Light in the Piazza (1962)

Earlier this year, when Olivia de Havilland passed away, someone I know was reminiscing about her films and mentioned Light in the Piazza as being a particular favourite. I had never even heard of Light in the Piazza, let alone anything else, so I decided to have a look. It did turn out to be a mostly enjoyable film, but I didn’t find it worthy of being a tribute to Olivia de Havilland (what I reviewed instead as a tribute was this).

But Light in the Piazza is worth talking about, because it’s an unusual film. Unusual in its subject matter, and unusual in the fact that its leading lady acts her age: Olivia de Havilland was in her mid-forties when she acted as Meg Johnson, and she brings to the role all her wealth of experience.

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From Here to Eternity (1953)

1941.

Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) arrives at a military base in Hawaii and presents himself before the commanding officer, Captain Dana Holmes (Philip Ober). The captain is a boxing enthusiast, and he’s licking his lips at the thought of having added one of the army’s best boxers to his clutch: Prewitt is a famous middle-weight, isn’t he. No sir, Prewitt says. He was; he doesn’t fight now. Not after that incident—Holmes obviously knows what Prewitt’s alluding to, but we get to know only later, when Prewitt meets and falls in love with a prostitute named Lorene (Donna Reed).

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To Each His Own (1946)

RIP, Olivia de Havilland.

If there’s one person whom I regarded as the last of the great stars of the glory days of Hollywood, it’s the beautiful and very talented Olivia de Havilland. I’ve watched several of de Havilland’s films, and have invariably found her very watchable—she brought a dignity and grace to her roles that made her stand out. Plus, she was a very good (and very versatile) actress, seemingly effortlessly playing standard ‘damsel in distress’ roles (especially in the eight films she did with Errol Flynn), as well as much more nuanced characters, like the immortal Melanie of Gone With the Wind, the mentally tormented Virginia Cunningham of The Snake Pit, and the naïve, gullible Catherine Sloper, the eponymous heiress of The Heiress.

Over a career spanning five decades, Olivia de Havilland won two Oscars (for The Heiress and To Each His Own), and was nominated for many other awards, including various national medals and awards by France, the US and the UK.

Although she had her share of controversy (especially regarding her supposedly strained relationship with her sister, actress Joan Fontaine), de Havilland was in some ways a pioneer too. It was because of her refusal to go on playing ‘sweet young thing’ roles that she ended up suing Warner Bros. —and winning, a landmark decision which led to the law now known by her name. She also went on to be the first female president of the jury at the Cannes Film Festival.

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The King and I (1956)

Happy hundredth birthday, Yul Brynner!

Yes, one of my favourite actors was born on this day a hundred years ago.  Named Yuli Borisovich Bryner, ‘Yul’ Brynner was born in Vladivostok on July 11, 1920 and ended up moving first to Harbin (in China) and then to Paris, along with his mother and his sister Vera after their father abandoned them. Yul’s musical and dramatic abilities came to the fore in Paris, where he became a guitarist and later a trapeze and theatre artiste. In 1941, having travelled to America, he debuted on stage in Twelfth Night. That was the start of Yul Brynner’s career in the US, debuting onscreen eight years later in Port of New York (1949).

Yul Brynner’s decidedly exotic features meant that he, like contemporary Omar Sharif, ended up playing several different nationalities in films. Russian, of course; German; Mexican; Japanese…

… and Thai.

In what proved to be his only Oscar-winning role in a career spanning almost three decades, Yul Brynner played a historical figure: the Thai ruler King Mongkut.

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Dragonwyck (1946)

A poor and impressionable young woman arrives at a grand mansion and is blown away by its magnificence—and by the attractive man who is master of the manor. Except that the manor (and the man himself) may have secrets to hide…

Dragonwyck begins at the Wells farm in Connecticut. The Wells are stolid peasant stock: hard-working, sensible, god-fearing. One of their two daughters, Miranda (Gene Tierney) is somewhat less stolid than her parents—especially her father Ephraim (Walter Huston)—would like her to be. At the start of the film, Miranda comes racing into the farmhouse, bearing a letter for her mother Abigail (Anne Revere). The fine envelope and the grand address from which it’s come—Dragonwyck—are enough to convince Miranda that this is a letter of some worth.

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Spartacus (1960)

RIP, Kirk Douglas.

