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Anastasia (1956) – Cinderella Meets Pygmalion Meets Russian History

220px-Anastasia322Other than the basic premise of the movie – that Yul Brynner is trying to pass Ingrid Bergman off as the missing Princess Anastasia of Russian – I knew very little about Anastasia before I watched it. I was expecting a tragedy. There didn’t seem to me to be any way to end such a venture happily, whether she was the real princess or not. But what I saw instead was a movie that has to be understood as a fairy tale (it doesn’t even pretend to be historical), with strong echos of Shaw’s Pygmalion and Cinderella.

The movie unfolds in 1928 in Paris and Copenhagen, where many exiles from the Russian Revolution of 1917 now live. One of them is General Bounine (Yul Brynner) who is in partnership with two men, Chernov (Akim Tamiroff) and Petrovin (Sacha Pitoeff), to capitalize on the rumors that one of the Russian royal family escaped being murdered by the Bolsheviks. They organized a fund, with money donated by certain Russian exiles to locate the missing princess Anastasia, but use the money for their own ends until it becomes necessary to find someone to present as Anastasia or  else go to prison for fraud.

They find a young woman, Anna Koreff (Ingrid Bergman), of unknown background who has amnesia and spent time in an asylum where she told the nun that she was Anastasia. She is vague about her true identity, but has certain features in common with the real Anastasia and seems to know things most people wouldn’t know. Bounine has eight days to prepare her to be the princess – information she should know, how to walk, how to dance – and then present her to all the exiled Russians in Paris. They are divided, however, on whether she is the princess and Bounine realizes that if he is ever to have Anna accepted as Anastasia, they must have the acknowledgement of the real Anastasia’s grandmother, Dowager Empress Maria Fedorovna (Helen Hayes), who now lives in Copenhagen.

Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brynner

Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brynner

Plot Spoilers to Follow – I was enchanted by this movie, though somewhat surprised at the turn it took (I initially thought the fact that she was coughing meant she was dying of tuberculosis…possibly the result of listening to “La Boheme” too often). It’s more sentimental than I expected. I was expecting a psychological exploration of identity (where I got that idea, I have no idea), but that’s not what the movie is about. Is she Anastasia or isn’t she? Anna is desperate to know who she really is and where she belongs and she certainly comes to believe that she is the real princess. She seemingly convinces The Dowager Empress that she is her granddaughter. She even has Bounine wondering. But ultimately, the movie seems to say, it’s not important if she is Anastasia or not. Identity, instead, comes from being loved and accepted.

In fact, once she is accepted by the Dowager Empress, she has doubts. Does Prince Paul von Haraldberg (Ivan Desny) love her or like or her just want the inheritance that will come to Princess Anastasia? Are all these people simply using her so they too can participate in the money or glory in the memory of what is long past? Are people too eager to believe she is the princess, whether it is true or not? Anna is not sure. The only people who seem to care for her genuinely are the Dowager Empress and Bounine.

Ingrid Bergman and Helen Hayes

Ingrid Bergman and Helen Hayes

Helen Hayes gives a wonderful performance as the Dowager Empress. Grown weary of pretenders presenting themselves to her as her long lost granddaughter or grandson, she initially refuses to see Anna. There is a wonderful confrontation scene when she and Anna finally do meet. She is cold, but there is vulnerability beneath it. You know she wants to hope, but has grown cynical of disappointment. Anna is desperate for acceptance and it is unclear whether the Dowager Empress is convinced or simply has such a need to love someone again and recognizes a fellow sufferer, lonely and lost,, and opens her heart to her. In essence, she chooses to believe that she is her granddaughter.

Because whether she is the princess or not, Anna clearly has had a traumatic and violent background, causing confusion, mental anguish and a distrust of people. General Bounine’s motivations are more opaque. He’s a con artist, but he doesn’t really seem to care about the money. He’s like a gambler who likes to control and stage scenes and move people as pawns. The Dowager Empress mentions that he was denied a title before the Revolution. Is he simply showing his power over the royal family that snubbed him? But without ever saying so, it is clear that his views of Anna change over time and he begins to feel protective towards her and care for her, wondering if what he tried to make her into was really the best thing for her.

