Little Women (1949)

Gasser

Little Women (1949)

      Louisa May Alcott’s novel “Little Women” has found its way onto the big screen at least five times since the creation of motion pictures and we have probably not seen the last of it. Although I have seen three of these, I cannot quite decide which is the best of them. The 1949 version starring June Allyson differentiates itself in some ways from the other versions and in particular expands the part belonging to Elizabeth Taylor.

     In this Little Women Taylor plays Amy, who at 12 is the youngest of the March sisters in the book and in other incarnations of the movie. But at 17, Taylor’s already voluptuous body belies the youngest character’s age and visually appears to be the second-youngest sister. Beth, who is meant to be the second youngest sister, is played by Margaret O’Brien who was five years younger than Taylor. The choice of Taylor as Amy is logical in that she is meant to be the daintiest and grow to be the prettiest of the March girls, but the dying of her hair blonde does not favor the actress whose dark eyebrows defy her hairstyle.

     We all know that the story creates a deep friendship between main character Jo (Allyson) and neighbor Laurie (Peter Lawford) that essentially ends with Jo’s rejection of his marriage proposal. Amy then is meant to grow into a lovely young woman who captures Laurie’s fancy and becomes his wife. The downside to Taylor’s presence here is that Laurie could just have easily fallen for her at the film’s start as later on as her appearance changes only in the slightly finer clothing she dons.

     But moving away from the, perhaps, annoyance that is Taylor in Little Women, Allyson must be applauded for her fantastic portrayal of tomboy Jo, who is ever after equality for women. Her boldness ignites the friendship with Laurie who has moved in with his wealthy grandfather in the home next door. We see a lot of Laurie, more than in other movie versions, as he lets no class boundaries block his relationship with the girls and Jo in particular. His grandfather, Laurence Sr. (C. Aubrey Smith), is also quickly repainted from a grumpy old man to a generous friend who gives Beth his piano and supports the family through the girl’s illnesses.

     I perhaps never found it more heart wrenching than when Winona Ryder‘s Jo rejects the proposal from Christian Bale‘s Laurie in the 1994 Little Women. I did not experience the same emotion in the 1949 version. I would not say that Allyson nor Lawford poorly acted their parts but perhaps Jo is so masculine here that it is hard to imagine her as a marriage candidate. I typically also find myself heartbroken in watching other versions when Jo goes on to fall in love with the German she meets in New York, but I did not feel that way in this instance. This Professor Bhaer, although played by the Italian Rossano Brazzi, is handsome enough and affectionate enough to warm us to him as Jo’s suitor.

     Also joining the cast is Mary Astor as mother Marmee who is thankfully in few scenes as she brings little to the part and at times delivers the dialogue poorly. Janet Leigh plays oldest sister Meg and is appropriately polite and beautiful in her role. Despite the great cast, Allyson really stands as the best part, as well she should. This might not be the best filmed version of Little Women but it is nevertheless entertaining.

  • Little Women is set for 3:45 a.m. ET Sept. 8 on TCM.

Weekend’s Best Bet Continued…

In running through TCM’s lineup for this weekend, I came across far too many good flicks to list in my regular viewing recommendations in the left column. Not only are there a number of gems showing this weekend, but I have already written about them. So click on the links below to learn more about the movies and consider checking them out yourself this weekend. P.S. All times are Eastern Standard Time and on the U.S. programming schedule.

Beware, My Lovely
6:30 pm Friday on TCM
Ida Lupino, Robert Ryan

The Lost Weekend
10 pm Friday on TCM
Ray Milland, Jane Wyman

Sunrise
8 pm Saturday on TCM
Janet Gaynor, George O’Brien

The Great Race
1 pm Sunday on TCM
Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon

Butterfield 8
10 pm Sunday on TCM
Elizabeth Taylor, Laurence Harvey

 

Raintree County

Ring a Ding Ding

Raintree County (1957)

     Raintree County marked a significant point in the career of Montgomery Clift, although not a positive one. It was a box office hit because people flocked to the theater to compare the before and after images of the face of a man who had been disfigured in a car accident during filming. Myself, I could not identify a change in his facade, but I did think he looked different throughout from the Clift to which I am accustomed. He had a rather stiff, stoic face that curves into a smile only once, I think, during the story.

