Archive for September, 2011

by Sam Juliano

Franco Zeffirelli achieved what no other had managed before or since.  He scored major successes on the opera stage, in the theatre and the cinema, and eventually brought these forms together to become the greatest director of “opera films” in a prolific run in the 1980’s.  Once a student of art and architecture, Zeffirelli reportedly turned to the theatre after watching Olivier’s visually arresting Henry V, and while working as a scenic painter in Florence was hired to work as an assistant director under renowned film director Luchino Visconti, for the film La Terra Trema, released in 1948.  Zeffirelli later worked with Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini, and in the 1960’s achieved moderate success directing and designing his own plays in New York and London.  His special gift was remarkable visual design and he eventually crafted extraordinary sets for the works of Verdi, Puccini, Bizet and Mozart on opera stages and directed some lush period films based on Shakespeare and religious figures.  In the latter pursuit Zeffirelli’s 1968 Romeo and Juliet, a stunningly beautiful color film that has retained it’s popularity in schools and on internet chat boards decades later,  featured attractive teens in the lead roles.  While that film remains the one the director is principally known for among film fans, he achieved no less a critical success the year before that with another Bard standard, The Taming of the Shrew, which starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.  In 1973 he again produced visual ravishments with Brother Sun Sister Moon based on the life of St. Francis of Assisi, and then directed a mini-series, Jesus of Nazareth that still hold high ratings when aired today.  But Zeffirelli to the delight of the purists has always been a staunch traditionalist.  This has endeared him to the brass at the Metropolitan Opera and for those who strongly favor the period trappings and the original intentions of the works’ creators.

The director’s celebrated run of four opera films (two by the master Giuseppe Verdi) was accomplished during a period where he was directing stage productions at the Metropolitan Opera.  One of the films, La Traviata, based on one of Verdi’s five irrefutable masterpieces is considered by many if not most as the greatest opera film of all-time, and the one that above all others stands as the model.  Featuring the then matinee idol singer Placido Domingo, and a model of operatic intensity, the soprano Teresa Stratas in the leads, the resulting film is a benchmark of sumptuous imagery in the service of what many see today as the most all-encompassing art form. (more…)


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by Allan Fish

(UK 1943 35m) not on DVD

Achtung, achtung!

p/d/w  Humphrey Jennings  ph  H.E.Fowle  ed  Stewart McAllister

What does one think of when one thinks of the Welsh in the movies?  I hear the answers – Stanley Baker, Richard Burton, Sian Phillips, Anthony Hopkins, Catherine Zeta Jones, Michael Sheen, even Ray Milland technically.  Let’s rephrase the question; what does one think of when one thinks of Wales on screen?  The obvious answer, especially across the pond, would be Ford’s How Green Was My Valley.  Ford’s fans would see it as poetic, when it is actually merely fanciful claptrap.  For a really poetic study of Welsh mining, one needs to look elsewhere.  Lindsay Anderson once said that Humphrey Jennings was Britain’s one true poet.  He was understating some. 

            If one looks for mentions of Jennings’ work in film books, one would most likely find reference to Listen to Britain, Fires Were Started and A Diary for Timothy.  A film that often gets overlooked – not helped by the fact that it was for long periods impossible to see – is The Silent Village.  It tells the story of the Czechoslovakian village of Lidice, whose small population hid the perpetrators of the assassination of the Deputy Reich Protector Reinhard Heydrich.  In response to their conspiracy, the Nazi occupiers shot all the men in the village, marched the women off in wagons to concentration camps, took the children to the appropriate authorities and razed the village to the ground, literally obliterating it.  This is all re-enacted by the villagers of the Welsh mining community of Cwmgiedd who provide the epitaph; Lidice was not obliterated so much as immortalised.  (more…)

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by Judy Geater

Director: George Cukor

Producer: Jack Warner

Music: Frederick Loewe

Lyrics: Alan Jay Lerner

Screenwriter: Alan Jay Lerner (adaptation of George Bernard Shaw)

Choreographer: Hermes Pan

Cinematographer: Harry Stradling Sr

Studio: Warner Brothers

Main actors: Audrey Hepburn, Rex Harrison, Stanley Holloway, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Gladys Cooper, Jeremy Brett


My Fair Lady has one of the greatest scores of any musical, by Lerner and Lowe, with many songs which have become standards, such as With a Little Bit of Luck, Wouldn’t It Be Loverly and On the Street Where You Live. It is also one of the most gorgeous musicals to look at, making full use of Super Panavision, with its dazzling Cecil Beaton costumes and colourful sets. It wasn’t filmed on location in London, but Covent Garden flower market and the dingy back streets look convincing enough to me, while scenes like the Embassy ball and Ascot have all the visual flamboyance you’d expect from director George Cukor, aided by art director Gene Allen. Yet this celebrated film was allowed to deteriorate into a sorry state and needed full-scale restoration by the mid-1990s. The DVD I have, part of an Audrey Hepburn box set, features the restored print, looking great, plus several special features – and there are also a couple of different two-disc special editions available,with a region 1 blu ray in the pipeline. But what I’d really like would be to see this on the big screen some day. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

