High Society

Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly and Louis Calhern in High Society

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

9 June

 

Cole Porter born, 1891

On this day in 1891, the songwriter Cole Porter was born. The only child of wealthy parents – his mother was the daughter of “the richest man in Indiana” – Porter showed early signs of musical precocity and was writing songs from the age of ten. Later, at Yale, where he studied English, music and French, he wrote 300 songs and several musical comedies. Moving on to Harvard to study law (his rich grandfather’s wish) he continued to write prolifically and eventually switched from the study of law to music, though he didn’t tell his grandfather. In Europe during the First World War, he met and married a rich divorcee, Linda Lee Thomas, in spite of being homosexual. They remained married until her death in 1954. On his grandfather’s death in 1923 Porter came into serious money. After an extended stay living in luxury in Europe, Porter returned to the USA. He had his first Broadway hit, Paris, in 1928, and continued producing Broadway hit shows and writing for Hollywood until the late 1950s. A riding accident in 1937 – his horse rolled on him, crushing his legs – meant he was in pain for the rest of his life and to some extent he worked to keep his mind off the pain. Unusual in that he wrote both tune and words for his songs, Porter’s work was marked out from the start by sophisticated wordplay, syncopated rhythms, clever rhymes and cheek – “Good authors, too, who once knew better words/Now only use four-letter words/Writing prose…/Anything goes – and his songs summon up the interwar years of increasing confidence and wealth, and of knowledge of the world beyond the window. His songs continue to be popular – Night and Day, Let’s Do It, Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.

 

 

 

High Society (1956, dir: Charles Walters)

High Society was almost the last thing Cole Porter wrote for Hollywood. It contains his last hit song, True Love, and as everybody knows is an adaptation of The Philadelphia Story. It’s not as good as The Philadelphia Story, lacking its wit and zip, but then how many films are? Instead it has Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. Crosby had been the most famous voice in popular music until Sinatra stole his crown – “Frank is a singer who comes along once in a lifetime; but why did he have to come in mine?” Bing once famously joked. They are an interesting “as in life, so in art” pairing because they’re playing warring males whose chests swell every time Grace Kelly walks into the room. She’s the ice queen about to get married to a stiff (this thankless role going to John Lund), Bing is the ex husband, Frank the cocky reporter hoping for some harmless fluffy society gossip and snaps. There’s a waxwork torpidity to Sinatra and Crosby while they’re speaking, as if trying to outdo each other for nonchalance, but when they sing all the bells ring – their duet of Well Did You Evah (Porter rhyming “elegant” with “swellegant”) is one of the defining Hollywood musical numbers, as corny as it is witty. The support players do seem to have remembered that The Philadelphia Story was an acid satire, as well as a romantic comedy – so thanks to underused Broadway star Celeste Holm as Sinatra’s reporter sidekick, and former matinee idol Louis Calhern as the womanising inebriate Uncle Willie. There’s also Louis Armstrong, playing himself – that’s how high a society it is, when the bride’s father can get in the world’s most famous jazzman as entertainment – and Armstrong gets a couple of numbers too, including Now You Has Jazz (with Crosby) a showcase for the talents of his hot sextet, Satchmo’s scat singing. Ignore the fact that Armstrong is one of the creators of jazz and that Bing’s arm on his shoulder looks awfully like a patronising one (I don’t think it is but it’s there), he is an inspired addition to a film which works best when there’s a song on the lips of the cast – Frank’s duet with Celeste Holm of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”, Bing’s duet with Grace Kelly of True Love. It’s a rich, plush, lush affair, full of orchestra, bright with Technicolor colours, and that’s Prince Rainier’s engagement ring you can see twinkling on Grace Kelly’s hand. This was her final film before sailing off to a regal life in the South of France. It’s that kind of film.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Bing and Frank
  • Louis Armstrong on top form
  • Last chance to see Grace Kelly (and Louis Calhern)
  • The great Cole Porter soundtrack

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

High Society – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Band Wagon

Fred Astaire, Nanette Fabray, Jack Buchanan in the Triplets sequence

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

3 May

 

