When most people think of Ealing Studios they think of the comedies – Whisky Galore!, Passport to Pimilico and so on. Very few would think of Film Noir but that the best description of It Always Rains on Sunday (dir. Robert Hamer, 1947). It features a woman, Rose Sandigate, (Googie Withers) who helps her former lover, Tommy Swann (John McCallum) who has escaped from prison, thus jeopardising her family life because of her sexual desires and a fair amount of shadowy shots. So far so noir but this is British Noir. It isn’t about glamour. Set in and around Bethnal Green, much of the action takes place in Petticoat Lane and gives a realist snapshot of post-war Britain, cheese rations and blackout material included.
The action all takes place on one Sunday (which as the title suggests is a rainy one) and begins with a normal family waking up and going about their business, with a fair amount of bickering. Little do they know that the matriarch’s past is about to come back to shatter their peace. At the start it appears that there are several disjointed storylines – the escaped convict, the unhappily married woman, her step-daughters’ love lives, the local criminal networks and the unfaithful band leader. Hamer takes these storylines and weaves them into a story that although complex is brilliantly executed and brings to the fore Jack Warner as Detective Sergeant Fothergill who is occupied trying to find Tommy Swann and also one by one arresting the gang of crooks. Largely through their own incompetence.
The film culminates with a very good chase sequence which acts like a needle, sewing up all the loose ends until the film comes to a bleak and real ending, much more akin to the Kitchen Sink dramas of the late fifties and sixties than the Ealing comedies we know.
There are several recognisable Ealing comedy moments including the neighbour disturbing Rose whilst she smuggles Tommy into her house to discuss the meat they are each having for Sunday lunch or the fact the central gang of crooks have bungled a warehouse raid and ended up with a truck load of Roller Skates.
This surprising film deserves to takes its place next to the finest post-war British films.
I remembered Meet Me in St Louis as a nice film with Judy Garland and that song about a trolley. It is a nice film with Judy Garland and it does have The Trolley Song (Clang, clang, clang goes the trolley. Ding, Ding, Ding goes the bell. Zing, zing, zing went my heartstrings as we started for Huntington Dell. – try getting that out of your head now) but it is far far funnier than I had any recollection of. Directed by Vincente Minnelli Meet Me In St Louis is set at the time of the Lousianna Purchase Exposition’s World Fair coming to St Louis, Missouri.
The story centres around the Smith family and predominantly the eldest girls’ desire to get married. Esther (Judy Garland) and Rose (Lucille Bremer) Smith are the original rules girls. They yearn for romance and fantasise over the objects of their affections. Plotting to get their men:
Rose: Oh, Es, isn’t he simply enchanting? And so mature!
Esther: Well, how did it happen? Where did you meet?
Rose: I was coming out of the shop and he was coming in. We bumped into each other!
But then feigning indifference when Warren (Robert Sully) phones in the much anticipated long distance phone call which is supposed to contain a proposal to Rose.
Rose follows the rules to the letter:
Warren: Wait, Rose! We still have… 36 more seconds!
Rose: I have an engagement. I think I can hear Joe’s voice, now?
Charlotte York from Sex and The City couldn’t have played the game better (maybe when it is referred to in the first SATC film there is more to it than Jennifer Hudson’s character coming from there).
I’m not sure 1944 audiences would have found all the same jokes funny but most don’t date, partly due to the historical setting of the film. I expect the 1944 audience also must have thought a small girl, Tootie (Margaret O’Brien), killing off her dolls and burying them in the cemetery was a little bonkers. When she decapitates the snowmen it is also all a bit surreal, but even disturbed children are hilarious in this film and there are so many one liners and quips that we laughed throughout.
Plot wise this is largely about the elder sisters falling in love whilst making comments on family and home. Being made in 1944 I can’t help but wonder what place in America’s official wartime narrative it had. I guess comedy boosted morale and there is some social commentary on the family, largely the role of the father or rather the lack of role of the father. Poor Alonso Smith (Leon Ames) is kept in the dark about pretty much everything his family does, he might as well be away. Grandpa (Harry Davenport) puts it well “Your papa’s not supposed to know. It’s enough we’re letting him work hard every day to support the whole flock of us. He can’t have everything”
Of course it is the songs which get in your head both the Trolley Song and the eponymous Meet Me In St Louis are catchy. The Trolley Song and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas give Judy Garland the chance of two big solos but there is none of the star posturing you might expect. There are other solo songs, including Over the Banister which suggests the domestic confines Esther feels while looking at the promise of love with the boy next door. Early on Esther is shown as a modern woman in the exchange with Rose:
Esther: I’m going to let John Truett kiss me tonight.
