Victor/Victoria (1982)

 

Only a moron gives advice to a horse’s arse.  Paris, 1934. Coloratura soprano Victoria Grant (Dame Julie Andrews) fails in her audition at a nightclub where she’s seen by gay cabaret singer Carole “Toddy” Todd (Robert Preston) who has been fired from his gig at a second-rate Chez Lui. When Victoria punches out Toddy’s bisexual hustler lover Richard (Malcolm Jamieson), Toddy comes up with what he considers to be an inspired idea: to pass Victoria off as a female impersonator. Victoria. Her male alter ego could be the toast of Paris and make a lot of money as gay Polish Count Victor Grazinski. It all goes well until Chicago gangster King Marchan (James Garner) turns up with his girlfriend Norma Cassady (Lesley Ann Warren) and falls for Victor, convinced he is a she … A woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman. A breathtaking blend of musical comedy, gender confusion, romance, slapstick, cross-dressing and cabaret, this loose remake of 1933 German screwball film Viktor Und Viktoria  written by Hans Hoemburg and director Reinhold Schuenzel is a showcase for all writer/director Blake Edwards’ talents as well as providing wife Julie Andrews’ greatest role. Preston is a joy as her outrageous gay mentor in a warm, funny, generous performance and Garner has great fun subtly unravelling when his suspicions are proved happily correct in a scenario that takes pleasure in mocking his macho stance. Warren is also excellent as his Thirties moll with bodyguard Alex Karras surprising everyone by coming out.  And for Edwards fans there’s the prospect of Graham Stark providing his customary support in a cast alight with provocation and tolerance proving sexual orientation really is not the issue as long as you’re getting some. What great characters! With songs by Leslie Bricusse and composer Henry Mancini there’s a lot to love in an astonishingly constructed entertainment. Never mind twist endings, the entire narrative is twisted in every possible direction. A modern classic. People believe what they see

The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

The Greatest Show on Earth

Under the big top only two days count – today and tomorrow. Brad Braden (Charlton Heston) is trying to keep the world’s biggest railroad circus on the road but the backers want to curtail the current run to ten weeks. He has to demote his girlfriend trapeze artiste Holly (Betty Hutton) from the centre ring to make way for returning high flyer The Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde) who immediately sets out to seduce her, ignoring former lovers Angel (Gloria Grahame) from the elephant act and Phyllis (Dorothy Lamour) who’s in a South Seas performance. Concessionaire Harry (John Kellogg) is duping the customers while Buttons the Clown (James Stewart) hides behind his cosmetics but a visit from his mother in the crowd suggests he is a former doctor who mercy killed his young wife ten years earlier even if he explains away his first aid skills as wartime experience. Elephant trainer Klaus (Lyle Bettger) is fired when jealousy gets the better of him and he nearly kills Angel during his act. He decides to take revenge when the circus is travelling again … I send her for a doctor and she comes back with an elephant. Sly banter, fantastic characterisation and plain old-fashioned good against bad make this splashy Cecil B. DeMille spectacular an evergreen entertainment that mixes romance, action, crime and disaster storylines with panache. Extraneous attractions to the main narrative are real-life performers from the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Circus’ 1951 troupe, obstinately glum children in the audience and the tent being raised, a high-wire act in itself. There’s Bing Crosby and Bob Hope in one shot, presumably to ogle Lamour; while Hutton gets to belt out some lively numbers amid a rousing score by Victor Young. The shifting love triangles between Heston, Hutton, Wilde and Grahame are smartly managed with nifty dialogue. Walk me off – do not rob me of my exit. The train wreck is justly famous even if it looks a bit Dinky Cars these days. They’ll never find me behind this nose. The mystery with Buttons is nicely sustained with a terrifically ironic payoff and Heston gets to go on with the show. Lawrence Tierney has a nice supporting role and there’s a satifsying reveal at the end, showing us exactly who’s been narrating this tall tale. Expertly written by Frederic M. Frank, Theodore St. John, Frank Cavett and Barré Lyndon aka Alfred Edgar with uncredited additions by Jack Gariss. You’ll laugh! You’ll cry! You’ll hurl! Classic. The only net I use is in my hair

