Thursday, August 26, 2010

Best-of-the-Decade Series: The '40s

Surprisingly enough, a decade devastated by war still managed to put out some of the most memorable movies of all time. Despite many Hollywood notables enlisting in the great conflict and most of the films made during the war being rubbish, studio output at the beginning and end of the decade almost got back up to the brilliance of the '30s. There were even some good films made along with the propaganda fluff of WWII, though they were fewer and further between.

Please note that there were a lot more famous and really deserving films that didn't make the cut on this list, but that doesn't mean I don't appreciate them. I am especially remiss about leaving out all the great Bogart and Bacall films, the best of which is The Big Sleep, and my favorite of which is the oft-overlooked  Dark Passage. My reason for leaving them off is because I tried to include at least one movie from as many genres as possible, though I did allow myself two Hitchcocks. It's also interesting to note that all these films were in black-and-white because not a lot of color films were made until the end of the decade, and

Honorable Mentions: Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)/ Holiday Inn (1942)

James Cagney sings and dances? Really?!? Actually the famous tough guy got his start as a hoofer on the vaudeville circuits, and while he's no Fred Astaire--then again, who is, really?--he puts on a good show as the great American Broadway composer George M. Cohan, who gave us such songs as "Yankee Doodle Dandy," "Give My Regards to Broadway," "You're a Grand Old Flag," and "Over There." Of course the story is completely fictional, but it's enjoyable nonetheless.

Meanwhile that very same year somebody had the idea to team up the greatest dancer of his generation Fred Astaire, with the greatest singer of his generation, Bing Crosby. The result was this charmer which introduced the song "White Christmas" to the world. Sadly despite the popularity of this movie Fred and Bing would only make one more picture together because Bing was too busy doing the "Road To" movies with Bob Hope.

Bob Hope and Bing Crosby are lost in the Sahara Desert in
the opening to Road to Morocco.
Road to Morocco (1942)

Speaking of Hope and Crosby, "Like Webster's Dictionary, we're Morocco-bound!" in this film which is generally considered the best of their movies, and certainly one of my favorites. These are just some of the most wonderful comedies ever made because the two stars did a lot of improv and had heavy say in the script to start out with. There's no fourth wall, and references are made to things like Bob's lust for an Oscar, which Bing Crosby took home for his performance in Going My Way, another movie that should have made this list, but one that I will ask you to buy in the double feature package with Holiday Inn. Perhaps the most memorable part of this delightful film is the opening song where they sing about being on the road to Morocco and in another "Road To" film in general, with the memorable line, "I'll lay you eight-to-five that we'll meet [their co-star in all of the "Road To" movies] Dorothy Lamour."

And the winners.:

Pegasi frolic through Beethoven's Pastorale Symphony
10. Fantasia (1940)

My goodness! I actually put a Disney movie on this list. Before Disney became an evil empire, the founder Walt was actually capable of inspired thinking. He'd already done some short films in which animation is paired with classical music and no dialog, and spurred by the success of these, he went for a really daring, artistic experiment in which the animation would be inspired directly by the music. The final "Night on Bald Mountain"/"Ave Maria" sequence was so controversial that it was actually banned in several countries. Disney also highly offended classical music buffs by turning Beethoven's "pastorale" symphony into a Greek mythical picnic/orgy led by Bacchus himself. Apparently that was irreverent to the sacred cow of the classical world. I also have to admit that I never liked Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," but the creation of the world/dinosaurs theme works really well with it. I actually think that my favorite sequence is the fairy scene set to the Nutcracker Suite just because I'm overly fond of that piece of music like most ballet devotees.

9. Beauty and the Beast (1946)

What better way for the French to celebrate their independence than to make this spectacular version of the classic fairytale? It has a lot of subtlety in it's storytelling that Hollywood completely lacks. There are no bells, whistles, or amazing special effects. Instead it's just the story of a girl who falls in love with a beast, a story driven entirely by plot and character. Leave it to the French to give us Americans a lesson in beauty.

Gary Cooper as a dying Lou Gehrig gives his "Luckiest
Man" Speech with Babe Ruth (left) looking on.
8. The Pride of the Yankees (1942)

There were plenty of sports movies both before and after this, but few can touch our hearts as much as the tragically true story of Lou Gehrig, "the luckiest man on the face of the earth," played by Gary Cooper who greatly resembled the great Yankees slugger in real life. Perhaps what makes this movie so good is that it's more of a biopic than a sports film. Although it does chronicle the career of Lou Gehrig including the '27 Yankees' World Series and his consecutive game record, it also focuses heavily on Gehrig's relationship with his overbearing mother who wanted him to be an engineer and his spirited wife.

Great supporting roles go to Walter Brennan as Gehrig's reporter friend, and Babe Ruth as himself, a treat for all baseball fans. No one but Gary Cooper could have portrayed Gehrig's shy awkwardness in such an endearing light, and by the time he begins to succumb to the fatal disease that now bears his name, we shed genuine tears. Like so many other films on this list, the final scene of The Pride of the Yankees, as Gehrig makes his "Luckiest Man" speech with his wife sobbing in the background, and then he walks off the field painfully alone just as the umpire shouts "Play ball!"

7. Laura (1944)

I've already reviewed this movie, and I refer you to that for a detailed synopsis. Memorable performances by Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, and horror king Vincent Price highlight this tale of a detective brought in to uncover the murder of Laura Hunt, a beautiful woman both inwardly and outwardly who had more foes that she deserved. The mystery is baffling, especially when Laura comes back from a long weekend to find the police camped out in her apartment and a dead body that everyone assumed was her.

6. Sullivan's Travels (1941)

One of my favorite underrated actors Joel McCrea stars with Veronica Lake in this gem of a comedy by Preston Sturges. McCrea plays a Hollywood director of light comedies that takes a pretentious turn and decides to make a film about the downtrodden and poor--something he knows nothing about. To learn about it, though, he sets off on an adventure to live as a hobo and experience it first-hand. Along the way he meets the charming and goofy Veronica Lake with whom he falls madly in love, as they struggle down the road together.

