In 1942 Ida Lupino was an established star at Warner Bros. She had top billing in the 1941 film that made Humphrey Bogart an A list star at Warners – High Sierra. This followed her performance in They Drive By Night (1940) which had wowed the critics. She had lead roles opposite Edward G. Robinson in The Sea Wolf (1941) and John Garfield in Out of the Fog in the same year. Everything was going well but still Warner Bros. didn’t really know what to do with her. She was loaned out as the lead in two films for Twentieth-Century Fox and one for Columbia before she got another Warners role – and this only because Bette Davis turned it down. She was top-billed in The Hard Way and this turned out to be one of the few films for which she received the recognition for her performance that she always deserved. On the film’s release a year later it won the New York’s Critics’ Circle award for Best Actress.
As in many of Lupino’s films, her role in The Hard Way is not the heroic role but instead the one that drives the melodrama narrative. Lupino plays Helen Churnen, a woman in her mid-twenties who has married an older man, a worker in an industrial town. Her mother had died and Helen thought marriage would save her from poverty during the depression. Now she feels trapped. She intends to prevent her younger sister Katie (Joan Leslie), who lives with her, from suffering the same fate. Joan Leslie had been a child performer and after several uncredited roles in films in the 1930s was finally getting adult roles. In 1942 she was still just 17 tears old. The narrative of The Hard Way sees Katie leaving high school and hoping to become a stage performer. Helen determines to be her ‘stage mother’, abandoning her marriage to accompany Katie and trying to make sure she becomes successful. Katie meets a pair of vaudeville performers, traditional ‘song and dance men’ played by Jack Carson and Dennis Morgan. Carson’s character, Albert Runkel, falls for Katie in a big way and it is through him that she gains an entry into show business. But it is Helen who makes sure that Katie exploits her talent, sometimes by ‘any means necessary’. Kunkel’s performer partner Paul Collins sees Helen’s involvement as poisonous and what might have been a showbiz ‘rags to riches’ story becomes a dark melodrama with tragic outcomes.
The original idea behind the film was based on a story by Irwin Shaw about the relationship between Ginger Rogers and her mother Lela. Ginger joined a vaudeville show as a dancer when only 14 and married at 17 in 1928. She eventually got second lead roles in film musicals in 1930. The screenplay for The Hard Way by Daniel Fuchs and Peter Viertel was intended as a vehicle for Bette Davis, but was also offered to Ginger Rogers herself according to some sources. Both turned down the role. Ida Lupino was sometimes seen as Warners’ back-up for Davis but she was ten years younger than Davis (and seven years younger than Rogers). When she made The Hard Way she was just 24, but played the role much older so that the relationship with Leslie’s character sometimes feels like the classic mother-daughter relationship of the 1940s ‘woman’s picture’. In 1942, just a few months into the American involvement in the Second World War, some directors as well as male stars were beginning to become unavailable after signing up for service. Warners clearly saw The Hard Way as a major production but the director job went to the relatively low-profile contract director Vincent Sherman. Sherman had worked on a range of projects, including films with John Garfield and Humphrey Bogart, but not yet with major female stars. After The Hard Way he would direct Lupino and Davis in two films each and later two more with Joan Crawford, so Warners must have been satisfied with what he achieved. Two other significant names on The Hard Way were James Wong Howe as cinematographer and Don Siegel in his familiar role as ‘montage editor’ before his directorial career took off a few years later. Wong Howe didn’t enjoy working on the film because he thought Sherman was too inexperienced. This seems an odd remark (quoted in Alain Silver’s book James Wong Howe, The Camera Eye, Pendragon 2010) and it may simply be that the celebrated cinematographer thought the film wasn’t going to be an interesting story in visual terms. But that too is not really the case.