The Big Circus (1959)

The Big Circus

You are a human bullet … blasted out of a mighty cannon! Bankrupt circus owner Hank Whirling (Victor Mature) manages to get his show back on the road, but has reckoned without the reaction of his disgruntled former partners, who are determined to see him fail just when he needs to impress a banker who is determined to inspect the business. He has to take on Randy Sherman (Red Buttons) to watch the spending. He also has to keep a close eye on his younger sister Jeannie (Kathryn Grant) and a daredevil high-flyer Zach Colino (Gilbert Roland), who rashly promises to perform the stunt of the century but amid a series of supposed accidents that turn out to be the work of a saboteur they have to make it to New York before Hank’s former partner Jules Borman (Nesdon Booth) … You face the snarling fangs of the King of Beasts! Written by Charles Bennett and Irving Wallace from a story by producer/auteur Irwin Allen, this is a splendidly splashy spectacular, bursting with vigour and vitality, just the ticket for a family entertainment in these (non-) testing times. Spills, thrills and elephants with dramatic acrobatics, an escaped lion, attempted sabotage and financial finagling. Mature was almost on the skids but he does very well here. Rhonda Fleming is excellent in the supporting role of PR Helen Harrison and has some bright scenes. With Vincent Price as your ringmaster and Peter Lorre as Skeeter the clown where better to turn than this well-constructed mystery?!  Directed by Joseph M. Newman. Roll up! Roll up!

Simon and Laura (1955)

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I have acted with octogenarians, dipsomaniacs, dope-fiends, amnesiacs, and veteran cars. When television producers select warring married actors Simon Foster (Peter Finch) and his wife Laura (Kay Kendall), to be the subjects of a live television series documenting a completely happy marriage, they appear to be the perfect choice by chirpy producer David Prentice (Ian Carmichael) but they’re only chosen because the Oliviers aren’t available. On camera, the couple is caring and supportive of each other in the daily one-hour long show. In reality their relationship is rocky but because the show is a hit, Simon and Laura try to keep up the facade until cracks start to surface and romantic complications with the production staff threaten to upset the publicity machine and finally they go off-script on live TV … Do you know what happens when you allow yourself to be regularly exhibited in that glass rectangle? As a response to the incoming threat of TV which was more than existential but factual with the introduction of a new independent channel in addition to BBC, this adaptation of Alan Melville’s stage play by Peter Blackmore elides the situation into a marital farce in which the battling opposites learn to live with one another. The running joke about scripted reality shows is surprisingly pertinent today. See that the script stresses the solidarity of the home. Even what once was called a public intellectual, in the shape of journalist and commentator Gilbert Harding, makes an appearance, describing the dangers inherent in appearing on television:  the  reflexive ironies proliferate.  I find the rapier thrust of Madam’s conversation highly stimulating! The inimitably elegant Kendall is perfectly cast and gets a few barbs that recall her real-life (as it were) career as well as having some opportunities for slapstick antics; while Muriel Pavlow is terrific as the show’s scriptwriter Janet Honeyman, in an engaging cast filled with familiar faces like Richard Wattis, Thora Hird and Alan Wheatley. Finch is good in his first leading role in a British film as the put-upon middle-aged hubby who thinks it’s all rather beneath him but he’s almost upstaged by the obnoxious know it all kid (Clive Parritt) playing his TV son. Television? You call that a wonderful job? Three weeks’ rehearsal, not enough money to cover your bus fares out to Lime Grove, technical breakdown in your one big scene, and no repeat performance? No, thank you. (The line about the Oliviers must have been a little odd for him to hear after his affair with Vivien Leigh). A terrific satirical premise that blends Taming of the Shrew with the growing pains of TV, played at a rate of knots. Great fun. Directed by Muriel Box with beautiful production design by Carmen Dillon and costumes by Julie Harris. We’ll mirror the lives of an ordinary, happily married husband and wife!

