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A Matter of Life and Death (1946) – also released as Stairway to Heaven

download (1)A Matter of Life and Death (released in the United States as Stairway to Heaven) is a fantasy of whimsy, romance and a message. The message is a promotion of British and American harmony after WWII. I am curious  to know what the state of relations between American and Britain was that they felt they needed to make this movie. But whatever the political motivations for the film, it remains a lovely fantasy romance, somewhat in the vein of Here Comes Mr. Jordan.

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger formed their production company, The Archers, in 1939, and directed, wrote and produced some of Britain’s loveliest, most romantic, imaginative and powerful movies: Red ShoesI Know Where I’m Going!The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. The latter two are especial favorites of mine, but A Matter of Life and Death could be right up there (interestingly, my favorites all have one thing in common, actor Roger Livesey). The movie also marked the return to movies of David Niven, who had left Hollywood for England and enlisted in the army in 1939.

But the film begins as the war was still going on in 1945. Squadron Leader Peter Carter (David Niven) is flying his bomber back to England. But the engine’s on fire and he’s lost his landing gear. He long since ordered his men to leave the plane, except Bob (Robert Coote), who died. He has two choices, fry or jump…even though he does not have a parachute. He chooses jumping. But an American radio operator, June (Kim Hunter), manages to contact him and they talk as his plane is flying down. She wants to find a way to help him, but he wants someone to talk to in his last minutes, quoting Sir Walter Raleigh, asking if she’ll send a telegram to his mother telling her that he always loved her, though he never expressed it, wanting to know where June was born (Boston) and so on. There’s no music; it’s one of those breathlessly poetic moments with two strangers making a human connection in the face of death.

David Niven and Kim Hunter

David Niven and Kim Hunter

Peter jumps from the plane and is sure that he’s dead. But in the afterlife (Powell and Pressburger were careful not to ever mention heaven; they felt it was too limited a definition for this film) Bob is waiting for Peter and when he doesn’t show up, the afterlife attendants must figure out what went wrong. As in Here Comes Mr. Jordan, there has been a mistake. Conductor 71 (Marius Goring – a French aristocrat who lost his head, though it seems to be back on now) lost sight of Peter in the fog and missed him. Instead of being conducted upwards, Peter is now wandering around on earth.

Peter and June soon meet and fall in love instantly (they really fell in love when they heard each other’s voice). But Peter keeps having what may be hallucinations. He sees Conductor 71, who asks him to kindly come with him to the afterlife. Peter refuses. He says his time may have been up, but through no fault of his own, a mistake was made and now he’s fallen in love. Things are different and he demands to be allowed to stay. Peter also has headaches and June is concerned. She asks Dr. Frank Reeves (Roger Livesey) to help, who diagnoses a brain injury.

But Peter has been granted a trial in the afterlife to justify his right to go on living. He will be prosecuted by Abraham Fallon (Raymond Massey), an American patriot from Boston who was the first man to be shot by a redcoat during the American Revolution. He hates the British and especially hates the fact that an Englishman has fallen in love with a girl from Boston. Peter is told that he can choose anyone he wants to defend him, as long as they are dead. But Peter cannot decide who he wants and Dr. Reeves is afraid that his time is running out and they need to operate soon.

Conductor 71, Peter, Dr. Reeves and June

Conductor 71, Peter, Dr. Reeves and June

The film culminates with a trial where the question at stake is whether or not Peter and June really love each other and should be allowed to be together. Is love stronger than the law of the universe? Powell and Pressburger seem to be going out of their way to show that Americans are all right…a little young, less educated, less poetic, and more energetic, but with values that aren’t so different from Britain’s. The directors are even quite willing to poke a little fun at themselves and point to some of their shortcomings, like colonialism. The jury is requested to be made of up Americans. Though good old fashioned British values are still very much in evidence with their rich literary history (represented by the erudite and imaginative Peter, who is a poet) and laws. The setting of the earth part of the film is in that very British country village that can be found in many a British movie and novel.

There is a funny parody of British and American culture when Fallon turns on a radio to demonstrate the state of British society. An extremely dry British voice comes on, commenting dully on the weather, cricket and how emblematic this scene is of England. Peter’s counsel responds by tuning into an American station, which features a somewhat juvenile American pop song.

But the film also goes out of its way to be inclusive, showing people in the afterlife from history and the present, from all parts of American and British life (blacks and whites, representatives of the British Empire, American immigrants from all around the world). It is left ambiguous if the afterlife sequences, Conductor 71 or the trial really happened, however. Dr. Reeves believes they are hallucinations and the product of an imaginative mind.

imagesAll the afterlife sequences are filmed in black and white, whereas the scenes on earth are in Technicolor. There is a lovely moment when Conductor 71 is looking at the rose on his coat in black and white and it gradually shades into vibrant color and Conductor 71 is now standing on earth, amidst a riot of flowers and colors where Peter and June are sitting. “One is starved for Technicolor up there,” he says. This works in reverse when Peter’s counsel capture a tear from June and store it on Conductor 71’s rose to use as evidence that June loves Peter. The rose goes from Technicolor back into black and white, with the tear on it.