Betty Comden born, 1917

On this day in 1917, lyricist, librettist and screenwriter Betty Comden was born, as Basya Cohen, in Brooklyn, New York. After finishing high school she studied drama at New York University, where she formed a small revue troupe with Judy Holliday, Leonard Bernstein and Adolph Green. Green would go on to be her lifelong writing partner. Being performers and writers, both Comden and Green liked to write themselves into their works. Which is what they did with On the Town, their first big Broadway success. After a couple of flop shows, the duo headed to Hollywood, where they wrote the screenplays for the Astaire Rogers vehicle The Barkleys of Broadway. They then adapted On the Town for Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra, before following up three years later with 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain. This was followed the next year by The Band Wagon, which included fictionalised versions of themselves as the writers of a stage show that will be the comeback for ageing hoofer Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire). Comden and Green moved back to Broadway in the late 1950s and continued producing shows up until 1991. She won seven Tonys but no Oscars, in spite of having worked on two of the most iconic musicals of all time.

 

 

 

The Band Wagon (1953, dir: Vincente Minnelli)

The Band Wagon is a classic of the “let’s do the show right here” style of backstage musical comedy. It’s also a classic “art based on life” story – as its predecessor Singin’ in the Rain had been – about a washed up dancer giving it one last hoof before the curtain falls. Fred Astaire plays the dancer, and in the opening scene we see an old top hat and cane being sold at some celebrity memorabilia auction. Except nobody wants to buy. Astaire was 54 at the time of The Band Wagon and though he’d live nearly another 35 years, this really was his big last hurrah. Art again mirrors life in the pairing of vaudevillian Astaire with sleek, young, classically trained Cyd Charisse, playing the sleek, young, classically trained dancer Fred’s Tony Hunter is nervous about being paired with. We get to the “let’s do the show right here” bit after Jack Buchanan, as the up-himself artistic director, has ruined this pairing by drenching his latest show in European high culture – he fancies it as a reworking of Faust – before Lester and Lily Marton (Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray as lightly fictionalised versions of Comden and Green) pull the baby out of the fire at the last minute, chucking out all the old, stiff, European nonsense and injecting lots of brash, bright American chutzpah. Never mind that the songs are actually for the most part old ones, and never mind the plot, or much of the dialogue, which is as corny as hell, or the chemistry between Astaire and Charisse, which is fine while they’re dancing, uneasy while they’re not. The brilliance of The Band Wagon lies in the staging of the musical numbers, the way director and former window dresser Vincente Minnelli controls colour and movement. And the songs themselves. This is the film that gave us That’s Entertainment. And Triplets (“If one of us gets the measles/Another one gets the measles…”). And You and the Night and the Music. And Dancing in the Dark. There are around 20 musical numbers, in fact, coming at you at about one every ten minutes. Jack Buchanan, a voice like a sea lion, manages to steal the film from Astaire. Or maybe it’s fairer to say that Astaire lets him have it. This is in any case a very democratic affair, as Singin’ in the Rain was, with everyone getting their moment to shine. And don’t they.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • One of the best musicals ever made
  • Any opportunity to watch Fred Astaire should be seized
  • The lush Technicolor cinematography
  • The sets for the Girl Hunt sequence

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Band Wagon – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

26 April

 

Anita Loos born, 1889

On this day in 1889, or possibly 1888, Corinne Anita Loos was born. Always cagey about her true age, Anita became best known for her comic novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. She grew up in a theatrical family – her father managed a theatrical stock company – and she was performing on stage as a young girl. Her father wrote one-act plays for the company and a precocious Anita started turning them out too. Having seen an early silent film in 1911 she decided to turn her hand to a screenplay for one-reelers. Over the next few years she wrote 105 scripts, all but four of which were made into films. She moved to Hollywood, where she was put on the staff at Triangle Films by DW Griffith. Her scripts for Douglas Fairbanks made him a star and she became a star herself. She married John Emerson, who took the credit for much of her work, spent her money and had numerous affairs with other women. Loos claimed that at least his philandering allowed her to form relationships of her own. She became close to the intellectual HL Mencken, whose preference for bimbos rather than girls with brains became the theme for her most famous work, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which started life as a series of pieces for Harper’s Bazaar. It became the best-selling book of 1925 and a worldwide hit, and was made into a film in 1928.

