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War and Peace (1956)

War_and_peaceThis film is not Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which I knew coming in so I meant to give the film a fair viewing on its own merits and not as an adaptation. But it was harder to do than I thought, especially because I’d just completed the novel. But I gave it my best shot.

Actually, sometimes when a movie tries to follow a book and doesn’t quite make it (whether for scripting or casting reasons) I often wish it would depart even more from the story than it does rather than doggedly follow the main events. An entirely different, internally consistent film (consistent as a film, not consistent with the book) can be more satisfying and I confess, I wish they had changed War and Peace more.

The film chooses to focus on three characters: Natasha Rostov (Audrey Hepburn), Pierre Bezukhov (Henry Fonda), and Prince Andrei (Mel Ferrer, who was married to Audrey Hepburn at the time), which is understandable, though it does turn the film into a love triangle. Other important characters, like Nicholas Rostov (Jeremy Brett) and Princess Mary (Anna-Maria Ferrero) are sidelined, especially Princess Mary. It’s only 208 minutes (a faithful 1972 adaption of War and Peace is 890 minutes) and even with the characters trimmed, my dad commented that it is not easy to keep up with them all. It often felt, he said, like scenes that probably took ten pages (or even chapters) were flying by in 30 seconds.

The film’s biggest issue is its inconsistency and the casting (frequently cited as a problem) contributes to this feeling. It’s like it can’t decide whether to stick with the book or branch out into new territory. Of course, any time you cast big stars (those Hollywood stars with established personas) it nearly always skews the movie in favor of the stars and away from the story.

For example, Audrey Hepburn does not play Natasha Rostov; she plays Audrey Hepburn, though she does so very well, looking like she was born to play Cinderella when she is at her first ball and Prince Andrei is falling in love with her. Henry Fonda is a strange mix of naive indecision (leftover from the book) and decisive hero (left over from Henry Fonda). But his character is at its most convincing when he plays the war-hating, peace-loving, take charge to rescue Natasha’s reputation Pierre, as opposed to the Pierre who naively falls for his cold and shallow cousin, Princess Helene (Enita Ekberg). Mel Ferrer as Prince Andrei is adequate, but seems a bit stiff.

Mel Ferrer, Audrey Hepburn, Henry Fonda

Mel Ferrer, Audrey Hepburn, Henry Fonda

But because the film is focused on its stars – with space saved for Napoleon, who is played plausibly by Herbert Lom (he captures that theatrical, pompous, faintly ridiculous, entirely earnest, and even a bit petulant attitude that Tolstoy gives him in the book) – almost all of Tolstoy’s philosophical and historical opinions are left behind. Pierre does not seem to be spiritually lost or searching, except at the beginning of the film (which I had trouble believing coming from Henry Fonda). Andrei’s trouble seems to be more moodiness than ambition and pride. The notion of living by instinct and accepting one’s place in life is absent. The film is really an old fashioned historical melodrama set during Napoleon’s invasion of Russian in 1812.

But here are some examples of how I think the film could have departed even further from the book. Pierre’s character is inconsistent, which is perhaps best illustrated by his disappearing and reappearing spectacles. The trouble was that director King Vidor wanted Pierre to be played as a more traditional romantic hero without spectacles while Henry Fonda wanted to try to be true to the Pierre of the book as much as possible and wear them. Th result was that whenever the director was near the set, Fonda couldn’t wear them, but he whipped them out whenever Vidor was absent. But Pierre’s character is somewhat like that and I almost wish they had just made him the slightly more romantic hero (still with an emphasis on being a thinker who hates war…not that Pierre is a pacifist in the book, but it works in the film). But the film really seems to not want to be a proper love triangle. It should be more of a straightforward romance between Pierre and Natasha, with Andrei third in the film. We’re just waiting for the two of them to both realize that they love the other and to get untangled from other relationships. I almost wished for more of that and less of the annoying entanglements.

In the film it is clear nearly from the beginning that Natasha and Pierre are right for each other – they already seem to be in love (and to have a real relationship based on friendship and understanding), though it is unacknowledged and unrealized. This is helped by the fact that while Natasha is only thirteen at the beginning of the novel, Audrey Hepburn is clearly not. She seems to be playing someone who is in her late teens.

But all other romances appear to be distractions. Pierre’s infatuation for Helene, even Natasha’s crush on Andrei (it comes off like a crush). Likewise, Natasha’s other crush on Prince Anatole, Helene’s brother (played by Vittorio Gassman). Because one character (a family friend with a forceful personality) is understandably removed from the movie, suddenly Natasha’s elopement must be dealt with more forcefully by her cousin, Sonya (May Britt), and by Pierre. Not only does this show how much Pierre loves her, but that he is already worthy of her. It felt natural that he should act so decisively, however wrong for the Pierre of the novel.

