Daddy Long Legs (1955)

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When an irresistible force such as me meets an immovable object like you something’s got to give. American playboy millionaire Jervis Pendleton (Fred Astaire) finds himself on state business in France in a broken down car and happens upon an orphanage where eighteen-year old waif Julie (Leslie Caron) is instructing the younger children. She never meets him but he pays for her tuition at a ladies’ college in Massachusetts on condition that she writes him a letter once a month – which he then doesn’t read for two years until his secretary (Thelma Ritter) insists. Then they meet up because she’s rooming (by his arrangement) with his niece. And, she falls for him without realising that he is ‘John Smith’… Gene Kelly’s influence is all over Fifties musicals – the French connection and the Broadway Melody sequence from Singin’ in the Rain play large parts in this story adapted from Jean Webster’s classic young adult novel of 1912 which already got a handful of previous adaptations, including one for Mary Pickford and another for Shirley Temple (Curly Top). Henry and Phoebe Ephron (Nora’s folks) create a long-ish but diverting vehicle for Astaire and Caron who are both entirely delightful in a situation that could be kind of creepy were it not for the fact that the unseemliness of a relationship is something addressed early on. In fact, the unsuitability of such an old man romancing a young woman is part of the drama. There are some wonderful dance sequences as you’d expect and Jervis’ obsession with music is one of the most attractive things about the story – the early scene where he bounces drum sticks off the walls is really something. This outstays its welcome by at least one fantasy sequence (with Caron aping Cyd Charisse) but overall it’s a beautiful production as you’d expect from that underrated director Jean Negulesco and it totally oozes charm.

Rear Window (1954)

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Grace Kelly had one hour to choose between returning to work with Alfred Hitchcock or taking the part of the girl in On the Waterfront. She chose this. And a good thing too, because it was written with her in mind. At the director’s suggestion, radio writer John Michael Hayes had got to know her on and off the set of Dial M for Murder and designed the role adapted from a story by Cornell Woolrich around Kelly’s authentic persona and that of his wife, a former model. It was by working with Hitchcock that Kelly learned to work with her whole body. He listened to her and she loved his jokes – they shared a filthy sense of humour. She plays Lisa Carol Fremont, a high society NYC mover and shaker who’s in love with photojournalist James Stewart, stuck looking out his window at his neighbours’ apartments while laid up with a broken leg. She’s desperately in love with him but he wants to get rid of her – then she becomes a gorgeous Nancy Drew when he suspects one of his neighbours has murdered his wife. Only then does he realise what he’s got. She’s the action girl of his dreams. When you go to Paramount Studios you can see the four-wall facility that Hitchcock used to create the biggest set built there but sadly nothing remains of this paean to onanism, voyeurism, narcissism and whatever other perversion you’re having yourself. Oh, and scopophilia. In theory, this is all about Stewart but really it’s all about Kelly – and the biggest joke here of course is that the most beautiful woman in the world wants him and he doesn’t get it. Not really. Not until she becomes a part of the unfolding events he watches through his viewfinder. Kelly’s entrance is probably the greatest afforded any movie star. Her costumes alone tell a great story. MGM never knew what to do with her so loaning her out wasn’t a problem.  The theatre owners knew who the real star of the film was – and put her name up on their marquees above anyone else’s. Audiences adored her. She was the biggest thing in 1954. And this witty, clever study of a man afraid of marriage is for most people Hitchcock’s greatest achievement. For more on Kelly’s collaborations with Hitchcock, which are the peak of both their careers, and the high point of midcentury cinema, you can see my essay Hitchcock/Kelly at Canadian journal Offscreen:  https://www.offscreen.com/hitchcock-kelly.

The Misfits (1961)

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What an air of melancholy hangs over this elegy to the western. Arthur Miller had written a story about cowboys killing mustangs for dog meat and it evolved into a screenplay, rewritten many times, for director John Huston. The character of divorcee Roslyn sitting out the legally required time in Reno was based on his wife Marilyn Monroe and the elaboration is strikingly different from the Monroe who inspired Pola for writer Nunnally Johnson in How to Marry a Millionaire. She befriends Thelma Ritter and they hang out with a couple of old cowboys, Clark Gable and Eli Wallach and Roslyn doesn’t realise they round up horses to kill them. The troubled set was not aided by the breakdown of the Miller-Monroe marriage, her on-set overdose, the deadening heat and the behind the scenes attempts to turn Monroe’s character into a prostitute at the behest of Eli Wallach, her so-called friend – Huston and Miller were into it, Gable refused to let it happen. He was tremendously loyal to his co-star and she regarded him as a father figure. He wanted this to be his swansong before his retirement from the business and said it was the best film he’d ever been in. He was only fifty-nine but looks decades older. He is utterly convincing as the jaded alcoholic taking advantage of wounded older women. He insisted on doing his own stunts but a weak heart, a heavy smoking and drinking habit, and delays his wife said Monroe caused, meant he died right after filming ended and before the birth of his only son. Montgomery Clift’s problems were evident to all involved and he would only last a handful more years himself. This was Monroe’s last credit and it remains an epitaph not just to her and her abilities – she is tenacious and febrile as Roslyn – but to an era of stardom, a genre and to Old Hollywood. Full of hopelessness, death, gallows humour and potential greatness, but Miller was not the world’s best screenwriter and failed to capitalise on the story’s promise.  He even gives the last scene to Gable which tells you all you need to know about his attitude to his wife – he wrote it for her. Nonetheless, this remains a must-see.