(On Cable TV, April 2018) I think that what I enjoy most out of my data-driven method to watching classic cinema is approaching movies completely blind other than knowing that “a lot of people have watched this.” That’s how I end up watching films that may not sound interesting, but end up being surprisingly enjoyable. Hence The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, a film that sounds terrible from a simple premise (“Widower moves into a seaside house, ends up forming a relationship with the previous owner’s ghost”) but ends up being unexpectedly captivating, and even somewhat fresh even seventy years later. The magic of the film isn’t in its premise but in its execution, with the lovely Gene Tierney turning in an impeccable performance as a widower looking for a fresh life on her own, and especially Rex Harrison as a crusty sea captain having lost little of his lust for life even in death. The first unremarkable few minutes are competently made, but the film takes a life of its own as soon as the ghost makes his appearance. Harrison’s near-parodic take on a sea captain is charming, and the film seamlessly shifts gear from suspense drama to romantic comedy, complete with rather witty dialogue. Then there’s another shift as a live romantic interest shows up, setting up a dramatic triangle that provides much of the film’s third quarter. Then it’s off to another seamless shift into romantic drama, with a last act that takes surprising leaps forward in time, and completes with an incredibly satisfying conclusion. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir has too many rough edges to be considered an all-time classic (some of the dialogue is pandering, and many of the dramatic twists are implausible at best—the last act is particularly problematic), but it’s highly enjoyable and has more than a few pleasant surprises in store for modern viewers. Charming and surprising, it has aged admirably well and represents, even today, an exemplary example of 1940s Hollywood cinema.
(On Cable TV, December 2017) My issues with big Hollywood musicals (especially in their classic pre-seventies period) are simple. They feel interminable, often because (being frequently adapted from endless Broadway musicals) they take narrative breaks during their songs. The song starts and unless it’s a toe-tapper, it’s just as possible to go get a snack and come back in time for the conclusion of the song, at which point nothing will have changed. When the musical is good, it usually gets better toward the end as there is (finally!) some dramatic movement. So it is that much of My Fair Lady is underwhelming, especially at first. The Pygmalion plot being presented piece by piece, we frequently have to stop in order to let the characters have their say and present themselves. Audrey Hepburn is cuteness personified as a coarse commoner being groomed into becoming a passable member of London’s high society, while Rex Harrison is his own brand of fun as a highly self-confident phonetics professor. The film’s big insight that manners make the woman is cogently put, but it does take a while to get there. The film does get better midway through, as the comedy of manners training finally takes off and the female lead is tested in her introduction to high society. The subplot about her family does drag, and My Fair Lady becomes less interesting the more it remembers that it had to deliver a romance in addition to the class comedy. But ultimately, the charm of the lead actors eventually wins out on the way to a predictable conclusion. The film can be watched today and only feel slightly stuffy—the period setting does help a lot in breaking the film out of its production date. While I’m reasonably satisfied with the end result, I still wish it would have been shorter.