Jeremy Brett and Audrey Hepburn...eight years before they made My Fair Lady

Jeremy Brett and Audrey Hepburn…eight years before they made My Fair Lady

But Sonya also gets to act more maturely in the novel then she does in the book and since we spent considerably more time with her than we ever do with Princess Mary, it seems like the height of injustice that she should not win Nicholas, Natasha’s brother. Instead, Nicholas and Mary’s romance occurs off-screen and Sonya is deprived of the man she loves for no apparent reason other than that they were following the book for the mere sake of following the book.

I’ve complained a lot, but it’s not as bad as all that. The second half is better than the first, when Napoleon invades Russia. The battle where Pierre observes Borodino is well-done and visually compelling. When Pierre is captured, the character of Platon (John Mills) does seem somewhat tacked on. He’s important in the book because he shows Pierre how to live, but he’s wasted in the film because Pierre does not appear to be experiencing an existential crisis. But the portion where the French are retreating from Russia is also extremely well-down. I almost felt sorry for Napoleon.

It’s Hollywood glossy (which for some reason stood out to me more than usual, perhaps simply because I had the book so freshly in mind), with a more British than Russian feel to it. When the Rostov family ride out hunting, they could be fox hunting rather than hunting wolves (as they were doing in the book). But still, there is an inherent grandeur and breadth to the story (how can you lose with Napoleon invading Russia?) that carries the film along.

 
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Posted by on November 16, 2015 in Movies

 

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Discussing My Fair Lady: The Ending

Poster - My Fair Lady_03In his introduction to the Penguin edition of George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion, Nicholas Grene calls the ending of the musical “a vulgar travesty of the play’s design.” Vulgar? Good heavens.

I appreciate what Grene is saying, that “the whole point of the play is the independent autonomy which Liza achieves, denying her status as Higgins’ male artifact,” though I disagree that that is Shaw’s whole point. He has a variety of them going on, which confuses things and prevents the play from being divided up into neat points. And there are certainly some issues I have with Shaw’s epilogue to “Pygmalion,” which he wrote later to detail once and for all what happens to Eliza and Henry Higgins so people would stop trying to put a romantic spin on his un-romantic play. However, after some reading of the play, I have concluded that the romantic spin is partially his own fault and that his epilogue is not very satisfactory at all and far too neat (but I want to write about that next week).

Perhaps I am just being defensive, because the truth is, I love the musical and I love the play. It is the musical that brought me to Shaw. I am obsessed with all things “Pygmalion” and I don’t think it’s right having one manifestation played against the next, as if they were in antagonism with each other. But in my mind, complaining that the musical is a travesty of the play is like saying the play is a travesty of Ovid’s Pygmalion account. Shaw has completely changed the meaning and ethos of Ovid’s passage in Metamorphoses. This is not a travesty. It’s genius.

But when people discuss the ending of the musical, they forget that there was a movie made in 1938, produced by Gabriel Pascal, adapted from his own work by George Bernard Shaw and starring Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller. There had been two previous adaptations of “Pygmalion” into film, a Dutch and German version that Shaw loathed and thought were highly sentimentalized. It was generally thought that the play could never really be turned into a good movie. One, because it is a drawing room comedy of manners and all the action that we associate with the story – the ball, teaching Eliza how to speak and act – occurs offstage. Second, not only did the play not have a happy ending, it did not really have an ending at all. Imagine, for a moment, a movie that ends simply with Eliza walking out of the room. It would be a bit abrupt.

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Shaw worked very closely with Pascal on the adaption of his play and ultimately was extremely pleased with it, despite the ending that Pascal managed to slip in without his knowledge. He also opposed the casting of Leslie Howard – he wanted Charles Laughton – because it slanted Higgins towards possible romance (something I don’t think people would have been as inclined to anticipate if Laughton had been in the film). But the film remains remarkably, delightfully literate for a movie and Shaw wrote to Pascal that it was “an all-British film, made by British methods without interference from American script writers, no spurious dialogue, but every word by its author, a revolution in the presentation of drama in the film.” He remained grateful to Pascal for taking many of his plays (including an excellent film adaption of “Major Barbara,” also starring Wendy Hiller) and faithfully doing them justice in a cinematic setting.

