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Archive for the ‘author Judy Geater’ Category

bicycle thieves

by Judy Geater

It seems like such a small story. Yet, through the theft of a bike, this powerful Italian neo-realist film, directed by Vittorio De Sica, shows up the struggle which was the reality of daily life for so many children and parents. It also brilliantly explores the relationship between a father and a young son put under pressure by the world around them, two figures in a crowd.

Cinematographer Carlo Montuori’s stark black-and-white photography, showing the streets of post-war Rome and endless small details of everyday life, always has something going on in the background. There’s a feeling throughout of all the other stories surrounding this one, all the other poor people who are facing their own struggles. Nobody else has time to worry about this one family’s suffering.

Most of the main cast were not professional actors, which helps to give the atmosphere of bleak realism. The little boy, Bruno, whose haunting expression is one of the images from the film which lingers in the mind, was played by Enzo Staiola, aged seven, who turned up to watch the start of shooting. His father, Antonio, was portrayed by factory worker Lamberto Maggiorani, a non-professional actor whose real-life circumstances were not so far removed from those of the character he played. The imdb tells how he was laid off from the factory after making the film, and found it hard to get further roles as an actor.

At the start of the film, Antonio, a jobless father in impoverished post-war Rome, is struggling to support his wife, young son and baby. One day, he is finally the one picked out of a crowd of hungry hopefuls to win a job putting up film posters. However, he doesn’t think he will be able to take the job, because he doesn’t have a bicycle. Or rather, he does have one, but it has been pawned and there’s no money to get it out of hock until he gets a job. So it’s a vicious circle which there seems to be no prospect of squaring. (more…)

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Wild Boys of the Road 1

by Judy Geater

The long shots panning over crowds of nameless children are the most haunting thing about Wild Boys of the Road. ‘600,000 Children’ proclaims the original trailer in huge letters – but, from reading about the Depression era, it seems as if the real numbers of kids taking the road were even higher than that.

Seeing the weary lines of men moved on from town to town is grim enough in Heroes for Sale, another film made by director William A Wellman for Warner in the same year. But the world of Wild Boys is if anything even bleaker, because this time it’s penniless kids (girls as well as boys, despite the film’s title) who are being driven from one place to another. They risk injury and even death as they leap aboard moving freight trains, and have to beg for food before sleeping rough in shanty towns beside rubbish dumps.

If this is a “coming of age” film, it’s a cruel version. Growing up has to happen all too fast, as the teenagers are forced to realise they can’t rely on anyone or anything for support. Sometimes portrayals of hoboes suggest there is something romantic about a life on the move –  but there is no romance in the struggle faced by the kids in this film. There are some lighthearted moments,  but the prevailing mood is one of bleakness. Especially shocking are the scenes which show adults turning against the children and trying to drive them out, as in one sequence where the firefighters turn hoses on them.

It’s often claimed that most Hollywood films in the early 1930s served up escapism. But, although the glossier musicals and comedies may be remembered better now, there were many gritty dramas which did address the realities of the day. Especially from Warner, and especially from Wellman. His astonishing run of powerful dramas in the pre-Code period didn’t pull many punches, except in the jarringly upbeat endings which were sometimes forced on him by the studio, as in this picture. (more…)

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Doctor_Zhivago_1

by Judy Geater

I’m not sure how old I was when I first saw ‘Doctor Zhivago’ – maybe 11 or 12. But it immediately made a strong impression on me as the most romantic film imaginable, with its Russian setting, endless stretches of snow and central couple whirled along by violent and turbulent events beyond their control. Above all, the atmosphere is created by Maurice Jarre’s haunting score, and the sound of the balalaika. I’ve seen the film many times since then, though sadly never on the big screen as yet, and it has always cast the same spell.

Omar Sharif and Julie Christie seem perfectly cast as Zhivago and his true love Lara. So it’s strange to read in the TCM article on the film that director David Lean originally wanted to cast Peter O’Toole as Zhivago, after working with him on ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. Although O’Toole was a great actor, I can’t quite imagine him giving the understated performance that Sharif gives, constantly watching others and reacting to them. (more…)

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Track_of_the_Cat

by Judy Geater

Director William Wellman made two Westerns adapted from novels by
Walter Van Tilburg Clark. The first and best-known, of course, was
‘The Ox-Bow Incident’ (1943), a devastatingly bleak drama crammed into
just 75 powerful minutes. Bleak is also the word to describe the
second film where this writer and director joined forces, ‘Track of
the Cat’.

