Sunday, September 28, 2014

La Belle et la Bete (Beauty and the Beast) (1946) - Directed by Jean Cocteau





Few films brim with the kind of cinematic magic as Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bete. For it’s entire 93 minutes, Cocteau implores us to view the proceedings with childlike wonder and suspension of disbelief. His call to order in the prologue asks us to indeed suspend our disbelief, but even more than that, it’s a request to hearken to our recollection of fairy tales as children and to adopt that sense of respect for the significance of imagination. As children our first encounters with the concept of “falling in love” involve fairy tales, and stories of princesses and princes. These archetypal stories create a larger than life sense of grandeur and most often, unrealistic portrayals of true love. Still, our early lives can be shaped in this way. I’m often reminded of this when I watch films like The Little Mermaid or Disney’s Beauty and the Beast with my daughters. Cocteau asks us to adopt this sensitivity when watching his film. Therefore, Belle’s compassion is unquestioned and The Beast’s good heart shines through and we know things will work out in the end. This is no knock on the film. For although La Belle et la Bete is a fairy tale with some predictability, the elements are plenty dark and sinister enough to lend themselves well to the sense of imagination and surrealism that Cocteau brought to his cinema. Thus, the sense of childlike wonder we adopt while watching it is coupled with our adult awareness of sensuality, carnality, and ambiguity, giving the film just enough of a subversive angle to mess with our heads.


Belle lives with her father and two sisters, Adelaide and Felicie, along with her scheming brother Ludovic and friend Avenant (Jean Marais). Her father goes to settle some debts in a nearby town and on the way home that night, stumbles upon a strange and sinister castle. This is no ordinary place. Doors open and close on their own. Candles are held by movable arms in the hallway. A lone hand pours him a glass of wine at a table. Faces peer out from the mantle next to the fireplace. He spends the night there but upon attempting to leave the next day, comes face to face with The Beast (also Jean Marais), a talking, lion-like creature who stands upon his two feet. The Beast sentences him to death, but provides him an out. If he gets one of his daughters to come live with The Beast, the father's life will be spared. The daughter who accepts this challenge, is Belle. Played by Josette Day, Belle is a beautiful and slightly mature woman (Day was 32 at the time of filming) who is keenly aware of the differences between herself and her sisters. They are manipulative, catty, and superficial. Belle seems to have a piercing sense for honesty and truth. Thus, her commitment to proceed to the castle attends a noble kind of cause. She realizes she is called to this challenge. Upon entering the castle, there exists one of the most gorgeous moments ever to grace the screen. Against a black hallway and the outstretched candles, Belle runs with her flowing cape in glorious slow motion through the corridor and up a flight of stairs. Then she seems to float down a hallway where the curtains blow in her path. These ethereal and otherworldly transportations heighten our sense of magic and mystery. When she comes face to face with The Beast, it’s almost HE that is more afraid than SHE. He can’t handle her looking into his eyes and will only meet with her every evening at 7pm to ask her to be his wife. Soon, she begins to see the good in his heart and the struggle within his soul, and is drawn to him.


There are really interesting psychological moments in the film which give keys to Belle's and The Beast's state of mind. There’s this point where Belle is hiding in a corridor and The Beast comes to her door, his hands smoking after he has killed some animal from hunting. He stops at her door, perhaps because he wants to enter her chamber and ravish her. When he finds the room empty, there is a sense of frustration on his face and then he peers into the magic mirror only to find that she has spied his entrance into her room. His pride is hurt. She gains the upper hand. Later, after another time of killing and hunting, he comes to her door, smoke pouring from his body and blood streaking his clothes. Again, the implication is that he is ready to continue his “hunt” by entering her chambers. Yet she confronts him boldly at the doorway, saying that his behavior is beneath him, sending him coldly away. She will stand for nothing less than respect. He returns this respect to her when he allows Belle to return home to see her father if she promises to return. He tells her if she doesn’t return that he will die. Belle is given a magic glove for transportation and a golden key to the Beast’s magical riches. When Belle returns home she finds her father very ill. Her sisters become jealous and steal the key from Belle, and then they set Ludovic and Avenant into action to kill the beast. Belle is detained beyond the 7 days which the Beast granted her, and when she returns, find the Beast near death from his broken heart and spirit. At the close of the film, by miraculous magic (per fairy tale lore), Ludovic and Avenant are foiled, the Beast is turned into a prince, and Belle and the Prince fly off into the clouds.