Rose: Esther Smith.
Esther: Well, if we’re going to get married, I may as well start it.
Rose: Nice girls don’t let men kiss them until after they’re engaged. Men don’t want the bloom rubbed off.
Esther: Personally, I think I have too much bloom. Maybe that’s the trouble with me.
When Judy Garland sings she is incredible and floors the rest of the cast but it isn’t entirely about her, Tootie and Agnes (Joan Carroll) supply most of the comedy with Tootie frequently stealing the show.
The historical setting of the film is interesting, allowing not only an escape from the realities of war but also because it is full of the folklore of St Louis in the songs and the scenes such as the throwing of flour on Halloween. However whilst it feels very different to the films set in 1944 it is worth remembering that it is only 40 years after the world fair. There is a nod to the speed the US has developed.
Oh and in case you are wondering whether it is Louis sounding like Lewes or Louis sounding like Louie then Tootie thinks she has the answer (she is the only one who thinks this):
Mr. Neely the Iceman: Well, I got a cousin who spells it the same way, and we call him “Louie”.
Tootie : He’s isn’t a city though, is he?
Mr. Neely the Iceman: No…
Tootie: Is he a saint?
Mr. Neely the Iceman: Uh, no.
Tootie: Then there’s no comparison.
If you want to be cheered up, have a laugh and aren’t too worried about the plot then this is the film for you.
Meet me in St. Louis, Louis,
Meet me at the Fair
Don’t tell me the lights are shining
Anyplace but there
Casablanca never seems to date. Watching this at the BFI the audience was totally absorbed and clapped at the end, although I am sure most had seen it before. I ought to declare that this film has been amongst my favourites for at least 20 years and I don’t see it leaving that list any time soon. It may well have been a large reason for my choice of dissertation topic – “A Kiss is Still a Kiss: Women and Romance in British Cinema during World War Two” (I know it isn’t British but believe me it was why I chose it).
A film that has influenced filmmakers from the Marx Brothers (A Night in Casablanca (1946)) to Woody Allen (Play it Again Sam (1972)) and has provided possibly some of the most famous movie quotes (or misquotes) of modern times it is unsurprising that its 70th anniversary is being marked around the world but if you haven’t seen it then why should you? “Yes, indeed, the Warners here have a picture which makes the spine tingle and the heart take a leap.” – New York Times critic Bosley Crowther (My favourite film critics name) upon its release.
This film has it all. Glamour, adventure and buckets of romance all offering a clear wartime message. They really don’t make them like this any more. It is based on a play Everybody Come’s to Rick’s which was written by Murray Burnett, a New York high school teacher and Joan Alison, a socialite. Burnett was inspired to write it after a visit to Europe before 1939 during which he saw a black pianist in a bar called La Belle Aurore entertaining refugees from across Europe on their way to Casablanca. (Lebo, H. 1992). Warner Brothers turned the play into Casablanca, keeping many of the themes and the central character of Rick Blaine. Originally it was planned to be released in summer 1943 but as rumours of a US landing in North Africa, specifically Casablanca, started circulating the studio sped up release and the film’s premier was on 26th November 1942. 19 days after the Allies landed in North Africa. The film was a patriotic masterpiece.
Of particular interest to me is the fact this film epitomises the change in the portrayal of romance in both British and American films. During the pre-war years screwball comedies such as His Girl Friday (1940) and It Happened One Night (1934) were the typical romantic stories. Strong women meeting with men and ending up together (not unlike some modern romcoms). However the wartime message is one of sacrifice to be made for the greater good or as Rick (Humphrey Bogart) puts it “… The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Underlying the entire plot is the suggestion that without Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) Victor Laszlo won’t be able to do his work to subvert the Germans and he is vital to the resistance across Europe. The message is clear. Now is not a time for romance, it is a time for putting the war effort first. Indulging in romantic fantasy was selfish and un-patriotic and Casablanca was a reminder that sacrifices have to be made for the greater good, as much part of the official narrative as films such as A Yank in the RAF (1941).