The Technicolor is stunning and must have been even more so on a big screen. It does suggest, whether the afterlife sequences are real or not, that life on earth is where love, life, vibrancy and feeling are. It’s contrasted with the black and white bureaucratic other world, though it’s still a whimsical other world. And although the film begins with an exploration of the vast cosmos, demonstrating how small earth is, it still gives the sense that earth is more vibrantly alive than anything else. And although it was an accident that Peter didn’t die, it seems as if it were fated to be so, that he and June would fall in love.

The actors are fantastic. David Niven exactly embodies the RAF pilot, the Oxford student who interrupted his education to fight and faces danger sangfroid. Kim is warm as the American who has easily navigated the new environment of England. I’ve only seen Roger Livesey in a few movies, but loved him in everyone of them, representing in this film the wise and philosophic perspective. And Marius Goring is a hoot as Conductor 71, a whimsical figure, sentimental about love, likes chess and is engaged in a figurative match with Peter in his various attempts to trick or lure him into coming with him.

 
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Posted by on June 29, 2015 in Movies

 

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Revisiting Casablanca

casa7Yesterday, I had a small family party and we watched Casablanca, partially because my cousin had not seen it before and wanted to (he said he liked it). The last time I saw Casablanca was before I developed my slightly obsessive enthusiasm for classic movies, so I was hoping to be able to see a familiar classic with new eyes. I don’t know if I quite did, but here are the four things that I took away this time.

1) There’s a lot of music in Casablanca. All movies have music, but it’s particularly noticeable and pointed. Max Steiner (he wrote the score for Gone With the Wind and King Kong), weaves in “La Marseillaise” and “Die Wacht am Rhein” throughout the entire movie score. “La Marseillaise” is the French National anthem and stands in for freedom. “Die Wacht am Rhein” is used to represent the Nazis (it’s a song about the fatherland and fighting in the Rhineland – specifically against the French). They are a call to arms and a drawing of the battle lines.

Juxtaposed with this martial music are the romantic songs that Dooley Wilson sings, especially “As Time Goes By.” Since that is the song that we really remember from the movie, the underlying message is that love will last forever and transcends war and hatred and evil. This point is made more clear when we see repeated scenes of Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) falling in love in Paris (to the music of “As Time Goes By”) interspersed with scenes of the Nazis invading France to martial anthems. Rick and Ilsa may not get to be together at the end of the film, but there will always be other people who will fall in love, especially when the war is over and tyranny is defeated. “The world will always welcome lovers, as time goes by.”

still-of-ingrid-bergman,-humphrey-bogart,-claude-rains-and-paul-henreid-in-casablanca-(1942)-large-picture2) I have a theory that it takes one to know one. Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains) may be a flagrantly, cheerfully corrupt official, but his clear understanding and sympathy with Rick makes me suspect that at heart, he is just as much a sentimentalist as Rick. I like to imagine that he had a romantic and quixotic past before he came to Casablanca. He’s just had more years to grow entrenched in his cynicism than Rick. At least, that’s my theory. Because at the end, he proves just as sentimental as Rick. For him to throw up everything and join the Free French is quite a step for a man who “blows with the wind.”

3) At the end of the movie, to convince Ilsa to get on the plane and leave with her husband, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), Rick tells Ilsa that she must go because Victor needs her, that she is the only thing that keeps him going through all his trials, and that she would later regret having left him.

Captain Renault then comments that Rick was spinning  a fairy tale and that Ilsa knew that the things Rick said were not true (she probably wouldn’t regret staying with Rick and Laszlo is far too dedicated to his work to quit even if his wife did leave him). So why did she stay with her husband? Because Rick needed to fight and he couldn’t do that if they ran way together. Love must be sacrificed for duty, which both she and Rick recognized. It’s all a matter of timing, as Ilsa notes when they are in France, when she says they picked a terrible time to fall in love.

Annex - Bogart, Humphrey (Casablanca)_11In the original screenplay, Rick and Ilsa were going to leave together. However, when America entered the war, the studio realized that it would be impossibly irresponsible and selfish to have two people run away together as if there were not a cataclysmic war raging across the world. So the ending was changed.

4) Although Casablanca is not the movie that turned Humphrey Bogart into a leading man (High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon did that), it is the movie that cemented his reputation both as a star and as a romantic lead. And I think Casablanca summarizes his appeal as a romantic lead. He looks like a gangster, he talks like a gangster, but as Captain Renault perceptively notes in Casablanca, beneath the cynical shell there is a sentimental man. He may look like a tough guy and talk like one, but you can instinctively feel that inside he is an idealist who has been disappointed, but can’t quite shake the idealism. He has a sensitive soul and intelligent mind. It just took the studios a while to figure it out because he does not look like a conventional leading man.

 
 

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The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944) – Preston Sturges

260px-Miracle_morgan_creekI love Preston Sturges movies. They’re bit zany, a bit risque, a bit sweet without being sentimental, a bit idiosyncratic, irreverent, slapstick, tender. They always leave me with a slight “huh? what was that?”feeling, but in a good way, in between guffaws.