Cocteau uses lots of whimsical touches to infuse his film with the sense of the otherworldly. Many of the memorable touches involve rewound film during key moments, like when Belle uses the magic glove and appears in her house for the first time. Or there are quick editing effects, like when a tear falls from Belle’s face and her father catches a diamond in his hand. These creative illusions were one of Cocteau’s greatest strengths as a director. The magnificent camera-work by Henri Alekan is awash in shadow, deflected light, and flowing wardrobes. These effects upon the viewer often force us to confront the unknown….into shadows and down corridors where we aren’t sure what will happen. Jean Marais fares very well in the Beast costume. I’m often surprised at how much feeling he is able to convey through his eyes. Day is the perfect fairy tale heroine, both strong and feminine in her determinations. At the close of the film, Cocteau infuses a sensible subversion into our adult heads. The Beast is turned into the handsome prince, and right away Belle isn’t quite sure she likes the idea. She isn’t ready to trust him just yet and he looks like someone she knew once. She is disappointed and even acknowledges it before succumbing to tradition and flying away with the prince, which makes us wonder whether she would have been even happier with The Beast as he was! I’m always intrigued by the fact that she was ready to “commit herself” in love to the Beast. What that looks like in actuality isn’t so important as the sentiment behind it. That she looked beneath the surface and found his heart is the true act of love. She didn’t need the human likeness in him to achieve this epiphany.


Thursday, August 28, 2014

7th Heaven (1927) - Directed by Frank Borzage


My Darling Chico,

You have been away from me for nearly 2 years now at war. I simply can't believe you've been away that long. It's also been so long since I've heard from you. I miss you so much. We parted on our wedding day and I relive those last moments together as if they exist outside of time. I wonder how you are and pray to God that you will return home soon. I long for you to hold me in your arms. So many moments of our short life together come flooding back to me. I woke up on the street that day to you holding a violet over my face to wake me up. Words can’t express how much I wanted you to take me in your arms and carry me away to safety. I had hardly met you but quickly I knew you were something special. You so selflessly gave of yourself to me, saving my life, when even I didn’t think it worth saving. Claiming me as your wife to keep me from going to jail..... I could tell you had a good heart right from the start and I knew we were meant to be.

The moment we entered the building where you lived that evening and we began ascending level by level up to your flat, my heart raced with anticipation to when I’d arrive in your place. We just kept ascending as if we’d go through the clouds. I wanted to go higher and higher and let the world drift away and be only with you. If only you knew the joy that you brought me as we entered into a new world together. You believed in life and its possibilities and it made me so excited. That night I undressed in your room and slipped into your bed while you were outside. I secretly wanted you to be near me and hold me close and tender. I hoped you would come into bed with me after you removed your pants and shirt. I peeked over the covers as you were undressing and saw your bare chest and it made my body flush. I wanted your body to lie next to mine and feel your skin against mine. I got up to peek around the corner and you were just so cute and sweet to be lying on the balcony. It was a rush of affection and joy through my body just to know that you respected me that way even though I was desperate for your warmth.

But now my dear I am beyond desperate. I haven’t seen you in so long and I long to feel your hands caress my hair and cheek, to feel your kiss on my lips, and to feel your body press against mine. Every moment I’m away from you is so hard. Every minute that passes without you near me is endless. I will simply die if you do not come back to me. Life cannot continue on this way without you. I have shed so many tears for you that I feel all of my tears have dried up and I am empty. Now my body aches and my eyes hurt every time I think of you. The tears will simply not flow and I am overcome by a black emptiness covering over me for which there is no respite.

