The Yearling (1946): A Boy and His Deer

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“When I was a child I spake like a child…” ~ 1 Corinthians 13

Like the previous year’s Valley of Decision, The Yearling opens with an establishing shot paired with Gregory Peck’s voice, this time in a folksier register. Aside from being unoriginal, one can hardly condemn director Clarence Brown for an act of plagiarism.

However, what it does go to exemplify is a certain amount of unspoken structure supplied to Old Hollywood films. This shorthand, along with needlessly informational title cards, feel very much like the bane of the era’s filmmaking. It’s as if with the age of the talking picture, film’s forgot about the primacy of the image and as such, they dumbed down movies for their audiences. After all, it’s so easy for dialogue to become a constant crutch to fill in any ambiguities.

Even despite this aspect, The Yearling still has innumerable elements going for it. Gregory Peck is a fine actor, even making ho-hum voiceover moderately palatable, and the gorgeous Technicolor tones of nature within the film are breathtakingly resplendent. In fact, the movie proves a well-situated follow-up to Brown’s earlier success, National Velvet. It is a portrait of pioneering before the days of Old Yeller, joining together such lucrative elements as adolescence and animals.

The adolescent in this tale, adapted from Marjorie Kinnan Rawling’s eponymous novel, is Jody (Claude Jarman Jr.), and the fauna deserves mentioning later on (although you probably already know what it is).

For now, the amiable Penny Baxter (Peck) and his boy form a bit of a good-natured partnership, sticking together as the men of the house. Their chemistry is undeniable making their onscreen pairing as father and son ripe with all kinds of affection. None of it feels like a fake veneer plastered on for the benefit of the audience.

The third member of the Baxter household is Ora (Jane Wyman), the no-nonsense wife and mother who’s both homely and severe, completely different than her kinfolk. Still, there’s something within her that Wyman does so well to intimate through her characterization. Thus, despite all she says and does that under normal circumstances might make us dislike her, most will find it within themselves to give her the benefit of the doubt. So much of it is understated and unspoken even as she never gives an inch. Her maternal heartbeat is undeniable although it maybe periodically obscured.

The Yearling really is fable-like by providing an impression of a way of life focused on a frontier family and more directly, the young boy who grows up right before our very eyes. While there is a narrative of sorts — all the events can be strung together as subsequent rungs in the journey — it’s mostly a vignette-driven piece meant to reflect the vicissitude of life.

One moment father and son are streaking through the forest with the family dogs to subdue ol’ Slewfoot, the ornery bear who mercilessly slaughtered one of their livestock. It becomes a lively jaunt and the first lesson in the boy’s nascent repertoire.

Due to the utter uselessness of his firearm in the tense encounter with the bear, Penny takes it upon himself to acquire a new weapon, and he manages quite ably through a bit of horse-trading with the nearest neighbors. One of the bunch is an ornery fellow also easily duped. By the end of the confrontation, he’s given up a beautiful rifle for an underperforming pooch.

Then there are the momentous trips into town to pick up materials at the general store. Mama is still dreaming of a well someday, and the obliging shopkeeper (Henry Travers) offers the boy a mouth organ as he comes face to face with a girl his own age. It’s hardly young love.

Instead, father and son get involved in a right neighborly brawl in the center of town, which is yet another of the film’s more jocular moments. It’s not afraid of the humor to punctuate the drama of life.

Because the next scene of note is really the turning point. Out in the forest, Penny is bitten by a rattler and fortuitously he’s able to shoot a nearby doe using the bodily organs to draw out the poison. It’s a scary incident leaving the man of the house weak and his son aims to take the orphaned doe as the pet he’s always been begging for.

The rapturous crescendo of angelic audio grandeur introducing our true main character is laid on a bit thick. However, if your heart is ready to be melted and you have held onto a shard of childhood innocence, The Yearling can remain a powerful tale of youth. No scene is more emblematic than this one.

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The film’s title comes front and center once again as we watch the parallel characters of a growing boy and his growing companion. He dotes over the little deer taking him to bed and imploring his mother not to take his pride and join away from him. Though the animal ruins them on multiple occasions trampling their crops.

If it’s not the fault of a creature, then nature whips up its own retribution. Their next tribulation is carried out by a torrential downpour decimating their hard-earned crops and sending emotions to a fever pitch. Evoking the sufferings of Job hardly seems a welcomed antidote to their plight.

But then, something begins to happen. A boy is becoming a man as he begins bearing the load of toil normally carried by his obliging father. He builds a fence to keep his deer out while fixing up their camp.

Then, they must say goodbye to a newlywed bride and groom. We don’t know them well but the family is deeply affected. Their exit by sea is a bittersweet departure, and as they ride back home Jody glumly notes, “I don’t like people going away it’s like they were dying.” His father only condolence is an honest observation, “That’s life boy. Getting and losing.” He must come to accept it. Death, goodbyes, trials; they never exactly get easier, but we must do our best to push through them with the support of our loved ones.

The Yearling might seem lightweight compared to some similar stories, but one must try and recall our own childhoods, where any number of thoughts and feelings experienced for the first time became monumental markers of life. That first pet you had. The death of a friend. The first girl you ever had a crush on. Each takes on varying degrees of importance in The Yearling and even for a story rich in sentimentality, these really are moral parables at their core.

