Thursday, September 30, 2010

Astaire and Rogers Series: Follow the Fleet (1936)

Fred Astaire plays a sailor who re-unites with his former girlfriend
and dance partner (Ginger Rogers) while on leave in San Francisco
For this film, the Producers at RKO tried to give Astaire and Rogers a slightly different look. In their three starring roles together, Fred and Ginger had been placed in decidedly upper-class roles, dancing together in tux and evening gown, respectively. As the decade progress and the depression continued, however, the studio decided that their dancing stars would be more relatable to audiences if they portrayed more blue-collar characters. The result was one of their best films together: Follow the Fleet.

As usual, there are a lot of reasons why this film works. Like its direct predecessor, Top Hat, it features a spectacular score by Irving Berlin, including "Let's Face the Music and Dance," "I'm Putting All My Eggs in One Basket," and "Let Yourself Go." As usual we also get a great supporting cast, including Randolph Scott, Lucile Ball, and Harriet Hilliard Nelson. This is also the only film in which Ginger gets a solo dance--whereas Fred almost always does--so it's notable in that regard as well.

The plot is fairly standard but well executed for what it's worth. Fred plays "Bake" Baker, a sailor who tried to re-unite with his former girlfriend Sherry and dancing partner (Ginger Rogers) while on a brief shore leave in San Francisco. Sherry has been having problems with her career since Bake joined the navy because no one wants to hire a female solo dancer--except as a stripteaser, which is completely out of the question for Sherry. Bake tries to help her out with his theater contacts, but his shore leave expires before he can get a hold of any of them or even explain to Sherry what happened. At the same time Bake's best friend "Bilge" Smith falls for Sherry's sister Connie (Harriet Hilliard) but gets scared off when she starts talking about marriage. So will the couples be able to overcome these misunderstandings? Seeing as this is a musical comedy, the answer is obvious, but the film is endearing enough to warrant watching.

Fred and Ginger as usual get three dances together, and they're to the three best tunes in the film, which I mentioned above. "Let Yourself Go" and" "I'm Putting All My Eggs in One Basket" are both fun numbers, with Ginger showing her comedic chops especially in the latter. The former is more a display of technical skill as the couple try to win a dance contest at the night club where Ginger works. Fred also gets to show off his incredible musical prowess by playing the piano in the intro to "I'm Putting All My Eggs in One Basket," much to my delight.

As good as the musical number with Fred and Ginger are, where this film really suffers is with the songs they give to Harriet Hilliard. It seems as if they're trying to revert to the formula used in Roberta with Irene Dunne where she co-starred as a stunning vocal counterpoint to Fred and Ginger's supurb dancing, but this time it doesn't work. Whereas Dunne had an incredible voice and memorable songs to sing, not only Harriet Hilliard's singing material forgettable in this film, but her voice also isn't anything exceptional, making her scenes seem to drag on too long.

So while this musical has great dancing, some good songs, and a cute and different plot for an Astaire/Rogers film, it still cannot be considered the apex of their stint together because of the drag caused by Harriet Hilliard's musical numbers. For the film that I think superlative of their oeuvre, be sure to check out my next review Swing Time.

As for this film, I give it 7.8 out of ten, which means it's still well worth seeing.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Book Review: Have His Carcase

**This is an except of a review I posted for Worthy of Note. For the full article please follow the link**

Welcome to part two of four in my Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane series. When we last left the most attractive man in fiction, he had just saved the woman he loved from the gallows, but got no closer to winning her affections. After writing a few other Lord Peter books which did not feature Harriet, author Dorothy Sayers picks up her story again with the novel Have His Carcase (That last word is the British spelling of the word "carcass").

Two years after she was exonerated of the charge of murder, Harriet Vane is still trying to create a normal life for herself. The publicity from her murder trial has made her sales skyrocket, but her personal life remains unsettled. Lord Peter Wimsey continues his attentions to her, but Harriet still cannot decide what to do about him. She will not accept his proposals, but at the same time she does not have the willpower to send him away altogether.

In order to dodge her noble suitor, Harriet decides to go on a walking tour of England. This goes well until  one day she comes across a body with its throat cut lying on a remote beach. Since the tide is coming in quickly, and Harriet knows it will probably be impossible to get the police to the scene before it gets covered in water, she takes pictures of grisly deed, then runs for help.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Top Ten Romantically Flawed Heroines

*This article is written by Thunder Fist, who gets his name from C.S. Lewis' The Horse and His Boy both in reality and on the web. If that's not enough of a recommendation, I will further mention that he also has the best taste of any man I know**

Although the Supreme Arbitress of Taste asked me to do another Top Ten Romantic Ladies article, simply for the novelty of another point of view alongside Alex Binz’s excellent article, I have come up with another list: the top ten appealing ladies who, for one reason or another, are more romantically flawed than ideally romantic.

Mary Crawford captivates Edmund
with her harp playing (illustration by
C.E. Brock, the best Austen illustrator 
Number Ten is Mary Crawford from Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park

She is the lowest on the list because, though her appeal is genuine, it is wholly superficial. I can’t help but be attracted to her humor, her wit, the way she picks apart Edmund and even Fanny at times. I admit, part of her appeal comes from my distaste for the humorless hero and heroine of the novel, who are certainly her moral superiors but whose company I find hard to bear. I think it was Anthony Burgess who wrote that Edmund and Fanny are admirable, but not the kind of company one wants to have for dinner. The opposite of this is where I stand with Mary Crawford: I wouldn’t want to pursue a romantic relationship with her, but I would probably enjoy her conversation at a party—and I would probably have to stop myself from falling in love with her, too. It wouldn’t be hard: once I delved into her deeper nature (of which there doesn’t seem to be much), love would be dead.