When the film was completed, Jack Warner felt it was too downbeat and he asked for the addition of an opening scene with a more glamorous Lupino who would then introduce the story as one long flashback (in a manner not dissimilar to the start of a film noir). This sequence required a set similar to those used by Wong Howe for parts of Out of the Fog, his first film shooting with Lupino. The town of Greenhill, where the story proper begins, is presented using a sequence which is said to have been taken from a Pare Lorentz documentary made during the Great Depression. Later in the story there are several opportunities taken to use the montage skills of Don Siegel for the familiar swirl of theatre handbills, performances, newspaper headlines etc. against a musical medley and a voiceover narration. It’s possible that Lupino spent some time with Siegel (who was also a Warner Bros. contractee). Later he directed the last of the films produced by Lupino’s company The Filmakers, Private Hell 36 (1954). There are certainly expressionist images both in the montages (a screen of clockfaces representing the pressure on Katie as her career develops quickly), in some of the many backstage scenes and in the opening sequence. The art director on the film was Max Parker, seemingly another Warner contractee who would work with Lupino again on her last Warners picture, Deep Valley in 1947. The Hard Way uses many music tracks, both diegetic and non-diegetic, and they are all listed on the film’s Wikipedia page.
The Hard Way was a success at the box office. Variety in January 1944 reported rentals (i.e a net return to the studio production division) of $1.5 million, placing the film as twelfth among the 14 Warners films that returned for than $1 million to the studio in 1943. Lupino also appeared alongside the other leading Warners players in the third-placed title in Warners’ list, Thank Your Lucky Stars – a compendium film of sketches and musical performances, one of several such films made during wartime. This had rentals of $2.8 million. In the same report, Ida Lupino is reported as fourth on the box office list for Warner Bros. after Bogart, Davis and Errol Flynn. Given this high spot in the Warner Bros. roster it’s perhaps surprising that Lupino didn’t get better parts over the next couple of years.
But what did Ida’s loyal fans and more general audiences make of her role and her performance? Too often, even with top billing and her usual strong performance, Lupino’s character was out of the limelight – quite literally in this case. In The Hard Way it could be argued that Helen is the villain, capable of stepping on anyone who stands in the way of Katie’s success. But Helen is doing this for her sister and she only knows how to do it the hard way. Vincent Sherman understood the story and he strove to make the town of Greenhill as grimy and smoky as he could – somewhere that a bright young woman would want to escape from. A wartime audience in 1943, especially one with a majority of women, many in work for the first time, may well have understood the story too, including the bonds between the sisters. Helen is promoting the idea that a woman’s career is important. As some modern reviewers note, the mores of the time meant that no man could cope with the idea that his wife might become the main breadwinner and this becomes the pivotal realisation in the narrative. The film pleased Monthly Film Bulletin‘s reviewer in the UK (November 1942) who praised all the performances and saw Vincent Sherman’s direction “leaving nothing to be desired” for a film that “achieves a most unusual sincerity”. According to Lupino’s biographer William Donati, the star at first didn’t take to Sherman and thought she didn’t understand the film. She was quite ill during the shoot but most of all she was devastated by the death of her father, the great stage performer Stanley Lupino, from cancer at the young age of 48. But Ida was a trouper and she completed the film. After the positive reviews she felt better and formed a strong friendship with Vincent Sherman who would then direct two further Warners films with Lupino as lead.
The Hard Way is not easy to find in the UK, but it is available in the US and it’s an essential film in Ida Lupino’s filmography.
Nina Hoss is a star and a very talented actor and I have enjoyed all her work with Christian Petzold. Now it seems she is keen to support the work of German women as directors and I was excited to see how The Audition, one of two films Hoss made with women in 2019, would pan out. The film was co-written and directed by Ina Weisse, an actor who has now directed three features. Her co-writer here was Daphne Charzani.
The Audition is a complex drama about music and the passion of expert performers. It’s also about tuition and pedagogy and the emotional intimacy of one on one tuition. All of this concerns Anna (Nina Hoss), a violinist who has had to abandon an orchestral career because of anxiety about her playing and who now teaches in a music school in Berlin. Anna is married to a French luthier, Philippe ( Simon Akbarian), who works beneath their apartment and she has a son, Jonas (Serafin Mishiev) who is clearly also a talented musician but as a young teenager is beginning to rebel against his mother. Finally, Anna also has a caring responsibility for her elderly father. It’s a great deal to contend with, especially when Anna takes on a new student, Alex (Ilja Monti), and when she has an offer to join a string quintet led by a fellow teacher.
