Archive for the 'Anglophile' Category

23
Sep
14

Brief Encounter

brief encounter
Written by Noel Coward and directed by David Lean, Brief Encounter tells the story of a man and woman whose paths cross in a train station tea room and then again in town. Both married, contentedly, they are drawn to each other. Laura Jesson (played by Celia Johnson) comes to the town of Milford every Thursday for a day away from housekeeping. On one excursion Dr. Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard) helps her remove some grit from her eye. Every time he bumps into her he pours on the charm.

The movie is narrated by Johnson who’s thinking about this four week relationship while sitting in front of her husband who’s working on his crossword puzzle. The plot is compelling and Laura especially because there’s so much danger of bumping into people they know and the main characters carefully weigh the cost of the lying and secrecy demanded by their affair. I’ve never seen such thoughtful characters on the precipice of starting an affair.

Another Criterion Collection DVD, it’s enriched by a documentary on David Lean and mini-documentary on the film. Both were worthwhile.

01
Sep
14

Gosford Park: No Downton Abbey

Gosford-Park

I began watching Julien Fellows’ Gosford Park with high hopes. After all, I love Downton Abbey and Fellows won the Oscar for this screenplay.

I was disappointed. Sorely. Despite an all star cast, Gosford Park lacked a single character I found charming or likable. There was one Scottish maid who seemed mousy but nice. She wasn’t enough to carry a film of this length. The characters all came off as cold, greedy and indolent. The upperclass people spent money like water and had nothing but disdain for each other and got no joy from their money.

The downstairs servants weren’t much better. Though not as spoiled they were all out for themselves in a different way. No warmth at all. They just wanted to get their work done with as little fuss as possible. Anyone who upset their system was glared and scoffed at.

One theme that rose was how the servants felt overshadowed by their employers. I can see that, but the grass isn’t always greener. If they worked in offices, their lives would also be precarious and as one of my new colleagues asserts if you work for one company for a long time, that company forms your identity to a great extent. So if they traded their apron for a factory uniform it’s not sure that they’d be happier or more secure.

Sexual harassment was rampant as the lord of the manor couldn’t keep his hands to himself, but in a store, office or factory women run into that too.

For the first 75 minutes we see rich people bicker, whinge and finagle for money. Now and then someone says something they think is droll and smokes a cigarette. Then the plot picks up when the lord who’s a churl gets murdered. Yet the investigation is so incompetently carried out that I just couldn’t buy it. In the end we do learn who did it, but by then I barely cared.

Fellows sure deepened his understanding about character and plot by the time he started Downton Abbey.

15
Jul
14

That Hamilton Woman

That-Hamilton-Woma_2369429b

That Hamilton Woman (1941) opens with a once well-off woman trying to steal a bottle of wine from a shop in Calais. She’s caught and thrown in jail with another woman who joined in the brouhaha that followed her arrest. Starring Vivien Leigh and Lawrence Olivier, That Hamilton Woman is a propaganda movie that Churchill asked the director Alexander Korda to make to appeal to Americans and convince the public that joining the war was the right thing to do.

Based on history, Leigh stars as Emma, who’s frequently changed her name about as frequently as she’s changed lovers. Her last lover, whom she thinks will marry her sent her to Naples to stay with his uncle, an ambassador who has a passion for collecting art — and beautiful women if they come his way. Though she and her mother who’s with her are worldly enough to know better, Emma’s surprised that her “fiancé” is going to marry a rich woman to help him out of financial troubles. He arranged for his uncle to take Emma offer her hands. Jilted, she’s furious at the trickery, but she’s an opportunist and winds up marrying the old uncle and making the most of life as an ambassador’s wife.

The many portraits by Abbott originate from th...

Horatio Nelson by Abbott (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

She meets Horatio Nelson, the famous naval leader who beat Napolean, time and time again. Though their both married, they become intimate. Leigh’s perfect as the coquettish and politically astute Emma. Olivier is commanding as Nelson. We see the couple across many years from when they first meet, to when Nelson returns after 5 years at war. It’s the only movie I’ve seen where the leading man is still dashing despite losing an arm and an eye.

In Naples the couple is fairly open about their love. It maddens Nelson’s son who’s stationed on his ship and he’s the first to refer to Emma as “That Hamilton Woman.” Town gossips soon use that term as well, but it doesn’t bother Emma. She’s got chutzpah galore. I read the history and this was a woman who used to dance naked on tables in her early days in “show business.” So the late 18th century wasn’t as straight-laced as you might think.

The Ambassador Hamilton enjoys Emma more as an ornament than anything else. While he asks Emma to be discreet, he isn’t all that hurt by her affair. Nelson’s wife is another story. She’s been waiting for him for 7 years and has gotten wind of “that Hamilton woman.” The stern and upright, Mrs. Nelson meets her husband in London when he returns after defeating Napolean’s navy at Trafalgar, in a battle scene that’s wonderfully shot. She’s a plain woman who’s strict and old fashioned. I’m not sure whether the real Lady Nelson was like this and think the film would be stronger if she were actually a rather attractive nice woman. This choice makes it easy to side with Nelson. I prefer more complexity and reality.

Emma Hamilton, in a 1782–84 portrait by George...

The real Emma Hamilton, in a 1782–84 portrait by G. Romney,                (Source: Wikipedia)

Be that as it may, the film is dramatic and it was fun to watch Vivien Leigh in a role other than Scarlett O’Hara. Since we see in the first scene that Emma ends up on the skids, I’m not spoiling anything by discussing that. I felt sorry that she ended up like that. It didn’t seem right that her husband, who never insisted she end her affair, died penniless and then she got no money from Nelson. According to the Criterion Collection bonus feature with the director’s nephew, history’s unclear about what happened to Emma, but the moral code of the day required that to show an adulterous couple, you would have to show that dire consequences follow that sort of life choice.

