Essential: HUNTED (1952)

Part 1 of 2

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Dirk Bogarde and Jon Whiteley

TB: Dirk Bogarde said HUNTED was his personal favorite of all the motion pictures he made, and it’s easy to see why it was such a special experience for him. I think he does a remarkable job, and nearly all his scenes occur with young Jon Whiteley. Whiteley was a novice to moviemaking but he’s a natural. Thoughts on their working relationship, and the relationship between their two characters, Chris and Robbie?

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JL: I saw at least one documentary on Dirk’s career but did not know what films were his favorites. It is a different kind of role for a leading man of romantic films at this early stage of his career, so I can understand why he liked it. Later, of course, he took on equally curious and sometimes sinister roles for Luchino Visconti and others in the more “international” period of his career. No, he does not look like the killer type, but that is based on how stereotypical killers are portrayed on screen.

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JL: Jon Whiteley is a natural, as is Hayley Mills (who will be discussed next week). However this is the only role I have seen him in. I have not seen THE SPANISH GARDENER. He reminds me of the two most famous on-screen Oliver Twists. Not Jackie Coogan, but John Howard Davies and Mark Lester. Obviously these boys contrast from spunky Hayley who is a bundle of energy and has little trouble taking care of herself. The character of Robbie constantly needs somebody’s personal care.

Chris and Robbie

TB: On screen the relationship between Chris and Robbie evolves considerably. At first, Chris is a bit rough with Robbie (not unlike the boy’s abusive adoptive father). But gradually Chris softens. It’s an unusual sort of redemption story. Would you agree?

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JL: The way Chris grabs Robbie by the arm and drags him about reminded me of the way both of my parents were with me. They were very impatient with me, even though they weren’t criminals on the run like Chris here. That is why the key scene with the boarding house lady (Jane Aird) is so important. She notices he has been through abuse and we, the viewers, know it is not on account of Chris.

TB: We do not get too much of Robbie’s backstory.

JL: From what we gather, Robbie was playing with matches and burned his stepmother’s curtains but thinks he burned down the house. Believing he is a criminal at the tender age of seven, he is running away…and winding up with another criminal that he discovered standing over a corpse. Chris is a sympathetic character we find ourselves oddly rooting for. We do not see the murder take place and are not entirely sure if it was partly an accident and partly a result of Chris getting caught up in his passions, but murder is still murder and his running away is not helping his case.

Fugitives

TB: The premise doesn’t seem like it would generate strong box office. We have a violent killer running off with a troubled boy. Initially, nobody they meet seems to suspect them of being fugitives. But things do get more difficult for them when Chris makes the front page of the newspaper. Do you find them being able to take off so easily a realistic thing?

JL: You say he is a “violent killer” but that is major problem here for me. We don’t see how the murder is committed and whether it was done in cold-blood or more accidentally. He does appear dazed and upset when we first see him as if he is trying to process what had happened. We also don’t see Chris particularly “violent” during the rest of the movie.

TB: Yes, that’s correct. Chris does not exhibit violent tendencies after the murder.

JL: Regarding whether or not the police was too slow in responding (testing our sense of realism here), what I found particularly interesting were all of the scenes of bombed out buildings that hadn’t been rebuilt after a war that ended six or seven years ago. It sent a message that Great Britain still had plenty of “rubble” to sort through and that it was rather easy for certain criminals to get a head start in their escapes.

Two lost souls

TB: I read a comment in a user review on the IMDb that I think is worth bringing up. A reviewer said “They are two lost souls traversing the countryside together. They are two people of different ages teaming up for a common cause.”

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TB: Do you agree with this? At what point, do we take the rose-colored glasses off and say you know what, this is really a story about child abduction? I think society in late 1951 when this movie was filmed, obviously was very different from society now. It would be a tough sell to make this film today and try to market it as a feel-good buddy film. Also I think people would automatically assume he abducted the boy for sexual reasons. It wouldn’t seem so innocent now. What’s your take on that aspect of the film?

JL: On the surface, it seems like Robbie has been kidnapped as a witness to a crime and his step-parents are with the police trying to find him. Yet Robbie wants to stay with Chris. It is not like Chris is mean at him at all.

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JL: We do not know all of the plot details right away, which makes the story all the more interesting. For example, we are merely teased early on who the corpse is in a newspaper Chris reads, but much later find out, after confronting his wife (Elizabeth Sellars), that he was her boss whom she may have been having an affair with. Likewise, we only much later learn, as they are staying at a boarding house, that Robbie has bruises on his body that did NOT come from Chris. No, home is not a happy place for him to be.

TB: How do Chris and Robbie relate to one another? They form a rather strong bond in a short period of time.

JL: Chris can relate to Robbie’s lack of family love. His own brother refuses to take them in, although he was still nice enough to feed them, because of his “reputation with the community.” These two are outsiders who have nobody but each other. They bond like Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier (in THE DEFIANT ONES) while on the run, even if running is not the best option for seven year olds who happen to get sick… and, as a result, Chris must make the ultimate decision in the dramatic climax aboard a herring boat.

Postwar poverty and the influence of Italian neorealism

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TB: Let’s switch gears a bit and discuss the overarching theme. Or at least one of the main themes, which is postwar poverty. HUNTED conveys a sense of gritty realism and there’s very little sentimentality, except in a few key scenes. Robbie doesn’t smile until halfway into the story. And he doesn’t laugh until near the end. But then he gets sick, so his sunny disposition doesn’t last long. There really isn’t a lot of joy in this movie. Any specific thoughts on that?

JL: I saw a lot of similarities to the Italian imports, the neorealism of Vittorio de Sica, Roberto Rossellini and future Bogarde director Visconti. One key smiling scene of Robbie eating pasta with Chris and his brother reminded me of a similar scene in the pessimistic THE BICYCLE THIEVES, which topped the Sight & Sound poll the same year this film was released to theaters and was a benchmark of sorts that many “artistic” film-makers were imitating.

TB: Tomorrow Jlewis and I continue to discuss HUNTED and what makes it so special.

Please be sure to join us for Part 2…

Part 2 of 2

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More about Italian neorealism

TB: Okay, we’re back to continue our discussion of HUNTED. When we left off yesterday, we had been discussing how the film’s director (Charles Crichton) was probably influenced by Italian neorealism. Anything else you’d like to say about that?

JL: This film is quite similar to other thrillers of the period that made great use of locales, but NOT in a tourist “pretty travelogue” sense. The Italians were presenting their country warts and all. The Brits and Yanks were impressed enough to do the same, but we do get some lovely countryside later on.

TB: Yes, good point.

JL: I am not sure if Visconti’s OSESSIONE had much of a release in the U.K. by this time and whether or not Chris Crichton and cinematographer Eric Cross saw it before doing this one. My guess is that they had only seen THE BICYCLE THIEVES, which was a gargantuan international box-office smash.

Memorable scenes

TB: A few scenes stand out to me. Meaning I thought they were expertly staged and acted. Number one, I loved the scene where they jump off the old bridge on to the train. It’s a nail biter.

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TB: Also, I consider the scene where Chris tells Robbie the bedtime story to be very memorable. It’s a clever way to use to reveal some of Chris’ backstory. And I think the scenes at the end are particularly effective– the part where Chris turns back the boat, and when he carries a very sick Robbie off the boat.

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TB: Did these scenes affect you, too? Or were there other moments that stood out for you in HUNTED?

JL: The train scene was great, but we get a lot of those in these types of films. I also liked all of the shots of gulls at the end.

TB: There’s a lack of background music in many of the scenes. This helps us focus on what the characters are saying and thinking. Did you notice this?

JL: Yes, there were scenes with no music but I didn’t notice it as particularly unusual, but that is an interesting perspective.

Camera work

TB: What are your thoughts on the way it was filmed?

JL: There were some great opening shots done from a small boy’s eye level. The first part of the movie showcases Robbie’s point of view; lots of low angle shots, close ups of horses startled in the city streets and adults looking down at the viewer. Later, when the emphasis shifts to Chris the adult lead, the camera compositions change.

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TB: Yes. I hadn’t considered the different vantage points, in terms of how the characters were photographed.

JL: All of the earlier shots focus on Robbie’s point of view with the camera angles presented accordingly. Also we don’t see the actual crime committed but come into the aftermath scene just as Robbie does. Therefore, we can understand why he becomes attracted to Chris and does not fear him as a murderer.

TB: The camerawork seems to change when they reach the boarding house. There are group shots, from more of an omniscient point of view.

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JL: There are also some very nice Hitchcockian set-pieces too, including the all-important railroad track narrow escape scene. One particularly good scene earlier in the movie predates Cary Grant at Grand Central station in Hitch’s NORTH BY NORTHWEST. Chris tries to get quick cash on a coat but the pawnshop owner gets suspicious and gets on a phone in the next room. While he pretends he is only calling a potential buyer rather than the authorities, Chris knows better. Outside the window, a cop is questioning Robbie why he isn’t in school. Like Cary’s Roger, he is not waiting around to find out what happens next.

The film’s conclusion

TB: What about the end of the movie?

JL: Love those shots of gulls flapping past herring boats, symbolizing Chris’ need to literally… fly away.

TB: The final sequence of HUNTED is very visual. The long tracking shot at the end where he brings Robbie up from the boat while the crowd and the police are swarming along the dock is certainly memorable. And things are left unresolved in a way– will Robbie go back to live with his adoptive parents, or will he be placed in a new home? What will happen to Chris and his wife?

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TB: Also, will Chris’ brother ever acknowledge him? There are a few plot threads dangling, which makes us wonder what happens next. It’s a great movie, and it gives us so much to consider.

HUNTED may currently be viewed on YouTube.

Essential: HENRY V (1989)

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Kenneth Branagh had only made one film before he directed and starred in this version of HENRY V. However, he had already been quite successful on the stage, doing a variety of roles that were not just limited to Shakespearean plays. But I think he found some great purpose in playing King Henry V and that connection with the role translates well in his performance.

Again I read several reviews, one from Ebert, and one from a critic who reviewed the film in the Washington Post when it was first released. I would say these reviewers all agree that Branagh infuses the story with a great deal of emotion and sentimentality. More than Laurence Olivier probably did in 1944. Olivier presented some of the scenes a bit sardonically, especially the opening sequence involving the political intrigue prior to the British war against the French.

Also I should add that Olivier was a more mature 37 years of age when his film was made, while Branagh was a boyish 29. Branagh’s age was closer to the actual age of King Henry V, when the battle was waged. Also, Branagh’s youthful enthusiasm infuses the combat scenes a kinetic energy that is lacking a bit with Olivier and his company of players.  The 1944 version is overall quite restrained and a more dignified affair, while this 1989 version contains a lot more violence.

One thing Ebert said which I liked is that while there was no world war taking place during Branagh’s time, films made in the 1980s were much gorier and bloodier than films produced in the mid-40s. Ebert adds in a comment that I think alludes to gang warfare, suggesting the 80s are a deadlier era than the 40s. Some may not agree with that, but the old expression that “men must fight” seems to be one that has significance in any decade. There are all types of full-scale wars.

Some reviewers feel the need to discuss Branagh the director versus Branagh the actor. I would say he’s a bit flashy in both regards, whether he is in front of the camera or behind the camera. He likes to make the material meaningful for the audience, even if his skills as a director might be substantially less than his skills as a thespian. Of course he did several other Shakespearean adaptations after HENRY V, including versions of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING and HAMLET.

Several of Branagh’s films included his then-wife Emma Thompson in the lead female role. (Branagh and Thompson divorced after Branagh had an affair with Thompson’s costar from HOWARDS END, Helena Bonham Carter.) Despite their off-camera breakup, I would hope that Branagh and Thompson realize what a marvelous screen team they made in these special films. We believe it when Henry courts Katherine and finally proposes to her at the end, after he has cleverly defeated the French.

We also believe that these are two very real people having a very real relationship despite circumstances that might otherwise keep them apart.

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Jlewis:

To be honest, I have seen my fair share of cinematic Shakespeare and, while I do respect them and appreciate all of the hard work that goes into them, only watch them when I am required to and not because they are my go-to choice for entertainment. They are like those action adventures and super hero blockbusters that are loaded with endless explosions and poker faced heroes whom I struggle to relate to. I think a major issue for me is that there is often too much effort trying to ”do it right” that I often feel that those involved aren’t exactly enjoying themselves doing it.

On the other hand, I do feel that Kenneth Branagh had a lot of fun working on HENRY V and this fortunately shows on screen. Is he entirely successful in pulling it all off? Maybe not. Yet there is an energy here that is infectious. In addition, his enthusiasm sparked enthusiasm among others in Hollywood and the British film industries to make many more Shakespearian films, prompting an explosion in the nineties. Suddenly The Classics all became ”cool” again, with many alternative concepts tried, namely play adaptations updated to modern times rather than Renaissance times for a change of pace.

Before diving into the Branagh directed and performed version of HENRY V, successfully completed in three months flat in the autumn of 1988 at the famed Shepperton studios in Surrey, I should first reference Lawrence Olivier’s earlier version that involved a great deal more effort and exhaustion… and a full 13 months of production during wartime 1943 and ’44 at Alexander Korda’s Denham studios, involving the bulkiest of Technicolor cameras. Although the later version may be more entertaining overall, I do favor the visual concept of the former more. We open with a set-in-1600 recreation of the Globe theatre with the performers working with bare sets and the women characters played by teenage boys, then gradually the sets become more realistic and actual women play women as we, the viewers along with the patrons attending the theatre, imagine the story come to life. Art deco sets with stylized backgrounds later morph into a you-are-there pasture where the 1415 Battle of Angincourt is waged.

It is important to note Olivier’s unique approach since Branagh both pays homage to it while also going off in his own direction. Instead of starting in a theatre, we begin with our narrator, one very animated and feisty Derek Jacobi, in the backdrop of a 1980s movie studio. Later Derek interrupts our story on occasion in various modern day settings in rural England. This brings back fond memories I have of those great 1970s Encyclopedia Britannica films shown on 16mm projectors in school that often featured a modern day host literally stepping into The Play so that we the viewers can get more acquainted with the characters.

Rather than get stylized in some of the sets, Branagh goes for gritty realism with battles full of mud and blood. Because the former film was filmed during wartime, the battle scenes were a little more impressionistic. 1989 was not a war year and audiences weren’t seeking ”escapist” entertainment, so nothing is held back in depicting the carnage. I read the following quote in a 2001 Halliwell Guide edited by John Walker but I am not sure of the original source periodical: according to Branagh, ”The more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that here was a play to be reclaimed from jingoism and its World War Two associations.”