Because it strikes some balance between maintaining a child-like wonder and zest for life while also understanding sometimes we must literally put to death our former ways. Finding that balance just might be one of the keys to a meaningful existence.

3.5/5 Stars

Valley of Decision (1945): Greer Garson & Gregory Peck

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Gregory Peck’s pleasantly resonant voice brings us into the moment. The scene is unimaginative yet unmistakable with its obviously scaled-down establishing shot. Pittsburgh. Smokestacks and steel. These are the days of Andrew Carnegie and the transcontinental railroad wrapping its way east to west, making mythical magnates out of mortal men.

Valley of Decision is about this same monumental national narrative albeit stripped down to a microcosm meant to be far more intimate. In a manner of speaking, it succeeds by first setting our sights on a group of Irish immigrants. They are stereotypically spirited with a brogue to match.

Mary Rafferty (Greer Garson) makes her way home through the humble neighborhood she calls home to announce the latest piece of news. Amidst tough times, she has found herself a decent wage! The only complication is that she’ll be serving as maid to the Scott family, owners of the town’s local mill. Although Mary’s not a girl to turn down a job, her curmudgeon father (Lionel Barrymore) has maintained a lifelong grudge against Mr. Scott, seeing as it was the factory that lost him the use of his legs. He’s never forgiven them even with the recompense they’ve provided.

This is an instant source of conflict although it’s initially unrealized. Because given how they are built up, it’s rather surprising how everyone in the Scott household seems generally benevolent, if not a bit stuffy.

Mary arrives and we’re curious to know her place. We get our first look at Gregory Peck. He sneaks up the stairs to be rushed by his affectionate siblings. His mother (Gladys Cooper) follows in all civility. Each moment is taken in by the new help, perched in the drawing-room with each reaction made blatantly obvious. This is her first impression as well as ours and she beams ear to ear.

Garson’s character girds a spellbinding wit of the Irish about her, settling into her new occupation for the Scott family quite seamlessly and casting off her early nerves. Between the dishes and the spoiled children, she handles it with disarming aplomb and a certain bright-eyed reverence as only Greer Garson can supply.

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If it’s not obvious already, Valley of Decision is a social drama with characters tied closely together. There’s the sectioning off of social spheres between the affluent and their more humble help. Then, you have the meeting of the men over cigars and business as the women busy themselves with frivolities. Curtains, for instance.

Tiptoeing through all these spaces like a fly on the wall is Mary Rafferty. Certainly, her place in this world is obvious, and yet she is accorded a very unique role walking through the parlors and dining rooms of the elite — privy to their conversations and activities — and an integral part of every part of her lives. No matter her family background.

It’s no secret a burgeoning romance starts in on her innocently enough. She’s a fine and glowing conversationalist. He’s charming and handsome. How could they not get together? But she dutifully understands her place. It wouldn’t be proper and with no prompting, she makes her way across the Atlantic in service of Ms. Connie (Marsha Hunt), effectively increasing the space between them. The mistress of the manor understands her predicament and privately pities her.

Then, one day there is a strike at the factories. Again, it’s no shocking epiphany. Anger and discontent are churned up and the bullish pride of Mr. Scott (Donald Crisp) and the sense of license for better wages by the unionizer Jim Brennon, looks to be at an impasse.

The true “valley of decision” (an allusion to the Old Testament’s admonition from Joel) is when all the events come to an inevitable head. A fragile peace can be maintained no longer, and all sides suffer calamitous devastation. Because the consequences are great when the Scotts and their opposition come face to face to have it out for good. Not even Mary nor her relinquished lover can make it right again.

Whether torn from the pages of the book or dreamed up by the screenwriter, Valley of Decision is very much a stilted melodrama with all sorts of manipulative twists coming at us with such continued force, it gets to be wearisome. It never ends.

The narrative flits so undecidedly between the warm chemistry of the leads and this overly theatrical landscape played out against the family’s steel mills. You might blend How Green is My Valley, King’s Row, Giant, Home for the Hill, and other analogous films, but somehow Valley of Decision still comes out the weakest of the brood. It cannot seem to reconcile its main conceit to a satisfying end.

It’s assembled with all the trimmings people might easily turn their noses up at when considering Hollywood movies of old. It boasts sentiment and courts melodrama. There’s the aforementioned voiceover to set the stage and stirring crescendos of mighty music in love and in tragedy. Characters can easily be pigeon-holed by their types all the way down to a spoiled Marsha Hunt, the insufferable childhood sweetheart played to a tee by Jessica Tandy, and Dan Duryea, not quite having found his more suitable niche as a noir baddie.

There’s also the underpinnings of Mary courting on the side of the wealthy and well-to-do. She sympathizes with them, making them seem like the victims of a system more so than the destitute bottom dwellers. I’m not sure what to do with this.

Because it’s true Mr. and Mrs. Scott are a most benevolent pair, and we grow to love them. Crotchety Lionel Barrymore, sulking in his wheelchair, doesn’t do much for the P.A. of the common man, but nonetheless, it’s a startling turn.

Taken as these disparate pieces placed together, the movie is an uneven compilation, all but borne on the shoulders of Greer Garson and Gregory Peck, who by any cursory glance, seem ill-suited as romantic partners. At the very least, they’re disparate figures.

