Classic film

Do Gentlemen Really Prefer Blondes?

The 1001 films list has a lot of ponderous, significant films, but it’s also pretty well stocked with fun movies. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes falls into the latter category, and resoundingly so. This isn’t one that explores a universal truth (despite the title) or one that forces you to think. Even its humor is on a superficial level.

Nevertheless, it’s a wonderful film: fast-paced, funny and colorful, with just enough music to call itself a musical and even an all-time famous song.

Of course, the film is famous for Marilyn and remembered for Marilyn. But…

But she definitely isn’t the female lead in this film I would have chosen if forced to choose. Her throaty, sex-kitten style in this particular movie makes one want to send her into exile in a remote corner of Bhutan (as a civilized alternative to bashing her with a baseball bat, which I hear is frowned upon). It’s just unbearably dumb and looks even worse when cast alongside Jane Russell’s wonderful character who is truly attractive. In fact, she did the same character better in her noir days.

So, in my case, I’d say gentlemen don’t prefer blondes. I’d even go out on a limb and say that most intelligent males of this generation would have chosen Russell over Monroe in this particular instance unless they’d truly been bedazzled by Marilyn’s looks (admittedly, that is pretty likely).

Why do I tell you all of this? Because it’s important for you to know that the most memorable part of the whole film is when Russell impersonates Marilyn in a courtroom scene (wearing a blond wig) and does a sarcastic take on the bubbly blonde that is absolutely for the ages. It’s so well done that it almost comes out as mean-spirited. And since there is no evidence of Russell disliking Monroe, the problem is that Marilyn’s character was just too stupid to believe.

The contrast with the other notable sudden stardom of the era – that of Audrey Hepburn – is striking… with Hepburn being the almost perfect innocent.

That’s not a knock on the film by the way. The character is perfect for the role, and an excellent satirization of a certain kind of woman (who still exists today, albeit in a slightly different form). This is one to watch and treasure for what it is: a bubbly comedy that stands the test of time well. I’d recommend it.

As a final comment, it’s interesting to note that, as a musical, it’s very different from the extravaganzas of the thirties, which smaller set pieces. Many of the songs caught me by surprise, so I guess they could have been more seamlessly integrated. It doesn’t detract from the film overall, but it’s strange.

Anyone looking for a bit of light entertainment could do worse than find a copy of this one.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose sexiest novel contains no kittens, but has a protagonist with the attitude to wear her sexuality well. Timeless is a thriller set in a world of international smuggling and medieval monasteries whose pace never falls off. You can check it out here.

The Wages of Suspense

I had no idea what 1953’s Le salaire de la peur (The Wages of Fear) was about before I watched it, and my utter sense of not knowing what the hell was going on grew even deeper when the first scenes showed a group of polyglot expat Europeans in a dusty Latin American village (most sources say South American, but I’ll admit it seemed much more Central American to me). The village, like the men themselves is a dead-end thing, a place for losers with nowhere left to go.

The plot is as thin as paper: two teams need to drive a pair of trucks filled with nitroglycerine–that explodes if it takes any shock–over 600km of rough mountain roads for an enormous payday. That’s it.

So why is it a classic and a critical darling? Because within that paper-thin structure, live two solid hours of suspense and character-building (which, considering the film’s denouement, verges on the nihilistic). There’s not a lot to tell. Even if I summarized the film without missing any of the important events therein, you won’t be able to get the sense that it transmits to audience. One critic said, in his day, that he had the feeling the entire theater was about to explode.

My wife likened the sensation to that of The Big Carnival, in that the story itself is both extremely simple and also secondary to the message the director wished to convey. And the thread used to connect the dots in each is the audience’s concern for the plight of certain cast members who are in mortal danger.

And as a comment on the weirdness of the film, Yves Montand, the older driver from Grand Prix also, interestingly, plays one of the drivers in this one. Fun stuff.

It’s not a film I’d watch a dozen times, but it’s definitely one that is worth watching once for the brilliant management of the tension within. If you can, get a copy and enjoy it.

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose thriller Timeless is a sexy and modern take on the international thriller. You can check it out here.

Astaire Returns, Not Quite as Fresh, in The Band Wagon

Although we watched them before this blog existed (which means I can’t link to the reviews), trust me when I say that the 1930’s dance films starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers felt new, edgy and just plain fun in their context. They really were that good.

However, by 1953, there was a new king of the dance: Gene Kelly. His films are a bit different, more manic and catering to a post-war sensibility.

To its credit, The Band Wagon attempts to mimic the new aesthetic, and it does so quite well. It could very easily be a Gene Kelly feature, and it’s no wonder it did well. Even better, the plot centers around the return of an aging actor from retirement, a wink to the fact that Astaire was not the flavor of the month.