A key plot point is the romance between King Henry and Catherine (or Katharine) of France, played by Branagh’s then wife Emma Thompson in this version. In the older version, Olivier was saluting British-French comradeship, despite the Hundred Years War setting, by showing how two nations could find common ground in the end. Fittingly, his version wrapped production during the same summer of D-Day and the liberation of Paris, when it was important for the Allies to resurrect France from the ashes of Nazism. In Branagh’s case, there is no hidden message of solidarity among countries here. Instead England and France must keep wars going for the sake of… keeping wars going.

A very exhausted Henry seems to have even forgotten what causes he is fighting for as the battles get bloodier and bloodier. I guess Branagh is simply saying here that war is pointless regardless of what countries are involved, but romance can override any storm.

Getting more to the overall plot, Henry is one whose arrogance often gets the best of him. He claims he is the rightful heir to the French throne, but the French Daughin (Michael Maloney), son of Charles VI (played by Paul Scofield, still going strong two decades after A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS), sends him golf balls as a critical attack gift. This spurs our feisty ruler into action. Henry has plenty of luck on his side, including his survival of an assassination attempt (the famous Southhampton Plot). Patrons to the play in 1600 would have previously seen earlier Shakespearian hits involving Richard II and the 2-part Henry IV, so the ongoing saga of Henry V would have continued much like a prime-time soap DALLAS or DYNASTY with familiar recurring characters who need no re-introduction.

One plus that the later version has over the former is that the dialogue is slower and easier to follow. Characters talk here much like they do in GLADIATOR or LORD OF THE RINGS. Personally I feel the ’44 version has everybody, including Olivier and my beloved Robert Newton, speaking way too fast that you can not understand half of what they are saying. Obviously 1980s video-game button-pushing audiences had far less patience for this sort of thing and the newer version adapts accordingly.

Nonetheless the Chicago Film Critics Association awarded it ”best foreign language film”. Huh?!!

There are a lot of familiar faces in this version, besides Scofield and Thompson. Judi Dench and Christian Bale in his pre-BATMAN phase are featured in lesser roles, but will be recognized instantly in a before-they-were-famous way. Dench already had a successful career prior to this film, including a previous HENRY V for TV almost three decades previously, but she still wasn’t a household name just yet in 1989. Ian Holm will be familiar to those who saw ALIEN and CHARIOTS OF FIRE. The older Alec McCowen, who plays the Bishop of Ely, also had a pretty fruitful career leading up to this, being a star in many fifties classics such as THE CRUEL SEA and A NIGHT TO REMEMBER.

I could run down through the full cast list (Robbie Coltrane and Brian Blessed, in particular, got plenty of praise at the time for their performances), but the main focus here is our lead star Branagh, who is… pretty good… as King Henry. It is fair to say that Branagh is a brilliant director and better at it than he is as an actor. It is his control over the other performances that makes this a good film, rather than his performance specifically. Oh… he is still good. I certainly could not pull it off like he does! Yet there are some moments that prompt unintentional chuckles from my end, like the way he grits his teeth during his Crispin’s speech which reminds me humorously of Leonard Whiting going all out in ROMEO & JULIET with his ”I defy you stars” bit. During the early parts of the movie, Branagh does come off a bit like Anthony Michael Hall in a John Hughes movie with a hair style to match (this film literally screams 1980s here despite its antiquated costumes), but he evolves as the war scenes get increasingly intense. I love his later ”for I am Welsh, you know” speech with a face full of scars and dirt, almost like a Welsh miner who has just narrowly survived death on the job. Yes, I can understand why he earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor (if also losing to Daniel Day-Lewis in MY LEFT FOOT).

We do have some great chemistry between the lovebirds. I am sure Olivier would have rather wooed Vivien Leigh as Catherine/Katharine than Renée Asherson in his version, but Branagh was blessed with Emma Thompson here. I love Emma in just about anything she appears in, but she is a trifle bland here, despite flawless French. Granted, her role just might have been shorter on screen than Asherson’s and even Judith Dench’s previously, although I would have to count the minutes to be certain. In typical Emma fashion, she at least does a great job playing hard to get, forcing Branagh’s Henry to work harder than usual in wooing her.

Kenneth MacMillan’ cinematography is far moodier and darker than the glossy colorful Shakespearean pics of yesteryear, including Olivier’s, but there are a few bright spots here and there. As was trendy at the time, a third of the film is shot with candle torches inside. The one shot repeated in all of the trailers shows Henry on his horse silhouetted against a fire red backdrop, a wonderful dramatic shot. Henry wears red while others often wear gray, brown and black in contrast, no doubt a decision of award winning costume designer Phyllis Dalton.

I must say that I’ve enjoyed both versions of HENRY V equally even if their concepts are radically different.

Essential: ROMEO AND JULIET (1968)

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I first reviewed this title in 2017 and didn’t write too favorably about it at the time. I figure we might as well revisit it. Jlewis and I will be looking at two other Shakespearean adaptations in the coming weeks, so this is as good a time as any to look at ROMEO AND JULIET again.

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When Franco Zefferelli made this version of the well-known romantic story, he wanted to bring Shakespeare’s work to modern audiences. As I wrote in 2017, it wasn’t the first cinematic version about the great star-crossed lovers, nor would it be the last. It was followed by Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 offering which also attempted to update the tale for contemporary audiences.

Zefferelli’s production is known for its realistic casting, which Luhrmann continued. Earlier productions used older actors to portray the teenaged leads and were largely confined to studio sound stages. But Zefferelli and Luhrmann both went on-location– Zefferelli filmed in and around Rome, while Luhrmann took his cast and crew to Mexico.

Roger Ebert enjoyed Zefferelli’s approach to the material. He deemed it an exciting adaptation. The opening sequence contains a great deal of excitement and nicely establishes the mood. We see youth from two rival Veronese families– the Capulets and Montagues– engaged in a street brawl that escalates from an insult to a sword fight.

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The fracas ends, and heroic Romeo (Leonard Whiting) makes his entrance. Then we glimpse sweet young Juliet (Olivia Hussey) in her home. Even someone with no prior knowledge of the proceedings can figure out they will fall in love.

One problem I had with the story when I reviewed it in 2017 is how the young twosome had never noticed one other before the party scene. After all, I reasoned, Verona is not a sprawling metropolis; and since they come from two prominent families that have long been engaged in a feud, certainly they might have had prior interaction or at least heard about each other. Reflecting on this particular “plot hole,” it occurs to me that other adaptations fail to address the same issue.

ROSEANNA MCCOY (1949), a romance drama based on the feud between the Hatfelds and McCoys, also draws inspiration from Romeo and Juliet. In that motion picture, the lovestruck leads (Farley Granger and Joan Evans) have lived in the same backwoods locale all their lives, and they don’t set eyes on each other until a community picnic occurs. Perhaps we are meant to see newness and hope in their initial meeting, after the supporting characters have set up the basic premise.

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Juliet’s cousin Tybalt is of course the main antagonist. (There is a Tybalt type character in ROSEANNA MCCOY played by Richard Basehart.) As spectators, we’re expected to root for the couple. But it’s a situation filled with trouble and uncertainty.

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In 2017 I commented on the fact that Romeo and Juliet are literary figures who have become so much a part of our common culture that it’s easy to overlook just how depressing their story is. Granted, it’s not as depressing or nearly half as violent as TITUS, which we will go over in two weeks. Still, to paraphrase the Bard, there never was a tale of more woe than Juliet and her Romeo…and it all becomes quite solemn after Tybalt is murdered.

During the funeral procession, we are not told how Romeo has been forgiven for his crime. He took the law into his own hands when he killed Tybalt, which would keep him from being honorable in the eyes of the prince, even if the Capulets were able to understand why he killed Tybalt. We’re never told much about why the Capulets and the Montagues have been feuding in the first place. Is this all just an old-fashioned turf war, or were there other killings in the past that needed to be avenged (like the Hatfields and McCoys)?

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The crypt scene, where Romeo thinks Juliet has died, has always been one of my favorite parts of the story. When it’s over, we are left with the main idea that love is forever. I commented in 2017 that I wasn’t sure if this was Shakespeare’s original theme or if it is how Zefferelli interpreted things. I’m still not sure. But one thing I am sure about– this film and Luhrmann’s film both deserve to be re-watched.

As we review HENRY V (1989) and TITUS (1999) this month, we will be focusing on the theme of war. But the tragedy of Romeo & Juliet reminds us that there is also a good deal of love in these plays. Per Shakespeare: ‘Their only love sprung from their only hate.’ Even if it struck like a dagger through the heart.

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Jlewis:

According to my 1991 copy of Patrick Robertson’s The Guinness Book of Movie Facts & Feats, this is the second most filmed Shakespeare work, following HAMLET. Because the book was published before the Leonardo DiCaprio version was released in 1996, the tally is only 49 and may not include all of the short subject versions.

For those who are expecting the best version, this one directed by Franco Zeffirelli at Rome’s Cinecittà and a few other locales (Tuscania and Gubbio mostly) may not be for you since it was justly criticized at the time for taking a few liberties with the 1597 original in order to accommodate inexperienced stars.

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Yet it is an interesting species all its own, probably far more entertaining for the non-Shakesperean crowd than most other Shakespeare flix. It also has, as icing on the cake, a hypnotic introduction and an ending by the one and only Lawrence Olivier.

The basic plot, for those select readers still unfamiliar with this warhorse story, involves two war-waging families in ol’ Verona, the Montagues (Romeo’s family) and the Capulets (Juliet’s), battling it out like the Jets and Sharks in WEST SIDE STORY and the two lovebirds deciding to marry each other despite what their families think.

Juliet decides to fake her own death with a monk’s potion (Milo O’Shea’s Friar Lawrence is a most memorable character) but Romeo misunderstands what is happening since the donkey-delivered service mail is so slow and Balthasar, played by Keith Skinner in this version, is no help. Thinking Juliet really is dead, he kills himself. Then seeing him dead, Juliet does as well. Tragedy of tragedies.

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It’s over the top for most of us living in the 21st century who have seen it all in TV soap dramas. OK. I will not beat around the bush. Regardless of its enduring popularity, this is probably NOT one of the Bard’s greatest plays and I don’t think any cinematic version, whether it features Leonard Whiting or Leonardo DiCaprio or Laurence Harvey or Leslie Howard or any other Romeo starting with an L-name, is going be as good as WEST SIDE STORY, which did take out a few of the kinks in its modernized adaptation.

Yet I do think Zeffirelli’s version is the best looking of the bunch, not just in Pasquale De Santis’ cinematography (if too infatuated with the then trendy zoom shot), but also Danilo Donati’s Oscar winning costumes that at least look like they come from the Renaissance era of ol’ Verona.

Speaking of clothes…

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When it premiered as a Royal Film Performance at London’s Odeon on March 4, 1968, Queen Elizabeth, hubbie Philip and 19-year old Charles were there shaking hands with everybody and the whole affair was one great swinging London post-Mod fashion show.

Celebrity attendee Joan Collins was showcased by the media “relaxing” that day in her knee-high stockings and star Olivia Hussey sported Go-Go boots, but both ended up overdressed in long gowns for actual movie night. A pre-THORN BIRDS Richard Chamberlain was there and apparently could not make up his mind whether to wear a Nehru jacket or the dandy neck frills, so his tailor compromised.

Any discussion of R&J ’68 must begin with the two stars.

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Often compared to a younger Zac Efron, this version’s Romeo, Leonard Whiting, celebrated his 17th birthday shortly after filming began in June 1967 and does give a surprisingly mature performance, even if he struggles to hold still during his “death” scene. Then again, the director was far more interested in his looks than his performance, posing him in all of the best lighting and framing worthy of Josef von Sternberg’s Marlene Dietrich.

Although there were expectations of a fruitful on-screen career, Leonard’s did not pan out quite as successfully as his Juliet, Olivia Hussey, who remained in the public eye for decades with successes as JESUS OF NAZARETH (also Zeffirelli), DEATH ON THE NILE and many trendy horror flicks. Both stars did their share of animated cartoon voice-work on TV, however, and even reunited for SOCIAL SUICIDE (2015).

Leonard did embark on an interesting, if offbeat, recording career that included some Alan Parsons projects and a curious echo embedded rendition of “You Don’t Know Me”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CmuNnd1I6As That song sums him up in a nutshell. We may never quite know him, but he is a very lovable guy and a key reason many still watch this film after five decades.

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He also flaunts his bare behind on screen, but so did Alan Bates, Robert Forster, Charlton Heston and Christopher Jones around this same time period…and Joe Dellesandro exposed far more in FLESH, as did Robert and Alan again not long after.

This brings me to the infamous, but brief, nude scenes. It was reported by Olivia in later interviews that she was sometimes considered too young to watch her own performance. The MPAA ratings only went into effect a month after the film premiered in the U.S. in October of ’68 and there was some hesitation as to whether to rate it “R” or “M,” the fore-runner to “PG.” Since teenagers were already flocking to it in droves, the lower rating was ultimately used. Two decades later, ABC’s TV series THE WONDER YEARS featured a nostalgic scene with the characters of Kevin and Winnie attending with no fuss.

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Of course, sex always sells. Especially with teenagers. Leonard and Olivia were in their altogether gracing the cover of the soundtrack album that year, although I doubt anybody raised an eyebrow with John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s TWO VIRGINS competing in records stores at the same time. It featured redone dialogue by the cast that wasn’t exactly like the original movie track, along with Rota Nino’s repetitive, but most memorable, score. Nino’s subsequent score for THE GODFATHER was equally popular, but the R&J theme does have the slight edge since it was re-recorded by Henry Mancini in a version that knocked The Beatles’ “Get Back” off of the #1 spot on Billboard in June 1969.

Director Zeffirelli may have been closeted, but he was unashamed in emphasizing the subdued “gay” elements of the play and film, as has been discussed among scholars over the years. Namely this involves Mercutio’s obsession over Romeo that results in passionate jealousy.

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John McEnery’s performance may not come off as particularly “gay,” but one senses something curious going on with how he reacts whenever Romeo is not in his viewing range and also how Bruce Robinson’s Benvolio, Romeo’s cousin, tags along almost as if he is competing for Mercutio’s affections. It is all still tame enough for a then teenage “M” rating and I doubt most viewers even noticed, but Zeffirelli himself was quite bold in discussing all of this in interviews of the time.

This contrasts sharply with the biopic fantasy SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, a make-believe recreation of how R&J was first written and performed with mostly bogus historical characters like Gwyneth Paltrow’s Viola keeping Joseph Fiennes’ William Shakespeare on the “straight and narrow.”