She was a mature star, finally coming into her own as one of the prominent performers from the U.K. now making it big in Hollywood. He was an up-and-coming stage actor with the formidable build and roots in La Jolla California then Cal. Yet they share an amicable spirit somehow allowing them to fit together due to their mere ability to counter one another’s playful ebullience.

It does feel like a remarkable crossroads in careers. Garson was beloved, but would never regain her major box office with the dawning of the 50s and new tastes (even with a resurgence of success in the 60s). Gregory Peck was just beginning. One wonders what Greer thought of Roman Holiday and To Kill a Mockingbird? It’s easy enough to believe she would have liked them.

3/5 Stars

Arabesque (1966) with Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren

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I was trying to recall if the actual word “arabesque” was ever uttered in the movie. Granted, in a narrative like this, it’s just as easy for something to fly over your head. There’s comparable lingo bandied about pertaining to ciphers and hieroglyphs, mentioned in the context of coded messages and bits of secret information. You can hardly have an international spy thriller without such prerequisites, and yet this isn’t the fun of it.

Nor is it a foreign prime minister’s plight or the dubious intentions of a peregrine falcon-loving mastermind who holds a ravishingly beautiful woman in house arrest (in all cases Middle Easterners are played by Westerners). Because for any such story, the lasting enjoyment comes in the road traveled and the people we get to follow along with through every twist and turn.

It’s the saving grace of Arabesque, a movie with an overhauled and doctored script tinkered on by many hands including Peter Stone (writer of the similar Charade and Mirage). All this work produced a simultaneously mind-boggling and messy plotline. It doesn’t take a genius to recognize the particulars barely add up.

All that must be know is Professor David Pollock (Gregory Peck) finds himself on the run from any number of villains, all with their own selfish, nefarious schemes to employ. At the center of this sinister web of mayhem is an alluring spy (Sophia Loren) who is constantly switching and shape-shifting under every given circumstance. Our protagonist doesn’t quite know what to do with her.

One might note Arabesque has another memorable shower scene after Charade’s. However, this rendition is decidedly more awkward and tense as Pollock finds himself under the hospitality of a sinister man, and Yasmin Azir (Loren) is under his watchful gaze as well. They wind up playing footsies with the soap in an effort not to raise suspicion.

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Arabesque tries to make it extremely evident all this peril is being thrust upon our heroes as they travel through the heart of Britain. It can be little more than a nod to The Master of Suspense to have our characters running through first a zoo and then a local aquarium, recalling the museum pieces in Blackmail (1929). There’s even an overt nod to North by Northwest, complete with cornfields, this time patrolled by deadly threshers instead of a crop duster.

Stanley Donen’s solution to the so-so storyline is to do just about anything he can to mix things up with kaleidoscope prism shots, angles through glass tables, reflections, unique framing, and on and on. In one sense, it is inventive, but there’s no unified purpose to it. It feels precisely like he’s trying to do whatever he can to distract from the material when it gets dull. Of course, the fact that this is the 1960s doesn’t hurt the aesthetic with enough drugs and hallucinations to pass the decade’s quotas.

In one particularly otherworldly vision, Peck becomes a hallucinogenic bullfighter on the motorways causing a major traffic jam. It adds little to the plot, but it certainly creates an impression. Still, I’m not sure if the merits of form over substance apply in this situation, even if Donen is ceaselessly creative. It gets to be almost too much. It could easily verge on out-and-out camp — considering the ludicrous nature of scenes — though it knuckles down when it matters most. An assassination plot must be averted, and it does offer a decent payoff in the thrills department.

Peck admittedly feels a bit miscast, although this could just as easily be my subconscious speaking since Cary Grant was earmarked for the role. Because one can imagine, even with his advanced years, Cary could have pulled off the wit marvelously. God love him, but Peck is almost too regal, and he has too much presence if that can possibly be an impediment. Sometimes it’s difficult to take him lightly. He does make an admirable go of it and the hint of Indy, an educator by trade, does not hurt his image.

Sophia Loren is absolutely scintillating carrying scenes with her usual poise owning every line and effortlessly building the needed chemistry with Peck, even as she sends him bouncing all over the place. He needs her for this picture to work, and she delivers.

When it ends, there’s some amount of contentment. Not because we saw a perfect movie by any means or even anything quite on par with Hitchcock or Sean Connery’s Bond, but we got to spend some quality time full of mayhem with two sublime personalities. It is all worthwhile because Peck and Loren are together.

After all, who wouldn’t want to swim in Oxfordshire with them? Maybe the days haven’t quite left us entirely, but I do crave more pictures that could coast on the charisma of their stars. Without question, Arabesque overrides its flaws through sheer star power.

3/5 Stars

 

 

Mirage (1965): Gregory Peck 20 Years After Spellbound

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“Most people will do in the dark what they never would think of doing in the light.”

Mirage takes full advantage of one of those grab-you-right-away openings. The scene commences in the dark, there’s a power outage, candles are flickering, and voices call out up and down the corridors as people mill about.

Among the bystanders whose work has been disrupted is cost accountant David Stillwell (Gregory Peck), and within a minute, he receives an invitation to a braille party (touching only) by two giggly women. Then, one minute he’s talking to his chipper colleague (Kevin McCarthy), and the next he’s climbing down the stairwells with a woman (Diane Baker) who had the same idea to get out.

