Sunday, July 31, 2011

Bette Davis- a definition of a favorite actress

"Whatever I did, I did. My mistakes are mine. I, alone, am responsible."

Bette Davis [bet-te da-vis]
  1. Actress
  2. Organizer (See: Hollywood Canteen)
  3. Warner Brother's Scarlett O'Hara (See: Jezebel) 
  1. To have the stars
  2. To know one's enemies
  3. To be short in body but tall in spirit
  1. "A great name for a secretary"*
  2. A bumpy night

1. Determined 2. Commanding 3. Hard-working 4. Ethical 5. Theatrical

*Carl Laemmle's publicity men on wanting to change Davis' name for pictures (via "The Lonely Life" by Bette Davis, p. 125)

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Facebook and the Circle of Life

Wild Card #3. There were no Parent Trap style handshakes involved but I have nonetheless made a pact with Amanda of A Noodle in A Haystack to produce one wild card post a month. Not only is it a chance to flex muscles outside of filmdom, it has the added fun of not knowing what we may come up with. Feel free to pull up a chair and join us if you like. The more the merrier.

Internet fads come and go, but one that has attracted my attention recently is Google +, a 'new and improved Facebook' with less mess and no invites to raise barnyard animals. One of the main selling points is the ability users have to place those they allow to view their posts into different categories. Don't want your gym partner in high school/mailman/grandmother to know you have undying love for grape jello? Easy. Just put them in a circle labeled "Anti-Jello."

This seems like a logical step in the evolution of social media. One that I imagine Facebook will be forced to adopt if it wants to remain competitive. And while I understand the rationale, the ways this makes social networking more like filters we have in life, it creates a potential end (or twilight) to a fascinating, sometimes embarrassing, sometimes litigious chapter in digital history.

Chances are you've seen it before (and done it before. I know I have). The late night post of self-doubt, photographic documentation of the fling of a friend you haven't seen in five years. It can be uncomfortable if you don't know the person well and run into them at a supermarket. And yet I find the no-holds-barred approach many people take to social media fascinating. With party phone lines there was no way of knowing who was potentially listening to a personal conversation.  Pouring private thoughts into a tape recorder has something of a message in a bottle effect. Now hundreds of people can be made privy to personal thoughts instantaneously. Seeing your Uncle Alfonso post about his smelly socks is the same as if he'd mentioned this outright at the dinner table, though the latter seems less likely. It's like going out into a field and yelling obscenities into the night sky, all the while knowing that now the stars can listen. And comment. And pass the information along to their friends in other galaxies (or your boss).

I love seeing different sides to those I know. Of course this is more satisfying when the information is earned in person, but now the field is more open to those outside of one's immediate circles. It offers a limited opportunity to walk in someone else's shoes, even if that means reading posts about hand painted mailboxes. With more prevalent filters it seems less and less likely that these different viewpoints will be as accessible. And I think that's a shame.

Who knows what the future of social media will be, or if these sorts of advancements will keep those with over share proclivities from curbing the habit. For better or worse the practice underlines the need we all have to communicate, and offers more opportunities to be heard. Call me crazy but I think that's kind of beautiful.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Yolanda and the Thievery of American Idealism

I don't often write reviews of films I dislike because I wouldn't want to trample all over some soul who loves it with the grace of an elephant on roller skates. It often comes down to a why, why, why does a film push all the wrong buttons? How can the likes of Fred Astaire and Vincente Minnelli be reduced to sultry six year olds swiping their sticky fingers across all 36 floors? I take Yolanda and the Thief (1945) as a challenge. On the surface it's a candy coated Brother's Grimm, but its core is mid-40s America. While film noir and the notorious femme fatale are often terms most associated with post-war angst, Yolanda and the Thief indicates ways the post-war musical also bears witness to fear of the independent woman.

The film is set in the mythical land of Patria, somewhere between South America and Burbank. As in, it's South America, clearly set in Burbank.

Save the drama for your llama.

After some villagers sing and a group of girls in a convent shower together (because who doesn't think 'wet t-shirt contest' whenever they pass their local church...) Johnny (Fred Astaire) and Victor (Frank Morgan) come rumbling and grumbling in on a train, two con men out for some quick dough. Their plight provides the major plot line for the film. Other characters include:

Yolanda (Lucille Bremer) in a get up enforcing the notion that a woman's only worth is her ability to look like a pre-teen milkmaid.

