Archive for 1939

The Wizard of Oz

Posted in Adventure, Family, Fantasy, Musical with tags on June 25, 2012 by Mark Hobin

The complementary Blu-ray that Warner Brothers sent to me of this beloved classic is a treasured gift. The print is so clear, the color so vibrant, I feel as though I have re-discovered a new version. I’ve mentioned it before on this blog. Blu-ray discs are often promoted for science fiction spectaculars with lots of special effects. That’s a valid genre, but to me, the most convincing benefits concerning the Blu-ray format is re-visiting the past and watching these masterpieces in a way not appreciated since the original release. I cannot overstate how beautiful this film looks.

PhotobucketIf ever there was a movie that was better than the book, The Wizard of Oz is it. I have nothing against the 1900 children’s novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. It’s a classic in it’s own right, but this dramatic adaptation is simply one of the greatest movies ever made. It’s difficult for me to independently assess its merits because, like the rest of us, I first watched it when I was very very young and continued to watch it throughout the years. As much a part of my childhood as Bugs Bunny cartoons, the Cub Scouts and school. But right there is a validation of the picture’s virtue. No other production save for perhaps It’s a Wonderful Life, The Ten Commandments or The Sound of Music, represents such a defining example of movies shown regularly on TV. It’s pretty much a shared reality as humans on planet Earth. Virtually everyone has seen this film.

As with any fantasy, the visual displays are important, but would be nothing without a cast that can engage the emotions. Judy Garland is perfection and it’s hard to imagine anyone else as the character. Sorry Shirley Temple. Garland had an incredibly successful career in Hollywood as she was recognized for many roles. For the rest of the actors, these are the parts for which they are primarily known to modern audiences: Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, and Billie Burke are memorable. If I have a quibble with anything, I’d have to say that Bert Lahr plays the cowardly Lion almost like he’s the 4th stooge. He’s likable. I don’t begrudge him that, but his song “If I Were King of the Forest” is my least favorite in a musical score full of winners. Preceding their introduction to the Wizard, it’s a bit of a drag on the narrative at a point where we are on the edge of our seat. The Munchkins are a captivating delight, the flying monkeys give me the creeps, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the villain. Along the way Dorothy encounters a particularly nasty individual known as The Wicked Witch of the West. Margaret Hamilton’s portrayal is so iconic I believe we underestimate the brilliance of her performance. I still have trouble believing that the sum of her appearances only amount to 12 minutes of screen time. She is the very definition of what it means to be a witch.

The story is as familiar as your own name. A young girl from Kansas, bored with her life, yearns for a more exciting one “over the rainbow.” A horrific tornado, which continues to amaze, hits her cherished farm and whisks her, house and all, to the wonderful world of Oz where she meets a scarecrow, a tin man and a lion. They join forces to help her get back to Kansas by visiting the Wizard who they’ve heard can reunite her with her family. The spectacle was expensive for its time and it shows. Even though it was a success, it did not show a large profit until the 1949 re-release. Regardless it was obviously money well spent. The production design is beyond compare. That early shot where she steps out of her black and white sepia toned existence into a land of color is practically a religious experience the way it’s presented here. You’ve seen it before but think back to when you first witnessed the transformation and it’s one of the most exhilarating moments in movies. Seven decades later, everything continues to dazzle: the performances, the sets, the costumes, the music. It is such a force of goodness. There may very well be people who dislike this film, but I have no desire to meet them.

Gone with the Wind

Posted in Drama, History, Romance with tags on May 28, 2012 by Mark Hobin

It’s probably been two decades since I’ve watched Gone with the Wind. Not because I don’t think it’s a wonderful movie, because I do. It’s just that it’s such a time commitment. Its extreme length is a barrier to wanting to re-watch it again. So when Warner Bros. sent me a complementary copy of this historical saga – on Blu-ray no less – I knew the divine movie gods were calling on me to re-visit this tale set during the American Civil War. It also gave me the opportunity to share the experience with some friends who had never seen the film.

