1950s, actors, culture, directors, Film Spotlight, movies, oscars, plays

Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

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Agatha Christie (1890–1976)

As a British national treasure, this 1920s short story/play eventually became a Billy Wilder film in 1957. Ben Lawrence’s July 2015 article published in The Telegraph  is helpful for those who know little about Agatha Christie‘s sleuths such as the married couple, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. Why is Dame Christie the most translated, the third most published author–behind Shakespeare and the Bible–and whose 1952 play, The Mouse Trap, still shows in London at ST. MARTINS THEATER? She was able to hit a nerve for supplying intelligent stories, suspenseful plots and comedic characters without offense. She is an icon of the modern detective story. All things that are yummy and cheeky and beautifully expressed by the English language are represented in her stories. In short, her 65 detective novels provided entertainment and influenced multiple generations in the 20th century. For me, her work functions as a perfect insight to 20th century culture, like ethics, gender norms, and how a dominant culture dealt with limited technology.

Is she prosaic and dated today? Oh, I suppose so, if you compare her stories with today’s obsession for shocking realism, technological “advances”, and our androgynous world. Agatha Christie is still classy in my book. Will younger readers and lovers of a good mystery story appreciate her?  Shakespeare and the Bible are still read, so why not Agatha Christie?  I suggest a modern biopic to boost awareness of this marvelous woman. Has anyone heard anything about director Will Gluck’s action/drama, Agatha

Witness for the Prosecution (1957) 

This post is for my friend Rob at MOVIE ROB who is featuring the theme of courtroom dramas in film. I chose this Billy Wilder drama starring Tyrone Power in his last role, Marlene Dietrich, and Charles Laughton because I hadn’t seen it before. Thanks, Rob, for giving me the excuse to explore this provocative film.

Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) is accused of murdering an older woman after she bequeaths a large sum of money to him. Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton) is the curmudgeon barrister who agrees to defend him. Enter his wife, Christine, who is the core of the film–is she an ally or foe? The film progresses at a steady pace as the mystery unfolds. It’s the ending where all the shocks and significant twists come into play. If you like surprise endings, the film is worth following. Adapted and written by Billy Wilder and Harry Kurnitz, the sharp dialogue and witticisms highlight Wilder’s talent.

Charles Laughton (Hunchback of Notre Dame) and Elsa Lanchester (The Bride of Frankenstein) as his nagging nurse are the comic relief and show the human side of “the fox” Sir Wilfrid. His antics to smoke and drink while ignoring his doctor’s orders is a charming balance to the austere Christine; one would expect her to help her husband, but she decides to be a witness for the prosecution. She is a callous, manipulating she-cat. Or is she? Marlene is perfect in the role. 9/10 

     Miss Plimsoll: Is there too much of a draft? Should I roll up the window?

     Sir Wilfrid: Just roll up your mouth, you talk too much. If I had known how much you talk I’d never have come out of my        coma. 

I don’t dare reveal spoilers, so I will share some fun trivia from IMDb:

Did you know that Laughton and Lanchester were real-life husband and wife?

In order to show just one of Marlene Dietrich’s famous legs, an entire scene was written that required 145 extras, 38 stunt men and $90,000.

Orson Welles helped Marlene Dietrich create a fake nose and scar for her Cockney disguise.

Alfred Hitchcock said “Many times, people have told me how much they enjoyed Witness for the Prosecution. They thought it was my film instead of Billy Wilder’s. And Wilder told me people asked him about The Paradine Case (1947), thinking he had done it.”

When the film was released, Agatha Christie said it was the only movie based on one of her stories she had actually liked. Later, after Murder on the Orient Express (1974) was filmed, she said she liked that one, too.

What do you think of Agatha Christie? What do you think about Witness for the Prosecution? 

actors, directors, Film Spotlight, movies, oscars, Uncategorized

Sunset Blvd vs. Stalag 17

Continuing with my winter project to explore the filmography of a film legend I know little about, I selected William Holden. Did you miss the review of the first pairing? You can read The Wildbunch vs. The Man from Colorado  HERE .

Arguably William Holden’s two best roles, or associations with writer and famed director Billy Wilder, the Wilder-Holden partnership was commercial gold in the 1950s with Sunset Blvd. (1950), Stalag 17 (1952), and Sabrina (1954). They would pair up one more time at the end of their careers with Fedora in 1978. Check out TCM William Holden if you are interested in learning more about his career and accomplishments.

Stalag 17 garnered Best Director, picture, and actor nominations.  He won Best Actor beating out Burt Lancaster and Montgomery Clift in From Here to Eternity. Sunset Blvd is the premier example of American noir; it is a dark, psychological tale of two pawns within the Hollywood machine. Silent picture great, Norma Desmond, lives in a fantasy world, a recluse who cannot let go of her former self. She clings to Holden’s character, Joe Gillis, a desperate screenwriter on the run from loan sharks. He stumbles into Norma Desmond’s world. Like a fly in the web, he feeds the delusions of Norma and becomes her kept man.

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There is a lot of heart in the film. Director Cecil B. DeMille’s cameo in the film pays homage to the silent film era and his former diva, protecting her ego from studio actors and staff most of whom have no recollection of her. Her omnipotent servant and chauffeur is Max, who devotes his life to protect her reputation. Erich von Stroheim plays the loyal, mysterious companion. The complicated relationship between Joe and Norma is exquisite. He assumes he’s manipulating her, but in due time, it is he who has been seduced. As the narrator who speaks from the grave, he is not angry. He wants to “set the record straight” because he cares about her. The men in Norma Desmond’s life owe her everything and bend to her whims. Her mental frailty is ironic and what makes the film one-of-a-kind. Sunset Boulevard won Best Screenplay, Best Art-Direction/ Set-Direction, and Best Music. Like Tennessee William’s Blanche DuBois, there’s a universal tale of irony behind these unforgettable female characters. As the audience comes face to face with Norma Desmond at the finale, we feel pity for the star and the forgotten greats of the silent era. We are reminded that glory is brief, beauty fades, and time is often cruel.