Number Nine is Lara from Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

She is also low on the list for being deeply and morally flawed. Namely, she has a long love affair with the married Zhivago (she is also married herself). The film is set in the period of revolutionary Russia. Lara is a beautiful, intelligent and spiritual woman; Zhivago is understandably entranced with her when they are thrown together during the worst days of the revolution and subsequent civil war. In a book (and film) that manages to avoid cliché romanticism, she does indeed become the center of Zhivago’s poetry and the real heart and soul of the story. Though she is unarguably an adulteress, she expresses regret over what she knows is a damaging situation, and is both respectful and deferential to Zhivago’s wife, even naming her second child after her. Her own husband left her long before her affair with Zhivago commenced, and the affair, after being broken off willingly on both sides, only recommences when Zhivago returns after being missing a year during the civil war, only to find his wife and family have fled the country. While this doesn’t excuse their infidelity, their illicit relationship becomes an allegory of what intimacy means in the horrors of Russia’s new society. In Communist Russia personal relationships matter so little that they are always threatened and must be preserved. Lara dies “a nameless number on a list that was afterwards mislaid,” but her essence is salvaged in Zhivago’s words.

Olivia De Havilland captures both the
strength and innocence of Melanie Wilkes
in the 1939 classic adaptation
Number Eight is Melanie Wilkes from Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind

Often underrated and patronized, Melanie is a humble, loving, and gentle woman. True, she does not have the flashing eyes and sparkling strength of Scarlett, but then, when I think of Scarlett I think of the ultimate high maintenance woman. Melanie, by contrast, is the ultimate low-maintenance woman. She has a strength comparable to Scarlett’s without selfishness: after all, in the film she drags a sword down the stairs with her when she hears the Yankee enter the house. In the book she helps Scarlett beat out a housefire and rescues Scarlett after she goes unconscious. People may argue that she is stupid in ignoring Scarlett’s passion for her husband, but Melanie is actually quite intelligent. There is nothing to indicate she doesn’t know; there’s also nothing to indicate that she thinks there is anything of substance behind it. Ashley obviously loves Melanie and does not really love Scarlett, and nobody would know that better than Melanie herself. Her actions speak of a woman who is willing to sacrifice her pride and even her security for those she loves. This leaves her at something of a disadvantage: indeed she spends a great deal of time cleaning up other people’s messes. Melanie and Scarlett are both strong women, but Scarlett’s tendency is towards avarice where Melanie’s is towards altruism. Melanie is on this list not because she is deeply flawed but because one of her strengths is to be of greatest use outside of the spotlight.

Number Seven is Natasha Rostova from Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace

A Russian aristocrat born into a happy Moscow family during the years of Napoleon, she is an enchanting but very flawed young woman. High-spirited and humorous, she nonetheless has a mind capable of great seriousness and depth. She grows up spoiled by her complacent parents, yearning for a person or cause to spend all the passion of her nature on. At one moment she is enjoying the beauty of a hunt, dancing a spectacular Russian peasant dance in a lodge, and adoring the stars on a night-time sleigh ride; but then, only a few pages later, she is under the spell of decadent high society and throwing herself into the arms of a cad. Natasha is an example of a girl with a great deal of promise and no real guidance. She suffers a great deal, losing her fiancé, watching her family slide into ruin, and with each of these challenges she rises to the occasion, nursing wounded soldiers and turning to her faith for sustenance through her struggles. The only reason Natasha is low on the list is because, after she has undergone all these trials, she loses a bit of the old sparkle that made her so lovable in the first place. Tolstoy was radically conservative about women and marriage, and after Natasha is married to the novel’s hero, she becomes a paragon of motherhood and wifeliness in which her old charm is needlessly lost.

Number Six is Viola from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night

The gender-reversal in the play not only highlights Viola’s dynamic play-acting abilities, but also allows her to give vent to her thoughts and feelings in unusual ways. She speaks very eloquently of love both as a “man” and as a woman; Count Orsino’s confidences blend with Viola’s in a way that complements her own views. It is not so much an issue of masculine/feminine as a comparison between a person who simply wants his appetites met and another person, far less spoiled, who knows it is a very rare thing to be loved for who “he”/she is. The beauty of Viola’s language is entrancing, and makes me wish a woman of her stamp would woo me in a backwards courtship, simply so I can enjoy her eloquence. Viola never really loses her femininity: she simply has a fully developed personality with both masculine and feminine traits, and can understand both sexes remarkably well while remaining very much herself. The only negative thing about her is her choice of men: for all her sensitivity and understanding, she chooses a jerk like Count Orsino. I hope she has a good, strong temper. She’ll need it.

Jane Seymour with Anthony Andrews
as Sir Percy and Marguerite Blakney
in the wildly popular 1982 movie.
Number Five is Marguerite Blakeney from The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy.

Originally, Marguerite was on my Top Romantic Ladies list. Actually, she still is, but after discussing her with the Supreme Arbitress of Taste, she enjoys the honor of being on both of them. Marguerite is basically most men’s dream woman: beautiful, intelligent, sensitive and loyal. The only question is: why was she ever with Chauvelin, the rather sinister, unattractive, and controlling agent of Robespierre? Let’s chalk it up to youth and inexperience. Even back in the days when their revolutionary ideals matched, Chauvelin probably couldn’t tie a proper cravat. Marguerite is perceptive enough to know that the dashing and comic Sir Percy has far more depth and nobility to him than his frippery implies. She shows exquisite taste by choosing him over Chauvelin (whatever were you thinking, m’dear?) and throwing over her revolutionary principles (Egad!, but the Revolution at that point was a humorless bore). Marguerite is naturally a woman of refinement and principles. The Supreme Arbitress’ trouble with Marguerite is her dedication to her husband after Percy, without even speaking to her on the subject, ostracizes her for her supposed denunciation of an aristocratic family. Marguerite loves her husband and doesn’t quite know what’s wrong, and when the misunderstanding with Percy eventually lands her in a great deal of trouble, she behaves with bravery and ingenuity. She is flawed, of course: Chauvelin manipulates her into being his accomplice, but then it all stems from her love for her brother and husband. If Marguerite is flawed, it is simply that she loves the men in her life too much.

