Light Up the Sky! (1960)

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What used to be called the forces comedy is a venerable film tradition but this starts out as a very stagebound vaudeville adaptation and mutates into something darker and dramatic. Narrated to camera years later by seemingly inept and dippy motorcycle-riding Lt. Ogleby (Ian Carmichael) who is actually quite bright and insightful, he regales us with the antics of a bumbling band of misfits manning a rural searchlight battery during the Blitz. Benny Hill and Tommy Steele are the McGaffeys, who take off to perform sketches at the theatre every chance they get and McGaffey the younger (Steele) is in trouble – or rather his girlfriend is. Then there’s grumpy Lance Corporal Tomlinson (Victor Maddern) who wants time off to get married.  Ted Green (Sydney Tafler) is mourning his son and tries to give advice but it goes unheeded. As the stories become stronger – someone going AWOL but being helped at the eleventh hour – the stakes are raised and there is (inevitably) a tragic sacrifice the next time a German plane comes close … Robert Storey’s play Touch it Light was adapted by Vernon Harris and while the comedy mixes oddly with the drama for the most part, it becomes a far stronger work in the concluding half hour. Directed by Lewis Gilbert.

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Pool of London (1951)

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Look beyond the shadow of its walls and what do you find?  Dan (Bonar Colleano) is an American merchant sailor docked in London who’s persuaded by music hall performer Charlie Vernon (Max Adrian) to smuggle stolen diamonds to Rotterdam – but he finds out from girlfriend Maisie (Moira Lister) that the watchman on the job was killed and it’s pinned on him. Jamaican shipmate (Earl Cameron) is there to help but he’s involved in a relationship with ticket seller Pat (Susan Shaw) and is unwittingly drawn into the crime with the police hot on their trail. Some fabulous shooting around postwar London – from the Thames to Rotherhithe Tunnel and all the back streets in between, this is a detailed and fascinating portrait of the underbelly of portside life in the bombed-out city with a couple of thrilling chases and a nailbiting theft. Cameron makes a terrific impression portraying the first interracial relationship in British cinema. The performances are wonderful all round, with nice support from Leslie Phillips and Alfie Bass among a very impressive cast. An atypical Ealing film, written by Jack Whittingham and John Eldridge, produced by Michael Balcon, directed by Basil Dearden and adorned with an adventurous score by John Addison.

 

 

It’s in the Bag (1944)

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A Gert and Daisy film – which is to say a comedy starring a couple of English vaudeville and radio comic performers (sisters Elsie and Doris Waters) – in which the robust Cockney biddies discover they’ve inadvertently got rid of £2,000 sewn into the hem of their late grandmother’s dress and have to go to all sorts of extremes to retrieve the dress and thereby the fortune. It involves donning masquerade at a theatre to impersonate the snobby Rose Trelawney (Vera Bogetti) who’s trawling protege Peach St Clair (a very young Megs Jenkins) about for his/her nascent stage career. There’s a funny sleepwalking scene  on rooftops, some farcical scenes as they give their military outfit the runaround and the pair bring the house down at the conclusion with one of their (allegedly) typical rousing singalongs, but the ‘social satire’ for which they were acclaimed seems like a very distant relic at this juncture, probably not helped by the ‘lost’ wartime release being cut by something like 20 minutes for DVD with neither titles nor credits. The pair’s brother was Jack Warner, of Dixon of Dock Green fame. Written by Con West, directed by Herbert Mason.

The Goodbye Girl (1977)

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Ask an actor a question you get his credits. A confection so tonally sublime it’s ridiculous. Neil Simon wrote a screenplay about Dustin Hoffman’s early days starring Robert De Niro and directed by Mike Nichols. De Niro was all wrong – comedy not quite being his thing – and Nichols quit and Simon went back to the drawing board and came up with this and a far more simpatico cast several months later with a new director, Herbert Ross. Paula (Marsha Mason, ie Mrs Simon) is the former Broadway dancer who finds out her married lover has abandoned her and daughter Lucy (the brilliantly smart-assed Quinn Cummings) to do a movie in Italy (with Bertolucci!) and without her knowledge has sublet his apartment where they live to a colleague straight in from Chicago. Actor Elliot Garfield (Richard Dreyfuss) is self-conscious, neurotic and driven and fussy and moves in to Lucy’s bedroom as Paula realises she has nowhere else and won’t move out and needs someone to pay the rent. Elliot is preparing to give his off-off-off-off-Off Broadway Richard III for director Mark (Paul Benedict) who wants him to play it as ‘the queen who wants to be King.’ Elliot succumbs. As Paula tries to get fit and lose flab to return to the stage, Elliot’s camp-as-a-caravan site Richard flops terribly and her sympathy for him becomes something else. Their living arrangements are suddenly rendered more complicated … The humour, the performances and the text are tightrope-worthy:  Paula could be a shrew in the wrong hands (Simon famously declared he hated actresses…); Elliot could be plain irritating (Dreyfuss is simply perfect in an Oscar-winning role); and the screamingly funny queer reading of Richard III just couldn’t be done nowadays (unless a woman were playing it….) because the millennials/snowflakes/whatever identity politics you’re having yourselves would be crucifying everyone concerned. And Quinn Cummings, who later became a part of the wonderful TV show Family, is simply brilliant as the snarky daughter whose man crush is taken away from her. All of the performances were recognised in this perfectly handled backstage comedy but these are roles that couldn’t even be conceived nowadays. The Seventies. Love them. Love this.

