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Bread and Circuses: ‘Ben-Hur’ (1925)

Ben-Hur (1925)

No, not that Ben-Hur– the other one. Three decades before MGM’s mighty, Technicolor sword-and-sandal epic starring Charlton Heston, there was MGM’s mighty, black-and-white sword-and-sandal epic starring Ramon Novarro. Both are adaptations of the same novel, Lew Wallace’s 1880 best-seller Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ and, naturally, feature the most magnificent chariot races ever committed to film. News of the 2016 remake threatened by Roma Downey and Mark Burnett- the same team responsible for the History channel miniseries The Bible and its tepid offshoot Son of God– filled me with dread. But since the 1959 film I adore was also a remake, I felt obliged to see the original. Besides, what better way to celebrate MGM’s 90th anniversary than with the film which cemented its reputation for lavish spectacles.

Judah Ben-Hur (Ramon Novarro) is a wealthy Jewish prince living in 1st century Jerusalem with his mother and sister. Although he resents the Roman occupation of Judea, he is delighted when his childhood friend Messala (Francis X. Bushman, looking a tad too old for the part) arrives as tribune of the new governor’s legions. Sadly, Messala isn’t the boy the Hurs remember: convinced of Rome’s superiority, he has grown as arrogant and boorish as any of the foot soldiers who swagger through the city. The two men quarrel and part. Later, Judah and his family are watching the governor, Gratus, parade through the streets when a tile slips from their roof and hits Gratus. Messala quickly realizes that it was an accident, but decides to make an example of the Hurs. He imprisons Judah’s mother and sister and condemns Judah himself to the galleys as a slave. Judah is outraged by Messala’s betrayal and swears his revenge.

It is impossible to watch this Ben-Hur without thinking of its shinier Technicolor twin. To be fair, the film has much to recommend it- just not enough to eclipse my memories of the Charlton Heston epic.

One major obstacle is this version’s almost complete lack of subtlety. The opening intertitle informs us that “Pagan Rome was at the zenith of her power” and “Jerusalem the Golden, conquered and oppressed, wept in the shadow of her walls”. Not long after, we see some Roman centurions openly stealing fruit from a market stall, while another grabs a woman by her hair and shoves her to the ground. When Messala finally turns up, he struts and preens and pontificates without any of the intelligence or genuine human feeling that made Stephen Boyd’s incarnation so compelling. “My friend Messala has become a Roman,” Judah cries in dismay. “And why not? To be a Roman is to rule the world! To be a Jew is to crawl in the dirt!” Messala replies. Boyd’s Messala is a creature twisted by ambition and hatred until he betrays those he once loved; Bushman’s has about as much depth as Dick Dastardly in The Wacky Races.

Messala and friend

Messala and friend

This clumsiness creeps into many of the film’s religious scenes too. The movie is sub-tilted A Tale of the Christ and director Fred Niblo treats Jesus with understandable reverence. Key events in Christ’s life are depicted in two-strip Technicolor, striking amidst all the black and white, and his dialogue is drawn directly from the Gospels, displayed on intertitles made to look like weathered parchment. But there’s a fine line between earnest solemnity and accidental comedy. Take the scene in which Joseph and Mary arrive in Jerusalem on their way to Bethlehem. Mary notices a woman holding a baby in her arms and, for reasons that aren’t made clear, leans over and wipes the baby’s head. Perhaps she was mopping the sweat from its brow? The mother is irritated, until she gazes into Mary’s eyes and apparently realizes what a wonderful woman Mary is. Since Niblo just cuts between close-ups of a beatific Mary and an increasingly rapturous mother, it’s hard to know what’s going on. I giggled. The director also bungles my favourite aspect of the religious scenes, that the audience never sees Jesus’ face. Christ’s anonymity is a beautiful concept, until Niblo self-consciously recreates Da Vinci’s Last Supper and hastily throws a disciple into the foreground to hide Jesus. The divine halo still peeking out from behind the disciple’s head is the last, ludicrous touch.