Number Four is Roxane from Cyrano de Bergerac

A “précieuse,” Roxane is one of the few highly educated, cultured and literate women of seventeenth-century Paris. A striking beauty, she is solicited by important men to be either a wife or a mistress, but her ideals and high standards keep her out of their hands, searching for a man who can fulfill her extremely high-blown notions of love. Her only real equal is Cyrano, the one man in Paris whose great words match his great heart. Roxane, however, does not fall in love with him but with Christian, the handsome military man whose desires are more carnal than poetic. Cyrano, despairing over the ugliness of his abnormally large nose, offers to help Christian win Roxane (convinced he can never win her himself), and begins the long task of a masked courtship. Roxane’s main flaw is her obsession with Christian’s looks. She easily believes in his made-up eloquence because it suits her predetermined notions of amour. But the orphaned Roxane is young and has grown up in a complicated world without any real parenting. Throughout the play she begins to mature, rejecting Christian when he simply tries to seduce her physically, and she begins to show unconscious affection for Cyrano: her search, after all, is for real love, and Cyrano’s words are charged with it. She is finally won, only to realize much later that it was Cyrano himself, and not Christian, whose love had truly moved her beyond words. Edmond Rostand, author of this incomparable Romantic play, knew better than to make Roxane a paragon of virtue and purity. Cyrano would not love such a whitewashed woman: only the deeply human and truly poetic Roxane.

Ophelia (Kate Winslet) being told by
Hamlet (Kenneth Branagh) to "Get
thee to a nunnery!"
Number Three is Ophelia from Hamlet

My heart always breaks for her. She is a woman trapped by the pitfalls of her own personality. Her actions and words show that she truly loves Hamlet, that she knows what a noble man he is and yet what a terrible black cloud he is living under; also that she deeply loves her father despite his foolishness and his manipulation of her, and that she truly wishes to do what is right. Her deepest flaw is an inability to defend or speak for herself: unless she is upset or alone or mad, she speaks the words others put in her mouth and does what she is told to do without question. She takes Hamlet’s verbal and emotional abuse, her father’s idiotic cunning, and simply accepts them. No wonder she went mad. Throughout the play we get glimpses of the sad, tender-hearted woman she is, the real emotional center of the story and the true indicator of the malice, greed and hypocrisy of Elsinor—far more telling, in some ways, than Hamlet’s ravings. Whenever I read of Ophelia I want to rescue her, but I doubt she would want to be rescued: her grief over Hamlet and her final descent into madness after the death of her father indicate that she was hopelessly attached to them. A woman with a greater ability to be impartial would have detached herself for her own sake: but Ophelia cannot do this. She has given herself too freely and cannot take back her heart, or, in some interpretations, her virginity. She is one of the most moving of Shakespeare’s heroines, in some senses his very loveliest, but also his saddest.

Helena Bonham Carter as Helen
Schlegel in
Howard's End.
Number Two is Helen Schlegel from E.M. Forster's Howards End

I chose Helen Schlegel and Marianne Dashwood to follow and upstage Ophelia because they are two Ophelia-like characters, and, as this is a personal list, I may as well admit that it is often the tender-hearted women who touch me most deeply. Living with her well-off and well-educated family in London in 1910, Helen is seemingly a “modern girl.” She goes to lectures and discussion groups, boasts a fair degree of both traditional education and self-education, and controls her own finances. However, like Ophelia she gives very free reign to her feelings. Impulsive and romantic, she gets herself into a messy and quickly-broken-off engagement with an unsuitable man; next, she falls in love with a poor, working-class fellow whom she pities and desires to help. Idealistic and easily upset, she comes to hate her sister’s pragmatic and businesslike husband, believing him to be cold-hearted and soulless. Although her methods are overly-emotional and in some cases affronting or immoral, her heart is usually in the right place. Her flaw is an inability to control herself, which does—as her sister warns her—lead to great unhappiness. Like Ophelia, Helen is an example of a woman with too much heart and too few boundaries. Like Roxane, she is an orphan—blessed with an older sister, of course, but without strong parental guidance. Growing up with romantic ideals in the massive post-Victorian London of the early 1900s, she seems set up for misfortune as soon as she leaves her family house. True, she might have learned better self-control, but Helen’s case is really that of a young and passionate woman in a world that always fails to do justice to her powerful feelings.

Kate Winslet wins our hearts as she
perfectly captures Austen's tempestuous
Helen Schlegel leads directly to Marianne Dashwood of Austen's Sense and Sensibility, the Number One of this list. 

Marianne is very much like Ophelia and Helen. She is entirely at the mercy of her feelings, which often blunts her otherwise sound judgment. Her view of the world, though perceptive and often accurate, is always highly poetic and subjective to her mood. She is certainly not stupid or even truly naive: she falls in love with who Willoughby pretends to be, indeed perhaps who he wishes he could be with her. He truly does love her and she knows that: with her sensitivity she would not have been fooled by anything less. For instance, she sees through the Miss Steeles’ obsequiousness immediately; her only flaw is to leave Elinor to deal with them without a thought, but even this is more of an oversight than a deep selfishness. She is the only one to stand up for Elinor when Mrs. Ferrars and Fanny are being rude; she is truly hopeful that Edward will propose to Elinor despite her mixed feelings towards him, and is grieved for Elinor when his engagement is made known to her. Indeed, as Marianne’s deepest feelings are taxed she becomes less, rather than more, selfish. Like Ophelia and Helen, she cannot separate herself from the dominance of her heart; this is her flaw but also her strength. It is her love for her sister, after all, that helps her to follow Elinor’s example afterwards and to confront her own past carelessness and selfishness. Although literary controversy surrounds Marianne’s marriage to Colonel Brandon, she is at least now capable of a deep love informed by a real regard for others. Let us hope she retains her ability to feel things deeply and to see romance in life: it never ought to be stamped out but only balanced by common sense. Armed with her experiences, Marianne will have a wealth of grace, knowledge and understanding to offer.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Astaire and Rogers Series: Top Hat (1935)

Fred and Ginger dancing cheek-to-cheek to a song of that
title from the film Top Hat
Of all the Astaire/Rogers films, this one is considered the quintessential. I'm not sure if it's the best--for my money that award would go to Swing Time, which I shall be reviewing soon--but it's certainly the most-remembered of their outings together. Certainly the songs by Irving Berlin and dances are memorable, the plot charming, and the supporting cast (Edward Everett Horton, Eric Blore, Helen Broderick, and Erik Rhodes) at their finest.

