Sunday, August 24, 2014

They Don't Make 'em Like That Anymore...

Here we are in late August and I have yet to mention any of the films I have caught at the National Film Theatre this year... yes you heard me National Film Theatre. I will never call it BFI South Bank.  It will always be the National Film Theatre.

I have been lucky to catch a few films that I have always wanted to see, and of course it's always a pleasure to see them as they were meant to be seen.  I shall try and review them each in 100 words...

Yes, I know I have THE GENERAL (1926) on DVD but it was a joy to see it finally on the big screen.  In his undisputed masterpiece Buster gave us a rollicking comedy, a sweeping adventure and a thrilling Civil War epic all in one.

War is declared and engine driver Johnny Gray is rejected by the army who think he is more useful driving his train.  His girlfriend and her family ostracize him as a coward but when she and his beloved engine The General are snatched by the Yankees, Johnny will stop at nothing to get them back!

Sadly, THE GENERAL was a box-office failure and Keaton was talked into joining MGM where he was not allowed the creative control he had enjoyed before.  Despite all the constraints placed on him THE CAMERAMAN is still a delightful, inventive comedy.

Buster is a street photographer who realises the big money is now in being a newsreel cameraman and we follow his hapless attempts to get a news scoop.  Highlights include a hilarious swimming pool changing-room scene with Buster sharing a tiny cubicle with a large, fat man and Buster getting caught up in a Tong street battle. 

The final Keaton film was his last silent one SPITE MARRIAGE (1929) although he had wanted it to be his sound debut.  Working under similar studio restrictions, Keaton still showed he was a supreme comedian and I enjoyed it more than I expected to.

Elmer lands an onstage job to be near an actress he has fallen for but the havoc caused on his first night get him fired.  However the actress (delightful Dorothy Sebastian) proposes marriage to Elmer to spite her unfaithful lover.  The comic highlight happens when Buster attempts to put a drunken (and slippery) Sebastian to bed!

Then it was time for a blast of 1940s British crime drama, GOOD TIME GIRL (1948), shown in tribute to Jean Kent.  Kent played bad girls in 1940s British films and this one gave her a stonking lead role which she handles well.

Judge Flora Robson tries to convince stroppy Diana Dors not to end up like Jean Kent who is seen in flashback making her wrong choices which leads to reform school, befriending bully Jill Balcon (looking alarmingly like son Daniel Day Lewis), later becoming the mistress of dangerously sexy Griffith Jones then falling in with murderous American soldiers!

Then it was time for a Gary Cooper double-bill, in roles not immediately connected with his image.  Ernst Lubitsch's frothy adaptation of Noel Coward's DESIGN FOR LIVING (1933) dumped most of the plot but that left plenty of time to watch and enjoy the three stars: Cooper, Fredric March and Miriam Hopkins.

Although outshone by bustling March and slinky Hopkins, I still enjoyed Cooper's nonchalant performance as George, attempting with friend Tom to live in a sexless relationship with their friend Gilda.  He and March had a nice playing style together and Miriam Hopkins was born to play Gilda.

Then I blubbed at Frank Borzage's emotional-wringer A FAREWELL TO ARMS (1932), based on the Hemingway novel.  Cooper was charismatic as Frederic, the American ambulance driver who meets and falls in love with English nurse Catherine Barklay in WWI Italy.

Helen Hayes was fine as Catherine but her playing style has dated somewhat compared to Cooper's relaxed persona.  Separated by war and the meddling of Frederic's friend Rinaldi (Adolphe Menjou), Cooper battles through war-torn Europe to find his lost love with Borzage unleashing his trademark deliriously emotional film-making to make a fabulously cinematic, over-the-top ending.

Speaking of delirious cinema, Rouben Mamoulian's debut film APPLAUSE (1929) is a rollercoaster starring the tragic Helen Morgan as Kitty Darling, a fading vaudeville star reunited with her convent-raised daughter April, born in Kitty's dressing-room on the night before her father was executed. April is appalled at Kitty's life with her abusive lover so grabs a chance of escape with a young sailor she meets while Kitty makes her own escape.

Mamoulian's film still fascinates as he explores the possibilities of the camera and sound as well as for the out-and-out melodrama of the film's plot.

We also saw a filmed stage performance of DRIVING MISS DAISY which I first saw in New York with Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones before it transferred to London.  This however was from the Australian run where Angela Lansbury replaced Redgrave.

It was nice to see and interesting to compare the acting choices of the two actresses but I cannot say I found it a particularly good transfer.  The stage lighting did not work on screen and it plodded along.  The interview afterwards with Angela Lansbury however was worth the price of admission alone - she also hated the lighting!

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