     The accident happened when Clift left a party at the home of his costar Elizabeth Taylor. He hit a phone poll, and thanks to Kevin McCarthy who witnessed the collision, was quickly attended by Taylor, Rock Hudson and others. Taylor allegedly removed two loose front teeth from his mouth that were threatening to choke the actor. Filming was halted while Clift recovered for nine weeks from a broken jaw and nose and plastic surgery to repair part of his face. The incident also led to a dependence on pills and alcohol, which would plague the rest of his career.

     Raintree County can easily be compared to Gone with the Wind because it takes place both before and during the Civil War, involves love –some of it unrequited– and a particular emphasis on place, nevermind that it is more than three hours long. Raintree County, Indiana, is where most of our characters grew up. We come in on Clift’s John Shawnessy and Eva Marie Saint as Nell, his sort-of girlfriend. They are nearing the end of high school, but the entrance of Taylor’s Susanna Drake sends their lives in different directions than they expected. Susanna, whose family owns a house in Raintree County but is from the south, quickly falls in love with John and he with her. They make love in a lakeside forest and Susanna next says she is “going to have a baby”. Prior to this point, John was not really through with Nell despite her hurt feelings, but the forthcoming bundle of joy forces him to marry the southern belle.

     The couple moves to the south and John starts to learn unsavory things about his bride: she is racist, pro-slavery and is not really pregnant. After making some inquiries of Susanna’s relatives, our protagonist learns that her mother went insane, her father visited Cuba for a long time where Susanna was born and from where he returned with a non-slave black woman, and there was some confusion after a fire killed those three about which woman was in bed with the father. Susanna herself will convey the whole story of the fire closer to the end of the movie.

     John is not really digging the south, so the pair return to Raintree County where Susanna does eventually have a baby, Jim. The woman’s mental health clearly starts deteriorating around the time of the pregnancy, and her struggles will shape the remainder of the film that involves John going to war merely to hunt down the son his wife has kidnapped and taken southward.

     Taylor was nominated for an Oscar for this role, which she greatly deserved. Besides playing a perfect southern belle with an almost natural-seeming accent, she does wonderfully with the insanity part of her character. I felt Clift’s performance was quite stiff, possibly because of the accident’s effects on his face. For both actors I could criticize some of the emotion. Any time they declared their love for each other, I was surprised because their performances had been rather unconvincing up to that point. Only Saint really wore her emotions on her sleeve so we could know how much she longed for her lost love.

     Raintree County  is a long movie to sit through, but it has a wonderful and mysterious/scandalous story highlighted by beautiful scenery and costumes, which were designed by Walter Plunkett who earned an Academy Award nomination for them.

  • Raintree County is set for 6 a.m. Aug. 20 on TCM.

Source: Robert Osborne, TCM.com

CAPA Summer Movie Series (Columbus, Ohio)

For those of you who live in central Ohio as I do, you will be glad to hear CAPA has posted its lineup for this year’s Summer Movie Series. I have seen a lot of these but am always willing to rewatch something if it’s on the big screen.

I’ll definitely be seeing Hitchcock’s Frenzy as I’ve been meaning to give that another chance. Other must sees if you haven’t already include Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Grapes of Wrath, High Noon, Bringing Up Baby, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Big Sleep.

Sadly, no Audrey Hepburn movie this year as there usually is. For those who have not experienced a favorite or classic movie on the big screen in a theater full of people who love the movie as much as you, it really is a memorable experience. I recommend it.

Butterfield 8

Ring a Ding Ding

Butterfield 8 (1960)

     Elizabeth Taylor‘s sexuality seemed to be the guiding part of her career in the years surrounding 1960. She had done Cat on a Hot Tin Roof two years prior and would do Cleopatra two films after Butterfield 8  –a story of a woman who is a bit too liberal with her physical love.