I think the only major problem with this film is over-exposure, which tends to diminish the reputation of the other films. People will say, "If you've seen Top Hat, you've seen them all," which is really unfair considering all the great composers with distinctive styles that worked on these films and the fact that Fred Astaire always took great pains to make sure each of his dance routines did not resemble any of his other work. Thus it is fallacious to claim that Top Hat became old hat. Yes, it's a fabulous movie, but viewing it is no excuse to skip the rest of the Astaire/Rogers collection.

Fred Astaire plays a Broadway star who comes to London to star in a West End show. He starts out by singing the exuberant ode to bachelorhood "No Strings," which makes one think that he's just tempting fate to make him fall in love. Since in works of fiction, moereover--as Tom Stoppard so brilliantly points out in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead--there's no such thing as chance, he does fall in love with a girl immediately afterwards. The film thumbs its nose at our suspended disbelief while Fred is dancing to "No Strings" in his hotel room. Whereas in most musicals we are trained just to forget logistics like the fact that Fred's tap dancing in the middle of the night is creating a horrible racket for the other people at the hotel, this film actually shows some consequences. His downstairs neighbor Ginger Rogers comes up to complain about the noise, and Fred is instantly smitten with her. Although Ginger initially spurns his advances--a common trope in these movies--Fred wins her over by dancing with her in the song, "Isn't it a Lovely Day (to Be Caught in the Rain)?" which became a jazz standard overnight.

The rest of the plot deals with a Shakespeare-worthy case of mistaken identity, with Ginger mistaking Fred for the husband of her good friend (played by Helen Broderick), and everything everyone else saying things that unintentionally reinforcing that belief. Through it all Fred and Ginger get to dance their most famous number together--but not their best--"Cheek to Cheek." That song also features what is unquestionably the ugliest dress ever put on poor Ginger, a gaudy feathered affair that shed all over the stage and completely conceals her fabulous figure.

Another number in this movie that would be hallmark in Fred Astaire's career is "Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails." Fred Astaire had already been doing the debonair gentleman-dancer thing for the last fifteen years at that point, so a song about him getting dressed up to go dancing was considered to epitomize his on-screen/on-stage personality. Aside from that, it's also a really good tap number that includes a famous bit in which Fred's tapping simulates machine-gun fire, and he proceeds to mow down the chorus line behind him with his feet.

Really, though, as far as Astaire/Rogers films go, this one has no weak points--no weak points, that is, if you don't mind that the part of the film that's supposed to take place in Venice is so obviously a sound stage that only the most ignorant or credulous could suspend their disbelief for it. I rather think of it as a giant Art Deco re-imagining of the city than something that even remotely tries to resemble the real thing, and that has a certain charm for me. If you can forgive that fault, though, I really can't recommend a more enjoyable way to spend two hours than watching this gem of a movie.

I give this movie an 8.1 out of 10, easily one of the highest-rated Astaire and Rogers films.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Book Review: Strong Poison

**This is an excerpt of an article I wrote for Worthy of Note on Dorothy Sayers Lord Peter and Harriet Vane novels (part 1 of 4).  Please visit the above link to read the full article.

Welcome to the first of a 4-part series on the Lord Peter and Harriet Vane Mysteries by Dorothy L. Sayers!  Those of you familiar with my article My Top 10 Fictional Boyfriends of Page and Screen know that Lord Peter Wimsey was my unequivocal choice for the most attractive fictional man of all time. Apparently my description piqued Publius' (Perhaps I should say Publii if I want to decline the Latin noun correctly) curiosity to the point that he asked me to review some Lord Peter books for the sake of public edification. Of course I was only too happy to oblige him, but before I get on to the book review, I would like to say a few words about Dorothy L. Sayers.

Sayers was one of the first women to be awarded a degree from Oxford University, and before she became famous as a mystery writer, she developed a reputation as a Christian theologian. She was also the only female member of the Inklings group that included C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. During the 1920s she took her first foray into fiction when she published Whose Body? a murder mystery starring the socialite sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey, younger son of the 15th Duke of Denver. Needless to say, the book was popular enough to launch a whole series of Lord Peter novels and short stories over the next twenty years, making Sayers second only to Agatha Christie in popularity for British detective fiction. Perhaps the reason that Sayers was so successful was that she didn't try to copy Christie's style of labyrinthine plots and mile-long lists of suspects. Instead Sayers relied on compelling and realistic characters, an area in which Christie with all her brilliance could not come close to equaling Sayers. 

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Astaire and Rogers Series: Roberta (1935)

Fred and Ginger dance to Jerome Kern's immortal
"Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," in Roberta.
"Lovely to look at, delightful to know," that lyric from one of the many classic tunes in this picture perfectly describes how I feel about the film as a whole. Like the film preceding this one, Roberta is a film adaptation of a Broadway smash of the same name and staring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. This time, however, they share the limelight with Irene Dunne and Randolph Scott to great effect. Dunne is already one of my favorite actresses of the era both from her operetta work in films like Showboat and her comedic chemistry with Cary Grant in The Awful Truth and My Favorite Wife. Meanwhile Randolph Scott fulfills his role admirably, though perhaps a slight criticism might be that his performance is a little too much a copy of Gary Cooper.

