Thursday, December 16, 2021

The Buzz About Fuzz

As director Edgar Wright’s follow-up to his dead-on horror satire Shaun of the DeadHot Fuzz (2007) is an even better, funnier and more richly multilayered movie, weaving multiple genres and homages to previous classics into one complex, rollicking, fast-paced and always entertaining film.

Our hero is the uptight, by-the-book Police Sargent Nicholas Angel—perfectly portrayed by an adorably serious and dorky Simon Pegg— a perfectionistic and therefore wildly unpopular member of the London police force who makes everyone else look bad with his obsessive exceptionalism. In the guise of a “promotion,” Angel is transferred out of London and basically put out to pasture, relegated to the tiny English country village of Sandford in Gloucestershire.

Quaint and picturesque Sandford is a perennial Village of the Year with a zero-crime rate and a lackadaisical police service (don’t call it a police force). Sandford’s Most Wanted is a runaway swan loose from the zoo, and the Neighborhood Watch Committee frets about kids in hoodies, living statues and crusty jugglers in the town square that might sully the town’s sterling reputation.

Simon Pegg as Nicholas Angel, with the Sandford Police Service

But Nicholas Angel senses a darker reality. At first in overzealous hot pursuit of shoplifters, surly townies and the aforementioned runaway swan, he realizes that a rash of bloody accidents and gory mishaps (all fatal) are in fact deliberate hit jobs.

A police officer who has never fired his gun,  Angel must embrace his dark side to fight evil—and is encouraged to indulge his secret predilection for firearms. With the help of his partner, Danny Butterman, son of the police chief (unforgettably played by Nick Frost), Angel sets out on an investigation that culminates in a town-wide explosion of vigilante justice. 

Inspired by Danny’s favorite movies Point Break and Bad Boys II, the last quarter of the film shifts gears from buddy comedy to a kick-ass shoot ’em up, a fitting tribute to  “every action movie ever made,” with further nods to classic conspiracy thrillers like The Wicker Man.

Danny (Nick Frost) and Nicholas on duty

Juxtaposing zany physical comedy with often gory scenes of violence and rapier-sharp wit, and peopled with a marvelous cast at the top of their game, Hot Fuzz is a no-holds-barred, adrenalin-filled thrill ride, further fueled by a rousing soundtrack of ’80s and ’90s pop music.  

The chemistry of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost is the glue that holds the film together as the pair warmly salutes and satirizes the buddy comedy genre. They’re a classic comic team in the style of Laurel & Hardy, Abbott and Costello, and Martin & Lewis, with Pegg as straight man and Frost as clown. (The pair would go on to make more films together, but none have matched the critical or financial success of Shaun or Fuzz.)

Jim Broadbent as Chief Frank Butterman

Billie Whitelaw as Joyce Cooper

Edward Woodward as Tom Weaver

The film is packed with well-known actors, a virtual who’s who in English filmdom—and no one does dry humor better than the Brits! From cake-eating Police Chief Frank Butterman, who makes sure criminals get their just desserts, played to the hilt by Jim Broadbent (Moulin Rouge), to the legendary, always menacing Billie Whitelaw (The Omen, Night Watch) as Joyce Cooper, proprietress of the Swan Hotel, to Wicker Man antihero himself Edward Woodward, the cast is uniformly stellar. There are also small cameos by Bill Nighy and Martin Freeman as well as unbilled bits from Cate Blanchett and Steve Coogan.

Timothy Dalton as Simon Skinner

Timothy Dalton, who started his career as an 80-year-old Mae West’s handsome young bridegroom in Sextette, is a standout as urbane supermarché owner Simon Skinner, who plays a clever cat-and-mouse game with Angel. (Dalton’s short-lived tenure as James Bond in the late 1980s might have benefited from some of the Welsh actor’s comedic adeptness and droll delivery. But after the feather-light performances of the previous Bond, Roger Moore, the producers wanted the series to take a darker turn. Both Dalton's films underperformed, though, and Pierce Brosnan restored Bond's light comedic touch in his interpretation of 007.)

Olivia Colman as PC Doris Thatcher

Future Oscar winner Olivia Colman (The Favourite, The Crown) makes the most of her small role as a member of the Sandford Police Force amused by the “accidents” that plague the small town. (When a drunken townsman presumably sets his house on fire during a late-night “fry-up”, she quips: “Who doesn’t love a midnight gobble?”)

