30 May 2011

In here, life is beautiful

Cabaret, 1972

By the 1970s, audiences had grown tired of the traditional way that Hollywood had been making musical films since the1930s.  They were bored with the whole idea of a character being so moved, being so overcome with emotion, that they just had to sing and dance. They wanted, and needed something new. And Cabaret was just the film that they needed. It was a whole different breed of musical. For starters, its setting was Germany during the rise to power of the Nazi Party. 

The story opens in 1931 Berlin. Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli), an American, is a performer at the decadent  Kit Kat Club. When Brian Roberts (Michael York) moves into the boarding house where she lives, a friendship begins immediately. Not too long after, a romance begins. However, their bliss is short lived as the Nazi Party grows in power. Throw in a subplot of a poor Catholic man's romance with a rich Jewish heiress, and yet another when a rich businessman romances both Sally and Brian, and you've got one hell of a great story.

There wasn't any question who should play Sally. Bob Fosse had directed Liza Minnelli's Sally on stage, and she was the one he cast in his film version. And on film, Minnelli has never been better. She plays Sally with a frantic energy that borders on mania. She is blissfully happy, so happy, that you suspect it is an attempt to cover up her unhappiness. Minnelli brought pain and vulnerability to a character that otherwise would have been rather annoying and intolerable.

  In the same way that her mother, Judy Garland could, Minnelli could act while she sang, and she could sing while she acted. You can sense her hope in "Maybe This Time", and in the show's finale, "Cabaret", her frantic energy comes to a head, as she desperately attempts to boost the spirits of the ordinary German people living in extraordinary times. In recognition of such a brilliant performance, Minnelli would be rewarded with a Best Actress Academy Award.

Another essential part of Cabaret is Joel Grey's Emcee. His life's purpose is to help people forget their troubles and give them a place to come where "Life is beautiful. The girls are beautiful. Even the orchestra is beautiful." To give them a break from reality and an increasingly hostile world and offer them a few precious hours of decadence. Giving people reason to laugh is what he does. Constantly joking, he takes particular delight in mocking Hitler and the Nazi party, smearing mud under his nose in a Hitler mustache, Nazi saluting the audience, and leading his dancers offstage in a goosestep. Grey won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance.

The best aspect of Cabaret is the way the songs do not hinder the story. In fact, they do just the opposite. They actually help the story move forward, and, much like Kander and Ebb's Chicago, actually illustrate what is going on in the lives of the characters. It's one of the earliest examples of a story not having to come to a screeching halt because a character suddenly feels the need to sing and dance. This is helped by the fact that except for one, all of the musical numbers take place in the same location: On stage at the Kit Kat Club. This helps them in their advancement, rather than hindrance of the story.

Cabaret is a genius piece of film. There's really nothing else like it, it has the perfect cast, the cinematography, sets, and costumes are gorgeous, and the music is some of the best ever written. While it was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, it lost to The Godfather (a great film, but in my opinion, not on the same level as Cabaret). It is bold, daring, brash, in your face, unapologetic, and makes you think. What more could you ask for?

18 May 2011

I've got my head, I've lost my leopard!

Bringing Up Baby, 1938

One of the funniest movies ever made and quite possibly the zaniest, Bringing Up Baby is the definitive screwball comedy. It centers around stodgy paleontologist, Dr. David Huxley (Cary Grant), whose only aspiration in life is to finish putting together the Brontosaurus for the museum he works for, and marrying his equally stodgy fiancee, Alice.  Upon learning that a Mrs. Carlton Random is going to donate one million dollars to a museum, Huxley meets up with her representative, a Mr. Peabody for a golf outing. On the green, he runs into a woman who steals first his golf ball, and then his car. She turns out to be Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn), niece of the same Mrs. Carlton Random. And she just so happens to have a leopard. Somehow, she convinces him to help her take the leopard, whose name is Baby, to her home in Connecticut. And so begins the craziest twenty-four hours ever captured on film, involving a missing dinosaur bone, a dog, two leopards, a big-game hunter, a drunk groundskeeper, and a couple of flustered cops. 