This film is easily a favorite with my family thanks to the tremendous score by Jerome Kern in which all the songs have become standards but some of the most memorable are "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," "Lovely to Look at," and "I Won't Dance." The plot is also fun and well-acted by the supporting cast, two things that are always a plus. To top it off, Fred and Ginger have two great dances together, which is one less than usual, but the final one, done to a medley of "Lovely to Look at" and "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," is absolutely spectacular.

What passes for a plot goes something like this: American football star John Kent (Randolph Scott) tags along with his friend, the jazz band-leaders Huck Haines (Fred Astaire), who takes his orchestra to Paris for a gig at a swanky cafe only to find that they've  been embroiled in a misunderstanding and have no job. Fortunately for them, John's aunt Madame Roberta owns the most exclusive couturiere in Paris, and thus has the connections to get them another job. That job comes through the Comtesse Scharwenka (Ginger Rogers), who in reality is Huck's high school sweetheart Lizzie. Unfortunately for John, his aunt dies and leaves him her shop, which he has no idea how to run. He would get rid of it, but he's fallen in love with Madame Roberta's assistant Stephanie (Irene Dunne), and decides to take her in as a partner in the business. This goes well until John's snobbish ex-girlfriend from America arrives, suddenly interested in him again because of his inheritance.

Since the setting for this film is a couturiere, all the dresses are completely outlandish, sometimes to great and sometimes to horrible effect. Thus there's plenty of eye candy in the wardrobe department, but there's just as many eyesores, especially Ginger's gown for the "I Won't Dance" sequence, which has one of the ugliest set of shoulders I've ever seen on a dress. I do, however, rather like the simple black gown she wears in the picture above, which has a flattering cut, practical racer-back straps for dancing, and is made from a silken satin (most satin today is made from nylon or some synthetic fabric. To make it from silk is extremely costly).

Even though their romance takes a back seat to the Irene Dunne/Randolph Scott plot, Fred and Ginger are quite endearing in this picture the way they playfully flirt with each other and outright tease each other at times. In addition they get plenty of screen time and have distinctive enough characters that it feels like they're truly sharing the limelight rather than playing second fiddle as they did in Flying Down to Rio. In addition Irene Dunne and Randolph Scott are much better actors than the leads in the aforementioned film, so when the focus is on them, they do not bore us. Irene Dunne further charms us with her classical voice in the two ballads she sings, "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," and "Yesterdays."

I give this film a 8 out of 10. Even though it doesn't feature Fred and Ginger as prominently as some of their other films, it manages to find a good balance of all the elements needed for a successful musical comedy.

Buy it Now:
RobertaShow Boat (1936) [VHS]The Awful TruthMy Favorite Wife

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Astaire and Rogers Series: The Gay Divorcee (1934)

In this iconic photo, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers
romance to Cole Porter's immortal "Night and Day"
in their first starring film, The Gay Divorcee.
Welcome to the first of my series on the greatest film duo of all time: Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. I know that sticking a superlative on anything warrants debate, but I think I may so term these two without much fear of contradiction. In terms of name-recognition, number of movies made together, and the quality of those films, Astaire and Rogers have no real competition for screen duos. They were the biggest thing in Hollywood during the '30s, and made a stunning nine movies together in the course of seven years. Not only that, but all of their films feature superb music by the greatest composers of the day such as Gershwin (who was a personal friend of Fred Astaire's and who wrote the immortal "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" because his brother and lyricist Ira Gershwin noticed that Fred and Ginger pronounced certain words differently), Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, and Cole Porter. On a less important note, a lot of high-end designers clamored for Ginger to wear their gowns, resulting in a lot of fabulous and a lot of horrible wardrobe choices for her. I will be monitoring both throughout the series.

A typical Astaire and Rogers musical features a light romantic comedy plot with colorful minor characters and plenty of misunderstandings. Fred and Ginger normally have about three dances together and a few more songs, but it's during the dances that they fall in love. This dynamic duo was first teamed together for supporting roles in the 1933 film Flying Down to Rio, a film that many people consider to be the first of great the Astaire/Rogers movies, but I exclude it on the grounds that they're barely in it and when they're not on-screen it's a pretty wretched film. Fortunately for the world, the producers at RKO Pictures realized that they had something special in those two, and decided to give them their own film based on a play Fred had done on Broadway, The Gay Divorce (the title was changed to The Gay Divorcee in order to eliminate the implication that anything could be fun about divorce, but the theme of the play still seems to support that thesis).

As the first real Astaire/Rogers film, therefore, this film has a lot of magic moments, but it also has a lot of things that will be improved upon in later outings. Let's start with what's good, shall we? First off the plot is simple but amusing, and the character actors are hilarious especially Alice Brady, Edward Everett Horton, Eric Blore, and Eric Rhodes. Of course Fred and Ginger have a couple of good dances together in "Night and Day" and "The Continental,." a 17-minute extravaganza.  I also can say that this is the only one of their movies in which I like all of Ginger's outfits. In every other film she has one dress that's absolutely hideous but in this one she escapes possibly because she was not yet a big enough star to get really avant-garde designers. I especially like the ball gown in which she's pictured above.

Now, unfortunately I have to tell what's sub-par. To start, with the exception of the two already mentioned musical numbers, the rest of the score is completely forgettable. Secondly there's a musical number featuring Betty Grable called "Let's Knock Knees" that's extraneous and painfully bad--and that's only partially because Edward Everett Horton tries to sing! Also as well as the plot works it's not as refined or tightly-woven as their later films would be, but this is a minor quibble.

The plot synopsis is simple. Ginger Rogers plays an American girl who finds to her dismay that her husband, a British professor, is a fortune hunter. Obviously she needs a divorce, but in 1930s Britain, women could only get divorces with either their husbands' permission or in a case of proven infidelity. So in order to get grounds for her divorce, Ginger must fake an affair with a hired correspondent. Unfortunately she mistakes the man who, unaware of her marital status, has been romantically pursuing her for the hired correspondent, creating some memorably awkward and funny scenes.