But things don't go exactly as Sullivan plans them, and he ends up in a pit of misery and despair with seemingly no hope until it comes to him from an unexpected source. Surprisingly deep and a great affirmation of the genre we all love, Sullivan's Travels is easily the best comedy of the decade.

5. The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Humphrey Bogart and a whole assortment of shady characters including Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet hunt for "the stuff dreams are made of," in this adaptation of the Dashiell Hammett novel. Bogart plays a San Francisco detective with a shady past who finds himself in a tight spot when his partner is murdered. Suspicion immediately falls on Spade because he was having an affair with his partner's wife. In addition Spade must deal with a slick, lying damsel-in-distress who asks for his help and the men chasing her, trying to find the whereabouts of the Maltese Falcon, a treasure of the Knights Templar that has been missing for hundreds of years.

This film is the quintessential film noir detective story as done by two masters of the genre, novelist Dashiell Hammett and actor Humphrey Bogart. It's also the film that made Bogart into a legitimate leading man despite his less-than-glamorous looks, so it's safe to say that without this film, it's safe to say that there would have been no Casablanca the following year nor would there be the great films he made with Lauren Bacall late in the decade.

4. Notorious (1946)

Ingrid Bergman risks her life when she marries a Nazi in
order to spy on him in Notorious.
I only intended to put one Hitchcock on this list, but I found I simply couldn't choose between them because they are such different films. While Rebecca bears the marks of Hitchcock's genius direction, it's essentially a movie by its producer David O. Selznick, and while a great movie, one in which Hitchcock had very little artistic control. Notorious, on the other hand, is a quintessential Hitchcock film. It also has the further distinction of featuring the great director's favorite actor, Cary Grant, along with Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains.

Ingrid Bergman plays the daughter of a convicted Nazi spy who is hired by a handsome CIA agent (Cary Grant) to spy for the US against Nazi defectors in Rio. Although she is madly in love with Cary Grant's character and determined to give up her drinking and misbehaving for his sake, she doesn't get the chance to make good on her promise because the government wants her to seduce the leader of the Nazis in Rio. Claude Rains plays her victim who becomes so besotted with Bergman that he asks her to marry him. But a marriage between a spy and her target, especially when that target is the leader of a dangerous organization, is a ticking time bomb, and Cary Grant soon has his hands full extricating Bergman before the Nazis uncover her secret and deal with her treachery.

3. Rebecca (1940)

This movie also made my top film adaptations list because it sticks close to the book, which is one of my all-time favorites. Joan Fontaine captures our pathos as the young bride who gets in way over her head when she finds that her husband's estate is being psychologically haunted by the spirit of his first wife Rebecca. Joan Fontaine gives an Oscar-worthy performance as the second wife. Laurence Olivier is incredibly handsome and brooding as Maxim de Winter, whom--like Elizabeth Bennett with Mr. Darcy--I would definitely marry for his house except that it burns down at the end of the novel. The character who really steals the show, however, is Judith Anderson as the evil Mrs. Danvers, plotting for Rebecca to defeat the  newlywed couple from beyond the grave. For that performance she ranked #31 on the villain side of AFI's Heroes and Villains list.

James Stuart learns how wonderful life is with the help of his
guardian angel Clarence.
2. It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

The late '40s boasted a slough of memorable Christmas movies, but this one tops them all, probably because Christmas is only a secondary concern to good storytelling. Only Frank Capra can tell a heartwarming American story like this, and he's at the top of his form using his good friend and favorite actor James Stuart as the lead.

If you haven't seen either this movie or the next one on my list, go shoot yourself or spend the next few hours amending that effrontery to good taste. Yes, I know that people have legitimately faulted the special effects in this movie and the spotty theology in the portrayal of angels, but those are minor concerns in my book. For  those of you who have been living in a cave all your lives, the story centers on a small-town businessman  named George Bailey who spends his whole life sacrificing his personal ambitions for the sake of others. On Christmas Eve one year a calamity occurs, and he finds himself about to his little all and contemplating suicide. Fortunately a novice guardian angel gives him a reason to keep on living by showing him how much worse off the world would be had he never been born.

The line that always gets me at the end of this movie is when George's younger brother comes in and gives a toast, "To my brother George, the richest man in town." I cannot keep a dry eye at that. Just to show the iconic status of this film, not only is it #11 on AFI's Top 100 Films of all time, but George Bailey is #9 on the Heroes list, and Mr. Potter is #6 on the Villains list.

The iconic picture from the greatest film of all time. "Well
always have Paris." And we'll always have Casablanca.
1. Casablanca (1942)

I strongly believe in the case for this movie being the greatest of all time. It certainly has the highest rating on IMDb of any movie, and the most famous quotes of any movie by a long shot. Apart from the memorable quips, however, this movie succeeds because of the very human dilemma faced by the three main characters, and the willingness of all three of them to be noble and sacrifice for each other. Humphrey Bogart's character Rick Blaine ranks #4 on AFI's Heroes list, behind only James Bond, Indiana Jones, and Atticus Finch.

There's also a slough of great performances by famous character actors like Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet, my favorite of which is Rains's show-stealer as the lascivious Captain Renault. And of course the ending, which took scriptwriters forever to get right, is probably the greatest of any movie ever. Really, this film has everything: action, romance, comedy, a jaded hero looking for a reason to fight, and of course the ultimate bad guys in the Nazis. Do I even need to mention "As Time Goes By"?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Film Review: The Firefly (1937)

Jeanette MacDonald sparkles as a Spanish singer hired to
seduce French officers and learn their secrets during the
Napoleonic Wars
When you think of great movie duos of the '30s, of course the first two combos that pop to mind are Fred and Ginger--so famous you don't even need to give last names--then perhaps you think of William Powell and Myrna Loy, but not as many people today remember the huge popularity of  operetta stars Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. They had a string of hit movies and songs going almost as long as Fred and Ginger, though, and remained popular until the post-modernism of the '60s and '70s dubbed them corny and outdated. That's actually a fair assessment of them since their movies were never heavy on plot but rather simple melodramas and romantic comedies designed to be vehicles for superb singing. And if you don't like operatic vocals, you're not going to like these films.

