Sunday, December 8, 2013

GIGI - 1958

Gigi! What can one say about Gigi? It’s a charming little soufflĂ© of a film that is ambrosia for the eyes. Yet, as everyone well knows, dessert alone cannot substantiate a satisfying meal; it is but one part of a multi-course dinner, after all. There has to be some meat and vegetables on every narrative’s plate, however delicate you please, to balance the palate and offer something of substance that an audience can really sink their ivories into. In the absence of all other culinary dimensions save for dessert, what is the result: A predictable experience that, while initially enjoyable, ultimately bestows upon its diner an unsatisfactory end, such as a toothache or an upset stomach that leaves one feeling as though a chorus line of girls were dancing the Can-Can inside the digestive system. And while it may not quite reach such depths of unpleasantness, Gigi does retain an overly predictable nature whose enjoyment is relegated to a thing best observed and sampled, but not so much consumed. For a film as beautiful as this one, observation and sampling render it, to borrow a phrase from one of the film’s musical numbers, a bore!

Directed by the music man Vincente Minelli, Gigi reunites him with Leslie Caron, who made her film debut in Minelli’s other Oscar winning song-and-dance kaleidoscope: An American in Paris. Filling out the film’s marquee are Louis Jordan, Maurice Chevalier and Hermione Gingold, who undoubtedly was in possession of one of the most distinct speaking voices in all of cinema. Nominated in a hefty nine categories, Gigi proved the alluring cinematic courtesan by escorting home an Oscar for each of the categories in which it was nominated, including Best Picture for 1958. The day after its sweep of the Oscars, the operators at MGM were apparently instructed to answer the phone as “M-Gigi-M.” As they well should have, because at the time nine victories was etched into the record books as being the most Oscars taken home by any film. (However, that record would be erased a mere year later with the arrival of Ben-Hur. But that is getting ahead of ourselves, old sport.) 

Based upon a novella written by the scandalous French authoress Colette, Gigi follows the trajectory of a young Parisian girl being groomed for a career as an elegant courtesan. Gigi’s Great Aunt Alicia, a legendary courtesan in her day, attempts to bestow upon her niece the enchanting qualities of etiquette and beauty that treat love as a form of art. Initially, Gigi proves a poor student, failing to grasp the point to her Aunt’s efforts, instead exclaiming that she doesn’t understand what all of the fuss is about love. A tomboy by nature, the precocious Gigi is more content to frolic through the park and tease Gaston Lachaille, a gaudily rich playboy who enjoys retreating from his shallow life to spend time with Gigi and her grandmother, Madame Alvarez.

Eventually, Gigi’s sense of refinement begins to take hold, and to Gaston’s great shock, she ceases to be the mischievous young girl he once knew. To his even greater surprise, Gaston stumbles into the realization that he is in love with Gigi. In the wake of this discovery, Gaston makes an offer to Madame Alvarez of taking Gigi as his mistress, promising to lavish her with kindness and luxury. However, Gigi initially declines Gaston’s offer, recoiling from the thought of being someone’s possession labeling her with an expiration date. But Gigi quickly reconsiders her position, telling Gaston that she would rather be miserable with him than without him. As the two embark on their first public outing together, Gaston becomes torn over the veracity of Gigi’s earlier description of his proposal; feeling that indeed at its core, the arrangement relegates Gigi akin to simply being his chattel. This feeling of angst torments him until he drags Gigi home in the middle of their date, ultimately acting on his feelings of true love by upgrading his initial offer to a proposal of marriage.

As I alluded to earlier, Gigi is nothing if not a visual candy land. The costumes, the sets, the back drop of Paris; they all combine to yield a series of images that pop like some French art gallery in motion. The film deservedly took home Oscars in all of the technical categories dedicated to crafting the look and feel of Gigi. The result is an enticing fairytale world whose glamour leaves one envious that they themselves are not a denizen of this world able to waltz through the parties and gossip during the operas.