Despite a few objections and the fact that it's not as good as their later pairings, I still give this film a 7.6 out of 10, a solid Astaire/Rogers outing.

Buy it on DVD:
The Gay DivorceeFlying Down to Rio

Monday, September 13, 2010

Film Review: The Sky's the Limit (1943)

War pilot Fred Astaire pretends to be a drifter while
wooing Joan Leslie in The Sky's the Limit.
Last Thursday I went to the great Golden-Age movie palace the Stanford Theatre in order to see an obscure Fred Astaire film called The Sky's the Limit. I had seen this film before--probably at the Stanford--but it failed to make an impression on me all. In fact all I could remember about it was that Fred played a fighter pilot. So obviously it's obscure for a reason.

Still, I'm of the opinion that a movie featuring the greatest dancer ever to grace the silver screen can't be without some merit, even if it's a piece of wartime fluff such as this, which I normally condemn on principle. For Astaire fans I would say that this movie is certainly worth viewing because in Fred's three dance numbers his performance do not fail to disappoint. Not only did Astaire choreograph all his dances himself, but he took pains to ensure each had a unique look to it in order both to show his versatility and to keep from being a one-note performer. As a connoisseur of Fred Astaire, therefore, I cannot help looking with admiration and delight at each of his numbers.

So what's this movie about besides and hour and a half (pardon the bad joke)? Well, just as I remembered, Fred plays a decorated fighter pilot on leave who is being paraded around the country as a poster-boy/moral-booster. Tired of being on the pedestal with no time to relax, he ditches his unit and goes roaming across the country, ending up in NYC where he falls in love with a lovely photographer played by Joan Leslie. The only problem is that Fred doesn't want to tell her he's a war hero because--he says but doesn't elaborate sufficiently--he fears that she would have him talking about nothing else since her dream is to be a war correspondent.

Perhaps I'm too removed from that wartime generation to get it, but this motivation seems dreadfully insufficient to me, especially since it significantly hinders his courtship with the girl he likes, and he only has a short time in which to woo her. To me this is just laziness on the part of the screenwriters. It's a lame excuse in order to draw out the plot, especially when there could be lots of more believable reasons why he'd want to conceal his identity from her and that would still serve the purpose they wanted plot-wise.

In addition the film suffers from an uninspired writing for the minor characters, something that's usually vital for a romantic comedy. For example they had a potential for a lot of humor out of the fact that Joan Leslie entertains in a soldiers' canteen, and when Fred follows her there pretending to be a civilian, he runs into the other members of his squadron, who don't torment him nearly as much as they should to make a comedy really entertaining. Again, this speaks of laziness on the writer's part.

Inspired plots, however, are not the reason people go to see musicals. That can be easily forgiven if the signing and dancing is good enough. Is it, though, in this case? Yes and no. There are only three musical numbers in the whole movie, and while that's not nearly enough to carry us through ninety minutes, the three numbers are quite good. The score by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer features the immortal "One More for My Baby," which would also be featured in the much better film Cover Girl the next year, and two more songs which, while not fabulous are sweet and appropriate. I've already hinted that Astaire's dancing is inspired, but now let me say that he treats us to a vaudeville-style light duet with Joan Leslie, which is cute and peppy, a passionate love piece, and  a drunken despairing solo of "One More for My Baby." I know a good performance should always leave us wanting more, but in this case it's so little as to make us feel cheated.

Fred Astaire is such a superb performer that I'm going to give him a 6 out of 10 just for being himself and giving us some entertaining songs and dances, but he's the only asset this film has.

Buy it now:
The Sky's the Limit [VHS]Cover Girl

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Special Book Review: To Say Nothing of the Dog

**This is an excerpt of a review I wrote for Worthy of Note, a book, movie, and TV blog run by my good friend Publius, and a fabulous resource for the discerning reader and viewer. For the full article please see the above link.

Connie Willis has long been acknowledged by literary critics as one of the premier writers in the science fiction genre, but her taste--while excellent and always worth reading--is not mainstream enough to make her a popular favorite. She is not sci-fi enough for typical readers in that audience nor can her books really be classified as regular fiction and thus draw on that considerable demographic for support. Thus despite wining multiple Hugo and Nebula Awards, Ms. Willis remains generally unknown even to dedicated bibliophiles who would appreciate her genius the most.

Out of her impressive oeuvre, the three novels that really stand out to me are Doomsday Book (1992), Bellwether (1996), and To Say Nothing of the Dog (1997), the last of these being my personal favorite and the subject of today's review. Any lover of 19th and Early 20th Century fiction will be delighted by the endless stream of thoughtful literary references, and while this book is mostly a fun romp through the romantic comedy genre, Willis still manages to add depth and urgency to the narrative, elevating it far beyond typical literary homages like Jasper Fford's Thursday Next books. Since this book ranks easily as one of my favorite books of all time and is fairly obscure despite winning Hugo and Locus Awards, I will necessarily be taking a lot of print to describe its considerable merits.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

My 10 Most Desirable Ladies of Page and Screen

**Special Note from the Supreme Arbitress: Since I am unqualified to comment on the attractiveness of women because I am a heterosexual woman, I asked a heterosexual man to take on the task for me.  Fortunately my good friend Publius is a blogger who fits the qualification, and I am proud to present his article to you now. Publius reviews current movies, books, and television on his blog Worthy of Note, a resource I use regularly for my forays into contemporary media.  I think you will find that his comments denote a lot of deep thought and consideration, and for that he has my most heartfelt respect.**

The greatest challenge about this post was not writing each entry; it was selecting the ten ladies to be memorialized. Those characters who enjoy "happily ever after" endings are often so one-dimensional that it is hard to view them as real or compelling. On the other hand, those who are compelling are so often laden with baggage that life with them would be exceedingly difficult, and not something I would jump into lightly. Each choice thus came down to balancing between these two qualities.