After all of this, you might be wondering what I did like about Ben-Hur. Well, Ramon Novarro for one. His version of Judah is proud, warm, generous and at first, endearingly young. Watch and marvel as he chases after Esther’s (May McAvoy) errant pigeon and makes a hilariously contrived meet-cute scene still seem charming. When the Roman soldiers break into the Hurs’ home and drag Judah away from his mother, you can see the panic and rage in Novarro’s eyes. But his best work is in the scene where Judah is marching to the galleys. His lips parched, skin cracked and body streaked with scars, Judah begs the guards for water from a nearby well. One of them fills a gourd and waves it in front of Judah’s face, only to empty it onto the ground. Judah buries his cheeks in the dust. It’s a moment of complete desolation and it’s deeply moving.

Besides Novarro, the main attraction is the chariot race. Nearly ninety years on, this sequence remains a towering achievement. The set, built in Culver City, is enormous and populated with the proverbial cast of thousands. There’s a special thrill in knowing that everything, from statues to spina to crowds, is ‘real’: no feeble CGI here. Cameras (forty-two of them) capture the race from every possible angle, including under horses’ hooves and legs and chariot wheels as they thunder past. William Wyler was an assistant director on the film and recreated the race almost shot for shot for his 1959 version. And George Lucas simply restaged it with aliens for the pod race in The Phantom Menace. (Fun fact: Douglas Fairbanks, John Gilbert, the Gish sisters, the Barrymore brothers, Harold Lloyd and Joan Crawford all played spectators in this scene. That has to be one of the starriest casts of extras in history.)

The 1959 version of Ben-Hur trumps its twenties’ counterpart in almost every way- performances, characterization, story structure- but Niblo’s film is well worth seeing. The sets are impressive, Novarro is a solid lead and the chariot race remains one the best action sequences ever made.

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Love and Other Drugs: ‘Burton and Taylor’ (2013)

Burton and Taylor

In the final scene of Burton and Taylor, the BBC’s recent television film about Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, the pair share a mournful tête-a-tête in Taylor’s dressing room. “We’re addicts Elizabeth, you and I,” he says. “Love is not a drug,” she counters, wearily. “Isn’t it? I don’t know,” he replies.

Burton and Taylor takes one of the most glamorous love affairs Hollywood has ever known and pares it down to a self-destructive obsession between two broken, battered people. Which is fine, admirable even- except that it is such a slog to watch.

It’s 1983 and Richard Burton (Dominic West) and Elizabeth Taylor (Helena Bonham-Carter) are about to appear in a Broadway revival of Noël Coward’s Private Lives. Twice married and twice divorced, their on-stage reunion (in a play about divorcees rediscovering their love, no less) is the most anticipated event of the season. But trouble is brewing behind the scenes. Already wary about working with her, Burton is infuriated when Taylor turns up late for rehearsals and hasn’t even read the play. Worse, she seems more interested in him than in the production. How can he convince her that he has no intention of rekindling their relationship?

I was rather sceptical about this film. Lifetime has already foisted the embarrassing Liz & Dick on the world (complete with a rasping Lindsay Lohan), and despite the BBC stamp of approval, I was afraid Burton and Taylor would be more of the same. It wasn’t the garish wreck I had expected, but that’s scant praise.

Every biopic stands or falls on the strength of its impersonations. The brilliant: Robert Downey Jr. in Chaplin. The bad: Jennifer Love Hewitt in The Audrey Hepburn Story. And the best forgotten: James Brolin and Jill Clayburgh as Gable and Lombard. So, do West and Bonham-Carter look like Burton and Taylor? No. Do they sound like them? Sometimes. West drops his voice an octave and Bonham-Carter comes up with a breathy approximation of Taylor’s light, thin voice. Yet the overall effect is far from convincing. There’s a reason Taylor and Burton are iconic: to some degree, they are inimitable.

