Out of the Forest

April 12, 2007, 6:20 pm
Filed under: old movies


Olivia de Haviland is one of my favorite Hollywood actresses from the 1930’s and 40’s.  Its hard to explain why, exactly.  Perhaps because her most famous role, as Melanie in Gone With the Wind, is so defining that you expect her to be that same sweet, naive and selfless character in real life (though her long-standing feud with sister Joan Fontaine leads me to think this may be otherwise).  And she played similar “good” characters with considerable frequncy.  Of course, she also used this sweet reputation to her advantage when playing “bad” characters.  In my opinion, no one drops the guise of sweetness to reveal cold cruelty better than de Haviland, and it works mostly because it is so unexpected.

Her best performance, for which she won her second Oscar, is in 1949’s The Heiress, based on Henry James’s Washington Square, and also starring Montgomery Clift and Ralph Richardson.  In the film, Olivia plays a plain and rather boring young heiress, who desparately seeks romance and the approval of her father.  There are suprises in the plot that I don’t want to reveal, but suffice it to say de Haviland gets to show both her sweet and cruel sides in this film.

If you’ve not seen the film, I highly recommend you do.  Happily for us all, it is finally out on DVD.


February 23, 2007, 9:44 pm
Filed under: old movies

While snowed in last week, I had the pleasure to see Douglas Sirk’s 1956 film Written on the Wind. And what a wonderful piece of trash-art it is!

This is “Dallas” with style, complete with oil tycoons, troubled marriages, alcoholism, machismo, and sex (both expressed and repressed). Sirk seeps his film in lurid colors, and the sets and backgrounds, with a few exceptions, are obviously fake. It all serves to emphasize the hollow pretense of these characters’ lives, as does the artificially heightened melodrama throughout. These people, I ended up thinking, are rather ridiculous. And I think that is the point.

I like how the film’s style is so brazen. But Sirk is never one for subtlety. If I were to tell you that the film features a character, the seductress played by Dorothy Malone, who at one point in the film lovingly caresses a model oil derrick in her daddy’s office, would you understand what I mean?

These days I can’t see a film starring Rock Hudson without thinking of his closeted life as a gay man. And the film is interesting when viewed in that light. There is the suggestion of a homosexual relationship in this movie which I think is intentional. It is difficult to be sure, given that subtlety is not typically one of Sirk’s techniques, but I suppose that with that subject, in 1956, he may have felt the need…

February 15, 2007, 9:36 pm
Filed under: music, old movies

Last year, Monty Python’s Life of Brian was named the greatest comedy of all time in a UK poll. Now one member of the Python troupe, Eric Idle, has penned an oratorio based on the controversial film. If its half as good as Idle’s Spamalot, it will make for great entertainment. The husband and I saw Spamalot in Chicago with the original cast just before it premiered on Broadway. Even from the last row in the nosebleed section, it was brilliant.

February 13, 2007, 12:22 pm
Filed under: old movies

Inherit the Wind, both as a play and a film, has been a part of my conciousness for as long as I can remember. Back when I was very young, my parents were active in our town’s community theatre. This is one play I vividly remember them doing. And I’ve long been aware that the film is one of my dad’s favorites, and given the subject matter of the film, that is something I’ve always admired.

The film is as relevent today as it was forty years ago when it was made, and eighty years ago when the trial on which it is based took place. Based on the Scopes “Monkey” Trial of 1925, it tells the story of a small-town school teacher who is arrested for teaching evolution to his students, in violation of a Tennesee law that prohibits such teaching, and the ensuing trial that becomes a national media event.

The real-life trial pitted famed Chicago lawyer Clarence Darrow against popular orator and presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. The movie pits fictional famed Chicago lawyer Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy) against fictional popular orator and presidential candidate Matthew Harrison Brady (Fredric March). Religious fundamentalism battles freethinking in the court room, and it is always fascinating and exhilarating to watch. The performances are first-rate, with Tracy earning an Oscar nomination for his work.

Though ostensibly about evolution versus creationism, the play is in a broader sense about the freedom to think independently, and the threat that fundamentalism of any kind can pose to the human mind. Indeed, the play was originally penned as a criticism of Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist crusade.