I received from my friends a number of recommendations for this list, but I was not able to include a number of these female characters simply due to my ignorance of them. These include Harriet Vane of the Peter Wimsey novels, Ellen Olenska of The Age of Innocence, and Sophie from Howl's Moving Castle.

I must also make honorable mention of every heroine crafted by Jane Austen. They are uniformly delightful, and while only two appear on this list, those who did not make it deserve some recognition. I should also note the many ladies of Shakespeare's plays, some of whom are absolutely detestable, but many of whom deserve a good deal of credit. Isabella (from Measure for Measure) and Portia (from The Merchant of Venice) are compelling and multidimensional characters, who make reading a pleasure. Whether they would do the same for married life... who can really know?

Yvaine (Claire Danes) and Tristan Thorn (Charlie Cox)
escape from the witches' lair in the 2007 film Stardust.
10. Yvaine, Stardust

Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite authors, but he does not create many characters with whom I would willingly spend a life. His books seem to contain every emotion but joy, while his characters are more likely to "live in interesting times" than to live "happily ever after." In Stardust, Yvaine is an evening star, thrown from the heavens by a collision with the royal gemstone. She is an archetypal damsel in distress, but demonstrates her mettle and loyalty to her friends over the course of the novel. Yvaine is played in the film adaptation of Stardust by Claire Danes, one of my favorite actresses, who captures both her independence and affectionate nature. She maintains a constant stream of insults at Tristan Thorn (the poor man), but they only cover for the subtle movements of her perception of him, from disgust to genuine affection. The best insults are always the ones that mask true love.

Suzanne tries on her hat in this engraving from
the opening scene of The Marriage of Figaro.
Bonus points if you can guess what Figaro is doing!
9. Suzanne, The Marriage of Figaro

The Marriage of Figaro is the second in a trilogy of plays by Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, a watchmaker-spy-playwright of the court of Louis XV. The play was an instant classic: Napoleon later said that the first public performance of The Marriage of Figaro marked the true beginning of the French Revolution. Suzanne is the beloved bride of Figaro and confidante of her lady the Countess, even while her favors are sought by the unfaithful Count. Figaro may be fleet of foot and word, but Suzanne has captured his heart with a wit and vivacity of her own. She even tricks Figaro in the course of the play -- the only one in the trilogy to trick the charming trickster himself. Suzanne is loyal to her love and to her mistress, and one of the most delightful female characters in French literature.

Olga Budina plays Aglaia in the massive 8-hour
Russian mini-series, The Idiot (2003)
8. Aglaia Epanchin, The Idiot

This was a hard one. Prince Myshkin (the eponymous Idiot) is one of the most sympathetic characters ever created by Dostoevsky, but he is unfortunately a guy. He is torn between his romantic love for Aglaia and his divine love for the courtesan Nastasya. Though Aglaia initially mocked the innocent Myshkin, she comes to appreciate the depth of his humility and charity, and associates him with Pushkin's famous poem, "The Poor Knight." Alas, Aglaia is torn by jealousy, and cannot stand the mockery of Nastasya (who seeks to exploit Myshkin's pity to bind him to her). Her fatal flaw is jealousy, and it ultimately consumes her. Yet while the novel lasts she is an immensely attractive and deeply compelling character, perhaps even worthy of the Christ-like Myshkin.

Aravis in storyteller pose, from
an engraving in A Horse and His Boy
7. Aravis Tarkheena, A Horse and His Boy

Aravis was probably my first literary crush. She is a Calormene princess trying to escape an arranged marriage with the detestable Grand Vizier, who falls in with the boy Shasta in his flight to Archenland. A Horse and His Boy is essentially a story about stories, and Aravis fits this mold perfectly, for she is one of the great storytellers in the whole series. Her fatal flaw is hubris, rather befitting a spoiled princess and certainly befitting a representative of the mercurial temperament that Lewis sought to portray. But, thanks to the deep stripes given to her by Aslan, she overcomes that natural vice, and ultimately takes her place as Queen of Archenland.

Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) waiting  in a Death Star
holding cell in the original 1977 Star Wars.
6. Leia Organa, Star Wars

Our family used to call her "Princess Bagel-Head" after her unusual hair-style in the original Star Wars, but that doesn't do justice to this character. Leia epitomizes so many cliches -- a child of riches fighting the system, a rebel with a heart of gold -- but she defies categorization. She wields a gun, fixes the hyper-drive, and drives Han Solo so crazy with conflicting emotions that he doesn't know what to do with himself. After a brief stint in a metal bra, she also became the first person to successfully assassinate Jabba the Hutt. Yes, there were a few disconcerting moments with her brother, but for those I blame the caprice of George Lucas, not of Leia herself.

Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn and Miranda Otto as Éowyn in
Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings film trilogy.
5. Éowyn, The Lord of the Rings

To quote the Supreme Arbitress of Taste, Éowyn "had the good taste to fall in love with the two noblest men in the book" -- both Aragorn and Faramir. A princess of Rohan, she is told to remain at home while the men ride to Minas Tirith for war. But her flaw is obstinacy, so she disguises herself as a warrior, and rides among the men under the name Dernhelm. This could easily imperil the kingdom, as she was to act as regent and as Queen if the men failed to turn back the tide of Mordor. But "all's well that ends well," for she is the only one on the battlefield able to slay the Witch King of Angmar, and thus it is her presence that turns the tide of battle. Her time recovering from her injuries in the House of Healing also allows her to meet Faramir, who redeems her from her tragic love of Aragorn. She recovers not only from her wounds, but also from her misplaced martial spirit, and by the end of the trilogy she becomes a healer herself.

Jennifer Ehle is the definitive Lizzie in the
landmark 1995 BBC miniseries Pride and Prejudice.
4. Elizabeth Bennett, Pride and Prejudice

This was perhaps an obvious choice: the only question is why she does not rank higher. She is witty, charming, kind, and beautiful. Alas, like Emma from Jane Austen's other well-regarded novel, Lizzie has a degree of pride that is best suited for a similarly strong personality. Perhaps this is why both characters find such perfectly matched husbands: Mr. Darcy and Mr. Knightly are flawed, but their flaws are in a sense parallel to those of their wives.

