(On Cable TV, January 2019) There are many ways in which Ship of Fools reminded me of Grand Hotel—its 1930s setting, its ensemble cast with overlapping subplots, its black-and-white cinematography and its mixture of American and German characters. However, the comparisons only go so far and the crucial difference between the two movies is not that one is in a building and the other on an ocean liner, but that one was made in 1932 and the other one after World War II. As a result, expect a lot more Nazis in Ship of Fools than Grand Hotel, and the portentous veil that this distance casts over the entire film. As the film begins assembling its large cast of characters, it quickly becomes apparent that this isn’t just about people travelling from North America to Europe on a steam ship, but a message movie about the rise of fascism in Europe. (Contemporary viewers would have known that from seeing that it’s directed by Stanley Kramer, a renowned social issues filmmaker.) The foreboding feeling is accentuated by the characters opposing their views on the world, and the film sides squarely with the marginalized over more conventional heroes. (In addition to characters with terminal illnesses or mental conditions, there are Jewish characters, obviously, and the film’s most likable character, its narrator, is played by 3′10″ Michael Dunn in an Oscar-nominated performance.) The ensemble cast is impressive, what with Lee Marvin, Vivien Leigh (in her last film), José Ferrer and a terrific Simone Signoret. Ship of Fools is certainly preachy, but there’s a powerful sense of impending doom as the characters get closer to their German port of arrival. The last few moments are particularly hard-hitting, as the narrator delivers a bitterly ironic envoi.
(In French, On TV, January 2019) The 1960s were a strange time for movies, with studios chasing epic films in a decades-long fight to convince TV viewers to make the trip to theatres. It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World is special in that it (along with The Great Race) was a rare attempt to make an epic comedy rather than rely on oh-so-very-serious biblical or historical source material. The result is, indeed a spectacle: As a few strangers hear a dying thief give them the location of a hidden treasure, the rest of the film is a madcap, multi-character chase through the southwestern United States in an attempt to get to the treasure before everyone else. The ensemble cast is a collection of early 1960s comedy stars, even though most of them are now unfamiliar to contemporary audiences. Still, what has not gone out of style is the succession of action set-pieces, impressive stunt work, breakneck editing and far-fetched comic situations in which the characters find themselves. Where else can you witness a plane flying (for real!) through a billboard; a man destroying a service station; or characters stuck on an out-of-control fireman ladder? It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World is admittedly very long—at nearly three hours (with half an hour cut from the first showings!), it would be a test of anyone’s patience, except that the laughs and the fast pacing do keep things hopping quickly: director Stanley Kramer may not have the deftest touch with comedy and specifically verbal comedy, but the result speaks for itself. While the film is easy to like, there are a few things that hold it back from unconditional love—namely, that the point of the film is a greedy chase, and so nearly every character (even the one played by the normally likable Spencer Tracy) eventually succumbs to pure old-fashioned backstabbing greed. The ending does the most of what it can with the cards it’s given, but there’s still an absence of a pure happy ending for anyone that stings a bit. Still, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World is a classic for a reason, and its sheer lengths and density of comic set-pieces make it a decent prospect for a rewatch.
(On Cable TV, January 2018) It’s not a failure if some social-issue films don’t work as well now than at the time of their release—sometimes, the world moves in the direction advocated, and as a result the film looks as if it’s been outpaced by the future. So it is that the central conceit of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (a white girl bringing back a black fiancé home for her parents’ approval) doesn’t quite have the same charge fifty years later. And that’s quite all right. This being said, let’s not take this for a condemnation of the work from director Stanley Kramer, or by Spencer Tracy, Sidney Poitier, and Katharine Hepburn. After all, the film finished shooting six months before Loving v. Virginia actually legalized interracial marriages across the United States. But it does feel a bit stuffy, all the way to a conclusion that boils down to an intensely paternalistic “Father has thought about it and will let you crazy kids do whatever you want” conclusion. It’s not quite fair to dismiss the film in such a way (and indeed, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’s ending gets far more potent once you read about how Spencer Tracy died two weeks after shooting his final scene and final film with long-time co-star Katharine Hepburn) but it is definitely a reflection of its time, and time has moved on.
(Second Viewing, On Cable TV, October 2018) As I suspected, revisiting Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner after watching a handful of Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn movies has significantly improved my opinion of the film. This was a partial re-watch, focusing on the scenes featuring Tracy and Hepburn, and it affirms that Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is a terrific victory lap for Tracy, whose kindly-father persona here acts as a capstone to a career that saw numerous pairings with Hepburn at various moments in their careers. It’s easy to imagine a shared backstory for their characters that includes bits and pieces of Woman of the Year or Adam’s Rib, and that’s when context can become crucial in seeing what the fuss is about a particular movie. If you de-emphasize the racial message and focus on the Hepburn/Spencer couple, this film becomes a satisfying epilogue to a shared on-screen career, well worth watching if you’re familiar with the rest of the Hepburn/Tracy filmography.