Overly precocious loud-mouthed child

Man with fake mustache

Johnny and Victor find out that the heir to a large fortune is none other than young and unassuming Yolanda, prime for the picking. After determining the girl's religious nature Astaire decides to pretend to be her guardian angel. In gaining her complete trust he is able to force her to give up her millions. But I'm sure you can guess what happens instead, so I'm not even going to waste the type.

What is of note in the film is the one of these things is not like the other cherry picked social statements which don't seem to fit in with the otherworldly surroundings.

Yolanda's economic circumstances are introduced through a series of billboards that pass the train windows at the beginning of the film reading Aquaviva Gasoline fuels the nation [sic], Fly Pan Aquaviva Airways, Aquaviva Beef feeds the world,  adding an unexpected commercial aspect and comment on the modern corporation.

"This Aquaviva's got the country by the throat!"

More importantly, these interests are not initially introduced in relation to Yolanda.

Victor: Must be awfully rich, eh? Millionaire, would you say?
Steward: Very rich, seƱor, as you Americans say, "filthy."
Victor: Yes... Well what sort of a man is this filthy Aquaviva? I mean how does one contact him? Has he got any vices? Hobbies? Does he play gin rummy?
Johnny: Don't worry, Junior, Mr. Aquaviva will probably meet you at the station and hand you a blank check.
Steward: Mr. Aquaviva is not Mr. Aquaviva, Mr. Aquaviva is Miss Aquaviva!
A woman running a company? Shocking. Which is why Johnny has to come in to save the day. Not as the traditional lead, but as a 'fake guardian angel,' a bizarre position that conflates romance with religion. It takes 'worship your man' to a whole new level.

More than that, the resultant marriage has to be on Johnny's terms ("Women are bad business"). His initial fears about being roped into matrimony are only satiated when the traditional Hollywood ending saves the day. And in this the very notion that something once assured has to be saved.

Am I taking this too far? Quite possibly. Would pointing out the resemblance of Patria (spanish for homeland) to Patriarchy be too much? Oh yes. And yet...

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Unexpected Ephemera-The Legacy of Laurence Olivier

This weekend marks the first Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh blogathon, a celebration of people with the ability to turn life into a non-stop Gap ad. Flawless. But of course both were much, much more, and as such I admit to struggling to come up with a topic. I perused netflix for ideas and found that The 49th Parallel by one of my favorite filmmaking teams, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, was available on instant. The listed synopsis sealed the deal:

The great Laurence Olivier leads an impressive cast in this wartime thriller about a Nazi U-boat crew stranded in Canada during WWII.

Sounds perfect, right? Except in watching the film I encountered a problem. While Olivier is billed as the premier cast member, his character's time is rather limited. In fact, he's not even part of the greater arc of the film.

Though he does make quite an entrance.

The fact that Netflix would tout the film as an Olivier vehicle intrigued me. It's pudding proof that the very name Laurence Olivier has a life of its own.

Awhile ago I acquired a program for a performance of The School for Scandal that took place at the National Theater in Washington, DC on April 8th, 1963. The play featured an impressive cast led by Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud. Sign me up.

In the cast biographies one name pops up time and again: Laurence Olivier. Though he made no appearance in person that night he was nonetheless present in the theater, a phantom filtered through the experiences of others. Below are the appropriate sections involving Olivier.

Who's Who in the Cast

Ralph Richardson (Sir Peter Teazle) This international star headed the Old Vic for many years with Sir Laurence Olivier. He performed outstandingly in Shakespearean plays both at home and abroad, and in 1947 was knighted by the Throne for his numerous stage achievements. He was born in Cheltenham of Quaker parentage and made his debut with the Little Theatre in Brighton, where he quickly became its leading actor. After four years in the provinces he joined the Birmingham Repertory Company, where two other young actors, Laurence Olivier and Cedric Hardwicke, like himself, looked to London as their goal. The triamvirate were destined to be associates in many productions for many years. They bowed to the London public together in George Bernard Shaw's "Back to Methuselah," which was followed by Tennyson's verse play "Harold." 