Female-centred melodramas often feature the woman who has to be wife, lover, mother and daughter but here she must try and be teacher and performer as well. Nina Hoss can manage to represent all of these challenges and she is supported by the script, the ensemble of other players and the direction. Watching the film I had a real sense of just how complex and intelligent was the script and how much Nina Hoss had to express herself through posture and gesture. In an interview she revealed that she could play the piano but had to learn how to hold the violin and how to use the bow. I also thought about how much high art culture seems to be venerated in Germany and other countries of mainland Europe for its own qualities and not, as sometimes in the UK, because of social cachet. I’m not knowledgeable about classical music but I was engaged by the intricacies of the music teaching processes here. I’ve seen some reviews that mention similar American films like Whiplash. I haven’t seen that film but I did think about several European films. Two that sprung to mind were Vier Minuten (Four Minutes, Germany 2006) and La tourneuse de pages (The Page Turner, France 2006). Both of these films share elements about tuition and performance with The Audition, although all three titles offer different narratives. Crucially they all deal with passion related to music and tuition.
The Audition is a good example of a contemporary melodrama. The music drives the passion which in turn needs a release in Anna’s sexual behaviour but also causes an anxiety. There is a great deal happening in the narrative which is difficult to sort out and analyse after a single viewing. Anna finds herself in some form of ‘contest’ with a range of male figures – her husband, father and son, her tutee and two of her colleagues at the music school. Unusually for a female-centred melodrama she doesn’t have a close female friend and the two women she does communicate with are both in some way competitors. One intriguing aspect of the interpretation of Anna concerns the costumes that Nina Hoss wears. One reviewer refers to them as ‘matronly’ and it’s true that I did notice the lack of glamour. There also seems to be a tension between the elegance that Nina Hoss brings to any role and the awkward stances taken up by Anna on occasion. An issue with her skirt also adds to her anxiety at one moment.
In many traditional melodramas the woman who has ‘too much’ passion is ‘punished’ in some way by the resolution of the narrative – a punishment that brings her back ‘into line’. We hope that we’ve moved on from that ideological position and the resolution of the narrative in this film is much more complex. It is a very dramatic ending and it isn’t necessarily all about Anna. In one sense she triumphs but in another she fails. There are consequences for several other characters.
This is certainly one of the best dramatic narratives I’ve seen for some time and I’m still processing it. I’ve read several reviews that I don’t agree with on a range of points. It was sheer joy to watch Nina Hoss present the complex world of Anna Bronsky. The good news is that distributors New Wave have acquired the title for UK distribution but no details of a release are available yet. When it does appear I hope to be able to use it in teaching. [It was released in the UK on April 1st 2022.}
There is no way I couldn’t enjoy Wild Rose. I love traditional country music and I’m particularly fond of a group of female country singers, many of whom are referenced in this film. I’m also a big fan of the classic country biopics, Coalminer’s Daughter (1980, the Loretta Lynn story) and Sweet Dreams (US 1985, the Patsy Cline story). Add to that, Jessie Buckley has a great voice and a real screen presence and I’m sold. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t several questions to ponder and to wonder whether an even better (but less commercial) film is buried in there somewhere.
The Irish actor-singer Jessie Buckley plays Rose-Lynn Harlan, a woman in her late 20s but with the dreams (and selfishness) of a younger woman. As the narrative begins she is being released from prison with an electronic tag. She returns to her mother Marion (Julie Walters) and her two young children, a boy of five and a girl of eight. Soon, Marion will force Rose out into her own council flat with the two kids, pushing her to take responsibility. Trapped by the tag and a night-time curfew, she has to rebuild her life and grapple with her dream of going to Nashville. Her possible ‘way out’ is a meeting with an unlikely mentor and supporter, Susannah (Sophie Okonedo), who can open doors usually closed to the likes of Rose. She will eventually make use of one of those doors opening, but this isn’t a conventional ‘star is born’ story.
Wild Rose was a big hit at the Glasgow Film Festival earlier this year and the film celebrates aspects of Glasgow culture. But also in some ways perpetuates a trend in Scottish film culture, following on from Sunshine on Leith, in having an English director (Tom Harper who handles the material well) and two English lead players with the central character played by an Irish woman. The script is by Nicole Taylor, who is a Scottish writer, best known for a range of well-received TV scripts. This gives it enough authenticity and credibility but does it need the starpower of Julie Walters and Sophie Okonedo to get made? Like most UK projects of this kind the production was dependent on public funding – Creative Scotland, BFI and Film 4. I’m imagining the casting decisions aimed at overseas distribution, especially in North America. Julie Walters is very good, dialling down some of her familiar excessive moves. I’m not qualified to judge her accent but it seemed OK to me and Sophie Okonedo is great as usual but I wonder if their presence creates expectations about the narrative?