As the princess of this enchanting scene, recognition has to be given to Leslie Caron for her irresistible performance as the transformative Gigi. Her talent and ease in front of the camera have dramatically improved, dispelling any memory of her somewhat stiff and awkward rookie performance in An American in Paris. In Gigi, she is effortlessly captivating and sublime, bringing a delightful energy to each scene she inhabits. Who wouldn’t fall right head over heels in love with such a charming girl? Caron also shines in her abilities as a comedic actress, which I think is often overlooked due to her front page good looks. But fortunately in Gigi, she is given the opportunity to be amusing, without being reduced to some sort of a ditz or bimbo that everyone is laughing at. Instead, and this is perhaps why Caron ends up carrying the entire picture, Gigi is still a girl of substance who exhibits a dash of sass every now and again. Even though Gigi eventually agrees to be Gaston’s mistress, girlfriend has to be given credit for being the only one with the nerve to call out the whole arrangement for exactly what it is: bullshitters. 

Thank heaven he didn't have more screen time.
Unfortunately, by comparison to Caron, the male principals in the film do not even come close in being able to match her energetic charm, leaving them to appear as dull, blunt instruments. The reality is that the men in the film are all cheating, hypocritical duds put forth to be charming teddy bears that the audience is supposed to manufacture tender feelings for. Yeah, nice try Arthur Freed. First of all, Maurice Chevalier just sounds looks like a top-hatted pervert when he starts singing “thank Heaven for little girls.” Plus, his character has to be one of the horniest old bastards ever on screen. Every scene he pops up in, he manages to have a different woman on his arm, appearing young enough to be his great granddaughter. And his range of conversational topics is seemingly limited to the activities of the boudoir.   

Things don’t improve much with Louis Jordan, who plays the wealthy and philandering Gaston. Jordan doesn’t quite strike the creepy chord that Chevalier does, but his character’s merits aren’t much better. I don’t know if the problem is germane to Jordan’s talents as an actor because he has delivered fine work in other films. I think the issue owes more to the fact that the character of Gaston is completely unsympathetic and, to be perfectly frank old sport, soporific. Gaston lives in a house that is a mini-me to Versailles, he wears the most elegantly cut clothes and is the toast of the Parisian social scene. Yet what does he do? Whilst practically choking on the amount of luxury surrounding him, he spends the entire film whining and complaining of how his life is the mayor of boring town. It renders him completely unlikable and superficial; certainly not a hero worthy of Gigi’s affections.

By the film’s end, I felt that Gaston’s off-putting nature had sort of tainted the whole film, giving it a slightly repellent nature. The story puts forth an effort to make the audience feel sympathy for Gaston in his struggles to reconcile his feelings for Gigi. But to me there is nothing in this dilemma that elicits any amount of pity because essentially Gaston’s struggle boils down to whether he takes Gigi on as his mistress or as his wife. Boo freaking who dude. It’s a situation that induces so much who-gives-a-shit eye rolling that one’s eyes are in peril of rolling right out of their sockets. The situation strikes such a whiny, pig-headed note that it had the opposite effect where I wanted to see the whole situation to go tits up with Gaston failing and suffering instead winning Gigi’s heart.  

For me, this negative reaction stems, in part, from the presentation of the story. If you strip it all away and consider what is happening, the situation Gigi finds herself in is very tragic and depressing. Essentially this sweet, innocent girl is being groomed for a life of high-class hooking, only to be passed around like a beer at some frat party over the course of her “career.” The film avoids taking any detours to acknowledge any of the darker elements inherently tied to the life of a courtesan. Instead, Gigi presents the situation with candied glossiness; accompanied by flirty musical numbers that combine to make it all look like some strange celebration of the world’s oldest profession. But where is the drama? Where are the consequences? What are the real stakes in this situation? When the party is over, then what happens? And as MTV has dared to ask all of these years, what happens when people stop being fake and start getting real? Ultimately for me, the eschewing of all dramatic gravity from a film that presents women as some sort of a commodity and men as heroic philanderers never to be held accountable for their hypocritical behavior is a film that is difficult to admire, which I guess makes sense because I’ve never liked ambrosia anyway. 

Favorite Line: In the course of Gigi's training with her Aunt Alicia, she dispenses several pearls of wisdom to ensure her niece's successful career. I found one particular insight from Aunt Alicia to be the most amusing line from the film, where she imparts that "bad table manners, my dear Gigi, have broken up more households than infidelity."