Attempting to apprehend Sandford's Most Wanted

With a script cowritten by actor Pegg and director Wright and skillfully creatively executed by film editor Chris Dickens and cinematographer Jess Hall, Hot Fuzz is rich, masterfully fast-paced storytelling for movie lovers, one of those films you have to see again and again to capture every nuance, reference and comic aside.

Thanks to Gabriela from Pale Writer and Gill from Realweegiemidget Reviews for hosting this amazing Not Bond Blogathon which will undoubtedly leave us all a bit shaken but not stirred. Look forward to reading all the posts!

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Joan Fontaine: An Elegant Scream Queen

I love when actresses past a certain age are able to transition from leading ladies into character roles—that is truly a test of talent, tenacity and charisma. Some of the films they do may not be classics, but that makes it even more fun. They usually work even harder to entertain us than in their film heydays.

Joan Fontaine’s last big screen role was in a picture that she produced with Hammer Films, and she and the film are eminently watchable, even if it goes totally off the rails near the end. (There are spoilers ahead, because the train wreck of an ending is my favorite part!)

The Witches (1966) marked Fontaine’s descent into the Grand Guignol, that entertaining 1960s phenomenon of mature leading ladies seeking renewed box office appeal in the horror film genre. Pioneered by Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane, the genre is populated by luminaries and legends including Tallulah Bankhead (Die! Die! My Darling), Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters (What’s The Matter With Helen), Ruth Gordon (Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice) and Elizabeth Taylor (Night Watch). Fontaine’s own sister Olivia deHavilland joined the mature scream queen coven as well with Hush Hush, Sweet Charlotte, Lady in a Cage and later The Swarm.

Joan Fontaine as Gwen Mayfield

(Fontaine’s feud with sister deHavilland is as well known as her iconic performances in films like The Women, Hitchcock's Rebecca and Suspicion, for which Fontaine won the Best Actress Oscar five years before her sister finally copped the gold statuette. It’s rumored they didn’t speak for more than 20 years before Fontaine’s death at the age of 96 in 2013. DeHavilland passed away at the age of 104 in 2020.)

Joan with sister and arch rival Olivia in the 60s, when they were still speaking

In The Witches (released in the U.S. at the time as The Devil’s Own), Fontaine plays schoolteacher Gwen Mayfield, who has been hospitalized with a nervous breakdown following a traumatic event overseas, an indigenous uprising against the Christian missionaries, culminating in a terrifying voodoo ritual.  

To her relief and delight, upon her discharge from the sanitarium Miss Mayfield is offered a dream job, as headmistress in a country day school in the picturesque village of Hedaby, where she'll be installed in a cozy little cottage replete with English rose garden and her own young housekeeper. 

Hedaby is populated with uneducated, hardworking, down-to-earth plain country folk, but evil is lurking beneath the town’s bucolic charms, splendidly photographed in Hammer fashion and foreshadowing the company’s masterpiece The Wicker Man seven years later.

The movie offers a great opportunity to showcase the talents of trained British actors developing those quirky characters that make Hammer horror films such a treat. You can see the familiar tropes a mile away—the butcher who practices his knife skills with a little too much relish, for example—but this company of actors is totally committed and believable in their roles.

A standout in the cast is Hammer Film favorite Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies (The Devil Rides Out) as the fey and deliciously vague Granny Rigg, who uses her cat as a familiar to stalk Miss Mayfield. Alec McCowen (Never Say Never Again) is just right as Alan Bax, the wealthy landowner who wears a priest’s collar though he’s not in the clergy. Kay Walsh (In Which We Serve) is veddy veddy proper as Alan’s older sister Stephanie Bax, a celebrated writer and intellectual who looks down her nose at the common folk she presides over as a member of the landed gentry.  

The wonderful Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies as Granny Rigg

Alec McCowen as Alan Bax

Martin Stephens as Ronnie Dowsett and Ingrid Boulton as Linda Rigg

There are new young faces to be found here, too, including Martin Stephens (The Innocents, Village of the Damned) and Ingrid Boulting (The Last Tycoon) as a young teen couple who may be about to lose their virginity, to the town’s great distress. 

