley Lilley who played Patricia is Amanda Seyfried's best friend and also appeared with her in Mamma Mia! (2008). 

* In this film and in Mamma Mia! Amanda Seyfried plays characters named Sophie.

* Letters to Juliet was filmed in and around New York City (Bryant Park and Manhattan) and Italy (Siena, Tuscany, Verona, Veneto and Soave).

* The film's estimated cost was $30 million; its total domestic gross was $53,051,260 million.

She Said, He Said:

* "I'm sorry, I didn't know love had an expiration date." 

* "Charlie doesn't approve, which makes it all the more fun!"

* "What's so romantic about eating in the dirt?"

* "It's over!  We're done!  We've found Nemo!"

* "I would have grabbed her from that blasted balcony and been done with it."

* "Dear Claire, What and If are two words as non-threatening as words can be. But put them together side-by-side and they have the power to haunt you for the rest of your life: What if? What if? What if? I don't know how your story ended but if what you felt then was true love, then it's never too late. If it was true then, why wouldn't it be true now? You need only the courage to follow your heart. I don't know what a love like Juliet's feels like - love to leave loved ones for, love to cross oceans for but I'd like to believe if I ever were to feel it, that I will have the courage to seize it. And, Claire, if you didn't, I hope one day that you will. All my love, Juliet."

Chic Chick Sounds:

The Letters to Juliet soundtrack takes you to the vineyards and marvelous landscapes of Italy, providing a wonderful listening experience.  Bella! 
"You Got Me"

Written by Colbie Caillat and John Shanks
Performed by Colbie Caillat

"Chianti Country"
Composed by Reg Tilsley

Written and Performed by Andy Georges

"Un Giorno Così"
Written by Massimo Pezzali
Performed by 883

"Per Avere Te"
Written by Romano Rizzati and Sergio Tocci
Performed by Franco Morselli

"Quando, Quando, Quando"
Written by Tony Renis and Alberto Testa
Performed by Laura Jane (as Lisa Jane) and Chris Mann

"Variations On A Theme By Mozart (Magic Flute) Op. 9"
Composed by Fernando Sor, Arranged by Jim Long

Written by Ferdinando Arnò and Luigi de Crescenzo
Performed by Malika Ayane and Pacifico

"Per Dimenticare"
Written by Matteo Maffucci, Thomas De Gasperi, Enrico Ciarallo, and Danilo Paoni
Performed by Zero Assoluto

"Sono Bugiarda (I'm A Believer)"
Written by Neil Diamond
Performed by Caterina Caselli

"Guarda Che Luna"
Written by Gualtiero Malgoni
Performed by Fred Buscaglione

"Love Story"
Written and Performed by Taylor Swift

"What If"
Written by Colbie Caillat, Rick Nowels and Jason Reeves
Performed by Colbie Caillat

I love Italy.  I have not yet gotten there but it is on my bucket list and until my feet are actually on Italian soil, I love movies that take place in Italy or have an Italian connection.  Letters to Juliet fit that bill perfectly.  The scenery was beyond luscious, an absolute virtual postcard - - just to die for.  If nothing else, the landscaping and stunning photography makes the movie worthwhile. 

Romance lovers will delight in this story, particularly ones who have a Shakespeare affinity.  The idea behind Juliet's Secretaries is lovely and the story Rivera and Sullivan dreamt up using it as inspiration is rich and inspiring.  Sophie and Charlie make a classically mismatched-on-the-surface pair and both are young, earnest and incredibly attractive.  Claire and Lorenzo cover the over-twentysomething set with a mature and enduring love story that will move the most impossibly passive moviegoer. 

Best Parts of Letters to Juliet: Italy, Italy, Italy.  The locale and photography is so scrumptious if you can't book the next flight to Verona, you will at least be hankering for your favorite pasta dish and a glass of wine. 
Worst Parts of Letters to Juliet: The obstacles keeping Sophie and Charlie apart are stereotypically cliche and can give Letters to Juliet a formula feel.

Spawns and Sequels:  Letters to Juliet has spawned no sequels (nor should it) but it does have a connection to one of the greatest love stories put to paper, Romeo and Juliet.  

Other Italy-based love stories include Roman Holiday, Only You, A Room With a View and The English Patient.

The Final Word:  I went to see Letters to Juliet in the theater, expecting some nice, enjoyable entertainment.  I got that, plus a renewed itch to visit Italy and a beautiful respect for Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero, who basically steal this film away from the younger Amanda Seyfried and Christopher Egan.   How wonderful to have a love story that focuses on a couple in their sixties/seventies who are still vibrant, active and very much in love!  I thrilled on the story of a 50 year old letter that was finally answered, and two hearts that were still aching for the other.   I saw this movie with a girlfriend over 40 and we were both delighted.  I rewatched it on DVD with my niece who is 14 and she was just as pleased with it.  A strong, satisfying romance for teens, young adults and 30+, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend Letters to Juliet and it's definitely good for repeat viewings. 

Letters to Juliet is available for purchase at major retailers, including Amazon.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Let's Vote!

What do you think is the most romantic movie of all time?  Do you agree with my assessment of Somewhere in Time or do you think I've lost it? 

Check out my poll on the sidebar and vote for your favorite - - the one that makes your heart sing, the one that makes you cry, the one that you think captures the essence of what a romance film should be. 

Don't agree with the choices?  Simple.  Select "none of the above" and leave me a comment here and let me know what movie should have been included. 

And please feel free to leave me comments about your choice if included in the poll.  I'd like to know why that particular movie is your choice and I love comments! 

Happy Friday all!