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There has always been debate regarding Shakespeare’s private life. Was he bisexual as many theorize? Regardless, he certainly did not try to keep all of his characters strictly heterosexual as those in more restricted times since tried to make them all out to be.

I think the Hollywood mainstream was far more timid in 1998 than in 1968 about the bottom line with big budget productions, more worried about how such a film would succeed in a conservative U.S. small town. Earlier, the movie industry was pushing all buttons and audiences were eager to see what next production would be more provocative than the last.

Both film and play display more focus on Juliet’s family more than Romeo’s. Granted, the former clan is the far more colorful bunch, with Paul Hardwick and Natasha Parry as her parents and Michael York as cousin Tybalt (in his second Zeffirelli Shakespeare film, following TAMING OF THE SHREW) all chewing up the scenery until there are no more sets left standing.

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One suspects that Romeo’s parents (who are hardly seen on screen in the same frame as their son, being played by the far more subdued Antonio Pierfederici and Esmeralda Ruspoli) may have been perfectly fine with the love-match. It was just Mercutio who had all of the issues.

There are other characters of interest, most notably Juliet’s nurse played by Pat Heywood. She may be too cockney accented for her part but I feel she deserved her British Academy Award nomination in the supporting category.

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The rest of the cast are…OK, if irrelevant: the prince-in-charge trying to keep Verona from destroying itself is poker-faced Robert Stephens who is entitled to make a moral sermon at the end; Roberto Bisacco as Paris (the fellow whom Juliet doesn’t want to marry but her parents do); Richard Warwick (more famous in Lindsay Anderson’s IF…); Dyson Lovell (who later handled Zeffirelli’s HAMLET); and Roberto Antonelli.

This is one of those movies I had mixed reactions to as a teenager seeing it on VHS, but it gets better and better over time with repeated viewings. I am OK with the ’96 re-do set in more modern times, but it does display so many nineties cinema flaws of too much self-awareness and smugness. The earlier two versions I saw ages ago show their age due to older casts.

This one works more successfully than the others because the whole tragedy of the piece is built on teenage passion that doesn’t tolerate waiting and waiting, but needs it all now! Now! Now! Note the scene of the donkey carrying “snail mail” to Romeo and Balthasar galloping past him, kicking up the dust. Had he and the over-reactive Romeo not jumped right away and waited patiently to see what happened next, two deaths would have been avoided. Teens love this film because it reflects themselves in all of their haste, but it also understands their passion.

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As the Rota Nino and Walter Eugene lyrics read “What is a youth? Impetuous fire.”

Paramount made a fortune with it and I suspect that this was a reason why the equally over the top LOVE STORY was green-lit… and also became a blockbuster.

Essential: THE STEPFORD WIVES (1975)

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TopBilled:

I’ve gotten into the habit of looking up Roger Ebert’s old reviews, then seeing what Pauline Kael has written. I do this before I sit down to watch something and attempt to review it myself. Maybe because I see these two critics as guides, and because I am curious if I will arrive at the same conclusions they did.

Ebert’s review on the 1975 original has an interesting section where he says Bryan Forbes directs the story in too gloomy a fashion.

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He feels that it would have had more bite as social satire in the hands of someone like Woody Allen. Perhaps. But does that mean Diane Keaton would have played Katharine Ross’ part?

I think Ebert was impressed with the original concept, developed by writer Ira Levin. But Ebert was not enamored with Forbes’ interpretation. The dust jacket for the book, which was published in 1972, does play up the story’s menace and horror; and it predicts the term Stepford Wife “may well become part of our vocabulary.” That seems like an ominous warning.

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Despite its intriguing main ideas, Ebert doesn’t think Forbes’ film really gels or works as a piece of thoughtful entertainment. Maybe he’s right. On the other hand, his review of Frank Oz’s 2004 remake indicates he’s much happier with that version, since the remake downplays some of the macabre elements and presents a dark comedic angle. I guess Ebert feels this material works best as camp. Not as a dramatic, somber meditation on the role of women in suburbia.

Meanwhile Kael has a unique view of the 1975 original. She labels it “women’s lib gothic.” She views the horror in the story as a basic catalyst for women if it helps to reflect the grotesque reality of their lives. But for some reason, Kael can’t fully embrace the film. Is it a bit too self-conscious a tale for an educated woman to watch? 

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Ultimately Kael seems as disappointed as Ebert in Forbes’ version, though not for the same reasons. She feels Stepford and its wives are too tasteful, too tame. I’m not sure…did she want them to be wilder, more radical? A bit less dolled up?

Kael notes that the main characters are presented as ‘deadheads’ in a zombified suburbia. She goes on to say these strange goddesses are waxed and antiseptic. Wonder what she thought about Mary Hartman dealing with waxy yellow build-up on Norman Lear’s classic sitcom which premiered a year later…

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Finally, Kael believes Forbes and screenwriter William Goldman have presented a thesis that is too literal. And my guess is she’d probably agree with Ebert that Woody Allen might have given it a cheeky treatment and that would have been better.

Speaking of cheeky tales…writer/creator Marc Cherry was once asked how he came up with the title for his long-running TV hit Desperate Housewives.

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He said it came from a statement his mother had made. She mentioned a less-informed, less-empowered time as a wife and mother. She suggested that she and the other wives in their neighborhood didn’t always survive. They were desperate for a chance to live freely, desperate to be defined by something other than what their husbands told them to do or be, and desperate not to be trapped in a world of mass consumerism or class-conscious rubbish.

The first episode of Desperate Housewives depicts the suicide of one such suburban woman (played by Brenda Strong) who goes on to narrate the rest of the series as a dead woman. In death she has an omniscient view of the robotic life her female counterparts endure in their affluent community. She is able to find the twisted humor in what is otherwise a most untenable situation.

***

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Jlewis:

Part 1

Even if you haven’t seen the original film featuring Katharine Ross, its trio of made for TV sequels and/or its lackluster reboot with Nicole Kidman, you are probably familiar with the title. Over the decades, it has become a semi-derogatory term to describe any happy housewife committed to kid-raising, proper cooking and spotless home maintenance. Not that there is anything wrong with that, as long as you are happy doing it and mainstream society can be accepting of both genders playing that role.

Unfortunately so many women alive between World War II and the Nixon years were stuck with that unsatisfying, unpaid job over so many others. It got so bad at one point that many even found it challenging merely to apply for a credit card at a bank without a husband being present. Naturally, once enough feminist marches took the public by storm in that all-important year of 1970, an entire generation was ready to have HER voice heard.

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The original movie came out when this movement was in full swing with a particular push for an Equal Rights Amendment that, unfortunately, still hasn’t been completely achieved law-wise. The February 26, 1975 issue of the New York Times reported that executives at Columbia (distributor of the movie with Palomar International) held a special screening for over a hundred prominent feminists of the period, including Betty Friedan. Most of them didn’t find this dark comedy thriller entertaining.

I am curious what the great anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly thought of it. After all, it was rather insulting to her own personal fantasy of perfect womanhood. Not that she ever practiced what she preached, touring the nation with huge Trump-sized rallies and her husband tagging along as a far less talkative accessory.

Ira Levin (a man, of course) wrote both the 1972 novel and ROSEMARY’S BABY five years earlier, which was made into an even bigger hit movie. Both share a theme of ”Don’t trust your husband while you sleep.” He may make you have sex with Satan, while under the influence of drugged chocolate mousse and with the nosy neighbors helping. Or create a robot duplicate of you, also with the neighborhood helping.

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Roman Polanski found his perfect Rosemary in Mia Farrow to embody the all-clueless, all-accepting housewife in the earlier film, while Bryan Forbes found his own muse in this one with Katharine Ross. You only have to watch her in her two most famous early roles of the sixties in THE GRADUATE and BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID to understand why.

Key quotes: ”Benjamin, are you having an affair?” (I’ll say!) ”Of anything you ask of me, I will do…except one thing. I won’t watch you die.” In other words, Ross is great at playing women who will not question the motives of men…at first. Then her characters get wise to the situation and we, the viewers, root for her to fight back.

Getting to the overall plot here, there is a fun early scene in the big city…”Daddy. I just saw a man carrying a naked lady.’ Actually this is either a mannequin for a store front or a cast for a future robot. Daddy repliesm ”That is why we are moving to Stepford.”

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This scene involving actor Peter Masterson, as husband Walter Eberhart to Ross’ Joanna, is interesting on two levels. Viewers watching this for the first time who are unspoiled would either agree or disagree on political and sociological grounds: many move to the suburbs to avoid all of the big city ”sins” so that they can raise their children with more wholesome, Christian ”family values.’ It also serves as a spoiler: Walter has a definite reason to be moving to Stepford Village, Connecticut and even states so in front of his unknowing wife.

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Side note: Mary Stuart Masterson plays one of the two daughters, being the real life daughter of Peter off screen. She turned eight during the summer this was filmed and, after graduating from high school, enjoyed a successful career on camera like daddy in such hits like FRIED GREEN TOMATOES. In that one, she famously played a tomboy, Idgie, who has no interest in men but loves her friend Ruth intensely, something that would not be accepted in Stepford!

Walter conning Joanna to like the new surroundings: ”You don’t even have to lock your doors in Stepford.”

Part 2

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In central Florida, there is a place called The Villages which became the topic of a popular documentary this past year. This is where many aging baby boomers retire in an environment reminding them of Leave It to Beaver. Yet even that area is nothing like Stepford. 

Underneath the silly nature of the story, some hard questions are being asked about social conformity. INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, both the original and the remake that followed this movie a few years later, resemble it in many ways. Although aliens are the culprits for making humans less human, the original filmed in 1955 had much to say about McCarthyism and its impact on Cold War America.

With the citizens all conforming to a strict standard, there is not only a loss of individuality but also an overall lack of emotional display. Nobody sheds tears when somebody gets injured, as in a car accident at the supermarket. The situation merely gets…taken care of.

The Nazi government in power tried to make German citizens conform and carefully removed those who didn’t belong. The United States is no different than Germany in what could potentially happen. Note how everybody is of the same race in Stepford, all are heterosexual with children and all drive brand new station wagons. (This reminds me that I flunked my first drivers test at age 17 by trying to parallel park in a ’75 Plymouth station wagon that strongly resembled many of these Fords.) Also note how relaxed the citizens are made to feel so that they can adjust to those keeping them under their power.

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This brings me to Dale Coba (Patrick O’Neal), head of the Men’s Association. He resembles the character of Roman Castevet in ROSEMARY’S BABY in getting our heroine to simply accept the changes taking place and not to fight it so much. Fighting for your sense of individuality only adds unnecessary stress when you know it won’t hurt in the end.

There is also a blink and you miss it scene with Dale wearing priest-like clothes (suggesting that organized religion can be used to tranquilize people as well as biochemical drugs?) and soothing an upset Ed Wimperis (Franklin Cover) who is less adapting at first to the changes than the other men. The destruction of his wife Charmaine’s (Tina Louise) tennis court and the building of a swimming pool becomes his therapy of sorts.

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Yes, it is fitting that this film was shot in 1974 and released in ’75 just before the third decade anniversary of the Third Reich’s collapse. There is even a scene referencing history among the neighborhood ladies that is interesting. Charmaine, who has yet to be conformed/replaced, comments on a ”German Virgo” whom she initially hires as a housekeeper before her own husband decides that he no longer needs one. So ”that is how we won the war,” Bobbie Markowe (Paula Prentiss) jokes.

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Bobbie and Charmaine are initially Joanna’s outlets to the outside world and they too have ”dabbled” in women’s lib despite their husbands’ disapproval.

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Other ladies in various stages of conforming/replacement to I’ll-just-die-if-I-don’t-get-this-recipe Ajax Country include Nanette Newman as the very ominous Carol Van Sant, Toni Reid, Carole Mallory, Barbara Rucker and Judith Baldwin (ties with Tina Louise in her later role as Ginger in Gilligan’s Island TV reboots).

At one point, they and Joanna’s trio have a ladies group that suddenly switches from marriage complaints to commercial endorsements for various cleaning supplies. This is where the film gets quite fun to watch with the actresses spoofing the empty consumerism of the era.

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Sometimes art, a symbol of individualistic expression, can be a contributing factor to a conformist fascist environment. Joanna is a photographer who expresses herself in pictures even if the galleries are curiously united in not accepting her work (i.e. she wants to be remembered after she has passed on). At her first meeting with the Men’s Association, she is the subject of an attending artist capturing her likeness on paper. Yet this is not just something to hang on her wall.

We also have an aging ladies journalist (I think it is unbilled Martha Greenhouse) interviewing Joanna in a key early scene who represents the media that keeps the local public informed. That is, what those in power want the local public to be informed about. In a later comical scene also involving Bobbie, she insists that their community used to be “liberal” on account of having the first Chinese restaurant in that portion of the state.

Much of the novelty of this movie has faded but it is still an interesting artifact. Lots of visual appeal abound, even if much of it is no different than other thrillers. The drowned mouse in the park pond, shown just before Joanna meets a shrink (Carol Eve Rossen), stood out to me. Could it be foreshadowing of Joanna’s doom or a comment on the local water?

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Then we get the usual Victorian style house full of mystery that crops up frequently in such sagas and the rain that makes Joanna look like a drowned mouse during her final climax (a reversal of Dustin Hoffman being the drenched one in an earlier climax of a Katharine Ross film).

While the film gets sluggish in parts, it doesn’t address some interesting side stories that may have been profiled in more detail on the printed page. For example, Joanna had a past with a man (Robert Fields) whom she loved more than her husband. She and Bobbie use him to test the local water at a chemical lab and he writes her a note acknowledging that both of them are not happy with their current marriages.

Fred the dog is kidnapped but we do see him reappear later, so that curio at least gets resolved. However I still question why the daughters Amy and Kim don’t come off as being just as curious as Mother about all of the strange occurrences. On the plus side, it is easy to understand why Walter is important to the community: he’s a lawyer working on death cases…and, of course, the community needs to deal with those who are getting replaced by the latest technology.

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What succeeds here is Katharine Ross’ performance. As mentioned above, she is the right actress for the part. Nicole Kidman in the later version was far too world weary and all knowing to play such a role as successfully.

There is no happy ending here except that…everybody at least looks happy and very, very sedate at the end of this.

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The Stepford ladies in the final scene shop for groceries as if they are in the ballroom of the Lawrence Welk show. Hey… don’t knock that show. I watched a lot of episodes as a kid with my grandparents since it had a calming influence on them much like Dale Coba of Coba Biochemicals.

