Sunday, March 13, 2011

Get Thee to Matrimony - the Single, Working Women's Films of the 1940s

I've been watching some films lately that centre around women and their opportunities in the 1940s. There was quite an influx in this decade (and in the 30s and 50s) of films about working women whose aim is, not for a promotion or a pay rise, but to marry and surrender to family life. Because let's face it, in those days equal pay was not happening, but marriage was always in the market. On the one hand, it endorses women in the workforce, but it does that so long as they are single. Once marriage comes along it's bye bye labour and hello bubs. Of course there are probably variations, but it's just interesting to see how these heroines are often both liberated and confined in what society allows of them.

Kitty Foyle (1940) ~ Here you have a toned down, stripped to brown hair color and ultimately Oscar-winning Ginger Rogers in what was arguably her first serious role. It was all about RKO giving her an actress-y vehicle, equipped with notable director Sam Wood (Goodbye Mr. Chips), nice set, costume and hair, and good supporting cast. The film itself is about a gal from a working-class Irish background who falls in love with a rich-bred man (Dennis Morgan) in whose world she ultimately can't fit.

The film begins with a pre-1940s context of what women had to deal with - it shows a woman whose goal in life is to marry well and then shows her in a lavish setting in which her husband works while she's at home. Yet she becomes discontent, sets off for work and joins the women's suffragette.

The plight of Ginger Rogers' Kitty Foyle, and of several working gals of the 30s and 40s, is the somewhat reverse. She starts off as the worker, as the independent gal earning her own income (she herself says "...nobody owes a thing to Kitty Foyle, except Kitty Foyle") for whom marriage is the end of her efforts. Indeed, after reaching the position of manager (or thereabouts) of a perfumerie in Philadelphia, she resigns and marries a doctor. The important thing for her is that she married a man who fits her terms, a man who worked his way up the ranks just as she did (unlike Morgan's character who was born into privilege) and, perhaps, a man through whom she can live out her ideals. It's not quite the feminism of the 70s, indeed it's a bit contradictory and roundabout, but it's a step in that general direction.

Tom, Dick and Harry (1941) ~ Where Kitty Foyle was a drama, here is a comedy about a twenty-something middle-American girl on the quest for Mr. Right. What sets this one apart is that it's quite a fun ride. Ginger plays Janie, a gal who's ready to settle down, but has trouble deciding between three would-be suitors including wealthy Dick (Alan Marshal), ambitious Tom (George Murphy) and humble Harry (Burgess Meredith. Through the film she accepts the engagement of all three and embarks in wild fantasies of what it would be like to be either Mrs. Tom, Dick or Harry. These fantasies are incredibly exaggerated and pretty funny as a result.

The film swims along at a good regular pace, with peppy dialogue that seems to come out naturally, and has good support from Phil Silvers as an icecream vendor and Lenore Lonergan as Janie's rather prying sister 'Butch.' The ending is quite interesting in how it allows Janie to choose romantic love over a marriage that will get her ahead in life. Perhaps one can argue that because her ultimate partner is not the richest fellow in the world, she too will need to work allowing for greater equality between the sexes. Though how long that would last once the babies come along is harder to decipher.

Every Girl Should Be Married (1948) ~ Yet another comedy that shares some notes with the earlier films. Aside from the film's title being a more aggressive indication of what the first two films were ultimately about, you have the twenty-something gal (Betsy Drake) looking for, who was that, why it's Mr. Right. There's a slight deviation however. The first two films are essentially set during the war (there's even a scene in Tom, Dick and Harry where Janie and Tom walk out of the cinema just as a Hitler news reel comes on).

On the other hand, Every Girl Should Be Married is a postwar product. In a way there's a more desperate tone to it perhaps echoing the importance of the nuclear family. Notably, Grant's character Madison is a 'baby doctor (his deprecating words),' who is a staunch bachelor without any intentions of having his own family. The film's goal then is to convert Grant into a reformed family man and for Drake's persistent (and kind of stalkerish) Anabel to conduct the operation.