The writer Gustave Flaubert opined that “the three finest things in creation are the sea, Hamlet and Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The philosopher Kierkegaard wrote that Don Giovanni is a work without blemish, of uninterrupted perfection. Virgil Thomson was no less flattering: “Don Giovanni is one of the funniest shows in the world and one of the most terrifying. It is all about love, and it kids love to a fare-ye-well. It is the world’s greatest opera and the world’s greatest parody of opera. It is a moral entertainment so movingly human that morality gets lost before the play is scarcely started.” Beyond that Shaw, Goethe and Wagner considered it the greatest opera ever written. Today this 1787 canonical work of Western culture continues to hold the stage as one of the most-performed operas worldwide, and the one above all others that is seen as the purist expression of the intellectual and dramatic possibilities of the operatic form. At New York City’s Metropolitan Opera, Don Giovanni has been performed over 500 times in about sixty seasons between 1883 and the present. Surely no other opera has been as debated and analyzed, and no other, with the possible exception of Bizet’s Carmen has been held up as the model, the one work that in a number of ways can serve as a definition of the form. (more…)

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Copyright © 2011 by James Clark

On the isle of Ischia a funeral is in progress at the ancestral cemetery reserved for members of the Carlucci family. The current scion of the clan, “Carlo,” manages the tony Grand Hotel Excelsior, and with him this day are four of his clients. “Wendell Armbruster, Jr.” and “Pamela Piggott” are a 30-something couple (he from Baltimore, she from London) in the process of having her mother and his father buried, side-by-side, as befits lovers. Carlo asks what inscription should go on the headstone. “Willy and Kate” is the first draft (the deceased being Wendell Armbruster Sr. and Katherine Piggott). Then Pamela finds apt the additional term, “Willy and Kate Carlucci.” Junior, who had been slow to warm to this situation (his respectably married father having died at Ischia [in Kate’s arms during a car accident] putatively during a solo sojourn to attend to health problems as met by the island’s historic thermal mud baths), concurs, “I’ll go for that.” How does it become apt that an Italian alias cover those lives—removing from their Anglo-Saxon story line a pillar of his church (drawing evangelist Billy Graham to preside over the Baltimore observances) and his country’s economy (the president of the United States directing Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State and supposed expert on questions of antithetical aliens, to be in attendance) and a lady residing in Britain all her life? Billy Wilder’s exploration of that strange state of affairs constitutes the heart of the generally dismissed film, Avanti! (1972).

Wilder is on record as pronouncing Avanti! a failure due to giving the mistaken impression of being a comedy (he having intended a tribute to a work he loved beyond any other, namely, David Lean and Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter). I maintain the film is far from a failure and is, indeed, a comedy. (more…)

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by John Greco

It began with an idea from Jim Jacobs who thought it would be cool to do a show with 1950’s rock and roll music. He mentioned it to his friend, and fellow amateur theater associate, Warren Casey. Both men had nine to five jobs, but Casey would soon lose his job, and to pass the time he began to write what would turn out to be the pajama party scene in the finished musical. The two men got together and worked on the book and some music, and then just like in the movies, they managed to put on a show. The venue was in Chicago, a small theater called Kingston Mines. It was a low budget production with cheap painted backdrops; the cast included an unknown Marilu Henner as Marty. The show itself was still evolving, a few of the songs were there from the beginning (Beauty School Dropout, Grease Lightnin’), others would be added later. Two New York producers saw the show and thought with a few changes, but keeping its rough edges intact, the show would make for an interesting Off-Broadway production.

In New York, songs were added but the show’s unpolished primitiveness was purposely preserved. “Grease,” like “Hair,” its rock musical predecessor, was not going to be a slick showy production. It’s values and look would be closer to Off-Off Broadway and the experimental theater of the 1960’s than with the traditional Broadway musicals it would eventually play alongside of like, “No, No Nanette” and “Sugar.” (more…)

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by Allan Fish

(USA 1939 102m) DVD1/2

Waiting for act Two

p  Jack Cummings  d  Norman Taurog  w  Leon Gordon, George Oppenheimer  story  Jack MacGowran, Dore Schary  ph  Oliver T.Marsh, Joseph Ruttenberg  ed  Blanche Sewell  md  Alfred Newman  m/ly  Cole Porter  art  Cedric Gibbons 

Fred Astaire (Johnny Brett), Eleanor Powell (Clare Bennett), George Murphy (King Shaw), Frank Morgan (Bob Casey), Ian Hunter (Bert C.Matthews), Florence Rice (Amy Blake), Ann Morriss (Pearl Delonge), Lynne Carver, Douglas McPhail,

Think if you will of Shakespeare in Love and the scene where Gwyneth Paltrow’s Viola de Lesseps, in the guise of Thomas Kent, is playing Romeo in the first production of ‘Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter’.  He’s aching for the love of his life, Rosalind, and Will steps in and reprimands her/him.  “You’re speaking about a baggage we never even meet…what will he do in Act Two, when he meets the love of his life?”  Stunned, Viola sheepishly says “I’m sorry, sir; I have not seen Act Two.”  “Of course you have not”, Will fires back, “I have not written it.”  There but for the Grace of Gods…