But about that ending. In the epilogue to the play, Shaw has Eliza marry Freddy, a man she neither loves nor respects. I suppose he married her off to be cranky and to try to settle her fate so no one else could, even in their imagination, marry her to Higgins. I don’t find it very convincing, however. It seems more likely that she would marry neither man.

But when Lerner and Loewe came together to make a musical, they could not for the life of them figure out how to turn the play into a musical. Oscar Hammerstein II declared that it was impossible. No romance, no chorus, a whole lot of talk. Finally, the solution hit them and they decided to base their musical, not on the play, but on the 1938 film adaption. And indeed, when you watch the 1938 adaption, it is remarkable how similar they are, in dialogue, in action, in events. One almost expects Leslie Howard to break into song. So really, the musical is a very good adaptation of a movie that Shaw approved of. Except the ending, of course.

But I have no real problem with the romantic ending, since it is perfectly internally consistent with the story that the movie and musical are telling. And neither musical nor movie is highly sentimental. In the musical, there are no love duets, the word love is never even mentioned, the characters don’t sit around contemplating their love, since they don’t even realize it. Higgins’ moment of revelation comes at the end, when he sings “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.”

Pygmalion_serialized_November_1914For Alan Jay Lerner (who wrote the book and lyrics of the musical), “My Fair Lady” involves a transformation not just for Eliza, but most fundamentally for Professor Higgins. Eliza’s character doesn’t fundamentally change, but his does. He’s been unconsciously softened by her. In Lerner’s words, “in a far less tangible way, Higgins goes through as much of a transformation as Eliza, the only difference being that Shaw would never allow the transformation to run its natural course.” Shaw’s Higgins remains fixed in character, Lerner and Loewe, and even Pascal, have their Higgins undergo a character arc.

Another reason I think this works is because movies and musicals are fundamentally different from a play. A movie naturally tends towards romance – or at least strong emotional ties – because it is a more intimate art form than a play. And a musical must have some transcendent emotions to express musically, otherwise, why bother writing a musical? The romance is told, the characters change, through the music, not through words. In fact, because of the music of Frederick Loewe, Rex Harrison is able to play Henry Higgins as a far less romantic figure than Leslie Howard, because he has the songs to express his feelings. Howard must do it on his own and is therefore slightly softer than Harrison.

I do, however, have one complaint about the ending of the film version of My Fair Lady, with Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn. My complaint mostly rests in the casting of Hepburn. She’s really not bad in the role, but she lacks that fundamental spunk and strong individualism that is found in the play and 1938 movie Eliza. I don’t think this is the fault of the musical, but of Hepburn’s persona. When she goes back to Higgins, it looks like a defeat, desperation on her part to be with him, without his having to change. But I suspect that with Julie Andrews it was different. You can even hear the difference in her singing of “Just You Wait, Enry Iggins” and “Without You” in the Broadway and London cast recordings. Hepburn is overwhelmed by Harrison, but I would have believed Andrews when she said she can do without him. Her return would have signaled a change in their relationship. I don’t have that same sense with Audrey Hepburn.

Sources:

The Making of My Fair Lady – Keith Garebian

Introduction to the Penguin Edition of “Pygmalion” – Nicholas Grene

 
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Posted by on July 24, 2015 in Books, Movies

 

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I Could Have Sung All Night: My Story – Marni Nixon

With Stephen Cole

Part Book Review and Part Tribute to A Great Singer

I’ve often read of Marni Nixon described as “The Ghostess with the Mostest,” a phrase which came from Time magazine. It’s very appropriate; though Marni Nixon is much more than a ghost singer for famous Hollywood stars.

Though you have to admit that as a ghost singer, there’s no one quite like her. Most famously, she dubbed Audrey Hepburn’s singing voice in My Fair Lady. She also dubbed Natalie Woods (and Rita Moreno for the one song “Tonight”) in West Side Story and Deborah Kerr in both The King and I and An Affair to Remember. She was the singing voice of Grandma Fa in Mulan. When Margaret O’Brien had to sing a short Hindu song in the 1949 The Secret Garden, they got Marni Nixon (she was seventeen at the time and it was her first job dubbing for anyone). She was all three geese who sing during the chalk picture interlude “Jolly Holiday” in Mary Poppins. And if you happen to notice that Marilyn Monroe hits some unusually lovely high notes in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, that is because those notes belonged to Nixon.