When I came to you on the balcony dressed in my wedding dress I felt so glorious….and then you told me that you loved me for the first time. I was so happy. You remember how happy I was? I was so happy! And then I heard the sound of soldiers in the street. I didn’t want this to break us apart, but I tried to be strong for the both of us. And then you picked me up and kissed me and held me so close to you for so long and you were so strong holding me and I whispered things in your ear. And I wanted you to take me to bed right then and there. It was the most glorious and romantic moment of my life to be in your embrace. When you told me you wanted to marry me at that moment I was overcome with joy and feeling. I wanted us to be one, to be man and woman for eternity. We placed the necklaces over each other and promised to be true forever. I cherish that moment and the neckless hangs from my neck and dangles between my breasts this very moment. Come back to me Chico. Please with all your might come back to me my husband. You parted from me at 11am. And I think of you as if you were touching me and talking to me every day at 11am and I chant your name over and over and over again and speak to you out there wherever you are. If only you could be here with me. I can’t bear to think of where you are or what kind of danger you are in. I simply can’t begin to believe how awful it must be for you and how much you must be longing to touch me and be back here in our little heaven. I truly wish God’s angels to be surrounding you and protecting you. Believe me when I tell you we are shoulder to shoulder my love. I am working hard each day at the munitions factory. Somehow it helps to pass the time and I think that if I work hard enough it will bring you back to me.

Oh my dearest Chico I must finish this letter as it is late and tomorrow I must be at the munitions factory at dawn. Please write to me Chico. I miss you so desperately and I am being strong for you but I need you to return soon. I know that you will return to me and I believe with all my heart that this day will come soon for us. And on that day when you return to me oh how the glories of heaven will resound when we are rejoined. You must believe Chico. You must believe that our Love will bring you through any and all odds and nothing will keep us apart. Not even hell’s fury itself will be allowed to touch you. Our love is pure and true and righteous and I just know and believe that you will return. Please Chico….please return home soon.

I love you. I love you. I love you.


Diane

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Quiet Man (1952) - Directed by John Ford


There are few romantic films that are as beloved and cherished as John Ford’s beautiful and heartwarming classic, The Quiet Man. Intended for years as a pet project, Ford hand selected the story, the stars and the setting of Ireland in order to bring together many elements that meant a great deal to him. Ford’s Irish heritage, and that of Wayne and O’Hara, turned the film into a sort cinematic expression of anthropology, extending the elements of the plot beyond simple mechanics and enlivening the whole film with a passionate and joyful sense of place, family, and tradition (all very consistent with Ford’s career). These elements reached into the lives of those making the film, and in turn, these personal connections become visible to the audience. In a sense, this film is as much a love story between Ford and his fondness for Ireland and for heritage, as much as anything else. But the fact that the film is buoyed by intense chemistry from Wayne and O’Hara, many romantic scenes, and a charming, sexually playful tone, it’s hard to top this film for sheer enjoyment.



Ford had read the short story by Maurice Walsh back in 1933 and had purchased the rights to the story but the film took years to take shape. It’s a story of an Irish-born man named Sean Thornton who has been living in America for much of his life, but who after giving up boxing on account of a fatal bout he participated in, ends up desiring to return to his birth-town of Inisfree to claim his family farm. Upon arriving in Ireland, he finds that another man in town, Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen), wants the land as well. Sean ends up gaining the rights to the farm, but earns an enemy in Will Danaher at the same time. This wouldn’t be so bad, except that Sean quickly has eyes for Will’s fiery sister, Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O’Hara). Sean soon finds himself in a familial battle of wits, as he pushes against tradition in order to ask Mary Kate’s hand in marriage without consent from Will. Through some trickery from the townsfolk, Sean is able to wed Mary Kate, however Will holds back the dowry that is owed to her. Mary Kate then decides that she’s going to withhold…..ahem…..the goods from Sean until she gets her dowry back. Thus, the film then turns into a sly and farcical bit of romantic shenanigan-ism as the marriage remains unconsummated and the tension between Sean and Will grows. That is until the final showdown between Sean and Will to decide the fate of the marriage and to recoup the fateful dowry.



