All that Heaven Allows

The trailer promises “torture and ecstasy.” Maybe we get some.

I don’t mean I didn’t enjoy All that Heaven Allows (1955) starring Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson as a November – June romance, but the movie does swerve into the melodrama lane as the ad suggests.

The movie opens with wealthy widow Cary (Wyman) getting urged to attend a party by her friend Sara (played by Bewitched’s Agnes Morehead). Cary’s got to fend off loneliness after all. Sara later urges Cary to get a television set as that’s a good companion. At a country club party, Cary and the audience are bored by the snobbish guests who idolize convention.

Then young and handsome Ron enters Cary’s life and soon they’re in love. A gardener by trade, Ron prefers a simple, outdoorsy life. His friends admire his down-to-earth value system. As time goes by, Ron proposes and Cary wants her friends and college age kids to know about her relationship.

A beautiful middle-aged woman and a young man?! This pair sends shockwaves through the town. Cary’s friends are vicious towards Ron. Her children through adolescent tantrums. What are you thinking? Do you know how this looks?

Cary has to choose between her secure past and a romantic future.

The film took on a fresh situation. Questions like does Ron want children? aren’t addressed as the main theme is the effects of snobbery and convention. Sometimes the dialog was laid on thick and wanted to tell the director “I know what you’re driving at so you don’t need to be so obvious.” All in all, I was pulled into the story and happy to stick with it.

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High Society

Starring Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Celeste Holme and featuring Louis Armstrong and his band, High Society (1956) follows in the footsteps of the 1940 Philadelphia Story. Here socialite cum snob Tracy Lord (Kelly) is about to marry the straight laced George. Her baby sister protests and puts in many a good word for Tracy’s ex-husband Dexter (Crosby). Tracy’s appalled. She could never consider returning to the even-keeled, kind Dexter who betrayed her by using his musical talents for jazz rather than classical music.

Yes, she’s that snobbish.

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What style!

She’s about to marry George a drab businessman who looks good in a suit. Yet tabloid journalists played by Sinatra and Holme appear to get the scoop on this high falootin’ wedding.

What? Why?

Well, Tracy’s given the choice of either enduring the cheap coverage of her wedding or allowing the rag to publish a scintillating exposé on her father who ran away with a showgirl. Reluctantly, Tracy allows the tacky reporters in to save her mother from shame. She’s not completely selfish or clueless.

As you’d expect, Dexter still loves Tracy and Mike from the tabloid soon falls for her, while George’s buddy-duddy side gets increasingly pronounced.

With some good singing and dancing, High Society entertains. It also puzzles. Aside from her beauty, what does Tracy have going for her? Dexter was married to her and is presented as a man who’s perceptive so he would know her beyond the superficial. He’s still in love with such a snob, a snob who hates jazz because she sees it a crass. That wouldn’t matter much, except jazz is Dexter’s art. Hmm.

I was struck by Crosby’s cool guy persona and Grace Kelly’s perfect silky hair and elegant outfits.

 

 

The Smiling Lieutenant

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I only knew Maurice Chevalier from “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” from Gigi. However, I discovered his much earlier film The Smiling Lieutenant, 1931 a grand farce. If you like silly old time films with romance, you’ll like this. Chevalier plays a young lieutenant who’s quite a flirt. At the start of the film, his superior comes to him bemoaning how he loves a sweet young thing in spite of loving his wife. Chevalier’s Niki advises him to stick with his wife, and shortly thereafter Niki is wooing the sweet young Franzi, played by Claudette Colbert. Franzi is a modern woman who’s fine with “free love.” I hadn’t seen a 1930s woman with such a character.

Niki and Franzi fall madly in love, but trouble ensues when Niki accidentally waves at a sheltered princess from a small province. Her father a prince feels disrespected and immediately interrogates Niki. Before you know it, Niki saves his skin by talking his way into a shotgun wedding to the princess. What to do?

On the wedding night and during the honeymoon phase, Niki breaks the princess’ heart by keeping his distance from her and slipping off for rendezvous with Franzi.

It’s not the usual romance. I kept wondering how the story would end happily. While the film was a little sillier than I like, it was fun and different. There are several light-hearted songs which enhanced the film. I did think it was odd that Chevalier is supposed to be a native of Vienna though he speaks with his usual distinct French accent.

All in all, it was a fun film, though not a masterpiece.

