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Sean Connery

Posted by keith1942 on September 20, 2021

Connery was another film star whose career ended in 2020.  One whose films I mainly enjoyed and whose gravitas, with the Scottish accent, was frequently a memorable experience. Whilst he was a very different character, both in culture and values, his career reminded me of his friend Michael Caine. There were the early years of minor movies and minor roles. Then the breakthrough and a screen image that was sexy and charismatic. This was followed by a long career as a major star with an increasing screen presence, partly due to the longevity and the impressiveness of his roles. Whilst their politics were rather different both generally represented conservative values but also made films which intentionally or not subverted those values. However Connery certainly essayed a wider range of roles and worked more extensively beyond the mainstream. He also often exuded a greater sense of irony whilst Caine often seemed to send himself up.

I saw several of Connery’s early films though I did not mark him out at the time, this included the gripping Hell Drivers (1957). The first time I remember being taken by him was in The Frightened City (1961) which had my favourite black and white cinematography format.

Then came the James Bond titles. I was never that impressed with the cycle. However, he was the most convincing Bond and only Daniel Craig has come close since then. I remember standing outside the ABC cinema in Bournemouth with friends and being entertained as the young men with female companions came out of the cinema clearly trying to emulate the Bond persona.

There was Marnie (1964) from Alfred Hitchcock. I never really liked the film and I have been irritated by the attempts by some Hitchcock fans to explain away the rape sequence. But Connery was ideal as the misogynistic protagonist. The Hill (1965) was a far more interesting film directed by Sydney Lumet. This brought out some of the interesting facets of the on-screen characteristics, including the rebellious streak and the stubborn determination. The Molly Maguires (1970), set in the Pennsylvania coal  mines in the 19th century was excellent, well scripted by Walter Bernstein and directed by Martin Ritt. This was a powerful trade union story and one that the mainstream US industry has tended to avoid and downplay.

‘The Hill’

The Offence (1972) was again directed by Sidney Lumet and adapted from his own play by John Hopkins. Connery’s regular characteristics were here employed in a vicious and violent interrogation of Ian Bannen’s suspected rapist. Both actors were impressive and the film deserves wider recognition.

Zardoz (1974 was written, produced and directed by John Boorman. Connery played a ‘brutal’, a group dominated by ‘the Eternals’ in a future society. In a complex and sometime complicated plot Zed breaks into the world of the Eternals and disrupts it in numerous ways. Audiences at the time found the film confusing and it was panned by the critics. I was fascinated by the quirky SF story from Boorman and the film looked great with cinematography by Godfrey Unsworth. There was the added bonus of Charlotte Rampling.

In 1975 he appeared in two interesting films. The Wind and the Lion set in early 20th century Morocco as the USA flexes its imperial muscle. But the focus was the contrasting characters of Mulai Ahmed er Raisuni (Connery) and Teddy Roosevelt (Brian Keith). The director John Milius was not really equipped to handle such a colonial episode but Connery, in no way Arabic, is engaging. I however prefer The Man Who Would be King. Taken from a Kipling story; the writer is an imperialist but also has an understanding and sympathy for the great sub-continent. Connery, as Daniel Draviot, is part of a duo with Michael Caine as Peachy Camehan. This is the sort of adventure story in which both actors excel. The director John Huston, with co-writer Gladys Hill, gives the story drama, emotion but also humour. And the landscape looks fine in Oswald Morris’ fine cinematography. The indigenous peoples are merely props for these adventurers but Saeed Jaffrey as Billy Fish is also memorable.

‘The Man Who Would be King’

1976 saw Richard Lester’s film Robin and Marion. This was an ensemble of talents. James Goldman wrote the screenplay, David Watkins provided the cinematography and John Barry the music. Connery was ably supported by an excellent cast including Audrey Hepburn, Robert Shaw and Nicol Williamson. This is the best version on film of the Robin Hood Legend. The plot develops with real interest and both drama and humour. And the elegiac tone is impressive.

There was a gap of six years before a film that seems equivalent, Five Days One Summer (1982). Fred Zinnemann ably directed this mountaineering film set in the 1930s Alps. Despite poor reviews this was a film for the climbing buff. The accuracy of the representation of mountaineering was no doubt due to the presence of Hamish MacInnes as an advisor and able stand-in on the mountains. The film also has the longest parting between lovers that I can remember.

The Name of the Rose was a credible adaptation of Umberto Eco’s novel and a feast of semiotics. Connery’s William of Somerville provided a rational centre in a monastery full of hysterical fundamentalist and misguided believers. The young Christian Slater as Adso provided a youthful foil to Connery.

Then there is the Oscar-winning performance in The Untouchables (1987). This is classic Brian de Palma film with the happy addition of an Ennio Morricone score. Connery’s Irish-American cop is not that Irish but he does have one of the great death scenes in Hollywood films.

The Russia House (1990) is from a John Le Carré novel and it is hard to go wrong with that, especially when Tom Stoppard does the adaptation . It [as usual] lacks the complexity of the original but the unwinding of the jigsaw is fascinating. Michelle Pfeiffer is good as the romantic interest and James Fox is really fine as the British spy master.

Sean Connery’s last film outing that I really rate is Finding Forrester, a fascinating study directed by Gus Van Sant. Connery is the titular writer and recluse. Rob Brown is a young aspiring Afro-American writer. Both are convincing in their very different characters. The treatment of a black artist in a white-dominated culture needs greater depth but the film holds the attention and has a satisfactory finale.

‘Finding Forrester’

Connery had a few films that bombed at the box office but in most cases they were successful. Much of his career was spent in Hollywood productions like The Hunt for Red October (1990). Whilst this and others were very well produced the narratives tended to the conventional. I think his most interesting work was in independent and European films. And the best of these resurface regularly and I am sure that they will continue to do so. There is no doubt about either his star quality or his position in the top film/actor lists.

Posted in Hollywood stars, Obituary | Leave a Comment »

The Man in the Barn, M-G-M 1937

Posted by keith1942 on September 30, 2019

By coincidence I watched this film on 16mm shortly after I finished my post on The Lincoln Cycle/ The Son of Democracy (USA 1918). The latter is a series of short films which dramatise Lincoln as president but also his earlier life as a motivation for his actions and values. The cycle as unfinished so it never reached the assassination of Lincoln, just as the celebrations started for the defeat of the Confederacy.  The ‘man in the barn’ connects as it is John Wilkes Booth, the assassin. Twelve days after the killing he was cornered by Union troops in a barn in Maryland and, as the barn burned, refused to surrender and was shot, dying three hours later.

This one-reel film comes from a series , ‘An Historical Mystery’. The plot picks up on theories circulating in the early 1900s that the person killed at the barn was a Wilkes Booth look-a-like and that the assassin lived on for years. In the film in 1903 a man on his deathbed  in an Oklahoma town claims to  be John Wilkes Booth but expires before he can explain further.

In the film a series of brief flashbacks dramatise Wilkes escape and the finale at the barn. Then. with a series of close-ups and a comentative voice, question the identification of the man in the barn and the claimant thirty years later. These focus on his physiognomy and scars on his body.

The film does not offer a full explanation as to how Wilkes might have escaped. But three scenes with voice-over comment propose that Wilkes evaded capture because an unseen hand covered his escape route. So here we have a implied conspiracy theory that Wilkes escaped justice because of co-operation by characters who, presumably, exercised power over state actions. And it is true that some factions celebrated Lincoln’s murder, even in Washington. A sign of the enmity that he motivated in many supporters of the Confederate cause.