I’m just going to say it straight up: The Bridge on the River Kwai kicks ass. I know that may sound like a completely vulgar, uneducated snap review to bestow upon such a great film. But if that is wrong then I don’t want to be right, old sport. Prior to this, I had never seen The Bridge on the River Kwai, nor did I really know anything about the story. The only things I knew were that Obi-Wan Kenobi was in the film; and that the scene in The Parent Trap when all of the girl campers are marching and whistling in unison pays homage to when the British POWs march in the film. So needless to say it was a complete revelation to watch the actual plot unfold because I truly had no idea that this film was going to put me in a headlock of awesomeness for a couple of hours. I can’t remember the last time I was completely enveloped in a film to the degree I was while watching The Bridge on the River Kwai. Nor can I recall the tension created by a film to be so compelling that I involuntarily spent the entire last scene shouting at the characters to do this or that. It still frustrates even now to think about how it all went down. But I suppose the hallmark of a great film is one that charges you up and occupies your mind days after the closing credits have tripped along the screen. So bravo Bridge, bravo.

The Bridge on the River Kwai was engineered by the great David Lean, who evidently had a penchant for maneuvering epic films to cinematic prestige, going on to direct Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, both of which garnered multiple Oscars. In addition to Lean’s architectural prowess behind the camera, The Bridge on the River Kwai boasted a brigade of talent in front of the camera, including Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, William Holden and Sessue Hayakawa. The film gleaned a solid eight nominations from the Academy’s voting members, spinning seven victories from those nominations, including Best Picture for 1957. The lone nomination that did not transition into a victory was in the category of Best Supporting Actor for Hayakawa. In terms of Oscar trivia, Hayakawa’s nomination attracts significance, as he became the first male actor from the continent of Asia and the first Japanese actor to be nominated in this category. Another interesting fragment of Oscar information in the film’s bulletin concerns its victory in the category of Best Adapted Screenplay. Due to their connections with the Communist Party, the film’s original screenwriters Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson were placed on Hollywood’s blacklist in the wake of the Red Scare, forcing them to work on the film clandestinely. The resulting Oscar victory for their efforts went to Pierre Boulle, who wrote the French novel of the same name upon which the film was based. However, the situation was given a happy Hollywood ending in 1984 when the Academy retroactively awarded both Foreman and Wilson Oscars for penning the film’s thrilling screenplay. 

Set toward the latter end of WWII, The Bridge on the River Kwai chronicles the activity inside a Japanese prison camp located in western Burma. The film opens as a new company of British soldiers are deposited into the camp as prisoners to work on constructing a railway bridge over the nearby river Kwai. The camp is lorded over by the strict and implacable Colonel Saito, who immediately clashes with the company’s immovable senior British Officer, Lt. Colonel Nicholson. Saito commands the company’s officers to join their men in erecting the bridge. However, Nicholson refuses, citing the Geneva Conventions, which exempt military officers from forced manual labor. As punishment for his uncompromising stance, Saito has Nicholson thrown into “The Oven,” an enclosed iron box, without food or water. This move sets up a battle of wills between Saito and Nicholson, with the former continually tightening his grip to break the latter’s spirit. However, without Nicholson’s leadership, production from his men grows feeble, gradually setting construction on the bridge back several weeks, which alarms Saito, as his neck is on the line if he fails to complete the project under deadline. Able to see the writing on the wall, Saito concedes victory to Nicholson, allowing him to command his men as he sees fit in order to get the bridge back on schedule.

Meanwhile, U.S. Navy Lt. Commander Shears, a prisoner in the camp, makes a miraculous escape out from under Saito’s heel, eventually finding his way into a military hospital. While enjoying recovery, British Major Warden enlists the help of Shears to lead an expedition back to the camp in order to destroy the bridge before it is put into use. Initially, Shears refuses to volunteer; appalled by the thought of slugging it through the steaming jungle he just barely managed to escape. However, it comes out that while in the camp Shears impersonated a higher ranking naval officer in order to curry better treatment from the Japanese. Faced with the dilemma of being charged for impersonating an officer or slashing his way back to the POW camp, Shears opts for the latter, setting up one of the most intense scenarios in cinematic history. 

A great film can never lay claim to such a title for one singular reason or another. To say otherwise is like arguing that a symphony was spectacular only because of the strings section. To be great, all of the main elements of film need to be in concert in order to produce something extraordinary and The Bridge on the River Kwai receives no concession on this truth. I don’t think a great film has to be called perfect in order to be great because flawlessness is damn near impossible, old sport. But The Bridge on the River Kwai comes fairly close to avoiding any fault, which I think owes largely to the tight and disciplined script that clearly maps the way forward, allowing for every other element of the film to stay firmly on course. I can’t recall seeing a film in recent memory that felt so patient and controlled in constructing its rising action.