 

 

 

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953, dir: Howard Hawks)

The film about a pair of chesty dames with an eye on the main chance is also one of the great Technicolor movies, its larger than life hues the ideal fit for a story about two statuesque women, one out for money, the other for love. Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell are the stars, both not so much edging into camp as diving in head first. Spangles, lip gloss, exaggerated curves, the feather head-dresses, it’s the stuff of a drag queen’s dreams, with Monroe as the dizzy romantic, Russell as her more case-hardened pragmatist, both searching for men, none of whom really get much in the way of screen time. The stars play lounge singers and the action takes place mostly on a ship bound for Europe, the ideal excuse and setting for a string of musical numbers, including the famous Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend. That’s Monroe’s number, so iconic it became her signature. Russell, meanwhile, gets Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love, which she sings with a team of Olympic athletes in their gold lame swimming trunks. No, it’s not an intellectual film, nor does it make many claims to seriousness of any sort. But it’s unusual for its brash portrayal of the transactional nature of relationships – men want flesh, women want cash – and for the fact that it’s a pair of pally women at its centre, with Monroe and Russell opening the film with their “Just two little girls from Little Rock” number, which nails the absurdist colours to the mast – the last thing these girls are is little. This is the film that made Monroe a bombshell superstar and she has the persona perfected – breathy, dizzy, a woman so saturated in sexiness it’s a disability. Interestingly, its director Howard Hawks, who hated working on it, makes a fantastic job of only his second musical (the first being the Danny Kaye vehicle A Song Is Born), thus cementing his reputation as probably the greatest all-round director of Hollywood’s golden age, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes ticking the musical box, alongside the classic comedy (Bringing Up Baby), the gangster movie (Scarface), the noir (The Big Sleep) and the western (Red River).

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Monroe and Russell, one of the great gal-pal double acts
  • Harry J Wild’s astonishingly vivid Technicolor cinematography
  • The gowns of William Travilla, known simply as Travilla
  • The Hoagy Carmichael and Jule Styne songs

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Battle of Warsaw

Natasza Urbanska and Borys Szyc in Battle of Warsaw

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

17 January

 

 

Soviet forces liberate/capture Warsaw, 1945

On this day in 1945, the Poles swapped one overlord for another as the Germans were finally flushed out of Warsaw by the Soviet Red Army, which promptly took over. The Poles had been hoping that a government of their own, an anti-communist one which had been beavering away in exile for the duration of the war, would take over. No dice. It was a bitter blow for Poland, which had been a battleground for the Second World War since the day it had started, on 1 September 1939. The Germans had treated Warsaw particularly badly in 1939, laying siege to it as they bombarded using the new “Blitzkrieg” or “lightning war” method that caught everyone on the hop. On 27 September 1939 the city had capitulated. By the end of the war the population of Warsaw had reduced from 1.3 million to around 153,000 and 85% of its buildings had been destroyed. Part of this population reduction and building destruction can be attributed to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. This took place in 1944, when the Jews who had been herded into a tiny area of the city (2.4% of the city area for roughly 30% of its population) rose up against the Nazis. The Uprising lasted 63 days, during which time the Germans responded ferociously. Stalin’s troops, meanwhile were parked outside Warsaw, deliberately waiting for the Germans to finish their work. When the Uprising ended in a surrender by the underground Home Army, the Germans evacuated the entire city, then razed it to the ground. When the Soviet Army arrived, there was only really the suburbs to liberate.

 

 

 

Battle of Warsaw (2011, dir: Jerzy Hoffman)