One of the things that makes Bringing Up Baby so great is the pairing of Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. They work so well together, and they've never been better than here. Their different personalities fit together perfectly. They compliment each other beautifully.  While he's stuffy and overwhelmed, she's ever optimistic, and completely unflappable. Nothing ever fazes her, no matter how out of the ordinary the situation. She's always cool as a cucumber, as if the insane events are nothing new to her. One realizes that they're probably not.

Another great thing about the film is the dialogue. Not only is it some of the funniest ever spoken on film, but it's literally spoken a mile a minute. It actually takes quite a few viewings to be able to catch all of the lines and jokes because of the sheer speed of the dialogue. There are lines spoken on top of lines, and it's not unusual to hear two conversations going on at once. (This is a bit of a Howard Hawks trademark- His Girl Friday also exhibits this style of dialogue)
Due to her utter zaniness, Susan has the majority of the funniest lines in the movie. During her meeting with David on the golf course, after he informs her that she's playing his ball, she doesn't seem to understand. 
David: What ball are you playing?
Susan: PGA.
David: Well, I'm playing a CrowFlight.
Susan: Mmhmm, I like PGA better.
David: I'm just trying to prove you you that you're playing my ball. You see, a PGA has two black dots, and a CrowFlight has a circle.
Susan: Mmmhmm, I'm not superstitious about things like that.
David: There, you see, it's a circle.
Susan: Well of course it is, do you think it would roll if it were square?

Don't be irrelevant the point is I have a leopard. The question is what am I gonna do with it?

While on the subject, let's discuss Katharine Hepburn. This was her first foray into slapstick, and she was lucky to be paired with Grant and directed by Howard Hawks. Watching her in this film, it's difficult to believe that she wasn't very good at first, and that she had to be coached in being funny. But she learned quickly, and played her role perfectly. She dove headfirst into the part, and went about a thousand miles an hour for the whole duration of the film, never letting up once. She plays the role of Susan with a silly absent mindedness that is absolutely hysterical. What's incredible is how she speaks her lines with such sincerity and honesty, never batting an eye at the funniest of lines.Whatever misfortune occurs is honestly not her fault. Grabbing on to Grant's jacket, it rips as he walks away from her. He turns and glares accusingly, her eyes widen, and she says sympathetically, "Oh, you've torn your coat." 

I'm not quite myself today.
Cary Grant does the exact same thing with his lines. While a lot of them aren't exactly funny, the way he says them and the sincerity in his voice make them so. Probably the most well known scene is when Susan steals David's clothes, and so he is forced to wear her negligee. Shortly after, the doorbell rings, and he unknowingly opens the door to Susan's aunt Elizabeth, one Mrs. Carlton Random. The following conversation is pure gold. 
David: What do you want?
Elizabeth: Who are you?
David: What do you want?
Elizabeth: Who ARE you?
David: I don't know, I'm not quite myself today. 
Elizabeth: Well, you look perfectly idiotic in those clothes. 
David: These aren't my clothes.
Elizabeth: Well, where are your clothes?

David: I've lost my clothes.
Elizabeth: But why are you wearing those clothes?
David: Because I just went gay all of a sudden!
Elizabeth: Do you want to wear these clothes?
David: No, I don't want to wear these clothes, I just want to get married!

Quiet, George!
This entire conversation is accompained by the barking of Aunt Elizabeth's dog George, who just so happens to be my favorite character in the movie. (I'm sure you'll recognize him as Asta from the Thin Man series, and as Mr. Smith from The Awful Truth).  He brings yet another series of hilarious scenes when he runs off with the bone that David needs to finish the Brontosaurus skeleton, resulting in a chase around the grounds to find where the bone is buried. Susan is having a grand old time while David is trying his best not to strangle the dog. George indeed digs something up, but it's not exactly what they're searching for: 
Isn't he a strong little man, David?

Susan: Oh, look. David. a boot!

David: A boot!
Susan: Don't hit George, David!
David: I wasn't going to hit GEORGE!

