What Glorious Feeling

Aug 22, 2012 by

Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain, MGM, 1952

The plot is not just simple but simplistic, the “black moment” lasts all of 15 seconds, there is no deep characterization or expertly layered subplots. There is, however, a street, a song, a rainstorm and Gene Kelly in one of Hollywood’s most iconic and joyous moments. Who needs plot?

Singin’ in the Rain is considered by many the pinnacle of the legendary Freed Unit at MGM. It was also built completely around the songs of Arthur Freed, the producer who’d had his start as a songwriter at the studio during the early days of talkies. It was he who assigned Adolph Green and Betty Comden the task of coming up with a story that would feature Gene Kelly and Freed’s songs (for which MGM paid Freed $25,000, an excellent example of leveraging one’s back list). Years later, Gene Kelly said in an interview that Freed asked him during development what they were going to be doing for the title song. “Well,” Kelly said, “It’ll be raining and I’ll be singing.”

The film is pure technicolor cotton candy fluff, a delight parody of Hollywood’s panic as they transitioned to talkies and the dawn of the musical. It is also celebrating it’s 60th Anniversary and to mark the occasion, Turner Classic Movies is hosting screenings around the country. Naturally, I couldn’t resist and the husband and I have tickets for tonight. I’ve seen the film more times than I can count, but never on the big screen, save for some bits included in That’s Entertainment!. But those clips were somewhat faded, just as the backlot on which the linking sequences were shot would soon be sold off and developed. Tonight, I’ll be seeing a newly restored print in all its glory, part of a shared experience with other people who couldn’t pass up this chance.

This isn’t a story to analyze; boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl and dances with her, there is a Misunderstanding and boy sings reprise of love song to get it back. No character development, especially with villain Lina Lamont, superbly played by Jean Hagen — who was nominated for an Academy Award for this role. But it is lightning in a bottle, and it’s wonderful to see it restored for yet another generation to enjoy.

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A Shimmering Star in the Cinema Fir-ma-ment

Aug 15, 2012 by

Lillian Gish

Lillian Gish (image in the public domain)

When I was thirteen, my mother took me to see a great star of the silent screen who was signing a coffee table book she’d done about the films of her and her sister. When we reached the front of the line, I couldn’t help myself and gushed, “Oh, Miss Gish, you’re my favorite actress! I loved you in Broken Blossoms and Orphans in the Storm.”

Lillian Gish, who was 80 at the point and had made her greatest films before my mother was born, eyed me suspiciously and asked, “How old are you, child?” In those days before cable and DVD, even before the big public renewal of interest in America’s classic film heritage, it’s not surprising she found the idea someone so young being a devoted fan a little hard to believe. (The answer? My local PBS station, which regularly ran silent films on Saturday night because they fit in the small budget available.)

These days, we don’t have to turn further than Turner Classic Movies which is currently running their annual Summer Under the Stars Festival, featuring the work of different star each day during August. Today celebrates Lillian Gish with films such as Broken Blossoms, Orphans of the Storm, The Scarlet Letter, and, of course, Intolerance, which cost an estimated $2 million in 1916 dollars and bankrupted D.W. Griffith and his studio.

Some of the films may look strange to modern sensibilities and Intolerance has numerous flaws, including it’s length. But there is also something magical in the flickering images to stir the imagination and Intolerance features one of the great panning shots in cinema, still breathtaking even today. This is part of how I refill the creative well, by revisiting these movies whose images inspired me when I was young. What are you doing today to refill your creative well? If you’re looking for something new, take a peak at what Turner Classic has to offer.

Bonus points for anyone who recognizes the source of this post’s title, also taken from a classic film celebrating the end of the silent era.

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At the Movies: The King’s Speech

Dec 27, 2010 by

The husband and I first tried to see this last weekend and discovered that the theatre where it was playing was sold out for all of the showings we could get to. (We ended up with a second viewing of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows instead, which is much better if you’re not feeling deathly ill while watching it.) We decided we’d try again this week and bought tickets on Saturday for a Sunday showing.

Now, I do live in Los Angeles, and there’s definitely an audience for “art house” films, especially ones with as much early Oscar buzz as The King’s Speech is enjoying, but there does seem something more than that. This is a film that is touching, funny, inspirational, horrifying, and very, very painful all at once. Albert, Duke of York, was a stutterer from an early age, a problem which wasn’t necessarily a liability at first. (He was considered a fine naval officer and apparent had no problem making himself understood when giving orders — or swearing.) Two things, however, conspired against him. First was the advent of radio, which meant members of the royal family were expected to make speeches which were heard throughout the nation. The second was Wallis Simpson and his older brother’s determination to marry her even if it meant abdicating the throne.

Colin Firth plays Bertie, who’s saddled with responsibilities he never expected to have and does not want, but takes on because he believes it is the right thing to do. It is this that drives him to seek the help of Lionel Logue, played by Geoffrey Rush, an Australian whose methods of treating “speech defects” are somewhat controversial. The film focuses on the work to help Bertie present himself respectably in public and the unconventional friendship that grew up between the two men.

This is a story that very much needed to be told in film rather than book form because we can see the fear and pain on Bertie’s face as he waits to make that first radio broadcast and hear how difficult it is for him to get his words out. We can also see the subtlety with which Logue tries to draw his patient out, build the trust that will help with the treatment. And when, on the eve of the coronation, Bertie finally accepts the idea that he, too, has a voice and a right to be heard, it is a triumph.

I’m giving this somewhat short shrift in the description, but it is a brilliant film, one I urge you to seek out. The cast is first rate, the script tight, on point and never drifting over into too much sentimentality. Rated R for language — cursing is one of the few things Bertie can manage without a stutter and there is quite a flow that caused tremendous laughter in the audience — the film is now in wide distirbution, and hopefully playing near you.

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RIP: Blake Edwards

Dec 17, 2010 by

Blake Edwards passed away Wednesday night; he was 88. While Edwards did have some clunkers in his career, there was also so much magic. Operation Petticoat, Victor/Victoria, The Great Race, and, of course, The Pink Panther — pictures that make you laugh and often touch the heart as well. He will be missed.

Edwards’ comedy was often tinged with a dark edge born of a life-long struggle with depression and he could find humor in situations that in other circumstances wouldn’t be funny at all. As such, he would probably be amused that he managed to pass only a few days after Turner Classic Movies posted their annual “TCM Remembers” video, so he is not seen in the retrospective of those movie fans have lost this year. I had considered waiting to post this until closer to New Year’s Eve, but it seems appropriate now as I remember a man who made me laugh so much when I was young (you couldn’t get me away from the TV whenever The Great Race aired), to remember some of the other folks who graced cinema screens with their talents and whose work lives on in images which move through the projector at 24 frames per second.

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