Also known as Battle of Warsaw 1920, director Jerzy Hoffman’s historical war movie doesn’t get much of a shout on the IMDb, scoring a paltry 4.3/10 last time I looked. That’s a shame because it’s a much better film than that score suggests. And in 3D too – though it’s probably best to point out that the 3D is the least successful part of the enterprise. What works better is Hoffman’s old-school film-making style – all 1960s tracking shots and lens choices – and his decision to make this a film by and for Poles, intense patriotism a given. Once Hoffman has established Warsaw’s international ambience in the early days of the Roaring Twenties – jazz music useful here – we’re introduced to the him and her of the story. He is Jan (Borys Szyc), a husband fighting in the war against the Soviets, who are planning on exporting their revolution across Europe – first stop Poland. She is Ola (Natasza Urbanska), a nightclub chanteuse back in Warsaw trying to keep the show on the road until hostilities end. They’re a well cast pair – he has the swagger of a man who is meant to have a swagger; she is a looker who can dance (though I suspect the singing is dubbed). It is the old “love story set against a tumultuous background” kind of film, and from the moment our Polish Julie Christie straps on a nurse’s uniform in an attempt to do more for the war effort, we can lay bets that husband and wife are going to meet again, over a bloody stretcher in a field hospital. Added to these old standbys of the genre there’s a Good Soldier Schwejk level of jokey cynicism (the secret policeman with piles), a delight in small details (while a soldier lays dying, someone is stealing his boots), a decision not to avoid the fact that war is a bloody, awful business, and Hoffman’s ability to make old technology – telegrams and cryptographic machines, new-fangled bombs and new breeds of tank – seem like innovations in the field of killing, which they were. A rousing, damning film of the old school, really the only thing that can be said against Battle of Warsaw is that it keeps stopping every 15 minutes or so for a battle. At which point it’s on with the specs. This is Poland’s first 3D film after all.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Poland’s first 3D film
  • A late career high for 1950s/60s veteran Jerzy Hoffman
  • Stars Natasza Urbanska and Borys Szyc
  • A good old fashioned epic war movie – in Polish

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Battle of Warsaw – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

My Fair Lady

Wilfrid Hyde White and Audrey Hepburn, plus hat.

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

14 January

 

 

Cecil Beaton born, 1904

On this day in 1904, Cecil Hardy Beaton was born, in Hampstead, London. This son of a timber merchant was only interested in art from a very early age. Young Beaton was taught to use a camera by his nanny, and went on to spend his life making photographs of one form or another. He studied art, history and architecture at Cambridge University though left without a degree and after a short time trying to work in his father’s business set himself up as a photographer, using his society connections to get him the sittings for photographs that he could sell on to magazines hungry for glimpses of the lives of the rich and well connected – Vogue, at first. He went to New York, where he slowly made his name, returning to the UK with a contract with Conde Nast.

Beaton’s name will always be associated with the higher echelons of British society – royalty, aristocracy, people of “breeding”. And no wonder they flocked to him, because Beaton’s photographs presented these people as they saw themselves. However, during the Second World War Beaton showed himself equally adept at taking striking portraits of everyday folk – girls serving soldiers in tearooms, a young Blitz victim clutching her teddy bear in hospital. Though some anti-Semitic remarks he had scrawled in the border of an illustration had got him fired from Conde Nast (“dirty kikes” – it might have been meant as a joke but didn’t go down well in New York), his work during the war restored his reputation, and he moved into theatre design. His stage designs for the Broadway run of My Fair Lady got him the gig doing similar for the film version and a new career in film design opened up, though he had been designing “gowns” for films as early as 1941’s Major Barbara. He was the production designer on only two films, My Fair Lady and Gigi, and won Oscars for both. A fey man who in his youth entered into the world of boisterous cross-dressing which the upper classes seem to embrace so whole-heartedly in their salad days, Beaton seems to have been bisexual as an older man, having notably had an affair with Greta Garbo. Though it is said that the love of his life was the art collector Peter Watson.

 

 

 

My Fair Lady (1964, dir: George Cukor)