It reminded me of the conspiracy theories around the murder of John F. Kennedy. In his case we have had several full-length film features on the subject.  In fact a book on Lincoln and Booth, ‘The Lincoln Conspiracy’  was filmed in 1977 but I have never seen this.

I was moved to check out the follow-on from the one other Presidential assassination, William McKinley in 1901. But there does not appear to be conspiracy theories about this event, the President being shot by  a man with associations to Anarchists. Presumably the furores around the actions of both Lincoln and Kennedy are the reason why people suspect the official verdict.

This short black and white film is just a footnote in the cinema of US Presidents. However, it is crisply filmed and works through the subject with economy.  It did not, however, convince me that Wilkes was not the man who was shot ‘in the Barn’.

The film was scripted by Morgan Cox who had a lot of credits in this period: and another writer, Charles Whittaker, is credited with ‘Historical Compilations’, which i think probably refers to the series. The director Jacques Tourneur was an experienced director noted for both horror and film noir; both relevant to this short. I did not catch the cinematographer but the film, as the story would suggest, is a combination of light and shadow. The editing is very well done, covering quite an amount of plot in the running time of eleven minutes.

Posted in Hollywood stars, Short films | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

The Big Sleep, USA 1946.

Posted by keith1942 on December 30, 2014

Marlowe with Vivian.

Marlowe with Vivian.

A reel treat at the end of the year was the screening of this classic film at the Hyde Park Picture House in an excellent 35mm print.

The film is classic in a number of ways. It is a star vehicle for Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, whose silhouettes grace the background as the credits unroll. Apparently after the success of To Have and Have Not (Warner Bros. 1945) commissioned Howard Hawks to develop a follow-up, (this film also includes Bacall singing). It certainly seems that the box office success was very much down to audience’s delight in this new onscreen romantic couple. Some of the best moments in the film are the scenes between the couple. One, added late in the production to increase the star attraction, is a delightful conversation involving the risqué use of horse racing metaphors. And there is a two-handed telephone conversation between Marlowe (Bogart), Vivian (Bacall) and at the other end of the telephone a bemused police officer. If the lead couple are good, so are the supporting cast. Elisha Cook Jr. has one of his greatest and glummest screen characters in Harry Brown. And Sonia Darrin is the suitably hard-bitten Agnes. Even more memorable is Dorothy Malone as a Bookshop girl: there is superb moment as she takes off her spectacles and shakes out her hair.

Then this is a Howard Hawks’s movie; [Michael Walker has an interesting discussion of this aspect in The Movie Book of Film Noir, Studio Vista 1992). The professionalism central to Hawk’s films is here, even if the male camaraderie is downplayed. And Bacall beautifully projects the androgynous quality that often hangs about his heroines. The film’s production is well served in the cinematography by Sidney Hickcox, editing by Christian Nyby and Production Design by Robert B. Lee. The music by Max Steiner, as with the male lead, also recalls Casablanca (1942).

The complications of the novel by Raymond Chandler and this film version (scripted by William Faulkner, Leigh Bracket and Jules Furthman) are legendary. However, I reckon that one can follow it with attention and despite possibly apocryphal stories, all the murderers are identified. This is Chandler at his best – the book is a gripping read and a BBC radio 4 adaptation last year was also excellent.

The big question mark is whether to place the film in the private eye or the film noir genres. Certainly Bogart is a seeker hero and he encounters a world of chaos and criminality. The film also has light and shadow but not with the intensity of, say, another Chandler Adaptation Murder My Sweet / Farewell My Lovely (1944). And Eddie Mars (John Ridgely) lacks the malevolence of the really great noir villains. This was one of the films I discussed with students on ‘the World of Noir Course’ The consensus was that the film lacked a sharply defined femme fatale. The contenders would seem to be the two Sternwood sisters, Carmen (Martha Vickers) and Vivian. No serious femme fatale would suck her thumb in the manner that Carmen does. And Vivian ends up saving the seeker hero.

But then many great films defy easy categorization. What the film does offer is an absorbing and entertaining 114 minutes. The audience at this screening certainly enjoyed the film.


Posted in Film noir, Hollywood, Hollywood stars | 1 Comment »

My Darling Clementine, USA 1946.

Posted by keith1942 on November 27, 2014

MY DARLING CLEMENTINE-008-(1000003974)My Darling Clementine-008

This classic western directed by John Ford was screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato 2014. The screening used a 4K DCP, which offered excellent visual quality. The film had been digitally scanned at 4K from the Museum of Modern Art’s 35mm nitrate fine grain master. Then it was restored at 4K at Cineric Inc. with the audio track restored from a source element at Audio Mechanics. This was a demonstration of how good digital can be when the technology is set at the right level of quality and used well. A discussion on digital restorations and screenings produced the comment that 4K should be the minimum for digital cinema: something my experience of viewing confirms.

This great western, filmed in Ford’s favourite Monument Valley, makes excellent use of the landscape and vistas. This provides the setting for one of the finest performances by Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp. The Catalogue quoted Tag Gallagher; “Wyatt combines the godhead of Lincoln, the passion of Tom Joad, the directness of the Ringo Kid.” Somewhat over the top, as indeed is the film, but it aspires to and achieves mythic status. It is worth noting that two of the performances quoted are indeed by Fonda, but the third is by John Wayne. Much of the strength of the film arises from this combination of two artists, Ford and Fonda.

But it also arises from the writing – Samuel G. Engel and Winston Miller: the superb cinematography by Joe Macdonald; and fine production design by James Basevi and Lyle Wheeler. The music also aspired to mythic status, and the use of the traditional song, ‘We’ll gather at the river’, is memorable.

And the quality also stems from the fine supporting cast. Walter Brennan as the Clanton patriarch is splendid. And Victor Mature as Doc Holiday has a memorable sequence in which he quotes Shakespeare: far better than the ham he is sometimes thought to be. As you might expect for the genre the women characters are less developed, but Cathy Downs is excellent as Clementine and Linda Darnell makes Chihuahua memorable.

This was one of the great pleasures of the Ritrovato week, and unsurprisingly the Arlecchino cinema was packed. The film looked great on the large screen, wide enough for scope but masked to 1.37:1. Undoubtedly this restoration will circulate in the UK in the not too distant future. My fear is that we will only get a 2K DCP. Despite there being quite a number of 4K projectors around – we have three cinemas in Leeds and at least one in nearby Bradford with this technology – the UK distributors rarely expend the effort of resources to provide this quality. Several exhibitors have told me that one requires a minimum screen size for 4K projection: 10 metres in quoted. However, Torkell Sætervadet in the FIAF Digital Projection Guide (2012) provides several pages of refutation. One aspect that gets overlooked is that digital is not just about the number of pixels – 4K offers a greater degree of dynamic contrast: and My Darling Clementine is a film with magnificent dynamic contrasts. Let us wait and hope.


Posted in auteurs, Festivals, Hollywood, Hollywood stars, Westerns | Leave a Comment »

The Deer Hunter, USA 1978

Posted by keith1942 on August 4, 2014

The friends leaving the steel mill.

The friends leaving the steel mill.

This Academy Award winning film is being re-issued this summer. This follows on from the ‘restored’ version of Heaven’s Gate (2013), also directed by Michael Cimino. Like the later film this comes with high critical praise. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw awards five stars for what he terms a film with ‘anti-war imagery’. However, Andrew Briton, in a major article on Hollywood’s Vietnam movies (Sideshows: Hollywood in Vietnam, Movie issue 27/28) makes the point that

The ‘anti-war’ film tends to protest against war as such from an abstractly moral point of view …war is extrapolated for its socio-economic causes and functions, and we are confronted with its ‘horrors’ –.