I enjoy pointing out that when adjusting for box office inflation, Gone with the Wind is the highest grossing film of all time, even to this day. Nothing comes close. 1977’s Star Wars is the nearest challenger.  It’s a record that will probably never change. So much time has passed since it was released, I think people now assume its success was a foregone conclusion at the time. But Gone with the Wind is rather unconventional. It’s almost 4 hours long, asks us to embrace a female protagonist that behaves in a totally selfish manner and it dares to tell a story of the American Civil War from a white Southern point of view. What surprises is regardless of these questionable distinctions, the drama is a triumph. An engrossing melodramatic romance that manages to entertain on a level in a way few ever even attempt, let alone accomplish. It broke all the rules and still exists as one of the cinema’s most beloved works.

Gone with the Wind is an absolute landmark in filmmaking. Despite its grandiosity, it remains at heart the tale of a man and woman. Scarlett O’Hara is not a typical protagonist. She is selfish, spoiled and insensitive. I dare say she’s a character you’d hate in the hands of a lesser actress. But she’s resourceful and driven as well so we don’t dislike her, not entirely anyway. She‘s too determined and spirited. She’s a bit pathetic too. Her love for her  sister-in-law’s husband, Ashley Wilkes, is both inappropriate and tragic at the same time. Vivien Leigh’s work as Scarlet would not be so engaging if she hadn’t been matched every step of the way by Clark Gable as Rhett Butler. An infamous blockade runner for the Confederacy, his reputation is less than honorable. Intelligent and confident, but also morally questionable.  He is a complicated fellow. Throughout the drama, he is fascinated by Scarlett and her scrappy ways, but he’s frustrated by her ongoing obsession with Ashley Wilkes. His feelings for Scarlet are perfectly believable, in the face of her fickle behavior. Nothing against Robert Donat’s solid work in Goodbye, Mr. Chips, but the fact that Clark Gable did not win for his performance, is one of the great injustices of the Academy Awards. The fact that the movie received ten Oscars is a consolation of sorts, I suppose.

The magnificence of Gone with the Wind goes far beyond our two principals. Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh could have rendered the rest of the cast as unimportant. However, Leslie Howard, Olivia de Havilland, Hattie McDaniel, Thomas Mitchell and Butterfly McQueen contribute significantly in key roles throughout the plot. Every one of them giving an iconic performance that keeps the narrative engrossing. Adapting Margaret Mitchell’s Pulitzer-winning 1936 novel into a gripping and coherent film was not an easy task. Costumes, music, set design, screenplay and cinematography – everything is first rate and presented in a scope never seen before or since. The undertaking was so massive that in many cases, multiple people worked on these elements that weren’t even credited. Orchestrating all of these diverse talents and egos into the cohesive machine that produced this work of art was producer David O. Selznick. It was a colossal production. Given the stakes involved, this could have easily been an expensive disaster. His importance to the success of the picture cannot be overstated. Selznick would produce many classics during his tenure in Hollywood (Rebecca, Spellbound, Duel in the Sun, The Third Man). However Gone with the Wind would endure as his most notable accomplishment.

What else can I offer that hasn’t been already said a million times before? Any film that can run 3 hours and 42 minutes without ever failing to hold the viewer’s interest, is an achievement in itself. Then there’s the cast, everyone deserving of an Academy Award for their emotionally involving work. Add to that the costumes, music, set design that make up the grand historical sweep and you‘ve got a story that astonishes.  To watch this spectacle is to witness the textbook case of how to render an epic. It dazzles in its breadth, and yet at its core, it remains the simple tale of a woman resolved not to lose her Tara, the cotton plantation she calls home. Enter the charming rogue, Rhett, she beguiles and is beguiled by. Watching these two, it’s impossible not to get caught up in their situation. Yes Gone with the Wind is an account on the grandest scale imaginable, but it’s also a story about compelling people. At heart, that is what truly engages in a film that became a cultural phenomenon. It’s the kind of artistic display that makes you truly “give a damn.”

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Posted in Drama with tags on May 22, 2011 by Mark Hobin

Medieval drama about a gypsy girl who comes to Paris and the physically disfigured bell ringer she befriends. The narrative’s success derives from how it captures the tragic plight of our bell ringer in Paris’ legendary church so perfectly. Society’s tendency to build someone up one minute only to tear them down the next, is likewise paralleled in Quasimodo’s story arc. First being crowned “King of Fools” at the festival one moment, then they’re publicly whipping him in the town square soon thereafter.