Now that I think back on it, I no doubt remember my parents doing this play so vividly because I was actually in it myself, as a non-speaking townsperson. All I remember is being on stage and seeing my grandmother in the audience, and waving exuberantly to her, until another cast member told me to cut it out. Oh well.

February 1, 2007, 8:13 pm
Filed under: old movies

Woody Allen’s 1986 film Hannah and Her Sisters is one of his best, up there with Annie Hall and Crimes & Misdemeanors. It features several great performances (two of them Oscar-winning), and has that serious, intellectual, but comic vibe that characterize’s Allen’s best movies.

Who else could make a film, for example, in which a character finds meaning in his life in the meaninglessness of a Marx Brother’s film?

And once again, we have a movie that incorporates a great poem into the story. I love it when that happens! In this film, it is a poem by e.e. cummings.  I got chills when it was read in the film:

somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully,mysteriously) her first rose

or if your wish be to close me,i and
my life will shut very beautifully, suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility: whose texture
compels me with the color of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens; only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain, has such small hands

So great, and so effective in the movie.

I do have one problem with the film though, and with Woody Allen movies in general. I always find myself asking: Where are the minorities? For the most part, his movies are set in the great melting pot of New York City, yet the characters are always whitey-white. It doesn’t help that the only African-American character in this movie is the non-speaking maid. How 1940’s!

January 10, 2007, 7:20 pm
Filed under: old movies

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure to see the 1955 film noir classic “Kiss Me Deadly” on Turner Classic Movies. If you’ve not seen it, I highly recommend that you do. Brilliantly shot and well-acted, the film is a quintessential example of the genre, complete with shadowy streets, odd camera angles, and characters of dubious morality.

Based on the Mickey Spillane novel, the film was way ahead of its time in its unflinching depiction of brutality, and in its portrayal of a deeply flawed anti-hero (Detective Mike Hammer, portrayed by Ralph Meeker). All the characters in the film, with the possible exception of one, are corrupt as well, only varying in degree. The only character to display an ounce of moral courage is Christina (played by a young Cloris Leachman), whose death Mike Hammer supposedly seeks to avenge. The fact that she is killed off right away hints at the film’s rather bleak tone.

The film includes a perfect example of the cinematic device known as the “MacGuffin”, or as it is reffered to in this film, the “whatsit”. The MacGuffin is that object in a thriller that everyone desparately seeks. It doesn’t really matter what it is in particular, just so it sets the plot in motion. The film takes this idea and imbues it with a rather deep, philosophical meaning. As Velda, Mike Hammer’s femme fatale partner, puts it:

They? A wonderful word. And who are they? They’re the nameless ones who kill people for the great whatsit. Does it exist? Who cares? Everyone everywhere is so involved in the fruitless search for what?

The awareness of this search, and the inevitable destruction depicted in the movie, elevate the film, I think, from mainstream thriller to a meditation on lives ruled by greed, power, and the vain search for happiness in material things.

In the end, there is comfort to be had from the fact that the beautiful poem “Remember” by Christina Rossetti plays such an important role in the story. Of course, it moves Mike Hammer forward in his search for the whatsit, but it has a deeper, metaphysical relationship to the story as well, which I’ll leave to you to contemplate…

January 1, 2007, 11:30 pm
Filed under: old movies

I love old movies, so no suprise that my favorite cable channel is Turner Classic Movies. A few weeks ago the husband was generous enough to buy me a subscription to TCM’s program guide. It’s great to be able to plan my day-to-day viewing so I don’t miss all those movies I’ve been wanting to see.

One movie we watched recently that I’d always wanted to see is Harvey, starring James Stewart, and based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Mary Chase. It’s the story of Elwood P. Dowd, a sweet-natured gentleman whom everyone thinks is crazy simply because his best friend is a six-foot rabbit that only he can see. His belief in the invisible rabbit causes much embarrassment to others in his family, so they contrive to get him admitted to a mental hospital, with hilarious results.

The film is interesting in that it really asks us to question what makes us truly happy. Does conformity to what is generally considered normal make one happy? Or is better to be who you want to be, even if that is deemed to be a little nuts? The movie makes its case for the latter, and I, and all the non-comforming crazies out there, must agree.