It is this mis-reading [ideological in the proper sense of the word] that is made in The Guardian review. There is a complete absence, as in so much critical writing on film, of any sense of the ‘socio-economic’.

But actually this film is far worse than merely ‘anti-war’. It has as reactionary a viewpoint as the more frequently lambasted The Green Berets (1968). That film has at least the merit of being explicit in its right-wing views: merely transferring the racist treatment of Native Americans in westerns to the war in Vietnam. The Deer Hunter masquerades as a liberal critique whilst not only justifying the colonial war and the war crimes of the USA but vilifying the Vietnamese with racist stereotypes.

The film is effectively divided into three parts: an opening act set in the steel town of Clairton  Pennsylvania, which runs for over an hour. The second act, running about 40 minutes, is set in Vietnam. And the final act is back in Clairton but with another short venture to Vietnam, to Saigon just before the US flight. The film’s plot revolves around a group of friends, the members being Michael (Robert de Niro) and Nick Christopher Walken), along with Stevie (John Savage) all about to leave for service in Vietnam: the group’s oddball Stan (John Cazale) plus Axel (Chuck Aspegreen), all of these work in the local steel mill: Linda (Meryl Streep) Nick’s girlfriend, and Angela (Rutanya Alda) pregnant and about to marry Stevie: and John (George Dzundza) who runs a local bar where the friends regularly socialise.

The first part of the film, set in an ‘ethnic Ukrainian’ working class community in Clairton, a Pennsylvanian steel town, is frequently praised. But as Britton argues cogently in his article

the film relies on its inert reiteration of the appearance of concreteness – its ‘naturalism’ to camouflage the fact that its community is an abstraction, which can only be arrived at, and come to serve the end which it does serve, through systematic mystification.

It can be added that the settings, steel works, ethnic churches and celebrations, misty mountains – all lend themselves to high-value and costly production design and cinematography: and the film enjoys the services of one of the outstanding cinematographers Vilmos Zgismond. Clairton is a construction from eight different locations: Thailand stands in for Vietnam, though the film does use actual footage of the US evacuation: and some of the close-ups use back projection.

The mystification is served by the use of star power. De Niro, Walken and Streep, in particular, bring personas associated with their ability to create ‘authentic characters’. Intriguingly in the subsequent film Heaven’s Gate, we once again are presented with ethnic migrants, but on this occasion they are not served by star performers. In both cases, as Briton argues, ethnicity enables the filmmaker to avoid the fundamental issue of class.

If the real relations of class escape the film so do those of gender. Briton points out that the first hour of the film is dominated by two rituals – the female ritual of the wedding and the male ritual of the hunt. However, male rituals take precedence. As in other Cimino films [Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, 1974 and Heavens Gate) the central focus is the friendship between men – a buddy movie.

The Clairton act also contains premonitions that look forward to later in the film. At the wedding of Stevie and Angela, Michael and Linda exchange a look and a smile. At the subsequent reception Michael, Stevie and Nick attempt to question a Green Beret Vietnam veteran, whose only response is ‘Fuck it!’ Then, in one of several ethnic rituals, Stevie and Angela drink from double entwined cups, but red drops of wine fall [un-remarked] on Angela’s wedding dress. After the reception Nick makes Michael promise ‘Don’t leave me over there’ [Vietnam]. One of the most emphatic motifs in the film, is the ‘one shot’ endlessly preached by Michael. This is first played out with a stag on a mountaintop and repeated in variations several times later in the film.

The second act in Vietnam is, as Bradshaw concedes,

just as much fantasy as Francis Ford Coppola’s Wagner-fueled helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now (1979).

With a powerful ellipsis, the film cuts directly from Clairton to a battle scene in Vietnam. What one presumes is supposed to be a Vietcong soldier casually drops a grenade into a pit of women and children. He is subsequently torched by Michael with a flame-thrower. This serves as a warning that the film intends to completely invert the violence and responsibility in Vietnam. We are back to the inversion typical of the classic western.

Much of the act is taken up with the imprisonment of Michael, Nick and Stevie in a brutal riverside containment by the Vietcong. They pass their time by inflicting the game of Russian Roulette on the prisoners, and betting on the outcome. Michael is able to subvert the game to effect their escape.

Michael and Nick 'play' roulette.

Michael and Nick ‘play’ roulette.

The Guardian response is

The Deer Hunter has been criticised for this literal inaccuracy and showing Vietnam in terms of American victimhood. But for me, those macabre Russian roulette sequences stunningly proclaim war to be dehumanising and arbitrary.

The use of ‘literal’ is typical of bourgeois discourse where there are one set of terms for the oppressors – powerful states like the US – and a different and negative set for the oppressed – like Vietnam [or currently Palestine]. The film’s use of this ‘game’ is downright mendacity. The reports of such torture were by US military inflicted on Vietnamese: along with various other war crimes including dropping them alive from flying helicopters. And, of course, in typical Hollywood war film fashion, the ‘Yankee hero’ is able to outsmart and out fight the enemy. It is worth noting that by the end of the film, there are more dead Vietnamese than there are dead Yankees. Bradshaw also writes that:

The idea of sacrifice permeates everything, along with the cruelty and horror.

But the sacrifice, like the violence, is extremely one-sided.

Towards the end of this act the three friends are separated, but in another script plant Michael and Nick nearly meet up at a covert Saigon gambling den – gambling on an another game of Russian Roulette.

The final act again runs about an hour, though it includes a twenty-minute return to Vietnam. Returning to Clairton Michael starts to develop a relationship with Linda: Nick is AWOL and seemingly lost. Michael learns that Stevie has had both his legs amputated and is confined in a Veteran hospital. The traumas from Vietnam are demonstrated when on another hunting trip Michael’s ‘one shot’ philosophy is shown to be neutered.

Michael returns to Saigon now in chaos as the US military prepare to ‘abandon ship’. Saigon, as in the earlier act, is a noir world, full of shadows, neon signs, death and destruction. The femme fatale of the film turns out to be the same Russian Roulette game – with Nick as the victim hero and Michael as the seeker hero. Inevitably Michael returns to the US with Nick in a casket.

In the final movement of the film we are back in Clairton for Nick’s funeral. Stevie has been rescued from the hospital by Michael and is attempting to rebuild his life and marriage. After the burial the group of friends return to John’s bar – their regular haunt throughout the film. As they prepare a breakfast wake John, cooking in the kitchen, starts to hum ‘God Bless America’: It is taken up in faltering fashion by the others and gradually it strengthens in to unified singing. The film ends on a freeze frame of the group toasting to Nick’s memory seated in the bar.


Robin Wood sees The Deer Hunter as

the culmination of and elegy for a whole tradition of American cinema and American mythology.

The comments repeat the dubious convention in US English of equating the United States with two whole continents and 22 states. But it also misreads the film. In this film and in Heaven’s Gate Wood suggests that the films explore the diminishing viability of the US hero on film. One film he uses as comparison is The Searchers (1955). In that film Ethan Edwards at the close has to leave the community for the wilderness. But in The Dear Hunter Michael actually outwits and defeats the Vietcong. As a seeker hero he survives where the victim hero, Nick, fails. He returns Stevie to family and community. And the final camera shots of Michael and Linda suggests a resumption of their relationship – he wins the girl. He has been reintegrated into the community. In the context of the film’s representation of the USA and Vietnam, the final rendering of ‘God Bless America’ seeks to recoup the historic defeat there. Re-watching the film I was reminded of the apt line in A Fish Called Wanda (1988): Otto (Kevin Kline) is taunted by Archie (John Cleese), ‘You lost in Vietnam!’, to which he responds ‘It was a draw!’