The practice of a high-born individual stooping socially to regenerate the exhausted bloodline is cleaned up for fiction in this adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion. And if you’re in the cleaning up business, then call in George Cukor, the “women’s director” whom generations of Hollywood actresses had leant on (even after he had been fired from Gone with the Wind Cukor was receiving nightly calls from the film’s female stars, hoping for help with their lines). Call in the effortlessly urbane Rex Harrison (a shit in real life, but there you go) as phonetics Professor Henry Higgins. Call in Audrey Hepburn as the Cockney flower girl he turns into a member of high society (she’d helped turn Holly Golightly from a prostitute to a dizzy gadabout in Breakfast at Tiffany’s after all). And call in Cecil Beaton, whose sets and costumes threaten at every turn to upstage everyone else involved in the film. Even the intermission card, all fragile floral beauty, is by Beaton. The themes of the film are darker than they at first appear: what use is a woman who can talk posh but who has no money? What use is a woman at all – or “why can’t a woman be more like a man” as Higgins puts it in his spoken-in-jest song. There’s even more to it than that, of course – Shaw wasn’t in the business of writing a play about people from different class strata without making a point about social mobility. But which one? That an English(wo)man is condemned to a social position depending on the accent they are born with? Or that it’s easy to change your circumstances: all you have to do is change the way you speak? Did I mention the costumes? Yes. The music? It’s by Lerner and Loewe and is notable for three reasons – because of Harrison’s spoken delivery, entirely appropriate for a phonetics professor; because Hepburn was dubbed by Marni Nixon (Julie Andrews, a real singer, having been turned down for the role, even though she had made My Fair Lady a hit on Broadway); and because the songs seem to fit so well the purpose they are designed for. I Could Have Danced All Night, that’s the delightful waltzing, swept-off-my-feet number. I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face, the tender love ballad. Get Me to the Church on Time, the Cockney knees up. Just You Wait, the spitfire riposte. It’s a great film, a lavish one, a long one too, nearly three hours. It flies by.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Cecil Beaton’s sets, clothes, hats
  • Eight Oscars, none for the actors
  • The excellent support cast including Wilfrid Hyde White and Gladys Cooper
  • The restoration is a work of art in itself

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

My Fair Lady – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Yankee Doodle Dandy

James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

6 January

 

 

FD Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech, 1941

On this day in 1941, the president of the USA, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, delivered what has become known as the Four Freedoms Speech. Addressing the US Congress in the annual State of the Union speech, Roosevelt outlined what he believed those four freedoms to be – Freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear. The speech was significant for several reasons. First, it sought to extend the freedoms already guaranteed by the Constitution (speech and worship) with freedoms which more problematically lined up with a more progressive, interventionist, Democrat view of the role of government. Second, it sought to suggest that these four aspirations should be universal. Which, in the short term, gave the US the moral and philosophical justification for entering the Second World War – at some level this was the idea of the speech in the first place. Ironically, strongly disputed and resisted by conservatives at the time, who saw the Four Freedoms as an unnecessary widening of the power for the state, it was later on conservatives who would most readily reach for something similar to this doctrine as they sought to “spread freedom and democracy throughout the globe” (as Condoleeza Rice put it in 2005) in one military adventure or another. The Four Freedoms speech signals a shift in US foreign policy, from isolationist to interventionist. They were also eventually incorporated into the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.

 

 

 

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942, dir: Michael Curtiz)

When James Cagney made Yankee Doodle Dandy in 1942, most of the world knew him as the butt of a thousand “you dirty rat” impersonations, thanks to gangster roles in movies such as The Public Enemy and Angels with Dirty Faces. Imagine their surprise when this biopic of the legendary Broadway showman George M Cohan debuted, with Cagney in the lead role, apparently singing and tap-dancing like a man born to the part. Cagney had in fact been a dancer in his stage days, but had only danced once on film, in 1933’s Footlight Parade, a Busby Berkeley extravaganza. And, truth be told, he’s not really dancing here either. In fact he’s doing something that could be described as a close approximation, in the same way he’s closely approximating singing, in his portrayal of Cohan, the greasepaint legend called out of retirement in this biopic by FDR, to whom Cohan then tells his life story. The film unfolds as a gigantic sequence of flashbacks, which allows it to jump from one wisecracking, upbeat, cock-of-the-walk sequence to the next. And this is where Cagney excels, as the stage guy whose body telegraphs movements right out to the back row, as the board-treader who never whispers when he can roar. Cagney’s is a jack-in-the-box performance, and he’s the ideal lubricant between the schmaltzy flag-waving sentiment (this was wartime, remember) and the big feathers-and-flounce musical numbers which punctuate ever biographical turn. If the name Cohan is leaving you none the wiser, he’s the guy who wrote Give My Regards to Broadway, Over There and Yankee Doodle Boy. And if that still leaves you nonplussed, just watch the film and enjoy the sight of a dirty rat singing and dancing his way to an Oscar.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • See Cagney in a role turned down by Fred Astaire
  • Cagney’s only Oscar
  • Cinematography by James Wong Howe (Sweet Smell of Success)
  • Casablanca director Michael Curtiz at the helm, its writers, the Epstein brothers, also contributing

