The Reluctant Debutante

January 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

The Reluctant Debutante stars Sandra Dee as a sweet but stubborn California teenager in the midst of a London season and, as such, is essentially just Gidget Goes to the UK. Inspired by the last round of court presentations for the Queen in 1958, the film chronicles the trials of Jane (Dee), who goes to visit her British father and his new wife, and is (reluctantly, of course) thrust into the social whirl of debutante season. Through the gauntlet of balls and parties, Jane falls for one man–who her stepmother considers below her station and whom both her parents worry might be a date rapist in disguise–but is also pursued by a parent-approved but nauseatingly boring one. Of course everything is sorted out to everyone’s satisfaction by the end, helped along by a few last-minute cinematic plot contrivances.

This film is simply a trifle, but it’s an extremely enjoyable one. Real-life couple Rex Harrison and Kay Kendall star as Jane’s father and stepmother, and they’re so funny that the story ends up being more theirs than hers. (This being pre-Dee stardom, they get top billing, too.) Angela Lansbury has a fun turn as Kendall’s meddling friend. Since the movie was based off a play, the script has a farcical, madcap flavor to it at which Kendall and especially Harrison excel, culminating in a drawn-out but hilarious living room scene where the two attempt to spy on their daughter. Director Vincente Minnelli keeps the pace flowing at a clip, and of course, Minnelli being Minnelli, everything is beautifully set and staged. The plot is a little dated–the idea of Jane dating a man who forces himself on her is treated with boys-will-be-boys heedlessness rather than any real cause for alarm–but the whole thing is just so fun that that’s easy to overlook.

Further reading:

  • Let’s Get Physical“: a PopMatters column on Kendall’s physical acting in this film and Les Girls
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The Man Who Came to Dinner

December 8, 2011 § 1 Comment

The Man Who Came to Dinner is, hands down, my favorite Christmas movie. In it, radio personality Sheridan Whiteside is invited to dine at the house of Mr. and Mrs. Stanley of Mesalia, Ohio, just before Christmastime. On his way up their icy front steps, he slips and falls, breaking his hip. Confined to their house for the entire holiday season, he entertains himself by making himself at home: receiving dinner guests of his own, terrorizing his nurse and monopolizing the domestics, meddling in the family’s affairs . . . and don’t forget receiving elaborate Christmas presents, like the crate of penguins from Antarctic explorer Admiral Byrd, which he allows free reign of the Stanleys’ library.

Monty Woolley is hilarious as unwanted house guest Sheridan Whiteside, and Bette Davis is just Bette Davis enough to play off his barbs in her role as his assistant. With the two of them spending the entire movie sparring and scheming, the entire film has enough bite to cut through the usual holiday comedy treacle. I prefer my holiday films with a little bit of acid mixed in with the sugar–of which The Man Who Came to Dinner doesn’t neglect, with a love-at-first-sight affair between Bette Davis and the local newspaperman.

Not everybody prefers that acidity, though. Popular opinion on this film is highly divided between those who find Whiteside’s reign of terror hilarious and those who find it sadistic and uncomfortable to watch. And while I usually fall into the latter camp while watching movies and TV–I get mad at Leslie on Parks & Rec when she’s mean to Jerry!–Sheridan Whiteside is so over the top, so downright absurd, that I can’t help laughing. And it definitely helps if you’re able to get the jokes. The first time I saw this, my freshman year of college, I found it amusing, but there were so many then-current pop culture references that I didn’t understand, so a lot of the film flew over my head. Now, with three solid years of classic movie-watching (and a little history-reading) under my belt, I actually know who Deanna Durbin and ZaSu Pitts are, who the characters of Beverly Carlton and Banjo are supposed to reference. That makes the whole thing a hell of a lot funnier. While Bette Davis gets much more praise for her dramatic acting than for her skills in comedy, I genuinely do enjoy her funnier films. Her intelligence has a way of elevating any film she’s in, regardless of the script, and I always appreciate her comedic turns just as much as I do the dramatic ones. And when she’s blessed with a clever script like this one . . .

As a final bonus, there’s Monty Woolley’s amazing mustache. I mean . . . come on.

How to Be Very, Very Popular

December 3, 2011 § 1 Comment

How to Be Very, Very Popular is a bizarre little comedy from 1955. When I say bizarre, I mean bizarre. The premise isn’t too off-the-wall for a mid-century comedy: two strippers witness a murder, and in order to keep from getting killed themselves, they go undercover, hiding out in the fraternity hall at Bristol College. (Substitute “convent” for “college,” and now you know where Sister Act got its plot.) Apparently the novel this film was based on involved the two of them dressing up as men as part of their disguise, but why pay all that money for Betty Grable and Sheree North if you’re not going to keep them on permanent display? Thus they wear their spangled leotards throughout the entire movie, hiding them under jackets and graduation gowns when the plot calls for it.