Bringing Up Baby is one of the most perfect movies ever made and one of the funniest in history. It takes you on a hundred mile an hour ride from start to finish, and it doesn't slow down for anything. It is a true jewel, and is definitely worth the watch.


17 May 2011

Everyone has a heart, except some people

All About Eve, 1950
The 1950s saw the release of some of the greatest films ever made. It was a time when things in the movie industry were changing. The studio system was beginning to crumble, audience's preferences were changing, and a new group of actors and actresses ushered in a new style of acting. 

Audiences wanted stories that were grittier and truer to real life. Actors like James Dean, Marlon Brando, and Paul Newman, and actresses like Natalie Wood and Elizabeth Taylor were the ones bringing these stories to life. The stars that the public had so loved and admired just a decade earlier were now forgotten. Bette Davis, who had been the number one actress in America during the 1940s, was now considered washed up and a has been. That is, until Joseph L. Mankiewicz  wrote a screenplay based on a short story from Cosmopolitan Magazine. The story was called The Wisdom of Eve, and that screenplay became All About Eve. 

Margo Channing is the grande dame of the theater.  Although she is adored by the public, she is nearly forty and terrified of losing her career. Enter Eve Harrington, a young aspiring actress who idolizes Margo. Flattered, Margo moves Eve into her home and makes her her personal secretary. As the plot thickens, Margo wonders if Eve really is just a nice young girl, or if there are ulterior motives involved.
Anne Baxter as Eve Harrington
Anne Baxter plays Eve. Shy at first, once she is included into Margo's inner circle, she opens up and, little by little, her true colors are revealed.  I can't think of anyone else who could have played her so well. Her transition to mousy girl to viper is astounding. It really is a wonderful performance. 

Bette Davis as Margo Channing
Of course, it really is Bette Davis as Margo Channing who dominates the movie. As incredible as the rest of the cast is, Davis stands above the rest. Which is really saying something, because the whole cast is flawless. But Davis brings something extra to the table here.  She plays Margo not just as a selfish diva, but also as a frightened woman, nervous about aging, losing her career, and the man she loves to a younger, more attractive woman. It's almost as if Davis were channeling her own fears and anxieties out through Margo. At the time of this film, Davis was 42 years old, and considered a has been. She had everything riding on this part, and she knew that if she didn't succeed in it, she would be finished. She also knew that she was not the first choice for the role. The role of Margo Channing was originally written for Claudette Colbert, but she had to back out due to a back injury sustained in a previous film. Mankiewicz then had a stroke of genius when he suggested Bette Davis for the role, and that, as they say, was that.

I believe that had any actress other than Davis been given the role of Margo, she would have been the campiest character in the history of film. (Granted, she has become quite campy anyway, but I think that's more due to the fact that she was played by Davis). As mentioned earlier, Davis manages to evoke sympathy and caring for a rather unsympathetic character. 

I'm nobody's fool, least of all yours
Another performance of interest is George Sanders, playing the acerbic theater critic Addison DeWitt. Along with Margo's assistant Birdie (who will be discussed shortly) he is the only one who suspects that Eve is not all that she seems, and that her intentions may not be honest. He definitely has the best lines in the film, and his interactions with a young, up-and-coming actress by the name of Marilyn Monroe are pure gold.  When he tells her to go introduce herself to a theater producer at a party, she sighs and asks, "Why do they always look like unhappy rabbits?" He responds, "Because that's what they are."  And another hilarious scene is when Marilyn is trying in vain to get herself a drink.  

Monroe: Oh, waiter...
Sanders: That's not a waiter,my dear, that's a butler. 
Monroe: Well, I can't yell Oh butler can I? Maybe somebody's name is Butler.
Sanders: You have a point. An idiotic one, but a point.
Monroe: I don't want to make trouble. All I want is a drink.

My favorite character, however, is Margo's assistant, Birdie Coonan, played by one of my favorite character actresses, Thelma Ritter. She figures Eve out from the word go. She is cynical and sarcastic, but it's obvious that she cares for Margo and is only trying to look out for her and trying to keep her from getting hurt. When Eve relates the story of how she came to be such a fan of Margo's, everyone is moved by her story of misfortune. Birdie however, sees it as a sob story and muses, "What a story. Everything but the bloodhounds snappin' at her rear end." 
And when she is introduced to Eve by Margo as "My dear friend and companion, Miss Birdie Coonan" Birdie responds with "Oh, brother. When she gets like this, all of a sudden she's playing Hamlet's mother." 

