Lucy Gallant (1955)

Lucy Gallant

Don’t get people mixed up with flowers. That only works for the birds and the bees or didn’t anyone tell you? 1941. Stranded by a storm in Sage City Texas en route to Mexico, Lucy Gallant (Jane Wyman) is assisted by handsome rancher Casey Cole (Charlton Heston) who helps find her suitable lodging in a town celebrating recent oil strikes. Local women’s reaction starting with Irma Wilson (Mary Field) and her daughter Laura (Gloria Talbott) to her fashion persuades Lucy to sell the contents of her trousseau and she decides to stay and open a dress shop with the backing of the local bank manager Charles Madden (William Demarest). Lucy lives at Molly Basserman’s (Thelma Ritter) boarding house and runs her store out of Lady ‘Mac’ MacBeth’s (Claire Trevor) brothel, The Red Derrick. She resists newly rich Casey’s romantic approaches explaining that she’d been on the verge of marriage when her fiancé jilted her following her father’s indictment for fraud. Casey proposes to her but only if she gives up business. She returns to find her store has burned down. He underwrites a bank loan for her to rebuild bigger and better without her knowledge. When WW2 breaks out Casey enlists and after the war he returns and they quarrel. He becomes engaged to a fashion model in  Paris but the relationship breaks up and Casey returns to Texas just when Lucy believes she is about to have her greatest success … Some champagne please, I feel like breaking glasses. Adapted from a novella by prolific short story writer Margaret Cousins, the screenplay by John Lee Mahin and Winston Miller feels somewhat laboured and the leads have little to do. The salty presence of Trevor and Ritter as Lucy’s solid female backup is welcome relief from a fairly turgid romance and the sexism is rather unpleasant. The brightest spot is towards the end with a spectacular fashion show guest hosted by legendary Edith Head (who designed the costumes) in a rare appearance (minus her signature blue lenses); while real-life Texas Governor Allan Shivers appears as himself. It can’t hold a candle to Giant, which also tells the story of modern Texas up to the same period. Directed by Robert Parrish. I really shouldn’t let you do it but I will

 

Barnacle Bill (1957)

Barnacle Bill theatrical

Aka All At Sea. From the dawn of time we have always mixed in nautical circles. Royal Navy Captain William Horatio Ambrose (Alec Guinness) has an unfortunate problem – seasickness. It’s particularly embarrassing given his family’s 400-year history in the profession. He spent WW2 teaching in training schools and wasn’t exactly a success. He decides to invest in an amusement pier in the seaside town of Sandcastle but encounters opposition from the local Councillors when he attempts to establish the Victorian structure as a centre for entertainment for the young instead of the old codgers so decides upon a radical course – to have it registered as a foreign sailing vessel (the Arabella, in honour of his former foe now ally, beach hut proprietress Mrs Barringon, played by Irene Browne). He advertises cruises, to which the public flock in droves. When the councillors decide to charge him berthing fees he cuts off their land connection and his enemies plot a course of sabotage … For the price of my modest savings at last a command of my own. T.E.B. Clarke’s script might have a little too much quirk for modern tastes but it’s a lot of fun, with a couple of sequences featuring Bill’s ancestors that tip the nod to Guinness’ eight roles in Kind Hearts and Coronets – because Guinness plays them all. There are lots of other familiar faces including Percy Herbert as his first officer; Eric Pohlmann as the Ambassador from Liberama, happy to give his pier a boat number; Richard Wattis as a civil servant; and Victor Maddern as a treacherous dredge boater. There is a great sense of sly rather than vicious satire, backed up with lots of fun visual jokes – an escape artist rolling about stuck in a sack; a bunch of uniforms waging war in pedalos!; Bill and Mrs Barrington getting drunk and sliding up and down the floors of Crazy Cottage in wonderfully canted shots – and several good scenes mocking petty conspiracies and the backhanders people have to pay to councils, profiting off their situation. Ultimately cut off from the rest of his ‘ship,’ Bill arrives in France, to the delight of the locals. One might call it his Dunkirk. John Addison has a lot of fun pastiching seafaring tunes and shanties. Watch out for Jackie Collins as a beat girl. A massively underrated late Ealing feature, ripe for rediscovery. Directed by Charles Frend, also responsible for The Cruel Sea. What larks! What goes down must come up!