Andrew Britton, having emphasised the social-economic, continues his analysis in terms of the film’s ’homo-erotic subtext’.

The function of the Russian Roulette game is to solve the problem of the American hero by transposing the dubious aspects of his authority to the Vietcong, whose role in the power-structure of the game is analogous to Mike’s in the hunt. By the very token of this symbolic link between them, the Vietcong also appear as displaced manifestations of repressed sexual desire …[between Michael and Nick].

Andrew Britton’s and Robin Wood’s comments are influenced by their being gay and their interest in psychoanalytical criticism. But purely at a surface level, accessible to audiences unfamiliar with either, Michael and company are the ‘good guys’ and the Vietnamese are ‘the bad guys’. Notably, the European involved in the Saigon Roulette den is French. Films like The Green Berets, and to lesser extent Apocalypse Now, ignore history and indulge in cinematic fantasy. More radically, The Deer Hunter takes history or a seemingly naturalised recreation and inverts it for similar purposes.

Bradshaw also comments,

A simple much-forgotten fact slaps you in the face after watching The Deer Hunter. Vietnam was different to Iraq and Afghanistan in one vital respect: the soldiers were drafted. They had no choice.

In fact, I don’t think the draft gets a single mention in the film. And Michael, Nick and Stevie are all itching to go: the war appears to them as an extension of their hunting sport. One could also point out that the methods used by the US administration to keep up military numbers in both Iraq and Afghanistan were just as coercive as the draft. But most importantly, the Vietnamese people had no choice either. They were drafted into war by French colonialism, Japanese expansionism and finally by US neo-colonialism. As in Cimino’s later Year of the Dragon (1985) the representations of Asians are racist. The Vietcong are brutal and mindlessly violent: ordinary Vietnamese are passive victims: and many of the urban Vietnamese dwellers cater to the worse excesses of the occupation: and not in a single instance is their dialogue accorded translation in subtitles. For this film ‘oriental life is cheap’.

Rather than an ‘anti-war’ film The Deer Hunter is an ‘anti-losing the war’ film.


Posted in Colonial and neo-colonial films, Hollywood, Hollywood stars, Movies with messages | 1 Comment »

The Way We Were, USA 1973.

Posted by keith1942 on May 28, 2014

Katie's apartment in The Way We Were

Katie’s apartment in The Way We Were

This is a film that I have enjoyed several times, partly because of the effective star pairing of Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford, and partly because it attempts, in a confused way, to address one of the darker periods in US film history. The film was re-screened at the Bradford Widescreen Weekend in a 4K DCP. This means that the original Panavision 2.35:1 was altered to 2.39:1, but it was a good transfer and great to watch. The Widescreen Weekend at Bradford is noted for the care and attention to the projection of films.

The film’s story follows the relationship of an unlikley romantic couple: Jewish Bluestocking Communist Katie (Streisand) and [in his own words] ‘White Anglo-Saxon Protestant’ Hubbel [Redford].  The film opens in 1937 with campus agitation by communists and fellow travellers for intervention in support of the Spanish Republican Government against the fascist rebellion led by General Franco. However, the focus in the story is more personal, Streisand and Redford are both would-be writers taking classes. He has talent but [in his own words] ‘everything came too easily to him’. He socialises and wins sport events whilst she works part-time to fund her studies.

They meet again in New York in the later stages of the war – he is supernumerary naval officer, she is working in radio. Here a relationship develops, though Streisand rather than Redford takes the lead. After the war they marry and move to Hollywood. But their differing value systems lead to tensions: aggravated by the HUAC investigations and the case of the Hollywood Ten.

The pair part, though they have jointly sired a daughter. They meet briefly in New York in the mid-1950s. He now writing for television, she is married and still supporting liberal causes.

The film’s treatment of liberal and left politics is fairly underdeveloped, [in typical Hollywood fashion]. However, Streisand brings a fire to the scenes where she expresses her convictions. The CP-USA line on Spain is fudged though there is a brief dig about the change of the line during World War II. When we reach the HUAC hearings and the Hollywood Ten there is little sense of the Party activities, but a lot of liberal protest. In the final scene Streisand is collecting signatures against the Atom Bomb. In fact the most political point in the film is in her New York flat, where, in a rare combination, we see pictures of Vladimir Ilich Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Paul Robeson and Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Symptomatic is the fact that I am pretty sure that we never see a picture of Karl Marx.

However, the screening was illuminated by a really interesting introduction by Tony Sloman. It appears that the film was cut shortly before release. It seems that five scenes comprising seven or eight minutes were cut by the director Sydney Pollack. This followed on from a very disappointing preview screening. It seems that after the cuts the film received a better reception. The content of the cuts is not completely clear. However, Streisand, who seems to have opposed the action, kept the deletions. Tony Sloman showed us a two-minute clip, an argument between Redford and Streisand on the eve of the well-publicised flight to Washington by Hollywood stars to support the ‘Ten’. To be honest it did not seem to have any more political content than scenes that remain in the released film.

However, it seems that some viewers found Streisand’s performance ‘strident’, which is part of the characterisation, though she is also a powerful performer. Hollywood films have almost made a convention of avoiding demanding political analysis. One thinks of the scene in Reds (1981)where Reed (Warren Beatty} explains to his politics to Louise Bryant {Diane Keaton) – thanks to cuts we never actually hear a complete sentence.

Revealingly Redford initially turned down the treatment as he thought that ‘Hubbel’s point of view’ was not given sufficient attention. I think he was probably wrong, even of the uncut version. Streisand’s several speeches are long on rhetoric but short on content. This is true of the initial meeting to ‘Support Spain’ right up to the arguments on HUAC and the Hollywood Ten. Moreover, Hubbel is given a notable speech of response at this point: [this may have been added at Redford’s insistence]. His argument is that despite any actions ‘nothing’s goin’ to change’. He claims that ‘people are more important …not causes, not principles!’. This fits with the Hubbel character, but also is a more general attitude across Hollywood films. It is what would be termed ‘apolitical’ [dictionary – politically neutral]. In fact of course such a position is quite reactionary, as it leads to a form of quietist inaction. Katie’s response is that ‘people are their principles!’ but the point requires a more political and a more concrete response: such a response may have been in a deletion?

The screenplay for the film was adapted by Arthur Laurents from his own novel [which I have not read]. However, Laurents had direct experience of HUAC and the blacklist. In that sense the film takes a ‘liberal’ rather than a left or communist line on the period covered. Having noted that Streisand’s character calls for support for the Republican fighters and the Soviet resistance to fascism with immense gusto. I mentioned Reds earlier. The film has a little [only a little] more politics in it, but certain no more gusto for the cause than exhibited by Katie.

One interesting aspect of a very effective mise en scène is Katie’s hair, as hair is often a potent signifier for female characters. At college her hair is in tight, little curls. By the time of the New York sequences it is more or less straightened…’I have it ironed’. It stays like this all through her relationship with Hubbel. Then in the final meeting the hair has reverted to the tight, little curls!


Since re-seeing the film the issue of  ‘the male gaze’ (Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema by Laura Mulvey in Screen, 1975) has come up in an Adult Education class. I never found this particular concept convincing and I was always puzzled that feminists should be influenced by the essentialist and idealist theories of Jacques Lacan. And this film is a mainstream narrative offering that does not comply with the claims of Mulvey and others.