Avital Dicker plays Sonia in the 2002
film adaptation of Crime and Punishment.
3. Sonya Marmeladova , Crime and Punishment

Sonya (alternately called Sofya and Sonechka) can be read and dismissed as a typical Victorian "angel of the house" who redeems the misanthropic Raskolnikov. I cannot deny that interpretation. But I read her as a much deeper character, daughter of the town drunk whose patience is borne out of suffering and whose hope is quickened by faith. She is the female equivalent of Prince Myshkin, and that is as great a compliment as can be fathomed. Her virtue preserves the last vestiges of virtue within Raskolnikov, a man as far removed from humanity as can be conceived. She triumphs over death and despair by her acts of love; she is no passive angel.

Tilney (J.J. Feild) and Morland (Felicity Jones) ride to
  Beecham Cliff in the 2007 miniseries Northanger Abbey
2. Catherine Morland, Northanger Abbey

Notwithstanding the Supreme Arbitress' distaste for Catherine, I find her as attractive as the best of Austen's heroines. After all, she captures the heart of Henry Tilney, the most charming of all Austen's men, and the one who can pull that off deserves all the praise she receives. Catherine begins the novel a young and impressionable woman, innocent of the world and free from the sort of self-satisfaction that is the flaw of so many of Austen's heroines. Her innocence seems like naïveté, but her words demonstrate a keen awareness of others. She is well-read and (more importantly) eager to learn, a quality supremely attractive to a man like Henry Tilney.

Victoria Smurfit plays Rowena in the
1997 BBC miniseries Ivanhoe
1. Lady Rowena, Ivahoe

I really struggled in deciding between Rowena and Rebecca. Wilfred of Ivanhoe is one of the greatest of literary heroes, and I cannot imagine how he must have been torn between these two noble ladies throwing themselves at him. Rebecca is probably the first unequivocally positive Jewish character in modern literature, and survives with her virtue intact through more trials than faced by any other character in the book. But it should be noted that Rowena was separated from her love for many years prior to the book, but without falling prey to the depressive mood that befits Rebecca's status as a tragic heroine. Rowena is mild-mannered, but demonstrates a considerable backbone to her father in opposing the arranged marriage to Athlestane. More broadly, she is exceedingly fair, pure, loyal to Ivanhoe, and one of the most captivating heroines of literature.

**This is a guest post by Publius, who publishes reviews of books, film and television at the Worthy of Note blog. He loves stories, classical music, and theology (he maintains a theology blog, Orthodox Reflections). He also does graduate work in economics, and is an aspiring lawyer.**

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Film Review: Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964)

Frank, Dean, and Sammy share the stage with Bing Crosby,
who steals the show in my favorite Rat Pack picture.
If you're a fan of the Rat Pack, it's impossible to dislike this movie. Frank, Dean, and Sammy sing, and the supporting cast includes Bing Crosby--who nearly steals the show--and Peter Falk (of Columbo fame). Not only that, but the theme of this movie is unique and twistedly appropriate for the stars: a re-telling of Robin Hood set in 1920s Chicago. I hope that piqued your interest, because it's all up from there.

The movie opens with Chicago's current crime boss, Big Jim, being taken out by Guy Guisborne's hit-men. Afterwards we learn that Guisborne (Peter Falk) has cut a deal with the sheriff to get his protection for all the illegal activities in the city, but Guisborne is going to make all the other gangs in the city pay through the nose for this protection. The only one brave enough to stand up to Guisborne is Robbo (Frank Sinatra), the owner of a speakeasy and casino. With the help of his friends Will Scarlet (Sammy Davis, Jr.) and Little John (Dean Martin), Robbo hopes to break up Guisborne's cartel by being the only place in town who can bypass his "protection."

Unfortunately there's an X-factor in this equation in the form of Big Jim's daughter Marian (Barbara Rush), who is not only looking to avenge her father's death but also to take over his empire. When she pays Robbo blood money for a hit he didn't make, he offhandedly tells his men to give it to charity, unaware that this act could have any consequences for him. An itinerant clerk at the charity, however, seizes this opportunity to declare Robbo a modern Robin Hood for giving his ill-gotten gains to the poor. This turns out to be a huge gain for Robbo because as long as he's a public benefactor, Guisborne's mob can't touch him. The trick, therefore, becomes finding a way to blacken Robbo's name.

Apart from having an entertaining plot, this movie succeeds because it has some fabulous musical numbers. Sinatra gets one of his signature songs, "My Kind of Town," Dean Martin croons about loving his mother while playing a mind-bogglingly skilled game of pool, Sammy Davis, Jr. sings and dances with  a couple of machine guns, and Bing Crosby gets one of the most memorable numbers in the show with "Mr. Booze." Atop of all those great performances, though, is "Style" in which Frank and Dean succeed in modernizing Bing's wardrobe, and then the three of them sing together in their tuxes and boaters. I can't say that the number is musically perfect, but just seeing three giants of the recording industry singing a fun tune together is enough to get me any time.

Although this was made to be a Rat Pack vehicle, Bing Crosby is self-deprecatingly hilarious as the dorky Allen A. Dale. Classic Bing cliches pop up such as his inability to dance and the fact that he always gets the girl in the end, and he is also wonderful at being endearingly awkward.

Despite all these pluses, the movie seems to drag at times, especially when Guisborne and Marian are plotting. It's not necessarily that these scenes are bad in themselves, but they're not entertaining enough to merit the time that they take to watch on the screen. Also the opening "All for One" number along with a few others scattered about the show are underwhelming, especially given the high talent level of the performers.

Still in all this movie is a lot of fun, and I would rate it a 7.5 out of 10 for Rat Pack fans at least.