However, rather than being short, this is a film which seems to go on
and on, like the prints of the cat which Robert Mitchum follows
through the snow. It comes as a surprise to realise that this Western
actually only 102 minutes long, because the repetitive, bitter
conversations and recriminations make it feel more drawn out. This is
a dark, psychologically turbulent movie, one of the many 1950s films
to open up a dysfunctional family and show the rivalries and hatreds
simmering under the surface.

The book and film have both been compared with ‘Moby Dick’ because of
the theme of obsession – though in this film the creature which must
be caught and killed is a black panther, which killed some of the
family’s stock, rather than a whale. If it really is a panther, that
is. Nobody sees it close up and lives to tell the tale. The decision
never to show the cat makes it all the more frightening, and hints
that it is a symbol, though, again as with the whale in ‘Moby Dick’,
that symbol’s significance constantly shifts. (more…)

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by Judy Geater

It was a film made at a Poverty Row studio, in just four weeks and on a shoestring. Clark Gable was forced to star in it as a punishment, according to some accounts, and turned up drunk and angry to meet director Frank Capra. At the end of filming, Claudette Colbert said “I just finished the worst picture in the world.” Yet, somehow, It Happened One Night, the tale of a runaway heiress who joins forces with an unemployed journalist on a long-distance bus trip, ended up as a smash hit and multi-Oscar winner. It touched a nerve in the Great Depression – and still does so now, in our own hard times nearly 80 years on. I was lucky enough to see it on the big screen during a rerelease in the UK two years ago, and the audience’s reaction showed just how well this early screwball tale of a couple travelling on a late-night bus has worn.

The legend has it that Capra came across the original short story, Night Bus by Samuel Hopkins Adams, by chance in a copy of Cosmopolitan. He asked Columbia to buy it for him, which the studio managed to do cheaply, and he and writer Robert Riskin then set about turning it into a script. However, they quickly found that nobody had much faith in the project. Robert Montgomery was originally offered the part of the hero, down-at-heel, hard-drinking journalist Peter Warne, but turned it down because he felt there had already been ‘too many bus pictures’. Gable was loaned by MGM in his place, possibly as a punishment – he had recently been ill and taken time off, which didn’t go down well in that high-pressure era, as well as asking for more money. The role of the heroine, spoilt Ellen “Ellie” Andrews, was rejected by Miriam Hopkins, Myrna Loy and Margaret Sullavan in turn. Constance Bennett, Bette Davis and Carole Lombard were also suggested and then fell by the wayside for various reasons. Colbert only accepted the part at the last minute, in return for a bumper pay cheque and the promise of a quick shoot. (more…)

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by Judy Geater

This is a film that has its wedding cake and eats it. James Stewart sums it all up beautifully in two caustic lines – on the one hand: “The prettiest sight in this fine, pretty world is the privileged class enjoying its privileges.” That’s certainly a big selling point for a movie set in an impossibly luxurious mansion on the eve of a grand wedding, amid a whirl of champagne and gowns by Adrian. But, on the other hand, as Stewart snarls on the phone: “This is the Voice of Doom calling. Your days are numbered, to the seventh son of the seventh son.” The Philadelphia Story, one of the greatest of screwball comedies, celebrates the quirkiness of rich society families, as epitomised in Katharine Hepburn’s haughty, upper-crust heroine, Tracy Samantha Lord. But it also suggests that their days are indeed numbered, and shows this American aristocrat having to change and bend with the times.

The opening scene is a brief silent drama which shows Tracy’s violent break-up with her husband, CK Dexter Haven (Cary Grant), as she contemptuously breaks his golf clubs and he retaliates by pushing her through a door, deciding against hitting her. From this dramatic break-up, it’s a case of going full circle and getting back to the point where the couple fall in love. Just as Tracy is about to marry a safe but boring businessman, George Kittredge (John Howard), Dexter turns up at the eleventh hour and starts turning everything upside down. He brings in a reporter and photographer from a gossip magazine, Spy, (he has been blackmailed into doing so) and things are soon becoming more complicated, and comic, by the minute. It turns out that the reporter, Macaulay/Mike Connor (Stewart) is really a poetic short story writer, and Tracy starts to fall under his spell, threatening her forthcoming marriage – while the rest of her eccentric family are busy causing their own brand of mayhem. (more…)

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by Judy Geater

Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn made a total of nine films together, but, for my money, Adam’s Rib is the best. It’s a film with just about everything, from a sharp script to a great performances by the central couple as rival lawyers. It was also ahead of its time in its trenchant querying of the sexual double standard, a theme flagged up in the title. And there is a fine supporting cast, headed by Judy Holliday. You can see why this film was such a shot in the arm for the romantic comedy at a time when the genre was starting to struggle. (It is currently at a low ebb again, and we could do with a similarly great new romcom being released now, though I’m not holding my breath.)