Otherwise it's an entertaining enough film. To keep it off the beaten track of being tedious too quickly, it's coloured with other characters - you have Franchot Tone as a wealthy guy who Anabel utilises to make Madison jealous, Diana Lynn all grown up (that wise beyond her years youngster from The Major and the Minor and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek) and a cameo from Eddie Albert at the end. Just like Kitty Foyle, Annabel gets the doctor in the end.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Director and the Muse

I haven't quite seen every necessary film of these collaborators to really merit this list, but nevertheless I bring to this plate my impressions thus far of these partnerships.

Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina - Married at the time of their film collaborations, Karina was key to the most fruitful period of Godard's career - the early to mid 60s. She was the lead in many of Godard's films during this period and she proved to adapt well to the different themes and atmospheres, without forsaking their shared interest in whimsy. She could play the philosophical hooker yearning for fulfillment in her most harrowing role as Nana in Vivre sa vie, but then be joie-de-vivre as the clucky singer in the technicolored Une femme est une femme. One film that showcases her ability to switch the nature of her character is Pierrot le fou, where her seeming childlikeness and sense of adventure mask darker, femme-fatale motives.

Woody Allen and Mia Farrow - The whole scandal aside, Allen and Farrow were quite the creative collaborators during the 80s period in which she was his muse. Woody gave Mia showcases for her sometimes underused talents and she in return is part of the reason why Allen's 80s period has so much breadth and is arguably his most consistent as a filmmaker. I think Allen distinctly understood Farrow's talents and her versatility, and so she pretty much never plays the same role twice in a film of his - whether it be as the Italian broad Tina Vitale in Broadway Danny Rose, the fragile Cecilia in The Purple Rose of Cairo, the surface-happy title character in Hannah and Her Sisters or the likeable ditz who becomes a star in Radio Days.

Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro - Is it a coincidence that (arguably) De Niro's film roles haven't been quite as good as his glory days with Scorsese in the 70s-early 90s? There's is a partnership of an actor perfectly projecting the director's intentions onto film. The faith towards each other's works (which is crucial to the perfect partnership) can be seen in such films as Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy and De Niro's Oscar winning Raging Bull among others. Many of De Niro's characters under Scorsese are troubled, tumulting into some sort of madness, but always compelling and rendered with sensitivity.

Frank Capra and Jean Arthur - I could have gone with Capra and Stewart, but I really like the dynamics moreso between Capra and Arthur. Arthur fans would know of the often-told story that she was a bundle of nerves on set with more than a fair share of insecurities. According to Capra's son on the Mr. Smith Goes to Washington dvd commentary, Capra didn't mind the challenge that was Arthur's nerves. Indeed getting Arthur to deliver stellar performances was something of an accomplishment. Thus, a trusting director with confidence in an actor's ability can sometimes have the final say between a mediocre and good performance. I wouldn't say that Arthur didn't perform as well with other directors (she certainly delivered well for Stevens and Leisen), but that some of her performances for Capra - especially Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington - are at another level of maturity, assuredness and strength, with classic Arthur vulnerability thrown in.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Romantic Comedies (of Sorts) That I Unabashedly Adore

It is Valentine's Day, so what better way to celebrate than by revisiting the romcom.

Today the genre 'romantic comedy' carries a bit of a bad rep. It is invariably referred to as the 'chick flick.' Most of the time it's mind-absent entertainment, something to see when you don't want to think. The plot is usually formulaic, the laughter is barely there and usually the set and clothing designs matter more than anything else. So it makes me, who's sort of an obnoxiously exclusive filmbuff of sorts, a bit reluctant to admit I have a fair share of rom-com favourites. Or romantic-drama-com. Here is a post-60s list.