The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek was released in 1944 and was directed and written and produced by Preston Sturges. He did everything but act in it…though his method of writing the script was to dictate, all the while acting out the different parts. He supposedly wrote The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek to tweak the censors and in watching the film, it seems they must have been tweaked pretty good.

Ebullient Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton) is a patriotic girl who feels it is her duty to dance with all the servicemen before they ship out to Europe. Meanwhile, her childhood friend, dweeby Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken) can’t get any branch of the military to take him. He always gets nervous and sees spots and is consistently refused on medical grounds. But he’s devoted to Trudy, though worried she won’t like him because he’s not in a uniform. But Trudy’s father, Constable Kockenlocker (William Demarest), reads in the paper about the dangers of weddings made in haste due to the war and forbids Trudy from going to the dance given for the troops. Norval comes to the rescue, however, and agrees to help her get to the dance by pretending to take her to a movie.

Eddie Bracken and Betty Hutton

Eddie Bracken and Betty Hutton

Trudy dances the night away with dozens of men, drinks Victory Lemonade (which is spiked), accidentally gets her head knocked against the chandelier when she is lifted up in a dance, and comes home after eight in the morning. And discovers that she’s married! Or is she? She can’t remember anything after the chandelier. All she recalls is that someone kept talking about how everyone should get married. And there’s a curtain ring on her finger. She confides in dismay to her sister, Emmy (Diana Lynn), that she has some vague idea the man might have been called Ratzkiwatzki…or possibly Zizskiwizski. She thought it had a z in it.

But worse is to come when she discovers that she’s pregnant. She’s afraid to tell her father, but can’t find out if she’s really married, because she also has a vague idea that when she got married she didn’t use her right name. And the troops have all gone to Europe. The only person she can turn to is Norval, who’s always loved her and will do anything for her. At first she tries to trick him into marrying her without telling him (her sister’s pragmatic idea, though Trudy’s concerned about committing bigamy), but when he’s so sweet she realizes that she can’t do that to him and tells him the truth.

The rest of the movie is Norval’s super heroic attempts to help Trudy, which go seriously awry, so that the entire town gets sucked into Trudy’s affairs, which become so complicated that only a miracle can resolve everything.

Diana Lynn, William Demarest, Betty Hutton

Diana Lynn, William Demarest, Betty Hutton

The town Sturges creates is a charmingly realized small American town, where everyone knows everyone…except the troops who are temporarily stationed there. Norval and Trudy were in school together (he even took cooking and sewing class to be near her), Constable Kockenlocker knows everyone as he’s directing traffic in the middle of the street. It’s a fairly diverse small town, with a range of accents portrayed by the wonderful stock character actors that Sturges used in all his films, including William Demarest, Robert Dudley, Chester Conklin, Julius Tannen, and Porter Hall.

Although  filled with pratfalls (mostly by Demarest and Bracken) and clever dialogue, it’s a very sweet and tender film in it’s own way (Sturges has the remarkable ability to combine genuine feeling with comedy). Trudy’s wiser-than-her-years sister, Emmy, stands devotedly by her side from the beginning. Their father (played brilliantly and cantankerously by William Demarest) comes across as rather hapless in the first half, frequently complaining about “daughters” and trying to deal with Trudy’s flightiness and Emmy’s wisecracking comebacks, as well as the family’s many tousles, both physical and verbal. But truly, when he finds out the secret, he is as steadfast and loving as Emmy and a very good father. That’s what I loved about the film. They may be a screwball family, but they are a loving one.

themiracleofmorganscreek

Trudy is trying to protect Norval from her father, while sister Emmy looks on

And Eddie Bracken as Norval is also incredibly sweet and loyal, as brave as any soldier in his own way. He’s nervous and meek and dreadfully afraid of Trudy’s father (who rather pointedly cleans his guns in front of Norval after he thinks that Norval and Trudy were out all night together and tells him to marry Trudy), but is a hero…without ever really losing the core of his personality. Betty Hutton is also excellent, a touch less hyper than usual (which still leaves her pretty ebullient), with the added sweetness of her genuine love for Norval as he reveals what a great guy he is.

The film builds to an incredible pitch of farce at the end. Even Mussolini and Hitler make an appearance in the film. It’s definitely a war film. There are the gas cards (Norval has one and offers it to Trudy, as well as his car), wool and cotton shortages, big band, swing dancing, hasty marriages, all the young men are in uniform (except Norval). In fact, Norval is the only young man in the film apart from the troops who temporarily in Morgan’s Creek.

When reading about Preston Sturges, I usually heard about The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels, and The Palm Beach Story, but The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is just as good. There’s cynicism regarding institutions like marriage and politics and small town America and patriotism, but also affection for the characters. I never feel like Sturges despises them, whatever their difficulties or weaknesses.

 
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Posted by on April 22, 2015 in Movies, Screwball Comedy

 

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