Category: Comedies

The Philadelphia Story (US 1940)

the_philadelphia_story

This is a classic romantic comedy of the studio era (an MGM production): not quite a screwball but with touches of that genre. The centre of the film is a captivating performance by Katherine Hepburn as socialite Tracy Lord. In fact Hepburn had appeared in the original Broadway production of the play by Philip Barry. That other unconventional Hollywood figure, Howard Hughes, bought the rights to the play and presented it to Hepburn. So she was able to pick the director, George Cukor, and also have some say in the casting.

The cast is splendid. Cary Grant is ex-husband C. K. Dexter Haven, rather less virtuous than his ex-wife Tracy. James Stewart is journalist Macaulay O’Connor, playing the role lightly in the period before filmmakers discovered his dark side. And he is accompanied delightfully by Ruth Hussey as his photographer Elizabeth Imbrie. The plot revolves around Tracy’s planned second wedding to George Kittredge (John Howard) safely contained within the Hays Code. The principals are at times very funny, at times very charming. The supporting cast is excellent. My particular favourite is William Daniel  as Sidney Kidd, publisher and the employer of O’Connor and Imbrie. It is his machinations which propel much of the plot and which also provide a fine final moment to the film.

Hepburn had good taste in directors, in this case George Cukor. Among Cukor’s talents was the ability to bring out full and distinctive characterisation from female stars. And he is working with a number of other fine craftsmen, including Joseph Ruttenberg on cinematography and Franz Waxman providing the score.

The film was an undoubted success, something that escaped Hepburn in a number of her earlier starring roles. It received six nominations for Academy Awards. James Stewart walked off with the Best Actor Oscar. The writer Donald Ogden Stewart won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. His success was curtailed within a decade as he was one of the victims of the Hollywood Blacklist.

The property was remade in 1956 as High Society. It is not in the same class but, as a musical, it does have some fine numbers. Now it will be possible to see the original this coming Saturday (June 18th) at the Hebden Bridge Picture House. It seems the film will screen in its original format, Academy ratio black and white 35mm: it will look all the better for this, though it also has a 1940s mono soundtrack.

Apologies, it seems the film is screening from digital.

Planeta Singli (Poland 2016)

Ania (Agnieszka Wiedlocha) and Tomek (Maciej Stuhr) meet for the first time.

Ania (Agnieszka Wiedlocha) and Tomek (Maciej Stuhr) meet for the first time.

Planeta Singli is the latest Polish blockbuster to hit the UK in an attempt to find the large Polish diaspora audience. Polish is officially the UK’s leading second language (i.e. the first language of a million or more Poles resident in the UK). We’ve had Polish films on release in the UK over the last ten years or so, but usually from UK-based distributors. Planeta Singli follows Pitbull as a release from the US distributor Phoenix via an exclusive deal with Odeon (although I understand ‘second-run’ deals with other cinemas are a possibility). See Charles Gant in the Guardian for the full story.

The title of this new release refers to an internet dating app – ‘Planet Single’ – but the film’s narrative is much more complex than that single reference might suggest. This a rom-com that runs 136 mins –very long by UK/US rom-com standards. In fact, the film manages to combine two parallel family melodramas with a romance and a satire on talk shows as well as internet dating. Slovenian director Mitja Okorn already has form with his local Polish hit Letters to Santa (2011). Various European countries have local traditions involving comedies for particular seasons (e.g. the Christmas comedies in Italy) but Planeta Singli looks like a bid to challenge Hollywood directly (keeping Deadpool from top spot at the Polish box office). Ania (Agnieszka Wiedlocha) is a music teacher in an elementary school still ‘tied’ to her mother at 27 after her father’s death. Her friend Ola is married to the school’s head teacher who has a teenage daughter from his first marriage. Ola is glamorous but unable to hold down a job. Ania is responsible but seemingly rather ‘buttoned up’. Attempting internet dating for the first time, Ania finds herself somehow landed with Tomek (Maciej Stuhr), the presenter of an edgy TV talkshow which uses his skills as a puppeteer. Tomek does a deal with Ania – she will tell him the details of her dates that he will use for stories on his show and in return he will buy her a Steinway piano for her school music project.

Ania in teaching mode with her music group.

Ania in teaching mode with her music group.