            Several hundred years later, or around sixty years earlier, depending on your point of view, George Murphy as King Shaw is auditioning to be the leading man of Broadway supernova Clare Bennett and is singing and dancing to ‘Between You and Me.”  It’s a lovely number, a thoroughly expert duet that would be enough to make one think we’d witnessed something very special.  And yet this is just Rosalind, and though we may see her, she’s keeping the polished floor warm for the real magic to arrive. (more…)

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by Hilary Hulsey

Acknowledging history and its mistakes is important, but reaching beyond the stereotypes of racism, sexism, and religion can easily be achieved when good outweighs evil in the majestic onscreen musical of the Broadway hit, Cabin in the Sky (1943).

In late 1940, Russian-American composer, Vernon Duke, introduced his greatest Broadway achievement to date at the Martin Beck theatre. Cabin in the Sky featured an all-black cast (including Ethel Waters and Rex Ingram, who would later appear in the onscreen version) and the production ran 156 shows, ending in early 1941. Duke supplied new standards to the songbook and its success onstage made the production a prime choice for screen adaptation.

Who better to direct a broadway show than someone who pulls from background and experience? Vincente Minnelli’s directing debut embodies his ability to use the camera as a tool to create a masterpiece rather than a device to record a specific instance to appropriate a paycheck. Most films in Minnelli’s career requiring transition and adaption sustain the original production and add Hollywood flare without disappointing. (more…)

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Cap from stunning "The Mill and the Cross" which probes art masterpiece

by Sam Juliano

It’s official.  The fall season is now upon us, Halloween decorations are displaying,  and the baseball playoffs are looming.  It’s a time for football fans to fully immerse themselves, and for the Big Apple’s film buffs to avail themselves of one of the most celebrated of all annual film festivals.  For opera and classical music fans it’s a time to again be ravishing by some of the world’s most distinguished orchestras and ensembles.  And for movie fans across the globe it’s prestige time, when the year’s potential treasures are trotted put for award consideration.  In short it’s the time of the year that we all live for.

That extraordinary, incomparable blogger from the midwest continues to weave her magic here on the site’s sideboards.  “Dee Dee” as she is affectionately known in these parts has fueled the everyday musical countdown posts with spectacular embellishment, displaying foreign posters, delightful background information, and indellible film clips each and every night as the this remarkable venture incles nearer to the half way point.  Sure, she’s a vital part of Wonders in the Dark’s fraternity for pratically the full three-year run of the site’s existence, but her singular contributions continue to raise the bar, and move anyone with a sense of appreciation and dedication.   The comment and page view totals for the countdown have not only exceeded expectations, but have broken site records.  Just this past week, John Greco’s sensational review of A Hard Day’s Night has attracted about 140 comments as of this writing, and several others have brought in amazing totals.  Many thanks to all the readers who have checked out the quality postings, and to those who have taken the time to enter comments.  A special thank you to the Three Amigos, Judy Geater, Pat Perry and Jonathan Warner, who have been there each and every day with their special blend of knowledge, excitement and passion.  For Judy and Pat, it’s an extension of their ballot involvement and own post writings, not to mention some loving anecdotes from this past experiences in the form from both a vocational and cultural perspective.  For Jon, it’s a labor of love, and futher expression of his peerless insights and effervescent personality.  A comment from any and all of these three for any writer is really an incomparable treat. (more…)

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by Allan Fish

(USA 1931 88m) DVD1

Just like a melody

p/d  Ernst Lubitsch  w  Ernest Vajda, Ernst Lubitsch, Samson Raphaelson  operetta  “A Waltz Dream” by Leopold Jacobson, Felix Doermann  ph  George J.Folsey  ed  Merrill White  m  Oscar Straus, Clifford Grey  md  Adolph Deutsch  art  Hans Dreier  cos  Travis Banton

Maurice Chevalier (Lieutenant Niki), Miriam Hopkins (Princess Anna), Claudette Colbert (Franzi), Charles Ruggles (Max), George Barbier (King Adolf XV), Elizabeth Patterson (Baroness Von Schwadel), Hugh O’Connell (Orderly), Robert Strange (Adjutant Von Rockoff), Janet Reade (Lily),

It’s time to once more take a journey back to one of the favourite times and places in movie history, that carefree Vienna before the wars where biergartens and dance halls alike reverberated to the sound of Strauss waltzes (in actual fact, here the waltzes of the unrelated Oscar Straus, but it makes little difference).  Like Von Stroheim and Ophuls, Lubitsch loved that old Vienna and The Smiling Lieutenant is his greatest cinematic remembrance of those times as well as being the peak of his series of operettas of the early talkie years. 

            Like all such operettas, the plot is dispensable, focusing on a young lieutenant with an eye for the ladies who falls for a female band leader and violinist.  However, an etiquette faux pas sees him brought before the princess daughter of the visiting king of Flausenthurm, who promptly falls in love with him.  Our lieutenant thus has to choose between a marriage to a princess and the real love of his life. (more…)

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