Throughout the film modern audiences are amazed at the themes discussed. Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) has escaped a Nazi concentration camp and there are many references to the Gestapo and German brutality. One can only imagine the effect the scene where Laszlo instructs the band to play La Marseillaise as the Germans are singing had on rousing contemporary audiences.
There is humour, not least in the pickpocket and general corruption and there is glamour. Largely brought to the screen by Ingrid Bergman. She is shot like a star. Often dressing in white (as is Bogart) so she literally seems to glow on the screen while all around her are dressed in duller colours. Her hats are something else, allowing her to look out from under them. In fact Bergman’s part is all about the glances and lingering looks. The eyes have it.
Music also plays an important role. Dooley Wilson plays Sam who provides most of the music as well as being Rick’s one true friend. The previously mentioned playing of La Marseillaise is one of the more powerful scenes in the film but As Time Goes By is the signature tune. Its lyrics* contain the essence of the story being played out on screen. The message is that love continues, even with a background of war. A reassurance, perhaps, that love will endure whilst the audience focuses on the war effort.
“And when two lovers woo
They still say, “I love you.”
On that you can rely
No matter what the future brings
As time goes by.”
If you get the chance to see Casablanca then do. It may well start a love affair that lasts As Time Goes By (Sorry couldn’t resist).
Crowther, B. (1942) Casablanca (1942), New York Times Retrieved 19/2/2012 http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9C06E1DF1039E33BBC4F51DFB7678389659EDE
Lebo, H. (1992) Casablanca: Behind the Scenes. New York: Simon & Schuster
Billed as a film where George Clooney plays a father who is struggling to connect to his daughters while his wife lies comatosed in hospital I wasn’t expecting that much. I thought, despite being written and directed by the great Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt and Sideways), it would be a typical saccharine American story of a man “finding” himself but it was much much better than that. It wasn’t just about his immediate family crisis but also about the important role we all have in protecting our heritage. “The Descendants” of the title are not just his children but the descendants of his great-great grandparents, the son of a missionary who had married a Hawaiian princess. There is a large extended family who have been left land in trust which has slowly been sold off leaving one large area. They must decide what to do with this land. Matt King (George Clooney) is the executor of the trust which his cousins and their forebears have benefitted from over previous generations, ultimately he must decide what to do. At one point Matt’s narration suggests his family is like an archipelago ” all separate, but parts of the same whole and also drifting apart.” He also reflects that while appearing to be a paradise Hawaii isn’t. Life and its problems goes on even when you live in beautiful surroundings.
Back in his immediate family his eldest daughter, seventeen year old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), has clearly had a wild adolescence filled with drugs, alcohol and unsuitable men and his younger daughter, ten year old Scottie (Amara Miller), has a precociousness which mixed with an “advanced” vocabulary belie a few issues. Matt has been emotionally removed from the family for what appears to be several years, he describes himself as the backup parent, working in his legal practice and leaving the parenting to his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie). Early on he acknowledges that the last time he had been alone with Scottie was seven years previously when she was three. Because he has been working he quite simply doesn’t know his daughters or, as it transpires. his wife.
A lot has been made of Clooney’s performance. I don’t know if it is his best (Goodnight and Good Luck is pretty impressive as is Syriana) but it is good. It is just the right balance of understated emotion, humour and tenderness. You can believe this is a man who is feeling real pain, angst and who believes in his bloodline. Of course he is always very pleasant to watch so that helps with any performance he gives! (OK that may belie a total lack on impartiality but if he was bad I would say).
Payne’s other films all centre around men in crisis and so it is no surprise that this is really what this is about. Adapted from Kaui Hart Hemmings book by Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. There is a point where this film feels like a travelogue for Hawaii and it certainly works as it looks beautiful but otherwise this is well crafted, slowly bringing the story to its conclusion. Payne acknowledges the fragility of life and human relationships but also remindsus we are part of a chain going back thousands of years and which (we hope) will go on for thousands more. Without using the usual sledgehammer often applied to these tales The Descendants shows us that money has little value in the face of loss, families and heritage. Don’t go and watch this to be cheered up, although it is at time funny it is also heartbreaking. The Descendants is a film which I like even more now I can reflect on it than I did when I was watching it.
War horse is spectacular, emotional and occasionally funny. I haven’t read Michael Morpugo’s book or seen the play but this film has Steven Spielberg written all over it. However there is a certain Britishness to it courtesy of the screenplay by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis. If the trench scenes remind you of the end of Blackadder Goes Forth it maybe because Richard Curtis wrote both.
