The Three Musketeers (1948)

220px-Three_Musketeers_1948.jpg

The Three Musketeers is a luscious Technicolor swashbuckler done in the fashion of the luxuriant Hollywood costume dramas of the time as we are no doubt accustomed to seeing. Fittingly, they’re also easily subject to classic stereotypes. It’s positively bloated with top-tier talent and whether or not it takes on its source material faithfully is generally beside the point.

Its aims are not those of authenticity and if they were it would be laughable. Maybe it is still laughable but it proves to be made for enjoyment as much as it is made up of cliches. Because in one single package it sums up all that is marvelous and to some, all that is tawdry about such productions of old.

It’s a cinematic “Illustrated Classic” courtesy of George Sidney who provides a film that’s precisely to his proclivities as we might expect even if it’s not so much a musical. It’s meant to be gobbled up voraciously by the children and enjoyed with unbridled enthusiasm by their parents. No more, no less.  And how can you not at least admire its sheer gaudy decadence and the way it chooses to slice a path through the material?

Where there’s no pretense to mask any of the actor’s normal speech patterns or any discernable patois. I think mainly of Van Heflin and Vincent Price sounding like they always have and who nevertheless are both generally enjoyable. We also have the pleasure of a cutthroat Lana Turner, an angelic June Allyson, and a various number of others including royalty played by Frank Morgan and Angela Lansbury and a lovestruck maidservant played by Patricia Medina. Undoubtedly there are still others lost under facial hair and plumage but, again, that hardly matters.

Initially, it also felt like a royal pity that Gene Kelly (playing the lead of D’Artagnan) was not dancing but then being the athletic performer that he is, it soon becomes obvious that his sword fighting utilizes many of the limber movements his dancing has and he really is well suited for such a role. If there was ever a genesis for “The Dueling Cavalier” look no further than right here.

Beginning with the opening duel with Richelieu’s men that sees the formation of the famed partnership as we know it, the picture proves to be ripe with thoroughly gripping and lightly comic fight sequences. They prove to be the highlight of the film on a spectrum of entertainment.

The best part is that they keep on coming at us with rip-roaring wreckless abandon, sabers at the ready, though it begins to fizzle out, in the end, overcome by a plodding narrative that seems no fault of Dumas but rather the adaptation itself. If I were to choose favorites I for one would single out Richard Lester’s adaptation but then again, maybe even that film is not for all.

3/5 Stars

National Velvet (1944)

national velvet 1

“Everyone should have a chance at a breathtaking piece of folly, once in his life.” ~ Anne Revere as Mrs. Brown

There’s been many a boxing and a ball sport movie and so it seems only fair that there be room for at least one more Technicolor horse drama, especially one with the breathtaking and gloriously unbridled energy of National Velvet.

It showcases the lofty aspirations riding on the back of a horse and carrying the effervescent hopes of a young girl. I’m certain we could use more movies like this — ones done with this amount of candor and geared toward a broad audience — namely the entire family.

True, Clarence Brown is a director mostly lost to time and perhaps understandably so. This isn’t so much of a technical marvel as it is a story that wraps up its audience with some amount of vigor.

Nor was it a film shot abroad in some exotic location. But that is hardly a criticism, mind you. This was Hollywood’s rendition of the British Isles created in Pebble Beach, California much in the same category of other such period classics like How Green Was My Valley (1941) and Lassie Come Home (1943) — the most obvious point of connection being the always admirable Donald Crisp.

Featured front and center is Elizabeth Taylor in the days when she hadn’t yet been propelled to iconic sex symbol status and still remained the sweet precocious little girl who made the screen sparkle with her adorableness.

Here she is as Velvet Brown. Other girls, namely her big sister (Angela Lansbury) are boy struck but Velvet can best be described as horse struck. She dreams about them in her sleep, thinks about them in her waking hours, and must stop the moment she sees one of her favorite thoroughbreds in the fields on the road home to her town of Sewells.

From the first time she sees “The Pie” in all his majesty, she’s absolutely enchanted by him. It was a love story meant to be. Stirred up by her mother’s own past forays in sport, Velvet begins to entertain thoughts of entering her beloved horse in the Grand Nationals which she believes he is capable of winning with the right training and a rider who knows him.

With the guidance of Mi (Mickey Rooney), a young nomad hired on by the family, they get the horse trained up for competition. But of course, the only one who truly can ride “The Pie” and believes he cannot put a foot wrong is Velvet herself.

Perhaps it’s not as epic as a Ben Hur chariot race or a pod race but there’s still somehow such investment in Velvet and her horse and we feel the same urgency that’s coursing through Mi as he’s watching the race. It’s an infectious moment that catches us up in its swelling emotions to the very last leg.

Far more important than the outcome of the race, however, is how Velvet remains true what she deems to be right. She never lets her pure love of horses — or this particular horse — be muddied by any amount of press or potential fame that might come out of the partnership. Because she’s not seeking any of that. Her intentions are very sincere. She’s doing it all for the sheer joy of getting to gallop across country with her best friend. That’s reward enough for her.