Truth be told, the storytelling is quite compelling as the plot unfolds and Miss Mayfield begins to suspect that’s something’s amiss. (You guessed it—they’re all witches.) There is an elegant building of suspense and revelation that culminates in a climax that—well, at least breaks the tension. (And for many viewers, sort of ruins the whole film.) 

And here’s the spoiler section: The producers were obviously flummoxed about how to portray a scene of supreme evil and obscenity—a wild bacchanal followed by a human sacrifice – and get it past the 1966 censors while still receiving a code of approval from the Motion Picture boards and associations in the U.S. and U.K. 

As a result, the climactic “orgy” scene is either an embarrassment or a rollickingly hilarious camp tableau, depending on your point of view, with participants gnashing their teeth, rolling in the mud and literally eating dirt under the hypnotic persuasion of the usually fastidious but now wild-eyed Kay Walsh.

The townspeople get grubbier and stupider as the evil plan is revealed

Outrageously adorned with deer antlers studded with candles (half headdress, half chandelier),  Walsh puts on quite a show and goes straight over the top, gravely intoning some Pig Latin mumbo jumbo and waving her arms in staccato fashion, as the grubby, now zombified congregation does a herky-jerky dance to her tune. It’s absurd and laughable, but if you’re like me, you can’t stop watching. 

The scene stealer: Kay Walsh as Stephanie Bax

Through it all, though, Miss Joan Fontaine never loses her dignity, displaying ladylike heroism that results in an abrupt happy ending. As well, she’s photographed superbly—there’s nothing remotely 'hagsplotation' about her beleaguered Miss Mayfield, usually appearing beautifully coiffed and dressed in timeless tweed and chic sweater sets despite all the satanic fuss. (It’s always a plus to be a producer!)

Though this was her final bow as a big screen actress, Fontaine did continue working intermittently in television, appearing memorably in the ABC miniseries The Users (based on Joyce Haber’s racy Hollywood roman a clef novel) and in an episode of The Love Boat in 1977. 

Miss Fontaine was still quite lovely at age 50 when she made this picture

Today, a bevy of former A-List actresses continue the Guignol tradition via producers such as Blumhouse, lending their names to shockers and thrillers of varying quality, usually for streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime. I just recently saw Barbara Hershey (The Entity) as a feisty nursing home resident battling ghosts and demons; and Paula Prentiss (The Stepford Wives) as a wheelchair-bound dementia patient haunting and taunting her at-home caregiver. (Sorry, I already can't remember the titles of those two epics...and won't be writing about them. But I’m thrilled that these talented ladies are still working!) 

Thanks so much to the wonderful Gill of Realweegiemidget Reviews and Barry of Cinematic Catharsis for hosting this amazing blogathon and getting us all in the Halloween mood. Look forward to reading everyone’s posts.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

The Devil Is In The Details

Based on the novel by Dennis Wheatley (The Devil Rides Out), the film version of To The Devil A Daughter (1976) bears little resemblance to its source material. It’s little more than a hodgepodge of supernatural claptrap, further hampered by a jumbled storyline, but it is entertaining nonetheless to die-hard classic horror fans like me. 

Here’s a thumbnail of the plot: An occult novelist is called upon by a desperate man to rescue his daughter who has been brainwashed in a Bavarian monastery by a pseudo-Catholic cult as part of a Faustian pact he now regrets. (That’s complicated enough, but there are about a dozen other subplots to contend with here as well.)  

Directly influenced by that bankable genre starting with Rosemary’s Baby and continuing through The Exorcist and The Omen, this contemporary rather than gothic Hammer Film borrows heavily from them all. Its overstuffed storyline is crammed full of black magic, voodoo and various and sundry occult mumbo jumbo, replete with an obligatory Black Mass/Hieros Gamos ritual sex scene.

The cast is first-rate, proving the old adage that even the greatest collection of actors can’t save a movie from a bad (or nonexistent) script.

A properly clothed Lee and Kinski

Hammer veteran Christopher Lee (Horror of Dracula, The Wicker Man, The Man With the Golden Gun) headlines the proceedings with a solid and dignified performance despite all the messy twists and turns of the story, sailing through with his signature unruffled panache. Though he had high hopes for this follow-up to his marvelous performance in the classic Devil Rides Out, this film can’t hold a candle to the previous Wheatley adaptation.