Auntie Mame

I can’t think of a more vibrant, exuberant character than Auntie Mame played by Rosalind Russell.

“Live! Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!”

When young Patrick’s father dies, he’s sent to live with his vivacious Auntie Mame. Before you know it, he’s stirring the perfect martini and at a progressive school where clothing is optional. His trustee Mr. Babcock is appalled and Patrick is shipped off to a boarding school but gets to spend every holiday with his only living relative Auntie Mame, a free-spirit and free-thinker.

Dwight Babcock: I dropped by the Bixby School. And what do I find? I find he isn’t even registered there, he never has been. So I’ve been hunting through every low, crockpot school in this town, and I finally found him in the lowest of them all.

Mame Dennis: Mr. Page is a progressive educator…

Dwight Babcock: There they were, a schoolroom full of them: boys, girls, teachers, romping around stark naked, bare as the day they were born.

Mame Dennis: I assure you that the children under Mr. Page’s care were engaged in normal, healthful, broadening pursuits.

Dwight Babcock: Broadening? You show them what you were doing when I broke into that place. Go ahead, show them.

Patrick Dennis: We were just playing Fish Families.

Dwight Babcock: Fish Families!

Patrick Dennis: It’s part of “constructive play”.

Dwight Babcock: Now, listen to this.

Mame Dennis: Show me now, darling, show me.

Patrick Dennis: Well, we do it right after yogurt time. Mrs. Page and all the girls crouch down on the floor under the sun lamps. And they pretend to be lady fishes, depositing their eggs in the sand. Then Mr. Page and all the boys do what gentlemen fish do.

Mame Dennis: [pause] What could be more wholesome or natural?

When the market crashes, Mame loses her fortune and takes on a variety of jobs which she botches with aplomb. All looks bleak till Game meets an oil tycoon from Texas who soon marries her after she defies his family’s efforts to ridicule her.

Sally Cato: [before a fox-hunt] Well? Shall we to the hounds?
Mame Dennis: [muttering] Yeah, I’d love to meet your family.

The film delights from start to finish. Same does face her share of slings and arrows and always faces them with courage, charm and wit. I haven’t seen this film in years and found it one of the most delightful films I’ve seen in years. I’d say this is a perfect film. I must find more of Rosalind Russell’s films, though I fear few films can match or exceed this comedic masterpiece.

My Man Godfrey

The 1936 screwball comedy My Man Godfrey is witty, but I’m not so sure about this romance.

William Powell stars as Godfrey, a down-on-his-luck fellow who’s fallen financially and is living on a city ash heap, which reminded me of the ash land in The Great Gatsby. One night socialite Irene, played by Carole Lombard, rescues Godfrey from the ash heap. To help Irene win her bizarre scavenger hunt, Godfrey agrees to allow her to use him as a “forgotten man,” the last item on her team’s list. Her exclusive club has its members who’re dripping in diamonds running about the city collecting goats, bird cages, flower carts, Japanese goldfish and a “forgotten men.” These crash elites treat people as objects and Godfrey plays along out of curiosity to see how horrible these people can be.

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Though ditzy, Irene isn’t half bad. She soon decides to hire Godfrey as the family butler. She doesn’t realize how she’s still objectifying him but there’s something wise about Godfrey. He realizes what’s going on and how clueless Irene is, but he’s willing to play along because he doesn’t romanticize poverty to the degree that he thinks sleeping in the ash heap is more honorable than sleeping in a clean, heated bedroom.

From day one the family’s clever maid sets Godfrey straight. The family is bananas. The mother is a souse, ruled by her caprice. The oldest daughter is a mean snob who plots to get Godrey arrested. A human bank, the father is ineffective, long suffering, tuned out like Mr. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. Finally, the mother’s protege is a human eating machine who’s willing to be a toy for the mother in exchange for a free ride.

Irene becomes smitten with Godfrey and won’t take no for an answer no matter how much Godfrey tries to set boundaries. Though all the other butlers were quickly fired or quit in a huff, Godfrey hangs in there. Yet a house party, Godfrey’s true identity is revealed when one of his former Harvard classmates recognizes him. His nemesis Irene’s sister Caroline is intrigued and starts to follow Godfrey around town.

I can’t say My Man Godfrey will become a favorite. While I appreciated the insights and depiction of people who fell in status during the Depression, the two sisters were immature and catty. That’s no surprise because the mother also was an overgrown child.