Easter Parade (1948)

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When Broadway star Fred Astaire’s dance partner Ann Miller leaves him for a solo act he wagers he can make a star of the next girl he sees – who happens to be Judy Garland. This sheerly delightful Irving Berlin musical comedy is a wonderful backstage romance and even the performance of Kennedy pimp Peter Lawford warbling A Fella with an Umbrella can’t ruin a gloriously atmospheric colourful romp in turn of the century New York. Highlights include the showstopper Steppin’ Out With My Baby and The Girl on the Magazine Cover, plus the final title number. From a story by husband and wife team Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, who co-wrote the screenplay with Sidney Sheldon. Two accidents caused casting changes – Gene Kelly broke his ankle playing volleyball and suggested Astaire replace him, while Cyd Charisse’s broken leg meant Miller got her big break at MGM (as it were!). Gorgeous stuff as you’d expect from director Charles Walters. Easter blessings and chag Chanukah sameach.

The Country Girl (1954)

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This is the film that earned Grace Kelly her Best Actress Academy Award and nowadays her performance looks better than ever:  look at what she has to do. She plays the dowdy, dependable but once glamorous wife of faded alcoholic Broadway star Frank Elgin (Bing Crosby) whose chance at a comeback is created by temperamental director Bernie Dodd (William Holden) against his backers’ better judgement. Dodd believes Kelly’s a suicidal drinker but she’s actually fronting for the massive insecurity of her husband, an habitual and chronic liar who’s using their son’s death in his care as an excuse for his cowardliness and retreat to the bottle. Kelly has to keep him going while the out of town previews go badly and go along with his stories to Dodd, who thinks she’s destroying him until he finally sees Frank on a bender and Frank confesses. Then Dodd realises his antipathy is based on his pure misogyny – he’s down on marriage since he cheated on his ex-wife obviously – and thinks he’s in love with her. Kelly thinks she is sympathetic to him too but she wants her husband’s comeback to work too. This Clifford Odets story is adapted very well by producer/director/writer George Seaton with key observational touches – there’s a lovely bit where Kelly overhears the audience’s opinions in the interval and smiles to herself – in between the big scenes, which are adorned with some crackling expository and personal dialogue. One of Crosby’s final lines is to die for. However he overplays his moroseness and Holden is occasionally too strident although that’s probably the Odets character – making Kelly’s job of pivoting between the pair that much harder. Some of her best moments are beautifully adorned by Victor Young’s supremely subtle score. A cracking backstage drama that deals with addiction, bereavement, guilt, grief and a dying marriage:  you know, the little things. Now, let’s put on a show!

My Friend Irma Goes West (1950)

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The famous radio sitcom gets another big screen go-round in this diverting entertainment whose principal attraction is the Lewis-Martin team, sidekicks to wannabe card sharp John Lund, Hollywood actress Wilson and singer Lynn. Lewis’ goofy scenes with a chimp are very funny and even the PC crowd will forgive him for redding up as an Indian. (Lewis, that is.) With gangsters, kidnapping, a loony tunes fake producer, TV stardom, and a typically good music track by Leigh Harline. Written by Cy Howard and Parke Levy, directed by Hal Walker.