It's easy to see why Jeanette MacDonald became popular because she has a gorgeous soprano, glamorous looks, and an engaging personality. Nelson Eddy, on the other hand is a complete brick, despite his classic tenor, and renders their films almost unwatchable, especially in his early work. So of course my favorite Jeanette MacDonald operetta is one in which she co-stars with someone else.

Perhaps in 1937 someone realized that Nelson Eddy was a brick and tried to team Jeanette up with someone who could actually act. Fortunately they had another operatic tenor in Allan Jones, who made two movies with the Marx Brothers as well as a screen adaptation of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's immortal Show Boat.

Unfortunately audiences had become so accustomed to the stench of Nelson Eddy that they revolted when they got a whiff of a new man appearing with Jeanette MacDonald, and thus this film remains largely forgotten (so forgotten, in fact that I can't even find a copy of it on Amazon for a link). I ran into it for the first time on TCM's birthday tribute to Jeanette one year, and it instantly became a favorite for my family because it featured two memorable songs--"The Donkey Serenade" and "Gianina Mia," to be precise--and the plot was unusual and thus engaging.

Set in the Napoleonic Wars, The Firefly tells the story of a Spanish singer who seduces French officers in order to learn military secrets. Fortunately she manages to keep her heart disentangled until she meets the alarmingly persistent Don Diego (Allan Jones) who follows her on a key mission to France. Just when she's ready to give her heart to Diego, however, she finds out that he's really a French spy assigned to blow her cover, and she must retreat to Spain immediately. But even a spy with a blown cover can still have her uses, and Jeanette will find a way to stick it to the Frenchies.

Despite my affection for this movie, it's hardly a perfect film. Many of the battles, scenes, and montages seem extremely dated and clunky. In addition they show Jeanette singing at night clubs, which did not come into existence until the 20th century and thus are a gross anachronism. On the same note, the sets and costumes aren't terribly authentic either, but are kind of charmingly a product of their time, and since I love both Art Deco and Regency fashions, I don't mind terribly.

I give this film a 6.5 of 10: no great shakes, but enjoyable nonetheless.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

My Top 10 Fictional Boyfriends of Page and Screen

Fictional characters can be much more attractive than real people because they remain creatures of the imagination, and their faults do not intrude themselves upon our notice the way they would if they really existed. 

Apart from that they further endear themselves to us by being imprinted upon our consciousnesses as some of the most memorable narratives of all time. This process can work in reverse as well, as memorable characters can bring us back to stories we might not otherwise appreciate. While I'm not one of those people who's waiting for the perfect version of my favorite character to come along and woo me in real life, I have to admit to being rather enamored of certain creations of fancy. Today I'm going to honor the fictional men to whom I'd gladly give my hand in marriage if they existed--or at least I'd go on a date with them.

Honorable Mentions:

Rhett Butler was the prototype
for other charming rogues of
page and screen, and is
considered the defining role
for Hollywood legend Clark
Rhett Butler, Gone with the Wind (Book especially)
I freely and openly admit to reading and watching Gone with the Wind purely for Rhett's sake. I can't stand Scarlett, but every time she comes across Rhett, I somehow have a wide grin on my face because I know she's about to get her comeuppance. Maybe it's genetic: my grandmother's favorite movie was Gone with the Wind because she was in love with Rhett, but it doesn't hit me quite as strongly as it did her.

In the novel, Rhett's passages would have me in stitches for minutes as he throws out one memorable quip after another. As much as I like Rhett, though, he really isn't a gentleman, as Scarlett so accurately points out, so he must fall down my list for that. Of course the reason for this fault is that Rhett is jaded and just smart enough to see all the problems in society and their causes without wanting to do anything about it.

Once his daughter is born, Rhett begins to reform for her sake, but his rocky relationship with then-wife Scarlett hinder his growth a lot. Perhaps what finally causes me to put him on this list is that he leaves Scarlett in the end, which shows good taste. Then again, it took him 12 years to figure out that she wasn't worth his time, so how smart can he really be?

I would perhaps go out once or twice with our dear Captain Butler, but I don't think I'd marry him even for his millions.

Hugh Laurie plays the Erstwhile Bertie Wooster
to perfection in the Jeeves and Wooster series.
 Bertie Wooster, Jeeves and Wooster (Books and TV series)

Bertie is kind of like a puppy dog that's always doing silly and adorable things, but he does lead a life of wealth and charm in the Art Deco elegance of the '20s and '30s, which has an undeniable attraction for me. I would love to go out to jazz clubs and the West End shows with Bertie or listening to him play Irving Berlin on the piano any time. 

Perhaps one of the reasons I love Bertie is that he always knows when he's getting himself into a scrape, but he does it anyway because the Code of the Woosters will not let him desert a friend in need. In addition in the books he has beguilingly casual way of narrating that make it seem like a prolonged story told anecdotally by your best friend, and compels you to try to read it all in one sitting because you flow through it all so easily.

Bertie is not a complete dolt, either, since he won a scripture knowledge prize at Eton, and he's always making quotes, though he doesn't always get them right. Compared to some of his friends like Barmy and Bingo, moreover, Bertie looks like quite a wit.

Hugh Laurie portrays Bertie to perfection in the Jeeves and Wooster series co-starring Stephen Fry as the inimitable Jeeves. Laurie captures Bertie's joy, his reluctant sense of duty that causes him to enter willingly into misery, and his comprehension of just how fishy things are when he's being put upon. 

Like my last entry, I'd love to have Bertie for a casual boyfriend, but I don't think I'd marry him unless it was to save him from Honoria Glossip, Madeline Basset, and Lady Florence Craye. Besides, Jeeves would probably find me unsuitable.