Of course, the film, though good, can never feel revolutionary or groundbreaking. What it does well has already been done, and I assume that it’s only the fact that Astaire was in it that lands it on the 1001 movies list. It’s a good film, but perhaps only marginally great. Still worth watching, though.

One of the funniest things about the movie came as I was researching the cast to write this post. It seems that half of the people who would go on to act in the 1960’s Batman series are in here. We have Batman’s Aunt, Mr Freeze’s squeeze and, best of all the great Julie Newmar, who is still with us and who will always be the greatest Catwoman ever.

Holy batwagon, Bandman… I mean…

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose fiction spans every genre from literary to creature feature. His eclectic nature comes out very strongly in his most recent collection, Off the Beaten Path, in which science fiction and fantasy moves away from the well-trodden paths in the developed world. You can check it out here.

Kurosawa’s Ikiru – Wondrous Light in the Face of Tragedy

An old man on a swing in the snow, singing a traditional Japanese song while smiling happily doesn’t seem like the kind of image that can bring hardened movie-goers to tears, but that’s because you haven’t yet seen Ikiru.

This is a movie about celebrating life, of living every day as if it as if it were the last, for the simple reason that, one day, it will be. That, and the incredible acting of Takashi Shimura, who plays a beaten down bureacrat who, in the first minutes of the film, discovers he will soon die of stomach cancer.

The rest of the film deals with that man trying to make sense of the death sentence.

The film reminds you once again that life exists for those who live it. So many people are just going through the motions, happy just to have a job that gives them a position in society and forgetting the truly important parts of life.

I once called Ladri de Bicicletti the most communist film ever. In the same vein this is the most un-communist film ever. It represents everything that liberal humanism celebrates, and criticizes conformism, equality (in the sense of everyone desiring the same path through life) and especially bureacracy.

It’s an exploration of how the individual–even one who never thought of rebelling against the pressure applied by society–is more powerful than the forces of conformism. It’s wonderful if you happen to celebrate the individual or enjoy an uplifting story. It’s deeply and subtly subversive if you believe that individuals should be subordinate to the tyranny of the majority.

Highly recommended as a way to brighten your day.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose most recent literary book is the linked short story collection Love and Death, which deals with life in its most piercing aspects. You can check it out here.

In The Quiet Man, John Wayne Proves he is About More than Just Westerns

I admit that, when I saw John Wayne’s name in the opening credits of The Quiet Man, I was a bit bummed.  I wasn’t in the mood for a western that night.

But the first scene, in technicolor brought hope: a glorious green landscape and a some Irish accents.  This was most certainly not Tombstone…

The Quiet Man Film Poster.jpg

No, it isn’t a western.  Not one gun is fired at another human being in the entire movie… and yet it still manages to be an entertaining romp where John Wayne can be at his macho best without ruining–in fact in the service of–the love story at the center of the film.

In a nutshell, this film is a take on the “boy meets girl but her family opposes the marriage” plot.  The fun part–and it is very fun–is the way the problem is resolved.  That, in particular, is not traditional at all, and it’s really fun.  Any time you need professional boxers as extras… you know it has to have some good scenes.

The best prat of this one, perhaps is the way it shows how village life can be… idiosyncratic in large ways, and how even the village priest can be complicit in the hijinks.  In that sense, it reminds me a lot of Whisky Galore.  And that is a good thing.

Anyway, this one has my unreserved recommendation.  Find it and watch it.  It’s an enjoyable film.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose collection Love and Death follows the lives and loves of a group of characters whose fates are intertwined, usually without their knowledge.  It’s a study of the truly important things in a world that so often seems indifferent.  You can check it out here.

The Outstanding Classic SF Film of the Fifties

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) is an important movie to me, despite the fact that I only saw it for the first time a few days ago.  My mother’s cousin, a wonderful man who always had time for annoying children, told us the story of this one when I was seven or eight or something.  It’s one of the few stories from my childhood that stuck with me.

That cousin died earlier this year after a long illness, at much too young an age, but it was fun to remember him by watching the film, one of the 1001 movies we’ve been going through here.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951).jpg

I still vividly remember his description of the robot, and the main misgiving I had when we started watching was that the film might be slower and more boring than modern flicks and ruin the memory.

I’m happy to report that it is none of those things.  The SF elements are woven with suspense and romance elements, which is the key to making the film fun.  It needed to be diluted because the moralistic elements of the main plot – an alien comes to show humanity the error of its ways and develop an ultimatum – are spectacularly heavy-handed in a way that only the 1950s can deliver with a straight face.