So yes, the premise seems similar to a number of other college-based 1950s films. The execution, however, is just . . . strange. I can’t pinpoint exactly what was off about it. Sometimes, watching old movies like this, I wonder if the weirdness is due to the age gap–sometimes I just don’t get the jokes or the slang or the name-dropping or the references to then-current events. Especially with comedies, I always have to wonder if the style of humor just hasn’t aged well or whether or not it was just as unfunny then as it is now. With this movie, I’m going with the latter. For example: One of the strippers, Curly, spends the vast majority of the film in a hypnotic trance, a gag that might have been funny for about ten minutes in a better film, but isn’t even funny for five minutes here. And most of the minor characters exist solely to incite bafflement. Why does the fraternity house mother have such a salami fixation (not a euphemism) and speak only in poetry fragments? Why is a litter of kittens living in the fraternity house basement? Why does one of the policemen wear a brown toupee over his gray hair? None of this is ever explained.

But perhaps the greatest mystery of all is why Fox thought we’d buy a bunch of 30-something-year-old actors as college students. Heroine Stormy, who’s supposed to be roughly the same age in the film as 23-year-old Sheree North, was actually played by a 39-year-old Betty Grable. Neither do any of the middle-aged male leads look like college students. By the time we get to the movie’s climactic commencement scene, where a hypnotized Curly whips off her graduation gown and performs a frenetic striptease to “Shake, Rattle, and Roll”–a scene that’s energetic enough, it would have charmed me in a film that had done more to earn it–I’m ready to quit.

This film was originally designed to reunite Grable with Marilyn Monroe after the success of 1953’s How to Marry a Millionaire. But Monroe, who was in the prime of her career and hungry for better parts, steered clear. Fox, who had been grooming Sheree North as Marilyn doppelganger that they could pay less and boss around more easily, stuck North in the role instead. Perhaps Monroe could have introduced a little more charm into the lightweight role of Curly than North did. But then again, probably not. She is hypnotized for most of the movie’s running time, after all.

Romeo + Juliet

November 22, 2011 § 1 Comment

After watching MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet ballet, I was struck with the urge to watch Romeo + Juliet and see how it had aged. Despite watching both it and the (much more critically acclaimed) Zeffirelli version at the same age, I still have vivid images of the former imprinted on my brain while all scenes but the latter’s morning-after bit have been neatly excised. (And that only because we had to watch it in English class–the experience of watching bare-assed actors in front of your 14-year-old classmates was too emotionally traumatic to bear.) I was counting on it to have aged badly, in the same way Moulin Rouge! once felt so emotionally resonant and deep and tragic and I cried at the ending every time, etc. etc., but now just feels like a cheap carnival. I am a perennial setter of low expectations.

It’s funny how, at the time, Leo and Claire seemed like a relatively well-matched pair. He was known more for his teen heartthrob status than for his middleweight acting skills, and she was (fairly) fresh off My So-Called Life. I recall her being the Thinking Boy’s Hollywood Crush in those days: accessibly pretty, smart or at least capable of appearing so in interviews, could act, more or less. Nowadays, if you go to the IMDB message boards (always good for a diversion), you get a lot of hysterical 13-year-olds wondering why they cast someone SO UGLY opposite Leo, and how it should have been someone more famous. His respective star rose exponentially after this proof of his likeability as a romantic hero anticipated the next year’s Titanic; hers has been falling ever since she was declared persona non grata during post-Brokedown Palace interviews.

At any rate, the acting was even more cringe-inducing than I remembered it being. Even at 14, I still remember watching it and occasionally thinking, “This is just Too Much.” A number of the actors yell their lines as opposed delivering them. (On the plus side, all the yelling probably gave Mercutio’s Harold Perrineau good practice for his incessant “WAAAAAAAAAAAALT!”s on Lost.) But if there’s one thing Baz Luhrmann can do, it’s fully commit to an artistic vision. Neon crosses flanking pews in a church aisle, Christ the Redeemer rip-offs, priests with tattoos, “When Doves Cry” washing over you from the choir loft–the blend of the holy with the profane permeates every crevice of the film. (This academic paper more fully explores the subject, if you’re into that kind of thing.) There’s not a single scene here that could belong in another movie. Even the “two characters provide exposition in the back of a car” scenes are punctuated by the cross that dangles behind the two. In fact, crosses are so ever-present that they even appear in the + of the title.

It’s that commitment that makes the movie work for me, even when the actors’ delivery is all wrong (WAAAAAAAAALT) or when they don’t appear to know what they’re saying. It’s the same reason that Moulin Rouge! worked despite the 1980s pop songs appearing in a turn-of-the-previous-century setting. In both films, Luhrmann attends to the commitment to his “vision” (eye-rollingly pretentious as that is) so completely that the films become fantasies. Romeo + Juliet isn’t set in our world any more than Moulin Rouge! was; it’s set in an alternate universe with an alternate history all its own. In that world, maybe the actors’ over-the-top line delivery is just how people speak. In that world, maybe Danes’ delivery of Shakespeare actually makes sense.

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