East of Eden (1955)

East of Eden

The way he looks at you. Sorta like an animal. In 1917 Salinas Cal (James Dean) and Aaron (Richard Davalos) Trask are the sons of decent farmer Adam (Raymond Massey) who is chairman of the local wartime draft board. Both compete for his attention but Cal has discovered that the mother Kate (Jo Van Fleet) they were told was long dead is in fact the madam of a whorehouse in Monterey, 15 miles away. He borrows money from her to profit from a rise in the bean farming market intending to repay his father for his failed experiment in freezing food for long-haul shipping.  But his father prefers Aaron’s announcement of his engagement to Abra (Julie Harris) whom Cal starts to desire just as Aaron feels pressure to enlist and Cal decides to surprise him … I’ve been jealous all my life. Jealous, I couldn’t even stand it. Tonight, I even tried to buy your love, but now I don’t want it anymore… I can’t use it anymore. I don’t want any kind of love anymore. It doesn’t pay off. Was there ever a more important or sinuous entrance in the history of cinema than James Dean’s arrival here? The way he moves, coiled like a caged animal set to pounce, slinking along like a cat, then hunched and feral, infiltrating our consciousness and catalysing our puzzlement and desire? I first saw this aged 12 and that’s the perfect age to watch it for the first time, this story of bad parenting, bullying, abandonment, sibling rivalry, envy and first love, all choreographed to the backdrop of the outbreak of WW1 in a masterful adaptation (by Paul Osborn) of the last section of John Steinbeck’s great 1952 novel. Everything about it is right:  the shooting style laying out the gorgeous landscape of Salinas, alternately warm and sunny, chill and foggy; the wide screen that’s barely able to contain the raw emotionality; the marvellous, occasionally strident score by Leonard Rosenman with its soaring, sonorous swoops. And there’s the cast. Jo Van Fleet gives a great performance (in her screen debut) as the wild whoremongering mother  – just look at her strut when we first see her (this is a film of brilliant entrances), providing the angular example of difference to this half-grown boy of hers; Massey is upstanding, a self-righteous, arrogant man, given to sermonising, incapable of leading by empathy; Harris is generous to a fault, allowing Dean to be everything, all at once, boy, man, lover. He burns up the screen with playfulness, confusion and rage. His scenes with Davalos, the Abel to his Cain, bespeak a softness and eroticism rarely equalled and play into the latterday perceptions of his orientation – or perhaps director Elia Kazan just understood how he needed to be in the part, getting into your head by whatever means necessary. Kazan recalled the audience reaction to Dean at the first screening and said that kids were screaming and yelling and practically falling over the balcony to get closer to him, they went wild. That’s how he makes you feel, James Dean. You want to get closer to him. You want to be him. This is really where that sensation began:  of feelings being teased, opened up, acknowledged. Once seen, never forgotten. You’re a likeable kid

The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)

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Play something else. Bored Boston millionaire Thomas Crown (Steve McQueen) devises and executes a brilliant scheme to rob a bank on a sunny summer’s afternoon without having to do any of the work himself. He rolls up in his Rolls Royce and collects the takings from a trash can without ever meeting the four men he hired to pull it off. When the police get nowhere fast, American abroad Vicki Anderson (Faye Dunaway), an investigator hired by the bank’s insurance company, takes an interest in Crown and the two begin a complicated cat-and-mouse game with a romantic undertone although Vicki is also assisting police with their enquiries via Detective Eddy Malone (Paul Burke) who stops short of calling her a prostitute due to her exceedingly unorthodox working methods. Suspicious of Anderson’s agenda, Crown devises another robbery like his first, wondering if he can get away with the same crime twice while Vicki is conflicted by her feelings and Tommy considers giving himself up I’m running a sex orgy for a couple of freaks on Government funds. Dune buggies. Gliders. Polo ponies. Aran sweaters. The sexiest chess game in cinema. Those lips! Those eyes! Those fingers! Has castling ever seemed so raunchy?! Super slick, witty, rather wistful and absurdly beautiful, this classic caper is the epitome of Sixties cool, self-consciously clever, teeming with split-screen imagery, bursting with erotic ideas and boasting a brilliant if enigmatic theme song Windmills of Your Mind composed by Michel Legrand with lyrics by Alan Bergman and Marilyn Bergman. The breeziest, flightiest concoction this side of a recipe for soufflé, it benefits from both protagonists’ identity crisis where everything comes easily to Tommy and life is a game, and yet, and yet … while Vicki is genuinely hurt when Detective Malone hands her a file on Tommy’s nightlife affairs with another woman. Written by Alan Trustman, also responsible for Bullitt. The production is designed by Robert Boyle, shot by Haskell Wexler and directed by Norman Jewison while the editing is led by future director Hal Ashby.  This is deliriously entertaining.  And did Persol shades ever look as amazing? It’s not the money, it’s me and the system