Essentially, the script unfolds like a three act play, with the first two acts developing the two main characters’ destinies, which sets up an epic collision in the final act. The reason the payoff is so disco is that the film doesn’t rush itself to get to the finale, which makes it beyond intense and aggravating to sit through. By the end of the first act, the audience comes away feeling intimately acquainted with the POW camp and all of the struggles that have taken place, from the colossal battle of wills between Saito and Nicholson, to the arduous task of engineering a world class railway bridge. This knowledge of the situation leads the audience to root for Nicholson and his men because of the torture and brutality they have surmounted to produce a resounding structure that stands as a monument to their strength of character. 
But by the end of the second act, the audience is also highly sympathetic towards Shears and the hardship endured in the course of making his daring escape from the POW camp. This guy is a survivor and has skillfully played the game in order to secure his freedom from the Japanese, even if his tactics haven’t been exactly ethical. But when he is cornered into acquiescing to be part of the dangerous mission to blow up the bridge, there is a high level of pity bestowed on him, which produces a reaction to cheer for him in his quest. Unbeknownst to either Shears or Nicholson, their two trajectories, populated with so many complexities, are set on a collision course that is so tormenting to watch while wondering just what is going to go down at Kwai. It’s a unique feature to basically pit two heroes against one another, which elevates the agonizing nature of the finale.  And while it’s a lengthy trip in getting there, the film completely justifies every single second of its 161 minute running time.

Apart from the brilliant script, another reason the film is such an intense journey to watch is that it delivers 
some knockout performances that boast the final product, particularly the turns from Alec Guinness and Sessue Hayakawa. The former is aces at embodying Nicholson’s uncompromising nature and allegiance to protocol, even as Saito turns the proverbial screws to break his spirit. The scene where Nicholson stumbles like a marionette from “The Oven” to Saito’s quarters for negotiations emits a sense that Guinness isn’t acting. He genuinely seems like a man on the verge of collapsing. Apparently, Guinness referred to his staggering walk the finest work he had ever done.

Hayakawa delivers a fascinating performance of an ironclad individual whose pride is toppled by a more formidable opponent. He travels Saito’s trajectory in memorable fashion, starting out as an intimidating disciplinarian, and ending up as a somewhat crumbled version of his military persona. In some ways, Saito is the most interesting character in the film because he isn’t a one-note villain who chews up each scene with threats and a heavy fist. Saito’s actions are driven by a completely different set of pressures and fears, which creates a degree of understanding and sympathy, forming that rare antagonist who is given to express vulnerability onscreen. In lesser hands, the part would not have been realized with as much credibility as Hayakawa infused into the role. 

Prior to The Bridge on the River Kwai, the only film I could identify with Hayakawa is The Swiss Family Robinson, where he plays a grimy pirate captain. But, as it turns out, in the dawn of his career, Hayakawa was a major American film star, particularly in the silent era, where he was noted for his matinee-idol good looks. Apparently, at the height of his career he was as well-known as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. However, over time, his legacy and career faded from the mainstream cinematic consciousness and into the wings of memory. In a way, it almost seems fitting that you don’t hear much of Hayakawa these days because you don’t hear much about The Bridge on the River Kwai anymore either. But the latter is a damn fine piece of cinematic entertainment, old sport, and the former is large reason for that fact.

Favorite Line: In response to Colonel Nicholson’s response about adhering to the Geneva Conventions, Colonel Saito snaps, “Don’t speak to me of rules. This is war! Not a game of cricket!” I thought this was a great line because as Nicholson was academically reciting the Geneva Conventions to this small-time dictator, I thought what a waste of breath. Why would Saito care about some stupid rules out there in the middle of the jungle? Apparently, he didn’t, and I like it when a script has its characters demonstrate logic within the world they inhabit.   