The Way We Were is constructed around the ‘female gaze’ of Katie. The film opens in wartime New York with Katie working as a producer’s assistant in radio. Later, at a night-club, she encounters a stupefied Hubbell, [a combination of fatigue and alcohol}. We then are presented with a flashback from Katie’s point-of-view of ‘the way they were’ in the 1937 college days. The early stages of the flashback celebrate the physical beauty of Hubbell for Katie, mainly in athletic pursuits. The key scene in classroom where the lecturer reads Hubbell’s short story is mainly from Katie’s point-of-view. The story is titled ‘The All American Smile’ and the opening line runs – “In a way he was like the country he live in, everything came too easily to him”.

The flashback leads us back to the then present and the wartime relationship that develops between Kati and Hubbell.  It seemed to me that Katie’s point-of-views still predominates though we are offered more frequent ones from Hubbell. Certainly the first scene of sexual intimacy between the pair is seen as Katie experiences it.

As I suggested above when we come to the Hollywood sequences more of Hubbell’s side is presented. For example we see scenes between Hubbell and his friend J.J. [Bradford Dillman], something that did not occur in the flashback or in the New York sequences. And Hubbell’s interventions regarding the actions in support of the Hollywood Ten are given parity with those of Katie. Yet even at the end it is Katie we follow into the New York Street and then we encounter Hubbell, as she does.

Katie is clearly the central focus of the narrative and her point-of-view if the privileged point-of-view. And as an audience we enjoy the pleasures, along with her, of gazing on Hubbell [Redford] body. What strikes me about the way that the film shifts towards Hubbell’s position is that this is not because he is masculine, but [as with his short story]] he seems to embody the values of the primary audience’s country, the USA. Hubbell embodies the values of the dominant forces in US culture. In particular, he expresses a strong individualism, which is central to the ‘American way’.


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From Rover to Uggie: Dogs on Film

Posted by keith1942 on April 19, 2014


This was the title of an illustrated talk that I gave at the Cinema Museum in London in November 2011. Since when I watch films on DVD or the TV I am accompanied by my Border collie, Dusty, this is an area of significant interest to both of us. Of course, there are thousands of dogs across cinema, and this is especially true of the early years of the medium, when any cameraman setting up in the street was sure to record at least one of our canine friends. But as a narrative cinema developed dogs became a frequent and often conventionalised character in stories. D. W. Griffith set the tone for Hollywood when in The Birth of a Nation he showed one of the Southern belles with her dog and a little later had the chief villain kicking a dog. So I based the selected clips in a series of extracts that seemed to equate to the most common canine characters and their roles.

Importantly though I first explained one of the basic maxims that apply to dogs in film. This was an early lesson given by my friend Sue to her scriptwriting class at the Leeds-based film school – ‘Never kill the dog! Especially if it is a golden retriever’. There is an example of the latter part of this maxim in Independence Day (USA 1996). However, a more effective example can be found in The Day After Tomorrow (USA 2004). As the world freezes a group. including the young hero and heroine, take shelter in the New York Public Library. Along with them is an African-American hobo with his dog, a Border collie. Temperatures drop everything freezes – but the hero’s dad, a meteorologist, struggle through ice and snow to rescue him and his companions. To my consternation when the rescue was effected there was no sign of the dog? However, when the rescue helicopters arrive at the film’s ending the hobo and his dog re-appeared. There was clearly some continuity problems here. But on the Internet I found an explanation. A provisional cut of the film, including the poor collie being frozen to death, was screened for preview audiences. Almost to a woman and a man they complained on their cards – ‘You killed the dog!’ So some last-minute additions had to be made to the film. Fortunately this sort of error is relatively rare in the movies.

The illustrations included both silent and sound films [the latter dealt with here]. The first set of clips was under the heading Thy Friend the Dog. These included two of the most famous cinematic characters, Lassie and Uggie. Since Lassie has had possibly the longest career of any canine star we started with the first – Lassie Come Home (1943). This is set in one of the idealised Hollywood landscapes, not exactly like the Yorkshire where I walk my own dog.

The second set of clips was under the heading of To the Rescue. This must be the most common action taken by dogs in relation to human film characters. We had Toto from The Wizard of Oz (USA 1939) dragooning the three companions into a saving Dorothy from the Wicked Witch of the East. But the most exciting clip was the second episode of a Rin Tin Tin serial, The Lone Defender (1930). This has a cliff-hanger ending which provided the question for a competition – the winning entry was more imaginative than the original film.

We also paid a short tribute to a couple of humans – auteur directors with empathy for dogs. One was Alfred Hitchcock; dogs are very common in his films. A typical example is in Strangers on a Train (1951). Guy breaks into Bruno’s mansion, but his errand is to warn Bruno’s father about his psychotic son. The guard dog’s moral sense tells him Guy is a friend. The other notable director was Luchino Visconti, another dog lover. The favourite of his sequences with dogs is in Ludwig (Italy, France, and West Germany 1972) where Trevor Howard as Richard Wagner wrestles on the floor with a white Pyrenean mountain dog.

The next category was In the Pack In the Wild, with dogs reverting to nature or at least to type. This commenced with a musical ensemble from an MGM sound film, Dogway Melody , which offered a canine pastiche of the studio musicals. The climax is a really well executed chorus and soloist rendering Singin’ in the Rain to an enthusiastic doggy audience. The skills in the next clip earned a round of applause as Owd Bob (1938), the sheep dog demonstrated his skills at rounding up sheep at a Lakeland trial. This set ended with a specially requested clip, Old Yeller defending his master from a black bear.

Four Legs was concerned with the major pre-occupations for dogs food, food, food and sex. The clip featuring Pluto was concerned with food but made really nice use of mirrors. Lady & the Tramp was concerned with romanceand featured the famous spaghetti meal accompanied by the equally famous song.  Whilst Bonbón el perro (Argentina 2004) was devoted to the most basic instinct.

Asta with supporting stars

Asta with supporting stars

Two Legs Good Four Legs Better demonstrated the superiority of the canine species. We had Asta in a Thin Man feature. And then rounded off the topic with the Italian part documentary, part-feature Le Quattro Volte (2010). This has an ingenious sequence with a sheep dog, a block of wood and a van – it is very slow but worth the wait. [Note the film is as much about the dog as it is about the much-hyped goats].

The final category was Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow. This is a somewhat downbeat subject but the films have a high quotient of emotion. There was Umberto D (Italy, 1952) and the final slightly traumatic but ultimately upbeat ending. Then we had the penultimate sequence from the 2005 Lassie, beautifully shot and set in the real Yorkshire. The final clip was from Hachi (1987). This Japanese film recounts the story of a faithful dog who accompanied his master every day to the Station and then met him on his return. One day the master failed to return. So the faithful dog waited morning and evening at the Station year on year. This is a sad ending but beautifully achieved with a reassuring sense of renewal.

Hachi's statue.

Hachi‘s statue.

There was deserved applause for David Locke and his assistant who juggled 16 mm, Blu-Ray and DVD in screening the programme of film clips. Also a thank you to the Cinema Museum for hosting the event. They were happy enough to organise a follow-up, coming on Thursday April 24th. The illustrated talk will follow the example of the Golden Collar Awards. Setting right over 80 years of the Hollywood Academy [and the BAFTA’s] failing to recognise the important contribution of canine actors – The Award Goes To ….