The film shares many aspects with George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion.” Like Professor Higgins, General Bounine seeks to mold Anna into the image he envisions, in this case as the princess. There is the same master and pupil dynamics, with the same fireworks as he finds that she is not just a puppet, such as when he considers it safer for her not to speak to the exiles who have come to see her and she ignores him and proceeds to act and speak as she chooses. There is also the same freedom Eliza achieves from Higgins, as Anna achieves independence from Bounine when the Dowager Empress acknowledges her and takes her into her home and Anna begins to run her own life. And like the 1938 film Pygmalion, there is the same unspoken romance that evolves subtly without anyone ever mentioning the word.

008-ingrid-bergman-theredlistThe film is also a Cinderella story, just as “Pygmalion” was. A woman is plucked from the banks of the Seine and turned into a princess. But unlike Cinderella, she doesn’t quite go to the ball. She chooses, instead, to give it all up for the certainty of being loved as she is. “The play is over,” as the Dowager Empress says. What she means is that in choosing to run away with Bounine, Anna is relinquishing the part of what has become a play, unreality, an act so other people can live in the past. Now she can live in the present where former identity does not matter.

Anastasia was the next movie Yul Byrnner made after his tremendous success and Oscar winning performance in The King and I and he is likewise compelling here. He’s still intense and charismatic, but more restrained and he and Bergman have a lovely, unspoken chemistry, similar to the unspoken one in The King and IAnastasia also marked the return of Ingrid Bergman after her affair and marriage to Roberto Rossellini led to so much scandal and condemnation that she lived for years in Italy only to return to Hollywood in 1956. She won an Oscar for her performance, partly as a welcome back, though she does give a very moving one.

The movie is based on a play, which has led a number of people to comment that the film is too stagy. I confess, though, I’ve always had a weakness for movie adaptations of plays and I rather like talky films. Anastasia is not static, though it does largely occur in extended scenes in large rooms. I like the intensity created when people are engaged in earnest interaction on a set. The movie has also been accused of being melodramatic, which is true, but I must confess again that I have a weakness for certain kinds of melodrama. Some emotions should not be expressed tepidly.

 
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Posted by on March 9, 2015 in Drama, Romance

 

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Sabrina (1954)

1954 – Starring Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn, William Holden – Directed by Billy Wilder – Screenplay by Billy Wilder and Ernest Lehman – adapted from the play “Sabrina Fair,” written by Samuel Taylor 

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Sabrina is a Cinderella-like story with a smidge of class commentary thrown in, buried in layers of enchanting, rose-colored charm about living and not just existing lifelessly. It’s all about the charm of life…through the charm of Audrey Hepburn, Billy Wilder’s beautiful direction, the songs…even Humphrey Bogart manages charm in this film.

There are two important songs in this film, but the most important is the French song, “La Vie en rose,” which translates roughly as seeing life through rose colored glasses. But not only does Sabrina see the world that way, she manages to make the world conform to her rosy viewpoint.

Sabrina (Hepburn) is the daughter of a chauffeur and has evidently spent her entire life living vicariously, watching her father’s fabulously wealthy employers, the Larrabee family, live their fabulously wealthy lives. She’s also loved the youngest son, David (Holden) her whole life without ever being noticed by him. All this living through other people has so depressed her that she attempts suicide and is only saved by David’s all-work-and-no-play older brother, Linus (Bogart).sabrina-sabrina-1954-8216027-500-361[1]

Her father sends her away to Paris, to attend a cooking school, and it is there that she meets her fairy godmother. He is an old baron (who adores cooking) and he teaches her the secret of living life; living it herself, and not through other people. When she returns to America, she has been transformed: fully alive and completely glamorous. And David falls instantly for her.

However, Linus is planning on a merger, involving his company and the company of David’s fiancé, Elizabeth. To prevent it from falling apart if David were to dump Elizabeth, he sets out to make Sabrina fall in love with him instead of David.

There’s definitely a class element to this story, but not in the usual way. Classism is mostly represented by Sabrina’s father – who believes there is a “front seat and a backseat and a window in between” and David and Linus’ father, who suggests firing Sabrina’s father to get rid of her. The younger generation, however, doesn’t seem to have any class hang-ups. Even Linus only cares about his merger, not that she’s the chauffeur’s daughter.

And so, ironically, it’s not a class barrier that Sabrina runs into; it’s corporate business. Linus is wedded to his business and has to learn to live his own life, just as Sabrina did.