Essential: ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS (1955)

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TopBilled:

The two main characters draw me in to the story. It’s all so effortless. The relationship between Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson) and Cary Scott (Jane Wyman) starts innocently enough over a cup of coffee.

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Ron’s taken over his late father’s yard maintenance business and he’s at the Scott home one fall afternoon pruning branches. When Cary’s girlfriend Sara (Agnes Moorehead) is unable to stay for lunch, Cary invites the handsome gardener to join her, so the food won’t go to waste. They strike up a conversation about the trees in her yard, and an instant bond forms. Their subsequent romance will become a scandal in Cary’s community.

The film is intended for other Carys in the audience. Sirk’s direction is so smooth that you get caught up in the story. What people tell Cary in the movie, and what she even tells herself, seems like something a viewer can appreciate. The more philosophical speeches do not come across as preachy or unrealistic in any way. Even Sirk’s use of Thoreau is expertly weaved into the proceedings, telling us there’s a natural order in life. Especially in ways of the heart.

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Cary is struggling to let go of the past, and she is also struggling to simplify her life. For years, she’s tried to please others and has been restricted by what everyone expects. Her friend Sara witnesses the awakening of her spirit. And while Sara will remain firmly entrenched in suburbia, bound by its inhibiting code of conduct, she supports Cary’s need to break away from it. Other members of the community are not as supportive, which we see at a cocktail party in Sara’s home. Cary has decided to introduce Ron to everyone, but many of the guests are unfriendly. One old gal is downright cruel.

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Sirk likes to use reflecting surfaces in his melodramas. And we see many of them in this film, often in the form of mirrors and windows. His careful use of mise-en-scene (staging and scene composition) allows us to glimpse the internal states of characters, as their facial expresses bounce off these reflecting surfaces. In some instances, there is an added use of shadow. Or pieces of furniture and doors are used to conceal things or separate Cary from the people who are opposed to her.

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Cary’s two college-aged children think she needs a television. It will keep her from being lonely, they reason. It will help distract her when she decides to break up with Ron. While Cary was getting to know Ron, she had no desire to sit at home and watch television. But after she ends things with him, the kids give her a fancy new set at Christmas, and she is forced to contend with this symbol of her loneliness. Again Sirk uses a reflecting surface, this time the TV screen, to display her emotions.

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Of course, the film would not have a happy ending if Cary gave in and resigned herself to being a lonely widow. When she realizes her children are moving on with lives of their own that no longer directly involve her, Cary knows she deserves more. She has to battle her way out of a depression that has enveloped her. It’s time to look towards the future and embrace it.

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A subplot in the film involves the refurbishing of an old mill that Ron is turning into a home. It’s a place he intends to share with Cary, if she will let him. The living room in the renovated mill features a large window that looks out on to the pond and an area where deer roam during the cold winter months. It’s Walden personified, it’s a world with natural order, and it’s somewhere that Cary and Ron can both find happiness.

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***

Jlewis:

It had been quite a while since I saw this one. Did not wow me much decades ago, but I enjoyed it much more this time around.

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Ross Hunter is the producer and Douglas Sirk the director, all shot on the Universal-International backlot. (Remember BACK TO THE FUTURE’s eerily similar town center?) It is much more subdued than others from this production team, such as IMITATION OF LIFE.

Supposedly the location here is rural New England (maybe Vermont?) but, as we referenced in BAMBI earlier, we get California Mule Deer instead of White-tails as the local fauna. Oops! Yet the setting is otherwise a pretty good match to the New England of PEYTON PLACE.

This brings me to the Technicolor photography by Russell Metty and the fascinating retro art decor. Lots of golden hues are offset by dark blues to heighten the emotional drama.

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When a character is upset, we often see him or her in shadow, almost like a noir thriller. Also the color of automobiles (like the white Ford and Lincoln coupes over the snow) and the outfits are interesting, particularly when we see a mother and daughter each wear bright red dresses just before embarking on a courageous relationship.

I think the opening autumn footage, showcasing the happy first meeting of our star characters before all of the dark drama that follows, was blatantly copied by Edward Lachman in Todd Hayes’ later FAR FROM HEAVEN (2002) even though, again, PEYTON PLACE was duplicating it well enough just a few years later.

Speaking of the later released film, so many future directors in the 1970s and beyond were very much inspired by Hunter-Sirk’s weepy melodramas and the social issues they often tackled. Perhaps the title that this one reminds me the most of is Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s ALI: FEAR EATS THE SOUL a.k.a. ANGST ESSEN SEELE AUF, which featured an older German woman dating not only a younger man, but one of a different race. (Hunter-Sirk’s IMITATION OF LIFE also covers the race angle, but differently.)

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At least Jane Wyman’s widow Cary Scott is only dealing with a neighborhood aghast about the age difference between her and Rock Hudson’s gardener Ron Kirby (no relation to the vacuum cleaner company even though he does a great job cleaning up an old mill on his family estate).

In both the Fassbinder and Sirk movies, we see both male stars succumb to an injury/illness and, more importantly, the woman’s children get involved and are hardly supportive. In this case, Cary’s son and daughter are named Ned (William Reynolds) and Kay (Gloria Talbott), the daughter having a slightly easier time adjusting due to her more “progressive” attitudes.

Curious tidbit I picked up: Cary is stubborn about getting a television set in this movie (and has no interest in the eligible repairman)…and, in ALI: FEAR EATS THE SOUL, a television set gets attacked by one of the children who is all upset at Mother. It appears as if Jane Wyman’s Cary could psychically predict what will happen with Brigitte Mira’s Emmi Kurowski decades later and decided to brace herself.

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Although the years 1954-55 saw the desegregation of public schools due to Brown vs. the Board of Education and an increasing exodus of many Caucasian Americans from the cities to the suburbs to avoid all of that, you know, mixin’ goin’ on, most Hollywood films of this period were still reluctant to address racial specifics (apart from this same team’s IMITATION OF LIFE which was still a couple years into the future).

There was still a fear of losing box-office dollars, but also a need to address American small town conformity and tribalism. The taboo of an older woman romancing a younger man (despite few eyebrows raised when the genders were in reverse) was easier for average moviegoers to digest at the time while the filmmakers could still make their sociological statement here.

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I absolutely adore fussy Agnes Moorehead as Cary’s good friend Sara Warren. She genuinely fears that the gossip in town may hurt these two when they decide to marry each other. ”I must say Cary, you’ve got stubbornness. And courage.” You do need friends like her as your support system and Sara does not shy away from Cary despite the environment in question.

There are other familiars in the cast like Conrad Nagel and Virginia Grey, but I must say that my cuppeth runneth over when I saw Eleanor Audley (a.k.a. Lady Tremaine in Walt Disney’s CINDERELLA and Malificent in SLEEPING BEAUTY) a second time, shortly after viewing THREE SECRETS earlier in the month. I love, love, love Eleanor just as much as I do Agnes even if she did not appear in any Bewitched episodes. She also gets the best theme-quote of the movie as she observes Cary and Ron at the cocktail party: ”It is always the quiet ones, isn’t it? But she’s certainly the last person you would suspect.”

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Of course, Cary winds up as her own worst enemy, allowing children and neighbors to dictate what makes her happy. She and Ron call off the marriage but ultimately reunite after he suffers a wintertime tragedy. Despite the potent social commentary here, I still felt the overall plot to be, well, rather simplistic.

Yet it is still a gosh darn beautiful movie to look at.

Plus we get Bambi peering at the couple through the window in the end, despite Rock Hudson earlier trying to shoot a pheasant like the one in the 1942 cartoon we previously reviewed.

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Essential: TOMORROW AT TEN (1963)

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TopBilled:

Not long ago I found an interesting British ‘B’ film on YouTube. Film historians consider it one of the top 15 B films to have ever been made . To be honest, I didn’t expect much from it. But within minutes I was thoroughly engrossed in the story, and I can see why it has found favor with critics as well as audiences.

One reason I wanted to see the film is because it features an early performance by Robert Shaw. He is third-billed. After lead star John Gregson, he actually has the second most important role.  Shaw plays a criminal mind named Marlow. Marlow poses as a chauffeur and kidnaps a wealthy man’s son on the way to school one morning.

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I guess it all reminds me of MGM’S RANSOM!, made a few years earlier with Glenn Ford and Donna Reed. But this telling is more about social class distinctions and what criminals feel they must do in order to live the good life. After Shaw’s character abducts the boy, they end up at a rented room in a country house where there are few other people around. Initially the little boy does not realize he’s been kidnapped. After all, this has been presented as a day of having fun. And any day you don’t have to attend school, that’s fun!

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Marlow’s devious plan becomes even more sinister when he leaves a golliwog doll with the boy, before he locks the boy in the room and takes off. The doll has a bomb inside, and it is going to blow up at 10:00 a.m. the following morning. Hence the title. Of course the boy does not realize the golliwog contains a bomb. I sort of wondered if this might have worked better if the child was a girl, since girls are more apt to play with dolls. I would think a boy would quickly grow tired of such a toy and set it aside.

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Marlow returns to the wealthy family’s estate and tells the boy’s father (Alec Clunes) that he took the child. The child will die tomorrow if the ransom demands are not met. At this point, Inspector Parnell (John Gregson) takes center stage, because he is sent to the house to try and reason with Marlow. But Marlow refuses to divulge the boy’s whereabouts.

Of course we know the child probably won’t be killed. But the negotiation scenes are still tense, especially when the boy’s father– in a fit of rage– shoves Marlow against the fireplace, causing him to sustain a severe head injury.

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Some of the action shifts to the hospital, as doctors attempt to keep Marlow from dying. Marlow slips into a coma and does die, which makes Parnell and his team that much more frantic to locate the boy. They are now running out of time and cannot pull any more clues out of the kidnapper.

I won’t tell you how the boy’s life is saved. This is for you to watch and find out. All of the performances are uniformly excellent. I especially liked a subplot involving Parnell’s superior, an ineffective chief who seemed more interested in hobnobbing with city politicians instead of adequately assisting the men under his command.

***

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Jlewis:

Robert Shaw minus his trademark whiskers is the one star I recognized right away, although Alan Wheatley and John Gregson popped up in earlier Brit pics we have profiled here, like SLEEPING CAT TO TRIESTE and ABOVE US THE WAVES. Gregson, in particular, enjoyed a lucrative career in many classic Ealing comedies most of us have seen before, although he was often in the background as Alec Guinness and others were front and center.

Other notables adding an “A” look to this otherwise “B” budget thriller include Alec Clunes (another familiar from a few prominent features such as RICHARD III, the Lawrence Olivier version), Kenneth Cope playing the frequently shown, if not prominently billed, Sgt. Gray, Ernest Clark as a doctor and William Hartnell of DR. WHO fame in another key role.

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Opening shots feature Shaw as Marlow planting a bomb device in a black stereotype doll, a golliwog as the Brits called them. Interesting that he does not use another more representative Caucasian doll. Or a teddy bear. Later Marlow kidnaps little Johnathan Chester (Piers Bishop) from a wealthy business man, the father Anthony (Clunes), who employs him temporarily as a chauffeur.

Gregson’s Inspector Parnell (later revealed to have a son the same age as Johnny) gets involved in this case as Marlow is put into custody…curiously in the very residence of Anthony instead of police headquarters.

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Yet his stubborn persistence to get Marlow to talk without paying any ransom, plus an accidental injury inflicted upon Marlow by an impatient Anthony prevents them all from finding out the boy’s whereabouts sooner than later. Had they listened to Assistant Commissioner Bewley, who wished them to compromise with him better, the danger would not have been so great.

This brings us to the title of the film: tomorrow at ten will be the moment the bomb blows up in the very room the boy resides.

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Now…maybe the boy could figure out that something is peculiar about the doll and open the window to throw it outside. Yet we can’t have a plot get resolved THAT easily! Then again, he does something rather interesting with it in that final climax I will not reveal here.

There are a few actresses in bit roles like Helen Cherry, Betty McDowell and the colorful Renée Houston, but this is essentially a men-only detective thriller.

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Kinda wish there were more women involved. At least a few crying and sobbing, since everybody is so gosh darn straight faced on screen. Except for the one scene with Anthony getting desperate as Marlow lays in a coma.

A few questions don’t seem fully resolved here since we don’t get to know these characters well enough in the film’s rather short running time. Why does Marlow decide to kidnap the boy in the first place? Why Brazil as his destination?

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There is a moment when Parnell attempts to psycho-analyze him and the way his mother brought him up, but still not much is revealed. To be honest, I felt rather aloof with these characters, apart from innocent Johnny in jeopardy, because there did not seem much interest by the screenwriters James Kelley and Peter Miller and director Lance Comfort to make them particularly three dimensional.

Then again, there may be plenty here that can be read between the lines. Stuff to speculate on since we don’t have adequate answers.

The cinematography and suspense built up with the sound effects, namely the bomb ticking, nonetheless makes this an enjoyable cinematic version of all of those great CBS radio Suspense plots. The classic March 10, 1949 episode “Three O’Clock” was one that invites comparison although it involved a grown man stuck in a room with a time bomb that was of his own making.

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Essential: THREE SECRETS (1950)

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TopBilled:

The cast works so well in this one. Though I am a Ruth Roman fan, I expected her flashback sequence to be the weakest because it was saved for last and she was third-billed after Eleanor Parker and Patricia Neal. Parker gets top billing and the most screen time.

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In fact Parker gets the whole first half hour devoted to her character’s story, though there is a brief scene (supposedly on the same day all three adoptions occur) when she crosses paths with Neal and Roman at the adoption agency.

We learn in detail that Susan Chase (Parker) was pregnant with a soldier’s baby at the end of the war, and due to unforeseen circumstances she was forced to carry the baby to term on her own. At her mother’s insistence, she has put the child up for adoption though she quickly regrets it. A year or two later Susan has married a legal eagle named Bill (Leif Erickson). They have a strong marriage; however, Susan discovers she is unable to have any more children which causes more regret about not keeping her son.

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Neal gets the middle section of the film, which is slightly less than half hour. About 25 minutes is devoted to her character’s story arc. She plays Phyllis Horn, a career woman who in flashback is getting a divorce from a likable fellow named Bob (played by Frank Lovejoy). Just as the divorce has become final, Phyllis learns she’s pregnant. But she doesn’t tell Bob about it, since he’s already moved on with another woman.