Angus "Mac" MacGuyver (MacGuyver TV Series)

Richard Dean Anderson portrays MacGuyver
the man who defeats the Communists using
only his wits for weapons. If only he'd lose the mullet...
MacGuyver would probably be higher on my list, but there's a lot of other guys I like out there, and I already have another character portrayed by Richard Dean Anderson higher on the list, so I'm content with keeping Mac as an honorable mention. Plus he gets negative points for the mullet. Sex appeal is a factor, after all.

Why is MacGuyver still so appealing, though? Well, he gets points for battling the communists, and even more points for doing it without using guns. Instead Mac relies on his uncanny ability to use his wits, surroundings, and the things in his pockets to stymie his enemies. He's so amazing that his name has become a verb, meaning to jerry-rig something.

So yes, brains and daring are both good, but MacGuyver gets extra points for being immaculately good. He never refuses helping someone in trouble, especially kids and women. He also gets points for still wanting to fight and stop the bad guys even if he doesn't believe in killing. There is already a real knight on this list, but Mac is probably the closest thing you can get to one in the modern era.

The List:

10. Ralph Touchett, The Portrait of a Lady, (Book only) 

Sadly the silver screen has yet to be graced by a really good Ralph. Although there was a rubbish version of the book that came out in the '90s, that Ralph had no sense of humor, and therefore no charm for the audience. The laconic cousin of heroine Isabel Archer is supposed to watch the world with the detached amusement of a man who knows he's dying of consumption, detached, that is until his heart inadvertently gets involved.

His hopeless love for Isabel causes his father to change his will to make Isobel financially independent, but this, unfortunately makes her the victim of a fortune hunter who abuses Isobel terribly after her marriage. Ralph would have gone to his grave loving her in silence had she not forced him to admit his reason for trying to interfere with her then-intended marriage. Of course Isobel only figures out her true feelings about Ralph when he's on his deathbed, and thankfully the story ends with the most compelling character dead.

I think my favorite passages of the book are when Ralph is arguing with Isobel's suffragette friend Henrietta Stackpole. It's not that Ralph doesn't respect her, but he just can't resist playing the devil's advocate with her, much to everyone's amusement. They eventually, however, become friends when Henrietta realizes that Ralph is just kidding around. Ralph and all the rest of the list I'd definitely marry if one of them asked me.

9. Han Solo, original Star Wars trilogy, especially The Empire Strikes Back.

Han Solo arguing with with the Princess, as he does through
most of The Empire Strikes Back.
Han was probably my first screen crush as a kid when I saw him in wooing Princess Leia in The Empire Strikes Back at the age of 9. Handsome Harrison Ford plays a lovable scoundrel plagued with bad luck as his rickety old space freighter keeps breaking down while half the imperial fleet is in pursuit.

As charming as he can be when dueling wits with the princess, when he really wins our hearts is when he faces what probably will be his death with such nobility. First he asks his best friend Chewbacca to take care of Leia for him, then even as the stormtroopers drag him away, his gaze remains on his lady love until the last moment when he descends into the freezing chamber. The expression of agony imprinted on his face as the haul him back up again remains imprinted on our hearts forever.

Heartthrob Errol Flynn plays Robin Hood better than anyone
else when he starred in 1938's The Adventures of Robin Hood.
7. Robin Hood (1938 film)

Noble, fun-loving, and handsome, the Errol Flynn version of presents what is perhaps the sexiest version of Robin Hood ever. We really believe his romance with Maid Marion, appreciating the gentle way in which he shows her that her views on the tax problem are in error instead of lording it over her like a jerk.

Other than that, he's Robin Hood for goodness sake, and who doesn't love Robin Hood? Steals from the rich, gives to the poor, taunts the Sheriff of Nottingham, duels with Guy of Guisborne, give hammy speeches about justice and freedom; what's not to like?

7. Col. (later Gen.) Jack O'Neill, USAF (Stargate SG1 only)

Always snarky, always entertaining, Jack
O'Neil made Stargate SG1 a great show that's
spawned a bevy of second-rate spin-offs.
I'm hoping this is a controversial call, but as much as I love MacGuyver, I still prefer the character Richard Dean Anderson portrayed ten years later, Col. Jack O'Neill. Actually Anderson himself deserves a lot of credit for making the character memorable and lovable. 

Stargate was based on a movie of the same title in which Jack was a depressed US Air Force officer driven to suicide when his son kills himself while playing with Jack's gun. When Anderson took over the character for the TV series, however, he injected wit and vivacity into this role. After all, how can you not find some irony in a man who makes a living getting in way over his head at a top secret facility in which modern day US soldiers save the earth from alien threats and conceal their existence from the world? Certainly if such a situation were real, a healthy sense of humor might be the best way to get through it without becoming a basket case. Jack became not so much a character but a projection of Anderson's own goofy sense of humor. Actually, it's a good analogy to what he did to the show: just as Jack's character could have been dark and brooding, the show could have been an angst fest, but Jack's tongue-in-cheek comments keep it light and enjoyable.

Although very smart, Jack's constantly surrounded by people much smarter than him. In fact the team he leads features two PHDs: archeologist Daniel Jackson, and astrophysicist Maj. Samantha Carter. Jack, on the other hand, besides being a combat expert from twenty years in Special Forces, is really only good a correcting people's grammar. So instead of feigning the ability understand what his colleagues are saying, he'll purposely and self-deprecatingly mangle their big words so that they have explain it to him in the simplest terms possible. When you think about it, though, that really is the smartest thing to do because then he gets the clearest understanding of the situation possible, which he needs for the leadership decisions he's constantly forced to make.

