Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Holiday Inn (1942)

Bing Crosby croons Irving Berlin's "White Christmas,"
a song written for this 1942 holiday classic
Whoever though of putting Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby in the same film was a genius. The most popular dancer and the most popular singer of their generation made for the ultimate musical because they could compensate for each other's weaknesses. As if this were not good enough, however, the score by Irving Berlin features several classics including the first appearance of the song "White Christmas," which makes this holiday outing one for the ages.

The thin sliver of a plot goes something like this: Bing Crosby is a night club singer who's tired of his harried life of show business, and plans to marry and retire to a farm in the country. Even after his fiancĂ©e bales on him to be with his former partner Fred Astaire instead, Crosby remains determined to make his rural life a success. He quickly discovers he has no pleasure in farming, so he decides to turn his house into a night club that's open holidays only, appropriately to be named Holiday Inn, He quickly makes a hit of it, and falls for his new leading lady, but Fred Astaire shows up steal her away just as she and Crosby get engaged. Is history doomed to repeat itself again or will Bing's new love endure the debonair dancer?

Astarie gets three great dances to show off his twinkle-toes in this film. Perhaps the most iconic, however, is his solo number "Say It with Firecrackers," in which he taps and throws down small firecrackers to create a secondary rhythm. Not only is it a feat of musical timing, but  when Fred throws down a whole string of cracklers and lights them all at once, it becomes a stunning display of his fleetness of foot to watch him dance around them. The token romantic couple dance comes in the form of "Be Careful, It's My Heart," which is sung by Bing. Not surprisingly, the combination of Bing's velvety voice and Fred's graceful turns on the dance floor make for a breathtakingly beautiful combination. There's another wonderful number in which an inebriated Fred stumbles around the dance floor trying to dance with his partner. Fred does a spectacular job flailing about as if he were not in control of his faculties and adds just enough flourishes to make us think that even a completely sloshed Fred Astaire would still be quite a sight to behold,

As mesmerizing as Fred Astaire can be with his feet, though, the heart of this movie lies with Bing Crosby's character. Crosby was great at conveying the impression of being an average Joe just trying to get by in a hostile world. He does so well that this marks the only movie in which I do not want Fred Astaire to get the girl. Although he does not dazzle us as much as Fred does, he does get the honor of being the first person ever to sing the classic "White Christmas," and there really has never been a better rendition since then. He also gets to croon most of the other selections for the other holidays on the calender, many of which are quite memorable in their own right, and all of which are quite different from each other.

In the 1950s, someone had the bright idea to make a sequel to this film and entitle it White Christmas. Astaire and Crosby were to reprise their original roles, but when Astaire wasn't available, they replaced him with Danny Kaye. The new cast does a credible job with the script they are given, but neither the writing nor the music feels as inspired as the original. Likewise, since Fred Astaire is the apex of cinematic dancing, any film's dances when compared to his are bound to feel less graceful and elegant. Also where the situations in the first film feel scripted but earnest, there's a conscious corniness in the sequel that impedes my ability to believe the characters or suspend disbelief in the same way. It's not that White Christmas is a bad film. On the contrary I find it quite enjoyable on occasions, but it just doesn't hold a candle to the original.

I rate this film a solid 8 out of 10, purely joyous musical holiday entertainment at its finest.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Fitzwilly (1967)

For the rest of the month, I intend to review Christmas films, and while Fitzwilly isn't a traditional feel-good holiday movie, it does take place entirely at Christmastime, so I figured I'd put it in, especially since Turner Classic Movies was featuring it on their lineup of Christmas movies. This film is so rare, moreover, that it deserves to be reviewed while it's still fresh in my mind.

This charmer stars Dick Van Dyke as the butler Fitzwilliam, affectionately known to his employer Miss Vicki as Fitzwilly. The son of a butler, Fitzwilly was taken  in by Miss Vicki when his parents died suddenly and was given an Ivy League education to complement his considerable mental faculties. Out of filial devotion to Miss Vicki, he looks after her as both her butler and the steward of her estate.

Unbeknown to Miss Vicki, she has gone broke giving away her money to charities, so in order to support her in the manner to which she is accustomed, Fitzwilly starts pulling elaborate heists and scams, all of which Miss Vicki remains in ignorance. Ironically, almost all the money Fitzwilly makes gets given by Miss Vicki to charities, so he can never amass enough capital to give up the life of crime. In addition we get the feeling that Fiztwilly enjoys the thrill of heist, so it's not much of a sacrifice on his part.