It’s true that Velvet’s parents prove to constantly upend our typical expectations and there’s a pleasure in finding out more about their true character bit by bit. They are folks of hardy stock who are plain but not without their unostentatious charm that comes from being bred in a world of hard work and no doubt Christian charity.

Anne Revere gives one of the most enjoyable performances of her career, start to finish, imbued with an impeccably dry wit that also comes with being a mother who loves her family dearly and aspires for them to have hopes and dreams to carry them through life. You get a sense that she desires they might be decent people who never weary of doing the right thing. There’s a sublime nuance to her turn that would be lacking from the film’s frames otherwise. She is the moral heartbeat and the counterbalance to every other character.

Fiction also mirrored reality in that Elizabeth Taylor truly became the tenderhearted horse whisperer as one of the few people who could actually handle and ride her horse. There’s no sense of parlor tricks and if it’s possible to say this, there’s almost a visible chemistry between her and her steed. They seem meant to be together. Fittingly, on her 13th birthday after the filming was done she was bequeathed her four-legged friend and they remained together for his entire lifetime.

The only rather odd performance or casting choice might seem to be Mickey Rooney who was still a major star in 1944 but sometimes his role doesn’t feel the most authentic. It feels like he’s playing at his part. Meanwhile, Taylor continually bowls us over with every drop of cheerfulness she has in her being.

Maybe I am unfairly prejudiced against Mickey Rooney but he always seemed more like a personality than a true actor. Here as Mi he more or less looks like a tragic story waiting to happen but now thanks to a girl and a horse, he’s getting his shot at redemption. Thankfully for us, this is not wholly his story but more so the story of the horse and its girl.

It’s a wonderfully forward-thinking message for its day that a young girl with ambition can succeed in a man’s world even on the racetrack. Fantasy or not this is a story that uplifts with sheer climactic euphoria.

To all the future teachers, doctors, lawyers, explorers, scientists, and jockeys, this film gives its message loud and clear. Dare to dream. You can’t worry about what others might say. Just go out and pursue whatever it is with all the passion you can muster. No matter the outcome, there will be little to regret.

4/5 Stars

Gaslight (1944)

eb609-gaslight-1944Directed by George Cukor and starring Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, and Josesph Cotten, with Angela Lansbury, this film begins rather abruptly with a young girl in England who witnessed the aftermath of her aunt’s murder. Then in a whirl wind she has become married to a nice young pianist and they move back to her old home in England to settle down to together. From that point on everything begins to change gradually. Gregory has a violent outburst over a letter, Paula loses her brooch mysteriously, a picture is misplaced, there are seemingly footsteps from above, and the gaslights change for no apparent reason. Gregory continues to manipulate and isolate his wife telling her it is for her own girl. A traumatic night at the opera and the new maid only worsen Paula’s mental state. She soon believes she is sinking deeper and deeper into hysteria thanks to Gregory. However, a former admirer of her aunt becomes curious of Paula and tries in earnest to meet her as he reopens her aunt’s case. Finally, they meet and together they piece together what is really going on. In the final climatic moments the inspector comes to Paula’s aid and she turns the tables on her husband. All the main players do a wonderful job, especially Bergman, and this film was built up nicely. My only qualms would have to be Joseph Cotten playing an Englishman and I found it hard to follow in the very beginning.

4.5/5 Stars

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Starring Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Angela Lansbury, and Janet Leigh, the plot revolves around a Korean war hero who is brainwashed to be a weapon for Communists. Several men in the company have recurring nightmares about brainwashing, communists, and murder. Sinatra’s character has trouble finding solace, however he does meet a beautiful woman (Leigh). Harvey’s character returns home constantly at odds with his domineering mother who is married to a dim-witted senator. He has no idea what deadly purpose he is being used for. His brainwashing causes him to commit several shocking murders. It is up to Sinatra to finally save him and stop his one final violent act. However, Harvey’s character does prevail by himself but not without tragedy. Sinatra and Harvey give wonderful performances and Lansbury is especially chilling. As you will find out, this film shows all the twists and thrills that come out of a simple game of solitaire. It was also a sign of the times during the Cold War.

5/5 Stars

The Court Jester (1956)

ad192-thecourtjesterposterStarring Danny Kaye with Glynis Johns, Basil Rathbone, and Angela Lansbury, this comedy of errors has a man posing as a court jester in order to assist the true heir to regain his throne. After infiltrating the castle, Kaye unknowingly gets mixed up in a murder plot, falls under the spell of the witch, and must complete his mission, all the while posing as the funny man. However, he finds himself accidentally jousting for the king’s daughter as well as dueling while his beautiful accomplice tries to bail him out and save their plan. Despite all the mishaps, more often then not everything turns out right and that goes for the ending too. Danny Kaye is hilarious and some of the scenes are classic including the snapping spell and the chalice from the palace. It is certainly evident after watching this film that life could not better be!

4.5/5 Stars