(On Cable TV, December 2018) I know that many people consider the 1954 version of A Star is Born to be the definitive take on the story, Judy Garland elevating the material in a way that’s not harmed by the rough edges of the 1937 version or Streisand’s invasive influence on the 1976 remake. But… I beg to differ, largely on the strength of the argument that I don’t like Judy Garland all that much. Still, it’s worth acknowledging that this 1954 version, as directed by George Cukor, is a much slicker version of the previous take on the film—the budget is clearly there, and the film can be lavish in the way it shows the nature of stardom in the mid-1950s. Alas, this indulgence also makes the film longer and duller with every full-length musical number stopping the film dead in its track. The 1983 re-edit of the film, which attempts to incorporate cut sequences with a mixture of audio and still pictures, is not as good as it sounds—I probably would have liked the unaltered 1954 version a bit better. This being said, I quite liked James Mason in the male lead role, as he captures the mixture of arrogance and vulnerability that the part requires. Meanwhile, superstar Garland sings well, but looks twenty years older than she should. While the film leans heavily in its musical genre, it does keep enough of Hollywood to bridge the gap between the all-movies 1937 version and the all-music 1976/2018 versions—and the look at 1950s Hollywood is simply fascinating.
(In French, On TV, November 2018) I’m on a quest to watch pretty much everything that George Cukor has directed, and for Let’s Make Love to feature Marilyn Monroe is just extra incentive. Coming at this film with expectations raised too high may be a problem, though: despite a few cameos and occasional flashes of wit, the result is decidedly average and not quite what we’d expect from the cast or the opening moments. The first few minutes of the film do set up a far funnier film than what we get, through narration explaining the family history of the lead character (played by Yves Montand), a Franco-American billionaire who ends up playing himself in a satirical play in order to get close to Monroe’s character. The difficulties in having a businessman attempting to become a stage sensation soon lead him to the film’s most inspired sequences, namely hiring Milton Berle for comedy tips, Gene Kelly for dancing lessons and Bing Crosby to learn how to sing. The three men play themselves, leading to a few cool moments if you’re already a fan of these entertainment legends. Otherwise, though, the film is surprisingly underwhelming. The traditional romantic comedy hijinks aren’t executed particularly well when Montand looks lost (thanks to language difficulties), Monroe is fine but doesn’t have much of a character besides looking pretty (this was at a point in her career when she was gathering a reputation for being unreliable), and the casting definitely seems off. High expectations make this film a disappointment, so do try to keep them under check: it’s not as good as you think it will be from reading the cast list, and the behind-the-scenes drama of making the film (what with an affair between the two leads even as they were married to other high-profile celebrities) is arguably more interesting than what shows up on-screen. [December 2018: My opinion of Let’s Make Love went up a small notch after catching an English-language broadcast of the film: The French version not only has some very awkward transitions between English-language songs and interstitial French dialogue, but has the gall to cut off some of the Berle/Kelly/Crosby material that is the highlight of the film. French dubs are usually much better than this.]
(On DVD, June 2018) Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn are back on-screen as a warring couple in Adam’s Rib: As a prosecutor (Tracy) takes on an attempted murder case set against a love triangle, his wife (Hepburn) takes on the case for the woman accused of trying to kill her husband while he was having what looks like an affair. Courtroom hijinks ensue, followed by further fireworks at home when pillow talk becomes legal talk. Like many screwball comedies of the time, Adam’s Rib does depend on a somewhat caricatured premise—not only that a wife would deliberately take on a case opposite her husband without having some serious conflict-of-interest professional issues, but that a judge would allow circus-like antics in his courtroom. The point of the film, obviously, is to see Tracy and Hepburn play off each other, and provide a satisfying climax right after being brought to the brink of divorce. It has certainly aged, but it’s still generally effective largely thanks to the lead actors. Hepburn is fantastic, and you can see that her role in the film is on the inflection point that brought her from floppy-haired ingénue roles to the matriarchal characters that would dominate the rest of her career. Tracy is less flashy but no less effective—the ending would have flopped with countless other actors, but he manages to sell it. Together, in this sixth film starring both of them, they have fantastic timing—so much so that at time, director George Cukor simply records their banter without moving the camera or cutting to different angles. David Wayne does shine in a small role with a few very funny moments. While some moments of the film don’t play particularly well today, the charm of the production generally overcomes those weaker moments—and the happy ending does redeem an increasingly darker third act. As a romantic comedy, Adam’s Rib is blunter than what we’re used to, but still remarkable in its own way.
(On DVD, June 2018) The great things about digging deeper and deeper in a hobby is that the digging eventually produces its own rewards. In my case, I’ve been watching older and older movies, and discovering new favourite actors. To have The Philadelphia Story pop up on my pile of films to watch at this point is a gift: A movie starring Katharine Hepburn and James Stewart and Cary Grant? What have I done to get such a treat? Even better: it’s a screwball comedy, fast establishing itself as one of my favourite bygone genres. I was primed for a good time and got exactly what I wanted: A fast, witty, fun romantic comedy featuring Hepburn at her most alluring, Stewart as his usual sympathetic self and Grant in a plum comic role. The script provides witty lines, great characters and a savvy understanding of the mechanics of the genre, while director George Cukor keeps things moving even as the film multiplies small subplots on the way to a satisfying conclusion. Among supporting players, Ruth Hussey is surprisingly fun as a no-nonsense photographer, while Virginia Weidler is a discovery as a sassy young sister. Still, this is a picture that belongs to Hepburn, perfectly cast as a woman struggling with goddess-hood. Both Stewart and Grant also play to their strengths, helping to make The Philadelphia Story a definitive statement about three screen legends. It still plays exceptionally well today.
(On Cable TV, April 2018) The term “gaslighting” seems to be everywhere these days thanks to the truth-denying efforts of the current US administration, so why not go back to the source that named the issue? Fortunately, there’s a lot to like in Gaslight beyond the terminology—this story of a woman being deceived and endangered by her husband remains a really good thriller today. Ingrid Bergman is as attractive as ever as the heroine, while Charles Boyer handles the transformation of his character from attractive stranger to an abusive husband very well. An 18-year-old Angela Lansbury shows up in a small role. The film’s cinematography is notable in that it gradually transitions from a brightly lit romance to a stark chiaroscuro Gothic (or noir) thriller as the story evolves. The suspense is gripping, and the use of mystery does help propel the narration forward. Director George Cukor is best-known for comedies, but he was equally adept at adapting novels to the screen and Gaslight is a perfectly acceptable thriller. There were a fair number of women-in-domestic-distress thrillers during the 1940s but Gaslight holds its own against most of them.