Jack is just one of the funnest characters to watch of all time. He's always making sports metaphors, taunting his enemies, cracking Star Trek and Star Wars jokes, and fishing in a pond that has no fish in it. Perhaps one of the best example is when he and SG1 are afraid they've altered the space-time continuum, he leaves his alternate self this message to see if the world is all right, "College football is played on Saturday, pro on Sunday. And there are no fish in my pond." Now that's a man who has his priorities straight! Or maybe I prefer the time when he's trapped in 1969 and give his name as "Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise." and then corrects himself, "I'll be honest with you. My name's not Kirk. It's Skywalker. Luke Skywalker."

What I really admire most about Jack, though, is that despite being hopelessly irreverent, he really is impressively noble. The best example I can think of this are two instances. The fist is his relentless refusal to overstep ethical boundaries and have a romantic relationship with Carter even though they are deeply in love with each other (Jack is her direct superior, so fraternization would be really unethical). Even when he's stuck in a Groundhog-Day-style time loop in which he knows his actions will carry no consequences on reality, he still hands in his resignation to General Hammond before he indulges in a long, passionate kiss with Carter. The other time is when he willingly sacrifices himself to a slow, painful death in order to save the earth because when it came down to a choice between him and one of the members of his team, he valued their lives more than his own.

6. Ned Henry, To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis (published 1997)

Ned was written to be an everyman character, but he's so much more than that. His gallows humor and senses of irony and absurdity form the axis around which the story moves, much in the same way that Bertie Wooster does this. Some of my favorite examples of his commentary are when he says that someone with time-lag is sentimental as "an Irishman on his cups or a Victorian poet dead sober," or when he dubs Tossie's squeals to be "screamlets" and then proceeds to use his newly-coined term for the rest of the book. These are the kind of things that make him the most amusing narrator since Bertie Wooster, and since he is much smarter than the aforementioned gentleman, so is his style of humor.

Just to prove how exceptional Ned is, the heroine of To Say Nothing of the Dog falls in love with him because she reminds him of the character who ranks #1 on this list. Certainly they do have quite a bit in common being that they are both MAs in history from the same college at Oxford with great senses of humor, but I think the rest of her admiration must be due to time-lag, which is why there are four more entries between this and my absolute favorite.

Sink me! It's the Scarlet Pimpernel portrayed by Anthony
Andrews in this 1982 classic, which doesn't quite follow the book.
5. Sir Percy Blakeney, The Scarlet Pimpernel (Book, 1934 film, 1982 film)

"Is he in heaven?" I don't know, but when I read the book or watch one of the movies, I always answer an ephatic "YES!" Although he pretends to be an idiotic fop in the light of day, the English baronet is really the mastermind behind rescuing innocent aristocrats from the guillotine in Revolutionary France. The way he makes a fool out of French agent Chauvelin over his cravat is priceless, and the many ingenious disguises he dons leave me grinning like an idiot whenever I see them. And speaking of idiots, I confess I am delighted whenever I watch Sir Percy go into his idiot act.

Percy, however, has a fatal flaw: his love for his wife which causes him to fly into an irrational anger and feud with her for months by snubbing her and concealing everything under his idiot demeanor. What bothers me most is that he condemns her character without letting her explain or trusting in her innocence as she asks him to. If his faith in his wife can be shaken so easily it seems to me that his love for her is either shallow or based on the wrong qualities. Of course she is exonerated in the end, and he learns his lesson, saving her in a way that is so clever in the book (and has sadly never been reproduced accurately in a film) that I seem to forgive him every time--well, almost forgive him, anyway.

Both Anthony Andrews and Leslie Howard play Sir Percy exceptionally well, and so I recommend both the 1930s and 1980s versions of the film even though I like the Anthony Andrews version slightly better because of two good performances by Jane Seymour as Marguerite and Ian McKellen as Chauvelin.

4. Indiana Jones (Raiders and Last Crusade only) 

I'm certainly not the first or only woman in the world to fancy Indiana Jones. Who wouldn't want a man who was a professor by day and a an action hero by night?

As I do not like either The Temple of Doom or Kingdom of the Crystal Skull--just the titles makes me want to retch--I do not include them here. I seem to have a thing for fictional gents that lived in the '30s: Bertie, Indy, and the #1 on my list coming up. Maybe it's the fedoras. Harrison Ford looks undeniably dashing in that hat...

No, I think it's more than that. Indy has an undeniable zeal for the truth and to see treasures of art and history able to be studied and enjoyed by the people. He befriends the natives of the areas he visits, and deeply respects their cultures; he is chivalrous towards women and ruthless towards his enemies, especially when he's up against the Nazis.

When teamed up with his dad in Last Crusade, Indy's snarky sense of humor comes out for the first time to thunderous applause. That movie is particularly endearing because it shows us that Indy can be just as engaging when he is skating by on his wits, dodging the Nazis that way as he can be when he's beating them up. If I have one complaint against Indy it's that he didn't marry Marion when he had the chance. She was the only woman who was ever really a match for him, even if she did suffer from damsel-in-distress syndrome. 

3. Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe, Ivanhoe (Book only)

As far as knights in shining armor go, they don't get any shiner than Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe. Sir Walter Scott is famed for pioneering the historical fiction genre, and Ivanhoe was perhaps his boldest foray into the past. In this tale of Anglo-Norman feuding, Wilfred is a good Saxon boy who years ago decided to follow England's Norman king, Richard the Lion-Hearted, on the Third Crusade, against the will of his father.

Years later the disinherited knight returns to England to find his father and his lady love Rowena being harassed by their Norman neighbors, mostly vying for the hand of the said Rowena. He wins our respect instantly by befriending a vulnerable Jewish family in the face of overbearing antisemitism. He not only honors the beautiful Rebecca at a jousting tournament but he also saves her from an ecclesiastical court that wants to burn her for witchcraft. To do this he must fight to the death against the fearsome Brian du Bois-Guilbert and do so while while severely injured.

If you're looking for a man with bravery, morality, and compassion, you can't do better than Sir Wilfred, in my opinion. As for his marriageability, I don't think you could find a man in either fiction or reality that would make as ardent or as sincere of a lover. My only problem is that his sense of humor is still untested, and my strong sense of absurdity needs a man who can complement. that.