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Phyllis gives up the baby because there’s no way to reconcile with her ex-husband; plus she feels raising a child might interfere with her job as a globe trotting reporter. This character could easily have been played by Katharine Hepburn, and sometimes I thought Ms. Neal was channeling Ms. Hepburn, to be honest. She’s the least maternal character of the three.

Roman’s arc begins around the one-hour mark, and she only gets 20 minutes, because the storytellers are reserving the last ten to fifteen minutes for the boy’s heroic rescue and the revelation about which one is the kid’s mother. But I have to say Ruth Roman really, and I do mean really, makes the most of her screen time.

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It occurred to me that she may be the most skilled of the three actresses in melodrama, because she teared up the quickest in her scenes and you could feel the gut-wrenching anguish and just how tormented her character’s life was. Arguably, she had the juiciest story to play because her character Ann Lawrence shoots a no-good lover (John Dehner), gets imprisoned, has the baby while in prison, and has the baby taken away from her. The murder scene was fantastically staged, lit and played. Kudos to Ms. Roman, director Robert Wise and cinematographer Sid Hickox for nailing it.

In addition to the casting we have a gimmicky story that works beautifully. I say gimmicky because it’s obvious the screenwriters had seen A LETTER TO THREE WIVES and were inspired by it.

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But this story is not about a cheating spouse…it’s about an adoption. The two films are similar in that we must wait till the end for the mystery to be resolved and we have three protagonists whose backstories are revealed in extended flashbacks. I would say, however, that THREE SECRETS is a more effective melodrama because I think when you put a child, especially a helpless child, into the scenario, it’s a lot more dramatic and emotional. The viewers can invest in a boy being reunited with his mother a bit more than a woman finding out if her husband was unfaithful. 

The editing is smooth, and there isn’t one wasted shot or one wasted moment. Lesser filmmakers would have dragged this out over two hours, but Wise keeps it humming along and fits all the drama into a most compact 98 minutes.

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He even manages to insert a bit of semi-documentary stuff that gives us a slight break from the melodrama, between Parker’s arc and Neal’s arc. We see reporters at the rescue sight leading us through some of the steps that volunteers and various officials undertake to reach the boy who is stuck on a ledge up along a mountain. I am sure a modern filmmaker, if he or she were to remake this story, would leave out most of the reportage but I find it valuable. It infuses a tale that could be otherwise over-the-top with some much needed realism.

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***

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Jlewis:

Once again, we get the all familiar Warner Brothers shield (a co-production with United States Pictures) and that thundering Max Steiner-ish score (but with David Buttolph doing principal music), followed by the billing of three prominent ladies under contract with this studio. Patricia Neal a.k.a. Phyllis Horn needs no introduction to movie fans but the younger generation may still not be familiar with her unless they caught Paul Newman’s HUD on TV.

Eleanor Parker a.k.a. Susan Chase was later famous as the Baroness from Vienna whom every SOUND OF MUSIC fan hisses at and, intriguingly, Robert Wise directs her in both movies. Third lady of our trio is the less famous Ruth Roman a.k.a. Ann Lawrence, who would start work in Alfred Hitchcock’s STRANGERS ON THE TRAIN nine months after finishing this one. Principal photography was mostly done in the final two months of 1949 and inspired by the Kathy Fiscus case making news at that time.

Frank Lovejoy a.k.a. Bob Duffy get a prominent listing above the supporting cast, being a favorite radio “voice” of mine in so many audio classics of that era. A bit wooden as an onscreen presence though. I should also add that the IMDb.com site reveals many blink and you miss extras of Hollywood legend here, from silent movie comedy star Billy Bevin to other famous radio voice greats like Eleanor Audley (a.k.a. the evil stepmother Lady Tremaine in Walt Disney’s CINDERELLA and the even more evil Malificent in SLEEPING BEAUTY), Willard Wallerman (the second Gildersleeve and hilarious in AUNTIE MAME) and John Dehner (who also did Disney voices on occasion but later became familiar in TV shows).

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An airplane crash starts us in the proper melodrama frame of mind. Before it happens, a cute tyke (Duncan Richardson) comments that the clouds “look like milk.” Can we get we get any more adorable here without suffering tooth decay? The plot here involves three mommies in question ready to claim this supposed orphan named Johnny Peterson, a “tough little son of a gun” who survives. You see, all three were pregnant five years ago and gave up their baby up for adoption. Plus Frank Lovejoy’s Bob was previously married to Phyllis but they divorced and he remarried just before she had the child, so he is a prospective daddy here as well.

Since kids being born out of wedlock or post-divorce were a big thing back then, with the Production Code making it an even bigger “thing” in the movies, we get our title from the fact that these women are initially keeping secrets regarding that all important birthday of September 15, 1944.

How all of them can remember the exact day so quickly and so accurately is an interesting situation in itself, plus Phyllis instantly recognizing Susan when the two meet again five years later after their mutual visit to the adoption agency. We must consider that all important “Hollywood license” that doesn’t quite match everyday real life. Yes, yes…I know. It is possible that all of these ladies have razor sharp memories and even kept diary notes.

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Edmon Ryan plays Hardin, a “hard” hitting newspaper reporter who pushes the plot forward, one with a past that includes Phyllis in the same profession. Then we have the whole rescue-the-child mission involving the Sierra Club of mountain climbers adding an adventure element to our story, including a rock avalanche impeding the rescue mission. This setting becomes the locale where each woman arrives and meets the others.

Like other women’s pictures of the postwar period, we get flashbacks done in sets of three. (Perhaps the most famous example to compare here is A LETTER TO THREE WIVES, done by rival studio 20th Century Fox.) When Susan hears the news of the crash on the radio, she instantly remembers (right on cue!) and we flashback to her story as she says a sobbing goodbye to her soldier boyfriend. He may not die in combat overseas, but…gulp!…he tells her “there’s someone else.” Fortunately mommy (Katherine Warren playing Mrs, Conners) does not judge her, encouraging her to give the baby up for adoption and getting over her “mistake.”

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Years later, she is ready to marry again, but must settle this baby situation first since it seems likely that she can not have any more with her new husband (Leif Erikson as Bill Chase).

Phyllis is the sophisticated one, dressed in her shape-shifting leopard spots when we first see her. A newspaper reporter, she is probably less conservative in her values system than Susan and, therefore, less ashamed and secretive about it. She and Susan have a chance meeting at the adoption agency in 1944 and the two meet again at the Sierras site…with Phyliis recognizing Susan instantly. Of course!

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Phyllis was initially married at the time she started on-the-nest and was busy as a war correspondent, a great career woman before such were fashionable. Keep in mind that, by 1949-50, many ladies were returning to the kitchen and nursery, often with great disappointment and disgust…and I do detect a certain negative vibe by the screenwriters regarding Phyllis being unsuccessful managing both career and wifely duties. Nonetheless Bob is hardly one we should side with here in the way he dumps her. “I happen to be a sentimental guy that comes from a family of twelve. I get lonesome when there are eleven people around…and even one.”

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Both Susan and Phyllis bond well with each other. Then Anne enters the picture. She staggers into the media arena as a drunk and gives the meatiest performance among the trio. Her story contrasts with the two “little maids who lost their way” and differs in that she actually narrates it for both screen and her listeners present. As is usual, these women don’t just have sex for the fun of it. They “fall in love” with men who don’t love them back, those awful heals. In Ann’s case, the heal is a wealthy business man who is insidious in the way he makes her get lost and she is involved in his death, partly by accident. Poor Ann has her child while serving time in prison! (Ted de Corsia plays her dance agent Del Prince.)

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Won’t spoil the (happy, if still very deceptive) ending, but you can kind of guess early on who is the real mother and who winds up with the boy regardless. While this is not a particularly great movie, it is still a highly entertaining potboiler and, like all Warner features of the era, delightfully lays the orchestration on pretty thick so that you are fully and emotionally invested.

Also I love how the studio productions of the era often recycled sets: Susan’s house being the same one that Joe McDoakes (George O’Hanlon) often used in those wonderful Warner shorties that alternated with Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies before the main WB feature in your local theater. Also it looks like some of the Sierra footage was yanked from earlier features like HIGH SIERRA as well.

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Essential: THE LOVE BUG (1968)

TopBilled:

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TopBilled:

When Jlewis first talked about this movie in a private message, I told him that I liked the sequel HERBIE RIDES AGAIN (1974) a bit better than the original. I suppose it has to do with Stefanie Powers and Helen Hayes, two actresses I always enjoy watching. In his review below, Jlewis adds a post-script about the sequel. 

I first became familiar with THE LOVE BUG and its sequels when I was in elementary school. I hadn’t seen any of the movies at that point, but there was a monthly book order my third grade teacher oversaw. One month I used part of my allowance to purchase a book with a Volkswagen– number 53– on the cover. It was a retelling of the original story with pictures from the movie. That’s when I was first introduced to Herbie.

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Recently I tried to locate reviews by Pauline Kael and Rogert Ebert on the original 1968 film but they do not seem to exist. I was curious to read what they might have written. Perhaps Herbie and his automotive issues were too quaint or low-brow for Ms. Kael. Ebert did review the remake HERBIE: FULLY LOADED in 2005, and he admits to not having seen the original film or its three sequels.

I found some user reviews on the IMDb. One person called the original film a live-action cartoon, whatever that means. Other reviewers on the IMDb mentioned how Herbie is a family friendly vehicle and he will win you over. It sounded like something a car salesman might say. I guess we all “bond” over the vehicles we use, some owners more than others. And people have been known to nickname their cars or trucks, the way Buddy Hackett’s character names Herbie. Though this may be taking the “relationship” a bit far.

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If Herbie himself is a live action cartoon, it must mean he is a non-vegetative auto. He is a car with a unique brand of energy. He exhibits feelings and has a mind of his own. He is very animated. In HERBIE: FULLY LOADED, he is even more animated due to the newer filmmaking technology. He blinks his headlights, he pantomimes (don’t ask how), he droops his bumper when he’s melancholy and uses those doors of his as if they are wings.

How much intelligence does Herbie have? (I won’t ask about the audience’s intelligence or the audience’s willingness to suspend disbelief at some of the more outrageous stunts that occur.) If Herbie is intelligent, he is also sentient. Logically speaking, how would a car develop intellect and sentience? One has to wonder!

If he is a form of Artificial Intelligence, then Herbie is cinematic kin to HAL in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. And emotionally, he could be seen as the polar opposite of CHRISTINE, a set of wheels that had homicidal tendencies, thanks to Stephen King. Fortunately, because this is a Disney product, Herbie is not psychotic like Christine.

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If a car like Herbie has brains and a heart, then he probably also has a soul. And by extension, he can use these qualities to fall in love. Okay, this is starting to get a bit philosophical now…

In addition to our main character, there are the humans in the story who basically play supporting roles. Often these actors are replaced in the long shots by stunt personnel.

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The formula does not change from the original to the sequels to the remake. In each version we have a plucky car, a plucky hero (or heroine), a teeth-gnashing bad guy and a love story between the young leads, accompanied by a lot of racing footage.

I find it interesting that the original 1968 version features a sequence where Herbie considers suicide, and in the 2005 version, he is nearly wrecked beyond repair in a junkyard. I guess Disney is telling us that he’s mortal, he has a lifespan. But if Disney can keep rebooting this story and keep it humming like a well-oiled machine, I don’t think Herbie will run out of gas anytime soon.

***

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Jlewis:

THE LOVE BUG was filmed between March and July of 1968, a rather interesting time period in both United States history and Hollywood entertainment. As star Michele Lee reported in an interview, a major scene that made the final cut (but I am not sure which one, off hand) was filmed on the very day that they all learned of Martin Luther King Junior’s murder. This brings up the rather ominous fact that hardly any live-action Disney films prior to this one (the one infamous exception being SONG OF THE SOUTH) showed much diversity in their casts in terms of racial skin tones.

Although Walt Disney approved preliminary storyboard work just before his death in late 1966, there wasn’t much optimism that this comedy would fare any better than, say, BLACKBEARD’S GHOST.

In total surprise to both the studio and the industry, it triumphed over both Sam Peckinpah’s THE WILD BUNCH and Dennis Hopper’s EASY RIDER, which were filmed simultaneously during that same four to five month period and also put on the market in 1969. Yes, even though the latter film received more printed commentary than THE LOVE BUG, those Harley Davidson “Captain America” motorcycles still got out-driven by a clean-cut Dean Jones in a run-down Volkswagen Beetle. As two San Francisco teens confess in a drag race through the streets against Herbie the Love Bug: “Outta sight man! I would have never believed it!”…“Groovy, Pop, groovy!”

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One would not expect an automobile to behave in a humanized fashion, despite cartoons that Disney made earlier like SUSIE THE LITTLE BLUE COUPE (with eyes added to the windshields to create a “face”), but this is a classic example of how creative entertainers can add a “soul” to just about anything mechanical, non-human and even non-animal.

Classic scene: Herbie attempting suicide off the Golden Gate Bridge and Dean Jones’ Jim Douglas out to stop him. This is after his jealous rage over Jim expressing more love for a rival Lamborghini and banging the cr!p out of it. The whole set-up a.k.a. “No, Herbie, don’t!!!!” is wonderful with its murky fog prevailing much like the London imagery displayed in a key scene previous in MARY POPPINS, which the British-born Robert Stevenson also directed. It is not so much what the car itself does, but the clever editing and the atmosphere that reflects Herbie’s emotions and “state of mind.”

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The human performers are all very appealing here even if they must play second fiddle to a set of four wheels. The top trio featured: straight-laced Dean Jones as race driver Jim Douglas, Michele Lee as Carole, the secretary of Thorndyke’s car sales who winds up as Jim’s love interest in the end, and the always wonderful Buddy Hackett (later a key voice in another Disney, THE LITTLE MERMAID) as Tennessee, the bumbling auto mechanic who had recently visited Tibet like the Beatles and “discovered my real self.”

Naturally he is the one to first discover that Herbie has a human soul after “it” follows Jim home from the car dealers. Among the multiple minor character actors is the frequently cast Joe Flynn, who milks his usual side-kick role in the climactic car race sequences with Peter Thorndyke.

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Ah, yes…Peter Thorndyke is our resident funny-villain. The British-born character actor David Tomlinson made three Disney features, two of them musicals that I fleetingly mention elsewhere in this review. Yet his greatest performance for the mouse house is certainly this straight-forward comic one. Watching a YouTube montage like “The Best of Peter Thorndyke” makes one wonder why he wasn’t nominated for an Oscar here. OK…maybe I should not go that far. I understand that a lot of the comedy here is slapdash slapstick with dialogue to match.