As the novelist, the legendary Richard Widmark (Kiss of Death, Judgment at Nuremberg, Coma) has little to do except spout pages of exposition to attempt to explain the incomprehensible and convoluted plot points that never quite come together. (Widmark was found to be difficult and uncooperative on the set, loudly cursing the quality of the script, which changed every day. Viewers will find he was displeased for good reason.)

Sister Nastassia and a peevish Richard Widmark

Widmark’s character does have one good line retained from the Wheatley novel when he explains the appeal of Satanism as an excuse for “dancing naked in churchyards and using the devil as an excuse to get sex.” 

Nastassia Kinski, daughter of German actor Klaus Kinski (who was originally cast in the Widmark role and got a better offer!), is the beleaguered heroine of the piece, the young virgin who must be consort to the demon her cult wishes to invoke. She spends most of her screen time either dressed in a nun’s habit or totally naked, surrounded by chanting devil-worshippers.  

(Incidentally, the film also distinguishes itself by giving us Sir Christopher Lee’s only cinematic nude scene, though reportedly some angles were filmed with a body double. He’s in great shape here, though, for a man of 54!)

Young Nastassia would soon become the protege of director Roman Polanski and star as Thomas Hardy’s ill-fated heroine in his film version of Tess, though she’s probably best remembered from that sex-charged, 1980s Cat People remake.

Denholm Elliott emotes as Honor Blackman models scarves

As Kinski’s tortured father, a wild-eyed Denholm Elliott (Maurice, Raiders of the Lost Ark) chews the scenery using the masterful RADA training that made him such a reliable and fine character actor in countless British films.

The talented Frances De La Tour has a small role as a toothsome Salvation Army worker who moves the plot forward an inch or two—presumably for comic relief, as she never appears again. Honor Blackman, forever known as Pussy Galore from Goldfinger, swans around in fashionable head scarves until she suffers a particularly gruesome death.

There are some effective horror set pieces— a ghost with a crescent shape amulet who is never explained, a terrifying tableau of of a man on fire—every horror trope but the metaphysical kitchen sink is thrown in for good or bad measure. If you don’t think and just watch, you might enjoy some of the spectacle!

The obligatory worship of golden idols

A demon named Astaroth is the idol of worship by the Bavarian cult, depicted as a spread-eagled figure on an upside down cross (the Hanged Man tarot symbol) in a vulgar parody of Christ's crucifixion.

The monstrous little demon baby evoked through a bloody birth ritual is reminiscent of both Lovecraft lore and a shocker made the previous year called It’s Alive. The scene with the bloody baby crawling between Kinski’s legs and salivating blood all over her unclad body is an image you can’t unsee.

This last Hammer horror film does pay homage to its colorful past with the liberal use of bright red blood so beloved to Hammer gore aficionados. In a few key scenes including the film’s climax, bowlsful of the signature fake blood are used, cartoonishly bright red “Kensington Gore” achieved with a mixture of corn syrup, paraben, food coloring and Kodak Photo-Flo fluid. 

If the film had built to a rousing climax and tied up some of its many loose ends, one may be able to forgive its transgressions, but apparently the production ran out of money and the producers were forced to fashion a hasty, tacked-on and underwhelming ending.

Sir Christopher going a little over the top

Ironically, Father Michael Raynor is one of Lee’s most subtle performances, though he does go over the top when called upon! He cuts a handsome figure in his long black cassock and white collar, his manner gentlemanly and enigmatic and understated. With his diabolically charming smile and famously smoldering eyes, Christopher Lee is here, as always, the personification of elegant evil. He emerges from this not-so-great picture completely unscathed.

To The Devil A Daughter is a little known horror curiosity, a campy exploitation film that has developed a cult following for many obvious reasons. Too much is thrown at the wall in the service of entertainment —though a few things stick. If you’re anything like me, you’ll buy the DVD so you’ll be able to fast-forward to “the good parts”—again and again! 

This is my entry in the Christopher Lee Blogathon hosted by Cinematic Catharsis and Realweegiemidget Reviews. I look forward to reading all about one of my all-time favorite and most prolific stars!

Saturday, March 06, 2021

The Backstory to 'Broads'

These Old Broads
is a 2001 TV movie written by Carrie Fisher (with Elaine Pope) and starring Debbie Reynolds, Shirley MacLaine, Joan Collins and Elizabeth Taylor. In it, Fisher set out to pen a campy romp that gay audiences would love, a valentine to lovers of Old Hollywood and the legendary ladies who twinkled in its firmanent. 