Famous Austenian wit Henry Tilney jokes with Catherine
Moorland about the terrors that await as his family's
Gothic abode, Northanger Abbey
2. Henry Tilney, Northanger Abbey (Book especially, but 2007 movie version as well).

I've been madly and hopelessly in love with Henry Tilney since I first read Northanger Abbey when I was 14. Many Austen fans love such heroes as Mr. Darcy, Captain Wentworth, and Mr. Knightley, but none of these men can hold a candle to the wit, mirth, charm, and wisdom of Henry Tilney, younger son of General Tilney of Northanger Abbey.

Mr. Tilney catches our eye for the beginning with his taste for satire and love of books. "The person," he tells our heroine Catherine Moorland, "be it man or woman who has not pleasure in a good novel must be profoundly stupid," and thus he permanently endears himself both to her and us. His conversation about literature and life with Catherine and his sister Eleanor as they go on their walk is probably one of the best passages Austen ever wrote.

My only point against Henry Tilney is that he marries Catherine who is so obviously his intellectual inferior. As Dorothy Sayers points out, men of genius are often applauded for marrying inferior women, but women of genius do not have that luxury. Even Austen herself had to admit in the final chapter that her charming Henry was stooping a little in marrying her heroine. The 2007 version by the BBC captured the essence of the character while cutting most of his best dialog in a most inexcusable way. My approbation therefore, is only partial.

1. Lord Peter Wimsey, The Lord Peter Mysteries (Books only)

Image of Lord Peter, based on Edward Petherbridge, the actor
who portrayed him in the 1987 TV series.
As yet there has been no really spot-on film portrayal of the most attractive man in all of fiction. His author Dorothy L. Sayers once described him as a combination of Fred Astaire and Bertie Wooster (and ironically he has a butler whom he often scolds for pretending to be Jeeves), but while that description covers his charm and humor, it short-changes his intelligence.

An MA in history from Balliol College, Oxford University, Lord Peter worked both in combat and in the Intelligence Service during the Great War, surviving that conflict with severe post-traumatic stress syndrome after being badly injured by artillery fire This mental affliction still troubles him occasionally in the books, especially the early ones, and he compensates for it by putting on an air of frivolity and wit, sometimes at inappropriate moments. 

Upon returning to civilian life, Lord Peter takes up sleuthing as a way to occupy his substantial brain when he is not working as a diplomat--he is fluent in French and Latin, breaking into quotations whenever he feels so inclined--or indulging his love for music (especially Bach). Like most men, he also loves fast cars--he named his roadster Mrs. Merdle after the Dickens character. How geeky/cool is that!--good food and wine, and the company of the opposite sex.

Lord Peter is my ultimate idea of what I'd like in a man. On the surface he's a charming gentleman who will kiss your hand and fill your ear with witty banter over dinner and then gracefully dancing your feet off, but he's also a deep thinker and feeler with a strong sense of morality and duty. I think my two favorite quotes of his that sum up why I like him are: "I always have a quotation for everything. It saves original thinking," and "The only real sin passion can commit is to be joyless."

As charming as Lord Peter is normally, his charm quintuples whenever he is in the presence of his great flame Harriet Vane. First of all it raises my opinion of his character that he's the only one who does not unfairly condemn Harriet when she's on trial for murder just because she used to live with the victim outside of wedlock. While the rest of the people looked on her refusal to marry her lover when he asked her as proof of her moral depravity and anti-social tendencies, Wimsey sees that she decided to leave her boyfriend because he was manipulating her, and Wimsey applauds her decision. It's also incredibly endearing to see the normally suave Wimsey fumbling and awkward whenever he encounters his true love; it makes the great man human. All of Peter's faults, in fact, come out in his courtship with Harriet. His vanity injured by her repeated spurning of the offer of his heart, he retreats behind his veneer of frivolous wit and jocularity, turning his romantic overtures into a joke at his own expense. Concealed behind this mask, Peter takes six painful years and a trip to the purifying air of Oxford before he allows Harriet, who values honesty above everything, to see the real Lord Peter Wimsey and fall in love with him.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Film Review: I Was a Male War Bride (1949)

Ann Sheridan must dress her husband (Cary Grant) as
a woman in order to get him to America.
Haven't you always wanted to see the handsomest man in the world dress in drag? You haven't? Well, too bad! Because if you watch this movie, you're going to see it anyway. Famed director Howard Hawks takes on this post-war comedy based on a true story and staring Cary Grant and Ann Sheridan. The title pretty much tells the plot of the film: I Was a Male War Bride

French Captain Henri Rochard (Cary Grant) and U.S. Lieutenant Catherine Gates (Ann Sheridan) have worked on a number of missions together recovering art treasures stolen by the Nazis from the Louvre and undermining underground efforts. Ironically, though, they cannot stand each other, but in the usual manner of romantic comedies, they end up falling in love after some madcap capers. Unfortunately, for members of the U.S. Army the course of true love doesn't often run smooth when they want to marry foreigners. For the next hour we are treated to a biting portrait of military bureaucracy at its finest, first with trying to arrange a wedding, and then when Catherine's unit is ordered back to America, with trying to get Henri a visa. The only they can get him into the country is through a loophole in the War Bride Act, which says it applies to "alien spouses" but doesn't specify gender.

Of course the bureaucracy can't seem to wrap their minds around the fact that the alien spouse in question is a man, and it holds them up at every step of the process. Finally the sailors on the boat to America refuse to believe the story, so Henri must dress up as a woman to get on board--with hilarious results.

Cary Grant really carries this film more than anything else. His character has a snarky sense of humor and a temper that can't put up with all the absurdities to which he is subjected. Enough has been said about Grant's considerable comedic talents. I'll only add that he never fails to disappoint, and that his extreme good looks only augment the humor of the awkward situations in which he finds himself.

I give this movie a 7.5, a thoroughly enjoyable comedy.