Sunday, December 1, 2013


Long considered one of the weakest films to win Best Picture, Around the World in Eighty Days is, to put it bluntly, a big, dumb, ridiculous mess. I don’t even know where to begin with this one old sport. In some ways, the task of writing about a really crappy film is almost more difficult than writing about a really great film. When you feel like you’ve been sold a dud and been completely taken for a sucker, any subsequent feelings on the matter emerge covered with barbs. It’s challenging to refrain from just pouring acid all over a junk film instead of respectfully placing it under the microscope and offering it due analysis. 

Above all else, the fact remains that Around the World in Eighty Days is not only a dreadful film, particularly in comparison to its fellow Best Picture winning colleagues. It’s just a terrible film altogether. It really is an embarrassment to the legacy constructed by the films before and after it that have stood atop the cinematic podium and collected Oscar gold. In the category of Best Picture, it rightfully has no business maintaining any type of a presence. Its victory is made all the more outrageous upon realizing that it defeated four other films far more superior: Friendly Persuasion, Giant, The King and I and The Ten Commandments. Anyone of these films would have been a more worthy heir to accept the baton from Marty and carry it forth until the Academy Awards crowned a new winner the following year. Thus far into this little writing project, the only other film I would consider worse is The Broadway Melody, which can be justly cut some slack given that it came out in the early days of motion pictures. Unfortunately, Around the World in Eighty Days can make no legitimate claim to this excuse. I’m sorry, but it’s 1956, not 1928, and Hollywood should have their act together by now to make a good Best Picture winning film.

Directed by Michael Anderson, Around the World in Eighty Days received eight Academy Award nominations, packing up and shipping out with five wins, including Best Picture for 1956.  The film stars David Niven, Shirley MacLaine and Cantinflas, but is noted more for the nearly fifty famous cameos sprinkled throughout the film of well-known actors, comedians and other personalities. Among the many famous faces that do pop up around the world are Marlene Dietrich, Glynis Johns, Bustor Keaton, Edward R. Murrow and Frank Sinatra. However, perhaps the marquee star in this film’s case is its brassy and ballsy producer Mike Todd, a Broadway showman with a reputation for going big or going home. His vision expanded the scope and scale of the picture far beyond what most anyone else would have conceived it as being. Just to put into perspective how sprawling this project was, the film featured 7,959 animals, including over 2,000 American buffalo, 74,685 costumes and 68, 894 extras. In one scene featuring Cantinflas as a bullfighter, Todd utilized all 6,500 residents of a small Spanish town to play extras. In deciding that the scene required still more extras, Todd rounded up an additional 3,500 residents of nearby towns to fill the stands of the bullfighting ring. In still another scene involving a band of Native Americans attacking a train in the American West, Todd employed 650 extras. Many of these extras were actual Native Americans, but many were not. Todd’s solution? Use 50 gallons of orange-colored dye to alter the skin color of all 650 extras so their skin uniformly held the same tone. If he were alive today, with access to all of the modern-day moviemaking tools, I’m sure he would be producing deafening, FX driven films that would possibly make Michael Bay envious.    

Based on the book of the same name by the futuristically-minded Jules Verne, Around the World in Eighty Days concerns Phileas Fogg, an island of an English Gentleman whose chief delight is a solemn game of Whist. Upon entering into a discussion with his fellow chaps at the distinguished Reform Club concerning the speed at which one could traverse the globe, Fogg soon finds himself entering into a wager that he can travel around the world in eighty days. Together with his bumbling, yet loyal valet, Passepartout, Fogg sets off to prove his comrades wrong, along the way encountering the long arm of the law and the tender arms of love.

I’m not even sure where to go from here. For starters, Around the World in Eighty Days has a bloated, overly-indulgent running time of more than four hours. It felt like it took 80 days just to watch the whole damn thing. I don’t know how it ever picked up an Oscar for Best Editing because it doesn’t appear that anything was left on the cutting room floor. Please don’t misunderstand me; I’m not habitually opposed to the lengthy nature of a film. If there is a legitimate need for a film to take up four hours in order to properly tell its story, then disco. Unfortunately, Around the World in Eighty Days does not make a justifiable case for the amount of time it vacuums up. One main reason owing for its extravagant length is that it is overly preoccupied with parading about long-winded sequences of the journey in what feels like real time, where a couple of minutes would have sufficed. For example, while in Spain, someone felt the need to showcase a Spanish dancer atop a table doing his thing for several minutes in one, uninterrupted take. Another point involves a train passage through India consisting of lingering shots of non-descript scenery passing by. As the main characters are scarcely present in any of these scenes, it only serves to heighten the notion that it’s all just narrative deadweight. These scenes do nothing except smother the story from being able to move along. Among the many reasons it’s frustrating to watch these large, extravagant scenes is that one gets the sense that the filmmakers were trying to visually sweep everyone off their feet by dressing the film up with a sense of epic grandeur. It’s as though they thought to themselves that if they stuff this turkey with as much visual splendor as possible, the public would interpret it to be some great cinematic achievement. But just like the emperor’s sartorial choices, there really isn’t anything to behold but some feckless man, as it were, in his under garments.