Mary Poppins Returns (2018)

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As I live and breathe. Grown up father Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) and his three children get some help from Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) when the bank closes in on their home where his sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) helps out following the death of Michael’s wife a year earlier … Cleaning is not a spectator sport. Perhaps it was inevitable that following the successful transposing of the classic film into musical theatre that Disney would go back to the toybox and raid one of their most significant creations, a live-animation hybrid that lingers long in the imagination and the heart. With songs by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman and set in ‘The Great Slump’ which we presume is sometime in the Thirties, this is a combination of race against time and treasure hunt, as the shares certificate that will save the family home is in the place least likely to be found – or the most obvious, if you know anything about movies/kites. There is a highly unlikely romance between Jane and Jack the lamplighter (Lin-Manuel Miranda), Mary is rather astringent and inconsistent, the dour interior and visual designs lack the antique spark of the original and there are real longeurs in between the fantasy sequences. Breaking the contract with the audience, there is jeopardy in these, featuring a kidnapping that harkens back to The 101 Dalmatians or The Aristocats. You might recognise Willie the Operatic Whale in ‘The Royal Doulton Music Hall’ but there seems to be a real disconnect with the story and some diversionary tactics – Miranda has a speechifying song part in ‘A Book is Not the Cover’ that could be out of his own Hamilton; Meryl Streep shows up as Mary’s foreign cousin and has an upside down song (‘Turning Turtle’) which has little to do with anything. It’s odd that the true heart of the original only starts to be suggested in the finale, a coda to the action that visually resonates and pops practically perfectly off the screen – at last. Directed as well as he directs everything else by Rob Marshall, who adapted with David Magee and John DeLuca, at least this isn’t a remake and James Corden isn’t in it but Angela Lansbury and Dick Van Dyke are. Everything is possible, even the impossible

Kelly’s Heroes (1970)

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Nobody’s asking you to be a hero. In the middle of World War II, an array of American soldiers gets inside information from a drunk German colonel about 16 million dollars worth of gold hidden on enemy soil in occupied France. Kelly (Clint Eastwood), a private with the platoon, devises a plan to sneak past the German officers to steal the loot for his crew. They recruit more men and set their plan into action. Despite several casualties, the men are determined to press forward, even if it means striking a deal with the opposing army… Crazy… I mean like, so many positive waves… maybe we can’t lose, you’re on! With Donald Sutherland as a hippie-inspired Oddball, this owes more to contemporary values than WW2 tropes but that just makes it more of a blast. Its cinematic DNA with its group of misfits and nuts is clearly derived from The Dirty Dozen as it also boasts Telly Savalas from that lineup but it lacks that film’s nihilistic streak and has more of the formal properties of a Bilko workout. Written by the estimable Troy (The Italian Job) Kennedy Martin and directed by Brian G. Hutton, who previously guided the very chilled Eastwood through WW2 shenanigans in Where Eagles Dare, the Lalo Schifrin score (with many spaghetti western nods including jangling spurs) and the Mike Curb theme makes it even more of a bangin’ experience. Good silly fun. Basically, I like any film where they blow the bloody doors off.  Stop calling me Barbara!

 

Mr Winkle Goes to War (1944)

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Mild-mannered middle-aged bank clerk Mr Wilbert G. Winkle (Edward G. Robinson) finally throws in his job to open a repair shop, to the consternation of his status-conscious wife Amy (Ruth Warrick).  Little orphan Barry (Ted Donaldson) is delighted and he’s roped in to work with Winkle. However the US Army comes a calling and before he knows it, Winkle is conscripted and forced to do the book keeping but persuades his CO to let him do some mechanical work instead. Then to everyone’s surprise, he makes it through basic training and even though he’s now too old to see active service, he refuses an honorable discharge. Meanwhile Barry runs away from his orphanage to see him when Winkle’s furlough is cancelled – he’s shipped out to the Pacific where his friend Joe Tinker (Robert Armstrong) seeks revenge for his brother’s death and they’re up close and personal with the Japanese in armed combat … This adaptation of Theodore Pratt’s novel is of interest for the contribution of blacklisted screenwriter Waldo Salt (as well as George Corey and Louis Solomon) because at the height of WW2 this is something of a pacifist film with a message of friendship. Robinson is quite the sweetheart here, his talent for friendship exemplified in his treatment of little Barry. He shot this between Double Indemnity and The Woman in the Window – reminding us of his performing strengths and variety, bringing a decency to this story of a hen-pecked husband but also a man who believes it is his patriotic duty to serve. The woman making his little life a misery is Mercury Theater alumnus Warrick, best remembered for being the controlling and superior wife to Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane before her long soap opera career. As well as the enjoyable sight of Robinson in boot camp there is also the edifying experience of hearing him sing Sweet Genevieve. Directed by Alfred E. Green.