The premise is simple: A trio of has-been actresses who can’t stand each other team up for a tribute to the 60s beach movie that made them stars (think Where The Boys Are). But the plot of the movie is really beside the point. The real fun of These Old Broads is knowing the backstories of its superstar cast and connecting the dots.

Fisher found her movie title in an old Hollywood story that perfectly captured the attitude toward aging actresses in Hollywood.

In 1962, studio head Jack Warner told producer Robert Aldrich when he asked for financing on a picture starring aging divas Bette Davis and Joan Crawford: “No one’s going to give you a dime for these old broads.” (But Warner was wrong, of course, and Whatever Happened To Baby Jane went on to become the surprise hit of that year.)

Carrie Fisher with her mom Debbie Reynolds, circa 1970

Carrie Fisher herself was one complicated character. Space Princess. Hollywood Princess. And also Princess of Pain - obsessive, intense and bipolar, with a passionate and encyclopedic knowledge of Hollywood folklore. We are fortunate that she was such a prolific writer and chronicler of the many things going on inside that brilliant beautiful mind.

If you’re not familiar with Fisher’s history and Hollywood pedigree, I highly recommend watching her hilarious one-woman show Wishful Drinking (available on HBO) before seeing These Old Broads. In it, she gives an enlightening synopsis of her life in a lecture replete with a flow chart of her famous family tree—aptly titled Hollywood Inbreeding 101. 

Bottom line: it’s all connected—and many of the details must be understood to fully appreciate Broads

Back in 1957, singer Eddie Fisher and girl next door MGM star Debbie Reynolds (parents to Carrie and brother Todd) were America’s sweethearts, and best friends to impresario Mike Todd and his new wife Elizabeth Taylor. (Debbie had even served as Elizabeth’s matron of honor.) Tragically, Mike Todd suddenly died in a plane crash, leaving Elizabeth devastated. Debbie sent Eddie to help her friend in any way he possibly could. 

The Other Woman: Elizabeth Taylor with Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds

Then, as Carrie tells it, “My father rushed to her side—and then made his way around to her front.” The despondent widowed Taylor needed comfort and consolation, and in Eddie’s daughter’s words, “She consoled herself with my father’s p****s.”

The scandal and feud that resulted played out in the tabloids for years to come. Elizabeth was branded an adulteress, and Eddie lost his lucrative TV show. Reynolds divorced Fisher. Fisher and Taylor would marry in 1959, but three years later Taylor would dump him as well for costar Richard Burton, igniting yet another Scandale.

In Broads, Debbie Reynolds plays a role very close to her real self, an unsinkable former movie star who owns a hotel and movie memorabilia museum.  

One key scene in These Old Broads capitalizes on the Debbie/Eddie/Liz scandal and is fascinating to watch, the square-off scene between Elizabeth Taylor and Debbie Reynolds. It’s full of fun, affection and nostalgia as Debbie playfully chastises her former friend for being a nymphomaniac and Elizabeth defends herself by calling Debbie a boring born-again virgin. Debbie forgives Elizabeth and together they tear Eddie to shreds for coming between them. In real life, Debbie and Elizabeth had buried the hatchet years before, but for a classic movie lover it’s a real treat to see an onscreen version of their reconciliation. (It’s the raison d’etre for the whole film, in my opinion!)

Friends forever: Elizabeth Taylor and Debbie Reynolds

With almost nothing to do or interesting to say, Shirley MacLaine fares less well than Debbie and Elizabeth in Broads. The character she plays would have benefited by a dash of the metaphysical/woowoo (some say kooky) spiritual persona that has helped make the name Shirley MacLaine iconic, but no one thought of that.

But of course, MacLaine has backstory that connects her directly to both Debbie Reynolds and Elizabeth Taylor in the Hollywood tapestry of myth. In Postcards from the Edge, Carrie Fisher’s thinly veiled account of her recovery from a drug overdose, MacLaine famously played the role of the mother fashioned after Debbie, opposite Meryl Streep in the Carrie role. 

And Liz Taylor once “stole” the Oscar that MacLaine believed was hers, back in 1961! 