Apart from being inexcusably long, there was next to no plot development throughout the entire movie. They travel for 80 mofo days around the world and nothing really ends up happening. It’s all just a random lottery of meaningless encounters and a series of near escapes with no real cohesiveness to them except for boat and train schedules and geography. For example, en route to Japan, Fogg and Passepartout become separated in Hong Kong, with Passepartout arriving several hours earlier on a different boat. During his curious wanderings through Yokohama, Passepartout ventures into a Japanese circus where he is somehow straightaway annexed into the show as a performer. Almost immediately upon landing, Fogg himself happens to meander into the same theater, sees his servant onstage, calls out for him and thus the picture concludes their adventure in Japan. 

I get it. This film is supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to have a dash of silly, slapstick humor. But sadly, it really isn’t any of those things. It’s unimaginative, uninspired and fails to take advantage of the possibilities. I don’t believe that the most creative scenario conceivable for the story’s heroes whilst in Japan was the one that ended up onscreen. The same can be said for any of the stops along Fogg’s exotic journey. It’s puzzling to me as to why the filmmakers didn’t take better advantage of shooting in so many exotic locations to tell a more interesting story. Around the World in Eighty Days employed 112 locations in 13 different countries, utilizing 140 sets. But instead of creating a thrilling adventure, each chapter of this global excursion becomes a loosely predictable, paint-by-numbers scenario: After landing on some new shore, Fogg all but disappears into the background of the story to play Whist, while Passepartout wanders off to admire the native women before eventually offending the locals by unwittingly trespassing over some cultural boundary. After four hours of this, the needle moves from mildly entertaining to put-out-your-eyes annoying.

It’s no great insight to say that a bad movie usually emanates from an equally terrible script, and the film in question does nothing to buck this trend. Ironically, it feels like there is absolutely nothing at stake in this film, which I think is partly a reflection of the dragging pace at which it moves. At about the mid-point of the film, I stopped caring altogether whether Fogg would return to London on time in order to win his wager. In fact, by the end of the film I started to hope he would lose just so that something interesting would happen. But the script is about as bland as the love child of vanilla ice cream and plain yogurt. With the possible exception of Cantinflas, the script doesn’t provide a scrap of flavor for the actors to sink their teeth into, leaving them stranded and looking dull and wooden. It’s says a lot about a how dreadful a script is if it leaves talents like David Niven and Shirley MacLaine looking lackluster and leaden. The simple fact is that MacLaine’s presence in this film is perhaps the zenith of its mistakes, setting the table for the film’s ridiculous tone that spreads to all of its other aspects. She is cast as an Indian princess that Fogg and Passepartout rescue from a ceremonial sacrifice. (Yes, the same woman who played Ouiser in Steel Magnolias was cast in the part of an Indian princess.) I’m sure casting her in this role has more to do with the time period in which this film was made. However, if they wanted a Caucasian actress for the part, there must have been alternatives that would have looked a little more convincing, especially given that apparently no acting abilities were required for the role.

Instead of Around the World in Eighty Days, the film that should have been made is the one about the life of the film’s producer Mike Todd. This fellow truly had a larger-than-life persona who pitched his tent closer to the edge of risk than most people ever dare to venture in their lifetime. He pursued and married arguably the most famous woman in the world at the time: Elizabeth Taylor. In his professional pursuits, he also gambled big as a showman, often times finding himself in the company of both soaring victory and gaping defeat. He represented that combination of colossal imagination and unbridled energy that resulted in big ideas bathed in decadence and grandeur. Just to give you an example, on the one year anniversary of the premiere of Around the World in Eighty Days, Todd and Taylor hosted an over-the-top gala for 18,000 of their “closest friends.” Being typically Todd, the whole affair was anything but subtle, coming complete with a 14 foot high cake and a 24 foot high Oscar statute replica made from 100,000 copper colored Chrysanthemums. Tragically, he died at the age of 48 when his private plane, ironically called Lucky Liz, crashed in New Mexico. As much as I disliked Around the World in 80 Days, you have to tip your hat and respect the sheer ambition of it all, leaving one to wonder what other vast and daring film productions would have flowed from the mind of Mike Todd were it not for his untimely death. 