The Turning Point (1977)

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Although like most female humans Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes was part of my upbringing I would not say that I’ve ever been a real balletomane and this film must work better for those who are. Because even though it’s ostensibly about the relationship between an ageing prima ballerina and her former rival, now a housewife and mother to an upcoming star, there’s an awful lot of performance. A lot. Arthur Laurents’ screenplay was based more or less on the friendship between dancers Isabel Mirrow Brown and Nora Kaye (who was a co-producer with Laurents and director Herbert Ross, who was married to Kaye. The three had a complex personal/sexual relationship.) Leslie Browne – Brown’s real-life daughter by fellow dancer Kelly Kingman Brown – plays Emilia, the teenage dancer who’s talent-spotted by The Company when they come to town in Oklahoma City, reuniting Emma (Anne Bancroft as the fictionalised incarnation of Nora Kaye) with DeeDee (Shirley MacLaine, as the fictionalised Isabel Mirrow). DeeDee’s memories of her life as a successful dancer and giving it all up when becoming pregnant by fellow dancer Wayne (Tom Skerritt), now her husband and partner in a dance school, start churning. When she accompanies Emilia, Emma’s god daughter, to NYC, to spend the summer and realise her dream, she strays from her marriage, is shocked by her ambitious daughter’s affair with the male lead Yuri (Mikhail Baryshnikov) and eventually has it all out with lifelong rival Emma over whether she lost the lead in Anna Karenina years ago due to her pregnancy:  and she wonders, Was she ever really any good? It’s a question that has haunted her for nearly two decades. The fact that their confrontation ends in a catfight was a point of contention among critics. However as funny as that scene is – and it winds up being highly comic – it is an emotionally and dramatically logical conclusion to a relationship between women constrained by fiercely deprived physical experiences and discipline:  there have been major psychological consequences to choosing these lives. Finally they can break free and tell people who they really are (up to a pointe…) And as Emilia’s star rises, Emma’s falls, and DeeDee comes to terms with the reality of her own decisions. Baryshnikov’s real-life lover Gelsey Kirkland had been offered the role of Emilia but she was being treated for drug addiction at the time, which is how Browne ended up playing a version of herself. There is a narrative thread about male dancers and homosexuality in the film and why DeeDee might have married Wayne but Yuri is like a cockerel in a hen house. A terrific work about women, marriage and career and there’s great stuff about the business of running a company and all the bitchiness one expects from a backstage movie. But there’s so much ballet!!! It shares the record for the most nominations for an Academy Award without a win. Bancroft and MacLaine are really marvellous and hit all the notes, but I wonder how this would have been if the producer’s first choice – for whichever of the lead roles she wanted – had been accepted by Princess Grace of Monaco. Wow.

Venus in Fur (2013)

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A writer-director in a Paris theatre is despairing of finding a lead for an adaptation of von Sacher-Masoch’s dominatrix fantasy when into the building sweeps a foul-mouthed ball of fire who happens to be late for her audition and is line-perfect. Mathieu Amalric and Emmanuelle Seigner are reunited after The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and the adaptation of David Ives’ play by Roman Polanski (M. Seigner!) is a delectable, clever, compelling and triumphant two-hander. The leads are absolutely stunning in this study of power playing as she persuades him she is just the right actress for this particular role. Amalric is more than a little reminiscent of Polanski and fans will be recalling The Tenant with charged delight.  Baise mon pied!

The Entertainer (1960)

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John Osborne’s dramatic work was like a rocket under the theatrical establishment of mid-Fifties Britain and this excoriation of the disintegrating Empire was lit up by Laurence Olivier’s extraordinary performance as the leering seedy fifth-rate comic Archie Rice at the Royal Court. Osborne wrote this for Olivier and he reportedly delivered a shockingly good performance, bringing him right up to date with the seismic changes in contemporary theatre. Tony Richardson directs this screen adaptation by Osborne and Nigel Kneale, shot on location in Morecambe with Oswald Morris’s glistening cinematography shining a torch on the social decay that Rice embodies in his adulterous and failing private and professional life. Joan Plowright, soon to be Olivier’s wife following the breakdown of his marriage to Vivien Leigh, plays his daughter, who is enduring her own troubles; Brenda de Banzie is the long-suffering second wife; Roger Livesey (Colonel Blimp) is his retired (and revered) vaudevillian father; and Albert Finney makes his film debut as the unfortunate son sent to Suez. Alan Bates also makes his screen debut as the other son (he had starred in Osborne’s Look Back in Anger on the stage) with Daniel Massey rounding out an impressive ensemble that includes the wonderful Shirley Anne Field and Miriam Karlin. John Addison contributes a brilliant score (as ever) to a film of awfully convincing despair as a music hall career comes to a brutal end. “Why should I care?” warbles Archie as everything falls to pieces. Unforgettable.