But it works.  The film is a fun movie despite the messaging–which, as we’ve discussed here, and as anyone who’s read modern science fiction of the critically-acclaimed type, is very hard to do).

And that’s pretty much all you need to know about the movie.  As the first major Hollywood science fiction motion picture, it showed that a movie with aliens in it could be a “real” film as opposed to a B-Movie special.  It plays the part well, and still holds up today, unless the cold-war style messaging and Christ-figure of the main character puts you off.

A warm hello to Billy Gray, who played the son of the female lead in this one, and was an important part of the plot.  He’s still with us and, as a child actor when this was produced, is still relatively young compared to other survivors from the era (and we must take the opportunity to mourn the recent passing of Olivia de Havilland).

Anyway, if you like SF or classic cinema, this one is a must-watch.  Even if you don’t, you should be entertained.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a science fiction writer whose novel Outside explores issues facing the 21st century, as seen from far in the future.  An exploration book and a thriller, outside will appeal to everyone who enjoys thinking about where we are going.  You can check it out here.

An American Tragedy Arrives on the Silver Screen, Bringing Liz Taylor with it

The name of the novel on which it’s based is An American Tragedy… so it’s kind of a given that 1951’s A Place in the Sun is a bit of a downer.  Worse – or maybe better, in this particular case – the film completely misses the mark as a critique of American society.  We’ll get to that.

Montgomery Clift and Liz Taylor in A Place in the Sun.jpeg

Essentially, the 1920s novel attempts to show the American rich and insensitive and useless parasites of society by depicting the struggle of a poor member of a rich family to earn his “place in the sun”.

Unfortunately, watching the film leaves one with precisely the opposite sensation.  It’s invariably the rich characters who act like decent human beings towards him, without exception and without fail.  The “everyman”, as represented by the woman who isn’t Liz Taylor, by the police and the lawyers, and by the angry mobs seen in the final montages are in a much less positive light.

Now it’s true that the rich people are essentially seen as enjoying their lives and privilege, but they are also shown as working hard and studying hard to get ahead.  The fifties, clearly, were not a good time to pretend the American Dream was a myth.

The antagonists in the film are two: the main character’s own mistakes and moral weakness and the poor girl’s desperation.  They both reinforce exactly the opposite of what the novel attempted to convey.  In this film, being poor and scared leads to actions that are reprehensible, while being rich apparently creates kind individuals.

Usually, my major problem with this kind of message film is usually that people are not better or worse because of their social or economic positions.  There are nice people and assholes in every strata of society, from indigent to billionaire (and if anyone tells you different, they are one of the assholes), so these crude, broad-brush depictions never help anyone but the propaganda minister of your favorite dictatorship.

But that isn’t the main reason I didn’t like this one.  This is a film that cried for a happy ending, even if that meant moving away from the source material.  The characters were sympathetic enough, especially Taylor’s, to deserve it, and one wishes the filmmakers had risen to the challenge.

Of course, if they had, it would have won fewer Oscars and probably wouldn’t have made it onto the 1001 movies list because we all know what “powerful performances” means…

Dilbert powerful performances

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer.  His collection Off the Beaten Path is a treat for those who enjoy exploring our common humanity unusual settings far from the Western world.  You can check it out here.

 

Older School Art Film

There was a time when any film from 1951 would have been old-school enough for me.  But that was before I started watching the 1001 movies list.  Now, I can differentiate between a film that seems old from a film that seems old for its time.

Today’s entry is about a French film that feels old for its time, which is a weird feeling since the last French entry in this lest felt extremely avant-garde.

But Journal d’un curé de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest) feels like something from the early 1930s, despite being a 1951 film.

Diary of a Country Priest.jpg

The main culprit is the cinematography, which, at times, is soft-focus, I think probably intentionally, because old-style filming is perfect for a film about the inner life of a priest.  No matter where in history one is standing, at least in the past 150 years, the Catholic Church always seems to be regarded as remnant of an earlier age.  This is clearly how the 1950s saw it and this film treats the problems of faith and belief as something venerable, to be treated as an antiquity.

But that’s not all.  The quick scenes telling the story in choppy little pieces also brings out an earlier age (and works really well), the lack of color (this film would have been a disaster in color) also add to the sense.

Most of all, however, the stark nature of the background and sets, a truly rural setting which, had it not contained 1930s cars (adding to the sense), would have felt like the action took place in the 1910s due to the prominent role or railroads and bicycles.