Still, this is a film less interested in icons and more in flawed people. Bonham-Carter plays Taylor as a wounded child: passionate, mercurial and spoiled rotten. Although surrounded by a coterie of hangers-on who cater to her every whim, she still feels isolated and pines for her one great love. No matter that he has happily made a new life for himself without her: all Taylor needs to do is get him back and Burton will make everything better. She cajoles him into doing the play and at their first rehearsal, gives him a few nudges in the right direction: an expensive scarf and the offer of lunch at Sardi’s. But Burton turns her down (he’s made plans with his girlfriend, Sally) and Taylor is left adrift in an empty room. Increasingly frustrated and insecure, she takes pills that make her feel woozy, and is an unpredictable mess in rehearsals before pulling herself together by opening night. The mercifully cheerful late-night supper that follows ends in ruins, when Taylor realizes Burton isn’t wooing her- he’s giving her notes on her performance. “Where is my Anthony?” she growls, storming out into a haze of flashbulbs.

I found myself asking the same question. As Burton, West is at his best in scenes which showcase Burton’s dry wit (when Taylor is late for a performance, he tells the crew to get the kettle on, and asks for sleeping bags and the Times crossword puzzle) but doesn’t know how to handle his Byronic temperament. Burton’s diaries reveal he was a perceptive, passionate and, happily in an actor, deeply poetic human being. West barely demonstrates any of this- he’s too busy being gloomy.

Burton knows Taylor is falling apart and he has neither the time, nor the patience to pick up the pieces. So, for the sake of his sanity, he marries Sally.

Taylor is unhappy.

Watching their working relationship deteriorate is farcical and sad: Taylor mugs to the audience, mockingly walks onstage with a parrot and actually hits Burton in a fight scene. He shows almost saintly forbearance and tries to prod her into professionalism. She spends a lot of time sobbing; he takes long walks across town, alone, in the dark.

There are a handful of scenes which work, such as Taylor’s first entrance onstage, where she commands rapturous applause from a packed crowd simply by standing under the spotlight and breathing. But it’s a bad sign when you realize you are watching the film for the same reason much of the original Broadway audience saw the play: to gawk.

Like its central performances, Burton and Taylor crackles and flares, but sadly never really bursts into life.


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The Girl with Dark Eyes: ‘Portrait of Jennie’ (1948)

Portrait of JenniePortrait of Jennie is a dream. Or rather, it seems to spring from that narrow space between sleeping and waking, where the wisps of dreams still cling to you and blend seamlessly with reality. You don’t really watch this film; you drift along with it.

Struggling artist Eben Adams (Joseph Cotten) is alone and lonely, not quite eking out a living in New York City, when he meets young Jennie Appleton (Jennifer Jones) in Central Park. They talk and he finds her chatter fascinating, if a little strange: why does Jennie insist that Kaiser Wilhelm II rules Germany, when it is 1934 and he abdicated decades ago? When Jennie wishes Eben would wait for her to grow up, so they could always be together, Eben looks on in bemusement. Still, she sparks something in him and his sketch of her wins the admiration of art dealers Spinney (Ethel Barrymore) and Matthews (Cecil Kellaway). Excited by his success and keen to paint the girl’s portrait, Eben bumps into Jennie again days later, only to find that she is years older. Just who is Jennie and why is Eben so drawn to her?

This film has its head in the clouds. Literally. The prologue features epigrams from Keats and Euripides superimposed on slow-moving clouds, while an unseen narrator urges us to put aside logic and have a little faith. It is an invitation to slip into a world of mysticism and fantasy, with New York as the canvas for our imagination. In fact, several shots of the city are actually presented as if on a canvas- presumably because that’s how Eben sees the world.

Naturally, Eben’s chief muse is Jennie. With her chestnut hair and doe eyes, Jennifer Jones gives life to this impossible girl—ethereal, innocent and strangely melancholy. Jones had a knack for playing bewitching women and it’s hard to pin down what, precisely, makes her performance so compelling. Perhaps it’s the same spiritual quality she also brought to the amnesiac girl in Love Letters and the long-suffering Bernadette in The Song of Bernadette. When we first meet Jennie, she is putting the finishing touches to a snowman and excitedly rattling on about her friends and family. But suddenly, she starts singing: “Where I come from, nobody knows/And where I am going, anything goes…” It’s a thin, haunting sound that suggests the depth of loneliness behind her smile.