Even getting this film off the ground took a bit of doing for Ford. It took some time to get financing, and this finally came from Republic Pictures, who needed Ford and Wayne to do a moneymaking picture prior to filming in order to fund the cost of The Quiet Man. They embarked on making Rio Grande, which isn’t just notable for its standing amongst Ford’s westerns and the Cavalry Trilogy, but also because it paired up Wayne and O’Hara for the first time. It’s plain to see in Rio Grande that the two were a match made in cinematic heaven. It’s no wonder that Ford had eyed these two stars for The Quiet Man as well. Ford had of course worked with Wayne often, and with O’Hara years earlier in How Green Was My Valley. But Ford’s brilliant pairing of Wayne and O’Hara makes The Quiet Man into the memorable romantic picture that it is. Many have noted how Wayne and O’Hara make a great onscreen pair and it has to do with each having an equalizing presence upon the other, meaning that it never quite seems like one is overshadowing the other. Their chemistry together in this film forces them to have a physical and demanding experience together, whether swinging punches at each other, scrambling through creeks and over lush countrysides, and then squaring off in the bedroom for the rights to the upper hand. Their passionate quarreling is only rivaled by their passionate kisses. On multiple occasions, this film has some memorable kissing scenes. Probably the most iconic moment is when Sean enters his farm for the first time to find someone has been tidying up, and there’s a windstorm blowing. He manages to scare Mary Kate out of the house and as the door bursts open, she runs to leave, whereby he swings her back through the open door, then pulls her to him for a kiss. Spielberg’s use of this scene in E.T. made it extra iconic, but there are other memorable moments as well, like when the two kiss in the rain in the cemetery. It’s such a lovely quiet moment between the two of them with wordless interplay as O’Hara pulls in close to Wayne, with his shirt soaking wet. Then there’s the scene on the wedding night as Sean breaks down the door, pulls Mary Kate’s hair back and kisses her in a rough moment of passion. And that’s what makes Wayne and O’Hara such a striking match, as their physicality and passion is believable. So much so, that we can imagine what might happen were they to hop into bed. Indeed, the film has lots of fun, stalling out the consummation of marriage as long as it can possibly go for comedic effect. Like when Michaeleen Oge Flyn (Barry Fitzgerald) happens to stop by the house bringing furniture and catches a glimpse of the broken bed after the first night of marriage, saying, “impetuous”, quietly to himself. Little does he realize what caused the broken bed.



With many exterior shots filmed in Ireland, the film has a strong sense of place, and a beautiful, lush look to it. The wonderful cinematography of Winton C. Hoch adds much to the film and the on-location shooting is enlivened wih elegant framing. Victor Young’s score incorporates many elements of Irish tunes, giving the film a bouncing and jovial quality. Ford’s cast of familiar characters like McLaglen, Ward Bond, and Mildred Natwick add color and warmth to their roles, and many other parts were given to locals in Ireland as well as various bit parts to family members of Wayne, O’Hara and Ford. It’s Wayne and O’Hara that make everything shine, though, and their performances are some of the finest of their careers. A couple moments are noteworthy. Wayne has just had a beer tossed on his face and says in a rather matter of fact tone, “bar towel”. He wipes his face and then asks for the time. He’s told it’s half past five, and then proceeds to punch McLaglen. He does all this with such perfect tone that it confirms that Wayne’s sense of comedic timing was one of his most underrated skills. My favorite moment of O’Hara’s is the moment when Wayne comes to the door to come courting. She nervously comes talking to her brother at the table to ask for permission to go out with him. Her tone of voice here, and the way she is almost out of breath with anxiousness and nervousness seems real. You can hear the sexual charge within her, as she’s desperate to go out with Sean, but can hardly contain her nerves. Beautiful acting.