Geraldine McEwan (Lady Teazle) After several successful appearances in London, and a guest apperance back in Windsor, Geraldine McEwan joined the Shakespeare Memorial Company during their 1956 season to play the Princess of France in "Loves Labour's Lost." She was at Stratford-on-Avon the following year to play Olivia in "Twelfth Night." Marina in "Pericles" and Hero in "Much Ado about Nothing." In 1960 she again played Olivia, this time at the Shakespeare Memorial's Company's London headquarters. The following season she return to Stratford-on-Avon as Beatrice in "Much Ado About Nothing" and Ophelia in "Hamlet." Interspersed with her Shakespearean roles were appearances as Sir Laurence Olivier's leading lady in "The Entertainer," "Member of the Wedding," "Change of Tune" and earlier this year in "Everything in the Garden."

Laurence Naismith (Sir Oliver Surface) was born in Surrey and educated at a church choir school in London where Laurence Olivier was a fellow pupil. The two men appeared together in several school plays, one of which they performed at the Old Memorial Theatre in Stratford-on-Avon.

Laurence Olivier could undoubtedly give Kevin Bacon a run for his money in connectedness. And that's as much a part of him as Hamlet or Rebecca. He's a thread that ties everything together. The fabric of theater itself. Limitless.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Editing Spotlight: The Red Shoes

The Red Shoes (1948)
Film Editing by: Reginald Mills

The Red Shoes is a film that I could gush about for days on end. If the number of films that can be considered true art is quite small (at least according to Roger Ebert) this is one that should absolutely be on that list.  I've written about this Powell and Pressburger classic (and this very scene) elsewhere, and have written more generally about the film here for the first film preservation blogathon, but wanted to write an entry with a more focused approach.

The most famous sequence in the film is The Red Shoes ballet, but one of my favorites is an earlier scene that displays the same level of technical mastery and in certain ways provides an important introduction to the later, more cited ballet sequence. So much of its power is in the rhythm of the editing and in ways the ordering of shots play with viewer expectation.

At this point in the film Vicky (Moira Shearer) has yet to impress Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) enough to let her join the ballet company full-time.

She is given permission to perform the lead at the dinkier Mercury Theater, introduced in this dreary establishing shot at odds with the previous work put into the Covent Garden sequences to make post-war London look brighter and cheerier than it actually was at the time.

There is a disheveled, weather beaten notice to match, with Vicky's appearance hap hazardly pasted over the original announcement. The camera tracks in on her portion of the poster, boasting not only Victoria Page but the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

There is then a dissolve to a spinning record

A subtle joke about the supposed "live" music accompanying the performance.

The spinning fan and the circular speaker graphically match the record and the cheap, lackadaisical atmosphere

Victoria Page performs to the increasing tempo of the music. She begins a series of pirouettes...

... And the camera follows suit with a whirling POV shot, a first look into Victoria Page's mind that will be built upon in The Red Shoes ballet, a sequence which depends on the inner workings of a dancer to effect an otherworldly stage presence. This dizzying series lands squarely on...

... Lermontov, who has been sitting in on the performance unbeknownst to Page.

Ruh roh.

The dance goes on, including a hilarious pan where the "live" records have to be switched and all hell almost breaks loose.

The pace continues to quicken.

Finally Page finishes the dance and looks to Lermontov

But this supposed eyeline match is merely a fake out as Lermontov has already left. Another man moves into his place, leaving Vicky unsure of her fate.

Watch the full scene (and more) below.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

what olivia de havilland means to me

Yesterday Olivia de Havilland celebrated her 95th birthday. I still don't know as much about her as I would like. Word on the street is she's a pretty snazzy lady. What I do know is what she came to mean to me as a kid.

I wish I could put my fedora just so over one beguiling eye and claim that I first knew Olivia de Havilland from Adam in that obscure number on the bottom shelf of filmlandia. That one with the cobwebs all over it and a big red warning sign reading 'insiders only.' But I can't. I'm left standing out in the cold with all the other mugs in line for Gone With the Wind.

Without getting all slobbery let's just say there was a time when I needed a role model.  That time happened to coincide with the year I was taken to a theatrical screening of Gone With the Wind during its re-release in 1998. I was awed. And in it I felt I had found a like soul. Not in that flame thrower Scarlett O'Hara but in her counterpart, Melanie Hamilton.

Yes, that pale faced, mealy mouthed Melanie Hamilton. She was the quiet strength and compassion that found me when I needed to know how to act like a grown up. And I can't even begin to describe the impact.

For me Olivia de Havilland is quite simply the power of film.