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Yankee Doodle Dandy – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Topsy-Turvy

Timothy Spall as The Mikado in Topsy-Turvy

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

18 November

 

 

WS Gilbert born, 1836

On this day in 1936, William Schwenk Gilbert, writer and librettist, was born on the Strand, London, a short distance from the Savoy Theatre, where he would have the greatest triumphs of his career with collaborator Arthur Sullivan. After his parents’ marriage collapsed, Gilbert travelled extensively through Europe as a child. He spoke good French when he returned to England to attend Great Ealing School, “the best private school in England”. As a young man he joined the Civil Service,
joined the part-time army the Militia, then became a barrister, wrote theatre reviews, poems, plays and stories and drew cartoons, before he became a war correspondent for The Observer newspaper. His poems were popular but his legal practice was not. In 1863 he collaborated on a pantomime and soon found himself working with the German Reed entertainments as part of a movement to raise the tone of British theatre, which had a very grubby reputation. He became a director and was a stickler for clear enunciation, lots of rehearsal and finely choreographed, if not regimented, performances. In 1871 he first worked with the composer Arthur Sullivan, on a successful lightly comic Christmas work called Thespis. It was four years before they would work again, on Trial By Jury, which was a huge hit. More works in Gilbert and Sullivan’s lightly satiric style followed – HMS Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado being the best known of the Savoy Operas, as they became known, that the two would turn out over the next ten years. Their collaborations were fruitful but their creative relationship was strained. Sullivan found Gilbert’s insistence on “topsy-turvy” satire at odds with his own desire for realism; Gilbert thought Sullivan a lick-spittle social climber who would do anything to avoid conflict with his social “superiors”. Even so, they continued collaborating until 1894. A phenomenally hard worker who insisted on probity, Gilbert was a hard man to get along with and fell out with people regularly, though he also had a reputation for generosity. He died, aged 74, from a sudden heart attack brought on by the cold water while trying to save a young woman who had got into difficulties while swimming in his lake.

Topsy-Turvy (1999, dir: Mike Leigh)

Director Mike Leigh is best known for films in which modern working people do battle with the class system in a funny, often satirically barbed way. Topsy-Turvy is his most atypical film, full of musical numbers, costumes and moustaches, bits of comic stage business completely at odds with his more usual contemporary realist output. At the centre of one of this most nakedly enjoyable of his films is the partnership between Gilbert and Sullivan, right at the point where they’ve come to a creative and personal bump in the road. Sullivan is tired of subjugating his music to the words of Gilbert’s “topsy-turvy” satire; Gilbert is hurt that Sullivan doesn’t like what he is producing musically. It’s a total stand-off, though Leigh is clearly on the side of Gilbert (Jim Broadbent), whom he clearly admires for his facility with words, his brusqueness and his humanity. Sullivan (Allan Corduner) is portrayed as a bit of humbug, which is probably how Gilbert saw him too. Leigh is credited as the writer of the film, though in accordance with his normal working practice, the script has been worked up through extensive improvisation in rehearsal – Leigh lets his actors (including Timothy Spall, Lesley Manville, Shirley Henderson and Dexter Fletcher) get on with it, in other words. And he presents, anti-Baz Luhrmann style, the music straight up, no ironical overlay, no references to Beyoncé or what have you. It is remarkably effective, and by focusing tightly on the creation and performance of The Mikado, as Gilbert and Sullivan come out of creative stasis, Leigh makes us appreciate that, beneath the Japanese costumes and names such as Nanky-Poo, Yum Yum and Titipu, Gilbert was writing social satire mocking the government, judiciary and aristocracy. It’s Mike Leigh: the Musical.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The Mikado – one of the most watched musical theatre pieces of all time
  • Timothy Spall as The Mikado
  • Mike Leigh started out in theatre – and his love for it shows
  • The running joke about obsessions over Victorian gadgets might ring a little bell with the iGeneration

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Topsy-Turvy – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut

Saddam Hussein and Satan get cosy in South Park: Bigger Longer and Uncut

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

2 November

 

 