In the realm of cinematic pairings, the best ones are the ones in which you can believe the two really have eyes for each other, or at least create characters whom you believe really want each other. In the final moments of the film, Wayne and O’Hara are seen happily waving at Rev. Playfair from the edge of their farm. This moment to me is one of the brilliant examples of what makes this film work. Watching closely, we witness O’Hara whisper something into Sean’s ear. They’re both grinning and then she turns and begins to jaunt back to the house, with Sean soon running and tumbling after. And in my mind, there’s only one place where they could possibly be headed.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Tears

Smother me. Crush me. Destroy me. Do whatever you want with me. But let me have one thing. Let me be reborn......for just a moment.....as the tear running down your cheek. Let me be as close to you as this. Then let me fall away.
















Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Man's Castle (1933) - Directed by Frank Borzage






Although most of Frank Borzage’s best films finally saw release with the 2008 box set, Man’s Castle somehow didn’t make the cut. It’s a shame, as it’s his best film outside of his multiple silent masterpieces made with Janet Gaynor and Charles Ferrell. Man’s Castle again rekindles a kind of street-wise and jaded yet sentimental quality to the love stories he pioneered in the 1920’s, like 7th Heaven, Street Angel and Lucky Star, and then continued into the 1930’s with his near masterpiece talkie, Liliom. Borzage is rarely written about these days, and if he is, it’s amongst the blogosphere almost exclusively, and even in that realm it’s hard to come by. Borzage, above any other director who’s ever lived, seemed to elevate romance into the spiritual realm, almost turning the transformative power of love into a religion, believing that if one is honest enough, kind enough, and loving enough, one can overcome just about any odds. No other director has ever conveyed with such unflinching, sincere regard, the belief that love can conquer all and inspire lovers to go beyond what they thought was imaginable.




In the case of Man’s Castle, we consider two souls, Bill (Spencer Tracy) and Trina (Loretta Young) as they sit on a park bench. He feeds the pigeons popcorn, while wearing a fancy suit. She eyes the popcorn with a hungry eye as she is obviously out of work, while he is seemingly rich and throwing food away. The content dabbles into typical pre-codisms, with Bill alluding to the fact that women shouldn’t be out of work (even in the depression) especially with the looks of a woman like Trina. Bill then takes her to dinner, where this film also sets up a sort of teacher/protege kind of relationship, a la, Pygmalion. Borzage brilliantly sets up the film positioning Bill as a rich man, until Bill reveals that his suit is a prop (an advertisement for a coffee house), and then brings Trina (Loretta Young) home to his shanty-town house, proving he's nearly as poor as she is and giving new definition to the term Man’s Castle. Touchingly, the film connects our two down-on-their-luck lovers ending their first evening together by skinny dipping in a river, equalizing their plight, stripping themselves bare and plunging into their relationship on equal terms. Amazingly, the film positions them as living together and joining into a sort of ragged union, rising above categorization because convenience doesn’t make time for such formalities. Their tender relationship is threatened when Trina becomes pregnant, forcing Bill to confront his sense of commitment to Trina and the life that he is aching to give her despite their hardships.




It’s hard to view this film with the right context under which it was meant to be seen. Most of us never experienced the Great Depression, and instead only understand it through the eyes of generations past, who’ve told tales to subsequent generations, or through books or movies. But honestly, it might be cinema that will most easily convey the Depression for future generations. Films like Man’s Castle, My Man Godfrey, The Grapes of Wrath…..these each convey a certain element of the times and a point of view that was, if not necessarily popular back then (it is reported that Man’s Castle did poorly at the box office), are great cultural examples of the time. For all the falsity that cinema often presents, these are the closest things to a living/breathing time capsule as we’ll ever have. Though Borzage can of course be accused of relying too much on sentiment regarding this topic (and indeed throughout his career), it is far too simplistic to label him as taking advantage of the situation. The fact is, many great directors honed their use of sentiment for great effect, including Chaplin, Ford, and Spielberg among others. What separates the good from the bad, is the sincerity of belief in the power of goodness and love at the heart of the sentiment. Borzage here utilizes the difficulties and trials of surviving during the Great Depression in order to reflect upon the resilience of romantic love and the courage to do the right thing under those circumstances. This scenario actually takes a genre that is sometimes stuck in the clouds and then blends in a kind of kitchen-sink realism that gives the film (and many of Borzage’s films) a superbly balanced romantic tone.