While Jennie may be other-worldly, Eben is decidedly earthbound. I have had a high regard for Joseph Cotten, ever since he sauntered into the offices of the New York Daily Inquirer and reeled off some of Citizen Kane’s best lines. Few actors project sincerity and world-weariness with such ease. Like Gregory Peck, audiences feel comfortable in his presence and empathise with him easily. (Cotten exploited this to wonderfully jarring effect as a charming sociopath in Shadow of a Doubt.) In Jennie, he is wistful and romantic, but there is also something alarming in his listlessness when the girl isn’t there: Matthews finds Eben freezing on a park bench, just waiting for her to appear. Eben is a portrait of the artist as a bitter young man whose passion to create is quickly bound up with his obsession with Jennie. He needs her; he might never be a great artist without her.

Eben and Jennie’s story is also enriched by a cast of well-defined characters, and the right actors to play them. Silent star Lillian Gish appears as an understanding, understated nun, while Ethel Barrymore- grand dame of American cinema- steals every scene she can as Spinney. “There isn’t a drop of love in any of these,” she says sternly, leafing through Eben’s work at the beginning of the film. “I’m an old maid and nobody knows more about love than an old maid.” Later, a small act of kindness startles her and her face lights up with joy: I never knew Ethel Barrymore had such beautiful eyes.

Alongside the performances, the most striking thing about this film is its dreamlike score: a selection of Claude Debussy pieces, arranged by Dimitri Tiomkin. Jennie’s theme is Prelude de l’apres-midi d’un faune and there are snatches of the Noctures and Arabesques, as well as The Girl with the Flaxen Hair– all gently lulling us into further into Eben’s reverie.

Portrait of Jennie is a strange film, so earnestly romantic and spiritual that I can’t imagine it being made today. And yet it still feels fresh and new. As Matthews tells Eben, “There ought to be something timeless about a woman.”

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Through the (Feminist) Looking-glass

Greta Garbo in 'Inspiration'

Greta Garbo, one of the actresses Molly Haskell profiles in ‘From Reverence to Rape’.

And now for something completely different: a review of one of my favourite film books. Enjoy!

“A woman’s intelligence was the equivalent of a man’s penis: something to be kept out of sight.” So writes Molly Haskell in From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies: a fusillade of feminist film criticism that’s as brilliant as it is bold.

It’s been almost 40 years since Haskell published her survey of women in cinema—not only the characters, but the actresses, screenwriters and directors behind them—and the book remains a classic, an anti-chauvinist reading of six decades of Hollywood (and European) filmmaking.

Haskell marshals a range of films to convince readers that women have been systematically marginalized in Western society—held in check by a patriarchal authority which the Women’s Liberation Movement was beginning to challenge. Influenced by that movement, the book charts the trajectory of female characters on film: the vamps, flappers and fragile flowers of the 1920s; the anodyne sexpots of the 1950s; and the more ambivalent figures of the 1970s and 80s.

Like a camera lens, it pans over great swathes of film history, zooming in on particular artists or movies to explore trends. Haskell gets under the skin of the actresses she profiles. On the surface, screen goddesses Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich projected similar personas. Both were foreign beauties with exotic accents (Garbo’s Swedish, Dietrich’s German) and the heady air of mystery. Yet Haskell demonstrates that their images were actually quite distinct: Garbo’s was founded on the pursuit of eternal love; Dietrich’s on love in the here and now.

Haskell’s prose is always eloquent and authoritative, interweaving academic discussion with the sort of commentary you would hope to get from a witty, well-informed friend. She is fond of philosophical asides and can be pedagogical, but never dull.

The book’s most famous addition to feminist scholarship is the chapter on Woman’s Pictures: three-handkerchief weepies that excel in putting audiences through the emotional wringer. “At the lowest level, as soap opera, the “woman’s film” fills a masturbatory need, it is soft-core emotional porn for the frustrated housewife.” Haskell writes. Yet she doesn’t dismiss these films. They were designed expressly for the female American market and Haskell uses them to identify the “collective drives, conscious and unconscious, of American women”—particularly the fixation on children and motherhood.

If women are all too eager to accept the limiting fictions thrust upon them, then so too are men. Haskell decries the buddy movies in which male bonding deliberately excludes women, referring to the resultant ‘bromance’ as merely the love of “one’s mirror reflection.”