I’ve always been fond of films where couples work together, which tends to make for great dialogue as their personal relationship becomes messily entwined with rivalries and tensions in the workplace. Tracy and Hepburn had already made one good film where they are rival journalists, Woman of the Year (1942), though that one is marred by a cringe-making ending. In Adam’s Rib they are married colleagues again, but this time they play lawyers. (more…)

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by Judy Geater

Many great musicals have plots packed with drama and unlikely coincidences. By contrast, on the surface anyway, ‘Meet Me In St Louis’ has almost no plot at all. However, there is far more to this holiday classic, starring Judy Garland in one of her best-loved roles, than meets the eye on first viewing. Producer Arthur Freed, director Vincente Minnelli and the team at MGM agonised over the ingredients just as the Smith household’s cook, Katie (Marjorie Main) worries over her homemade ketchup bubbling on the stove in the film’s opening scene.

Katie is afraid the ketchup may be too sweet. MGM’s powers-that-be saw the same danger in this adaptation of writer Sally Benson’s humorous ‘Kensington’ magazine stories, recalling her girlhood in St Louis at the turn of the 20th century. Various scriptwriters were drafted in and encouraged to add exciting plot twists, such as an unlikely blackmail plot involving a Colonel, to make the mixture a little stronger.

But in the end Freed threw out all this material, discarding the scripts piled on his desk and bringing in Irving Brecher and Fred Finklehoffe to write a simpler story, where the dramas are those stemming from everyday life. This decision proved to be the right one, as the film was one of MGM’s biggest box office successes at the time, while its nostalgic power has since only grown with the years. The greatest pull of the musical is Garland’s performance of its great songs, including ‘The Trolley Song’ and ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’. (more…)

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by Judy Geater

There’s a Western musical number in one of Fred Astaire’s least-known films, Let’s Dance (1950), where a TV set is seen on the wall, showing a cowboy film. Astaire eyes it disbelievingly for a second – then whips out a gun and shoots the screen. A slightly less drastic method of getting rid of the competition is used at the start of another Fifties film musical, Young at Heart (1954.) Here, an elderly Ethel Barrymore is sitting watching a boxing match on television, but the commentary is deliberately drowned out by her musician brother (Robert Keith), until she switches off – and the message is driven home by a wry comment that he “won the fight”.

In real life, however, the fight wasn’t so easy to win.The audience was falling away to television, and the writing was on the wall for big-budget Technicolor musical extravaganzas. When The Band Wagon was released in 1953, MGM’s Arthur Freed unit, which had made so many great films, was facing a struggle for funding, and Astaire’s contract with the studio was coming to an end. It’s hardly surprising that, despite its lavish musical sequences, including Astaire and Cyd Charisse’s romantic Dancing in the Dark, the film at times has a sad, wistful feeling about it compared to the high spirits of Singin’ In The Rain the previous year.

These two movies are often compared, as both are backstage stories featuring great songbooks of musical standards. (The songs for The Band Wagon are all by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz, and some had featured in Astaire’s 1931 Broadway musical with the same title, though the story is completely different). Also, both The Band Wagon and Singin’ in the Rain had scripts written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, loaded with many satirical references . However, as David Parkinson points out in The Rough Guide to Film Musicals: “Whereas Gene Kelly’s confident classic was an optimistic paean to talking pictures, Fred Astaire’s underrated homage to the stage was shrouded in a pessimism that implied that the days of old-time show business were numbered.” (more…)

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by Judy Geater

Rodgers and Hammerstein were surely second to none when it came to creating musical scores full of great standards – and Oklahoma! is one of their finest. Its 145-minute running time is packed with unforgettable numbers like The Surrey with the Fringe on Top, People will Say We’re In Love, I Cain’t Say No, and, of course, the stunning opening song, Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’. The story of this Western musical romance at first seems very simple and impossibly sunny, not to mention a little old-fashioned, as two very different young girls in Oklahoma at the turn of the 20th century are each courted by two rival men. However, there are some darker themes amid all that sunshine and ripening corn, with occasional shadow-filled scenes showing the way forward to R&H’s Carousel , filmed the following year, which again starred Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae.

Laurey (Shirley Jones) is obviously made for boy next door Curly (Gordon Macrae), but is also being wooed, or stalked, by older, sinister farmhand Jud Fry (Rod Steiger). Meanwhile, fickle Ado Annie (Gloria Grahame, looking completely different from her roles in film noir!) just cain’t decide whether she should marry adoring cowboy Will Parker (Gene Nelson) or plump for flirtatious peddler Ali Hakim (Eddie Albert). What she doesn’t realise is that the peddler is even more fickle than she is. (more…)

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