Rounding out the cast is Celeste Holm as Karen Richards, Margo's best friend. She is the catalyst for the film's conflict taking place, as she was the one who found Eve and introduced her to Margo. She also seems to be the last person involved who can't see Eve for what she really is. 
It's unfortunate that George Sanders is the only really good male lead in this film. Gary Merrill plays Bill Samson, Margo's fiance, and Hugh Marlowe plays Lloyd Richards, Karen's husband. 
Despite the failure to cast decent male leads, All About Eve is a flawless film, the ultimate backstage story, and boasts incredible performances by the majority of the cast. George Sanders won Best Actor for his performance, and it won Best Picture at the 1950 Academy Awards. However, Davis lost the Best Actress Oscar to Judy Holiday for Born Yesterday (some say because Anne Baxter, who was also nominated for Best Actress, refused to accept a Best Supporting Actress nomination, therefore splitting the votes). I envy those when they see it for the first time, and I would love to show it to somebody and watch their reactions throughout. It's a great roller coaster ride of a film, and it really is a thrill to watch.

12 May 2011

Katharine the Great

 One hundred and four years ago today, in Hartford Connecticut, a baby girl was born to Dr. Thomas Hepburn and his wife. The baby was called Katharine Houghton, after her mother, and she grew to become the best screen actress the world has ever seen. 

My fascination with Katharine Hepburn began in May of 2007, with the Centenary of her birth. Turner Classic Movies (TCM) www.tcm.com celebrated with airing many of her films all month and I would stay up until the wee hours of the morning and refuse social invitations to be able to make sure that I could  see as many of these films as I could. It wasn't long until I understood why many people refer to Hepburn as Katharine the Great. 

Katharine Hepburn died in 2003 at the age of ninety-six. In a way, I'm glad that I didn't know of her at the time of her death. For if I did, I'm quite sure that I would have mourned her loss as if she were a dear friend. 

In honor of Katharine Hepburn's birthday, and of her work, I present my top five favorite Katharine Hepburn movies:

5. Woman of the Year (1942) This was the movie that paired her with Spencer Tracy for the first time. They would go on to make eight more films together. In this film, Kate plays the typical "independent woman" journalist who falls in love and marries the sportswriter of the newspaper she works for. It isn't long before husband and wife begin to clash over what makes a successful marriage. 
4. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967)  In this film, Hepburn and Tracy worked together for the last time. They were joined by Sidney Poitier and Kate's real-life niece Katharine Houghton, and they played liberal thinking parents having to come to terms with their daughter's engagement to a black man. At the time, the subject of interracial marriage was unheard of, and quite honestly, was a very brave move on the part of everyone who was involved.

3. The Lion in Winter (1968) Hepburn played Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine to Peter O'Toole's King Henry II. Although she has much less screen time than anyone else in the film, she dominates it. And I must say that it is an absolute disgrace that Barbra Streisand tied with her for the Best Actress Academy Award. 

2. The Philadelphia Story (1940) With this film, Hepburn returned to box office stardom after being labeled box office poison. Paired with Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart and directed by George Cukor, she proved that she was a force to be reckoned with. She had the most delicious way of biting off a line and smiling as she spat venom.

1. Bringing up Baby (1938) My all time favorite Katharine Hepburn movie and the ultimate screwball comedy involving a stodgy paleontologist, a zany heiress, two leopards, and a dog. It was a failure on its initial release, because, according to director Howard Hawks, "Everybody was crazy." It is now considered the definitive screwball comedy, and in my opinion, one of the funniest movies ever made. And Kate had never been better. 

   Happy birthday, Kate. Thank you for  leaving behind such an amazing body of work for the world to enjoy. Thanks for being you. Thank you for just being. You are my hero.

Katharine Houghton Hepburn