The quality of the performances is what elevates this to a work of art. Charles Laughton gives the definitive performance in the sympathetic role of Quasimodo, the deformed hunchback of Notre Dame. A delightfully atypical choice for an actor often type-cast as people with arrogant or unscrupulous qualities. His expressive face speaks volumes. Indeed for the first third, he doesn’t utter a word. He’s supported by a stellar cast. Maureen O’Hara is radiant as Esmeralda, a lovely gypsy who inspires passion in several men. Her touching act of kindness toward Quasimodo at one of his darkest hours is a beautifully acted gesture filled with poignancy. At the other end of integrity is Frollo played by Sir Cedric Hardwicke. A villainous tour de force, he is a stern, deeply flawed individual consumed by earthly desire and a lack of accountability. Also worth mentioning is Edmond O’Brien in his film debut. Esmeralda’s chemistry with him as the slightly goofy poet-playwright Gringoire is sweet. Much more believable for example, than her relationship with Phoebus, captain of the King’s guards. Her brief infatuation with him feels more like a story construct to advance the plot, than an affair with any honest emotion.

The production is highlighted by stunning set design. You might think the movie was filmed entirely in Paris from the vivid locations, but that is surprisingly not the case. Notre-Dame Square is a remarkable set at the RKO ranch. Whether it’s the elegant shots of ‘Festival of Fools’ carnival in the opening scenes or the storming of Notre Dame later on, the square is a character in itself. The Cathedral looms over it, an exquisitely realized vision of French Gothic architecture. The cast of hundreds further bring magical life to the city.

The drama takes a very simplistic, but refreshingly straightforward approach. Subtlety, however, is not director William Dieterle’s strong suit. From the intro we’re explicitly told the late 15th century is a time of superstition and prejudice. Paris is not a society tolerant of outsiders. From criminal gangs to the gypsies of Europe to Quasimodo himself, there were many outcasts of society. The story is painted in bold strokes. At times the script can be fairly simplistic, particularity with dialogue that is obviously manipulative. Many in the government oppose progress and political reform. Frollo, in particular, views free thought as subversive and leading to violence against the state. This is manifested in his single-minded focus to thwart this new invention called the printing press. Immediately upon the introduction of the device, his 20/20 foresight predicts it to be a dangerous tool that could be used to denounce the government. Seems more like an anachronistic projection than genuine cognitive ability if you ask me. Nevertheless, it does wonders in readily inciting the audience’s dislike of him in the first 10 minutes.

The reverent presentation of religion is an unexpected attitude that bears a mention, particularly for the 21st century audience. When Esmeralda first finds herself in the sanctuary of the Cathedral, her prayer to the Virgin Mary is sincerely moving, especially when contrasted to the self-serving prayers of the rest of the congregation. Furthermore, in the movie the Archdeacon, Claude Frollo, is a model of justice and virtue. This is a change from the character in the book where he was a clergyman overwhelmed by lust. Here, it is his younger brother, Jehan Frollo, that becomes the main antagonist instead. He opposes progress and political reform, so that forms much of his discord with the church. That he bitterly struggles with his attraction to Esmeralda is a bit harder to understand since he isn’t even a member of the clergy at all, but rather a sexually repressed judge and adviser to Louis XI, who simply wishes to be pure in thought. This probably had less to do with artistic license and more to do with the Hays Code which forbade depicting members of the clergy in a negative light. Still, it’s unexpected to see religion and even the church itself presented as an example of integrity and open-mindedness in thought.

Despite the many adaptations, few would argue that is the definitive version of the classic 1831 novel by Victor Hugo. (In 1996 Walt Disney Feature Animation produced a competent animated rendition which was heavily influenced in style and tone by this version.) Performances and set design combine perfectly to create a sweeping historical epic for the ages with a surprising amount of human intimacy. Whether it‘s 15th century France or elsewhere in the modern world, the film‘s themes transcend time and place.