Stanley Donen 13th April 1924 – 23rd February 2019

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Hollywood great Stanley Donen has died aged 94. Handsome, genial, witty and debonair he was an actor, dancer and choreographer who teamed up with Gene Kelly at a ridiculously young age and made screen history with the first musical shot on location, On the Town. They made the greatest musical in film history together, Singin’ in the Rain, the perfect integrated backstage Hollywood movie, the most brilliant, joyous blend of song and dance and storytelling. It transformed cinema. During the Fifties Donen continued learning his craft as director with romantic comedies and returning to his favourite form with Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, another innovative iteration of the musical. He reunited with Kelly for It’s Always Fair Weather and then became an independent producer. He worked with Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn in the enduring classic Funny Face and then relocated to England and made some terrific midlife romcoms, including Indiscreet and The Grass is Greener before turning to thrillers with the great Charade, a Hitchcockian suspenser, back in Paris with Audrey Hepburn and another regular collaborator, Cary Grant. He followed that with another Peter Stone collaboration, ArabesqueTwo for the Road was his most personal film, a comedy drama about a couple in crisis, again starring Hepburn. His Seventies films were variable with Lucky Lady and Movie Movie the standouts, loving homages and pastiches of a Hollywood that he ironically had helped quash. He produced the 1986 Oscars, which boasted a musical number featuring a roll call of Hollywood musical stars:  Leslie Caron, June Allyson, Marge Champion, Cyd Charisse, Howard Keel, Ann Miller, Jane Powell, Debbie Reynolds and Esther Williams. His legacy is indelible;  he worked with the greats and made them better;  he mastered musicals, elevating them to a different level entirely with animation, editing and choreography;  romantic comedies; thrillers; and dramas.  Each time I see one of his films I feel a lot better about everything. He was one of my all-time favourite directors. Rest in peace.

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Gunga Din (1939)

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You will never leave here. Already your graves are dug! British army sergeants Tommy Ballantine (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), Archibald Cutter (Cary Grant) and Mac MacChesney (Victor McLaglen) serve in India on the North West Frontier during the 1880s, along with their native water-bearer, Gunga Din (Sam Jaffe). While completing a dangerous telegraph-repair mission, they unearth evidence of the suppressed Thuggee cult. When Gunga Din tells the sergeants about a secret temple made of gold, the fortune-hunting Cutter is captured by the Thuggees, and it’s up to his friends to rescue him before the Thuggees run rampage across the territory... Ever since time began, they’ve called mad all the great soldiers in this world. Mad? We shall see what wisdom lies within my madness. Loosely adapted from Rudyard Kipling’s poem and his short story collection Soldiers Three, Ben Hecht and Charles McArthur’s story has a central conflict closely related to their play The Front Page. The screenplay by Joel Sayre and Fred Guiol with uncredited additions by Anthony Veiller, Lester Cohen, John Colton, Dudley Nichols, Vincent Lawrence and William Faulkner (if only we knew!) is a ripping yarn, classical Hollywood at its finest, with George Stevens at the helm. Redolent with wit, fun, danger and charm – Grant even has a way with an elephant! – and his and McLaglen’s reactions to Fairbanks’ marriage to Joan Fontaine are highly amusing. This is a marvellous action adventure, reeking of camaraderie and derring-do and good old-fashioned brio. Reginald Sheffield appears uncredited as Kipling. Lone Pine CA and Yuma AZ stand in for India! You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din 

The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

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Sometimes angels rush in where fools fear to tread. Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) is struggling to raise funds to build a cathedral and beseeches heaven for guidance.  He is visited immediately by Dudley (Cary Grant), who claims to be an angel. Henry is septical, then gets annoyed when Dudley ingratiates himself into the household as his assistant – and worse, wins the attentions of Henry’s kind wife Julia (Loretta Young). When Dudley continues to intervene in Henry’s struggles, the bishop decides to challenge heaven as he now has to repair his marriage too … I was praying for a cathedral./ No, Henry. You were praying for guidance. Adapted by Leonardo Bercovici and Robert E. Sherwood (with uncredited additions by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder) from Robert Nathan’s 1928 novel, this is an irresistible seasonal fantasy. It’s about faith and love and the blend of stars is unexpectedly successful – a surfeit of charm and wit combine to lend weight and wit to the more spiritual aspects. This, after all is about how to become more human. To quote Loretta Young in the trailer, It’s quite the most unusual film Sam Goldwyn has ever made. A beautiful film for a special time of year. And if that’s not enough, it’s got Monty Woolley as Professor Wutheridge with Gladys Cooper, Elsa Lanchester and Regis Toomey bringing up the rear. Did I mention that it’s beautifully shot by Gregg Toland? This is classic Christmas charm. Enough said. Directed by Henry Koster.  Let us ask ourselves what he would wish for most… and then let each put in his share. Loving kindness, warm hearts and the stretched out hand of tolerance. All the shining gifts that make peace on earth.