One thing I’ve always had an issue with regarding certain pre-code films (this one notwithstanding) is an unenlightened, seemingly sexist view towards women. I don’t particularly take well to the attitude that Tracy’s character delivers to Young, what with the “Come here” and “Hey stupid” kind of lines he throws at her, even if it is in jest. I’m not even sure this attitude matches well with Tracy’s acting style per se. However, there’s an alternate reading to this in that Bill’s ultra-macho attitude is partly a distancing technique, perhaps so that he and/or she will refuse to connect too deeply to the other. Borzage inserts a slightly overstated subplot that doesn't quite resonate as Tracy begins seeing a floozy on the side. It's almost like he’s trying a little too hard to keep the upper hand to avoid getting hurt but it comes across as a bit far fetched. However, most of the film is filled with beautifully wrought romantic longing and touching scenes. There’s this beautiful moment when Bill and Trina attempt to sit down for dinner and the blaring train whistle nearby seems to pierce right into Bill’s brain, almost causing his façade to crack, as he knows he's not providing the right environment for Trina's needs. The film is also remarkably progressive when it comes to the co-habitating relationship, complete with sex, but sans marriage in all its pre-codi-ness. Starting in 1934, this film would never have seen the light of day due to these elements. In fact, the film was re-released in 1938 with the studio being forced to cut out 9 full minutes, which have not been fully recovered since. It’s a shame we have lost some of this footage, as it’s hard to simply get enough of Spencer Tracy and Loretta Young and their chemistry together onscreen, as they are lovely and tender and sincere as anything else you will see from this era.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Camille (1936) - Directed by George Cukor





Greta Garbo is one of my favorite film figures and one of my very favorite actresses. I once had this desire that if I could sit down to a meal with anyone living or dead, I thought I wanted to dine with Garbo. I think I actually still do. I imagine that  our conversation would probably strain a bit between us, as I don't tend to be the most talkative person, and we would probably have more than a few awkward pauses. But I would still give anything to be able to see her and talk to her in person. Garbo became one of the greatest screen actresses and one of the essential romantic leading ladies of all time. It's not hard to believe, considering she built her career upon films with such romantic sounding names like: The Temptress, Flesh and the Devil, Love, The Kiss, Romance. It's almost comical how often she was the leading romantic lady. A few of her greatest works, like Flesh and the Devil, paired her with John Gilbert, someone whom she had great chemistry with. However, Camille is a film that is not only better, but contains a surprising amount of electric chemistry between a slightly older Garbo and a young Robert Taylor. Camille also contains what is probably Garbo’s greatest acting.




Based on a novel and play by Alexandre Dumas (La Dame aux Camelias), George Cukor’s film stars Garbo as Marguerite Gautier, who is known as Dame Camille amongst her Parisian friends, as she attends parties and soirees. Camille is funded by Baron de Varville (Henry Danielle) who is a rather sexless and odd man, but is somehow obsessed with owning some stake in Camille’s life of excess and parties. Camille, much to her own startling chagrin, finds herself rather smitten by a handsome young fella named Armand (Taylor). He courts her and attempts to spend as much time with her as possible, as she and he slowly draw closer together, while Camille tries to keep their relationship hidden from the Baron. Camille has nearly decided to give herself fully to Armand, when his father (Lionel Barrymore) painfully suggests to Camille that she give up Armand in order to keep his name from being associated with her life of frivolity. In the meantime, she has also been suffering from tuberculosis, which progressively weakens her. She tries to spurn her lover Armand, but all to no avail…..he returns, with her on her deathbed, whereby she musters up one final exultation of joy and pleasure of being held in his arms right before her death in the tear-jerking finale.