Lady Chatterley Trial verdict, 1960

On this day in 1960, a jury in the trial of Regina versus Penguin Books found the UK publisher not guilt of obscenity. The trial against DH Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover was brought under the provision of the Obscene Publications Act, which had only come into force the previous year and was intended to more clearly mark off pornography from works of artistic and scientific merit. And so the trial hinged on whether Lawrence’s 1928 novel did indeed possess artistic merit, or whether its litany of rude words and rude acts would tend to “deprave or corrupt”. The defence called 35 witnesses, who ranged from the academic Richard Hoggart, to the cleric the Bishop of Woolwich, to the politician Roy Jenkins, the writers Cecil Day-Lewis (father of Daniel) and EM Forster and the film critic Dilys Powell. The prosecution called no witnesses, instead relying on the advocacy of Mervyn Griffith-Jones who had in his opening remarks let the cat out of the bag with his much-reported rhetorical questions to the jury – “Is it [Lady Chatterley’s Lover] a book you would have lying around your own house? Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?” In the event the jury decided that they were quite happy with their servants reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover and found the book not guilty of obscenity. A similar verdict had been reached in the USA the year before. It was another victory in the fight against state censorship and a key moment in the creation of what became known as the Permissive Society.

 

 

South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut (1999, dir: Trey Parker)

South Park’s feature-length one-fingered salute to ultra-conservatism takes on the forces of censorship with a ridiculous story about parents so outraged that their precious children have seen a vulgar R-rated film by fart-gagsters Terrance and Phillip that they lobby the US government to declare war on Canada, the anally fixated duo’s home country. What is the correct response to violence and obscenity is clearly the debate that Trey Parker and co-writer Matt Stone are hashing out in the most profane of ways, with words to match the crudity of their animation, and 2D images that, once seen, will remain seared on the memory – Satan and Saddam Hussein’s sex scenes, anybody? Satire is the intention, and Stone and Parker deliver it as if via fire hose. But satire can be a high-fibre meal of worthiness, so Stone and Parker inject as much childish humour as they can, no holes barred. And songs, let’s not forget the songs, which chuck a grenade at Disney wholesomeness, the winsomeness of Mariah Carey at her most inspirational, the gruesomeness of tuneless Broadway songs at their most expositional. It was released in the US just as the MPAA were having one of their periodic attacks of the vapours and its R rating came with the qualifications – “for pervasive vulgar language and crude sexual humor”. You will laugh, sometimes in spite of yourself, because whatever else South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut is, it’s very very funny.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Guinness World Records holder of the most profanity in any animated film
  • Jesus in a fight with Santa Claus
  • See Kenny without his hood on
  • Guest voices include George Clooney, Eric Idle, Nick Rhodes (Duran Duran) and Stewart Copeland (The Police)

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Saddest Music in the World

Isabella Rossellini in The Saddest Music in the World

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

17 October

 

 

The London Beer Flood, 1814

On this day in 1814, a huge vat containing the equivalent of one million imperial pints of porter ruptured in central London, causing a tidal wave of beer to cascade down the road and through neighbouring houses. Eight people died, either by drowning or underneath the buildings brought down by the liquid. The brewery was owned by Henry Meux (pronounced myooks) and could be found just off the Tottenham Court Road, London, roughly where the Dominion Theatre is today, and its giant vat was one of a series constructed around that time, big vats being ideal for the ageing of porter (a drink not unlike Guinness). Earlier in the day of 17th an iron hoop, weighing around 350kg had fallen off the nearly 7 metre (22 feet) high vat. At 5.30pm the vat burst, taking out the end wall of the brewery, smashing hogsheads and liberating a further 2,100 barrels of beer from another large vat in the cellar below. Among the people who died were a four year old girl and a party of people who had gathered to mourn the loss of a two-year-old boy who had died the previous day. One of those who died was his mother.