Screwball comedies are supposed to be silly and over the top. In this regard, the film is a success. I am glad I saw it, but the end didn’t win me over. Perhaps if Irene changed more, perhaps I’d think better.

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The Bank Dick

With one of the best car chases I’ve ever seen, W.C. Fields’ The Bank Dick was a nice change after watching Russian drama. Fields plays Egbert Sousé, the head of the house full of women who constantly complain. He’s no angel, but you sympathize with him because his family treats him awfully. As the name without the accent grave suggests, Sousé drinks a lot and is a layabout. By accident, he thwarts a bank robbery and is hailed as a hero. As a reward, the bank president makes Sousé is given a job as the bank detective. Soon he gets his daughter’s boyfriend into financial trouble through a hare-brained scheme to buy bonds. As he’s basically a decent fellow, he tries then to save his future son-in-law, but everything goes wrong.

The film was at times clever and at times corny in a way that delights. Not only did I smile, but I learned a host of new words like adscititious and several others (below). The characters are stock and the humor often just plain silly, but The Bank Dick is fun and entertaining. I hadn’t seen a W.C. Fields’ film in years and will look for more.

Andrei Rublev

At 3 hours 25 minutes long, Andrei Tarkovsky’s (The Passion of) Andrei Rublev is a challenging movie with a narrative structure that’s as far from a Hollywood film as can be. I don’t think I’d say I liked the film, but I will say it impressed me and challenged me. I found it powerful and challenging.

Divided into eight parts, Andrei Rublev sheds light, rather than chronicles as biopics usually do, on the foremost Medieval Russian icon painter. First we see a prologue when a 15th century Russian peasant struggles to fly in a hot air balloon. He’s a true explorer, a risk taker, a visionary. Yet his experiment takes strength and sweat to get off the ground. A mob of peasants curses this endeavor and tries to thwart it by fighting with the ballooner’s assistants who’re steadying the ropes holding the balloon and then trying to blind an assistant by assaulting him with a firebrand into “his mug.” (Thankfully, that took place off camera.)

Yet where was Rublev? Not in the prologue. In fact there are long sequences when we don’t see the painter/monk much or even at all. Tarkovsky preferred poetry and themes to plot points and explication. That’s what makes him interesting and also hard to follow. I’m used to directors who spell things out so at the beginning I was especially unmoored.

Rublev lived in a tough time. His times had Tatar and Slavic marauders were a threat. Poverty and famine were too. On top of this, the pensive Rublev was plagued with big theological questions and the question of pure art. Nothing was easy. His fellow monks and disciples/apprentices questioned him and rebelled. His mentor challenged his motives and ideas. The Tsar would have your head if the commission wasn’t done. Nothing was easy.

The film is a marathon and I admit I watched this 3 hour 25 minute film in chunks over a course of days. It drained me, but that was okay as the masterful cinematography and this look at a time in history was fresh for me. While Andrei Rublev doesn’t purport to be a biography or historical film, since much of the story is fiction, it did rid me of any stereotypes. For example there’s a peasant girl who is rescued by Rublev, but when she meets the marauding Tatars and one of them want to take her to be wife #7 or 8, this simple Russian girl is willing to up and leave with the tribe that teases her. Rublev tries to save her, but she won’t have it. No, she wants to go off with the Tatars who treat her like a toy. Huh. You just wouldn’t see that in most films.

The film ends with a sequence of scenes where a boy*, whose homeland is a wasteland and whose family — parents, sister, uncles, aunts, etc — have died from the plague, convinces the monks that his father passed on the secret to bell making. He can cast the church bell the Grand Prince wants. It’s a testament to filmmaking that I found the mission of casting a bell so fascinating. It helped that the mission was a life or death endeavor. The prince made it clear that if the bell didn’t ring, the boy would be beheaded.

*The boy in this sequence was played by the same actor who starred in Ivan’s Childhood.

If you’re up for a big challenge, do watch Andrei Rublev. Know that you’re in for a beautiful film, but it’s long and somewhat confusing. If you aren’t, well this week I’m taking it easy with an old W.C. Fields film and that might be the way you’d like to go.

By the way,

  • You can find a detailed description of the plot on Wikipedia;
  • I found the commentary after I saw the film and wished I had watched with that turned on;
  • The film, as you might imagine, was banned in Russia for a number of years. It was shown in France and had to be shown outside the Cannes Competition at 4am.