Garbo notoriously was difficult to work with because she was terribly insecure and uncomfortable with performing in front of too many people. This film, though, allows for what is often essentially scenes just between her and Taylor, which garner an arresting and electric amount of chemistry. I always find Garbo most moving when she is in quiet moments by herself or with one other actor. As I was scanning the film for screen shots, it struck me just how often it’s just she and Taylor positioned onscreen facing each other in two shot. Cukor rarely cuts in this film when they’re facing each other, which continually gives us the feeling of intimacy and immediacy between them, whereby we can feel the romantic intensity. Garbo did wonders when the camera was in close-up on her. She was perhaps the greatest actress of all time regarding her work while the camera was in close. Pick any moment in the film when the screen is on her face and you will notice a subtle array of movement of her mouth, eyes and eyebrows, which gives you the impression that she is expressing a great deal of emotion even though she isn’t necessarily conveying it verbally. I think my favorite moment is when she’s lying on her bed, sick and frail, and her maid Nanine tells her that Armand has come to see her. Garbo presents this suddenly energized and tear-filled joy just through her eyes, while she simultaneously maintains the frail and sickly exterior of her body. It’s an impressive duality of emotion and physicality that Garbo pulls off in that moment.





One of the other interesting elements at play in this film is the fact that Garbo was about 6 years older than Robert Taylor in this film. Gone was the perfect face, unblemished and unwrinkled 10 years prior in Flesh and the Devil, where her face almost had a full and youthful projection. In Camille, she’s a bit thinner, more world weary, and there are lines here and there on her face. Yet, somehow, pairing her opposite the younger Taylor gives life to their relationship and the romance on display, with his vigor giving charge to her experience. It’s hard to say how Garbo would have fared had she stayed in film. Within 5 years of making this film, she would give up acting forever, and amazingly disappear out of the public eye. So....... getting back to that meal with Garbo, somehow I’m imagining that it’s not lunch or dinner, but breakfast we’re eating. She and I are meeting at a small café somewhere and we both sit down. She has sunglasses on and a warm hat and coat. She orders coffee and a scone. I sit there fumbling and trying to lighten the mood and then I mention my favorite parts of her movies. She says nothing behind the dark glasses and I'm pretty certain she's not hearing me. The waiter brings her the coffee and the scone and pretty soon after he leaves us, she takes off her sunglasses exposing her eyes, and seemingly her soul. She then leans over the table with a sort of uneasy expression on her face. I’m dumbfounded, trembling, somewhat fearful and awe struck and can’t believe I’m looking Garbo in the eyes. Then she opens her mouth and she says, “Please go...... I want to be alone.” I quietly walk out of the cafe. 

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Wizard of Oz (1939) - Directed by Victor Fleming




One of the great joys over the last few years has been introducing my children to some of the great, classic films that I have known and loved over the years. Some of them are films that I didn’t see until I was an adult, but figured they would really like them anyway, like Bringing Up Baby and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Others are films that I have watched since I was young, like Shane, Star Wars, Duck Soup, and now today, we watched The Wizard of Oz together. It was their first time seeing the film in its entirety. I had given thought to showing them the film a few years prior, but in discussions with my spouse we had determined to wait. I actually remember being extremely scared of the witch when I was a kid, and every year when the film came on, I seemingly only remember watching until that part of the film when the Wicked Witch of the West appears in Munchkinland for the first time, before I ran off to bed deathly afraid of finishing the film. I was probably only 5 or 6 years old. My daughters are now ages 6 and 4, so about a week ago, they started to beg to watch it. We felt like it was the right time.