Much of the fun for me comes from Tomlinson’s little touches here and there in his Thrifty-shifty Thorndyke role. For example, when first meeting Jim, he is impressed enough to offer him sherry. Then he promptly pours it back in the bottle once Jim says he is only spending seventy five to eighty dollars.

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The scenes with him infiltrating Tennessee’s garage are loaded with classic little moments: when Tennessee tells him that “the secret of the little car” is its “heart,” something our star villain obviously does not have, he hilariously states that he’s “certainly going to make a note of that” and then promptly tosses his pen in a cup! The lines between these two are quite surreal in an Abbott & Costello sort of way: Thorndyke: “What part of Ireland did you say your mother came from?” Tennessee: “Coney Ireland.”

The story is pretty basic. Jim is a down and out race car driver who hits pay dirt with Herbie, a car with a human personality, but there is a lot of doubt and skepticism on his part. Ultimately the feisty Thorndyke tries to sabotage his chances in a wild country road race, with Herbie even getting dissected along the way and literally “coming apart” just before he hits the finish line.

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Despite the overall simplicity in story, the comic lines are vastly superior to other sixties Disney “comedies.” It is also fun having a no-nonsense Garry Owens provide announcer commentary as all of the hijinks occur.

I tend to view a lot of Disney films, both those made when Walt was alive and those made in the two decades following his passing, in two separate camps. There are those that are not very good, but have little things that hold my interest; a good example being the 1977 version of PETE’S DRAGON, a colossal mess that had me scratching my head in the theater as a preteen, but still manages one really great song that Helen Reddy handles, “Candle in the Water”. In contrast, THE LOVE BUG is an example of a generally very good film that still…somehow…disappoints in little spots here and there; its rather Mickey Mouse-ish style of music gets quite annoying after a while.

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Clearly this movie was written by the over-30 crowd that was not quite comfortable with the changing times. Although Dean Jones is convincing in a secondary role as a hippy, delivering the memorable line of “We’re all prisoners, Chickie Baby. We are all locked in…,” his subsequent comment on our star characters being “a couple of weirdos” is intended to be taken as put-down self-criticism.

Being that the writers were still working in a pre-Stonewall era, there are also subtle homophobic digs tossed here for good measure: his middle-aged male companion is dubbed “Guinevere”, referencing both Vanessa Redgrave’s character in CAMELOT (released shortly prior) and the popular belief among the older generation that men who wear their hair long have a gender identification problem. (A popular road sign that went up across the country in 1968 read “Beautify America. Get a haircut.”)

This brings me to the way the Chinese American characters are portrayed here. To be fair, it is a vast improvement over BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S in which Mickey Rooney poses as “Chinese.”

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Here we have Bensin Fong playing Mr. Wu, who takes ownership of Herbie and backs our stars financially in their race. He and the others (Brian and Harold Fong receive no on screen credit) are actually Asian-Americans getting key screen roles at a time when Hollywood films were mostly devoid of them. (Note too that we see only a few African Americans as extras on screen, with just one speaking role by an un-credited Eddie Smith.) At first, there is limited stereotyping: one highlight involves Tennessee talking in Chinese and later learning that Wu is perfectly fluent in English once “money” is discussed.

The one key scene that will likely make many modern viewers squirm involves a “Chinese camp” in which an older fellow purposely behaves like an “oriental” Steppin Fetchit servicing Thorndyke’s car. His son translates in broken English that he “says hurry is waste [and] waste is cracked bowl never that know rice.” There is not anything specific here that is outright offensive but there’s an overall attitude that the creators of this movie view the Asian Americans as “others.”

Again, one must always accept films as time capsules of the way we were, both the positive and the negative.

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Note how cheap the gas prices were back then! Also the fashions with Michele Lee’s miniskirt and short cropped hairstyle is making a comeback in the 21st century. Note too how simple car racing was in the sixties compared to the modern corporate sponsored NASCAR era.

Predictably the enormous success of this film spawned three sequels and a remake. It is rather curious that it took a full five years for the first of these to get made. HERBIE RIDES AGAIN was not nearly as good as the original (and neither were the others) but it does have special appeal for me personally as the first “all new” movie that I got to see in a movie theater. 

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Another curiosity about the Herbie franchise that I always found strange is that it generated far less merchandise than so many other Disney hits despite such a lovable central character. Although there were die-cast model replicas for the toy car trade and a trio of excellent View Master reels, there were not all that many chapter and coloring books out on the market in 1969 compared to the competition. It was not until 1974 that Herbie would grace the cover of one of Western Publishing’s Little Golden Books.

No doubt, this was due to the confusing state of the Disney company in those hypersensitive years shortly following the founder’s death. As long as brother Roy was still in charge, there was still some level of stability, but his death in December 1971, following the opening of Walt Disney World in Florida and the lackluster response to BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS, would provide a further blow…and push the company even further away from its big and small screen entertainment roots and more towards merchandising and theme parks, which were generally no more stable in revenue.

That special confidence that Walt gave the company took a long time to recover, having to wait until the era when Roy’s son and Michael Eisner took over. THE LOVE BUG was a colossal hit that could have impacted the company for the better, but was, instead, just a fluke phenomena that the company wasn’t sure how to milk properly.

Postscript:

I re-watched HERBIE RIDES AGAIN for either the third or fourth time. Not sure which. I first saw it in a movie theater at age six and absolutely adored it. Did not see it again for another dozen years or so, probably on TV or VHS in the eighties as a teenager. By then, I had seen enough of these types of slapstick car-crash affairs that it failed to impress me all that much. May have seen it again a decade after that but I am not sure. In any case, I decided to re-watch it again with a new set of eyes since TopBilled said he favored it over THE LOVE BUG.

My final analysis…OK. I still don’t like it as much as THE LOVE BUG but it is still a fun if, perhaps, uninspired Disney comedy. What is great about it are the stunts, far more ambitious than in the former.

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My guess is that the budget was bigger and it shows in the production values. Although a product of the early seventies (filmed in ’73 and released ’74), the fashions are not too retro; everything Ken Berry and Stefanie Powers wear is pretty much up to date with today’s styles. Powers sports a hair style more representative of the Watergate Era, like Michele Lee’s was five to six years earlier.

Except for the occasional seventies look here and there, what I find most interesting is that the story and editing style, along with the special effects, resemble something made a decade earlier.

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Also the gags: note the great soap bubble disaster echoing another film we reviewed, MOVE OVER, DARLING with Doris Day that was filmed in 1963. The scenes on the high rise were no different than countless comedies of yesteryear going back to 1923 and Harold Lloyd’s SAFETY LAST and, yes, the special effects with the matte work is pretty obvious (although still good for the early seventies).

Robert Stevenson and Bill Walsh were previously more edgy, poking fun at the flower power movement in the earlier film, but are more hesitant about rocking the boat here. Like far too many films of this type, we get our usual romance between the leads that involve a wedding at the end.

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Even Helen Hayes’ Mrs. Steinmetz gets a love interest with John McIntire (remember him in PSYCHO?). Speaking of Hayes, I found her much “cuter” in earlier viewings than I did this time around. Yes, it is fun seeing Berry’s Willoughby constantly worrying about her while she just ignores all danger and acts uber-confident, but a little of her “cute” factor goes a long, long, long way with lil’ ol’ me here.

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Keenan Wynn’s greedy Alonzo Hawk is much more enjoyable on screen but even his character seemed a bit too uninspired for me as a villain, except in the memorable dream sequences with multiple Herbies attacking him. No Asian Americans but we do get Don Pedro Colley playing a high profile construction tycoon putting Hawk in his place, something you would NOT have seen in a Hollywood film made a decade or more earlier unless there was some social commentary attached.

I do like both Barry and Powers as performers but also felt both characters were less fully developed than Dean Jones and Michele Lee’s characters in the previous film. She rather instantly takes a liking to him with virtually no hesitation, despite her talk with “grandma” about wanting to manage her own dating life without her help… and despite initially punching him in the face and later slapping him with a hot lobster. Wish he commented more on that humorous behavior when he decides to marry her, but that was just a one-off joke the writers soon forgot about.

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There was also a lot more tension between Jones and Lee in their portrayals, with Herbie playing a key role in uniting them together. Herbie does nothing for these two, as if he is merely their shared pet dog. It was as if writers just needed “a” couple at the end of this and weren’t terribly concerned so much about how-we-get-there as long as we-get-there. No fault of the performers. Just the material they were given.

I did miss Buddy Hackett and David Tomlinson. They put a lot of energy into their performances and helped make THE LOVE BUG a cut above so many other Disney live-action comedies. Still enjoy HERBIE RIDES AGAIN and do think the overall premise is a good one, even if Herbie himself was not all that relevant to an old lady’s house potentially being bulldozed for a high rise skyscraper.

Essential: MARS AND BEYOND (1957)

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TopBilled:

“Mars and Beyond” is an animated episode of Disneyland (Walt Disney’s weekly anthology television series which was renamed several times over the years). The episode aired on December 4th, 1957 and was directed by Ward Kimball. Paul Frees served as the narrator.

In Jlewis’ review, he covers some of the more technical aspects of the production. I didn’t exactly dislike what I viewed, but I was not terribly wowed by it either. I would suggest our readers watch it for themselves after reading what Jlewis has written, then make up their own minds.

  1. They were limited in their knowledge about space in 1957. One of the interviewed scientists admits they probably have errors in their calculations, so their efforts to gather information about the cosmos may be flawed.
  2. Imagine how limited our knowledge may seem to people 64 years from now. It’s about adding layers of understanding on to what is already known (proven), then refining our theories so the end results are more practical.

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  3. The animation is fantastic and holds up well. Perhaps this is because it’s creative (bizarre at times) and these are the unique imaginings of life on other planets. However, these imaginings seem quite fictional.
  4. I remember once, while teaching a group of students, I asked them ‘do you think the bible is a work of fiction or nonfiction?’ We could ask that same question here, is this episode of Disneyland mostly fiction or nonfiction.

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  5. Sometimes this piece doesn’t know if it should be a wild and woolly cartoon or a scientific-based documentary. Ultimately, it chooses to be both.
  6. Paul Frees’ voice-over narration is excellent. Only Orson Welles could have done it better.

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  7. I liked the sequence about the pressurized living colonies on Mars. However, I chuckled at the comment that they needed to colonize Mars due to overpopulation. There were around 3 billon people in 1957, compared to 7.8 billion in 2020. They had less than half our current world population.
  8. The piece was used by science teachers in classrooms. But I didn’t get the impression that it would encourage students to apply science in their daily lives. It entertains more than it inspires scientific inquiry.
  9. It presumes to tell viewers ‘this is what we know must be true’ about our neighboring planets. What would those neighboring planets say about us? It suggests that our knowledge (our earthly knowledge) is the most important knowledge in the universe.
  10. It is worth watching at least once. You may enjoy it.

***

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Jlewis:

Ward Kimball is one of the most interesting animators and animation directors working for Disney between the years of 1934 and 1973. Beginning as an in-betweener, he moved up the ranks as a star animator in the early feature classics, although one famous sequence of his involving the dwarfs sipping soup was cut from SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (but shown later on TV and DVD). He then moved on to doing much of the work on Jiminy Cricket in PINOCCHIO and the infamous crows in DUMBO.

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With his work in THE THREE CABALLEROS, he began deviating from the more naturalistic style of Disney animation, crossing into territory resembling the looser un-Disney Tex Avery crazies at MGM and Rod Scribner’s rubbery exaggerations in the Robert Clampett Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies at Warner Bros. In this one, he animated Donald Duck, José Carioca, and Panchito Pistoles doing a musical number that involves all kinds of surrealistic, wild activities breaking the walls of reality. By this time, he was a much trusted fixture at the studio and Walt Disney seemed to allow him more personal freedom to experiment than many others on the payroll.

When UPA stole some of Disney’s thunder by the end of the forties and into the fifties with its flatter, more Matisse-like design, Ward managed to get the big boss to allow him to change with the times. Not that Disney always stuck to just any one particular style of animation and some of their pre-UPA work could sometimes look UPA-ish, but there was a bit too much comfort with the overly detailed story-book look during the post-war period, a look that critic Leslie Halliwell would dub later in print as “chocolate box-y”.

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MELODY and TOOT, WHISTLE, PLUNK AND BOOM were short subjects that he co-directed with Charles Nichols which incorporated a more stylized approach that one would more often expect in the early fifties Mr. Magoo and Gerald McBoing Boing cartoons rather than the contemporary Mickey Mouse cartoons; the former was presented in 3-D and the latter, an Oscar winner, was in CinemaScope.

This distinctive “mid-century modernism,” as many art critics called it (as it infiltrated all kinds of book illustrations of the 1950s with a vengeance), reached its apex with a trio of elaborate (and expensively produced) TV specials that Ward supervised for the Disneyland show. Due to their production costs, they were also released as all-color theatrical “featurettes” both in America and abroad after their debut on black and white television.

MAN IN SPACE was produced mostly in 1954 and aired March 9, 1955, followed by MAN AND THE MOON on December 28. More production time was needed for the third installment, the most ambitious MARS AND BEYOND which premiered December 4, 1957.

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All of these capitalized on the growing interest in space exploration, the last airing in the aftermath of the Soviet Sputnik launch, an ominous Cold War period event that literally pushed the United States into a space race. Plus flying saucers had been the rage for a decade by then and Mars was a particular favorite location for those seeking life-on-other-worlds.

Ward Kimball appeared in MAN AND THE MOON almost like an overgrown child captivated about the wonderful age we are living in where space travel will soon become a reality. I can only imagine his equal enthusiasm in this decade discussing the future of virtual reality entertainment or self-driving automobiles like the ones put out by Tesla.

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Paul Frees, that great radio voice on so many classic old time shows and later the creepy voice used in the Haunted House of the theme parks, provides our ominous narration as we explore, cartoon style, the history of man’s curiosity with the heavens above.

It all starts in cave man times and progresses through ancient Egypt and beyond. We get humorous busts of the Greek pioneers that include Ptolemy who defeated other more progressive philosophers with his backward earth-centric views, views accepted by many in Europe until Copernicus came into the picture with the needed math skills to prove that the sun was center of the solar system.

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We then get a journey through the ever changing science fiction stories starting with French and Swedish writers in the 17th century and continuing into the 20th with H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs, the latter with his own mock dictionary of Martian beasts.

Ward’s animation staff (featuring Julius Svendsen, Art Stevens and Jack Boyd with beautiful lay-outs by A. Kendall O’Connor, John Brandt and Tom Yakutis) has a field day recreating all of the imaginary outer-space creatures and humans on screen.