Liz "stole" Shirley's Oscar in 1961, but Shirley got one too in 1984

Nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her role of Miss Kubelik in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment,  MacLaine was the odds-on favorite to win. That is, until fellow nominee Elizabeth Taylor fell ill with pneumonia in London and was at death’s door. Only emergency surgery saved Elizabeth from drowning in her own lung fluids, along with the prayers of filmgoers worldwide who forgave her sinful past transgressions (specifically, stealing Debbie’s husband Eddie). “I prayed right along with them for Elizabeth’s recovery,” a saintly Debbie Reynolds was quoted as saying.

The Academy voters took pity on her as well and Taylor won, for her performance as a trampy call girl in the sleazy yet slick soap opera Butterfield 8, prompting Shirley MacLaine to retort cynically, “I lost to a tracheotomy.” (MacLaine would finally win the coveted gold statuette for Best Actress in 1984, for Terms of Endearment.)

Connecting the dots to…Joan Collins. When Elizabeth had fallen ill, it had been none other than Joan Collins who was tapped to replace Taylor as the Queen of the Nile in the big screen Fox epic Cleopatra. (But Taylor, of course, recovered!)

Joan Collins almost took over the role of Cleopatra from an ailing Taylor - but she recovered!

Collins, considered to be the poor man’s Elizabeth Taylor, had been a Hollywood glamour girl for half a decade but had never achieved the A-List status of a Taylor or a Monroe. The British beauty did some high profile parts (taking over the role Joan Crawford played in The Women for the color remake The Opposite Sex, for example) but her filmography also contained numerous lesser efforts such as the sword-and-sandal epic Land of the Pharoahs.

Married to flamboyant songwriter and performer Anthony “What Kind of Fool Am I” Newley in the 1960s, Collins became more well known as an international jetsetter than as an actress, though she did take time out to raise a family. A ubiquitous presence on International Best Dressed Lists and in the tabloids, Collins was seen frugging at posh nightclubs in seqinned minidresses, glittering with diamonds, sporting her trademark false lashes and kohl-black eyeliner, high bouffant wigs and falls. Fabulous!

Building an icon: From 1950s glamour girl to 1960s fashionista to TV's top femme fatale

In the 1970s, Collins worked steadily, often in horror films (like Tales That Witness Madness and The Empire of the Ants) and titillating semi-sexploitation ugh films like The Bitch (based on a book by her equally famous sister Jackie Collins, who exposed the seamier side of fame and fortune with her racy contemporary romance novels, most notably The Hollywood Wives.)

Then came the TV series Dynasty, in which her tour de force performance as the beautiful, villainous and flawlessly fashionable Alexis Morell Carrington Colby Dexter Dexter Rowan revitalized her career and propelled her to a richly deserved icon status of her own. 

In Broads, Joan looks spectacular - she was 67 at the time - but she seems miscast in her role of a gangster’s moll (shades of Lana Turner and Johnny Stompananato) and her American accent leaves something to be desired. 

Perhaps Elizabeth had been offered the Collins role first and turned it down (though it wouldn’t have been a good fit for her either) and then bade Fisher to create a role in which she could relax in bed most of the time. Taylor suffered from constant agonizing pain from back trouble and had difficulty walking, and indeed for the rest of her life conducted most of her business from her bedroom! 

Like Mae West, Elizabeth did some of her best work in bed

(For all her beauty, talent, fame and and money, Taylor’s life was indeed beset by crisis after crisis, tragedy after tragedy, dozens of health scares, operations and close calls. A long-running soap opera. But she still found the energy and time to create a billion-dollar perfume business and to establish, organize and promote the AIDS charity AMFAR.)

In her small role as a high-powered Hollywood agent, Elizabeth steals the film from her famous costars, a zoftig earth mother lounging in her caftan and barking orders in a thick New York accent.  (Taylor had converted to Judaism when she married Mike Todd and ever since, always referred to herself as a Jewish American Princess and a Jewish Mother, and she plays it to the hilt here.)

If only the movie itself were as interesting as the stories behind it and the stars in it!  It’s a mess in many respects (a mix of slapstick farce and bitchy comedy of manners) but its heart is in the right place. Any movie that gives work to mature, powerful, accomplished women is all right in my book. When it’s on again, you can be sure I’ll be watching it! 

Thanks for the opportunity to add this entry to the Joan Collins Blogathon hosted by RealWeegieMidget Reviews and Taking Up Room! I look forward to exploring the glittering career of Dame Joan with my fellow bloggers! 