In much the same way, the songs for Rose to sing are carefully chosen. In the promotional material certain songs are picked out. ‘Country Girl’ originally by Scottish band Primal Scream and ‘Angel from Montgomery’ by John Prine (made famous by Bonnie Raitt) are two titles not usually associated with country music. Perhaps the distributors worried about the disdain for country shown by many in the UK? I wonder if the promotion in the US will pick out other songs? Rose actually sings songs by Wynonna Judd, Patty Griffin and Trisha Yearwood which might be more germane.
I’m being picky because I’m so invested in the music. The house band recruited for the film are excellent and they play mainly with traditional instruments. Glasgow is the focus point for the meeting of Irish and Scottish traditional music with North American associated music culture every year in the Transatlantic Sessions and Celtic Connections so there is an authenticity in both the playing and the Glasgow cultural roots. Because I don’t watch ‘reality TV’, I was unaware that Jessie Buckley had made a big impact on the show that sought to find a new singer for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musicals. She can certainly sing and I was convinced that she could make it singing most forms of popular music. She also has the acting ability to make Rose-Lynn believable. This all means that Wild Rose is very enjoyable and entertaining. But it could be something else as well. I was reminded of the Irish film Once (2007) which told a simple story but explored a real interest in music (and won an Oscar).
Urban Hymn marks the theatrical return of Scottish director Michael Caton-Jones and a rare leading role for the wonderful Shirley Henderson, a leading Scots actor. It’s appropriate then that it should have its world première at the GFT as part of the festival. It also features two young actors who take on important roles and to some extent steal the film. Michael Caton-Jones made three or four of the better UK films during the early 1990s before moving to Hollywood and working with stars like Robert de Niro, a young Leonardo DiCaprio and Bruce Willis. After a few ups and downs he made the well-received Rwanda-set Shooting Dogs in 2005 but then crashed badly with Basic Instinct 2 in 2006. Apart from TV credits he’s been away for nearly a decade and returns with a film that is familiar but slightly odd at the same time. A glowing review followed the première but I’m not so sure. There are many highly enjoyable aspects in the film but also a few puzzles. The film is written by Nick Moorcroft who is perhaps best known as the writer of the recent St. Trinians comedies, but who is promoted in the film’s publicity as writing from his own ‘drug-filled youth’ experiences. Either way he doesn’t seem to have the experience to write the social realist script the film appears to be attempting to use.
The narrative opens with footage of the 2011 riots in London and, via the usual dreadful hand-wringing speech by David Cameron on the radio, then cuts to Shirley Henderson as Kate, a middle-class woman living by the Thames in South-West London who is preparing for an interview at a residential home for children in care. She gets the job despite the doubts of the team leader (played by an abrasive Ian Hart) and soon meets Jamie (Letitia Wright) and Leanne (Isabella Laughland) the inseparable bad girls who, approaching 18, are wasting their last chances to avoid a life in custody or on the streets. Leanne is impossible but Kate latches on to Jamie’s interest in Northern Soul when she hears her singing an Etta James song in her bedroom. This in turn will lead Kate to suggest that Jamie joins the community choir that meets locally. From here on, everything proceeds almost by the book. Kate believes Jamie can be ‘saved’ but Leanne can’t cope with losing her only friend and will attempt to prise her away. It’s not giving too much away to reveal that the story will manage to end both tragically and upliftingly. I found much of this affecting (since I’m in a community choir, love Northern Soul and very much like Shirley Henderson) but I can see plenty of holes.
Choirs, singing competitions and auditions have been all over UK reality TV and in several big screen ventures in recent years and mixing the aspirational tone of these experiences with the brutal world of juvenile detention (Isabella Laughland as Ray Winstone in Scum, down to the ‘batteries in the sock’ weapon) is a novel twist that doesn’t quite work. I’m not sure if the film is attempting the kind of realism that is achieved by Ken Loach and Paul Laverty – or in slightly different terms by Shane Meadows or Clio Barnard – but it doesn’t work here. Setting the story in London also conjures up the new ‘Urban’ genre of the Kidulthood series. But then, making the specific location leafy South-West London (a very long way from the riot-torn estates in Tottenham) seems very odd – not that these problems can’t/don’t exist in Isleworth, but that there seems no connection between Jamie’s world and the streets on which the action takes place. The power of a Loach film like Sweet Sixteen is that we believe that this young man actually lives here and these events could happen. Urban Hymn harks back to an older UK genre, the ‘social problem film’ in which a liberal character representing what’s best in society attempts to solve the problem of wayward youth.