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Marni Nixon, singing a trio with herself in Mary Poppins

Marni Nixon was not a huge star, like Julie Andrews, but it was fascinating to read her autobiography I Could Have Sung All Night: My Story (2006). She seems to have done nearly everything there is to do in musical entertainment (and even non-musical entertainment) and there’s scarcely a medium she didn’t try (stage, film, radio, television, recordings; she was a dialect coach and teacher), and in the process she encountered many diverse people. It’s a wonderful look at the performance world: the stars, the composers, the music directors, the actors, the directors, agents, musicians, the writers. One comes away from the book with a wonderful sense what a lifetime of work is like – not as abstract art or glamorous jobs – but what it really means, in all its glamorous and un-glamours aspects to

She is quite honest and open in her book, about her personal life (like her nineteen year marriage to the composer Ernest Gold, who wrote the scores for Exodus and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World), her choices, her disappointments and her successes and triumphs. She started young, as a child. While participating in choral works, concerts and shows, she also worked as an extra in movies, such as The Grapes of Wrath, The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, In the Good Old Summertime.

As an adult she did everything from working with Igor Stravinsky and Leonard Bernstein to recording television jingles. She sang in operas, did a tour with Victor Borge ( pianist and comedian) and with Liberace in Las Vegas. She did musicals, playing the role of Eliza Doolittle and Anna Leonowens on stage. She had a solo career and recorded several albums (for example, Disney asked her to record an album of the songs from Mary Poppins) and also appeared on the radio. Also, look for her, in person, as Sister Sophia in The Sound of Music.

She had a beautiful soprano voice; very clear and bright, and she had perfect pitch, even as a child. Conductors would tell her to sing an A and would tune according to that. She could sight read nearly any piece of music, including difficult modern composers like Arnold Schoenberg, and this ability led her into circles where she met and recorded for Igor Stravinsky.

Of course, it’s for her ghosting that she is most remembered and nowhere is there a better example than in The King and I. Unlike with Natalie Wood and Audrey Hepburn, who both desperately wanted to sing on their own and took lessons while preparing to film (though studio heads were ultimately unwilling to allow them to sing) Deborah Kerr knew that she could not sing the role of Anna Leonowens.

She and Marni Nixon worked very closely together to blend their sound. Marni Nixon would shadow Deborah Kerr while she was blocking out how each song would be choreographed, even imitating hand motions, to try and get inside the character. Marni Nixon also worked very hard to match her voice to the timbre and accent of Deborah Kerr’s speaking voice (Nixon’s various accents in films include proper British, Cockney, Hispanic, and Irish – as well as a song sung in Hindi). They wanted to know exactly how Deborah Kerr was going to act the song, so Marni Nixon could record it to match.

The most brilliant example of their work together can be heard in the song “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You,” which was cut from the movie, though the song can still be heard on the soundtrack. The song alternates between full out singing and talking on pitch and Deborah Kerr and Marni Nixon rehearsed the song over and over again until they could record it, each in separate recording booths. Deborah Kerr started it off, then pointed at Marni Nixon, who would sing the more sustained parts, then point back at Kerr, who would take over the more talking parts; and they did this back and forth for the entire song. (Note: I can’t show the video on this site, but you should definitely watch it, here; which shows when Deborah Kerr is talking/singing and when Marni Nixon is singing).

Sadly, on all three of the top selling albums, The King and I, West Side Story, and My Fair Lady, Marni Nixon’s name was nowhere to be seen (even though her singing made up more than half the music) and she had to fight to earn any royalties at all from West Side Story and My Fair Lady and received none for The King and I.

In all, I Could Have Sung All Night was a very engaging book and I enjoyed learning about her life. She always seemed to be expanding, trying new things, taking opportunities, working to improve her art. She had a remarkable and utterly unique career that was a pleasure to read about.

Notes: for an excellent article about how Marni Nixon went about her work dubbing the singers, see this one in The Guardian, “Standing in for the stars – the art of dubbing singers”. She also makes several spot-on observations about how, in recent movies (like Les Miserables), there has been a dramatic shift from the extreme of the excessive use of dubbing (without credit) to no use of any vocal help for the actors, when they really could use some help. I couldn’t agree with her more on that.

Below, is the clip of Margaret O’Brien, “singing” a Hindu lullaby to her cousin, Colin. MGM had brought in an Indian swami to teach Marni Nixon how to sing the words properly.

Click here for an interview with Marni Nixon, about her dubbing and how the studios attempted to keep it a secret that their stars were not actually doing their own singing, about how the stars felt about her dubbing their voices, and more about how she went about her dubbing work. And it is lovely to finally see her in person and hear her own speaking voice.

If you’re curious what Audrey Hepburn sounded like in My Fair Lady, click to hear the clip of her, in her own voice, singing “Show Me.”

 
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Posted by on April 6, 2014 in Books, Musicals

 

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