A Touch of Class (1973) ~ I saw this one recently, so how well it holds up on multiple viewings is something I can't comment on. It's not really a classic, and is perhaps more known for its blunders than its positives. In particular there's the maligned Glenda Jackson performance - maligned because she won an Oscar for it. And if you ever get a chance to watch a clip of the 1974 Oscars, you'll see the shocked reactions of Ellen Burstyn and Joanne Woodward when the absent Jackson's name is called. So yeah, people won't happy about it even then. '

Another complaint I've heard is that the film can't make up its mind whether to be a comedy or a drama, so it settles for one half of each [hence the new coined term, romantic-drama-com]. Then there are those who disapprove of the film's lack of morality, since it concerns an affair and sort of brushes over the respective families of either lead. Maybe I'm too easily pleased, but I didn't find any of those factors bothering me.

I think the most essential part of a romantic comedy is how well the leads gel. If the spark isn't there, then there's no way the film can take flight. And it was primarily the interesting dynamic between Glenda Jackson's stiff, feminist Englishwoman and George Segal's mildmannered native New Yorker that made me keep watching. It's a clear 'opposites shouldn't attract but somehow do' dynamic. But another factor I think is primary for this genre is the situations. This film had a nice island-esque backdrop during the second-third which was prime for some funny and revelatory situations. Yes there's a drop in the fire-cracking comedy in the second half, but Jackson and Segal make it work.

The Owl and the Pussycat (1970) ~ Segal again, this time with Barbra Streisand. This one's an early 7os film that exploits the most it can out of the liberal decade that was. It's a sex farce comedy that was risque for its time, and yet still somehow came out charming. Again I think it's the leads. Segal and Streisand make a great contrast, with her as the kooky screwball-type and him as the stiff-shirt type that learns to relax a little. It's definitely a bit of a 'updated' throwback to the screwball comedy of the 30s and 40s, similar to another Streisand comedy What's Up, Doc?

Irma La Douce ~ This film is a tad overlong for its genre, but other than that I don't have complaints. As far as Wilder-Lemmon-MacLaine combinations go, it's unfair to compare it to The Apartment. If there were such a thing as bar fights between films, certainly the earlier pairing would win. But I have soft spot for Irma La Douce. Sure, it's during Wilder's risque 'I'm trying to keep up with the times' period of filmmaking, which was sort of an inferior time in the director's career, but it's a sweet film. I think it's MacLaine's film all the way with her hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold-turn, but of course Lemmon matches her well.

Georgy Girl (1966) ~ Lynn Redgrave and the mod British ambience around her makes this film well above predictable territory. You think you've pegged her during the film, that what she wants is to be like her roommate Meredith (Charlotte Rampling). That she wants to be as thin, as beautfiul as her, and to have her boyfriend Jos (Alan Bates). Only she realises that these things aren't as fulfilling as she thought looking from the outside in. It's an interesting rom-com-drama that works well chiefly because of Redgrave's vivacious, spirited, self-depecrating performance. Alan Bates as her would-be lover is the clowning-around, yet sweet when he's earnest, kind of a guy you could entertain having for a fleeting while, just as Georgy did. One thing that sets Georgy Girl away from other romantic-dramatic-comedies is that it's a bit bittersweet. It's not completely sad nor completely fulfilling, so it hangs there in the middle.

Bridget Jones' Diary ~ I see Bridget Jones as being similar to Georgy, just as free-spirited and unconventional. Only Bridget gets her ideal man in a very Pride and Prejudice wish-fulfillment way (after all, it's a sort of modern adaptation of Austen's novel). I've had a bit of an on-again off-again relationship with this film. I spent a long while avoiding seeing it, then when I finally did I loved it, then the second time around I didn't, and now I like it again. It's a standard well-made romantic comedy heralded by a sublime Renee Zellweger performance. Oh and I love Colin Firth. Especially in this. Avoid the sequel like the plague.