Best Line: Honestly, there weren’t any noteworthy lines in this film, probably because there was next to no dialogue, which is ironic in a movie with a running time this long.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

MARTY - 1955

Among its Best Picture comrades of the 1950s, Marty ranks as a true curiosity. It doesn’t boast any fetching stars on its marquee. Nor is the story some colossal saga, prodding its characters to traverse an emotional mine field that results in some profound self-discovery. It certainly doesn’t feature any candied musical numbers or sprawling panoramas of exotic locales. Instead, Marty is a modest tale concerning drab, everyday types as they do battle with one of mankind’s most common adversaries: loneliness. But keep cool my babies and hold the phone. Of course I mean “drab” and “everyday types” in a positive, complementary manner of speaking. I take offense that you might have intimated otherwise. 

In a way, Marty feels like a refreshing break from tradition and form, in the Best Picture context of things. But more than that, it’s an intriguing film because it presents characters and scenarios as they really are, not as they would otherwise be once filtered through a slanted Hollywood lens that tends to dress up reality to make it more stylish. I feel like mainstream films from that era didn’t often embrace unvarnished character studies of simple life and the people that give it motion. Heck, few films in this day and age even swivel the spotlight on the average among us. It’s too bad they don’t, because Marty is a gem-of-a-film arranged with a bouquet of real life experiences in a way that seldom graces the silver screen, let alone is given a shot a doing a victory lap on the Academy’s stage. Heretofore, the only Best Picture champs on Oscar’s genealogical charts that come close in evoking the trials of everyday folk are Mrs. Miniver and The Best Years of Our Lives. But since this is my blog, I’m ruling both of those films out as playing the part of a true cinematic microscope examining the trials of the mundane because they were both fueled by the extraordinary events of WWII. 

In an ironic twist, I think the simple and unremarkable nature of the story and its actors are what makes Marty such a memorable film. When nestled amongst the flashier and more dramatic denizens of the Oscar firmament, Marty standouts precisely because it lacks glitz and glamour. But don’t be deceived my dear fellows, Marty still generates an inner glow that radiates an appeal traveling along the wavelength of the familiar. It’s like Harvey Pekar said in the film American Splendor, “Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff.”

Directed by Delbert Mann, who would later serve as the president of the Directors Guild of America, Marty stars the lively Ernest Borgnine and the comparatively more subdued Betsy Blair, who was married to Gene Kelly and later blacklisted from Hollywood for her Communist ties. Marty became a sleeper hit among critics, the public and the Academy, receiving eight nominations, eventually charming voters enough for wins in the categories of Best Director, Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture in 1955. The film was co-produced by Burt Lancaster, who previously worked with Borgnine on From Here to Eternity, providing yet another illustration of the contracted nature of the Hollywood globe. And by way of one more fun fact: Marty also retains the unique distinction for being the first, and so far only, film based on a television production to go off arm in arm with the Academy’s top prize. 

The film is the story of a pudgy, lovelorn, good-natured fellow by the name of Marty Piletti. Unmarried and  socially awkward, Marty begins to feel the cold hands of his routine life in the Bronx as a butcher living with his mother slowly make their way around his neck. After being harassed by his mother to go out one Saturday night to a local dance hall “full of tomatoes,” Marty encounters Clara, a plain, yet bright schoolteacher nursing a bruised heart after being callously ditched by her blind date. The two pass the evening together, dancing, dining and discoursing; eventually developing a mutual attraction by the time Marty escorts Clara to her front door. Upon parting company with Clara, Marty promises to call her the next day for another outing. However, darting comments directed at Clara by Marty’s mother and his pals soon wither his intentions, throwing Marty into a disheartened dilemma over left feeling he has to choose between family and friends or Clara, whom he barely knows.