However the book is by no means anti-male. Haskell applauds onscreen pairings which are true partnerships. For her, the relationships of the titular Pat and Mike and of Steve and Slim in To Have and Have Not are like the pedagogical romances in Jane Austen’s novels: men and women are free to not only love, but learn from each other.

Some of Haskell’s most sparkling passages are also devoted to a man: German émigré director Ernst Lubitsch. Lubitsch specialized in musicals and comedies in the 1930s and 40s, imbuing them with a sly sophistication still known as ‘the Lubitsch touch’. Haskell examines the love triangles in Trouble in Paradise and Design For Livingas symbols of a person’s shifting identity, and describes the films with such enthusiasm that you feel compelled to watch them immediately.

The book is overly militant at times—Haskell’s conviction that the mother’s purity in cinema is an Oedipal image seems particularly forced. However such lapses are rescued by wonderfully idiosyncratic observations: on the basis of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Robert Redford and Paul Newman are “on their way to becoming the Myrna Loy-William Powell of the seventies.”

In explaining how she can look past certain aspects of a film to enjoy the greater whole, Haskell writes, “The fact that I consider myself a film critic first and a feminist second means that I feel an obligation to the wholeness and complexity of film history. It means that art will always take precedence over sociology, the unique over the general.” It is this same passion for film which ensures From Reverence to Rape is not a dry, academic text, but rather a fresh, fun journey through women’s lives on film.

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Love, Laughter and Lubitsch: ‘Trouble in Paradise’ (1932), ‘Design for Living’ (1933) and ‘Ninotchka’ (1939)

Red roses, paper hearts and pink, pudgy teddy bears. Valentine’s Day may have come and gone, but fear not. For those of you still in a romantic mood, might I suggest the work of legendary writer-director Ernst Lubitsch? Sly and sophisticated, the German émigré’s films offer an irresistible concoction of wit and intelligence- all delivered with a deft touch.

Kay Francis, Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins in 'Trouble in Paradise'It must be the most marvellous supper. We may not eat it, but it must be marvellous.

The cinematic equivalent of champagne, caviar and a candlelit dinner for two, Trouble in Paradise is an incomparable jewel of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Debonair thief Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall) falls for fellow crook Lily (Miriam Hopkins), but has difficulty resisting the charms of their newest mark, Madame Colet (Kay Francis)- whom will he choose?

Lubitsch solves the conundrum with characteristic élan. Laced with insouciant humour and innuendo, the film revels in the freedom of pre-code Hollywood: Lily and Gaston substitute seduction with ecstatic pickpocketing; a series of clocks teasingly signifies Gaston succumbing to Colet. Marshall, Hopkins and Francis are a delightful, pitch-perfect trio, effortlessly inhabiting a chic art deco fantasy as sophisticated and beguiling as their performances.

Theft has never seemed more alluring.

Design for LivingBoys, it’s the only thing we can do. Let’s forget sex.

Except of course, they can’t. Design for Living is the playful story of a very modern ménage à trois. Gilda (Miriam Hopkins) meets fellow Americans in Paris, Tom (Fredric March) and George (Gary Cooper), and falls blissfully in love with both men. She cannot choose between them and neither man is willing to risk his friendship with the other, so Gilda proposes a ‘gentleman’s agreement’: she will live with Tom and George- fostering their respective careers as a playwright and painter- but there must be no romance of any sort. Unfortunately, Gilda is no gentleman…

Miriam Hopkins is something of an acquired taste. Her acting was often mannered and she had a tendency towards melodrama which I sometimes find grating. Yet whenever she worked with Lubitsch, she shone. As Gilda, Hopkins must be bold enough to leap head first into life as a Bohemian ‘Mother of the Arts’, yet also bewitching enough to have not just Tom and George, but stuffy old Max (Edward Everett Horton) pining after her. She succeeds effortlessly. March and Cooper are such a wonderful double act too, that I would gladly have watched a buddy comedy about their escapades before they even met Gilda.   

Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas in 'Ninotchka'Ninotchka, it’s midnight. One half of Paris is making love to the other half.