Buy it now:
I Was a Male War Bride

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Film Review: Dial M for Murder

A midnight phone call to Grace Kelly is the signal for murder
in this classic Hitchcock thriller.
Hitchcock in 3D! It sounds like a cheap gimmick in order to draw the crowds, and it was. But even top-name directors like Hitch were having problems getting people to go to the movies when they could stay home and watch their new-fangled television sets and get quality entertainment (Hitch himself would later give in to the phenomenon and launch the memorable Alfred Hitchcock Presents.). It's a well-documented part of film history that Hollywood almost went bankrupt in the '50s with the advent of television, and in order to compensate, they had to start offering something in their films that people couldn't see on television. Color film was one of the first changes, but when the 3D craze hit, it gave the movie industry an unexpected boost, and suddenly studios were clamoring to make as many 3D movies as possible. Most of them have no redeeming value, having been filmed only for their visual effects, but there were some good movies made during that period in 3D, ones which are intrinsically good regardless of how many dimensions in which they're seen.

Hitchcock based most of his work off plays, novels, or short stories, and this gem from 1955 is no exception.
Almost all the action in Dial M for Murder takes place in a single set, the apartment of a supposedly happily married couple in Mayfair, London. It's soon revealed, however, that not so long ago the wife (Grace Kelly) was seriously contemplating leaving her husband (Ray Milland) because she was in love with someone else (Robert Cummings). When we meet her husband, we suddenly understand why she would want to leave him, especially when it comes out that he is plotting to murder her for her money. He thinks up the perfect scheme for murder, but you know what the poet Burns said about the "best laid plans of mice and men"...

The man he hires to do the dirty work ends up getting killed himself in the scuffle with the wife. Seemingly never at a loss, the husband then tries to frame her for the hit-man's murder--and does an excellent job. She's a day before the scheduled execution when the detective starts to have second thoughts.

Although the acting is excellent, this movie is really carried by the plot. Ray Milland's character devises such an airtight plot to kill his wife that it holds the audience spellbound as they watch it unfold. Then they naturally watch to see if she can avoid the unjust execution. The Master of Suspense is at the top of his game in this oft-overlooked film.

I rate this movie an 8 out of 10. A solid Hitchcock hit.

Buy it now:
Dial M for Murder

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Film Review: Laura (1944)

Detective Dana Andrews cannot take his eyes off a murdered
woman's portrait in the film noir classic Laura.
If there was one genre that peaked during the '40s it would be film noir, mostly because of Humphrey Bogart's breakthrough presence. All Bogy's great film noir titles came in those ten years, iconic movies like The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Key Largo, and To Have and Have Not. Despite Bogie's dominance, however, there were plenty of other memorable film noir made in the '40s, my favorite of which is Laura.

When successful advertiser Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) is shot dead in her apartment just a few days before her intended wedding, at first Detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) is at a loss to understand why anyone would want to see her killed. The more he investigates, however, the clearer it becomes to him that almost everyone she knew might have a motive for murder.

In the first half of the movie we meet all the suspects and get and eloquent synopsis of her life out of the mouth of her friend Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb). McPherson himself becomes so taken with everything he hears about Laura's character as well as the hauntingly lovely portrait of her that hangs on the wall that he begins to fall in love with the dead woman himself. Just as the threads of the story have worked themselves into an impossible knot, we are treated to a memorable plot twist: Laura herself walks through the door, blissfully unaware that she was presumed murdered. But who was killed that night in her apartment, then? And why was she found in Laura's apartment wearing Laura's clothes? (Is that a good lead-in or what?)

Although Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews put on great performances as the lead characters, Clifton Webb undoubtedly steals the show as Laura's journalist friend who remains obsessed with her even after she appears dead. Webb's performance is deliciously venomous and at times heartbreakingly passionate, making the audience vacillate between loathing, admiration and pity throughout the picture. Interestingly enough, a young Vincent Price plays Laura's ne'er-do-'ell fiancĂ©e Shelby, and Judith Anderson (famed for her incredibly creepy performance as Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca) portray's Laura's aunt who is in love with Shelby.

This movie survives remarkably well to the present day. Except perhaps for the final scene, which may strike modern sensibilities as overly dramatic, the entire production seems tastefully done and not terribly dated in the acting and filming style, which is extremely rare to find.

Laura rates a solid 9 of 10 in my book, easily the best non-Bogart film noir ever made

Buy on DVD:
Laura (Fox Film Noir)The Maltese Falcon (Three-Disc Special Edition)The Big Sleep,To Have and Have Not (Keepcase)Key Largo (Keepcase)

Friday, August 13, 2010

Film Review: The Band Wagon (1953)

Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse, Dancing in the Dark from
The Band Wagon, their first of two films together.
MGM had a successful string of musical films in the '50s with a slightly different formula than what they used in the past. Most movie musicals until that point were either screen adaptations of stages shows or original ideas with new tunes written just for them (see most of the Astaire and Rogers musicals). Occasionally you would get a tribute movie where the best works of a certain composer would be worked into the plot of a musical, often fictional biopics about the composer, but these were few and far between.

Beginning in 1950, however, MGM started a string of tribute musicals to great critical and popular acclaim. The first of these was Three Little Words with Fred Astaire and Red Skelton. It was a fun little biopic about composers Burt Kelmar and Harry Ruby, a fun little movie, and financially successful, but not terribly memorable. The next year someone at MGM had the bright idea to do a musical tribute to Gershwin, and thus An American in Paris was born, and would go on to win the Oscar for Best Picture in 1951, mostly for the brilliance of the ballet sequence and the fact that everybody loves Gershwin because apart from those two things, I don't think it was a very good picture. Spurred by the unprecedented success, the next year MGM did a musical tribute to Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown set in the Roaring '20s. That film, of course, was the greatest movie musical of all time, Singin' in the Rain.