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Selznick's Unconquerable Fortress

A world at war. An uncertain future, the loss of loved ones and the need to draw together for strength, comfort and joy. These are among the themes of David O. Selznick’s Since You Went Away (1944).

The effects of WW II on the collective psyche were not unlike the psychological impacts of our currently raging pandemic, an event that has beckoned us back to the cozy pleasures of hearth and home, a refuge from the dangers out there in the world.

Since You Went Away is a unique wartime tale, an intimate story with an epic sweep, its spectacle not depicting the hell of embattled war zone combat, but the quiet determination of those who kept the home fires burning. Its setting: An Unconquerable Fortress—The American Home 1943.

Episodic montages punctuate this intimate family drama to convey the toll of the war on all Americans – soldiers marching to war, bidding farewell to loved ones in crowded railway stations, dancing away their troubles at raucous USO gatherings. Church congregations seeking strength, overflowing hospital wards teeming with injured and limbless servicemen. But chiefly this is the story of the Hilton family.

For producer David O. Selznick (Dinner At Eight, David Copperfield, Rebecca), this film was a labor of love that obsessed him almost as much as his legendary Gone With The Wind a few years earlier. He adapted the film himself (“Screenplay by the Producer” reads his modest credit), and though the film’s director is credited as John Cromwell, it is Selznick who controlled every aspect of the storytelling in his inimitable, frenetic, famously megolomaniacal style.

Here, producer Selznick assembles a cast of both veteran actors and fresh faced newcomers to create a story that is as entertaining as it is thought provoking, and the principals in the all-star cast generate plenty of star power. 

The Hiltons: Claudette Colbert, Jennifer Jones and Shirley Temple

Claudette Colbert is Anne Hilton, whose husband has just gone off to war, leaving her with two teenage girls to raise alone. 

In her long career, Colbert transitioned gracefully from early talkie femme fatale (Sign of the Cross, Cleopatra) and madcap heroine (she won her Oscar for It Happened One Night) to the mature wise mother figure she portrays here. An unusual round-faced beauty with wide set eyes, Colbert was one of Hollywood’s most versatile actresses—equally at home wrapped in mink or luxuriating in a bath of asses' milk in Cecil Be DeMille’s ancient Rome and Egypt, or donning a helmet and combat boots as an Army nurse in 1943’s So Proudly We Hail (another essential for WWII aficionados).

David Selznick’s muse (and some say obsession) Jennifer Jones plays Anne’s eldest daughter Jane Hilton in her first starring role since her career-making, Oscar-winning turn in The Song of Bernadette

Star-crossed lovers: Robert Walker and Jennifer Jones 

Born Phyllis Isley and married young to fellow actor Robert Walker, Jones had been discovered, groomed for stardom and given the name Jennifer Jones by David Selznick. Selznick fell deeply and compulsively in love with her, though Jones was still married to husband Walker, the father of her two children.

And guess who plays Bill, Jones’s ill-fated love interest in Since You Went Away? None other than the cuckolded Walker. Despite the fact that they filed for divorce in mid-production of this film, Jones and her estranged husband display great screen chemistry and their romantic scenes sizzle, especially one taking place on a haymaker at a farm. It’s interesting to note that their onscreen lovemaking was being supervised by the very man who had engineered their impending divorce—and filming those scenes was reportedly tense, with Svengali overtones, no doubt.

 The boyishly handsome Walker would go on to star memorably opposite Judy Garland in Vincente Minnelli’s The Clock and Farley Granger in Strangers On A Train but suffered from mental illness, exacerbated by alcoholism - he died of an accidental overdose in 1951 just after completing the Hitchcock classic.

Jones was Selznick’s inspiration but many of the productions he mounted to showcase her were misfires, including the overheated Western Duel In The Sun and ill-advised remake of A Farewell To Arms with Rock Hudson. Selznick died in 1965. 

Shirley Temple as Brig (note the iconic child star in background!)

Playing Jane’s little sister Brig Hilton was a big comeback for Shirley Temple. Temple has David Selznick to thank for rescuing her from the career oblivion that most child stars experience when they reach puberty and adolescence. The top box office star of the 1930s, topping the Quigley Poll three years running, Temple was an icon of doll-like perfection, with her trademark sausage curls bouncing and tiny feet tap dancing beneath starched crinoline skirts. 

