Monday, 28 November 2011

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

1953 - Dir.: Howard Hawkes - 1 hr 29 mins

Shown at The FeckenOdeon on 27th December, 2011

Our main feature was released just a few months before “The Belles of St Trinian’s” but they could hardly be more different. St Trinian’s was shot in black and white in a mere six weeks while Blondes got the full Hollywood Technicolor treatment and took months to get in the can. Such a comparison is no criticism of either - merely an indictor of the state of the film industry in their respective countries not long after a major war.

20th Century Fox originally battled to buy the rights to the story with the intention of using it as a vehicle for Betty Grable. Columbia pushed up the price because they wanted it for Judy Holiday. Grable’s nose was pushed firmly out of joint when Fox finally won the rights… and promptly gave the part to the new kid on the lot. Marilyn Monroe had impressed the producers with her performance in the steamy thriller “Niagara” - so on her 26th birthday in 1952 she got a big part in a big musical and what became her signature tune (Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend). Co-star Jane Russell was an established name and a consummate professional. She’s been credited in keeping the nervously afflicted Monroe on track. She died earlier this year aged 87.

The story used here was serialized in Harper's Bazaar - the diary of flapper Lorelei Lee was a Jazz Age sensation. Lorelei's spelling was as bad as F. Scott Fitzgerald's, and she began every sentence with a conjunction. But, stringing along wealthy courtiers on all-expenses-paid shopping sprees, she showed a foxy intelligence in matters of the heart—unlike her best friend, Dorothy, an unlucky-in-love brunette wiseacre modelled on Anita Loos, the silent-film scenarist who'd invented them both. The stories became a best selling book in 1925 and hit the Times Square Theater's stage in 1926. It was first filmed in 1928 (silent), but it was Carol Channing’s Broadway performance in 1949 which brought Hollywood calling, and resulted in the “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” we see tonight.

Blonde Dumbness....

Anita Loos was no dumb brunette and she didn’t write about dumb blondes. Her characters were far from dumb - Lorelei may seem to be a stupid gold digger but she got what she wanted - so strike the stupid bit out. Marilyn Monroe, for all her faults, wasn’t dumb either and expressed great reservations about some of the lines in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”. “I thought you were dumb,” says Esmond Senior. “I can be smart when it’s important,” Lorelei replies. “But most men don’t like it.” Marilyn herself suggested this piece of dialogue. In fact Lorelei would not work as a character – we wouldn’t like her and she would be unbearably cold and cynical – if it wasn’t for Marilyn’s clever and thoughtful acting and her perfectionism. She often insisted on re-taking scenes even when the director had accepted them… which prompted Howard Hawkes to say “There are three ways to get this picture finished: replace Marilyn, rewrite the script and make it shorter, and get a new director."

The Belles of St Trinian's

1954 - Dir: Frank Launder - 1 hr 27 mins

Shown at The FeckenOdeon on 27th December, 2011

“The Happiest Days of Your Life” (1950) was such a huge success that a follow-up was inevitable - and Ronald Searle's much-loved cartoons about the riotous, thankfully fictional girls' school St Trinian's provided the perfect inspiration. Searle was heavily involved with the screenplay and this, the first in the series, is probably the closest the film makers ever got to the strange world inside the cartoonist’s head. The main titles are drawn by Searle. “The Belles of St Trinian's” reunited Alastair Sim and Joyce Grenfell and threw in a bevy of 1950s character actors. The standout is George Cole as Flash Harry, Arthur Daley's spiritual ancestor, but there's sterling support from Hermione Baddeley, Irene Handl, Beryl Reid, Joan Sims and Sid James, while cameos include Searle and his wife and editor Kaye Webb as concerned parents. St Trinian's is presided over the genial Miss Millicent Fritton (Sim in drag), whose philosophy is summed up as: "in other schools girls are sent out quite unprepared into a merciless world, but when our girls leave here, it is the merciless world which has to be prepared".

Four sequels followed - “Blue Murder at St Trinian's” (1957), “The Pure Hell of St Trinian's” (1960), “The Great St Trinian's Train Robbery” (1966) and “The Wildcats of St Trinian's” (1980). Launder directed them all but they could be said to be flogging the proverbial dead horse as the idea ran out of steam. Even deader were the two updated sequels “St Trinians” (2007) and “St Trinian’s II” (2009) which starred such talents as David Tennent and Colin Firth… they really must have been short of cash!