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The Silent Voices of Hollywood

Posted by keith1942 on October 2, 2013

Marni Nixon as Sister Sophie - second from left - in The Sound of Music

Marni Nixon as Sister Sophia – second from left – in The Sound of Music

Over the last couple of weeks the BBC has been celebrating the great music of cinema on both television and radio. The key series has been Sound of Cinema on BBC 4: an excellent trio of programmes written and presented by Neil Brand. Over the three programmes focussing on Hollywood he discussed and illustrated the orchestral style of the 1930s and 1940s: the influence of jazz and pop from the 1950s: and the use in more recent decades of electronic music.

Sunday night [September 29th] saw [besides a repeat of the last Sound of Cinema] a stand-alone programme, The Silent Voices of Hollywood. This was a RDF West Television / Zodiak Media Company production for the BBC. Despite a very interesting subject this TV documentary rather let the standards slip. The ‘silent voices’ were those of the singers who dubbed songs for the stars, mainly in Hollywood musicals, from the 1930s to the 1970s. This was known as ‘ghosting’. These ‘ghost singers’ usually their own concert and recording careers, in most cases they were denied credits, royalties and any acknowledgement at the Oscar Ceremony.

A fascinating history, and there were occasional highlights as when the programme used a split screen to show both the Natalie Wood version and the Marni Nixon dubbed version of a song from West Side Story (1961). There was India Adams dubbing two version of the same song ‘Two-faced Woman’ – one for Cyd Charisse in The Band Wagon (1951), [but not used in the final version] and one for Joan Crawford in Torch Song (1953). Rita Hayworth was seen in three different films, Cover Girl (1944), You Were Never Lovelier (1942), and An Affair in Trinidad (1952) – each with the dubbing by a different vocalist. And then we saw the Christopher Plummer’s version of ‘Edelweiss’ and the version used in The Sound of Music (1965) by Bill Lee. Finally there was a British example, Oliver! (1968) with the Musical Director Johnny Green’s daughter Kathe dubbing for Mark Lester.

However the programme suffered from two major vices of television documentaries: a long series of ‘‘talking heads’’ often onscreen for just a line or two. And a lack of respect for archive material from the past. The programme was screened in the television ratio of 16:9. And a lot of archive material, which was produced in other ratios, was cropped into this frame. This was particularly true of footage from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s used early in the programme, including Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer (1927). Most of the footage from recent films was treated better, though there were occasional oddities, in part due to the use of stills, trailers and an actual video of the film. West Side Story was at various points seen in 1.37:1, 16:9 and the full widescreen of 2.35:1 [from a 35mm anamorphic print]. Both The King and I (1956) and My Fair Lady (1964) appeared at different points in 16:9 and in 2.35:1. Singin’ in the Rain (1952) appeared briefly in 16:9 and then properly in 1.37:1. The latter, of course, provided a poetic comment. The film’s plot revolves around Debbie Reynolds dubbing for Jean Hagen, whilst at one point the film had Betty Noyes [uncredited] dubbing for Debbie Reynolds. This film does actually get the aspect ratio of the 1920s nearly right, [1.37:1 rather than 1.33:1].

There were other oddities. The programme used a variety of stills and photographs. These were in the right ratio most of the time, but a number had the leader logo from the opening of a film reel flickering in the background! There was a parallel problem with the editing. There were [given the talking heads] frequent cuts: but on many occasions what looked like the tail of a film projection reel or of a video tape running briefly between the two different frames. And late in the programme a couple of clips set in the Moulin Rouge (2001) auditorium were sandwiched around a brief clip from elsewhere in the film.  I did wonder if all of this was the result of a rush in the final stages of post-production, but it recurred right through the programme. I suspect it was some sort of signifier supposedly highlighting the production process? I just found it distracting.

There were similar problems with the rostrum camera which was often shaky and cropped images in an obvious fashion. And the footage was often of poor quality. Some of this seemed justified: for example some footage of Rex Harrison in the Broadway production of My Fair Lady. But a lot of this was stock footage used to fill out the visuals. Since it was often not exactly uninformative or contextual I am sure they could have found better examples. At one point footage of the Vietnam War and the 1960s Civil Rights Movement was offered as a bizarre context to The Sound of Music. And a recurring piece of footage seemed to be a tracking shot through what I assumed was Beverley Hills. It looked as if shot from a car, and was often washed out by the sunlight: and it looked like it may have been speeded up.

All this was a shame as there was some interesting and informative commentary. And there were frequent interviews with the dubbing stars. These included Marni Nixon dubbed ‘Ghost with the mostest’ by Time Magazine. We actually saw her appearance on screen as Sister Sophia in The Sound of Music. We also saw the aforementioned India Adams. And we saw Rita Moreno who appeared in quite a few of the featured films, often singing her own character. The exhibits in this investigation into Hollywood made a pertinent point. Questions were asked as to how much the Studio policy of secrecy mattered. My memory is that on many occasions it was fairly obvious that stars were being dubbed. West Side Story, a musical I really liked, suffered from the disparity between the youthful and naïve stars and the concert trained voices of the songs they presented. I have to admit though that this was not always the case. I was surprised to find out that Rita Moreno had one song dubbed in the same film: even today she was rightly peeved about this indignity.

There was also a recurring problematic in the overall approach of the television programmes. The term ‘playback’ occurred at one point describing the technique of ‘ghosting’. Where this term does apply of course is in the great popular cinema of Mumbai [‘Bollywood’] and in the other regional Indian Cinemas. On the sub-Continent ‘playback singers’ are stars in their own right: with avid fans for their concerts, recordings and television appearances. And this is the great gap in the BBC television programmes. Neil Brand’s series concentrated on Hollywood, and to lesser degree British composers. The latter were mainly those who worked successfully in Hollywood as well. I think the only major figure working in Europe was Ennio Morricone, who is also a Hollywood composer. It would have been good if we could have enjoyed programmes that ventured further afield: not just Europe but India, Latin America and, of course, Japan.

This was where the radio scored over the television. There have been three series of Composer of the Week on Radio 3: the Hollywood Studio era, the British Studio era, and the major contemporary Hollywood composer John William. There were programmes on Silent Film Music on Radio 3 and Radio 2: and Radio 1 hosted a profile of the great Indian film composer A. R. Rahman. Besides which there were a whole rash of concerts on Radio 3.

I enjoyed the whole season, and I am grateful for the high points. I just think the BBC could have invested more.  Still, I may be in for pleasant surprise; future programmes on the music of these other cinemas?

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Posted by keith1942 on June 12, 2013


This was the final screening at the National Media Museum’s Widescreen Weekend in April. It was presented in a 70mm print; this was the original UK print in 1.85:1. There was an introduction by Sheldon Hall who placed this epic reconstruction of the major battle of the US Civil War in the cinematic context. He noted some of the predecessors on film and for television. This version started out as a mini-series for Turner Television, directed by Ronald F Maxwell, and was then given a limited theatrical release. The filming depended on the contribution of over 3,000 volunteers from the historical re-enactment societies, all of whom performed for free. And the film was shot on the original location, now a Nationals Park. This theatrical version runs for 254 minutes, though that is shorter than the actual battle.

The recreation is impressive. Thousands of men toil across fields, through woods, up rocky inclines, while shot and shell fall among them. One can see why Gettysburg, and indeed the US Cilia War in its entirety, was such a bloody conflict. It was also, as Sheldon noted a great conflict for beards and moustaches, which grace nearly all the main characters.

The approach if Gettysburg is to focus on key individuals, mainly generals and officers. On the Union side the key individual is Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels), a liberal teacher enrolled in the army. By his side is a somewhat stereotypical Irish sergeant major to whom he explains the morality of the war. The character enables the film to present moments of ‘progressive’ Union rhetoric [one of the subjects at the college where Chamberlain worked]. However, the film overall fails to project the moral and political superiority of the Union. This is an example that two US academic call the ‘curiously blame-free experience’ which is seen as the Civil War. A course that Hollywood, aiming at audiences in both the North and the South, has tended to follow.