Ania in her new 'stylish' mode with one of her later dates

Ania in her new ‘stylish’ mode with one of her later dates

What follows is in many ways quite conventional and the finale is also very sentimental (and invokes the music competition performance that has become something of a staple). Yet the writing is sharp, the film is genuinely funny and the performances are very good, especially from the two leads. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the film is the transformation in the presentation of Ania in terms of hair and make-up and especially costume. This ‘makeover’ reminded me of the Bette Davis character in Now Voyager. The film has the problem of presenting a beautiful woman as ‘dowdy’. The solution appears to be to dress her in loose tops and skirts, to pin her hair up and to give her oversize horn-rimmed glasses. As the transformation develops she lets her hair down, applies make-up and wears heels. Her costumes change to outfits that seemed to me to more like 60s and 70s fashion and several of them made me think of Audrey Hepburn. Fashion isn’t really my thing. Agnieszka Wiedlocha clearly is a beautiful woman who would still look great in jeans and a man’s shirt, preferably sans make-up – but that’s just my taste. I think someone interested in costume could have a field day with this film.

The music used in the film is another important element in the genre mix. A trailer for the next Polish release played before Planeta Singli, announcing ‘the first film to really use top Polish songs’. In Planeta Singli a couple of songs were in English including ‘The Man with an Unknown Soul’ by Polish singer Bovska and a striking version of Paul Simon’s ‘The Sound of Silence’ by Korean-American singer Nouela.

Ola and Bogdan offer the parallel romance as they try to maintain their marriage.

Ola and Bogdan offer the parallel romance as they try to maintain their marriage.

Overall this is an enjoyable rom-com and it’s easy to see why it has been such a big hit. I dread the thought of an American remake and in this respect the film made me think about the smash hit South Korean rom-com My Sassy Girl (2001) which was followed by less successful remakes in the US and India as well as a Chinese sequel. The Polish and Korean films are very different in some ways, though they share scenes associated with the drinking cultures of both countries. But what they both also do is offer genuine romance narratives with well thought-out characters and long complex narratives. If this film makes it to a DVD with subtitles, it would certainly be worth checking out. On subtitles, it’s worth noting that in a film with lots of texting between characters it’s quite difficult to subtitle all the exchanges flashing across the screen.

In the last six months I’ve now seen both Polish and Chinese blockbusters in Odeons outside London. Perhaps a Turkish film will be next?

Here’s the song by Bovska that has been edited to serve as a trailer for the film:

Sirk #3: Has Anybody Seen My Gal? (US 1952)

Piper Laurie and Rock Hudson

Piper Laurie and Rock Hudson

This is the first title in Universal’s ‘Directed by Douglas Sirk’ box-set. After an unhappy time at Columbia, Sirk signed a seven-year contract at Universal and settled down to make a couple of pictures a year for the studio. He was generally happy at Universal but he thought that this was the smallest of the major studios (smaller than Columbia – Universal and Columbia were the ‘mini-majors’ during the studio period since they didn’t own any cinemas). Consequently, most of Sirk’s productions would be superior ‘B’ productions, going against trend in the early 1950s. This meant that the stars  to attract an ‘A’ budget were not available to Sirk and the use of colour was dependent on genre.

Has Anybody Seen My Gal? was Sirk’s fifth Universal picture, a family comedy with several musical numbers eligible for Technicolor under Universal’s policy. The film is significant because it teamed Sirk with a young Rock Hudson for the first time (it also features a brief appearance by James Dean). Hudson gets top billing in retrospect – the film also appears in a Rock Hudson box-set – but he has only a supporting role. The central focus is on the veteran actor Charles Coburn (already in his 70s) with whom Sirk had already worked (on Lured in 1947). Coburn plays an eccentric millionaire in the early 1920s who decides to bequeath his wealth to the family of the girl he loved, but didn’t marry fifty years earlier. He inveigles his way into the Blaisdell family home under an assumed name and literally ‘checks out’ the family. Satisfied that they have the makings of acceptable beneficiaries he attempts to test them by arranging for them to come into a large sum of money – which reveals that there is a weak link in the family group leading to a crisis. Universal’s rules meant that there had to be a happy ending, but Sirk did manage to expose some of the flaws in American bourgeois society even if the ‘feelgood’ aura round the film militated against the satire.