Sunday, 20 November 2011

The Shawshank Redemption

1994 - Dir: Frank Darabont - 2 hours 16 minutes

Shown at The FeckenOdeon on 26th November, 2011

"The Shawshank Redemption” was released in 1994 to a warm critical reception, but failed to make a profit at the box office. Finding an audience through TV and video, it gradually grew to become a phenomenon, a canonised classic, and something close to a religious experience for many. Now it is regarded as the ultimate feel-good film - but it only achieves this status by first visiting the darkest places imaginable. It's easy to forget how violent and depressing the story is and it's only by evoking a powerful sense of horror that Frank Darabont's masterful screenplay, based on a Stephen King story, earns its climactic feeling of release. The narrative obviously inspired the makers as much as it does the audience and it marks a career high for most of the considerable talents involved. The cinematography by long-time Coen Brothers collaborator Roger Deakins is a masterpiece of subtle composition. Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins gave touching and restrained performances and Darabont's direction displays the mastery of a man making his twentieth film, rather than, as this was, his first.“The Shawshank Redemption” is perhaps the only undisputed classic of the 1990s, although it's more popular with the public than with critics, who tend to be slightly sniffy about it's feel-good magic. In this respect, it has much in common with the other classics, with which it is often compared, such as “Casablanca” and “It's A Wonderful Life”.....which suggests that it will remain a favourite of the people for decades to come.
  • The American Humane Association monitored the filming of scenes involving a convict’s pet crow. During the scene where he fed it a maggot, they objected on the grounds that it was cruel to the maggot, and required that they use a maggot that had died from natural causes. One was found, and the scene was filmed.
  • In the original story, the prisoners watch a screening of “The Lost Weekend”. Because the rights to this were owned by a different studio, the director looked to see which old films he could show without incurring costs. He was delighted to see that one that he was able to use was “Gilda” - one of Rita Hayworth's greatest hits - there’s a poster for it hanging in the auditorium tonight.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Coco Before Chanel

2009 - Dir: Anne Fontaine

Shown at The FeckenOdeon on 11th November, 2011

There are few names more iconic than Chanel, yet few think of the word as anything other than a fashion brand. With Coco Avant Chanel, director-screenwriter Anne Fontaine portrays how Gabrielle Chanel, dispatched, along with her sister, to an orphanage on the death of her mother, transformed herself from lowly would-be orphan to the epitome of style and class, via the salons and boudoirs of the Belle Époque.

Fontaine spares us the grand arcs of an overwrought biopic, offering instead the quiet successes and failures of everyday life as experienced by an impoverished but brilliant young woman at the dawn of the twentieth century.

Chanel had no illusions about herself. Small-bosomed and narrow-hipped, she once said said, “Cut my head off and I look like an adolescent boy.” In fact, this “female Beau Brummell” (Cecil Beaton’s words) modernized women’s clothing in part by ransacking her lovers’ closets. Early on, as a milliner, she replaced heavy, ornate hats with severe straw boaters. As the girlfriend of polo-playing entrepreneur Boy Capel, she pioneered sportswear separates. Paramour Grand Duke Dmitri of Russia (Rasputin’s co-assassin) inspired the her to pile on exotic jewels. Instead of marrying the he-man millionaire Duke of Westminster, she appropriated his salmon fisherman’s sweaters and tweeds. This film would not have impressed her - moviemakers throughout her career loved her - Chanel did not return the compliment. She described Holywood as “the Mont-Saint-Michel of tit and tail,” and considered its celluloid goddesses to be distasteful.

Audrey Tautou is hardly a celluloid goddess... yet! She first came to international attention in the quirky “Amelie” (shown here in April 2010). She’s worked consistently since that 2001 triumph but has never hit the same stellar note. She was particularly miscast in the tedious DaVinci Code. In this film she has a role to suit her better.

  • The designs and costumes for the film were supervised by Karl Lagerfeld - Chanel’s Chief Designer. Audrey Tautou wears one of Coco’s own outfits in the final scenes.
  • There was speculation that Coco Chanel had been a Nazi collaborator and/or spy during WW2. She remained in Paris and is alleged to have had affairs with German officers. More likely is the theory that she merely manipulated the Germans in order to continue living in luxury at The Hotel Ritz.
  • Jackie Kennedy was wearing a pink Chanel suit when JFK was assassinated in Dallas in 1963.
  • Coco Chanel died, aged 87 in January 1971 in her wartime home the Hotel Ritz in Paris.