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Predictably anybody living on Venus is obsessed with love and romance and anybody living on Jupiter is expansive and huge, with the beings unable to even see each other and being afraid of Jupiterian horses (since Sagittarius is often aligned sign-wise with that planet and it is the sign of the centaur).

The whole UFO saga is investigated in zany cartoon form with pot shots at flying cigars that light up and the popular theory that aliens-are-walking-amongst-us-in-disguise. A hilarious bogus sci fi comic story is presented in the usual post-Playboy fantasy style with a lovely mink-shawled lady drinking martinis (?!), as secretary to a rather beatnik astrophysicist addicted to his pipe, suddenly getting abducted by aliens and having to fend for herself.

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Although the segment begins with a very sexist slant, she herself nonetheless gets to morph into a Wonder Woman action hero (something we rarely see during this time period) and wins out in the end by offering her adversaries atomic exploding cigars.

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Lots of smoking going on here! Donald Duck makes a curious cameo among an assortment of weird beasties and creepy crawlees.

Dr. E.C. Slipher of the Lowell Observatory steps in during one live-action mid-section, in an otherwise three quarters animated cartoon, to discuss the more realistic prospects of finding life on Mars.

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His prospects are not good, but that does not stop us from seeing more suggestions of what life could be like on Mars. After a brief showcase on how life evolved on Earth (cue the dinosaurs), we get clever montages of unusual worms and fish-like creatures (one oddball sponge-like beast vaguely resembles the angler fish seen in SECRETS OF LIFE) along with what appear to be spiny vacuum cleaners. I particularly like the flying wing-things that look like hang gliders.

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Things get very psychedelic at one point when the suggestion is made of crystal-like formations possibly becoming “life” and the screen explodes in kaleidoscope fashion. Must be due to all of the stuff that the production team was smoking, apparently not just tobacco. Throughout this show, George Burns provides some wonderful other-worldly music here, making this the ultimate retro “trip.”

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Like the previous two TV shows, we get in our final portion animated recreations of mankind journeying in futuristic space craft. Some of the designs, with Ernst Stuhlinger (backed by Wernher von Braun) shown presenting, are, in fact, ahead of their time and resemble what NASA is proposing today. There are also recreations of “high pressurized” enclosed cities recreated on our smaller planetary neighbor.

I have watched this one multiple times on DVD since 2004 (when it became a part of the Walt Disney Treasures with the other shows included) and never get bored by any of it. It ages in spots from a scientific perspective, but is much too eye-popping to be considered “old” in any other way. The opening shot of “Uncle” Walt talking to a robot puts viewers in the right kooky frame of mind.

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Back to Ward…

His later years, post-MARS AND BEYOND, are still worthy of a little history recap. He and Walt shared a love of trains and already his hobbies in the area had been a topic in one of Jerry Fairbanks “Unusual Occupations” shorts for Paramount as far back in 1944.

He also headed his own jazz band, although not everybody with musical tastes shared the same opinions regarding his Firehouse Five Plus Two.

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Despite their friendship and mutual interests, Ward and his big boss didn’t always see eye to eye, especially when it came to politics: Ward wasn’t as supportive of Nixon like Walt was in 1960, but…by the same token…he wasn’t entirely with the Democrats all the time either and even made an anti-LBJ film (independent of Disney) in 1968 titled ESCALATION.

On an artistry level, he nonetheless got to beat to his own drum (or trombone as he preferred with his band) by making product that was hardly Disneyesque in style, earning an Oscar for IT’S TOUGH TO BE A BIRD (1969) which echoed Terry Gilliam’s outrageous work on the fledgling MONTY PYTHON series that was just getting started on British TV.

His final efforts for the studio were his animation direction for BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS and a 43 episode TV show THE MOUSE FACTORY that ended in the spring of 1973, just about the time he decided he needed a rest at age 59. An elder spokesman among Disney’s “Nine Old Men,” he remained active in many TV and video interviews up until his death in 2002.

Essential: SECRETS OF LIFE (1956)

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Jlewis:

Between 1948 and 1959, Walt Disney released (through RKO and his own Buena Vista company) a series of enormously popular nature documentaries under the umbrella name “True Life Adventures.” In total, there were ten films running under 35 minutes each (even if the last three were not officially billed as such in their opening credits) and seven full length features (but with PERRI billed as a True Life “Fantasy”). Combined (and there was also a “best of” compilation feature released in 1975), these won a coveted eight Academy Awards and three more nominations.

Concurrent to this series…and, yes, I will mention them too since they were very much like these in format and featured much of the same personnel…were the now-forgotten “People & Places” travelogues that sadly never made the VHS or DVD cut, despite equally being showered with awards and becoming a staple of the 16mm school market (the format that I saw most of them as a kid).

Fortunately the late Roy Disney Jr. began his career working on the True Life series and always had a soft spot for them, so…when he and Michael Eisner took charge of the mouse house in 1984, he made sure they still got shown on the Disney Channel and promoted their debut on VHS within a year after that.

In 2006, they received very special DVD treatments with Roy personally hosting and with each disc enclosed in a special mock film canister. So beautifully presented, these are prize processions for those of us lucky to get them for $20-25 at the time (they were sold at Walmart and other retailers), but are now commanding high prices on eBay today. The then eight year old theme park Animal Kingdom in Orlando, Florida got its usual promotion in these with cute little intros, but…more importantly…this revival of the series encouraged an all new series of Disney-backed nature documentaries titled “Disneynature” that are worth a whole discussion all their own.

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There really isn’t anything especially novel or innovative about the True Lifes that hadn’t been done before apart from some distinctive Disney animation here and there. A magic paint-brush animated mostly by Josh Meador that opens each film in its introduction and gets plenty of activity in SECRETS OF LIFE. The entire series was in glorious Technicolor (mostly 16mm Kodachrome blown up to 35mm). Yet even the novelty of color in nature films was not exactly a novelty when this series began in 1948. A quick history lesson here…

  • Color films featuring animals and flowers date back to 1908 using Charles Urban’s promoted Kinemacolor process. George Albert Smith and John Mackenzie filmed ANIMAL AND BIRD STUDIES at the London Zoo, however, since the technology wasn’t sophisticated enough to chase them in the wild.

  • Speaking of Charles Urban (whom I dedicated a “Shortie Checklist” thread to on the TCM forum), he was backing nature films well ahead of other movie pioneers, beginning with F. Martin Duncan’s close-ups of cheese mites, insects, hydras, amphibians and many other small critters in 1903, followed by the first time-lapse photography of plant growth and flowers blooming by F. Percy Smith by the end of that decade.

  • Smith, in turn, became part of a team working for British Instructional in a series titled “Secrets of Nature” (1922-1933) which was followed by the Gaumont-British backed “Secrets of Life” (1934-1947)…and, as you can see where I am going here, Walt Disney himself blatantly borrowed the title for our reviewed feature here.

  • Concurrent to all of these were the pioneering work of France’s Jean Painlevé, the subject of an excellent Criterion DVD compilation titled SCIENCE IS FICTION. His earliest stickleback fish footage predates SECRETS OF LIFE by three decades, but he was still making films in the early eighties.

  • Despite the war, Jacques Cousteau still managed to make his first undersea scenic using scuba gear in 1943, titled ÉPAVES.

  • Meanwhile Sweden’s Arne Sucksdorff gained some following U.S. side during the forties with some shorts distributed through 20th Century Fox’s Movietone. Later, his popular feature DET STORA ÄVENTYRET a.k.a. THE GREAT ADVENTURE competed against Walt Disney’s THE LIVING DESERT, the first of the True-Life features, at the 1954 Cannes Film Festival.

  • Also not to be forgotten was the famous Soviet “school” of documentary filmmakers. At least one 45 minute featurette, Boris Dolin and Viktor Asmus’ ZAKON VELIKOI LYUBVI (watch here: https://www.net-film.ru/en/film-58437), enjoyed some attention in the U.S. when it was edited down into an Oscar-nominated short subject by Warner Brothers as SMART AS A FOX. It clearly influenced Disney’s own PERRI, the aforementioned True Life “Fantasy,” a decade later with its baby animal in a season-changing forest but featuring a squirrel instead of a fox.

***

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Walt Disney was once asked by a lady how all of the prairie dogs were filmed in THE VANISHING PRAIRIE. His reply was that little cameras were attached to them on little harnesses. Obviously she was being hoodwinked but Disney was always honest about the movie magic being achieved by the most talented team of people he could assemble. The anthology Disneyland series on TV frequently showed “how it was done.” SECRETS OF LIFE received a special examination in the excellent SEARCHING FOR NATURE’S MYSTERIES, first broadcast on ABC in black and white on September 26, 1956 and later in full color (being filmed that way) on NBC the following decade.

So details the prologue: This is an authentic story of nature’s secret world…of her strange and intricate designs for survival…and her many methods of perpetuating life. These intimate and unusual scenes were made possible through the development of new photographic techniques…and through the skill and patience of many scientist-photographers.

Despite the many awards, the True Lifes did get their fair share of criticism, much of it spared with SECRETS OF LIFE. One mistake made in the promotion of the series was the claim that the footage was all documented “as nature intended” but it was, in reality, often manipulated for the cameras.

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While some titles like WATER BIRDS were praised for the clever editing of fowl in flight scored to Franz Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2,” critics were less kind to THE LIVING DESERT re-editing scorpions as if they were square dancing and THE VANISHING PRAIRIE pitting bighorn sheep together with the “Anvil Chorus.”

Paul Smith was often accused of “Mickey Mouse-ing” the scores so that…literally, every action by any animal was documented with strings or keys. The desert film also featured animals pitted together in enclosed settings, although Paul Kenworthy’s hawk vs. rattlesnake and Pompilidae wasp vs. tarantula battles probably didn’t disturb animal rights activists since the participants weren’t as cute and cuddly as the lemmings shown “committing suicide” in the later WHITE WILDERNESS.

As the fourth of the features, SECRETS OF LIFE had its share of manipulated scenes but greater effort was made to be as factual as possible here. In addition, you can pretty much tell what scenes were shot indoors instead of outdoors, especially in the time lapse plant growth scenes shot against blue backgrounds.

The ant footage was done by Robert H. Crandall and his wife Fanny, partly in enclosed scenes indoors with some staged battles Roman gladiator style and also out in the field with a special glass over a cut ant colony nest, a procedure that was more intricate and smaller than the prairie dog set-up in the previous THE VANISHING PRAIRIE.

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The LA Times had a fun article on him back in 1990 which can be found here: https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1990-12-30-me-10325-story.html 

Although bee hives were the subjects of numerous films of the past, including the Oscar winning CITY OF WAX (1934) by Horace and Stacey Woodard, Stuart V. Jewell went even further with his own honey bee footage. As documented on the excellent 9-26-56 broadcast mentioned above, he was able to locate the developing baby larvae in their hive cells and shoot them up close to help tell the most fascinating story of insect development. Jewell also supervised much, but not all, of the time lapse photography of plant growth. Even though the cameras were quite sophisticated, the overall process had not changed since the days of F. Percy Smith…one frame shot every few hours to speed up “time.”

Rounding out the long list of impressive cinematographers involved were Jack Couffer (Oscar nominated later for JONATHAN LIVING SEAGULL and still around, at the time of me writing this, in his nineties); George and Nettie MacGinitie of the California Institute of Technology’s marine division; Murl Deusing (an earlier contributor with Alfred and Elma Milotte in BEAVER VALLEY and other True-Life titles, mostly with birds but contributing some impressive aquatic footage here); Russian immigrant and microscopic specialist Roman Vishniac; Donald L. Sykes (an ex-Signal Corps cameraman who also did a lot of television camera work); Fran William Hall (another WW2 camera veteran who got the “bug” for filming bugs); and a couple names less well documented: Arthur Carter, William A. Anderson, Claude Jendrusch and Tilden W. Roberts.

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Although less famous than David Attenborough as a host to modern viewers, Winston Hibler enjoyed his time in the limelight as narrator to all of the “True Life Adventures” and “People and Places” series. He started with Disney in 1942 with story work for numerous animated features and got the narration role almost by default. He appeared in person on the ABC TV series, discussing the making of this series, but his soothing mid-western voice is still more famous today than his face.

You can’t help but be drawn in by the way he tells us a story regarding bee life: “Like most fairy tales, this one has a queen, ladies in waiting, magic potions and all the trappings of a proper fable.”

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This feature has four parts that aren’t entirely related to each other. Part one focuses on the plant world and all of the hazards of pollination and seed growth. Part 2 covers the bees, and Part 3 the ants. Part 4 is pretty scattered all over the place but, apart from a handful of invertebrates (i.e. dragonfly juveniles, diving spiders, barnacles, fiddler crabs), it seems mostly focused on fish like the stickleback, angler fish, archer fish and grunion.

If there is one criticism of SECRETS, it is that it meanders from subject to subject without some key star like THE AFRICAN LION or the desert or prairie setting to tie it all together. In a way, it feels like a composite of the original British produced namesake series of 1934-47 and featuring much the same subject matter. The introduction features earth formations created by water and the finale climax again shows a “restless earth” featuring volcanoes in Hawaii, shot in CinemaScope (while the rest of the film is standard “Academy ratio”).

One prominent secret of life is sex. Throughout the soundtrack, we hear Hibler discuss fertilization and still more fertilization…and propagating…with a no-nonsense ho-hum dictation. I can only imagine how he would narrate sex-ed films for 7th grade as well, discussing the different boy and girl body parts as they go through, um, changes. Of course, the male stickleback fish still produces “milk” to fertilize a female’s eggs since I am guessing the Production Code still held its defiance over other possible words. In addition, Disney was getting overly cautious following the huge uproar over the birth of a bison segment in a previous feature, THE VANISHING PRAIRIE.

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This series received a lot of attention in print throughout the fifties and into the sixties, courtesy of Western Publishing that put out many great children books on the individual films and the series as a whole. I particularly enjoyed my childhood Golden Press book, Wonders of Nature (1957) even though it lost its dust jacket and the pages have gradually worn. Also I have the Golden Press versions of three features, including this one, along with the Dell Comics versions, plus at least one of the Golden Stamps books of 1955 covering several titles.

There are flaws with this series, but its influence on an entire generation cannot be underestimated. So many of us became environmentally conscious after seeing these; note that the prairie title features the key adjective “vanishing” and we rarely see black-footed ferrets outside of captivity these days. With SECRETS OF LIFE, we gained a new perspective on the far less “human” arthropod and floral worlds, learning more than we expected about how seeds are planted….and the seeds planted for Earth Day and all that happened afterward can also be attributed, at least in part, to the Disney influence.

Here is a sampling of clips from the whole series, mostly culled from the 1975 compilation feature with all new Hibler narration:

https://www.imdb.com/video/vi3876435993?playlistId=nm0382548&ref_=vp_rv_0

Essential: BAMBI (1942)

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TopBilled:

This month we are doing a version of Jlewis’ picks. I have since realized how knowledgeable he is about all things related to Walt Disney. As you may recall, a few years ago I had reviewed some Disney animation from the 1990s. But I thought we could revisit Disney and cover a bit more than animation this time around.

Jlewis has come up with a variety of titles that include animation and live action features. We’re starting with the animated classic BAMBI and truth be told, I don’t think I had seen it since one of the 80s theatrical reissues when I was a kid. It’s a film that lingers in your memory long after the initial viewing.

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Key sequences may currently be found for free on YouTube. These include the memorable scenes where Bambi’s mother dies, as well as the blazing forest fire that threatens the safety of not only the deer but a majority of other wildlife. 

The death of Bambi’s mother is certainly heavy drama and may be hard for some children to take. I guess that’s why it lingers in the mind. I came across some interesting comments under the YT clip I watched yesterday where people discussed the merits of how mama doe dies off screen. A gunshot is heard while she and Bambi run to safety. Bambi has run ahead but he is not rejoined by his mother. His father, the prince buck, finds him and explains his mother’s death.

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Disney plans to remake the feature in 2021/2022. Though that may be postponed due to the pandemic. I wonder if they’ll depict the mother’s death on screen in the remake. Will the violence of the story be presented differently?

The forest fire is another situation. We do not learn about any animals dying during the blaze, but realistically some of them probably would have perished.

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The most memorable image, in my opinion, is when the adult animals reach a haven along a shore with their young. The expressions on their faces as they find refuge makes me appreciate the struggle for survival. It’s something we all can relate to, wanting to keep ourselves and our youngsters from harm.

While watching the clips, I was familiarizing myself with the overall story. I read up on Felix Salten, the Jewish author from Austria who had first published “Bambi, a Life in the Woods” in 1923. I learned he had also written a sequel called “Bambi’s Children” in 1939 after he had sold the rights of the original story to Hollywood.

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In the sequel, we follow Bambi’s twins and there are now cousin characters that are introduced. Reading the plot summary, it seemed clear to me that Salten had woven in some sort of allegory about the Germans. The men that are hunting down these innocent creatures are quite Nazi-like in their pursuit to kill or capture their prey.

I would say that on some level Bambi is an eco-horror story. A potentially grim form of environmentalism about what is required to survive. Ironically, the film’s own survival was in jeopardy when a legal tangle occurred between Disney and a publishing company that purchased the literary rights from Salten’s heirs. But fortunately, the copyright issues were resolved and it continues to be available for subsequent generations. That’s a good thing because of what Bambi teaches us about ourselves. 

BAMBI may currently be viewed in its entirety on YouTube for a small rental fee.

***

Jlewis:

I first saw BAMBI as my third major movie theater outing during one of its reissues. (There was a time when these animated features were brought back to theaters every eight or so years, before home entertainment and streaming services.)

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My previous movie experiences were LADY AND THE TRAMP, also in reissue, and HERBIE RIDES AGAIN. I think my parents took me to see the doggie film just before my sister was born so that they didn’t have to explain the whole “what is a baby?” situation to me. They viewed me no differently than Jim Dear and Darling viewed their cocker spaniel.

Not sure why I was taken to see BAMBI, but it was the film that had the stronger influence on my formative years. Not surprisingly, I did not become a fan of deer hunting and, when I lived in western Pennsylvania, detested how “man” would tramp through the neighborhood with their camouflage and rifles the week after Thanksgiving each year.

The movie didn’t have much impact on the sport anyway, but it did much to promote forest fire prevention. Although the United States Forest Service created its own icon with Smokey the Bear in 1944, Disney had a special arrangement with them that allowed Bambi and other characters from the movie to be freely used in TV and print ads. The forest fire in the movie is a key climax, but Leonard Maltin criticizes this impressive sequence in his Disney Films book of 1973: “The idea of giving the flames an animated life goes against the grain of the film and clashes with the meticulously drawn forest and the animals that the flames pursue.”

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Meticulous is a great adjective to describe BAMBI. Because it was so meticulous, it had one of the longest production periods among Disney animated features, if not quite as long as SLEEPING BEAUTY and THE BLACK CAULDRON.

Preliminary work began during the final stage of SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS when Walt Disney acquired the rights to Felix Salten’s novel through MGM producer/director Sydney Franklin, whom…I am guessing…had planned to make a live-action film for Metro using an animal cast. (MGM instead produced another deer pic, THE YEARLING, a decade later. Franklin himself is mentioned as a “special thanks” credit in BAMBI.)

Full scale production began one month before war broke out in Europe and continued through the famous animators labor strike of June 1941, coinciding with Bambi’s screen debut “cameo” in THE RELUCTANT DRAGON.

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James Algar, who later took on some of the live-action True Life Adventure films that I will be profiling shortly, was among several animation directors involved, along with Bill Roberts, Samuel Armstrong, Norman Wright, Graham Heid and Paul Satterfield. They were all either taking time out from– or working while others in the studio were busy with– PINOCCHIO, FANTASIA and DUMBO. Most of the work was completed by February 1942 but continued tinkering kept the release postponed until August.

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David Hand was the primary supervisor overseeing everybody with this special production and he is a rather interesting figure himself. In 1944, he moved to England and set up the most Disney-like animation unit there with full financial support by J. Arthur Rank, the most powerful tycoon in the British film industry.

Alas…the mighty Rank empire started to tumble before long and this unit didn’t survive six years despite all of the effort involved. The only difference between Ginger Nutt in the Gaumont British “Animaland” series and the gray squirrel featured in BAMBI is the rusty European coat and tufted ears. Likewise we also see a hare (lankier than Thumper the rabbit as an adult but still remarkably similar) and a lookalike mole.

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Like so many Disney films, there is little resemblance to the original. Felix Salten published Bambi: Eine Lebensgeschichte aus dem Walde (Bambi: A Life in the Forest) in serialized magazine form for the Vienna publication Neue Freie Presse in 1922. A decade later, the Nazis banned the book for various reasons, not all fully understood today; and Salten, a Jew, left for Switzerland at the time Austria was annexed to Germany. It was here that he wrote a sequel called Bambis Kinder: Eine Familie im Walde (Bambi’s Children: The Story of a Forest Family).

Disney not only changed much of the story material, but also the fauna featured. Salten’s original model for Bambi supposedly was a roe deer, but Kurt Weise, the illustrator of Whittaker Chambers’ English translation for Simon & Schuster (1929), depicted a majestic red deer instead. Regardless, the literary forest was populated by European critters, while Disney “Americanized” it all for the big screen.

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Mule deer, native of California, were initially subjects of study, but then the Maine Development Commission provided live white-tailed deer from the east for the animators to study after Maurice Day did extensive photographic work in that state for the artwork needed for the impressive multi-plane camera effects. In addition to Thumper the Eastern Cottontail and Flower the Striped Skunk, we also get chipmunks, gray squirrels, opossums and raccoon that are not found in Salten’s native Austria, along with an assortment of birds that don’t quite match species found anywhere.

Predictably both of the original books are much more graphic in their violence than any Disney film would dare to be. One key scene in the first book has Bambi and the Great Prince finding the corpse of a hunter accidentally shot by another hunter, proving to them that “man” (described as “He” in print) was no supernatural being. Faline had a brother named Gobo who gets adopted by a human and later is released back to the wild…only to get killed by that same human later. Walt Disney nonetheless decided to keep the killing of Bambi’s mother intact even though, as I will point out later, many children books published years after the movie often cut that scene out.

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We often tend to view Disney’s version of Bambi the character as adorably cute and a pleasing icon for any nursery bedtime post, but the movie itself still retains a dark edge since it was, after all, released during the dark days of World War II. Even if many deaths in the books were removed from screen, we still see at least one animal killed besides Bambi’s mother: a pheasant who gets too scared and flies into gun fire.

Her fall is followed by an intense battle scene featuring multiple pheasants and rabbits in particular that reminds me a lot of Jean Renoir’s horrible and vastly over-rated LA RÈGLE DU JEU (THE RULES OF THE GAME). I highly doubt that the animators saw it because that French film wasn’t released in the U.S. until after the war.

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The movie score is one of the darkest in the Disney canon despite the Silly Symphony-ish “April Showers,” “Let’s Sing a Gay Little Spring Song” and the optimistic opening number “Love is the Song” sung by Donald Novis that was Oscar nominated. Although Edward H. Plumb and Frank Churchill worked as a team here, the Churchill influence seems far greater, often keeping us viewers on an uncomfortable edge.

It was Churchill who devised that simple, yet very ominous, set of notes whenever “man is in the forest” that many have compared with John Williams’ JAWS. I am not sure if Churchill specifically supervised the “clash of the stags” sequence in which a young Bambi struggles to keep out of the way of charging bucks in the meadow, but it sounds like his work with a stark Wagnerian warlike influence. “I Bring You the Song” was co-written with Larry Morey as a standard romance, but Churchill makes it all very haunting and non-earthly; the visuals showing Faline and Bambi in the dark summer meadow full of fireflies reminds me a little of our earlier reviewed GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES in its hypnotic until-death-we-part atmosphere.

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On May 14, 1942, shortly after completing his work with the film and receiving an Oscar for his and Oliver Wallace’s work on DUMBO, Churchill sat at his piano and killed himself with a revolver. He had been dealing with depression for a while and was further saddened with the deaths of two close friends and orchestra members during the early months of the war. No, this was not the happiest movie produced by Disney.

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The occasionally depressing undertones (not that the whole film is like that, obviously, since we see our star survive and become a daddy to twins) might have hindered it at the box-office initially. BAMBI is a film that was ahead of its time and, thus, only started earning a substantial profit with its first re-release in 1947.

This prompted Simon & Schuster to revamp its earlier 1941 Disney book version (published before the film’s release) with an all-new Little Golden Book in April 1948 recycling the text but using different illustrations.

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Mel Shaw, who worked on the movie as an animator, supervised the Big Golden Book version the following year which strangely covered just the first half of the story, leaving out the mother’s death. This particular deletion was a tactic repeated in subsequent Bambi books because too many parents of the burgeoning Baby Boom complained about having to explain what happens to “mommy” despite it being an important scene in the movie.

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Other kinds of merchandising involved with the movie are worth mentioning, even if I am deviating a bit from the movie itself. (Forgive me, please.) The movie’s first 3-D rendition appeared in 1951, courtesy of the TruVue stereo filmstrip company of Rock Island, Illinois with Nelson Williams in charge of the artwork…2-D illustrations turned 3-D with a special technique that was being fine-tuned. That company, in turn, was soon absorbed by Sawyers Inc. of Portland, Oregon, which already owned View-Master and put out both TruVue and View-Master versions involving model work by Joe Liptak (in a rarely seen today 7 image version) and the team of Martha Armstrong and Lee Green (involving 21 images). 

The Armstrong and Green version was one of View-Master’s top Disney sellers between 1956 and 1988, after which it was replaced with a newer version that did not involve model work but also had the mother’s death scene reinstated. Baby Boomers tended to fuss a lot less about such subject matter with their own children than their parents did.

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Thumper the rabbit, voiced by juvenile non-professional Peter Behn, was the key co-star who emerged with his own short lived comic strip and headlining his own Little Golden Book in 1944.

“He can call me Flower if he wants to” the skunk is interesting from today’s perspective in that he is totally accepting of all titles and confident in who he is, especially after a baby deer calls him a “pretty, pretty flower,” which causes him to blush as if he is in love with the “young prince of the forest.” (Sterling Holloway voices Flower as an adult.)

Yet make no mistake: all of these characters are strictly heterosexual and only “twitterpate” with the opposite gender. Thumper even gets mighty excited with his big feet (and we all know what big feet symbolize) when a false eyelash-ed and rosy cheeked female bunny fondles his…er…ears.

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Like Friend Owl, I was always annoyed with all of the twitterpating involved. Why doesn’t this movie get to the point? Apparently there was plenty of that going on after the war and a whole new generation was getting created much like the many baby animals featured in the movie’s finale. Spring time overtakes the burned out ashes of the great fire just as many contemporary audiences were hoping Europe and the world would rejuvenate after wartime.

Big Joel on YouTube has an interesting video title “How Disney Plays with Nature” that not just focuses on the Disneyesque approach to “mother nature” but also how the movie reflects pre-Eisenhower Era family norms.

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After his introduction, the Great Prince of the Forest only re-appears after mother’s death to get junior to fend for himself and then, later on, commands him that “you must get up” when he is injured. While this may reflect nature (since bucks are generally not involved in fawn rearing), it also reflects the broken family situations commonplace during the Depression and war years, especially with so many daddies having to go far away and/or spend long hours for work and armed conflict.

In many ways, the father-son relationship here was not unlike that of Walt and Roy Disney’s with their own stern father Elias. In addition, Thumper’s dad is never shown but referenced when his mother disciplines him…as many mothers often did at the time when their husbands couldn’t.

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A BAMBI II direct-to-DVD version was released in January 2006 that, like so many book and toy variations, reflected the changing times. It was not really a sequel but a fill-in-the-blanks revision of sorts…and a disaster in my opinion despite impressive animation by Australia’s Disneytoon Studios. It showed a juvenile Bambi seeking daddy love because…well…daddies are supposed to be kinder, gentler and more involved with their children by the 21st century.

Then again, I should not be too critical of what the Disney staff has done with Felix Salten’s original over the decades, since at least 15%-20% of the original content has been left in. This contrasts with, say, Daniel P. Mannix’s original version of THE FOX AND THE HOUND, a novel even more violent than BAMBI but transformed into one very alien looking, Gerber-fed fluff ball of entertainment.

In January 2020, a cgi reboot was announced by Disney to be starting production, making this the latest in a long line of old animated features getting a new face lift for a newer generation. It should be most interesting…

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What keeps the original alive today is how it presents childhood in all of its myriad of experiences. We see the deer learn to walk for the first time, talk for the first time, walk on snow, skate on ice and even experience hunger as so many children did during times of economic depression and war. There are also those little moments like his first reflection in the water surface…seeing himself for the first time, which leads to him seeing Faline for the first time as a reflection of his own reflection. We see him afraid of thunder showers and lightning, but deal with the harsh aspects of life…and death…and overcome it.