The whole arrangement comes into jeopardy, however, when  Miss Vicki hires a secretary named Juliet--played by Get Smart's Barbara Feldon--to edit the book she's writing. At first she loathes Fitzwilly's controlling ways, but sensing a deeper story hidden underneath his unorthodox way of running the houshold, she soon finds herself falling in love with the cunning butler. Her investigations, however, nearly prove fatal to the gang's thieving operations. When she learns the truth of the source of Miss Vicki's income, Juliet makes Fitzwilly promise to give up his life of crime before they get married, so he plans one last grand heist to ensure that Miss Vicki will never have to worry about money again.

Being a simple face, this film doesn't need a believable premise to be enjoyable, and it succeeds in providing us with plenty of amusing situations and some really ingenious heists. It's a not laugh-out-loud funny movie, but it certainly holds our interest for an hour and a half. Barbara Feldon and Dick Van Dyke prove themselves to be just as entertaining on the big screen as they were on the small, and I especially appreciate that there's no estrangement between their characters when she finds out the truth about his job because that's such a cliche. In addition the character actors never fail to delight, especially Edith Evans as Miss Vicki and John McGiver as the butler Albert.

I give this film a 6.7 out of 10. It's not brilliant, but it's smart enough to be one of Blackadder's cunning plans.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Mr. Skeffington (1944)

Every once in a while you come across a film which you cannot decide to like or not. It's not that the movie doesn't have parts that you greatly admire, but there are enough problems to diminish both its enjoyability and rewatchability. Such, of course, is the film Mr. Skeffington, or I would not employ such words to describe my chagrin. Parts of this film are absolutely brilliant, but an almost equal portion of it is a drag.

Covering a span of twenty-five years from 1913 to 1938, the story chronicles the lives of Job and Fanny Skeffington, one of the richest men and one of the most beautiful women in New York, respectively. Most of the scenes focus on Fanny, whose vain and frivolous ways blind her to the things that are really important in her life until she almost loses them all. That makes the film very difficult to watch especially since Fanny is such an unlikable character for much of the film and makes no progress towards growth until the very end. Actress Bette Davis usually brings wonderful nuances to her roles, but for this performance she seems like a straight coquette out of the Scarlett O'Hara mold without out any of the aforementioned character's deep passions or ambitions. Fanny does start out with some humanity since she marries Job Skeffington in order to save her brother from embezzlement charges, but once her brother dies in World War I, she becomes almost like a caricature until the end of the film.

The strongest part of this movie is Claude Raines in the title role. He portrays the self-made, fabulously wealthy Jewish banker Job Skeffington, who falls in love with Fanny Trellis, the prettiest girl in New York, a girl who's already turned down dozens of eligible men. Surprisingly enough, she consents to marry Skeffington, and even though he knows it's not for love, he's content to wait for her to learn to love him. Not surprisingly, the marriage is a rough one, and the couple eventually divorces, leaving Skeffinton to raise their daughter alone. He end up moving them to Europe to look after their business interests, but their Jewish ethnicity makes them the target of Nazi aggression. Eventually Job makes it back to America, but not before having his fortune confiscated and being tortured and blinded by the Nazis. We only hear about this abuse after the fact, but it doesn't detract from the statement about the war and antisemitism .Raines as always does a wonderful job at playing the complex emotions of the character he is given and breaks our heart as he suffers and broods in silence.

Of course we get a semi-happy ending despite these complications. Fanny loses her beauty to diphtheria and has a crisis when she realizes that her days of being an object of desire to men were over forever. Just after all this happens, she hears about Job's plight and that he's willing to reconcile with her, unaware that Job is now blind, she manages to overcome her vanity and agree to meet with him only to discover to her joy that he will never know of her disfigurement. This ending feels a bit of a cop-out because I think it would have been much more character growth for Fanny if Job had been able to see her in her altered state and she could have learned that true love exists regardless of looks. Of course there's a certain poetic beauty in the fact that he will always see her as the beautiful young woman he feel in love with, but I don't know if that's worth the reduction in payoff we get after watching over two hours of Bette Davis being a shallow coquette.

One last thing I would like to note is that this film is quite explicit about dealing with issues of prejudice against Jewish people, which was extremely rare for the 1940s, and I applaud it for that. At the same time, though, they didn't turn this into a race film but kept the reality tragically understated, as if there were nothing to be done for it.

I give this film a 6.5 out of 10. It has great potential and wonderful moments, but it ultimately falls flat from the lack of progress from an unlikable protagonist.