Dropped unceremoniously by her home studio 20th Century Fox at the ripe old age of 11 and briefly signed to MGM who had earlier hoped to star her in The Wizard of Oz, Temple made but one film there that flopped (Kathleen). She then retired to the fashionable Harvard Westlake prep school where for the first time, she lived life as a normal teenager until she was signed by Selznick. 

And that’s what she plays here, a typical WWII teenager who briskly runs the vacuum cleaner, fights with her sister for bathroom time and participates in wartime rubber and scrap drives with her shy friend Gladys. 

Shirley blossomed into a lovely young woman. Since You Went Away revitalized her career and she was featured in a number of “A” pictures throughout the 1940s including I’ll Be Seeing You, Fort Apache with John Wayne and first husband John Agar, one of Clifton Webb’s popular Sitting Pretty sequels and opposite Cary Grant in The Bachelor and the Bobbysoxer. She retired from the screen in 1950, marrying businessman Charles Black and becoming involved with Republican politics, serving most notably as a diplomat as Ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia. 

Sparring partners: Agnes Moorehead and Joseph Cotten, refereed by Colbert

Joseph Cotten is charming as the handsome Navy lieutenant former boyfriend of Anne and her husband Tim’s best friend, deeply in love with her yet wanting only her happiness—the one that got away. He is particularly effective when sparring delightfully with Agnes Moorehead as a vain, narcissistic and holier-than-thou matron who hoards and judges and gossips her way through the war.  (Moorehead and Cotten, of course, were longtime colleagues as members of Orson Welles’s Mercury Theater repertory company and costars in the Welles classics Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons.)

This is the film that introduced the handsome Guy Madison to movie audiences. Here, as a sailor boy who meets Jane and Bill at a bowling alley, Madison is as sweet and wholesome and appealing as a vanilla ice cream soda (which the youngsters in the film long for but can never taste because of food rationing!) Soon, he’d star opposite Shirley Temple in Honeymoon.

Madison had been discovered by Selznick casting director and soon-to-be- Hollywood super agent Henry Willson. Madison became of one Willson’s first clients in the “stable of studs” he famously amassed and built into stars in the 1950s—along with Tab, Rock, Troy and other prime specimens of “beefcake”. 

Also memorably featured in the cast are Monty Woolley (The Man Who Came To Dinner) as the gruff, rigid, complicated Captain Smollett who is transformed by the loss of estranged grandson Bill in the war, and a short but powerful cameo by the legendary Lionel Barrymore as a minister who strengthens the spines of his church brethren with a rousing homily. 

Eye candy: Henry Willson discovery Guy Madison 

Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel is on hand to lend her inimitable warmth, humor and humanity to the proceedings as the aptly named Fidelia, the Hilton family housekeeper. Today, though, it’s impossible not to wince at the unmistakably racist overtones in how her character is drawn. Not only is McDaniel playing another domestic (as she did in just about every film and TV show in which she ever appeared), she’s forced to spout a stream of zany malapropisms, albeit amusingly and with perfect comic timing, that underscore her position in the world as an uneducated woman of color. As Fidelia, McDaniel rises far above her material, as all African-American performers of that era were forced to do. Dressed in contemporary stylish attire here, McDaniel exudes the same aura of fiercely protective love that she displayed in her Academy Award winning role as Mammy.  But the character sounds a truly jarring note.

Hattie McDaniel as Fidelia: Forced to rise above her material - again...

 Though Selznick does include a brief perfunctory glance at a black family as the father is sent off to war in one of his sweeping montages, the lack of representation is glaringly obvious when viewed today, in a film supposedly celebrating the American Way and costarring the first African-American Oscar recipient. 

At turns funny and touching and somber, Since You Went Away is engrossing film fare for a long, lazy afternoon (in or out of lockdown!). Selznick’s romantic sentimentalism reaches its apex in the iconic farewell scene, as Jane runs to follow serviceman Bill’s train as it pulls away, promising him eternal love with no guarantee she’ll ever see him again. It can still bring a few tears to the eyes if you’re in the mood!

Thanks for the opportunity to participate in the Home Sweet Home Blogathon, hosted by Realweegiemidget Reviews and Taking Up Room. I look forward to reading all the entries!