As they walk and talk, they comment on how everyone is looking to “rescind the 10 commandments.” The cloak of darkness has a strange effect on people. Of course, when the lights do go on, this phantom woman vehemently asserts they know each other. Stillwell’s never seen her before in his life. Now we know something must be up. They cannot both be correct.

For a movie from the 1960s, it’s awfully noirish and that we can easily enough attribute to Edward Dymtryk who, before becoming a Blacklist casualty, was behind such pictures as Murder, My Sweet (1944) and Crossfire (1947). It continues with the bleak black and white tones for the rest of the picture, the complete antithesis of comparable thrillers like Charade or even Arabesque.

A shocking suicide impacts the street below the building Stillwell works in, attracting hordes of onlookers. He has more pressing issues like disappearing floors in buildings he cannot find. More peculiar interactions follow with not only the same woman, but bartenders, security guards, and just about everybody else.

The story is blessed by a plethora of oddball characters shuffling about who might or might not be a part of some sinister plot. That or they’re just your typical New York eccentrics. They are indicative of a world full of strange circumstances that cannot be unrelated. It’s all uncanny.

Next, he’s getting held hostage at his own apartment. Could it be he’s some type of doppelganger — living a double life of sorts? One cannot help but think of Roger Thornhill’s predicament in North by Northwest. However, in this case, it comes out Stillwell cannot remember his life from two years prior.

The most fortuitous decision he makes is to visit the AAA Detective Agency run by an amiable shmuck of a P.I., Ted Caselle. With these forthcoming developments, Mirage becomes almost a buddy film — the buddy is no other than Walter Matthau — and it’s the most delightful interlude while still being injected with this same perplexing conspiracy.

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All of a sudden, our solitary hero has someone at least willing to listen to his predicament. Someone who is in the dark just as much as he is (and we are). They get whisked and weaved all around the city, so much so that detailing it all won’t do any good. There are gunmen and murders and even a little girl named Irene who gives them asylum. She makes them a make-believe cup of coffee while they wait it out. Screenwriter Peter Stone, by this point, is relishing every unique aside he can wring out of the utter convolution.

Scenes are constantly intercut with earlier conversation all of sudden becoming illuminated — as the puzzle pieces start falling into place in the present — only making the past all the more perturbing. We are not allowed to forget anything, knowing it all ties together into this patchwork that has yet to be revealed. This is the source of the continual tension.

Mirage and then Arabesque from the following year might both be in the running as the unofficial sequel to Charade (1963). Mirage, of course, carries over such supporting actors as Walter Matthau and George Kennedy while retaining the services of Stone’s screenwriting. Arabesque was actually meant for Cary Grant (though Peck ultimately ended with the role), and Stanley Donen reluctantly was enticed back by the star power of Sophia Loren and Peck in color.

Neither of these pictures is on par with their predecessor, but they hardly need to be. Likewise, one might easily concede Mirage is Hitchcockian in plot but not execution. Again, it’s not an outright criticism. Instead, it leans more toward a sparse, unsentimental spy drama like Martin Ritt’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

It is about human beings who are frail, jaded, and scared. But most of all, deep, trenchant flaws are revealed. It’s not quite a full character study, but it is inching in that direction, even as the labyrinth is laid out for us to rack our brains over.

A psychiatric appointment allows space for scientific and ethical terms to be traded like “insanity,” “right and wrong,” and “good vs. evil.” Mirage is not a top tier social commentary — it works best as a bewildering thriller — but it’s admirable in its attempts to say something. Human psychology plays a part as much as human malevolence and avarice.

Despite the wide chasm of time between them, Mirage does conjure up Spellbound,  which by now feels like a dusty old entry on psychoanalysis. Thankfully, 20 years on, Gregory Peck still makes an interesting mental case and Edward Dymtryk is still a capable director. The most honest assessment proves Mirage to be a flawed yet deeply underrated thriller.

3.5/5 Stars

On The Beach (1959): Peck, Gardner, Astaire, Perkins, and Apocalypse

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I recall my dad sharing a recollection about On The Beach. Back when it came out he went to the drive-in with his family, and they took in the movie. He fell asleep part of the way through only to wake up and the movie was still going. While not necessarily a profound observation, the film is unequivocally long. For some, it will verge on the doldrums, especially for a story about the end of the world.

However, I am tempted to like it for some of the creative decisions it chooses (and in my father’s defense, he never said he outright disliked the movie). It acts as one of the first prominent films detailing the aftermath of a nuclear war. Also, unlike many of its contemporaries, it leads with a cold open closeup on Gregory Peck’s face as he commands a submarine. The camera is quick to maneuver through the space showing us all the levers and nobs with shipmen scurrying around carrying out their various duties.

It’s already a different feel than something like Run Silent, Run Deep (1958). We can actually breathe because there is no suffocating atmosphere to speak of. That’s what makes the emptiness of the space on the outside so startling. It’s almost too open; it’s all but void of meaningful life except for small envoys existing far enough away from the disaster zones.

Conceptually, the apocalyptic near-future is an intriguing world to come to terms with, just as it is frightening. Because it’s a hybrid society still existing in the world and only time will tell if it can subsist.

We familiarize ourselves with a segment of humanity now living in Australia, and America seems to be decimated. Everyone refers continually to “These Days” — it implies the allowances made in such extreme circumstances. People cannot go on living the way they always did, and things formerly unheard can happen without so much as a bat of an eye.

Shortage leads to a random assemblage of old and new technology to get by. For transportation, electric trains and horse-drawn carriages have a function. And yet for amusement, folks still have beach days soaking in the sun as if nothing is awry. It seems like small consolation for the 5-month expiration date being put on the world.

At first glance, On The Beach doesn’t seem to be about much. It’s really about one major event scattered with the residuals of human relationships. One of our main players is Commander Dwight Towers (Gregory Peck), a widower who lost his family to the catastrophe while he was on duty. Currently, he has come to Melbourne to receive a briefing from Admiral Bridie (John Tate) on what they might possibly do next.

Struggling with survivor’s guilt, Towers strikes up an intimate relationship with one Moira Davidson (Ava Gardner). A radio signal originating in San Diego calls him back to the sea, and he heads out, unsure if he will ever see her again — yet another person he must reluctantly say au revoir to.

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Anthony Perkins fits into the story as a younger version of Towers, Lieutenant Peter Holmes. He still clings onto his young family while worrying about what might happen to their slice of marital bliss. Because she is less-remembered, I am apt to especially be interested in Donna Anderson who gives a sincere performance as his wife (though it starts to unravel as the clock ticks). Mary cannot bear the implications of their society, as they have a newborn and with her husband away, there will be no telling what will happen to them. It unhinges her.

The most ominous shot during the voyage is an eerily empty Golden Gate Bridge, indicative of the entire West Coast. It’s literally dead. When they finally arrive in San Diego, it proves to be a near ludicrous dead-end involving a window shade and a coke bottle. Even Yankee know-how wasn’t able to avoid utter destruction.

It occurs to me On The Beach is not trying to exploit the situation, but it is using the backdrop to say something as Stanley Kramer always tried to do with his pictures. While he’s not the most virtuoso of filmmakers, his intentions are always upfront, which is admirable.

The director always aligned himself with fine acting talent even affording a trio of former musical stars shots at dramatic parts to reshape their prospective images. That in itself takes unwavering vision. In this one, Fred Astaire gets his chance as the hard-drinking, chain-smoking, acerbic scientist Julian Osborn. You’ve rarely seen him this way before. Whether it entirely suits him is relatively beside the point. Gene Kelly and Judy Garland would follow in a pair of uncharacteristic departures in Inherit the Wind (1960) and Judgment at Nuremberg (1961).

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Whereas the source novel apparently laid out who was to blame, the film develops a level of senselessness because no one — even those holding the highest clearance levels — seems to know how the tripwire was set off. They can only speak to their current reality. It makes an already disturbing situation a little more unsettling since there is a sense of universal ambiguity.

The questions linger. Might it have been an accidental mistake leading to the annihilation of our entire world, people all but expunged from the surface of the earth? It’s a chilling thing to begin admitting. Julian (Fred Astaire) is forced to acknowledge he doesn’t know.

It could have been some bloke who thought he saw something on a radar screen knowing if he hesitated his people would be obliterated. If this were the case, he would have only succeeded in setting off the dominoes. In fact, this nearly happened in real life one fateful day on September 6, 1983, to Stanislav Petrov, though he chose to wait, and it proved to be a faulty signal from his equipment.

It’s evident mutually assured destruction is a horrible system to wager on. And once you are past the point of no return, the apocalypse is a horrifying entity if there is no sense of hope. Most films must choose between inevitable doom versus some kind of hope.

In the waning days, we are antsy for finality, and it makes you realize just what the circumstances bring out. Waiting around for the end of the world sounds awful. And yet On The Beach manages to land the dismount even if the interim is slow-moving. True, there aren’t a flurry of events and there are a few asides — like Astaire winning the Grand Prix — which feel slightly superfluous to an impartial observer.

However, again, some kind of statement is being put to the fore, more nuanced than we might initially give it credit for, if not altogether succinct. It’s not simply an alarmist diatribe but there is a sobering urgency to it. The film foregoes the austere religiosity of the street preachers for something perceived to be much warmer.

Ava Garner standing on the shore, kerchief waving in the breeze, watching the receding figure of Gregory Peck on the deck of his sub is the movie’s indelible image. We need people around us to love and be loved by. Of course, some ill-advised individuals (myself included) live their everyday lives just waiting around for something. Hopefully, it doesn’t take nuclear devastation to kick our lives into overdrive.

3.5/5 Stars

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Audrey Hepburn

I wanted to continue with my series of classic movie beginner’s guides. The idea is to make learning about old movies more manageable by providing bite-sized chunks to watch. In other words, 4 films to begin with.

Here’s our latest list on Audrey Hepburn, one of the most beloved and widely-photographed figures of all time.

Roman Holiday (1953)

She came onto the scene as a radiant princess. Literally. Her Cinderella-like romance with Gregory Peck through the streets of Rome is one of the great cinematic fairy tales of all-time. Understandably, it netted her acclaim and made her an instant Hollywood star. She’s just too adorable not to love.

Sabrina (1954)

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Not a bad follow up to land a movie with director Billy Wilder and two big stars in William Holden and Humphrey Bogart. Audrey more than holds her own with her waifish elegance and fitted with a wardrobe newly-acquired from Givenchy.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

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Parts of this movie certainly haven’t aged well (Mickey Rooney ahem!), but there’s also so much that’s enheartening about this classic romantic comedy. It’s one of Audrey’s finest and most vulnerable performances stretching her innumerable talents. Those opening shots are magic. Moon River is for the ages.

Charade (1963)

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I could have picked a handful of other movies that you should also watch, but this one is just too fun not to mention. Audrey and Cary Grant together are obviously delightful. It’s also in the public domain too so no excuses for not getting around to watching it someday.

Worth Watching:

Funny Face, A Nun’s Story, My Fair Lady, How to Steal a Million, Two For The Road, Wait Until Dark, They All Laughed (and everything else if you love Audrey)

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Gregory Peck

We want to try something a bit different at 4 Star Films. Most of what we put out are film reviews. As the years have gone by, they’ve gotten quite hefty. Frankly, they’re what I get the most joy out of writing.

But I thought it would be a welcomed addition to help other nascent film fans out with some Beginner’s Guides to introduce Classic Hollywood actors, directors, etc.

We will introduce 4 films that we enjoyed (both big and small) while referencing others throughout. Hopefully, this combination of titles will provide ample rabbit holes to jump down and be on your way. This week our topic is none other than Gregory Peck!

Keys to The Kingdom (1944)

Gregory Peck was a founding member of The La Jolla Playhouse but he took his stage acting to Hollywood and quickly became a formidable new leading man. Some of his early performances in the likes of Spellbound, Valley of Decision, and The Yearling show the breadth of his talent and the candor that would make him a star for decades. Keys to The Kingdom uses him quite well as a missionary to China who strives to live out a life of loving his neighbor in a world straining with discord.

The Gunfighter (1950)

Due to his commanding presence and imposing voice, Gregory Peck fashioned himself into quite the western hero in his own right. He could play heroes (The Big Country), he could play villains (Duel in the Sun, Yellow Sky), and he could ride somewhere in-between (The Bravados). However, he arguably had no better opportunity than his performance as a jaded gunfighter turned into a sideshow attraction.

Roman Holiday (1953)

Yes, it made Audrey Hepburn a star. Yes, it’s a quintessential romantic comedy. Yes, Rome has never looked better but Gregory Peck also made a valiant go at comedy and did quite well thanks to the chemistry with Hepburn and Eddie Albert. Designing Woman (with Lauren Bacall) nor Arabesque (with Sophia Loren) were quite as spectacular, but the star power is still worth coming out for.

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

If there’s one synonymous role for Peck, it’s Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird. And I’m pretty sure he’d be proud to acknowledge it as one of his finest achievements of integrity. Times have changed. Perceptions of To Kill a Mockingbird‘s narrative are more complicated, but Peck’s performance cannot be understated. The rapport he built with the likes of Mary Badham is undeniable.

Worth Watching:

Twelve O’Clock High, Captain Horatio Hornblower, Moby Dick, On The Beach, Pork Chop Hill, Guns of Navarone, Cape Fear, Mirage, etc.

National Classic Movie Day Blogathon: 5 Favorite Films of the 1950s

Thank you Classic Film & TV Cafe for hosting this Blogathon!

Though it’s tantamount to utter absurdity to try and whittle all my personal favorites of the decade down to five choices (I might cheat a little), this is part of the fun of such lists, isn’t it? Each one is highly subjective. No two are the same. They change on whims; different today, tomorrow, and the next. But I will do the best to make a go of it.

If anything this is a humble beacon — a twinkling five-sided star — meant to shine a light upon my profound affinity for classic movies on this aptly conceived National Classic Movie Day. For those in need of gateway films, these are just a few I would recommend without deep analysis, solely following my most guttural feelings. Hopefully that is recommendation enough. Let the adulation begin!

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1. Singing In The Rain (1952):

Many classic film enthusiasts weren’t always so. At least, on many occasions, there was a demarcation point where the scales tipped and they became a little more frenzied in their pursuits. For someone like me, I didn’t always watch many movies. However, Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and Debbie Reynolds were household names even from my earliest recollections.

Singin’ in the rain with the giddy abandon of Don and bringing down the house with gags like Cosmo were childhood aspirations. Kathy, the young hopeful, aspired for big dreams, not unlike my own. They were idols because they made life and the movies — even song and dance — so very euphoric. It took me many years to know this was a part of a musical cottage industry or who Cyd Charisse was (because we’d always fast-forward through that risque interlude). Regardless of anything else, the film effects me in the most revelatory way. You can barely put words to it. You need simply to experience it firsthand.

After seeing it so many times it becomes comforting to return again and again. What’s even better is how the magic never dies. We lost Stanley Donen this year but this extraordinary piece of entertainment will live on for generations to come.

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2. Roman Holiday (1953)

I distinctly remember the first time I ever saw Roman Holiday. It was on an international flight to England. I was young and ignorant with not the slightest idea who Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck were. You can determine whether or not I was living under a rock or not. However, what did happen is a young kid was decisively swept off his feet by a film. Those were before the days I gave even a moderate consideration of directors like William Wyler, much less debated or bandied about terms like auteur.

What does become so evident is the chemistry between our stars, hardly manufactured, even as the setting, placed in living, breathing Rome, imbues a certain authentic vitality of its own. Vespa rides are exhilarating. The sites are still ones I want to see and haven’t. And of course, I’ve only grown in my esteem of both Audrey and Mr. Peck as I’ve gotten older.

It’s crazy to imagine my only point of reference for such a picture was Eddie Albert (having been bred on more than a few episodes of Green Acres). Any way you slice it, this is, in my book, the quintessential romantic comedy because it is part fairy tale and it comes with all the necessary trimmings, while still planting itself in the real world. I always exit the halls of the palace feeling rejuvenated. Each time it’s like experiencing wonderful memories anew.

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3. Rear Window (1954)

It’s a weighty task to even begin considering your favorite film but to make it easier on myself whenever the inevitable question is dropped in my lap, I’m quick to reply: Rear Window. The answer is actually quite an easy one. Alfred Hitchcock is as good a reason as any. Add James Stewart and Grace Kelly and you’ve entered the gold standard of movie talent. They don’t come more iconic.

The Master of Suspense’s chilling thriller was another fairly early viewing experience with me and it immediately left an impression. Again, it’s another example of how appreciation can mature over time. Thelma Ritter is always a favorite. The use of diegetic and non-diegetic sound throughout the picture accentuates this artificial but nevertheless meticulous sense of authenticity.

How Hitchcock utilizes the fragments of music and the supporting characters in the courtyard to comment on these secondary themes of romantic love playing against the central mystery is superb. It’s a perfect coalescing of so much quality in one compelling cinematic endeavor. Even down to how the opening and final scenes are cut perfectly, introducing the story and encapsulating the progression of character from beginning to end. It is pure visual cinema.

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4. 12 Angry Men (1957)

I care deeply about interpersonal relationships and as movies have become more a part of my life it has become increasingly more important for them to hold a microscope to how we interact with one another in the world at hand. For me, there are very few films that channel real human relationships in a meaningful way as effectively as Sidney Lumet’s debut 12 Angry Men. Like Rear Window, it is developed in limiting environs and yet rather than such constraints leading to the stagnation of a story, it only serves to ratchet the tension.

Because the ensemble is an impeccable range of stars spearheaded by Henry Fonda and balanced out by a wide array of talent including a pair of friends from my classic sitcom days John Fiedler (The Bob Newhart Show) and Jack Klugman (The Odd Couple). However, all of this is only important because the story has actual consequence. Here we have 12 men battling over the verdict on a young man’s life.

But as any conflict has the habit of doing, it brings out all the prejudices, inconsistencies, and blind spots uncovered and aggravated when people from varying points of views are thrust in a room together. it’s an enlightening and ultimately humbling experience for me every time because it challenges me to actively listen to where others are coming from and empathize with their point of view so we can dialogue on a sincere level. It’s also simultaneously a sobering analysis of the gravity of the American justice system.

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5. Some Like it Hot (1959)

I most recently saw Some Like it Hot as part of a retrospective across the globe from where I usually call home. But what a wonderful viewing experience it was. Again, it’s akin to getting back together with old friends. I personally love Jack Lemmon to death and paired with Tony Curtis and the incomparable Marilyn Monroe, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more hair-brained, raucous comedy coming out of Hollywood.

Billy Wilder is certainly one reason for this and I’ve always come to admire his ability for screwball and often mordant wit. There is arguably no higher watermark than Some Like it Hot and the script is wall-to-wall with hilarious gags and scenarios. Like all the great ones, you wait for a favorite line with expectancy only to be ambushed by another zinger you never found time to catch before.

But there is also a personal element to the picture. Many might know the Hotel Del Coronado in sunny San Diego filled in for the Florida coast and having spent many a lovely day on those very shores, I cannot help but get nostalgic. Not only was this film indicative of a different time — the jazz age by way of the 1950s — it also suggests a very different juncture in my own life. While I cannot have the time back I can look on those memories fondly just as I do with this film…

So there you have it. I gave it my best shot pulling from personal preference and the idealistic leanings of my heart of hearts. I hope you enjoyed my Top 5 from The ’50s!

But wait…


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Honorary Inclusion: The Crimson Kimono (1959)

Full disclosure. I know this is cheating but I take any occasion I possibly can to promote Sam Fuller‘s gritty Little Tokyo police procedural. For me, it deserves a special acknowledgment. As a Japanese-American and coming from a multicultural background myself, it was a groundbreaking discovery and an unassuming film with a richness proving very resonant over the recent years. It blends elements so very near and dear to me. Namely, film noir and my own heritage — all wrapped up into one wonderful B-film package. Please give it a watch!

THE END

Review: Spellbound (1945)

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The Fault… is Not in Our Stars, But in Ourselves… — William Shakespeare

It’s so easy to adore Ingrid Bergman and it’s no different in Spellbound. Yes, she starts off as an austere psychiatrist purely interested and invested in scientific thought and practices in psychoanalysis. However, by the film’s conclusion, she evokes the passionate vitality that made her so beloved in pictures such as Casablanca (1942) and Notorious (1946).

The eminent Gregory Peck was still in the dawn of his career and while not your typical Hitchcockian hero, he is Gregory Peck a handsome actor with tremendous presence and a quiet dignity that made him an acting favorite for years to come, shortly to gain the reputation of an undisputed superstar. Put two such icons together and it’s honestly very difficult not to be won over, especially in a Hitchcock picture.

In fact, I’m predisposed to empathize with both of them from the very beginning and to thoroughly enjoy this picture even if it’s hardly the best of Hitchcock or the respective stars. But the story about the female psychiatrist Constance who falls in love with her colleague and subsequent patient one Dr. Edwards does have its share of enjoyments without question, aside from the names above the title.

As with any solid Hitchcock movie, there’s psychological duress and the man is implicated in a murder that he must run away from even if it’s proved he is innocent. So Spellbound is no question a romance and a bit of a mystery wrapped up neatly in a psychological thriller.

Michael Checkov the famed Russian stage performer (and nephew of Anton Chekhov) plays Dr. Brulov, Constance’s old mentor — a charming sort of gentleman who is impertinent but oh so sweet to his friends  — exhibiting the most jovial of personalities.

Even today, there still is a certain logic to psychodynamic therapy as there is to cognitive behavioral therapy that seems believable depending on how it is utilized and who is practicing it. Thus, though there are jumps Spellbound makes that are a little bit preposterous or a little too easy to resolve — like the perfect correlation between dreams and reality — there’s still kernels of truth in this film and it must be lauded for tackling the ideas of Freud in ways that were fairly groundbreaking for their day.

It also boasts the famed dream sequences inspired and partially orchestrated by the acclaimed surrealist artist Salvador Dali. His imprint is undeniable on the images that Peck recounts, reminiscent of the Persistence of Time and other similar works. Even Hitchcock would continue to address these topics with an arguably more Hitchcockian dream sequence in Vertigo and some similar analysis at the end of Psycho to assess Norman Bates.

Of course, Hitchcock films are at their best when the plot is working in spite of dialogue. Though the script is composed by Ben Hecht who has a long list of wonderful accomplishments, there’s also the influence of the overbearing hand of David O. Selznick on the picture meaning it relies perhaps too much on verbal explanation instead of Hitchcock’s own timeless setpieces or visual approach to cinema. Still, he does manage a few perspective shots that are particularly interesting providing us the frame of reference of several of his characters in key moments.

There’s also the benefit of Miklos Rozsa’s particularly elegant score which nevertheless is less a Hitchcock score as Bernard Hermann would famously compose later. In some respects, it suffocates the drama though it does include the cutting edge use of the Theremin, this marking one of its earliest appearances in a film score.

But ultimately, Spellbound does have a delightful false ending, as things slowly spiral down into despair only to find their new conclusion as all the puzzle pieces of Peck’s character begin to fit together. His exoneration is followed by the ousting of the real perpetrator, another quintessential Hitchcock villain.

The summation seems to be that though humanity might be wrought with shortcomings, many of them buried so deep inside, love does have an uncommon power to heal old wounds. The fault might be in ourselves but that need not be the resolution of the story.

3.5/5 Stars

Roman Holiday (1953): Escapism and Why That’s Okay Sometimes

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I’ve made a point of suggesting that the reason that I return to movies, again and again, is not because I go to them as an outlet of escapism but for the fact that films give us a little bit more insight into the lives we lead as human beings. In some ways, you could say I’ve even vehemently warned against films functioning in such a way if that’s their sole purpose. In other words, I’m not a proponent of turning on a movie and tuning out all the periphery. It sounds a little too much like Timothy Leary for my tastes.

And yet I return to Roman Holiday time after time.  This story that literally functions as a fairy tale, a vignette-filled journey that perfectly encapsulates a day on the town. And we get the pleasure of returning to it again and again along with Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn. I will qualify why this all still makes sense but first, a little background is in order.

From the first time I saw it, on a plane flight to England, I was enamored by the whole adventure and the individuals involved. Hepburn has remained unequivocally my favorite actress of all time period. Gregory Peck’s lasting screen presence keeps him among the greats as far as film stars go.

They make Roman Holiday work so impeccably, but the major key to director William Wyler’s success is the very fact that he took his film on location — something that was still a fairly new phenomenon. So instead of getting some artificial Italian world conjured up on the Paramount backlot, we got a far more realistic experience that is almost palpable with its authentic flourishes.

They’re the kind of iconic panoramas that you cannot try and fake without them turning out ridiculously corny. But Roman Holiday is the real deal and that shines through its crisp black and white imagery and successfully turns Rome into the third major player in this romance.

I think it’s telling that Roman Holiday is a fairy tale in itself. It’s the story of Princess Ann’s little bit of escapism. It’s a bit of bliss that she gets to share with someone very special. But does she wrap herself in it forever and never return to reality and the responsibilities she has? No, she goes back to them. And there’s a reluctance and as an audience, it’s certainly bittersweet.

But look at Ann in the end and we see that she has truly grown up in that short span of time. If she had not, she would have undoubtedly been content with a life living out her little fantasy and forgetting everything else around her of substance. That’s so easy to desire after all. However, in doing what she did, she not only grew immeasurably but, in the end, she has a magical experience to hold onto and remember fondly. The fact that it cannot last forever only makes it that much more special.

There’s nothing wrong with vacation — a day of rest and relaxation is necessary for all of us. It’s no coincidence that we have a weekend built into our daily rhythms. That’s why I enjoy returning to Roman Holiday every few years because it’s alright to have that guilty pleasure every once and a while. In fact, it’s not a guilty pleasure at all. You could make a case that stories like this are even necessary. But the important distinction to make is that escapism is fine — I’m not against it completely — but it needs to be in moderation.

We can return back to earth after the fun of the fairy tale and simultaneously our lives are made better and we have the good times to look back on. I will continue returning to Roman Holiday for years to come and without the least bit of hesitation. A little bit of fantasy can be a very good thing. I’ll try and remember that.

5/5 Stars