The other song that is important in the movie is “Isn’t it Romantic?” It is David’s song, just like “La Vie en rose” is Sabrina’s. It’s the song he plays whenever he is romancing a woman and it represents the world, David’s world, that Sabrina was living vicariously.475px-Holden-Hepburn-Sabrina[1]

Of course, once she learns how to live, she no longer needs David or his world. Instead she falls in love with Linus, and he finds himself coming alive through knowing her. David really doesn’t need anything from Sabrina; he just wants her because she’s beautiful and enchanting, but Sabrina and Linus really have something to offer each other and it is to Linus that Sabrina sings her theme song “La Vie en rose” in a lovely little moment, while he’s driving her home and she turns the brim of his hat down to look less stiff.

Humphrey Bogart was pretty much a crank throughout the entire filming process. He knew that Billy Wilder had wanted Cary Grant originally and felt that Sabrina really wasn’t his kind of film. I’ve read quite a few people who agree with him; feeling that he’s too old and too much like a gangster to be effective opposite Audrey Hepburn.

thKZ31OO8RIt does seem like Audrey Hepburn made something of a career playing opposite men who were at least 25 years older than her (Fred Astaire, Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart, Rex Harrison), but I actually think it works with Bogart. In fact, because Humphrey Bogart has that persona that the audience knows (cynical, tough, unsentimental), it underlines that he’s living a tough, cynical life and really is in need of Sabrina and her liveliness. But Bogart also does an excellent job of showing that he has a warm heart, as well, which really sells it.

Note: This post was prompted by mild confusion – I don’t think I ever understood this film before. My first careless thought on viewing this film was that it was a variant on the Cinderella story, but that seemed unworthy of Billy Wilder and I had always been rather puzzled about why Sabrina tried to commit suicide. When I considered that aspect, it came together for me  – a story about choosing to find life charming (the film does not deal with whether it actually is or not) and choosing to live – in an experiential and participatory way rather than just existing inside oneself, without feeling or noticing.

 
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Posted by on April 28, 2014 in Movies

 

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Thoughts on Shaw’s “Pygmalion” and why it’s often romanticized

Cinderella_2_from_The_Blue_Fairy_Book_1889_author_Andrew_Lang[1]I was thinking about George Bernard Shaw and his play “Pygmalion” one very late night and trying to explain to myself exactly why so many people, even from the first opening of the play, wanted to imagine an ending where Professor Higgins and Eliza Doolittle are married (my more comprehensive review of the play can be found here). And I finally found the clue that I had been missing in the book The Making of My Fair Lady, by Keith Garebian. He was talking briefly about the sources of Shaw’s play. One was obviously the story of Pygmalion and Galatea, but the other – and it’s so obvious, I don’t know why I didn’t think of it – is the fairytale, Cinderella.

Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison in

Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison in “My Fair Lady”

This fairytale aspect of the story is thoroughly imbedded in the plot and infuses it with an enchanting quality – how Eliza is picked up from the gutter and taken to a ball, where she shines brightly, with Higgins as a sort of godmother, and she becomes something other than she was before – and people recognize this fairytale thread intuitively. And it is so ingrained in us to recognize fairytales, that it leads us to unconsciously expect the story to play out according to fairytale rules.

It’s like the melodic structure of a song. The leading-tone (the seventh note in a scale) almost always resolves up to the tonic (the first note in the scale, considered the “home” or base note of whatever key you are in). It happens so often and provides resolution to what we perceive as tension. Our ear expects it, whether we know it or not. Simply hearing a leading-tone leads us to anticipate what comes next in a song and we are surprised if the leading-tone goes somewhere else.

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That is what Shaw’s play is like and deliberately so. So even though there are discordant notes (how arrogant Higgins is and how he assumes people have no feelings or individual souls), we still feel like we recognize the song and know how it ends. But “Pygmalion” is like a beautiful melody that ends on a leading-tone. Not only does it not resolve how we expect it to, but it doesn’t resolve at all. Eliza just leaves. What happens next? It’s up to each person…at least if you just see the play. Shaw wrote an afterwards to his play to prevent people from imagining a romantic end, but because it was written afterwards and is not part of the actual play, it cannot change the impressions created by the play itself; that overall sense that we just participated in a lovely dream without a proper ending…and I say this completely agreeing with Shaw that Eliza could never marry the Professor Higgins that found in the play. That’s part of Shaw’s genius.

 
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Posted by on April 6, 2014 in Books

 

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