Garbo laughs indeed. Three Russians arrive in Paris intent on selling jewellery confiscated from the aristocracy during the Revolution. Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire) sends her friend Count d’Algout (Mervyn Douglas) to retrieve her property. Confused by the ensuing delay, Moscow despatches top operative Nina Ivanovna ‘Ninotchka’ Yakushova (Greta Garbo) to deal with the problem. She may be as stern as ice, but she thaws as she slowly falls in love with d’Algout.

Part satire, part romance, Ninotchka was the first Lubitsch film I fell for. I have yet to recover.

Despite the movie’s tagline, it wasn’t the first time Garbo had laughed onscreen (see Queen Christina), but it was a rare comedic outing for her and one she clearly enjoyed. She intones such lines as, “The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians” with great gravity and sincerity- tweaking her image for all it’s worth. Douglas is very dashing and the film even includes Bela Lugosi (yes, Dracula himself) as Ninotchka’s boss. What more could you want?

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Love is for the Very Young: ‘Splendor in the Grass’ (1961)

A gushing waterfall. Teenagers kiss, the torrent of their adolescent passion barely held in check.

Abandon all hope of subtlety, all ye who watch this movie.

Deanie Loomis (Natalie Wood) and Bud Stamper (Warren Beatty, in his screen debut) are high school sweethearts living in claustrophobic small-town Kansas in the late 1920s. It’s the sort of place where the neighbours are constantly peering from behind curtained windows and gossiping is not a pastime, but a religion. Deanie basks in the attention of the most desirable boy in town: Bud is wealthy, a football ace and all hers. The pair can’t wait to be married. Unfortunately Bud’s overbearing father (Pat Hingle) has other ideas. Madness and hysteria inexorably follow.

Splendor in the Grass is all about the evils of sexual repression. I can only assume the irony of setting it in the Roaring Twenties- notorious for its gleeful hedonism and excess- was not coincidental. Bud and Deanie are desperately in love and desperately naive about what to do next. Deanie’s mother tells her girls never enjoy it; Bud’s father advises him to seek the company of less ‘nice’ girls. The town’s entire adult population apparently consists of prudes and hypocrites. All anyone can agree on is that a teenage pregnancy would be very bad indeed. It’s no wonder the sweethearts are confused. I just wish they had an ounce of sense between them.

But this is a film for melodrama, not rational thought. Bud forces Deanie down on her knees and demands that she tell him she cannot live without him. His prodigal sister Ginny (Barbara Loden) drunkenly harangues guests at a family party.  And a heartbroken Deanie reads the eponymous Wordsworth poem, bludgeoning viewers over the head with the film’s central theme.

It’s a maddeningly overblown world and it all comes crashing down, like the stock market.

This movie is supposed to be essential viewing. Director Elia Kazan also helmed On the Waterfront and East of Eden.  It was a turning point in Wood’s career (she was nominated for an Oscar) and helped launch Beatty’s. William Inge even won an Academy Award for his screenplay- there must have been very little competition that year.

It isn’t that the film is badly made. There are good performances all round and especially impressive ones from Hingle, Loden and the two leads. Rather it’s the two-dimensional characterization that annoys me: adults are useless and teenagers only slightly less so. I could appreciate the twisted, tortured souls in a melodrama like Written on the Wind because I cared what became of them- they were improbable yet sympathetic. Deanie and co had me reaching for fast-forward on the remote control.

Perhaps I struggle with William Inge’s work. I found the contortions of the dysfunctional All-American family in All Fall Down equally irritating and though I am keen on William Holden, could not warm to Picinic.

If adolescent angst and parental incompetence interest you, you might enjoy Splendor in the Grass. I didn’t.

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Extra! Extra! Read all about it!: Journalism at the Movies

Late nights, fast talking and even faster typing. To celebrate me making it through my first month of journalism school, here is a fleeting look at the fourth estate on film.