 

 

The Saddest Music in the World (2003, dir: Guy Maddin)

“If you’re sad and like beer, I’m your lady” says Isabella Rossellini, who plays the beer baroness who, at the height of the Great Depression, sponsors a contest to find the world’s saddest tune. Guy Maddin’s insane gothic musical was the first of his films that I’d seen. Possibly only matched by My Winnipeg for accomplishment and accessibility (if you persist), it’s a darkly comic, dizzy musical based on an original screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro (Remains of the Day) and we join the action as Winnipeg (Maddin’s home town) has been chosen for the third time by The Times of London as the “world capital of sorrow”. Hence the competition launched by Lady Port-Huntly (Rossellini) to match music to the metropolis, the winner to be paid in “Depression-era dollars”, the whole thing supposedly taking place in 1933. Shooting in black and white on 8mm and then blowing the picture up, Maddin achieves a grainy quality, old school but not quite (see 2011’s Keyhole for something similar), not quite pastiche, not quite recreation, as if we’re looking at the past through a distorting mirror that also produces halo effects. The effect is slightly unnerving, unique, and things continue in that direction once the actual competition kicks off, when we’re treated to a series of songs from an assortment of oddball variety acts – bagpipes and pygmies and a hockey team being three notables. Though it’s in English it’s like watching a comedy in a foreign language, one with a peculiarly dry sense of humour. David Lynch is in there somewhere, undoubtedly (let’s not forget that Rossellini had turned up in Blue Velvet) though the weird humour and point of view is all Maddin’s.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • To see Rossellini getting her legs amputated
  • Who said arthouse can’t be funny?
  • A good place to start with a unique film-maker
  • False legs, made of glass and filled with beer!

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

The Saddest Music in the World – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Duck Soup

Groucho Marx in Duck Soup

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

2 October

 

 

Groucho Mark born, 1890

On this day in 1890, Julius Henry Marx, one of the 20th century’s most distinctive comedians was born, in New York City. He started off in a vaudeville singing troupe with various members of the family, including his mother at one point. When pure singing didn’t work for them, the Marx brothers started to include comedy in their act, losing non family members on the way and eventually settling down to be the four brothers, Julius, Adolph, Leonard and Milton (aka Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Gummo). Gummo decided to leave and Zeppo, considered the funniest offstage, joined the gang. At one point a large part of the Marx brothers act consisted of each adopting a different ethnic accent, to comic effect. Julius’s chosen accent was German. When the First World War broke out, anti-German sentiment persuaded him to alter his shtick. Out went the German, in came the wise-cracking shyster he was forever after associated with (for the same reason his brother, Adolph, changed his name to Arthur, which was to serve him even better through the next World War). Groucho made 13 films with his brothers, and he was always the star – the creative force offstage, the leader on. The height of the brothers’ success came in the 1930s and it is some testament to Groucho’s fame that his ducking lope, cigar-toting delivery and the semaphoring eyebrows still signify anything at all these many decades later. And so do the “Groucho glasses” you can buy in almost any joke shop. Not bad considering his stock in trade was actually smart quips.

 

 

Duck Soup (1933, dir: Leo McCarey)

Duck Soup is considered the funniest of the Marx brothers films. To refresh the memory, it’s the one in which Groucho plays Rufus T Firefly, the president of Freedonia, who responds to his elevation to the position by declaring war on neighbouring Sylvania. Two things need to be said about all Marx brothers films. First, some of the material just isn’t funny any more, no matter which way you turn it. Second, the films generally do not benefit from great sound recording, so even the zingers are fighting to be heard. Duck Soup has plenty of them, the best of them coming in the trade-offs between Firefly and the wealthy dowager Mrs Teasdale (Margaret Dumont). (Firefly: Not that I care, but where is your husband? Mrs Teasdale: Why, he’s dead. Firefly: I’ll bet he’s just using that as an excuse.) Unlike their later MGM films, Duck Soup benefits from being focused entirely on the absurd antics of the brothers, which means plenty of the sort of physical business they’d perfected on stage – Chico’s three hat trick and Harpo’s mirror routine with Groucho (which must be one of the most famous comedy routines ever committed to film). As for Zeppo, he does not fare well, but then he never did – who’d want to play the straight man in an anarchic comedy set-up that doesn’t need one? This was his last film with his brothers. Instead he went off to become an inventor and a theatrical agent. And Groucho went off to immortality.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Arguably the Marx Brothers’ best film
  • The war sequence, with Groucho’s rapid-fire costume changes
  • Mussolini banned the film in Italy, feeling it defamed him
  • “Remember, you’re fighting for this woman’s honour, which is probably more than she ever did”

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Duck Soup – at Amazon