God Save the King

Sometimes you want a film to be really good, but when expectations are so inflated, the outcome can turn out to be less than its estimated value. That sort of thing happened to me back in early 2009 when I went to see The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I don't think I'd ever before been so ready to embrace a film, to immediately rank it upon my favourite films of all time, only to be disappointed. I felt the film was too prestigious for its own good. It was over-long, too drawn out. All style, luscious cinematography, visually capturing its different time periods, but not really having much heart. To me it cried out 'Oscar-bait'.

So I awaited the release of 2010's The King Speech with some caution. Generally I'm a fan of period dramas, but lavish costumes and art designs can't save a weak story. But it has it turned out, the film was engaging, depicting a moment in history and giving it the royal treatment, so to speak.

The film follows the ascension to the throne by King George VI (played notably by Colin Firth). It isn't the most notable ascension, as George himself notes. After his father passed away, his brother Edward was meant to be the next monarch, but an ill-fitting marriage to twice-divorced Wallis Simpson makes it improper for him to keep his position. So younger brother George, plagued with a speech impediment, gets the throne by default. A little earlier in the film, his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) had already sent for the eccentric Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), but it is when George becomes king that Logue really becomes of service.

Such a short summary doesn't really get to the heart of the film. It really is somewhat of a parallel journey between two men (Firth and Rush) who forge an unexpected and moving friendship. King George is a man with a self-confidence crisis fuelled by his stammering. I think Firth's performance becomes amazing when you really examine what he does with it. King George shouldn't be the most exciting character, not with his awkward introversion and his temper. Yet Firth, supported by the story arc, taps deeply into George's insecurities and invites us to empathise with them. Here is a man who wants to succeed, with a sense of duty and integrity so lacking in his brother. That added quirk of his character is his self-deprecating dry humor which reveal an insightful, perceptive, sensitive man. Firth's is a performance which adds layers with every scene, and so by the end of a film you feel the enrichment of a complete, whole character with whom you have developed an acquaintance.

Rush is equally effective in his characterisation of Lionel. On the outside he's a peculiar man with non-orthodox techniques of speech therapy that are incredibly effective. Deeper inside he's a man who didn't fufill his full ambitions, and who, as the film progresses, settles his energies on helping the king become the fulfilled man he is capable of being. There's a slight case of living vicariously through another that registers in Rush's performance. But Lionel pushes any subtle hint of this aside, and his unrelenting belief in Firth is inspiring. He holds King George's emotions, just as any good therapist would, and there's one scene in particular where Firth is describing some of his childhood, where a shot of Rush's face shows complete sympathy. It too is a layered performance, and perfectly balanced by the pro that Rush is.

Helena Bonham Carter doesn't have quite as much to work with as Firth or Rush, but still it is nice to see her outside of a Tim Burton film once in a while. Her major asset to the film is the constant support she shows to Firth's King George. She's almost Myrna-Loy-esque wife and mother of the year calibre. There's a genuine classiness, sweetness and assuredness to her role that makes her an ideal balance to her stammering husband.

If I have any qualms about the film, it is with the score than with anything else. While Alexandre Desplat's score is lovely and moving, I couldn't help but feel it was overused and too obvious a ploy for sentiment. I felt some of the scenes had enough strength within the story and performances and didn't need the score overhead. I wouldn't be surprised if this is a minority opinion, but I just felt the score sometimes went against the film. But hey, maybe it wouldn't have been such an emotional experience without it?

As period dramas go, I felt the film was very evocative of its 1930s setting, with the costume and art design being very good. There was a nice piece of cinematography during the king's important wartime speech near the end, in which the king waits for the red buzzer to stop flashing for him to start his speech. Well, rather than turning to the buzzer, the camera stays on Firth's face as the red flashes on and off upon it. I thought that was a pretty effective little touch to the scene.

Overall I really enjoyed this one. The story and performances in particular elevate it from standard period drama to something more inspiring.