Sweet Home Alabama (2002)

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In my entire life I have never met anyone so manipulative, so deceitful. And I’m in politics!  New York fashion designer and socialite Melanie Carmichael (Reese Witherspoon) suddenly finds herself engaged to the city’s most eligible bachelor Andrew Hennings(Patrick Dempsey) whose mother just happens to be Mayor (Candice Bergen). But Melanie’s past holds many secrets, including Jake Perry (Josh Lucas), the redneck husband she married in high school, who refuses to divorce her seven years after being sent the papers. Determined to end their relationship once and for all, Melanie sneaks back home to Alabama to confront him, only to discover that you can take the girl out of the South, but you can’t take the South out of the girl…. I don’t care if he’s a Yankee. At least he’s sober! Douglas J. Eboch’s story was developed as a screenplay by C. Jay Cox and it’s a tour de force for Witherspoon whose astonishing charm keeps this Southern-fried screwball show on the road as she gets to pick between two smouldering romantic interests:  her good ol’ boy sort-of ex who deep down is as polished as the sand struck by lightning that makes those glass sculptures of his;  and the smooth city charmer who really loves her despite his overbearing mom warning him off since she sees him as the next JFK. The story is nicely buoyed by turning Deep South tropes on their head and having a lot of fun with Civil War re-enactments – Fred Ward has a ball as Mel’s enthusiastic dad and it’s nice to see Mary Kay Place getting a turn as her mother who wants more for her than the life she had. At the heart of this story is a smalltown girl made good who once blew up the local bank and now struggles with her identity and this grounds the fairytale-fish out of water narrative as it comes back to haunt her in the most amusing way. Reverting to type never seemed so entertaining. You will certainly know the songs. Directed by Andy Tennant.  How many times does your only daughter get married? Other than before …

 

Mary Poppins (1964)

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You will know from Saving Mr Banks that author PL Travers had major problems with letting go of this, the first of her Poppins series. And she made life hell for Walt Disney and his super-talented team of songwriters, cartoonists, choreographers and writers. And out of that years-long war came a film fashioned from such magical properties as to defy description. It has killer dialogue (“Never mistake efficiency for a liver complaint”), wonderful performances from children and adults alike (it was Andrews’ debut), a terrific blend of pathos and wonderment courtesy of the combination of live action with animation…  And then there are the songs, which I knew long before I ever saw the film. Every home had a copy of this album at one time. They are all brilliantly crafted affairs by Disney’s in-house writers the Sherman brothers. Adapted by Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi and directed by Robert Stevenson. If you don’t have a lump in your throat for Let’s Go Fly a Kite you might well be a robot. Practically perfect in every way.

Snowball Express (1972)

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Back in the 1970s the Disney Studio was not the same as it had been during its founder’s lifetime. Nonetheless they were still producing live action comedies and Dean Jones was their superstar.  In this adaptation of a somewhat different book, Chateau Bon Vivant by Frankie and John O’Rear from 1967 and adapted by Don Tait, Jim Parker and Arnold Margolin, he is John Baxter, a dissatisfied accountant rescued from the rat race by a bequest from a great uncle he never knew he had. He ups sticks from New York to the backwater snowbound mountains of Colorado and a hotel that is falling apart. He takes on the challenge of creating a ski lodge and building a run – with the predictable slapstick results including 4 (count ’em!) chases. The pleasure of seeing this is redoubled because my memories of the 70s are that Disney films very rarely made it to my small town – and if they did it was probably a year after they screened in the city. So I only ever read this in comic strip form and acquired my love of mountains from this which was rendered in the exquisitely produced Disney magazine every week. Dean Jones was a superb light actor and is still responsible for the definitive rendition of Sondheim’s Being Alive. Oh, the humanity. And the snow. And the St Bernard who hates the cold. And little Johnny Whitaker … Is it possible that this inspired The Shining? Directed by Norman Tokar.