It seemed to me that the film actually spends more time and feeling on the Confederacy than on the Union: their characters appear first in the ‘cast list’. [This is also true of Maxwell’s prequel Gods and Generals, 2002]. The key Confederate character is General Robert E. Lee (Martin Sheen). For me one puzzle was his reputation, both at the end of the film when he is cheered by the Confederate survivors and historically, at least in the South. The Confederate battle seems poorly managed. The Calvary under J.E.B. Stuart is out of control. The early engagements lack initiative. And the central event is ‘Pickett’s charge’ personally ordered by Lee. We watch several thousand confederate soldiers march up a long slope as the Union artillery and troops mow them down. Equally puzzling is that it looks just like one of the inane attacks ordered by British Generals in World War I. One would have thought that those military professionals would have studied the US Civil War and learned some lessons.

The most interesting character on the Confederate side is Brigadier-General Lewis Amistead (Richard Jordan). We see him in several times in conversations among the officers: on every occasion he worries that a close friend {Major-General Hancock) is present in the Union army. Even as he approaches death this is his main concern. Jordan seems deliberately to play this as a suppressed gay attraction: an aspect that stands out from the military characterisations of the film generally.

One aspect that made the film interesting to see again was the recent release of Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012). That film focuses on the Union and on the politics behind the battles. It also addresses with more [if limited] emphasis the question of colour and of slavery.

See American History and Contemporary Hollywood Film by Trevor McCrisken and Andrew Peter, Edinburgh University Press 2005.

Posted in History on film, Hollywood stars, US films | Leave a Comment »

Gene Kelly – dancer, choreographer, director.

Posted by keith1942 on September 3, 2012

Kelly was born in Pittsburgh on August 23rd 1912: he died in Beverley Hills in 1996. His parents were Irish-American Catholic immigrants.  He took dance classes in his teens and then started performing in clubs with his brother Fred. He studied at the University of Pittsburgh where he was awarded a BA in the Arts. He also became involved in the University Cap and Gown club, which staged musical comedies: and he develops his sporting interests and his athleticism.

The family became involved in a Dance Studio in the late 1920s and in 1932 it became the Gene Kelly Studio of Dance. Kelly’s work as a teacher was an important skill, which served him well later in his career. He had a part in a musical revue at a Pittsburgh Theatre and in 1937 he moved to New York to seek work as choreographer. In New York Kelly met the choreographer John Alton who was to be a major influence: he also studied ballet and with an African-American dancer/teacher. There he met the first of his three wives, Betsy Blair. Kelly was a liberal and democratic supporter; Blair was a supporter of popular left causes. Both were to suffer later from the attentions of HUAC: Blair herself was blacklisted and had to move to Europe to work.

Kelly’s first major part was in the show The Time of Your Life in 1939. His big break came when he played Joey Evans in the musical Pal Joey from the pens of Rodgers and Hart. The part seems to have set Kelly with a character type: you can gauge what this was by the fact that the later film version had Joey played by Frank Sinatra.

David O. Selznick made one of several Hollywood offers to Kelly. Having signed a contract Kelly was then loaned out to MGM. His first appearance was in For Me and My Girl (1942), opposite Judy Garland and with director Busby Berkeley. The film, which celebrates Vaudeville and its contribution of the World War I efforts, was relatively successful. Arthur Freed then bought up the whole of Kelly’s contract. From his earliest days at the Studio Kelly alternated musicals with dramatic features. The persona suggested in For Me and My Girl [and preceded by Pal Joey} of a character caught between ambition and integrity and between flirtation and commitment was to become the regular character that Kelly projected on screen.

His musical breakthrough on the big screen came with a film made on loan for Columbia, Cover Girl (1944) opposite Rita Hayworth. Kelly now started his increasing tendency to control and choreograph his own dancing. The film is notable for a sequence in a night-time street where Kelly dances with his reflection in a shop window. His input as both choreographer and dancer, with a hint of director was even more notable in the following film, Anchors Aweigh (1945). Here he was teamed for the first time with Frank Sinatra, as sailors on shore leave. And he played opposite Kathryn Grayson, not the most appropriate style of leading actress for Kelly. What made the film stand out was Kelly’s interest in cinematic innovation, in this case a sequence where he dances with animated characters.

Following His appearance in Ziegfeld Follies Kelly enlisted in the US Naval Air Service where he mainly worked on documentaries for the Service. The experience increased his interest in the workings and possibilities of the film medium. After a B-movie drama Kelly returned to working with Judy Garland and Vincente Minnelli in The Pirate (1948) with music and lyrics by Cole Porter. This is an extravagant costume musicals and was not especially successful at the time, but which has gained in reputation since. It displays Minnelli interest in pastiche and occasional camp presentation. It also offers a rare appearance of African-American star dancers on the screen, the Nicholas Brothers. One of Kelly’s more memorable dramatic roles followed: an adaptation of The Three Musketeers, with Kelly as D’Artagnan. His athleticism, so obvious in his dancing, was also apparent in his agility in the various fights and sword fights. He contributed another musical sequence to a biopic-cum-review musical, Words and Music (1948, the subjects were Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart]. This was the memorable Slaughter on Tenth Avenue with Vera-Ellen.

He was teamed again with Sinatra in Take Me out to the Ball Game (1949). This film set the scene for On the Town (1949), one of Kelly’s outstanding contributions to the film musical. On both films he worked closely with Stanley Donen. They had already worked together on Broadway. It was Kelly who brought Donen out to Hollywood. They team effort benefited both: Donen developing his directorial talents, whilst Kelly concentrated on choreography. On the Town was also innovative in using the actual New York locations for the film: part of a wider trend to take the camera out into town and cities for real locations.

Frank Sinatra, Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly and New York

An American in Paris (1951) has the memorable 17-minute ballet set to the music of George Gershwin. The represents the most notable example of the way that Kelly, [probably more than anyone else], brought ballet, as opposed to Tap, into centre of the Hollywood musical. This developed out of the arrival of modern dance on Broadway, notably in the stage productions of Oklahoma and the choreography of Agnes de Mille.

Singin’ in the Rain (1952) is the most famous example of Hollywood musical comedy and contains the iconic song and dance sequence … in the rain [studio manufactured]. This latter film depends very much on the partnership between Kelly and Donen. The sequence was carefully prepared and choreographed, right down to the position of the puddles in which Kelly tramples exuberantly.

Both these famous films use a different leading lady: one aspect of Kelly’s persona was that he never developed the long-running partnership that characterised Fred Astaire films with [for example] Ginger Rogers. Kelly did dance in the later film with Cyd Charisse. And he partnered her again in Brigadoon (1954). The problems of the Studio system in the 1950s and the declining popularity of the musical meant that this film was entirely a studio production. It did, however, give Minnelli the opportunity to use the new widescreen process of CinemaScope very effectively.

In between Kelly had spent nearly two years in Europe, partly it would seem to avoid the attentions of HUAC: [he had joined in the lobby of The Committee for the First Amendment, which supported the ‘Hollywood ten’]. It was also useful for MGM who could use profits that they were prohibited from exporting back to the USA. The project, Invitation to the Dance (1956) was Kelly’s boldest experiment in dance and innovation onscreen, but it was flop when finally released.