Stalag 17 showcases William Holden as the camp hustler and suspected “stoolie” for the German officers of a POW camp where hundreds of Allied soldiers are held captive. As a girl whose three favorite shows on television were Star Trek, M*A*S*H, and Hogan’s Heroes,I realized five minutes into the film that the entertaining albeit ridiculous Hogan’s Heroes showing ingenious Allied soldiers and idiotic German officers and enlisted guards (I still quote Schultz’s “I see nothing, nothing!”) was inspired by the film.

The inspiration for 1965-71 television series, "Hogan's Heroes"
The inspiration for sixties television series, “Hogan’s Heroes”

Stalag 17 had its weaknesses. The moronic character Sgt. Stanislaus ‘Animal’ Kuzawa was over-the-top to the point of distraction. The narration was unnecessary by “Cookie”. I enjoyed watching Peter Graves and William Holden’s performance as J.J. Sefton. His sarcastic humor, cleverness, toughness amid persecution by Duke (Neville Brand) offered William Holden the chance to deliver a dimensional performance worthy of an Oscar. The combination of comedy, drama, and mystery added complexity to the film to make it interesting, although it was hard to ignore how unrealistic were the shenanigans of camp personalities. Still, there’s a charm to the film that sticks with you days after viewing. Also, I doubt Billy Wilder meant for the film to be realistic. Its silliness undermines the drama and suspense for me. Others love that element of slap-stick humor in the film. Just a little less comic relief would be all I would change.

What are you thoughts about these two Holden classics? Which do you prefer?

actors, Comedy, culture, directors, movies

The History of Comedy

 

Comedy is a generational concept and an evolutionary process that is ever-changing and yet, slapstick is still slapstick. Comedy, whether in film, the radio, or television depends on “pushing the envelope”. In the beginning of film, slapstick and zany situations were all that was needed to make people laugh. Here’s why Buster Keaton was considered a king of comedy during the silent era of film.

Federal Communications Commission regulates interstate and international communications by radio, television, wire, satellite and cable. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), after many changes to its name since its start in 1929, began as a trade association of movie companies establishing a code of conduct for actors on and off the screen. This meant no passionate scenes. Keep your tongue in your mouth. No swearing or perverted sex, which meant only heterosexual. Keep those glams and mams covered.  No adultery or sympathetic treatment of crimes and their villains. The Great Depression of the early 1930s increased pressure on studios to make films that would draw the largest possible audiences, even if it meant taking their chances with local censorship boards by disobeying the code. Keeping with a WASP tradition, comedy was safe as long it was slapstick because women were “delicate” and children morally pure. In the 1930s, producers were fined thousands of dollars if they didn’t follow the ethical code of behavior set forth by the Production Code Administration.

The Philadelphia Story is a fine example of comedy that is devoid of objectionable content. The central conflict of this love-triange is the intermingling of social classes. When worlds collide, the lady chooses her former husband, validating the sanctity of marriage while the middle and upper classes are segregated. Full of puns and fast-paced witticisms in the style of Oscar Wilde, The Philadelphia Story is funny because the comedic timing is energetic and delivered effortlessly with witty sparring. The jokes bounce off of three great actors: Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and James Stewart.

Billy Wilder had a slew of comedies during his prolific career but probably his most famous was Some Like It Hot considered by AFI as the number one comedy in film. One way to get a laugh is to shock an audience with the unexpected like gender reversals. Men in the 30s-60s wore suits and hats and norms were clearly defined. To see a man in a dress with makeup was shocking and you laughed. On 50s television, Milton Beryl “Uncle Milty”, Red Skelton, and Jerry Lewis made a fortune acting like a clown or by dressing in drag. In film, this clownish, gender reversal worked in the 70s-90s with examples such as Tootsie, The Rocky Horror Picture Story, and Mrs. Doubtfire. 

Are you a John Waters fan? Which version did you like best? The 1988 version Hairspray starring Divine and Blondie or the 2007 version with John Travolta and Christopher Walken?

In the 60s, if a comedian swore on the radio, they would be jailed for obscenities. This was still the case in the early 1970s. The Moral Majority was under attack by the Counter Culture in America as well as in the United Kingdom. Nowhere was this more evident than in the revolutionary comic routine performed by George Carlin. His “7 Dirty Words” was not only hilarious, it questioned freedom of speech rights and condemnation of censorship.  Here it is for you if you’ve never seen it. If you don’t like profanity then skip this video and be comforted he was arrested for it. OR,

Try this great article by Timothy Bella from The Atlantic instead which tells you the history behind the comedy routine that became a pop-culture milestone.

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/05/the-7-dirty-words-turn-40-but-theyre-still-dirty/257374/

Mel Brooks and Peter Sellers both used slapstick and puns and costumes and pushed the envelope with satire. Poking fun at the paranoid climate during the Cold War, Peter Sellers shows off his brilliance by becoming four characters in Kubrick’s classic. It’s a perfect comedy.

I love Mel Brooks. Puns galore with parody. It’s what I crave in a comedy. Gene Wilder is golden in my book and my favorite comedian.  Surely, by now you’ve seen Young Frankenstein?

 

Ever notice that comedies from the 1980s and 90s rated R would pass for PG-13 today? A new wave of comedians always try to push the envelope. Are we getting too desensitized? Where does the envelope go if there’s nothing left to “shock”? Have you ever wondered what comedy will be like twenty years from now?

What I really want to know is what makes you laugh. What’s your favorite comedy in film?