The Talk of the Town (1942)

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Stop saying “Leopold” like that, tenderly. It sounds funny. You can’t do it with a name like Leopold. Leopold Dilg (Cary Grant), who was wrongfully convicted of arson an an assumed murderer, manages to escape from prison in New England. On the lam, he finds Nora Shelley (Jean Arthur), an old schoolfriend for whom he harbours a secret love. Nora believes in Dilg’s innocence and lets him pose as her landscaper; meanwhile, renowned Harvard Professor Lightcap (Ronald Colman), a legal expert, has just begun renting a room in Nora’s home. Lightcap also has eyes for Nora, leading to a series of comic misadventures as the police close in … With a screenplay by Sidney Buchman, Irwin Shaw and Dale Van Every, from a story by Sidney Harmon, this George Stevens production oozes classic Hollywood and it powers the stars with the sheer driving wit of the dialogue. Arthur is particularly dazzling in this lesser known screwball with a political text, which is a hoot from start to finish as the threesome battle for each other’s attention and affections. With these indoor habits of yours, you’ve got the complexion of a gravel pit

My Favorite Wife (1940)

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I bet you say that to all your wives. Nick Arden (Cary Grant) has waited seven long years after his wife Ellen (Irene Dunne) disappeared at sea before finally marrying Bianca (Gail Patrick) but wouldn’t you know it the day of their marriage (the same day he has Ellen declared dead), Ellen suddenly reappears.  At the insistence of Nick’s mother (Ann Shoemaker) she flies up to Yosemite to the hotel where Nick is about to embark on his honeymoon with Bianca. Nick is overjoyed but hides her reappearance from Bianca and becomes insane with jealousy when he learns that Ellen has had a companion on the island – handsome Stephen Burkett (Randolph Scott) whom Ellen has known as Adam… Loosely based on Tennyson’s Enoch Arden, this screenplay of remarriage by Leo McCarey and husband and wife team Bella and Samuel Spewack (with some uncredited additions by director Garson Kanin) is a high point of screwball. Grant’s character is a variation of the character established in The Awful Truth directed by McCarey, who produced this and upon whom Grant’s screen persona is somewhat based. Dunne is a delight as his flighty wife, also re-teamed with Grant, while Scott is ideal as the he-man. The scene between Dunne and the shoe fetishist salesman is a hoot and when she passes him off as Stephen, not aware that Nick knows precisely who Stephen is, it works brilliantly. Her Virginia drawl as the children’s nanny is as convincing as it is irritating to Bianca.  Patrick is fine as the flinty Bianca but Granville Bates steals his scenes as the judge. With Van Nest Polglase doing the design, Robert Wise editing and Rudolph Maté on cinematography, this is classical Hollywood at its smoothest. Remade as Move Over, Darling.

 

Monkey Business (1952)

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The language is confusing, the actions are unmistakable.  Absent-minded chemist Dr. Barnaby Fulton (Cary Grant) is developing a pill that will defy the ageing process for the pharmaceutical company run by Oliver Oxley (Charles Coburn). When a loose chimpanzee mixes chemicals together that produce this effect, Fulton tries some on himself. This prompts him to act like a teenager, making passes at Oxley’s beautiful buxom secretary, Lois (Marilyn Monroe). Soon everyone, including Fulton’s wife, Edwina (Ginger Rogers), is feeling the effects of the formula and Edwina doesn’t enjoy the effects of youth when she finds herself reliving their honeymoon in the exact suite they spent their wedding night.  When Barnaby goes AWOL she awakes to find a baby beside her in bed … Harry Segall’s story was adapted by director Howard Hawks, Ben Hecht, Charles Lederer and I.A.L. Diamond and has a lot of bright moments.  It starts in stilted fashion however and the lack of a score (Hawks generally couldn’t abide them) leaves the unpunctuated action wanting. Monroe’s supporting role is underlined by Coburn’s declaration, Anyone can type! when he sends her to find someone to produce a letter; while Grant’s physicality is thrown into relief with a buzzcut. Their day out in his fast-moving roadster as he loses his sight behind his Coke-bottle glasses would be paid homage six years later with Tony Curtis and Monroe in Some Like It Hot.  Never quite reaches the apex of screwball that Hawks himself had pioneered fifteen years earlier but it’s good for filling in a filmography that was at times sheer easygoing genius and there are points here when it recaptures the genre’s extraordinary vitality. Coburn and Monroe would be reunited with Hawks in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words (2015)