His Girl Friday (1940) The gold standard of newspaper comedies. Wily editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant) is horrified when his star reporter and ex-wife, Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell), announces her retirement and impending marriage to a milquetoast insurance salesman (Ralph Bellamy). Burns decides to sabotage their union and lure Hildy back to the typewriter- kidnapping and multiple arrests ensue. Rapid-fire delivery has rarely had a better showcase. Everyone talks and talks fast, often on top of each other, while the plot races forward at a hundred miles per hour. Keep up or like poor Ralph Bellamy, you will be left behind- though hopefully not in jail.

Libeled Lady (1936) William Powell, Myrna Loy, Spencer Tracy and Jean Harlow star in this screwball comedy about an heiress (Loy) suing a newspaper for libel. It is a perfect example of that perennial frustration: the movie that ought to be better than it is. Powell and Loy are remembered as one of the best screen teams Hollywood ever produced and with good reason: their scenes together shimmer. Powell also finds a good foil in Harlow; the two actors were engaged soon after the film was released. Sadly whenever Tracy reappears, he takes a mallet to the soufflé and leaves it in ruins.  It isn’t really his fault: the reporter he plays is simply too obnoxious to be entertaining. Do your best to ignore him and you will be left with a fine, wacky comedy.

Citizen Kane (1941) The entire plot is framed by a journalist’s search for a story: just what is ‘rosebud’? Kane himself is at his most charming as an earnest young newsman. His desire to make the New York Daily Inquirer as essential to New Yorkers as the gas in their lamps is a wonderfully poetic expression of that deep longing every journalist feels. Your work must matter to people- it must be seen, understood, talked about. It must be important, because it was important to you.

Ace in the Hole (1951) This bold and bitter film was Billy Wilder’s follow up to Sunset Boulevard. Down-at-heel reporter Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) stumbles across a man trapped by a cave-in and milks the story for all it is worth. The police, fellow journalists and the general public are happy to oblige. Douglas is terrifying, delivering a portrait of reckless reporting which stands for a general amorality in American society. It certainly cut too close to the bone for US audiences and critics to bear. The film flopped and was only recognized as a masterpiece later.

A Face in the Crowd (1957) Not so much a film about journalism as it is about the astonishing power of mass media. Southern-fried philosopher ‘Lonesome’ Rhodes (Andy Griffith) catches the eye of radio reporter Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) and rapidly becomes one of the most influential celebrities in America. With great power comes megalomania and Jeffries is appalled by the monster she helped create. Like Ace in the Hole this was a warning for the ages, relatively unheeded on release.

Network (1976) Say it with me: “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this any more.” Over 30 years later this scathing satire of television broadcasting still has the power to shock. In fact the most alarming thing about it is its prescience. Veteran news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) is about to be fired when he announces he will commit suicide live on air. His angry desperation strikes a chord with audiences and he is quickly given his own show. It is reality television and the film only gets uglier from there.

All the President’s Men (1976) Billed as, “The most devastating detective story of this century.” They had a point. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman respectively) of The Washington Post investigate a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Watergate, and become legends in their own lifetimes. Freedom of the press in its purest form.

Broadcast NewsBroadcast News (1987) This is what The Newsroom wishes it was. Much as I respect Aaron Sorkin, this movie covers most of the same ground he does in ten hours of television, but with greater wit, charm and wisdom. Jane Craig (Holly Hunter) is a brilliant producer; reporter Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks) is her equally clever colleague and best friend. When Tom Grunick (William Hurt) is promoted to their office solely for his looks, neither Jane nor Aaron can hide their disdain. However Jane soon falls for Tom, to Aaron’s dismay. Writer-director James L. Brooks regards relationships and the news industry with a penetrating eye. The love triangle is interesting precisely because it gets tangled up with workplace ethics and the splendid central performances keep you riveted.

Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn), Fred Friendly (George Clooney) and their crew at CBS News stand up to Senator Joseph McCarthy at the height of the fifties ‘red scare’.  Deliberately monochrome- it was shot in black and white- and deliberately old-fashioned, this film harks back to a golden age of television broadcasting and reporting. Murrow and his crew believe in journalism as a vocation- a calling to pursue the truth and present the facts to their audience. With their nation seemingly terrorized by the threat of Communism, they are unafraid to act as its moral conscience and bring it to its senses. Heady stuff for aspiring journalists like me.