 

The Greatest Showman (2017)

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Any other critic might call it a celebration of humanity. A young Phineas Barnum and his tailor father Philo are mocked at the home of the wealthy Hallett family but he falls in love with their lovely daughter Charity and they keep in touch by letter when she is sent to school. When he grows up the adult Phineas (Hugh Jackman) marries Charity (Michelle Williams) and moves from job to job while rearing two little girls in poverty until he hits on the idea of a show with nature’s oddities, creating a community of people who are shunned – Tom Thumb, the Bearded Lady, the Irish Giant, et al. He persuades high society playwright Philip Carlyle (Zac Efron) to join forces to give him respectability and their success brings them fame – even Queen Victoria wants an audience with them. Phineas meets Swedish songbird Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) and mortgages everything to bring her all over the USA but she wants him as well – and betrays him, lying to the press, prompting Charity to leave him. When he returns to NYC protesters burn down the circus and Philip runs into the burning building to try to rescue his beloved Anne (Zendaya) an acrobat of colour whom he must battle society to spend his life with …  This moves quickly and expeditiously, daring you to see the cracks – in fact it’s really a stage musical with few concessions to anything you don’t know outside the business of show. It’s got a very inclusive message which is right-on for the current climate. Written by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon and directed by first-timer Michael Gracey, there were reshoots apparently supervised by James Mangold who receives an executive producer credit – he had worked closely with Jackman on Logan.  It all adds up to a very nice night out at the musical theatre – even if it bears little relationship to the reality behind the real-life subject or even the musical Barnum by Cy Coleman, Paul Stewart and Mark Bramble. The songs are by Benj Pasek and Michael Paul and bear no relationship with any music produced in the nineteenth century:  to call the music ersatz would be misleading, it’s very contemporary and could come from any new musical you’ve seen or heard lately. However it’s a great showcase for some heartfelt, showstopping numbers  – particularly Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle) leading on This Is Me and Efron and Zendaya’s Rewrite the Stars. There are few dramatic segues so this won’t trouble your brain overly much:  it’s a swaggering, confident piece of work which has little faith in the audience – a criticism constantly made of Barnum himself by the resident journo critic James Gordon Bennett (Paul Sparks) who chronicles his highs and his lows but eventually comes round.  He says it there, it comes out here. Praise is due cinematographer Seamus McGarvey for keeping everything looking absolutely splendid.

Encore (1951)

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My great aunt Louise very nearly had a man’s mind. She also very nearly had a man’s moustache. Anthology dramatization of three short stories by W. Somerset Maugham.  The Ant and the Grasshopper: Tom (Nigel Patrick) is a thorn in the side of his diligent brother George (Roland Culver) but a chance meeting with a wealthy woman changes everything. Directed by Pat Jackson and adapted by T.E.B. Clarke. Winter Cruise: Miss Reid (Kay Walsh) is boring her fellow cruise ship passengers with incessant talking, so  led by the captain (Noel Purcell) they set her up on a date with a handsome steward (Jacques Francois) that has surprising consequences for everyone. Directed by Anthony Pelissier and adapted by Arthur Macrae. Gigolo and Gigolette: Stella (Glynis Johns) and her husband Syd (Terence Morgan) are professional daredevils, but her worries about the future upon meeting two old troupers with a similarly dangerous act prompt her to risk it all at the casino in Monte Carlo. Directed by Harold French and adapted by Eric Ambler. I’ve always had a taste for Maugham’s stories and this is a pleasingly piquant collection, each introduced by the man himself from Villa La Mauresque, his home on the Riviera, where some of the action is set. Each story has a different rhythm and tone and yet they all coalesce into a solid whole with the obligatory (and rather unexpected) twist ending, giving Glynis Johns one of the best of her early roles. This was the third of a trilogy of films based on Maugham’s stories and it’s a treat.

