Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Gary Cooper and Ernest Hemingway

In my post about actor Maurice Chevalier I commented that movies in the early 30's seemed more provocative than those of the 40's and 50's. I just found out why. In 1934 the Production Code, or Hays Code, went into effect. It was the industry's attempt to censure itself amid rising public pressure for government regulation.

The difference can be seen in two Hemingway adaptations both starring Gary Cooper. In 1931's A Farewell to Arms it is very clear when characters intend to have sex and Cooper's character is even shown apologizing for not realizing he had just taken a nurse's virginity. In 1943's For Whom the Bell Tolls, arguably a more racy book, it is unclear whether the protagonist ever consummates his relationship with the Spanish girl Maria. And all references of her having been raped in the past are summed up with a mention of villains taking her to a couch where "the worst things were done."

The Production Code gradually faded from importance as film makers realized that bending it (or even breaking it) didn't hurt their bottom line. It was officially replaced with an early version of the current MPAA rating system in 1968. Incidentally, the Best Picture winner the following year was Midnight Cowboy - originally rated X. A final nail in the coffin of the Production Code.

It's been over a decade since I read A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls. If asked last week to diagram the plots of either, my sketches would have been very rough. It was fun watching these films and finding the majority of the scenes felt familiar.

In real life, Hemingway and Cooper were friends for the last twenty years of their lives (they died just weeks apart). Of Cooper, Hemingway said, "Coop is a fine man; as honest and straight and friendly and unspoiled as he looks. If you made up a character like Coop, nobody would believe it. He's just too good to be true."

86 to go...

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Charles Dickens

IMDb currently lists 298 titles credited to the novels, stories, and characters of Charles Dickens. Everyone knows Tiny Tim and Ebenezer Scrooge from A Christmas Carol and most have heard the opening line of A Tale of Two Cities even if they haven't read it - "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."

Fitting with the scope of this blog, I'm going to mention only the four Dickens movies that were nominated for best picture. The classic musical Oliver! won best picture in 1968. Acclaimed director David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia) gave us the 1946 version of Great Expectations with a cast that included Alec Guinness and a young Jean Simmons. The two I watched this week were David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities, both credited as 1935 releases, though the later was late enough to belong to the 1936 Oscar nominee class.

David Copperfield is listed on IMDb with its full title The Personal History, Adventures, Experience, and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger. As ambitious as that is, it still truncates the full novel title that continues, "of Blunderstone Rookery, Which He Never Meant to Be Published on Any Account."

I was not familiar with this story going in, but I’d call it a successful adaptation in that it did not feel rushed or awkward, nor did it drag at all. A credit to both Dickens and the film is that all of the characters were interesting, even the bit parts. W.C. Fields is especially fun as the amiable Micawber who has trouble paying his debts. The film was directed by George Cukor who directed the version of Little Women I have already reviewed on this blog. He later won best director for My Fair Lady. The best compliment I can pay this film is that it has made me want to tackle the 900+ page behemoth that inspired it despite Dickens’s often cumbersome prose.

A Tale of Two Cities is a book I have read. I found it dull at the beginning, but captivating once all the tracks Dickens laid started coming together. The movie does a better job of explaining the situation up front, though it foreshadows Sydney Carton’s great sacrifice far more than I remember in the book. I also did not remember any one character standing out as the protagonist in the novel, but Carton is definitely the lead in the film. He is played by Ronald Colman. Colman later won a best actor Oscar for A Double Life, which I have not seen, but I thought he was great in Random Harvest, a best picture nominee I saw before starting this blog.

Again, this is just a taste of the influence Dickens has had on movies and storytelling in general. 140 years after his death, Hollywood could still take more lessons from him. It’s amazing what can happen when engaging plots are populated with memorable characters.

88 to go…

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

San Francisco (1936)

New Year's Day 1906. San Francisco. The catastrophic earthquake is three and a half months away. Clark Gable stars as Blackie Norton, a local club owner, who discovers and subsequently falls in love with a talented new singer. A rivalry ensues between Blackie and an opera house owner who wants the girl to sing for him instead.