Charles Coburn and Gigi Perreau

Charles Coburn and Gigi Perreau

I enjoyed this film very much. Sirk whisks us through 89 minutes with hardly a pause for breath. Small-town New York state is presented in bright colours and the costumes of the women in the ‘flapper’ era add to the visual punch. Most of the ‘creatives’ on the crew were Universal regulars whose usual commissions ranged across Westerns and Abbott and Costello movies, but they all put in good shifts for Sirk. Musical director Joseph Gershenson had a similar background but also more chances to work on bigger budget films. He would become part of Sirk’s team over several films. Henry Mancini is listed by IMDB as a ‘uncredited composer’.

The film’s title comes from the song and there are other well-known songs sung by the cast including The Red, Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob Bobbing Along’. Piper Laurie at the start of her career is very good as Millicent, the Blaisdell’s older daughter and the grand-daughter of the woman the millionaire loved as a young man. Truly vivacious, Piper Laurie immediately recalls the impact of seeing Debbie Reynolds in Singin’ in the Rain for the first time. (Laurie followed Reynolds into cinemas just a few weeks later). Her younger sister in the family, played by 9 year-old Gigi Perreau, is the other standout player. She was an established child star of the period and gives a lively performance – taking Coburn’s character at face value. Sirk told Jon Halliday that he couldn’t remember much about the film – apart from meeting Rock Hudson. I think he should have been pleased to make such a fresh version of a rather formulaic story. He was helped by a sharp script by Joseph Hoffman from a story by Eleanor H. Porter (best known for 1913 children’s novel, Pollyanna). If you want some heartwarming entertainment, this fits the bill.

Café Society (US 2016)

Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) and Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg)

Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) and Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg)

Woody Allen is still making movies at nearly 80. Is that a good thing? Some directors make important films in their last decades. Ken Loach (the same age as Woody) has just won the Palme d’Or for an angry cry out against austerity and neo-liberalism, but Woody seems to just keep going without any real purpose except to just keep going. I’m making this judgement based on reviews I’ve read since I’d only seen one of his films, Vicky Cristina Barcelona in 2009, in the last twenty years before I caught his new film as a holiday treat. Despite a strong cast I thought that Vicky Cristina Barcelona was deeply flawed. Café Society has a similarly strong cast, but it is at least an enjoyable entertainment.

Opening Cannes this year, Café Society went straight into a French release. It offers us Jesse Eisenberg in a familiar role not dissimilar to the twin roles he played in The Double by Richard Ayoade. His character Bobby Hoffman begins as a shy, socially inept young man from the Bronx thrown into Hollywood society in the late 1930s and working for his uncle (Steve Carell) an important agent/wheeler-dealer. Bobby meets Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) his uncle’s secretary, falling in love and unwittingly creating a family problem as well as learning a whole range of new skills. Transformed by his Hollywood experience Bobby returns to New York and becomes a successful house manager at the night club owned by his gangster brother. Having been forced to leave Vonnie in Hollywood, the plot sets up the possibility of a later meeting in New York. But now Bobby is also able to woo other women in New York.

Allen riffs on two distinct genres that he has ‘played’ before. A musical analogy is not inappropriate since the setting is the period of Woody Allen’s early childhood and he fills the soundtrack with sublime music (matching the equally sublime cinematography of Vittorio Storaro) mainly performed by Vince Giordano and The Nighthawks. A New York Jewish family comedy-drama is melded with a romantic drama. Bobby also has an older sister married to a socialist ‘intellectual’. His mother is the driving force in the family with Ken Stott a surprising but pretty effective father in the background. The setting also brings to mind Some Like it Hot – and perhaps the Viennese comedies that Wilder himself was riffing on. Because of the gangster angle we get some very dark comedy moments but mostly Allen seems to be reworking material he’s done before. My interest in the film was mainly the chance to see the further development of Kristen Stewart as a compelling performer. I thought she was the standout in a very good cast. She manages to make believable a character who wears an alice band, white socks and short 1930s dresses but who is also clearly bright (a literature Masters) and more than capable of negotiating the twists and turns of Hollywood insider life. I suspect that in choosing a Barbara Stanwyck clip to set up Vonnie as a ‘player’, Woody Allen was going with Stewart’s own preference.

This was a pleasant way to pass 96 minutes. The story was interesting enough to engage us, the performances were all good and the technical credits were excellent. Woody Allen himself did the voiceover narration – which I know many people don’t like, but it worked perfectly for me. It was worthwhile Woody. As long as actors (young and old) want to work with you, there is still a market for films like this.

Here’s the French VOSF trailer: