Man’s Favorite Sport? (1964) Starring Rock Hudson and Paula Prentiss

MansfavoritesportposterMan’s Favorite Sport was meant to be a Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn reunion that never materialized. Because, of course, put together with Howard Hawks that only means one film — the most outrageous, cockamamie, frenzied escapade ever captured on celluloid — Bringing up Baby (1938).

Rock Hudson and Maria Perschy (I still don’t understand the necessity of her character) even do a reenactment of the famous restaurant wardrobe malfunction scene. The whole thing is unfair really. It’s not so much that Hudson’s not capable in his own right but Cary came first and so we’ll ever be comparing him. It’s best to drop that right from the beginning.

Obviously, the Grant-Hepburn movie never came into being as Hepburn never got involved and Grant, now at the tail-end of his career was hesitant about such a youthful leading lady. He chose to do a rom-com thriller called Charade (1963) instead and faced similar concerns opposite the other famous Hepburn, Audrey that is.

But back to Rock Hudson and what we got instead. When put toe-to-toe with the Doris Day comedies, it mostly holds its own given Howard Hawks’ own long affiliation with the screwiest brand of romantic comedies. From Twentieth Century (1934) all the down to I Was a Male War Bride (1949), Monkey Business (1952), and of course, Man’s Favorite Sport.

Paula Prentiss, husky-voiced and armed with rapid-fire ammunition of the Katharine Hepburn persuasion, does a fine job riddling Rock Hudson with her incessant craziness. So much so that her male counterpart can’t get anything in edgewise, constantly harried and exasperated in every conceivable way. It all signals an imminent love story in their future.

Whereas Day was usually dismayed by some aspect of Hudson’s behavior, it’s Prentiss who holds the prodding role and therefore the most license to cause chaos. She had recently graduated from a plethora of pictures pairing her with Jim Hutton, including such enjoyable trifles as Where The Boys Are (1960) and The Horizontal Lieutenant (1962).

As far as their support, John McGiver has a thatched roof that’s constantly shifting tectonically. It’s gotten to the point that he doesn’t care much. He’s the one who decides his ace employee, Roger Willoughby (Hudson) of Abercrombie and Fitch will join a fishing competition for positive publicity.

It was all dreamed up by a dynamo of a public relations lady Abigail Page (Prentiss). But the catch is the famed fishing expert has never been in a lake before, much less touched a fish in his life. He can’t fish. He can’t even swim. So when Abigail finds out she has even more leverage and agrees to teach him everything he needs to know. We already foresee that turning out just marvelously.

Then, there are two quibbling old-timers who are also contending for the laurels of the fishing tournament. After all these years, it’s a joy to see Roscoe Karns and Regis Toomey still have it like the old days. Even if they’re probably a little slower and grayer around the edges, the charming witticisms are still there. Best remembered for Hawk’s El Dorado (1966), Charlene Holt has a small part as the put-upon girlfriend who constantly has the utter misfortune of seeing her man in the most compromising situations with other women.

Because in some form Man’s Favorite Sport? is a rom-com of emasculation as Willoughby is constantly overwhelmed by Ms. Page from the very first beat. Even unwittingly, she holds the power in the dynamic as he’s plagued by her craziness and inadvertently comically harrassed around each turn. Every moment, from her initial stealing of his parking spot to criticizing his kisses, sends him reeling.

Although overlong, the picture continually saunters along, highlighted time and again by a substantial number of splashes and pratfalls. Mirroring William Powell’s fishing escapades in Libeled Lady (1936), Hudson finds his line and himself dragged along by a major catch. In another instance, he’s falling out of a tree only to land a whopper. We have black bears on road bikes, inflatable dungarees, and water-bed hijinks. In fact, he’s unwittingly leading the competition, exceeding his own expectations, though, he still has Abigail Page to contend with.

It’s like two locomotives colliding head-on — as much as a neo-screwball romantic comedy about a fishing expert who knows nothing about fishing and must learn from a woman who constantly antagonizes him can possibly be. That’s exactly what it is. At least if the locomotives can kiss and make up in the end. Man’s Favorite Sport? Sure. Rock Hudson’s not any good at fishing anyway so it suits him just fine.

3.5/5 Stars

Magnificent Obsession (1954)

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This is the type of film that when the inevitable happens and a character mentions the title phrase a swell of angels voices begin to murmur and in one sense Magnificent Obsession is a sentimental even spiritual endeavor wrapped up in a soapy melodramatic morality tale.

But the key is that if you know anything about Douglas Sirk, you easily get a sense that this is not the director getting on his soapbox unabashedly. He is using the very material he is given and finding some of the ironies within it.

The story unfurls rather like a modern age parable. There were two men. One man died — a good man — so that another might live and that other man is Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson) a conceited, frivolous playboy only out for a good time.

The unseen, deceased Dr. Phillips left behind a recently wedded wife Helen (Jane Wyman) who was madly in love with him and a grown daughter Joyce (Barbara Rush) who was equally delighted with her new mother.

All of that was torn away from them by the selfish jerk of a man who unwittingly left Dr. Phillips without a resuscitator because the foolhardy Merrick got in a boating accident.

The film begins the long winding road of a soap opera as Merrick begins to change. First, he wants to buy Mrs. Phillip’s sympathy which he will never acquire that way. But he feels like wherever he goes he is somehow haunted by the sacrificial love and anonymous charity which seemed to dictate Dr. Phillips life. He can’t seem to get away from it. It makes him feel awful.

Of all places, he gleans wisdom from one of Phillip’s closest friends a sagacious artist (Otto Kruger) who imparts him with knowledge on how to pursue a life of true purpose. He’s warned by Randolph in one moment, “This is dangerous stuff, one man who used it went to the cross, died at the age of 33” but Merrick begins to go through a radical transformation — to take on this so-called magnificent obsession. Hudson gets the situation which allows him to exhibit his changing attitudes toward his fellow human beings and ultimately his own change in heart.

Anyways the plot spins and jumps in the most inconceivable and unlikely ways that have no other purpose but to set up the dramatic moments that fail to take heed of how absurd everything seems. It’s laid on slightly thick even for me with a few eye-rolling moments no less. Absolute poppycock if I might be so bold.

Still, there’s no doubting the potential impact of this emotional manipulation. You might suspect a crescendo courtesy of the Little Tramp except in lieu of Chaplin we have Rock Hudson in his first leading role. There’s no comparison but he and Wyman do prove to be a compelling romantic team.

I had never quite thought of it like this but sometimes it’s truly a joy to watch some visionary directors work cinematic magic in spite of the material they’ve been given. Currently, if you make a movie it’s usually on your own volition. Either you wrote it or you signed on knowing full well what you are getting involved with (at least in most cases).

But in Classic Hollywood you have so many more examples of great or at least interesting directors saddled with mediocre material. But the truly great ones took that material and made something fascinating out of it whether it was through mise-en-scene, shot selection, or simple choice of tone.

After seeing the works of Douglas Sirk it’s easy to wager that he was such a filmmaker. Originally from Germany and only transplanted to Hollywood in the 1940s, very late compared to many of his contemporaries, he was a very intellectual man and it bleeds into how he approaches his films.

Sometimes to grasp what he is getting at is an exercise in near extrasensory perception. Because he works in irony but very often it gives the pretense of mere melodrama if taken at face value. And that’s what he did, taking that standard so-called women’s picture of the 1950s and giving it a further dimension that allows it depth even today.

So is Magnificent Obsession a masterpiece? Not necessarily. But should that even matter and what does that subjective label mean anyway? Might we just be happy that there are directors like Douglas Sirk who made enduringly riveting films that we can go back to again and again? The idyllic shots of Lake Tahoe would easily make nostalgic souls yearn for the images found in this film alone.

3.5/5 Stars

Tarnished Angels (1957)

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With the name Douglas Sirk, Technicolor opulence no doubt springs to mind but his black and white pictures are no less diverting and still extremely attractive to look at with photography once more courtesy of longtime collaborator Russell Metty.

The cinematography is crisp monochrome filmed in voluptuous cinemascope. It’s hardly as flamboyant as we are accustomed to but then again, The Great Depression was far from a decadent time and the visuals suggest that malaise especially in the film’s latter half when the cracks and the dirt begin to show a little more.

The inspiration for the narrative’s morality play comes from a William Faulkner story, Pylons, an aptly chosen title if it weren’t true that “Tarnished Angels” is more in line with Sirk’s oeuvre and the director glides forward with his usual flair.

The year is 1932 and Mardi Gras festivities seem to be taking over the town as a traveling airshow makes its latest pitstop headlined by those intrepid barnstormers WWI flying ace Roger Shumann (Robert Stack) and his wife LaVerne (Dorothy Malone). Subsequently, the stars involved make this picture a reunion of the previous year’s success Written on the Wind (1956).

Tarnished Angels is a picture that documents the morbid curiosity that often overcomes humanity with such feats of insanity as Shumann does crazy eights in the sky and his wife performs perilous stunts as a daredevil parachuter. The locals eat it up until it all goes terribly awry and then they want nothing to do with it.

A horrendous crash during the gripping race sequence is captured in surprisingly graphic fashion as the planes zoom around the course and from that point on the film goes into a tailspin that the characters can never really recover from.

The sheer pandemonium is underscored by the fact that the announcer continues to entreat the viewing audience to stay off the field and yet in the mayhem no one pays him any heed. It’s their gut emotions that are driving them now, not their rationality.

But despite the tragedy, Shumann is desperate to have his wings back and he reluctantly goes to veteran backer Matt Ord to pilot his plane. His wife agrees to go to the man’s apartment. Although it’s never explicitly stated, we know what it is for. It’s written on the faces of every man who is complicit or privy to the incident and stands by complacently.

Newsman Burke Devlin (Rock Hudson) finds himself enthralled by Roger’s story as a fallen man while faithful mechanic Jiggs (Jack Carson) is about fed up with all that Roger puts LaVerne through and yet she goes to Ord and they do little to stop her.

But it’s true that Devlin also finds himself falling for the other man’s wife after she gives him insight into her life thus far. An intimate moment is burst in upon by a drunkard in a skeleton mask. You have to see it to understand the utter tension that is felt and the collected sigh of relief because we are part of this.

But this is far more than a film about an illicit affair or a man who doesn’t know how to love his family. It gets far more tragic than that and Sirk dramatizes it with a pair of images. A boy helplessly trapped on a carnival ride, a mother restrained by local bystanders, one disconcertingly still wearing a mardi gras mask. And tragedy strikes again with a second crash landing.

Shumann was a  man so obsessive with flying that it literally drives his entire life. He cannot love his wife and child as much as he relishes being in the air performing daring feats of aerial acrobatics. Take away his wings and it’s like a man addicted needing his fix. Driven to such levels of indelicacy he willingly sacrifices family or, more specifically, his wife for a flying machine. But in his final moments for a brief instant perhaps he rises above his past failings to shed his former self and show something else.

Rock Hudson gives a drunken monologue in the newsroom that silences any dissenters and naysayers at least for a minute because he developed an almost intimate relationship with this man’s life.

I can’t help but draw up comparisons between this picture and Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951). Distinctively both films use journalism and a member of the profession to get at the material but their actions couldn’t be different.

Certainly, both are interested in stories. They are drawn to the spectacle. In the earlier film a miner is trapped in a mine shaft and in this picture Devlin is intrigued by that crummy carnival of death as it is so eloquently christened. But Hudson character hardly seems to be taking advantage of the situation because he offers up his home and proves himself a stalwart defender of children and women.

If he’s interested in a mere story at first, ultimately the whole ordeal takes hold of him so personally that it transcends any of that and proceeds to overshadow everything else. Kirk Douglas in his role might provide a harsher indictment of journalism’s capacity for creating a media circus. Sirk’s film is an equally telling portrait of human frailty as much as it chronicles callous indiscretion.

4/5 Stars

Review: Written on the Wind (1956)

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Douglas Sirk’s films are always lovely to look at, almost to the point of making you sick. The panoramas swell with color. They’re too perfect. The sets are gaudy — the cars the same — to the point of almost being unsightly in their over the top artificiality. Try to find any amount of authenticity and you will most likely fail.

The people within the frames are even more glamorous than the rooms they fill and arguably more colorful.  Namely the dashing Rock Hudson, a Sirkian mainstay and then Lauren Bacall, Dorothy Malone, and Robert Stack, all Hollywood talents playing character types with names and dialogue straight out of a trashy romance novella. We wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s exquisite.

Because everything is played with the utmost of seriousness from starting credits to the closing shot and yet it just doesn’t take. Sirk seems to be working against his material and that’s where the enjoyment of this picture really lies. It makes Written on the Wind the zenith of the soap opera tradition.

Like any good melodrama, it begins with a shooting, it ends with a murder inquest and the in between is filled in with drunkenness, romantic interplay, familial strife, impotence, fist fights, childhood dynamics, and anything else you can imagine in such a sleazy affair. Still, when everything has run its course, our leading man and his leading lady are able to drive through the pearly mansion gates off on a perfect life together.

Though Rock Huson and Lauren Bacall are arguably our stars, it is their fairly typical and straightforward roles lay the groundwork for the true show put on by Malone and Stack as the Hadley siblings.

Malone sheds her librarian role in The Big Sleep (1946) for the performance of her career as the uninhibited, diabolical, sex-crazed platinum blonde. And Stack is a far cry from Elliot Ness. He lives like he’s never even heard of prohibition as he lets his characterization go completely off the rails in a fantastic manner.

Their father (Robert Keith) is one of the richest oilmen around and they’ve grown up as brats accustomed to wealth and yet their lives are an utter shambles with flings, booze, and personal demons leaving a wake of tumult that rips through the tabloids.

Mitch Wayne (Hudson) and Lucy Moore (Bacall) meet in a boardroom as nice as you please. You would guess that romance is kindling except that the impetuous Kyle (Stack) inserts himself in the situation trying to win her over with jet flights and a steady stream of charm. Somehow it works and they are wedded soon thereafter. It has all the signs of a trainwreck given Kyle’s track record but miraculously it works for a while. But he’s devastated by some news from his local doctor (Ed Platt) which drives him back into a constant stupor and drunken tirades.

Meanwhile, his sister relishes watching him falter because they’ve never seen eye-to-eye on anything. Her main focus is seducing Mitch their lifelong friend who has never allowed himself to fall prey to her wiles. In retaliation, she looks to search out any man who can show her a decent time. She doesn’t much care who it is. But Mitch is hardly jealous for her, only protective, and his eyes are set on Lucy nee Moore anyways. If the entanglements aren’t clear already they present themselves obviously enough.  It’s gloriously sensationalized nonsense.

Still, so many others owe an undying debt to this film and those like it. Fassbinder came from here as did Todd Haynes. Dallas, Dynasty, or any other 80s soaps found their roots right here too. After all, this is the original version of “Who Shot J.R.” Thus, the debt must be paid to Sirk’s films and people have.

Because his style is very easy to admire. Contemporary audiences undoubtedly ate it up and we do now years later. The artificial interiors and the airbrushed Technicolor palette helps define what many people deem to be 1950s Hollywood. It’s luscious, easy on the eyes, decadent, all those apt superlatives. But if that was all that he had to offer, Sirk wouldn’t be as interesting to a great many people now.

It’s the very fact that he seems highly self-aware and he’s so wonderful at staging and creating this environment, beautifully photographed by his longtime collaborator Russell Metty, that the whole composition tells us something more. It’s rear projections and painted backdrops. Sets and stages that accentuate this piece of drama. It’s all sending us a collective wink to see if we get the joke. Those who do will be greatly rewarded.

4.5/5 Stars

 

Review: Giant (1956)

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People might come to Giant for James Dean. They might come seeking out the final film in George Stevens unofficial American Trilogy (including A Place in the Sun and Shane).  Maybe it’s even the promise of a sprawling epic of monumental length and scope that turns out to be both a blessing and a curse by most accounts.

But this adaptation of Edna Ferber’s novel, despite all of this, is really a film about marriage and family in a world that’s constantly changing. Rock Hudson is a towering giant in his own right turning in a performance that works as quintessential Texan Jordan “Bic” Benedict. Elizabeth Taylor proves that far from a one-dimensional classical beauty, she has acting prowess as well delivering a spirited showing that gels with Hudson for the very fact that it often chafes against his characterization. Meaning they’re believable as husband and wife.

James Dean plays their marginalized ranch hand Jett Rink who is nevertheless treated well by Bic’s  hardy sister Luz (Mercedes McCambridge) as well as Leslie while harboring a life long feud with Bic over the ensuing years.

Time turns this story into a battleground of two dueling giants. One a life long rancher of great stature. The other a modern figure blessed with a meteoric rise as an oil magnate. Their resentment carries through the generations as much as their differing fields reflect the sign of the times. The tectonics shift as the old guard of the Texas plains is replaced with a new breed of powerful men.

Of course, Dean’s performance is the stuff of legend and there’s an idiosyncratic, grumbling magnetism about it as only he could do. This isn’t Brando and it’s not even Monty Clift who previously played opposite Elizabeth Taylor in Stevens’ earlier picture. It’s James Dean showcasing his personal flare.

The final moments of his “Last Supper,” after his subsequent rise to glory, are devastatingly pathetic. The mighty oil tycoon of Jetexas falls into utter disgrace crashing to the floor of the empty banquet hall with a clatter. Rolling around in a drunken stupor, making a shambles of his grand exhibition of wealth, and simultaneously concluding Dean’s last scene in front of an audience.

His life would be taken even before Giant finished filming, some of his last scenes of dialogue being reread by close friend Nick Adams, his temperamental nature and habit of mumbling lines impacting the production even after his passing. Still, George Stevens himself, despite the insurmountable hell he was put through, and the hits his shooting schedule took, even admitted that Dean was something special.

You might not like him but all of us seem to gravitate to him for some inexplicable reason. He carries our gaze with his ticks and his delivery. It’s as if he forces us to take heed even out of a necessity to understand him, his head downcast, his hands fidgeting and such, all a ploy to carry our attention. It generally works.

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Yes, we lost him so young but the beauty of Giant’s epic stature is that in cinematic terms Dean was blessed with a full life. We saw him as a fiery youth in East of Eden (1954) and Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and in Giant he evolved into an equally tortured man who grew old before our eyes. That’s the magic of the movies. But sometimes it’s so easy to have his legend overshadow all others.

The latter half of the film is really about the Benedict family evolving with the maturation of their children. Dean is worth a closer look certainly, but I’m inclined to enjoy the performances of Carroll Baker and Dennis Hopper nearly as much if only for the simple fact that they’re less heralded.

Baker is the daughter caught in the throes of romance and decadence who finds Jett Rink more fun partly for the very fact that her stuffy parents abhor what he has become. Meanwhile, Hopper brings a surprisingly earnest candor as the Benedict’s eldest son with aspirations to be a doctor instead of a rancher, pushing against family tradition, subsequently marrying a Mexican-American bride, and facing the unfortunate ostracization that comes with such a life.

Some of the most evocative scenes are actually held between Hudson and Taylor. To most, their careers were known for personal lives exploited by tabloids. They don’t get the same adulation as Dean as actors. Still, in this film, they do something quite spectacular in a more unassuming way. They quite authentically reflect the life of a married couple as their romance and life together waxes and wanes over the years. That includes Jett Rink’s onslaught and the trials with kids but, at the core it’s just the two of them, grappling with it together.

Because this is a film that unfolds over decades we come to appreciate the changes that come over the characters and not so much the makeup or touches of gray. More important are the strides they make in their lives or even how they remain the same.

They model what it is to be young and in love, to quarrel and bicker and to make up and to be diplomatic and to have dreams and aspirations and to want the best for your children and at the same time hold grudges and feel like the ones you love are purposely trying to undermine you.

To begin with, this is a fairy tale romance of opposites. Hudson is the formidable Texan bred as a rancher and he comes to the upper echelons of eastern society looking for a stallion and he comes back with a bride instead.

She comes to his country initially welcomed and then feeling like an outsider in a land that is so set in its ways. Men and woman are expected to exist in certain spheres. White folks don’t fraternize with Mexicans. And cattle barons tame their land and breed their stock like their fathers before them. It’s tradition and they stick to it. Bic Benedict is raised in that Texas tradition dating all the way back to the Alamo, his stock proud, fiery, and tough.

Still, his wife Leslie is just as audacious but in different ways, testing his sensibilities and testing the matrimonial bonds of their marriage. She rather comically proposes her own marriage, looks to break up the boy’s club mentality that dictates the culture, and tramples over the de facto laws of the land in favor of goodwill to all. That means if a baby is sick, she fetches a doctor. The color of its skin makes no difference. In that atmosphere, it’s radical that she extends kindness to everyone, not simply her own “kind” as it were, whether divided by class or racial barriers. Ultimately, it’s a testament to the sorry state of affairs but also of her personal convictions and they bleed into the rest of her family.

The final showcase comes not in his front and center bout with Jett Rink because although we’ve been expecting it for decades, as such it never comes. Jett’s not worth it anymore. Instead, Bic’s shining moment comes in, of all places, a roadside diner. He’s not as strapping as he used to be and he gets wailed on something awful. But in this moment as he’s duking it out with a local bigot, the platform that he stands on is not simply about his family name or his own personal honor as a Benedict but along the planes of what is morally right and wrong.

Rejecting service to people based on the color of their skin is inherently wrong. Disrespecting people of other races can and never should be accepted. Years before he would have never taken a stand on such touchy issues but he’s matured in that regard and his wife falls in love with him all over again. She sees first hand why she grew to love this man.

He lies there on the floor heaving and bloodied with food flung all around him the oddly upbeat throngs of “Yellow Rose of Texas” still whirring on the jukebox but ironically Leslie has never been more proud of her man. It’s that paradoxical maxim written about many times. Blessed are those who are persecuted for doing good.

Most modern viewers will honestly thank their lucky stars that they don’t make epics like this. But there’s something fleetingly enchanting about these old-time vehicles that managed to encompass so much space with grandiose ambitions and awesome imagery full of million dollar skies and fluffy clouds as far as the eye can see.

The West is dead as is the American genre. The stars as we knew them are no more. We are still a nation struggling with issues of race and class. Love and marriage. That mixture of nostalgia and timelessness still makes Giant a draw.  George Stevens is one of The Great American Directors and though Shane (1953) will remain his unassuming masterpiece, Giant deserves at the very least a modicum amount of respect as a dying breed of American epic.

4.5/5 Stars

Note: Entry in The Elizabeth Taylor Blogathon!

Pillow Talk (1959)

Pillowtalk_posterIt’s the original Rock Hudson Doris Day Rom-Com, with the seemingly perpetual split screen, to match the party line that constantly weaves its way through the story. It’s technicolor, it has an infectious title track, and it’s absurd wackiness somehow adds up to a boy-gets-girl happy ending.

The imposing and dashing Hudson plays songwriter and major playboy Brad Allen, before masquerading as tenderhearted Texan Rex Stetson. But how does he get there? What causes him to play such a ludicrous part? It comes in the form of Jan Morrow, our peppy platinum-haired interior decorator who has had just about enough of her party-line partner, the estimable Mr. Allen.

Her often swanked housekeeper Alma (Thelma Ritter) doesn’t mind eavesdropping and swooning along with all the other impressionable women he romances over the telephone. Jan, on the other, thinks it’s sickening behavior for a man. She would never allow herself to be taken in by such a cad.

Of course, there’s more to the story since one of Jan’s clients, the neurotic millionaire Johnathan Forbes (Tony Randall), is madly in love with her. There’s another wrinkle though, that’s far more important. He knows Allen from his college days. When Brad gets his first view of Jan, she’s an absolute knockout and he wants to win her over, but she hates his guts, at least over the phone. Enter a sweetly sincere Texan and she is swept off her feet surreptitiously.

Brad manages the charade for some time, but for the comedy to work, it must all come crumbling down. In this case, as expected, Ms. Morrow and Mr. Forbes figure things out at almost the same precise moment. It looks like Brad is sunk for good. There’s no hope for such a louse. But then again, if Pillow Talk ended there, it’s audience would be left muttering despairingly and crying inconsolably. The exclamation point comes when Hudson pulls his bride-to-be out of her bed and forcibly carries her through the streets of New York. It sets the stage for some quips perfectly at home in a quaint bedroom comedy plucked out of the 1950s.

Day and Hudson were stupendously popular with the populous and this film would begin their string of pictures together. Although they never reached the excellence, or more aptly, the above-averageness of Pillow Talk, they have remained relatively popular even to this day. Ms. Day was always a fan favorite and rightly so with her impeccably powerful voice, raucous comedic performances, and self-assured charm. And she’s still with us bless her heart! It will undoubtedly be antiquated and overly saccharine to many, but if you have a soft spot for either  Rock or Doris, then enjoy it without reservations. It’s a rather entertaining guilty pleasure.

3.5/5 Stars

Brad: Look, I don’t know what’s bothering you, but don’t take your bedroom problems out on me.

Jan: I have no bedroom problems. There’s nothing in my bedroom that bothers me.

Brad: Oh-h-h-h. That’s too bad.

All That Heaven Allows (1955)

allthatheaven4When I first saw the work of Douglas Sirk, I was immediately struck by how well it seemed to personify 1950s Hollywood. All That Heaven Allows (1955) is little different in its opulence and superficial soap opera tonalities. Except for this one, at times, feels a little like it should be a part of a Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover. Perhaps it glides a slightly more interesting line between high society country club members and quintessential middle America.

The two alternatives are contrasted in our screen couple played by Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson.

Cary Scott (Wyman) is a well to do, middle-aged widow with two grown kids off at school. She is often lonely and always sensible when it comes to the life decisions she makes. After all, she doesn’t want the local gossip blabbing about her life to all their society friends.

That changes rather gradually thanks to her seasonal gardener and professional tree-trimmer Ron Kirby (Hudson). He is a different sort of spirit who seems to be content with nature and his place in it as nurturer. Their acquaintance begins over a harmless cup of coffee and turns into an excursion to his humble abode. Over time, Cary is introduced to Ron’s brands of friends who are all charming, down-to-earth folk who live life to the fullest without worrying about wealth or societal pressures. This is what she has been looking for and he is the man who she needs. So when Ron proposes marriage she readily accepts.

Now comes the task of putting it before the kids and then showing Ron to the local snarks. The socialites are no different with their sniggering and pointed remarks. There is no mercy for Cary and Ron. In fact, they are appalled by such a scandalous romance. The children who normally are rational and kind, do not mince words with their mother. Ned talks about the family honor, the legacy of their father, and their home. He cannot bear for his mother to supposedly throw all that away. Kay, on her part, is always getting caught up in psychoanalysis, but this time all rationale goes out the window after her boyfriend breaks up with her.  Under this built-in pressure, Cary reluctantly breaks off their marriage, mostly for the sake of the children.

allthatheaven2Except she is never quite the same and never feels like she did with Ron. Cary is resigned to staying in her lavish home, while reluctantly accepting the newest form of modern entertainment — a television. Christmas time is especially hard when she runs into Ron, but then the kids come home. That’s when she realizes her grave error and what comes next is exactly what you expect, with a few small diversions. Cary turns back to Ron, who has been in a funk of his own. Following an accident that was induced by Cary’s presence, Ron is bedridden and Cary rushes to his aid. This is the life she was meant for no matter what society says of her.