One of the last living legends of Hollywood has gone. Kirk Douglas passed away on February 5th, at the age of 103. A ripe old age, and a life that seems to have been as heroic as the characters he portrayed onscreen. Kirk Douglas grew up in a Jewish ghetto as the son of immigrants from what is now Belarus; his athleticism (he became a professional wrestler at an early age) was what eventually helped him pay for an education and go on to win a scholarship at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Douglas’s acting career (on stage, at the time) was interrupted by the outbreak of World War II, and he, having enlisted in the US Navy, did not return to theatre until ceasefire in 1945.

The post-war period also resulted in a breakthrough into cinema for Douglas, leading him to his first role, in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946). From this point onwards, there was no looking back: over the next 60 years, he acted in many films, some of them landmarks in the history of cinema, like Lust for Life, Spartacus, and Paths of Glory. Besides his impressive acting career, Douglas was also involved in various humanitarian causes, donating funds for causes as diverse as a children’s hospital and a television and motion picture fund.

As tribute, therefore, to Kirk Douglas, my review of one of his most famous films, a sword-and-sandals epic about a rebellious (real life) slave.

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Designing Woman (1957)

At the time I got married I was working on a freelance project. The project was nearly complete, but I needed to let my client know some last details. In the course of our meeting, I mentioned that I wouldn’t be available for the next month, because I was getting married and would be away. “How long have you known your husband-to-be?” the client asked after he’d congratulated me. When I mentioned three years, he grinned. “Good,” he said. “I went to a wedding the other day, where the couple had known each other three days.”

We had a laugh over that, and wondered how long that marriage would last. I was reminded, too, of the old adage about marrying in haste and repenting at leisure.

But, really, what risks do you run if you marry someone in the heat of the moment, without really knowing that much about them? What if you later find that you share very little in common? Or, worse, that there are downright scary people in your spouse’s life?

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Niagara (1953)

Some weeks back, I was reading AJ Finn’s psychological thriller The Woman in the Window, in which the protagonist is addicted to old cinema—especially noir and suspense films. I ended up not liking the book much, but at least I got one good thing out of my reading of it: some recommendations. Including recommendations for films that seem as if they were made by Alfred Hitchcock (who, I should explain, is one of my favourite directors), but weren’t.

Of those, one that immediately caught my attention was Niagara, directed by Henry Hathaway. I had heard of this film before—most memorably on IMDB, where I’d seen its poster and read a brief synopsis about a honeymoon couple running into another couple with marital problems. The poster, with a sultry Marilyn Monroe in a hot pink dress, coupled with that description of the film, didn’t conjure up an image of a Hitchcockian film.

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The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1932)

Frank Capra is one of those directors I thought I pretty much knew when it came to style. The everyday American, the humour, the gentle wisdom, the often feel-good charm of films like It Happened One Night, It’s a Wonderful Life, Mr Deeds Goes to Town, and (this is one of my favourites, the ultimate in whacky humour) Arsenic and Old Lace.

If I hadn’t known Frank Capra had also directed (well before any of these films I’ve named) the unusual and erotic The Bitter Tea of General Yen, I don’t think I’d have billed this as a Capra film. There is a sensuality about it, a boldness and an air of exotica that is uncharacteristic of Capra’s more popular works. Of course, part of that is due to the fact that the Hays Code, while it had been introduced in 1930, was not yet being strictly enforced (that was to kick in only around 1934), but even otherwise, there is something about this film that struck me as unlike Capra.

But, to start at the beginning. The Bitter Tea of General Yen begins in Shanghai, during a civil war. It’s pouring rain outside, refugees are streaming into Shanghai, and a group of missionaries have gathered at the home of one of them to celebrate a wedding. One of their group, Robert ‘Bob’ Strike (Gavin Gordon) is about to marry his childhood sweetheart, Megan Davis (Barbara Stanwyck). Bob and Megan haven’t met for the past three years, but Megan is on her way now from America, about to arrive in Shanghai so that she can marry Bob.

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The Perfect Furlough (1958)

There was a time, some years back, when I watched a lot of Tony Curtis films (I didn’t get around to reviewing all that I watched, though I did some, such as Some Like it Hot, The Vikings, and Who Was That Lady?).  I haven’t watched a Tony Curtis film in years, but when blog reader Hurdy Gurdy Man sent me a mail informing me of a bunch of old classics that he’d discovered—good prints, too—on Youtube, I found that one of them was a Tony Curtis-Janet Leigh rom-com named The Perfect Furlough.

So I decided it was time to return from that furlough away from Curtis. And with a film that had him opposite Janet Leigh too! That seemed to bode well.

The Perfect Furlough begins in the Pentagon office of Col Leland (Les Tremayne), where a group of military psychologists have been summoned by the general to address a very specific and very troubling problem the US Army’s facing.

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