Blackie's 1930's passive sexism makes him hard to root for, but he is also an honest and charitable man. And, as noted in the special features on the DVD, Gable "was 'cool' before the word was invented."

It was Spencer Tracy, however, not Gable who received an Oscar nomination in the film for his role as the local priest and Blackie's lifelong friend. Though in my opinion he didn't have near enough screen time to be nominated in the lead acting category and Gable was obviously the protagonist of the story. Also nominated was director W.S. Van Dyke who also helmed the well-known Thin Man series.

The movie won the Oscar for best sound which it undoubtedly earned from a combination of its musical numbers and the destruction of the city when the earthquake hits, throwing in a plot twist that would be insulting if it had not been so rooted in a very real tragedy.

90 to go...

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935)

First let me explain the seeming grammatical error in the title. A bengal lancer was a division of British soldiers in India so "lives" is correctly used in the plural.

Second let me note that this was one of best movies I've seen from the entire decade of the 1930s. The acting was very good, the writing was excellent, and the story was unpredictable. Henry Hathaway, who later directed True Grit, earned the only Oscar nomination of his career here.

A rigid Colonel, who subordinate Gary Cooper constantly refers to as the Ramrod, is disconcerted to hear that his son has been transferred to their company. He insists that the boy receive no special treatment. To a fault the Colonel has always put duty above all else. When the boy goes missing and they learn he has been taken prisoner, the Colonel is torn but says they cannot go after him. For Cooper this is the last straw and he goes anyway.

A film filled with far more nuance and character depth than most movies of its period, or today.

91 to go...

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Alice Adams (1935)

This was the first major film directed by George Stevens. He later went on to win two directing Oscars for Giant and A Place in the Sun in addition to three other nominations for Shane, The More the Merrier, and The Diary of Anne Frank.

I hate to say I don't like this movie because it was well done all around. I just don't like the character of Alice Adams. She's played by Katharine Hepburn who, as always, does a great job. I actually don't think the audience is meant to like her. She not bad at all, she just is so worried about what other people think of her that it drives you crazy. I honestly didn't want her to end up with the guy at the end because I was hoping he'd escape her insanity.

92 to go...

A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935)

I think this was actually the first version I have seen of this Shakespeare play. I knew Puck's closing soliloquy from Dead Poets Society and had heard his famous line "what fools these mortals be" but that was about it.

Basically, two young couples enter a forest populated with fairies and spirits. The king of the fairies has Puck bewitch people to fall in love with the next person they see and, of course, they don't see the people intended for them and comedy ensues.

Mickey Rooney plays Puck who isn't exactly the protagonist, but no one character seems to fill this role - in the movie anyway. James Cagney plays the actor Bottom who, fittingly, gets turned into an ass while his troupe also wanders through the woods.

The film won the Oscar for best cinematography in what IMDb says is the first and only time there was a write-in winner at the Oscars.

93 to go...

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

7th Heaven (1927)

7th Heaven is one of the few silent films in my quest as the silent era was ending as the Academy initiated its awards ceremony. It's a sweet little tale set in Paris just before World War I. The confident Chico let's everyone know he's "a very remarkable fellow" as he ascends from a mere sewer worker to a proud street cleaner. His world is altered when he comes to the aid of the destitute Diane who is constantly abused by her wicked sister. Diane is smitten with Chico, but he takes a little longer in coming around. Just as he starts to fall for her, the war intervenes.

Sometimes the simplicity of early film making can be a nuisance, but here it's cute and works. The movie proudly showcases a special effect where the camera follows the characters up several flights of stairs from the fourth wall viewpoint to Chico's apartment. My favorite line of title card dialogue came when Chico and Diane were waiting for the police to come and question them. After Chico opens the door a man enters in plain clothes and says, "I am a police detective." No, hello, just the facts, ma'am.

94 to go...