War Horse tells the story of a horse called Joey who is broken in and trained by a teenage boy called Albert (Jeremy Irvine). Both the horse and boy are sent to the frontline of the first world war but on seperate trajectories. Joey is sold to a cavalry officer (Tom Hiddleston) who promises return him to Albert at the end of the war. Albert is too young to go with Joey but joins up later. The majority of the film then follows Joey through contact with people from all sides. While the Germans en masse are shown as stereotypically nasty, selfish and greedy the theme that unites all sides is that when people love animals they are humanised. Every person who comes into close contact with Joey is shown to be kind.
There are many heart-stopping moments. The battle scenes from a suicidal cavalry charge to the Somme are all remarkable. The evolution of war from the cavalry to mustard gas and tanks is well illustrated. A lot of the most disturbing things happen just out of shot but you know what has happened and see the after effects. As you may expect from the director who made us cry with ET, Schindlers List and Saving Private Ryan there are no shortage of moments to challenge even the hardest hearts not to shed a tear but just as you are crying a lighter moment will appear and there are genuine laughs at times. It is a traumatic 2 1/2 hours but 2 1/2 hours which passes quickly.
If Uggie from the Artist deserves an Oscar then so does Joey. I am not particularly fond of horses (terrified of them might be a more accurate description of my feelings) but he and his co-star Topthorne give amazing performances. I didn’t think a horse could express so much emotion including love and fear. While Joey is undoubtedly the star Jeremy Irvine is sincere and believable throughout in an excellent piece of casting. Benedict Cumberbatch, Emily Watson, David Thewlis and Peter Mullan are just some of the faces who make up a great supporting cast.
This isn’t a Saving Private Ryan for the first world war. Spielberg has taken a children’s book and turned it into an epic with emotional depth but it is worth remembering it is a tale for older children or teenagers. Many of the children watching won’t have met people who remember the second world war let alone the first. This is a reminder of what their great-great-grandfathers suffered told through a beautiful story of friendship and humanity. In fact it is a reminder to us all.
I would say go and see it but I don’t want to watch it again!
This is a masterful performance by Meryl Streep in a film I found incredibly uncomfortable to watch at times. This film doesn’t pull punches. It will not turn anybody into a Tory and if anything there were reminders for me of exactly why her politics and mine are so far apart but it is the use of her hallucinating as a narrative device and talking to her dead husband, Dennis, which made me uncomfortable. Flashbacks are a traditional method of creating a narrative in films such as this but she is a woman who is still alive and the method used to create them is supposition and detracts from the excellent biopic. For once I agree with Cameron (words I never thought I would utter) it is too soon.
As a biopic this is a fine piece of work. The scenes of a young Margaret (Alexandra Roach) fighting against sexism and class prejudice are well played as are the scenes of her and young Dennis’s (Harry Lloyd) blossoming romance. There are moments in the Streep scenes where the resemblance to Thatcher is incredible. Some of the shots of her amongst a sea of men or sitting alone remind us just what she achieved by getting into power but how isolated she was against the old boys network. When she first arrives in parliament we are shown her going to the ladies restroom.It is deserted except for an iron and ironing board.
We are reminded through a mix of archive footage and recreated scenes of just what her time in power did although the long term effects of privatisation and other policies aren’t mentioned as there is a gap in the film between her leaving office and her hallucinating. The similarities between the early eighties and today are hammered home with riots, strikes and recession. The scenes where she orders the sinking of the Belgrano are chilling. This is no humanising film. However these scenes are based on fact. We know from contemporary accounts and memoirs that these things happened. The hallucinating is fantasy and that is where I feel the film falls down. This is a woman who is still alive. Who still attends social functions. I can see that the flashback technique was useful and maybe in 30 years it wouldn’t seem so odd. In fact as a device I think flashback is great. It works well in many films and there is no reason why it couldn’t have worked here.
Jim broadbent (Dennis) and Olivia Colman (Carol) give excellent supporting performances which highlight the difficulties of living with someone as single minded as Thatcher. When Carol is trying to help her aged mother but she asks for Mark repeatedly it is so sad.
If you want a depiction of ageing and dementia or Alzheimer’s watch Iris. That is amazing. If you want to see excellent acting from some of the finest actors in the world then this is brilliant but beware the hallucination scenes. If they’d stuck to the facts then this would have been a great film.