However, the declining fortunes of Hollywood and the Musical are also apparent in It’s Always Fair Weather (1956). The trio of buddies from On the Town are reunited ten years on [using more or less the same production personnel but with different stars apart from Kelly]. However, life has soured them and their situations. The film is only able to salvage their friendship by an over-the-top plot mechanism, which offers Hollywood the chance to take a swipe at its younger rival television. The film does contain a brilliant sequence where Kelly, Dan Dailey and Michael Kydd dance on dustbin lids. And there is a terrific dance number by Cyd Charisse in a boxing gym, but the film never achieves the elan of On the Town. Kelly’s last musical at MGM was Les Girls (1957}: it featured three leading ladies, Mitzi Gaynor, Kay Kendal and Taina Elg and Kelly in his most overt portrayal of the philanderer since Pal Joey.

His later career included extensive work on stage and for Television. He appeared in the French film musical Les Demoiselles du Rochefort (1967), a very French take on the Hollywood musical by Jacques Demy. Kelly’s other film work was mainly dramatic, or as a director or producer. His most notable dramatic role was in Stanley Kramer’s Inherit the Wind (1960) where he played the cynical journalist Hornbeck, up against Spencer Tracy’s magisterial Clive Darrow, the embodiment of integrity and commitment. Kelly’s most notable directorial achievement was working with Barbara Streisand on Hello Dolly (1969). This was shot in deluxe colour and Todd AO: surviving prints has faded badly, though it would still be a great screening to be able to enjoy.

Then in the 1980s MGM cashed in their back catalogue of great music, great stars and great performances – That’s Entertainment I and II (1974 and 1976), followed by That’s Dancing

(1985) and finally That’s Entertainment III (1994). Kelly was both a narrative host and a featured artist in these compilations: then an executive producer. They were surprisingly popular, demonstrating the lasting pleasures that survived from the studio musical era.

Kelly’s great contribution to the film musical was in the years he spent at MGM. He was a fine and athletic dancer but also a skilled choreographer who brought a range of influences to his work. In terms of the film medium he was both an experimenter and an innovator. From the mid-40s to the mid-50s he was a leading force in transforming the Hollywood musical.

Kelly’s character in the musicals is a world away from the man-about-town established by Fred Astaire. Kelly is the ‘ordinary Joe’, a character central to Hollywood’s value system. In the studio he almost always wore a T-shirt, slacks, and sneakers; and his on-screen costumes mainly mirror this. So Kelly is a far more proletarian character than Astaire is and most of the other male musical stars. He himself talked about any sort of man being able to express himself in dance, giving as an example a plumber. Even when Kelly has a more elite career it has that ordinary man angle: in An American in Paris he is a painter, but also an ex-GI: in It’s Always Fair Weather his is a promoter, but of boxing bouts.

The settings for Kelly’s major dance performances mirror this. Whilst Astaire is most at home in clubs, theatres and hotels Kelly is found most frequently in the street. There are several street numbers in Cover Girl, New York city is central to On the Town, and It’s Always Fair Weather has two great sequences, involving dustbin lids and then roller-skates in the street.

The later is another of his famous solo dances. Kelly, more than any other male dance star, chose to frequently dance alone, though often uses props like a mop (Thousand Cheers. 1943) or newspapers [Summer Stock). Whilst most of the musical plots are constructed around a romance, in a film like It’s Always Fair Weather there is actually no great romantic number between the male and female lead. This film unusually has a great performance with Cyd Charisse performing alone in front of a male chorus of boxers. Few women were allowed this accolade, Judy Garland in singing numbers, and notably Ann Miller with a dance like ‘Pre-historic man’ in On the Town.

In retrospect it is interesting to examine Kelly through the prism Richard’s Dyer’s Utopian categories.

Energy and Intensity – there is no doubting these qualities in Kelly’s performances. One of the most remarkable would be the Macoco pirate dance from The Pirate. The energy and intensity is there in Kelly’s dancing, in the music, in the mise en scène and in the dynamic camerawork. Romantic numbers, like the final ballet in An American in Paris, show far less energy but greater intensity. Intensity and energy also seems to have been an aspect of Kelly’s professional character. There is perfectionism and an insistent quality about the preparation and construction of the many famous sequences. And his co-stars also felt this: Leslie Caron recalls how Kelly worked with her ‘to get it right’!

Abundance is an essential part of the MGM musical. It is there quite clearly in the production values of the films. A film like Ziegfeld Follies, in which Kelly makes his only appearance partnering Fred Astaire, drips opulence in every scene, even when that scene is downtown, downmarket Chinatown. On the Town offers audiences domestically and overseas the abundance of the victorious post-war USA. Intriguingly, ten years on, It’s Always Fair Weather also offers an abundance but one that has developed a sour taste in the mouth.

Transparency is a much more problematic value in the world of Gene Kelly. His typical character has a Manichean split. In An American in Paris he is torn between his worldly wise ambition, represented by an older rich female patron Milo  (Nina Foch)and romance in the shape of sweet, innocent Lise – (Leslie Caron). These contradictory impulses fuel most of the plots of his film musicals. Kelly has to reform, represented in An American in Paris, in the final impressive ballet sequence. One of the few musicals where he lacks this cynical tendency is Brigadoon. However, in this film the negative character values appear to have been all loaded onto his friend and sidekick Jeff (Van Johnson), who is probably the most negative character in any Hollywood musical.

Gene kelly and Van Johnson – Tommy and Jeff.

Community is an important trait in the Hollywood musical. However, the scripts have to work hard to achieve this in Kelly vehicles. There is his strong tendency to solo performance as against pairings or group dances: so in It’s Always Fair Weather he and Cyd Charisse do not actually dance together at all. The films work to counteract this by providing Kelly with sidekicks, the most famous being Frank Sinatra in Anchors Away, Take Me Out to the Ball Game and On the Town. And indeed in the later two films we actually get a trio of buddies centre screen.

Another plot device frequently used in Kelly films is to have a performance that involves groups of children. This works well because it taps into Kelly’s experience and skills as a dance teacher. It is a major plot line in Anchors Aweigh and recurs in Living in a Big Way (1947) and in An American in Paris where he introduces French kids to Gershwin.

Community is often a major problem in Kelly’s straight film roles. In Inherit the Wind his cyclical journalist Hornbeck is the outsider. He makes cracks both about the sincere but bigoted (Fredrick March) and also about the liberal Clive Darrow (Spencer Tracy). Marjorie Morningstar (1958) handles the problem in an interesting manner: Kelly finally relinquishes both his musical ambitions and the love of Marjorie (Natalie Wood) to return to the Summer Camp theatricals where they first met. But this is clearly an artificial community, which is divorced from life and the real world.

All these contradictions would seem to feed into Kelly’s distinctive character. But over and above this his drive and ambition meant that he experimented and innovated all through his career. The increased presence of balletic dance, the idea that men can dance and remain masculine, the willingness to site dance in any setting and to use any location or prop fed into the musicals that followed. Unfortunately dance became less central as the Hollywood musical slipped from being a mainstream genre to an occasional event film: there is not a lot of dance in Gigi (1958), The Sound of Music (1963) and My Fair Lady (1964). But Hello Dolly has great dancing sequences; the movie fails through miscasting. And when Hollywood does return to the musical from the 1970s onwards the legacy of Kelly is there: Saturday Night Fever (1977) is prepared like Kelly’s films to treat the male dancer as an object of admiration and even erotic pleasure: Fame (1980) finally emerges triumphantly into a large-scale street dancing celebration: and Mamma Mia is able to choreograph a dance around a clothes line.

These notes are taken from a course that accompanied a season of Gene Kelly films at the National Media Museum in Bradford: a student’s take on the course can be found on too.

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