A little digging reveals that this project was initially set up immediately after the riots with Justin Kerrigan (director of Human Traffic (1999) lined up to direct and a story set in Cardiff or Bristol. I had the feeling that the film had hung around as a project. There are other oddities such as an appearance by Billy Bragg as himself (it works in the plot but feels like it belongs in another film) and the under-use of Steven Mackintosh as Kate’s husband. The production company Dashishah Global Film Productions is new and Wikipedia suggests a budget of £2 million – about double that of most UK independent films. The film has appeared at two major festivals, Toronto and Busan and is scheduled for a July 2016 release in eight territories so far, including the UK.
On the plus side, this is a drama with three female leads and if you want a feelgood narrative it will work for you – though it is not as coherent as the earlier festival film, The Violin Teacher. If, however, you want something more analytical and realist, I’d recommend Amma Asante’s A Way of Life (2004) with another Leanne and a hard-hitting story about the struggles of children in care.
A conventional crowdpleaser, The Violin Teacher has enough grit and local ‘colour’ to become an international festival favourite and an arthouse hit (in those territories that, unlike the UK, still show foreign language films). Though conventional the film is in fact inspired by a real project which has seen school students in Heliopolis, the biggest favela in São Paulo, getting the opportunity to learn how to play classical music. The film’s conventionality comes from the decision to meld this with a story about a child prodigy who hasn’t quite made it, but who rediscovers his mojo when declining income forces him to become the reluctant music teacher in said school project.
The teacher is Laerte, a rather earnest and sad-faced African-Brazilian played by Lázaro Ramos whose performance grew on me as the film proceeded. He has just blown an audition for the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra (the most prestigious in South America) and the string quartet that he plays in is breaking up. He daren’t return to his parents and the rent is due on his penthouse flat. Of course, he’s not a very good teacher at first and he will have to go through a learning process to meet his students halfway bef0re he can teach them anything useful. The film’s narrative structure requires Laerte to latch on to the most gifted player, a boy who is plagued by a brutal father and held back by his loyalty to friends who run in a gang, stealing and recycling bank cards (and in turn finding themselves in hock to the criminal bosses in the favela). Inevitably that loyalty will threaten the success of the school project and will act as a challenge to Laerte. Does he feel completely committed to his students – or will he return to his own ambitions once his confidence has returned? Finally, convention requires that the school musicians must give a performance in the favela – which will be a triumph against the odds.
I make these points about conventional scripting not to diminish the film but to place it institutionally. This is a film deliberately produced to attempt to appeal to a local audience and to interest festival programmers and ultimately overseas distributors. It is from the same production company which successfully guided The Second Mother down a similar path in 2015. If the narrative structure supports the universal appeal of the teacher/student/musical performance progression, it relies on significant local research to give the scenario credibility. The film also has a bigger budget than most Brazilian films so that the city can be presented in all its diversity – with aerial photography (and ‘Scope) and a real sense that Laerte ‘crosses the bridge’ from the wealthy city centre to Heliopolis. Similarly, the budget provides for car chases and confrontations between police and favela residents. The research and budget also helped the soundtrack which includes both the classical orchestra players and several of Brazil’s leading popular music players. Co-producer on the film was Fox International, underlining the potential for overseas markets. This Variety report reveals that Fox have acquired the rights for Brazil and Portugal and the rest of Latin America.
The Violin Teacher is an enjoyable film that could do well with the right kind of distributor support. Its major weakness seems to be a failure to develop significant female roles. This doesn’t have to be a love interest for Laerte – though he does have a female friend whose role could be expanded. Rather it could mean one of the girls in the school project being allowed a lead role. Director Sérgio Machado did have Maria Adelaide Amaral, an experienced writer of telenovelas as a writing partner. Perhaps Brazilian writers could learn something from Girlhood (France 2014)? It doesn’t always have to be the boys in the favelas. This turned out to be the first of three films at GFF in which the central character takes on a job dealing with potentially ‘difficult’ young people.