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She would rather live with a producer than her children. The great Swedish actress is recalled through her diaries and letters (voiced by Alicia Vikander), photographs and any amount of home movies which she shot compulsively.  She believed she was only truly alive when she was being photographed and described her home life away from the studio in Hollywood as ‘being locked in a suitcase suffocating.’ Following the early death of her mother this was a little girl cosseted by her father who documented her on camera and even Alfred Hitchcock (‘he brought out the best in me’) declared she took film more seriously than real life. Her father died young too and this leaves something of a Freudian association trailing throughout the film with her evident need to be constantly photographed and speaking other people’s lines.  Following drama school and early success in Swedish cinema she was discovered by Hollywood and arrived there to work with David O. Selznick whose colleague Kay Brown became her agent and lifelong friend. She abandoned her little girl and doctor husband for various lovers including Robert Capa (who wouldn’t sacrifice his short-lived career for her) and then Roberto Rossellini whom she pursued until he hired her for a film and she had his illegitimate child. She couldn’t adjust to his filmmaking style – she was no improviser and writing dialogue was contrary to her training. Her husband divorced her and got custody of Pia, while, after having more children by Rossellini,  the director abandoned Bergman for another woman (in India) who had yet another of his illegitimate children and Bergman then took off for Paris with a lover of her own. She saw her children in Italy once a month, more often when daughter Isabella (who became an actress) developed scoliosis. Daughter Pia discusses her mother’s obsession with Joan of Arc from an early age as being evidence that she wanted to make her name. There are many newsreel excerpts and interviews about her chaotic intercontinental life, pursued by paparazzi and condemned by various authorities until director Anatole Litvak declared in the mid-50s that she was the only actress he could consider for the role of Anastasia and an Academy Award for her performance smoothed her way back into the Hollywood fold. Despite her shortcomings and basically abandoning her young, her adult children (presumably with the benefit of relatively old age) describe her in contemporary interviews  as being totally charming with eldest daughter Pia even declaring, I craved having more of her. Stig Björkman’s film is a stunning evocation of a unique, peripatetic life which despite the rather unsettling morality of its fame-seeking subject simply exudes joy and contains many insights into the acting mind. Written by the director with Stina Gardell and Dominika Daubenbuchel with a great score by Michael Nyman, topped with a song by Eva Dahlgren in the closing credits.

Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948)

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Every time he goes out of this house he shakes my hand and he kisses you.  Advertising executive Jim Blandings (Cary Grant) discovers his wife Muriel’s (Myrna Loy) plan to redecorate their cramped New York apartment which they share with their two young daughters. He proposes instead that they move to rural Connecticut. She agrees, and the two are soon conned into buying a 200-year old farmhouse that turns out to be a complete nightmare. Construction and repair bills accumulate quickly as the house has to be torn down and completely rebuilt, and Jim worries that their future hangs in the balance unless he can come up with a catchy new jingle that will sell ham while Jim’s friend and lawyer Bill (Melvyn Douglas) steps in to help and spends the night with Muriel during a thunderstorm … Written and produced by comic experts Norman Panama and Melvin Frank adapting Eric Hodgins’ 1946 bestseller, this is a terrific example of Grant and fellow screwball player Loy in their prime. They have marvellous chemistry. Director H.C. Potter handles the action and slapstick beautifully while the marital woes are worked out architecturally. Loy’s paint scheme scene is a classic and Douglas is a hoot as the friend. Watch for Lex Barker as a carpenter. With a score by Leigh Harline and crisp photography by James Wong Howe this is prime post-war RKO fluff. Anyone who’s made the mistake of buying and remodelling a fixer-upper will relate! Hint:  don’t do that, watch this instead. It’s a lot cheaper.

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

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Now it isn’t that I don’t like you, Susan, because, after all, in moments of quiet, I’m strangely drawn toward you, but – well, there haven’t been any quiet moments. Harried paleontologist David Huxley (Cary Grant) has to make a good impression on society matron Mrs. Random (May Robson), who is considering donating one million dollars to his museum. On the day before his wedding to Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker), Huxley meets Mrs. Random’s high-spirited young niece, Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn), a madcap adventuress who immediately falls for the straitlaced scientist when she steals his car and crashes it on a golf course. The ever-growing chaos – including a missing dinosaur bone and a pet leopard – threatens to swallow him whole… Wildly inventive, hilarious and classic screwball comedy from director Howard Hawks, written by Hagar Wilde and Dudley Nichols and performed by a group of actors indelibly engraved on our collective brains for their roles here.  Hepburn learned from Grant’s uptight persona to play it straight and if it were any slower this would be a film noir because she is one of the fatalest femmes you could ever dread to meet in a text bursting with double entendres. With Charles Ruggles, Barry Fitzgerald and Fritz Feld (as a psychiatrist!) bringing up the rear, Asta the dog from The Thin Man series and The Awful Truth (uncredited! the injustice of it!) and Grant going ‘gay all of a sudden’ what we have here is gaspingly funny cinematic perfection.