     Gloria Wandrous awakes in a ritzy apartment, nude and alone. She drowsily trolls for a cigarette among items on a nightstand before wrapping herself in the sheet and wandering the room. There we see her stumble upon a torn dress and other empty packets of cigarettes. The first 5-10 minutes of the film are absent of dialogue besides Gloria’s occasional call for “Liggett”. Gloria puts on a slip and now walks about free of the sheet. She explores a vanity and a closet full of expensive women’s clothing and we somehow understand that this is not her home. She selects a coat with a fur collar, but upon discovering a note and some cash, Gloria becomes enraged, exchanges the coat for a mink one and scribbles “no sale” on a mirror with lipstick. She phones “Butterfield 8″ to inform them that when Mr. Liggett calls she wants to speak to him personally and immediately.

     The viewer is confused at this point because given that she woke up after a night of sex in a home not her own, Gloria must be a prostitute, correct? Gloria is not, however, she just is free with her sexuality. Butterfield 8 is an answering service she uses so as to protect herself from men with which she has finished.

     Gloria’s first stop after leaving the home of Weston Liggitt (Laurence Harvey) is the apartment of her best friend, Eddie (Eddie Fisher). She is clad in her slip and stolen mink and is a bit flirtatious with the man, whom she eventually convinces to have his girlfriend deliver some presentable clothes for her. Gloria resides with her mother, who likely knows of her daughter’s lifestyle, but both are in denial about it –thus the need for more than a mink.

     Gloria agrees to see Liggitt again after learning the money he left was to replace the dress he had ruined. She is uncertain of whether she wants to continue to see the man, but the two begin to fall in love. Liggitt is unhappily married, and when his wife returns home and finds the mink missing, Liggitt becomes furious at the idea that Gloria stole it (although she had planned to return it). The two have a row but Liggitt regrets his harsh words the next day only to have Gloria determined to never see him again. The plot concludes appropriately, I think, although not romantically.

     Taylor won her first Best Actress Oscar for this film, and I have heard two reasons for why that was so. One account suggested it was the Academy’s way of making up for her loss two years prior for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which she plainly deserved. The second reasoning is that Taylor was filming Cleopatra at the time of Oscar consideration and had become severely ill to the point that Hollywood suspected she may never make another picture. Whatever the reason, Taylor took the first of two Oscars home for Butterfield 8 despite hating the movie (The other was for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf). She had originally turned down the project, but changed her mind when she learned it would complete her contract obligation to MGM, thus allowing her to accept a $1 million paycheck for Cleopatra at 20th Century Fox.

  • Butterfield 8 is set for noon ET July 10 on TCM.

Source: Robert Osborne

Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor 1932-2001

The loss of Elizabeth Taylor March 23 seems to have sparked more media discussion about her humanitarian efforts, particularly with AIDS, than the Hollywood life she had separated herself from some years ago. Her last film appearance playing a role was in 2001 in These Old Broads when she joined other Hollywood legends –June Allyson, Shirley McClaine, Debbie Reynolds– in spoof-like imitations of themselves. Her film career seemed to truly come to a close after 1989 when she appeared in Tennesee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth, a second screen adaptation that had originally featured Geraldine Page in the “aging actress” role opposite Paul Newman, who had paired with Taylor in another Williams’ adaptation, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

It is Cat on a Hot Tin Roof that I feel is among the two films that stand out in my mind as Taylor standbys. I assert it not only showed off the woman’s acting bravada but highlighted her sex appeal to the max, ironically in the role of a woman unable to turn her husband on. Besides that supremely tight fitting skirt she wears at the film’s start, it is the image of Taylor removing and replacing her ice cream-soiled stockings that always sticks with me, perhaps because that garment is rarely featured prominently.

Despite her overwhelming beauty, Taylor could scream and put up a fight like the best of them. She did that in Cat but she really stretched her boundaries in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  I was blown away by this picture with my first viewing of this hard-to-watch drama a few months ago. Not only was Taylor “brave” in gaining weight, sacrificing some of her looks, and playing an older part, but one feels she could rip the screen apart with her staggeringly sharp and painful jabs at Richard Burton, who played her husband and was her husband at the time and again later in her life.

Roles like Martha were rare for Taylor before 1966. She seemed to be cast primarily as the daughter of a wealthy family in films the plots of which revolved around romance and afforded the young beauty lavish wardrobes. A more complex version of that was Giant when she marries and converts to the life of a ranch owner’s wife. A more heartwarming take was Father of the Bride and Father’s Little Dividend. It is probably safe to say Spencer Tracy made those pictures what they were, but Taylor was well cast.

Taylor took to the screen early in life, however, long before her shapely figure caught up with her beautiful face. I recall watching the National Velvet movies as a kid, but haven’t indulged in them lately. It is not often that child stars can actually last past their cute youth and make it in the grown up world of film. I almost separate Taylor into two actresses because the adorable, sweet roles of her childhood contrast so differently from the later work.

TCM’s schedule indicates a number of Taylor films are upcoming, however, it does not look as if those include the traditional programming change whenever a star dies. Here’s the list:

What to Watch: Xmas Day

Most of us will enjoy time away from work and other distractions on Xmas day and will hopefully find ourselves relaxing in the vicinity of a fire, family and TV. Turner Classic Movies has a number of good films playing Dec. 25, not all of which are Christmas themed, but are essential picks nonetheless.

Bell, Book and Candle (1959)

Those for whom the promise of Santa and gifts are too much to stay asleep, Bell, Book and Candle will be airing at 4 a.m. ET. The Kim Novak-Jimmy Stewart picture is middle of the road entertainment-wise but is pretty goofy. Novak’s witch puts a love spell on Stewart’s character on Christmas Eve and the complications of a romance based on sorcery complicate the relationship. The movie offers some interesting concepts of laws surrounding witchcraft and is a cute romance, but the best part might be the name of the cat: Pyewacket (which apparently stems from a term referring to “a friendly spirit” associated with a witch). Add that to my list of future pet names!

Little Women (1933)

For those who decline to sleep in on the holiday, the 1933 Little Women will air at 6 a.m. ET. I think I have probably only seen this version of the classic novel and the contemporary Winona Ryder version and obviously prefer the former. The story, which also has some winter/Xmas ties, is a great family plot about sisterhood, love, adventure and regret. Katharine Hepburn is really fantastic as Jo, and the movie is definitely worth seeing if you have not caught this version. One of her earlier films, Hepburn really had the personality of an all-American tomboy-type girl that the character requires.

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

For those waiting for the rest of the family to roll out of bed, an 8 a.m. ET showing of The Shop Around the Corner might be the perfect fit. It’s what I believe to be the original version of a story used repeatedly throughout Hollywood’s history (including most recently as You’ve Got Mail). Set in Budapest around Xmastime, two shop employees become instant enemies who do not realize that their romantic pen pals happen to be each other. It’s a great story that was reincarnated as the Judy Garland musical In the Good Old Summertime and one that leaves me with thorough romantic feelings for the lead male, which in the original was Jimmy Stewart (what’s with that guy and Xmas movies?). definitely a good one to get into the loving spirit of the holiday.

Ben-Hur (1959)

When 1 p.m. ET rolls around and the gifts are open and the meal in the oven, it might be time for a long sit on the couch for Ben Hur. I will admit that I fell asleep for probably half of this movie but woke up to catch the chariot race, and frankly, I’m fine with that. The story was not my cup of tea, but the Best Picture winner is one probably every classic film fan should endeavor to endure at least once, even if dozing is involved. I will not go into the long, complex plot, but suffice it to say there are biblical references and Charlton Heston.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

When the kids have gone to bed and you have had enough of family, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  is set to warm your heart at 10:30 p.m. ET. I am not sure why this incredibly hard to watch picture is being presented on a holiday typically associated with positive feelings, but the Elizabeth Taylor triumph is a great picture. Opposite husband Richard Burton, Taylor showed for the first time her true mettle as an actress and her willingness to take on roles outside of the shapely sex objects with which she had come to be associated. I caught it recently, so check out the review for more.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)

And if you are still up at 1 a.m. ET, Elizabeth Taylor returns in possibly her sexiest role in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I am a big fan of movies based on Tennessee Williams’ plays, and this is no exception. His stories all have a similar formula that involves some deep, dark secret surrounding a main character that is gradually revealed to the audience and usually has some sexual implication. In this flick, Taylor and Paul Newman are a young married couple but Newman’s character refuses to sleep with the severely seductive woman because of this “secret”. There is also plenty of family drama that makes one want to rip her hair out from frustration, but it’s really a powerful picture and a must-see.

Secret Ceremony

Dullsville

Secret Ceremony (1968)

     I almost wanted to give this movie a “What the F—?” rating because I think I might be traumatized for life after this one. I’ve categorized Secret Ceremony as both drama and horror because frankly I could not figure out if this was supposed to be frightening or just a creepy drama. At first I regretted reading the Dish Network synopsis that described the movie as “a London hooker looks like a girl’s late mother and the girl looks like the hookers late daughter.” I wondered if I would have been able to disseminate what was happening without that hint, but truly, I would not have known Elizabeth Taylor was meant to portray a prostitute without it. The movie is also less about Mia Farrow‘s resemblance to Taylor’s daughter who drowned at age six than Taylor being a dead ringer for Farrow’s mother.

     After Farrow’s Cenci lures Taylor’s Leonora back to her shuttered mansion where she lives all alone, Farrow quickly becomes convinced that Taylor is her mother. Finding herself in luxury, Taylor too quickly decides to go along with the ruse, feigning an English accent and talking as though she had been there all along.

A loony Mia Farrow considers what she would look like with the face of her dead mother, who happens to be a doppelgänger to Elizabeth Taylor's character.

     Farrow is unrelentingly creepy with her pale skin and black wig making for many chilling shots. She behaves as a child despite (as we later learn) being 22. She reenacts portions of her former and possibly sane life in private, including a disturbing conversation with an empty chair dating back to when her step-father groped her at age 16. That step-father, played by Robert Mitchum, reappears in incestuous pursuit of Cenci and convinces her to give up her virginity. She then plays pregnant leading Leonora to instantly go along with the ruse. The girl does eventually snap free of her lunacy after a second role in the sand with her step-father and rejects Leonora. The film ends in “tragedy” but the characters are so unrelatable that I could not have cared less. The conclusion is not necessarily predictable but not original either.

     Taylor does give a fantastic performance but the character is such a far cry from normalcy it does not really shake me. Secret Ceremony (the title for which totally escapes me) came in the middle of her career after a couple Oscar wins and the star’s establishment as an international glamor icon. Farrow, who was 23 but similar to her character easily played a adolescent, was in only her third role, with Cenci coming before the also creepy Rosemary and Sarah in the previously reviewed See No Evil.

     I did some searching online to try to find an explanation for this dreadful nightmare of a movie, but did not come up with much besides the reviews being mixed, with positive remarks referencing Taylor’s performance. If anyone can shed some light on this and perhaps settle the angst I have suffered, please do.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Wowza!

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

     I am generally drawn to movies based on dramatic plays (provided the films are considered good) and am a big fan of adaptations of Tennessee Williams’ works. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is an Edward Albee piece that certainly rocks the decency boat, Elizabeth Taylor‘s image and the viewer right out of his seat. It won five Academy Awards including Best Actress for Taylor and Best Supporting Actress for Sandy Dennis.

     Taylor was in her early thirties when she took on the role of 50-something Martha whose course tongue and violent alcoholism produce an image more resembling the crazy Taylor we expect today than the sex symbol she was in 1966. Taylor took quite the leap of faith in pursuing the role that filmmakers saw as more suited to the likes of Bette Davis. The risk paid off, however, as Taylor showed the world she was capable of more than just good looks and a charming personality.

     The plot follows a married couple comprised of Richard Burton‘s academic George and his wife, Martha, daughter of the college president. Taylor’s character invites a young couple new at the school to a 2 a.m. meet-and-drink at their home in the midst of what the viewer is left to assume is commonplace verbal battle between the primary couple. The language is harsh by 1966 standards but goes to lengths to stay true to the play. Terms such as “god damn you” and “monkey nipples” abound and add to the tense circumstances.

     The first 45 minutes of the movie are non-stop shouting between Taylor and Burton, much of which occurs once the guests have arrived. Drinks continue to be poured and Taylor puts on a show for the young pair, paying little attention to their interest in conversation but having the time of her life expounding on the shortcoming of her husband. As far as the guests are concerned, I cannot foresee why they did not escape the situation early on. Insistence that they stay and alcohol might be to blame, but if I had been in the same position I would have left 10 minutes in. The chaos does eventually subside when Dennis’ character becomes ill. From there forward the caustic terms continue but in lower tones as Martha proceeds to seduce the young man (George Segal).

     The story also contains some mystery as to the shame linked to Martha and George’s teenage son, the revelation of which brings the end of the dark night, the young couple’s visit and the film. The closing shot is a tender one between Taylor and Burton, but the viewer is left in limbo as far as what lies ahead for the couple.

     I do not think if the entire picture had paralleled the first heated portion I would have liked Virginia Woolf? so well. No one enjoys being party to an intimate quarrel, so to witness the flagrant disrespect among spouses herein is uncomfortable. The reason to watch this film, however, is not so much the story as the performances and dialogue. I have often noted that a movie can be identified as an adaptation of a stage play by the dialogue. Movies like this and Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night are heavy on conversation that is artistically written. I suppose that set up is not for everyone, but I revel in it. To see Taylor at her best, you must watch Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? which is why it receives my first, full-length Wowza! review.

Life with Father

Ring a Ding Ding

Life with Father (1947)

     I never thought I would see the day when I could dislike William Powell. The star of such great comedies as My Man Godfrey and the Thin Man movies could never be an outright asshole, or so I thought. In Life with Father Powell’s persona as the head of family is revealed in full before we ever see the man. The start of the film is seen from the perspective of a new maid in the 1880s homestead whose nerves at pleasing the specter of father, Clar(ence) Day, lead to a variety of comical bumblings and her quick departure from employment.

     I had a difficult start with Life with Father because Powell’s character is so off-putting as a man who has to have everything his way and be in control of all circumstances within the home and without. Add to that the dreadful red hair and mustache and you have just about lost me. That is until I realize what is going on has less to do with father and more to do with Irene Dunne‘s mother figure. It might take the viewer a time to discover whether Vinnie Day is a ditz who cannot seem to keep track of the money she spends or a clever woman who knows just how to manipulate her husband to keep him from destroying their happy family.

     A particularly enjoyable moment comes when Dunne explains to her husband that because their son returned a $15 pug statuette to the store and brought home a $15 suit, that none of his money was actually spent. While Powell insists that he either paid for the pug or the suit, Dunne assures him he could not have paid for the pug because they do not have it, and he could not have paid for the suit because it was gained by exchange of the pug. The conversation is nonsense, but Dunne plays it off with an almost air-headed reasoning that somehow soothes her husband to quiet.

     Also in the picture is an adolescent Elizabeth Taylor, who plays a love interest for the eldest son, Clarence Jr. Because he shares a name with his father, a comedic thread works its way through the plot wherein Powell continually accepts the boy’s mail as his own. He is bewildered by a letter from a female he does not know who purports to have sat on his lap. Powell’s blood pressure rises at the accusations while the son prods him to continue reading, playing dumb to the letter being his.

     I was drawn to Life with Father because of the pairing of Powell and Dunne, both great comedic actors. Although I was not convinced of it at first, I was surely rewarded for my faith in their talents.

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