(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.
(On Cable TV, November 2017) The reputation of A Streetcar Named Desire as a theatrical play is well known: Tennessee Williams’ dramatically complex piece features deep yet archetypical characters, plenty of delusions and confrontations, a shattering climax and enough opportunities along the way for actors to show their talents. Much of that is intact in the film, with the added appeal of a well-executed period depiction taking us in late-1940s New Orleans slums. The depth and unsaid elements of the script distinguish A Streetcar Named Desire from shallower entertainment, and despite significant self-censorship, the film does hold up quite well today in terms of characterization. But the most remarkable thing about the film (and the one reason why I consciously restarted watching the film after a distracted first attempt) remains the incredible clash of acting styles between Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando. In a reflection of their respective characters, they each inhabit a distinct reality which comes across through acting styles. Leigh, as Blanche Dubois, is from the older theatrical tradition, emoting to the audience in a self-conscious fashion, lying to herself as much as to others. Brando, meanwhile, shatters the film’s overall atmosphere the moment he shows up, speaking plainly and harshly. He is a realist forced to live alongside a dreamer and the way they react to each other is preordained. While part of this clash comes from the evolution of cinema acting, another part of it is very conscious and helps reinforce the script as it shows the inevitable confrontation between both characters. That neither of them earns our sympathy is one of the reasons why we’re still watching sixty-five years later.
(On Cable TV, September 2017) What a movie. What a terrific movie. While Gone with the Wind surely ranks way up the list of overexposed films (it’s still the highest-grossing film in history when adjusted for inflation—nearly everyone saw it back then), there’s a reason why it still works nearly eighty years later, even with its three-hour-plus duration, even as it expresses warm feelings toward historically repellent issues. There are a lot of ways to see the movie (as an epic family drama, as a romance, as a historical film) but I found it most effective as a character piece tracking the evolution of a young woman into a hardened life-scarred survivor. Vivien Leigh stars as the legendary Scarlett O’Hara, growing up through civil war and reconstruction from a flighty heiress to the mistress of a domain, a grieving mother and someone who will never be able to live with the love of her life. (It’s significant that Rhett Butler, her counterpart played by Clark Gable, also looms large as an oversized character, but does not significantly evolve during much of the film.) The lavish production values of the film as still amazing today, whether it’s the vivid colours (wow, those dresses), the burning of Atlanta or, more strikingly, the hideous open-air hospital scenes with what looks like thousands of extras—in high definition, the movie still amazes through its sheer visual density. As a sumptuous historical recreation, Gone with the Wind is an amazing time capsule from the thirties looking back at the eighteen-sixties—just consider that the film is now significantly closer to the American Civil War than to today. Alas, this proximity leads to a few unfortunate consequences—at times, modern viewers will feel some revulsion at the way the film excuses or regrets the Confederacy and the systemic use of slavery as an economic system. This also ties with the representation of black characters in the film—ludicrous today, but groundbreaking at the time (leading to the first-ever Academy Award given to a black actor, Hattie McDaniel). But a film doesn’t last nearly eighty years without reflecting its own era, and Gone With the Wind has endured far better than most movies of its time.