Trapeze (1956)

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Burt Lancaster is Mike Ribble, a disabled acrobat who walks with a limp because of a triple somersault that went drastically wrong years ago. Now he’s working as a rigger. Tino Orsini (Tony Curtis) wants to learn the triple and Ribble’s the only guy who can teach him. He doesn’t want to but his ex Rosa (Katy Jurado) persuades him to do it. The men form an act and try to crack the big time but when Italian trampolinist Lola (Gina Lollabrigida) gets between them their plans start to come apart at the seams … Vivid, colourful and atmospheric circus film directed by Carol Reed from a script by Liam O’Brien, adapting a novel called The Killing Frost by Max Catto. The screenplay was credited to James R. Webb but there were uncredited additions by Ben Hecht and Wolf Mankowitz. La Lollo makes her American debut in a starry, well-performed production that shows off Lancaster’s acrobatic skills, well documented by Robert Krasker’s photography (he was responsible for all those tilted angles for Reed in The Third Man.) Curtis is an excellent leading man, full of beauty, brio and bravery. Malcolm Arnold’s score captures the jauntiness and terror of the circus with its captivating sense of danger and daring. The bromance is great fun and La Lollo is an alluring femme fatale, as you’d expect! This was damned by the critics but huge at the box office. Quoi de neuf?!

 

The Walk (2015)

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140 feet. A walk of pure terror and joy. What Philippe Petit did in 1974 was literally a high-wire act, a dance of death between the Twin Towers. Once he saw the photograph of them, he knew he had to do it. The first part of the film is amazingly clunky considering the origins – Robert Zemeckis is a world-class storyteller but the combination of piece-to-camera and voiceover narration with this Pinocchio-esque story of a street performer (Joseph Gordon-Levitt replete with Frawnch accent) mentored by Uncle Rudy (Sir Ben Kingsley, as he insists upon being called – so be it!) is Awkward. The real action – still with the strange narrative devices – is the caper-heist nature of the preparation in NYC:  assembling a team, getting into the buildings, the donning of disguise, the criminal acts necessary to perform this magical act or ‘coup’ as Philippe calls it. One of the great ways to put across story in cinema is process – showing us something that we would otherwise know little about, and how precisely it can be done. This replicates what we already know from Man On Wire, the documentary that also uses Petit’s memoir and boasts Petit himself in the role of narrator.  The difference here is budgetary and visionary – because ultimately we accompany him not just to the edge of the Towers but across the air that separates them – and it is sweat-inducing stuff. He goes from South to North – and then – turns back. And lies down. And comes face to face with a curious seagull. It is just extraordinary and more than compensates for the shortcomings in what precedes it. We are all on the high wire. And it seems impossible, crazy, a hallucination, although we have photographs to prove that it took place and people watched it, albeit from very far away, beneath him on the streets. There were just 140 feet separating the North and South Towers and now that they are no longer there this seems … imaginary, the dream of a madman, a matter of faith. This was a miracle that really happened. Religions have been built on less.

The Crimson Pirate (1952)

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Galleon? Check. Skull and crossbones? Check. Velvet loons? Check. Someone shouting ‘Avast’? Check. Swashbuckling? Check and check and check!!! This is one of the supreme entertainments of the studio era. Burt Lancaster is the piratical Captain Vallo operating in the Caribbean in the late 18th century. He and his men capture a frigate belonging to the king that’s carrying Baron Gruda to the island of Cobra to crush a rebellion led by El Libre. Gruda suggests they exchange the leader for a reward.  The crew say this isn’t pirate business so Vallo and his mute henchman (Nick Cravat) are sold out. The deal with Libre’s fellow rebel Pablo Murphy (Noel Purcell) falls asunder. Vallo has a gruff approach to romance with Libre’s daughter Consuela (Eva Bartok) – “What we have for each other we just have to get over!” When Professor Prudence (James Hayter) gets working on his scientific experiments to take back the island things get seriously funny. This is elegant, energetic, exuberant entertainment. It is a film for all ages, for the ages. Working from a first screenplay by blacklistee Waldo Salt, Roland Kibbee fashioned an amazing, tongue in cheek action adventure with oodles of quips to spare. Christopher Lee, who has a supporting role with the Brits (boo hiss!) said of the turn of events in his memoir,

The script started life as serious, nay solemn, but Robert Siodmak, the director, with all the sure touch of real tension behind him in The Killers andThe Spiral Staircase, took stock of the material in forty-eight hours and turned it into a comedy. It was like a Boy’s Own Paper adventure, except that Eva Bartok was in it.

— Christopher Lee, Tall, Dark and Gruesome[4]