On the Netflix sleeve for the disc, it contains a brief synopsis of the plot for Marty. In the summation, it describes Marty as “approaching middle age.” Later on in the film, Marty reveals his age to be 34, which sent a slightly depressing shiver through my extremities as I just so happened to turn 33 recently. Does this mean I’m approaching middle age? Be honest old sport, you can give it to me straight. Despite what ol’ Jacky Nicholson may say, I can handle the truth. Regardless, the thought of being 33 years of age, maybe, definitely approaching middle age and feeling the cold shadow cast by the encroaching specter of permanent single status slightly blurred the lines of entertainment and reality when viewing Marty. I suppose this should be interpreted as a compliment to the film’s ability to be right on target to the degree that it can traverse decades of time and still retain a high level of being relatable.

In large part, this relatable quality is due to the praiseworthy performance of Ernest Borgnine. He is aces when it comes to suffering with a smile on his face as people interrogate and chastise Marty for remaining single, as though it were some conscious choice rooted in bloated selfishness. Despite the insensitive comments he weathers, Borgnine employs his sunny disposition to great effect, manufacturing a friendly twinkle while serving customers in his butcher shop as they unwittingly lob darts at him.  Borgnine is also spot-on at channeling Marty’s frustration in continually striking out in the arena of romance, eventually feeling maxed out to continue playing the dating game. For Marty, his grief is augmented by the fact that so many around him have been able to tie the knot with seemingly no effort at all, leaving him to feel that marriage is some taunting, elusive feat, like the pursuit of some mirage in the desert. Borgnine is commendable in expressing Marty’s heartbreak and sorrow without resorting to histrionics about how his life is dramatically falling apart. Borgnine’s performance is too subtle and mature for that, which leads Marty to begin accepting his membership into the world of bachelorhood with his held high, if the events of his life should conspire to that end. 

But conditioning his mind to accept the possible reality of being single is where the film draws considerable credibility in paying attention to the mindset of a man contemplating his life in solitary fashion. For Marty, this inspection generates a dreadful sense of anxiety as he fears his will to continue in his search for someone to marry is packing up and shipping out. It’s a sincere sound of the alarm for Marty, as he feels he is conceding a large slice of his will to live. No man with a sure footing in life genuinely feels that their existence is enhanced by living alone for themselves, and Marty has long ago realized this fact. In this situation, the film touches upon the inescapable truth that life’s true joys can only be extracted when you put the needs of someone else ahead of your own. The degree of sacrifice required to have a successful marriage is the degree that produces the greatest amounts of happiness in life. Marty has reached an age where he has come to know and truly appreciate this reality, further reinforcing his distress that hope is drifting away from him. In the end, this realization is what supplies Marty with the strength to defy his friends and family and act on his feelings to call up Clara and ask her out again.   

As mentioned in the earlier paragraphs of this post, Marty is a unique film for a variety of reasons. But perhaps its most distinct quality is that it focuses on the emotional difficulties men can experience when romance remains a fleeting ambition. It’s rare to see a film that explores relationship anxieties so prevalently from a man’s perspective. Too often, I think relationship-driven films often tag their male characters with a sense that the stakes are never really that high for them. I feel that too often men are portrayed as being emotionally incapable of being impacted when they stumble in their romantic pursuits. In so many films, the story’s end could have the central romantic plotline go either way and the guy would still move on with relative ease. Obviously not every film takes this approach; I get that. In fact, one recent example that comes to mind is James Gandolfini’s character in the film Enough Said. Unfortunately, I think this is more the exception, not the norm. But all debate aside, Marty moves the needle closer to the truth in this regard because it presents the fragilities and vulnerabilities of an ordinary man for whom the stakes are quite high in relation to the outcome of romantic events, especially as he approaches middle age.
Favorite Line: In the final line of the film, Marty resolves to cast aside the comments of his friends and family by calling up Clara. Before closing the door to the phone booth to make the call, Marty spiritedly informs his pal Angie, “You don't like her. My mother don't like her. She's a dog. And I'm a fat, ugly man. Well, all I know is I had a good time last night. I'm gonna have a good time tonight. If we have enough good times together, I'm gonna get down on my knees. I'm gonna beg that girl to marry me. If we make a party on New Year's, I got a date for that party. You don't like her? That's too bad.”