So this begs the question: once you make Singin' in the Rain, what can you do for an encore? The answer is 1953's The Band Wagon. While not as iconic as its predecessor, The Band Wagon is still a top-notch musical with a stellar cast, a wonderful score, and a clever plot. In fact, to use a baseball metaphor, if those four movies were MGM hitting for the cycle, Three Little Words would be the single, An American in Paris would be the double, Singin' in the Rain would obviously be the home run, and The Band Wagon would be a solid triple, one of those balls that bounces off the outfield wall and rolls into a corner so that it takes the fielder forever to chase it down, and if the 3rd base coach had just waved his hand at the right time, it could have been an in-the-park home run.

The unspoken theme of this movie is art imitating life. Fred Astaire plays a fictional version of himself, a middle-aged Hollywood dancer whose best years are behind him, Cyd Charisse plays a ballerina who is too tall for her dance partner, just as Cyd was too tall for Fred in real life, Jack Buchanan plays a thinly veiled parody of Jose Ferrer, and Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant are knock-offs of the writing team of Betty Comden and Adolf Green, who did the screenplay for this movie as well as Singin' in the Rain.

The story starts off as a typical let's-do-a-Broadway-show plot, but things go horribly and hilariously wrong when the pretentious director (Jack Buchanan) decides to turn their unassuming little musical comedy into a modern version of Faust. In the end they conclude that it's better to do something simple and do it well than to fail at trying to be deep, which is something films in the '50s seemed to forget.

Some of the great musical numbers in this show include "That's Entertainment", "Shine on Your Shoes", "Dancing in the Dark", "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan", and "By Myself". They also throw in a musical sequence called "Girl Hunt," with a voice-over by Fred Astaire who narrates a parody of a film-noir detective story while he and Cyd Charisse dance it out. That scene along with the beautiful and quietly sensual "Dancing in the Dark" number are my favorite examples of Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse dancing together. Fred's "Shine on Your Shoes" number is also extremely fun and memorable, as his horrible luck makes a complete 180 just by stopping to have his shoes shined.

I give this movie an 8.7 out of 10, easily the 2nd best musical of the decade behind Singin' in the Rain.

Buy on DVD:
The Band Wagon (Two-Disc Special Edition)Three Little WordsSingin' in the Rain (Two-Disc Special Edition)An American in Paris (Two-Disc Special Edition)

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Film Review: Charade (1963)

Even strolling by the Seine with Cary Grant,
Audrey Hepburn cannot shake her fears of murder in Charade

The first time I saw this film, I was shocked to learn that it wasn't a Hitchcock; that's how good it is. Of course it was an easy mistake to make. When watching a slick, witty suspense film starring Cary Grant, of course one would think Hitchcock since Hitch used Grant in four of his masterful films: Suspicion (1941), Notorious (1946),  To Catch a Thief (1955), and North by Northwest (1959). This 1963 gem, however, was directed by long-time MGM musical and comedy director Stanley Donen, who made such classic films as Royal Wedding (1950), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), and Singin' in the Rain (1952), which he co-directed with Gene Kelly. So although Donen was highly credentialed, taking on a project like Charade which is charged with action and suspense was highly unusual and risky to say the least. The result, however, was a thoroughly entertaining film.

Without giving away too much of the plot, since half the fun of this movie is the curve balls it throws you, the action starts when American ex-patriot Regina Lampert (Audrey Hepburn) returns home to her Paris flat to find that her husband has been murdered while attempting to flee the country with $250,000. Regina is at a loss to explain her husband's actions until a visit to the American embassy informs her that her husband was actually a former CIA agent who absconded with that money during the war. Now her husband's co-conspirators are threatening her life unless she can somehow figure out where her husband hid the cash, and the CIA wants it back too. Helping her along the way is a dashing fellow American (Cary Grant) whom she met in the Swiss Alps, but his evasive answers and outright lies make Regina reluctant to trust him despite her obvious attraction to him.Walter Matthau and James Coburn co-star as a CIA chief and one of the conspirators out for blood or money, respectively.

What keeps this movie from being too much as the bodies pile up, each murder more gruesome than the last, is the wonderful comedic talents of Cary Grant. A combination of witty dialog and Grant's stellar physical comedy abilities break up the tension and give both the audience and Audrey Hepburn's character new reasons to fall in love with the most attractive actor ever to grace the silver screen (Grant was 59 when he made this film, but still surprisingly handsome.) My favorite part has to be when he decides to take a shower with his clothes on.

This is also my favorite screen role for Audrey Hepburn, and certainly one of her most versatile. The way she alternately chases Cary Grant shamelessly and then repulses him always makes me laugh, and she runs the gamut of emotions perfectly from despondent to frightened to childishly glib. I honestly was never a Hepburn fan until I saw this film because I objected to her anorexic physique on the grounds that I've felt the repercussions of the media's obsession for thinness in women all too personally. I liked a lot of her other films, but I never thought her performance exceptional or memorable until this one (I don't count My Fair Lady because as good as she was in that film, I can't get over the fact that she didn't do her own singing, especially when Julie Andrews originated the role in the West End and Broadway. Epic fail, Hollywood. Epic fail.).

Despite my outright adoration for this film there are two things in it that I don't like. First I can't stand the scene at the nightclub in which participants must pass an orange to each other without the use of their hands. It was another scene designed to utilize Cary Grant's physical comedy skills, but it's awkward to watch and just too drawn-out. It eats up a good five minutes of an already long movie without adding anything to the plot. The second problem I have with it is that the deaths are too gory. Hitchcock understood that with suspense films less can be more, that not showing a murder can imprint it all the more deeply into an audience's consciousness, but Stanley Donen obviously didn't get this concept, showing us a graphic drowning victim, a slit throat victim, and a person who had been smothered. I'll admit to being a little bit of a wimp when it comes to violence, but it's especially jarring in such an old movie.

One last thing to note: Audrey Hepburn's last line of the film is one of my favorites ever.

I give this movie an 8.5 out of 10, one that can be watched almost ad infinum with pleasure.

Buy on DVD: