Friday, July 5, 2013

Six from the 50s at the Stanford

In June, I saw six films at the Stanford Theater in Palo Alto.  All six were made in the 1950s.  I didn't have to look up the film release dates before writing the previous sentence.  The spring film program was titled Films from the 1950s.

Brigadoon starring Gene Kelly, Van Johnson & Cyd Charisse; directed by Vincente Minnelli; (1954)
Bus Stop starring Marilyn Monroe & Don Murray; directed by Joshua Logan; (1956)
Some Came Running starring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Shirley MacLaine & Martha Hyer; directed by Vincente Minnelli; (1958)
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers starring Howard Keel & Jane Powell; with Julie Newmar; directed by Stanley Donen; (1954)
Calamity Jane starring Doris Day, Howard Keel, Allyn Ann McLerie & Philip Carey; directed by David Butler; (1953)
Roman Holiday starring Gregory Peck & Audrey Hepburn; directed by William Wyler; (1953)

Technically, Roman Holiday is part of the Stanford's summer program but I knew it was made in the 1950s.


Musicals are typically not at the top my "To See" list.  I find them to be formulaic and times tedious; not to mention unfulfilling.  Breaking out in song and dance at the crucial moment is disappointing for a guy like me who is conditioned to expect a bang or clever rejoinder.

Brigadoon is one of these musicals I have heard about for years but have never seen.  It was playing with another Gene Kelly musical, Singin' in the Rain which I enjoyed very much.  Brigadoon also had the advantage of being a Lerner and Loewe collaboration.  Lerner & Loewe shared credit for one of my favorite musicals (Gigi).

Brigadoon was not Gigi.  The story of a Scottish village in which a century to the rest of the world passes in one day in Brigadoon.  American Gene Kelly & Van Johnson stumble into the town on that one day.   With musicals, plot is not a major selling point.  Apart from one dance number soon after Kelly & Johnson arrive, I found the musical numbers to be a hard slog.  Cyd Charisse looked beautiful and was the best part of the film.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (7B47B) is another of those musicals I have long heard of but have never seen.  7B47B had a raucous energy and Howard Keel & Jane Powell to interject some humor into the story.  The barn raising number was stupendous and Keel seemed inspired in his role as the eldest of the seven brothers.

Similarly Doris Day seemed to be extra enthusiastic as eponymous Calamity Jane.  Swaggering like the cock of the walk and talking like Foghorn Leghorn to boot, Day plays Calamity like a tomboy until Allyn Ann McLerie shows up and makes eyes for Calamity's calvaryman.  Keel shows up as Jane's best friend.

Of the three musicals, 7B47B was my favorite.


My two favorite films by Jean-Luc Godard are Breathless and Contempt.  They are very different films and I would be hard pressed to pick one over the other.  The latter film features Michael Piccoli as French screenwriter adapting Homer's Ulysses for the big screen.  Fritz Lang plays himself as the director of the "film within a film."  Jack Palance plays the American producer of the film and Brigitte Bardot plays Piccoli's wife.  The contempt referenced titled could be from Palance towards Piccoli and Bardot but it could also refer to the feelings of Bardot and Piccoli towards each other.

In a memorable scene, Bardot & Piccoli argue whether he should take the job with Palance.  The argument takes place in their flat.  Bardot and then Piccoli (I think that is the order) take baths while the conversation flows from topic to topic and room to room.  Piccoli wears his hat while taking a bath and when Bardot tells him he looks ridiculous, Piccoli mentions he looks like Dean Martin in Some Came Running.  Since seeing Contempt for the first time, I have wanted to see Some Came Running to compare Martin's character to Piccoli's character in Contempt.

When I saw Some Came Running on the Stanford calendar, I knew I would have to see it.  I don't recall it being screened anywhere else in the Bay Area for the past decade or so.  I wasn't disappointed.

Some Came Running (based on a James Jones novel).  Dave Hirsh (Frank Sinatra) is US Army veteran and published author returning to his small hometown.  He was drunk the night before and doesn't getting on the bus into town.  He also doesn't remember hooking up with Ginny Moorehead (Shirley MacLaine).  If the author James Ellroy is to be believed, Ginny was a roundheel in the vernacular of the day.  Nowadays, she would just be called poor, white trash.  Looking to dump Ginny and settle some scores, Dave checks into a hotel and looks to settle the score with his older brother who sent him off to a boarding school as a boy.  I'm not quite sure what Dave's beef is with his brother but regardless it is there.

Frank Hirsh has married well and runs his wife's family business (a jewel store).  Embarrassed by Dave's behavior, Frank & his wife try to play matchmaker by pairing Dave with Gwen (Martha Hyer), a schoolteacher and daughter of a college professor.  Dave is looking for some action but Gwen is more interested in his fiction.  Not getting what he wants in the respectable part of town, Dave falls in with his pals from the wrong side of the tracks - professional gambler Bama (Dean Martin), his gal Rosalie and Ginny Moorehead who sticks around town because she is stuck on Dave.

And so it goes, Dave is pulled between the two poles.  As the film progresses, we see that the respectable people aren't really so respectable.  Frank starts an affair with his secretary.  Frank's teenage daughter runs with a fast crowd.  Gwen seems to be sexually repressed for unstated reason (I suspect the book hinted at incest).  At the other end of the spectrum, gambling, drinking and fights are the order of the day.

Disillusioned by everyone's hypocrisy, Dave is fed up and decides to ask Ginny to marry him...much to the dismay of Bama who refers to Ginny as a pig and refuses to attend the ceremony.  After the wedding ceremony, Dave & Ginny are walking hand in hand appearing as though Dave will be miserable for the rest of the marriage as Ginny is not his intellectual equal.  There has been a jilted lover/gangster stalking Ginny since the beginning.  Looking to kill Dave, he shoots but Ginny jumps in front and takes the bullet proving that the least sophisticated amongst them all was the most earnest in her love.

Some Came Running is one of those films that can't be made anymore.  The production code sapped the piss and vinegar from the story so we have to look for signs of what is really going on.  I interpreted the film to be a condemnation of suburban morals and lifestyles.  The hypocrisy of their lives hid the moral rots of their lives.  Dave recognizes this and doesn't bother with the hypocrisy but only finds the unvarnished truth is worse than the hypocrisy.  There is no escape for him except to marry a woman he doesn't love or respect.  He would have ended up as bad or worse than what he was trying escape except Ginny gave him redemption through her death.

Shirley MacLaine received an Oscar nomination for her performance.  Dean Martin's Bama was very cool - gambling, drinking himself to death and always wearing that hat.  The one time he takes it off, he gets knifed.


Bus Stop was Marilyn Monroe's first dramatic role.  Monroe plays Chérie, a woman of questionable background who hustles drinks in a cowboy bar in Phoenix.  Beau (Don Murray) and Virgil (Arthur O'Connell) are in town for the rodeo.  I cannot recall the circumstances of Beau's life.  Virgil appears to have raised him on an Idaho ranch.  Beau owns the ranch but Virgil still serves as his advisor.  I do recall that Beau has had little to no contact with women.

Beau falls hard for Chérie despite Virgil's warning.  Chérie had hustled a few drinks from Virgil before Beau arrived.

I'll digress for a moment at this point.  When I was a boy, my father switched careers.  He became an accountant.  He sold his services to small businesses.  For reasons I do not know, he had quite a few bars as clients.  I think it had to do with the high volume of cash transactions in bars.  Anyway, I remember him telling me (or complaining) about how some of his clients had bar girls on payroll but off the books.  I didn't know what a bar girl was.  He explained that a bar owner would get a nice looking woman or two to hang out in the bar.  She would get guys to buy her drinks.  She would order whiskey but the bartender would serve her room temperature tea.  You could do the same thing with vodka and water.  Anyway, the guy would be paying full price for her drink.  A good bartender would keep track of how many "whiskeys" a bar girl had ordered and know that he could sell that quantity of real whiskey without having to record the transaction.  Essentially they could same sell the shot of whiskey twice with the revenue from the second shot completely off the books.  The bar would have to kick back some of the that revenue to the bar girl.  In the movies, the bar girl would get the guy drunk (matching him shot for shot) and then she and/or her accomplices would roll the guy for his wallet.  I don't think this happens often.  If more too many guys complains to the police about this kind of behavior, it draws unwanted attention from the police.  More common is that the bar girl is also a prostitute and makes some money off the guy the old-fashioned way.

Back to Bus Stop - despite Virgil's warning, Beau pursues Chérie relentlessly.  Chérie is from the Ozarks and Monroe lays on a thick Southern accent.  She is making her way from Arkansas to Hollywood to become a movie star and the Phoenix bar is just a way station.  Monroe memorable rendition of "That Old Black Magic" (both comical and sexy) is from Bus Stop.  Beau unilaterally decides that he and Chérie are getting married.  Chérie declines his "proposal" and attempts to skip town but Beau essentially kidnaps Chérie and drags her onto the bus back to Idaho.

Beau is quite a character  - loud, raucous, uncouth and a bully.  Actually, he has known only success on his ranch so maybe "bully" is not the right word.  Success on the ranch was measured in how fast he rope a calf or how long he can ride a bull.  Using that same mentality, he decides to snag a wife and he won't let anyone (including Chérie) stop him.  At a diner/bus stop, the other passengers realize that Chérie is being forced to go to Idaho against her will.  The bus driver (Robert Bray) steps in at Virgil's urging and fight Beau.  The bus driver resoundingly beats Beau and Virgil demands that Beau apologize to Chérie and allow her to return to Phoenix.  Humiliated by the defeat, Beau drags his feet in apologizing.  When he finally does, it leads to tender moment between the two which ends in Chérie agreeing to go to Idaho with Beau.

Bus Stop stretched the limits of credibility.  Could a character like Beau really exist?  Probably not but within the context of the film, Beau was too rambunctious.  Until the end of the film, there were no gradations or subtleties to Beau.  He was like a bull in a china shop.  I know Bus Stop was Monroe's vehicle but the film would have been better if they had toned down Murray's performance.  Monroe's Southern accent seemed more of an affectation than anything.  Chérie's backstory could have easily been set in a part of the country where her natural speaking voice (not her breathy Marilyn voice) could have been used.


Roman Holiday is all-time classic.  It's been many years since I last saw it and I had never seen it before on the movie screen.

Audrey Hepburn plays a princess who tires of the regimented nature of her life.  She sneaks out of her country's embassy in Rome one night as an act of rebellion.  Unfortunately, she had been given a sedative before she sneaked out.  After a late night poker game, American journalist Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck) encounters her sleeping on a public bench.  Taking pity, Bradley takes her back to his place so she can sleep there.

The next day, Bradley realizes that the woman he took home the previous night is the princess who has "taken ill" according to official government announcement.  Realizing he has a big story, Bradley enlists his photojournalist friend (Eddie Albert) to photograph the princess.  Upon returning to the apartment, the princess continues to pretend she is someone else.  Realizing that she would like experience a normal life, Bradley offers to show her around town along with his buddy (Albert).  There are the iconic scenes of Hepburn & Peck on a Vespa.  

Later, the three go to a dance and get into a fight with the security personnel hired to track down the princess.  She hits someone over the head with guitar which Albert photographs and then they jump in the river to escape the police. 

Bradley has developed feelings for the princess and decides against using photos or writing the story.  Despite her reciprocal feelings towards Bradley, the princess realizes she must return to her duties.  They have an emotional farewell with neither admitting their deception to the other.

The next day, the princess (in her official capacity) has a press conference which Peck & Albert attend.    Seeing them, she realizes what has happened.  During a public exchange with considerable subtext, Bradley assures the princess her secret will remain so and the princess expresses her gratitude to Bradley.  Newly self-assured, the princess decides to meet with some of the journalists at which time Albert hands over the photos and Bradley & the princess share a meaningful glance.

When the press conference ends, Bradley lingers wondering if the princess will send for him.  Realizing this won't happen, he is the last to leave the room with the bittersweet memories of his time with the princess.

Hepburn shines in her role.  It was Roman Holiday that made her a star and won her an Academy Award.  Displaying comic abilities and an appealing vulnerability, Hepburn's star power was on full display.  I also liked that the film didn't sell out at the end and have the two leads live happily ever after.

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