It’s pretty mushy, weepy stuff in a sense. That’s the superficial level of second-rate romance and picture-perfect technicolor. In fact, All That Heaven Allows is visually beautiful in a sickening sort of way. The town is too pristine, the seasons too perfect, the snow too puffy. And yet it all seems to be an impeccable supplement to Sirk’s moral drama. Ironically, this is not a moral tale about unbridled love between a woman and her younger lover. That would make complete sense. Instead, Sirk subverts that wonderfully, by suggesting the weight of the blame is on society and the peer pressure that permeates the upper crust.

Even if this film is a little too syrupy in its sweetness, I can manage a spoonful or two because there is a greater meaning to this frivolity. All That Heaven Allows is certainly an acquired taste, but it’s worth taking a chance on.

4/5 Stars

Written on the Wind (1956)

WrittenOnTheWind2Here is a film that wholly personifies an over the top melodrama or soap opera. Douglas Sirk’s film is full of complicated romances, tense relationships, drunkenness, and murder. Yet when the two stars drive away through the gates of the Hadley Estate everything is resolved (at least to a degree).

It seems that Sirk undoubtedly knew how over the top his story is and he reinforces it with his blatantly loud colors, dramatic music, flashy cars, gaudy interiors, and so on. He embraces a style that seems stereo-typically 1950s Hollywood and he makes it work.

Ironically Rock Hudson gives a good performance and Lauren Bacall is okay but the real drama flows from Robert Stack and especially Dorothy Malone. They are the black sheep of the Hadley family and by the end of the film they definitely deserve the moniker. Except there is more to them then that. Kyle is a tragic figure to be sure and despite her sex-crazed ways there still is a bit of sympathy for Marylee.

I cannot wait to see more Sirk because he seems quintessentially 1950s.

4.5/5 Stars

Winchester ’73 (1950)

2604e-winchester_73_-_1950-_posterStarring James Stewart and directed by Anthony Mann, this western follows the journey a special rifle takes in the old west. Stewart wins it in a competition but it gets stolen soon after. An Indian trader wins it in a card game only to have an Indian take it. Stewart, his pal, get pinned down with some cavalry by the Indians. They survive and the rifle is given to a young man with a girlfriend after Stewart is gone. A treacherous gunslinger coolly kills for it but then gives it up to the original bandit who claims it as his. In a final mountaintop showdown, Stewart faces off with his estranged brother who killed their father. He wins back his rifle and rides back into town to his friends. This is a good western with an interesting storytelling device. It was a surprise to see Will Geer, Rock Hudson, and Tony Curtis as unknowns.

4.5/5 Stars

Giant (1956)

This is an epic film that stars Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean, with direction by George Stevens. It shows the ongoing conflict between a rancher (Hudson) and his former hired hand who becomes rich off oil (Dean). As Jett Rink (Dean) exclaims, he becomes even richer than the rancher Bic Benedict (Hudson) ever dreamed. The relationship escalates when Rink makes a rude remark to Leslie Benedict (Taylor), and some punches are traded. From this point on the three main characters slowly grow older and the Benedicts have children. In his final screen appearance, Dean’s character is suppose to give a speech at a large banquet. However he is so drunk he falls flat on his face a complete wreck. Giant was ahead of his time by giving commentary about the race relations with Mexicans. It also took young actors and progressively made them look older, something that was quite unusual. Although this was Dean’s final movie I think it can be said he came full circle. He began as a youth in East of Eden and by the end of Giant he was a old man.

4.5/5 Stars