This is a truly interesting film, one of those that sticks with you, and I recommend it to anyone interested in the history of cinema.  It made Robert Bresson’s reputation, and deservedly so.  It certainly was very different from anything else on screen in its day (and before or since, too).  Recommended.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose books span the genres from pretentious literary mainstream to monster horror. A good chunk of his incisive literary fiction which gets right to the core of modern life is collected in a series of linked short stories entitled Love and Death.  Those who enjoy realistic looks at reality without falling into navel-gazing or losing the sense of humor one needs to face life will enjoy this book.  You can check it out here.

Another British Smash

Once again, we’ve come up on a British film in our viewing of the 1001 movies list, and, just like The Lavender Hill Mob, this one benefits from being British as opposed to a Hollywood product.

I won’t tell you the name of the film.  Instead, let’s look at the elements.  It’s essentially a Greek tragedy of a film, which tells you, from the very beginning, that it ends with the death of the major love interests.  It’s written as a melodrama, and one of the characters, a man in love commits suicide five minutes in… and he’s not even one of the two cadavers from the first scene.

So how would Hollywood have treated this one?  If you said with a heavy-handed dose of melodrama, I’d have to agree with you.

And then the British came in.  For some reason, the Brits seem to be able to take pretty much anything they touch, no matter how plodding and melodramatic, imbue it with a dash of humor and fatalistic acceptance and turn it into a delight.  I kid you not.

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman - Ava Gardner and James Mason.jpg

Today’s subject is 1951’s Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, whose plot stretches the ability for making melodrama bearable to the very limits.  And yet, the film is wonderfully watchable, as if the director had studied the challenge, raised an eyebrow and said “I thought you would bring me something difficult” and then went off to produce a masterpiece.

Every moment of this one flows at exactly the perfect pace.  It’s not a caper film or an action blockbuster, but it keeps you entertained by combining elements of mystery, love stories, beautiful scenery, questionable morals, a major car crash and even a bullfight.  And all along, the actors deliver wonderful performances, understated or overwrought as the case may be.

Of course, it isn’t perfect… the name ‘Flying Dutchman’ is applied to a person and not a ship, which causes some head-scratching (especially for a person who writes and reads as much fantasy as I do), and I, for one, don’t like the framing device of knowing they’re going to be dead at the end.  But even with all of that, I watched, entranced, as the magic happened.  The garish color of the era helped as well.

An aside for the performance of James Mason, who we’d already seen in The Reckless Moment.  Before he became a major Hollywood star, he was apparently typecast as a doomed tragic figure which, given his peaceful delivery and world-weary acceptance is utterly perfect.

Anyhow, very much worth watching.  Find it and see it.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose work spans every genre and length. His latest book is, Jungle Lab Terror, a romp through the Darien Gap… with monsters and a mad scientist.  Those who like their 1950’s style b-movie thrills with a dose of 21st century literary quality can learn more here.

Ambrose Bierce by way of the Rashomon Effect

For those, like me, who had never heard of the Rashomon Effect, it briefly means that, in a court of law (or other situation), the testimony of two witnesses to the same event may vary wildly, be it through intentional manipulation of the facts or simple difference of interpretation.

The Rashomon Effect

This term comes from Rashomon, a 1950 film by Akira Kurosawa in which several eyewitnesses to the murder of a Samurai, including the victim himself (by way of a medium), tell the story of how he died.  Set in ancient Japan, the sale serves as a morality fable, highlighting the inherent pride and weakness of each of the characters.

The events themselves are gripping enough to keep attention despite the fact that the same story is essentially retold from four points of view–that of the murderer, the wife of the victim, the victim himself and, finally, the man who reported the crime to the police… a man who supposedly only found the body.

Rashomon Movie poster

This one is undoubtedly a classic, one of those films that stays with you and which, despite the miserable way the characters act for the most part, ends in an upbeat manner.  Interesting to see is how overacted it seems compared to equivalent films in the Western canon–whether that is because the film accurately depicts Japanese emotional responses in the era pictured, whether it was an artistic style popular in Japan, or whether it was an artistic license on the part of the director, I don’t know.  I did find it a bit distracting… but then, unfamiliar things often grab the attention.  There are a few more Japanese films on the 1001 movies list, so I’ll be able to give a more informed opinion moving forward.

One interesting note was that the film was based on a Japanese story which, in its turn was based on a story by Ambrose Bierce.  I’m mainly familiar with Bierce’s work via paperback horror and weird fiction anthos, and his link to the film explains the otherwise inexplicable presence of a dead man giving testimony.

Definitely worth watching and an experience which will let you think about the film itself as well as the cultural and literary links surrounding it.  Good stuff.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s literary fiction, a series of stories that twine together in a similar way as the testimonies in Rashomon, is collected in Love and Death.  You can buy it here.