All in all, That Hamilton Woman, was an entertaining way to learn about 18th and early 19th century British history. Nelson’s military acumen and self-sacrifice are laudable and though I doubt the film would succeed in convincing Americans it’s time to jump into WWII.

Again, the Criterion Collection’s bonus features were worth seeing. Michael Korda, whose uncle directed the film and whose father was the art director, provided lots on insights into its making and the collaboration between his father and uncle. He also described Vivien Leigh’s tempestuous relationship with Olivier whose personality favored more even-keel people.

02
Jul
14

City Lights

The Tramp and the Blind Girl

I’d never watched Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, or perhaps any Chaplin film, before. I remember being shown some silent film as a child in some group setting and being bored to tears. That feeling ran deep, though the specifics – who was in the film, or what it was about faded fast. Since I’m half way through my year of watching one “old” i.e. pre 1960 movie a week, I thought it’s high time to watch Chaplin.

After seeing and loving Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last released by the Criterion Collection with the enriching commentary, I thought I could like City Lights. I was right. What a delightful, charming, poignant film! Chaplin plays his signature Tramp, who I think everyone in the West with a pulse has seen in some form. As the film opens some long winded politician is bloviating at a ceremony to unveil a statue about progress and prosperity. When the drape is removed, we see the Tramp asleep in one of the figure’s laps. He scrambles to get out of the way, always desiring not to bother anyone, but in so doing gets more entangled and almost loses his pants. It’s high comedy, but still works. What’s more Chaplin is definitely satirizing the politicians and society that honors these values while blind to those left behind or harmed by “progress” and whom “prosperity” has overlooked.

Soon the Tramp meets and falls in love with a girl who’s blind, who sells flowers on the street. She mistakes him for a millionaire and this is the main plot. After impressing the flower girl, the Tramp runs into a crazy, distraught millionaire whose life he saves. The friendship between the eccentric millionaire and the Tramp is mercurial. When the millionaire’s drunk, all’s well. When he sobers up, he rejects the Tramp, time and again.

The Tramp and the Millionaire

The film’s commentary helped me note a lot in the film that I would have overlooked. The political themes, the cast, and the history (how on average Chaplin did 38 takes for every scene in what he himself dubbed a “neurotic” quest for perfection).

The film came out in 1931 when sound had been around for awhile. Chaplin, the commentator states, didn’t think sound really added much to films and that it took away some of film’s subtleties. While there’s plenty of slapstick, I can see Chaplin’s point. By having to rely on pantomime, the actors have to do more with a look or action. Also, Chaplin’s films did well all over the world. He felt that if the audience heard his accent some wouldn’t like his work as much. It’s a valid point as when I watched, I projected an American accent on to the characters.

The film is delightful and succeeds in providing humor and pathos often right on top of each other.

10
May
14

Mr Selfridge Background:

Mabel Normand hat
Tomorrow’s Mr. Selfridge will feature a visit from silent film star Mabel Normand. She eventually directed her own films and opened her own film studio. Here’s more from The Encyclopedia of World Biography:

Actress and comedienne Mabel Normand’s most important role involved her contribution to the development of film comedy. Those who came after, such as Lucille Ball, owe her a large debt.

Normand proved far ahead of her time. She was an independent, successful woman in a male-dominated industry, and she exercised a great deal of control over her own career. She also developed gags, wrote scripts, and even directed some early silent films. But this comedy star’s life was filled with tragedy. She became enmeshed in scandal, indulged far too much than was good for her fragile health, and she died young.

Normand was one of the film world’s first celebrities. She had a rebellious nature, and this non-conformity made her a “star” before that term came into common use. Like modern celebrities, her involvement in career-destroying scandals unfairly amounted to little more than guilt by association.

Born in New York City

The screen’s first true female comedy star was born as Mabel Ethelried Normand on November 11, 1892, in Staten Island in New York City, New York. She was the youngest of four children born to Claude G. Normand and Mary Drury Normand. Her parents were French Canadians, and Claude Normand struggled to make a living to support his family. He worked as a carpenter but also played piano in clubs, small theaters, and movie houses.

As a young teenager, Normand toiled as a factory garment worker. In 1909, the seventeen-year-old Normand found work as a model. Painters and illustrators were attracted to her dark curled hair that framed her round face and large, expressive eyes. At the time, such attributes epitomized the current conception of beauty. Famous artists she posed for included Charles Dana Gibson, who created the “Gibson girl look,” and James Montgomery Flagg, the man who created the famous Uncle Sam “I Want You” military recruiting posters.

Moved from Modeling to Films

Normand was friends with Alice Joyce, a fellow model whose beauty led her into film work. Normand followed her into the burgeoning industry and worked as an extra in films produced by the Kalem Film Company, an early East Coast-based movie production studio. Soon, she made the acquaintance of Frank Lanning, an actor who worked at Biograph Studios. Lanning convinced her to change studios, which proved to be good advice, as Biograph boasted the talents of D.W. Griffith, the pioneering film director who would later produce the movie industry’s first feature films, (The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance). As such, the company attracted the best of the early film industry’s talent.

Continue reading ‘Mr Selfridge Background:’

10
May
14

Mr Selfridge Background: Mabel Normand

Earlier I posted some background information on Mabel Normand who’s in the next episode of Mr Selfridge. Here are a couple of her short silent films. These two are both from 1912 so the real Selfridge folks might have seen them.

08
May
14

He Knew Mr Selfridge

This 102 year old worked at Selfridges in the ’30s, way after Agnes, Thackery, Henri, Victor, Mr Crabb Miss, Mardle, Kitty et al.




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