My girls have of course known of this film for more than a few years, and even at one point wanted to be Dorothy for Halloween without even having seen the film. I would show them little Youtube clips from time to time, as I’m a huge fan of the film, and of Judy Garland and my girls loved seeing her in Summer Stock and in Meet Me in St. Louis. Garland’s appeal in the film, has not waned a bit. Every time I watch The Wizard of Oz, I’m amazed at the range and emotional depth of her performance, guiding the audience through this strange land with the clarity and honesty of a seasoned actress despite her being 16 years of age at the time of casting. Garland was always sort of an old soul though, and gives one of that all time great performances by any actress, and it’s partly because of the innocence and transparity of her emotions. There’s this little gesture she gives to Toto at the very end of the “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” sequence where she leans over in a sort of weary moment of melancholy. I don’t think I’d ever quite noticed the brief expression before this latest viewing. There’s that pure and open graciousness as she says, “Very well thank you,” to the Scarecrow. Or how about that moment when confronting the Wizard when she brazenly says, “You outta be ashamed of yourself!” It’s such a well-rounded performance and Garland’s approach was so true to the actress that she would in fact become throughout the years. It’s amazing how singular and effective is her style already at this young age.




There were some funny things about the film that I picked up this time seeing it. I maybe have seen the film 20 times or so in my lifetime, but it’s amazing what slips past your eyes so often. Garland has a moment right after she’s slapped the Cowardly Lion and he’s beginning to whimper where she nearly breaks a smile and almost begins to laugh but is able to hold it in. Check it out for yourself at about the 51 minute mark. Then there’s the part where the Munchkins are running after Glinda in the bubble and one of them is that “kid” with the horn hair from the lollipop guild. Well, the next shot shows him behind Dorothy in a moment of poor continuity. Then amazingly, in the scene when they are putting the cape and the crown on the Cowardly Lion and they’re walking up the little green carpet up the stairs, Garland almost stumbles over the edge of the carpet that curls over a bit after the others walk up before her. These imperfections are quite endearing in that it reminds me that the films’ power does not lie in its technical prowess nor in its filmmaking per se. One can count multiple moments of script incontinuity for instance. But it’s a reminder that sincerity, human nature, and talented actors can entertain as much as or even more-so than any special effects laden blockbuster can.



Sitting down to watch the film with small children who have never seen it before became an interesting experience in and of itself. I thoroughly enjoyed watching the film for myself, but more so, enjoying watching their reactions and answering their questions. Such as, “Is this movie in black and white or color?” (“actually it’s both)…….“Which road of the yellow brick road is the right way?” (“you know what, I’m not sure”)…..  “Is the witch going to come back later?” (“Yes she will definitely be back.) …… “Why is that horse turning colors” (“because it’s the horse of a different color”). I also realized that they seemingly needed a bit of assistance to understand what was happening, and why she could get to this place called Oz and why Miss Gulch had turned into the witch. We discussed that even though it felt real, it was a dream and that she was imagining that Miss Gulch was a witch. Part of the intensity of the film though, is that it feels so hyper-real. Once the film enters the dream state, one is quickly absorbed into the world, and so thorough is this effect once the film bursts into color. One almost forgets entirely that it IS a dream as it feels so emotionally real and linear. Although we talked about the film being a dream early on, my girls were so believing that Dorothy was going to die that they began to get worried once the hour glass began to empty. Thus, much of the film’s power is brought about because of its dual power to both reassure us of what we know and to challenge us toward overcoming our fears. One of my favorite elements is in fact the way that Dorothy, the heroine, leads the group. She’s not quite so meek as she calls herself, as she is a leader of a rag-tag assemblage of “misfits”. I’m occasionally surprised at how often my children become conscious of the fact that they don’t “fit in” for whatever reason. This film reassures us that it’s okay to be imperfect and to make mistakes…..and also to keep trying and to take on the challenges that come our way. These are lessons that we all sometimes need to be reminded of.