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My apologies for the dearth of new posts. I’ve just begun a postgraduate degree in Journalism and while I am having a great time, it’s quite clear that school work will occupy every nook and cranny in my brain for a while.

So bring up the house lights. Stretch your legs. Go buy some more popcorn and check out TCM’s current Summer Under the Stars marathon. I’ll be back in a few months.

Best wishes,


Shades of Grey: ‘The Searchers’ (1956)

I’ve been working my way through a few Westerns recently: Red River, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Naked Spur, Stagecoach and The Wild Bunch. Not because I particularly enjoyed any of them, but because- just like spinach or Brussels sprouts- they’re good for me. Show me a saloon, saddle or tumbleweed and I usually run in the opposite direction. (Notable exceptions are Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy, The Magnificent Seven, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and to my surprise Ride the High Country.) Still, I grew abashed at the number of ‘must see’ Westerns I had not in fact seen and decided to make amends.

At the top of my list was The Searchers. This film is widely regarded as director John Ford’s magnum opus– no small feat in a filmography that also includes Young Mr. Lincoln, The Grapes of Wrath and the aforementioned Stagecoach– as well as definitive proof that John Wayne was a splendid actor. Of course I had to see it.

Texas, 1868 and Civil War veteran Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) arrives at his brother Aaron’s home after a prolonged, mysterious absence. He receives a warm welcome and is particularly glad to be with Aaron’s wife Martha, whom he secretly loves. When some cattle go missing, Ethan and his adopted nephew Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) join a posse of neighbours to retrieve them. However Ethan quickly realises that the cattle were a diversion: the real targets are the now-undefended homesteads. He and Martin return only to find their home razed to the ground and the family slaughtered, save for the two girls, teenage Lucy and little Debbie, who are missing. Ethan swears vengeance and sets off to find them.

My single biggest problem with traditional Westerns is the black and white morality: white settlers good; Native Americans bad. Even Stagecoach, in which characters range from corrupt pillars of the community to virtuous women of ill repute, subscribes to this. No matter how despicable their deeds, none of the passengers are as intrinsically vicious as the Indians attacking them. The Searchers offers a refreshingly nuanced, complicated attitude to race and morality. In this film there is no black and white- only shades of grey.

Central to the ambiguity is Ethan Edwards. I am no great admirer of John Wayne. The gruff, he-man persona he cultivated on screen does not appeal to me. However even I can see that he is very, very good here. Ethan Edwards is a monstrous figure, a noble bigot fast losing any nobility, and all his humanity with it. He is also the closest the film offers to a hero. Ethan’s pathological hatred of Native Americans leads him to shun Martin (an eighth Cherokee and thus as bad as a full-blooded Indian) and to desecrate a brave’s corpse, an act so disturbing it gives other members of his rescue party pause. A harrowing scene also has Ethan and Martin encounter female settlers rescued from a Comanche camp, the women clearly traumatized by their ordeal. Wayne’s face registers an arresting combination of contempt, horror, rage and fear that is nothing short of a glimpse into the character’s soul: “They ain’t white. Not anymore. They’re Comanche.” Throughout the film Wayne straddles savagery and self-loathing, ensuring audiences are never easy in Ethan’s company. It is a remarkable performance and fully deserves all the praise it has received.

Alongside Wayne, the most impressive thing about The Searchers is its cinematography. From the opening shot of Martha looking out her cabin door, a silhouette etched against blazing sunlight, the movie is a series of paintings brought to life. See for yourself.

John Ford delineates sharply between the various homesteads and the vast landscape beyond. The Edwards’ home, for example, is cramped but cosy, topped off by a conspicuous low ceiling; outside the land stretches for miles, wide open wilderness under a big blue sky. I once heard cinematography described as painting with light- that is precisely what Ford and cinematographer Winton C. Hoch achieve and it is beautiful to watch.

The Searchers is not my favourite movie, or even my favourite Western, but I respect and recommend it as a fantastic achievement in filmmaking. John Wayne is astonishing, backed by a strong cast (look out for a young Natalie Wood), the photography is magnificent and the story remains a powerful indictment of brutality and intolerance. It is definitely a ‘must see’.

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