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2013 CAPA Summer Movie Series (Columbus, OH)

It’s my favorite time of year in central Ohio, or nearly. CAPA, our local arts organizing group, has announced its lineup for the 2013 Summer Movie Series held in Downtown Columbus’ historic Ohio Theatre. For those of you unfamiliar with this seasonal gem, the June 28 through Aug. 25 series features a plethora of classic movies shown in the theater that was originally built as a movie house and is now used for concerts, ballets, etc.

Among this year’s offerings are two Hitchcock movies, which you know delights me. The wonderfully amusing The Trouble with Harry, To Catch a Thief and the Jimmy Stewart rendition of The Man Who Knew Too Much will certainly be on my schedule.

Other prize showings include An American in Paris, Grand Hotel, Citizen Kane, Bonnie and Clyde, The Thin Man, 1974’s The Great Gatsby, and Touch of Evil.

I have been notoriously bad about achieving all the CAPA Summer Movie Attendance goals I have set in years past, and I won’t pretend this year will be any better. I do hope to at least catch the Hitchcock flicks, but I’ll admit The Man Who Knew Too Much won’t be at the top of my list.


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 a few 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.

The Public Enemy
6 am Saturday on TCM
James Cagney, Jean Harlow

The Saint Strikes Back
noon Saturday on TCM
George Sanders, Wendy Barrie

Dinner at Eight 
8 pm Saturday on TCM
John Barrymore, Marie Dressler

The Thin Man
10 pm Saturday on TCM
William Powell, Myrna Loy

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner 
2 am Sunday on TCM
Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy

 San Francisco
8 am Sunday on TCM
Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald

A Day at the Races
10 am Sunday on TCM
The Marx Brothers

Witness for the Prosecution
noon Sunday on TCM
Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power

Touch of Evil


Touch of Evil (1958)

It had been probably seven years since I had seen Touch of Evil, so when the opportunity presented itself to see it on the big screen, I said, sure, why not? I probably should have been shouting from the rafters because in the interim I had completely forgotten just how much of a masterpiece the picture is.

The Orson Welles flick is most commonly celebrated for its 3 minute and 30 second opening sequence. This long take weaves the camera through the streets of the Mexico border area that is our setting after we witness a bomb placed in the trunk of a car. The camera eventually unites us with stars Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh, the newlyweds who are crossing into America. They pass over just as the ill-fated car does and are within view of the fiery blaze that occupies the screen after the movie’s first cut.

Heston’s Mike Vargas is a Mexico native and detective in that country, but the crime is sort of out of his jurisdiction because it happened on American soil. The American authorities, headed up by the grotesque Hank Quinlan (Welles), agree to work with Vargas because the bomb was planted south of the border. In the midst of this, however, Vargas has to find a place to keep the new wife, who is an American. Susan is too tough to spend the duration of the story in a hotel room, however, and the story follows her increasingly dangerous circumstances while Vargas is busy investigating.

The challenge Vargas faces is that Quinlan is far from an honorable cop in the typical sense of the word. He is well revered for bringing so many men to justice, but as the Mexican will eventually learn, he often goes outside the law to ensure convictions. Quinlan drills into a young Mexican man as his prime suspect for the explosion that murdered a construction magnate and his girlfriend. The man is dating the victim’s daughter, who would inherit her father’s fortune. Upon interrogation at the couple’s apartment, however, Vargas discovers Quinlan has planted the damning evidence but none of the American cops are willing to doubt their leader.

As Vargas digs into Quinlan’s corrupt past, Susan has already been twice threatened by a group of young Mexican greasers. The woman is being targeted to get to Vargas, although their motivation is not totally clear. Susan refuses to be frightened until she finds herself alone in a hotel complex. She is in desperate need of sleep, but when a group of party animals move in next door, she has more than exhaustion to worry about. What will transpire over the following day is more horrible than she could ever have predicted.

Touch of Evil was filmed almost entirely at night. The picture is incredibly dark and Welles uses the black and white film to his advantage in exuding a dark mood on all who watch it. Low-angle shots heighten the drama as we watch the shadowy faces of the unfriendly Vargas and Quinlan. Welles also uses sound to convey the solitude of night as our characters’ footsteps echo though streets and shadows run along walls. We have a sense that danger lurks around every corner, and are constantly on edge. Enemies attack from multiple angles as the American authorities offer no refuge from the Mexican criminals.

Welles might give his best career performance in Touch of Evil. Quinlan is such a despicable and powerful character and Welles is capable of intimidating the audience right out of their seats. I normally do not care much for Heston, but he is great as Vargas. His tan look, with dark hair and mustache, creates a convincing Mexican although he refrains from any accent. I think this helps to level the playing field between Vargas and the American detectives; although, we are still fully aware he is an outcast among this group. Leigh, meanwhile, has plenty of sex appeal and the sass necessary to make her arrogant enough to believe she is safe from harm. She reportedly broke her arm before filming and the cast was hidden during filming. During the hotel scenes, the cast was sawn off and her arm reset after filming.

Marlene Dietrich plays a small part as a gypsy to whom Quinlan goes for his traditional binge drinking. She delivers lines in her usual German drawl through a cloud of smoke she emits via the stogie on which she sucks. High-angle shots flatter her angular face while dark hair and lipstick transform her nationality. Welles alumnus Joseph Cotton appears in a tiny role, as apparently Keenan Wynn does, however, I did not spot him (so if anyone can tell me where he is, I’ll revisit the flick and find him!).

Touch of Evil is textbook filmmaking. It is artistic to the extreme while offering a riveting, convoluted story and powerful acting that has one biting his nails for half the feature. Seeing it on the big screen was a real treat, but it is a must-see movie no matter the venue.

Source: TCM.com

Feature: My Momentary Celebrity Obsession–Marlene Dietrich

I cannot get enough of Marlene Dietrich. She stands out in cinematic history not only because of her talent but because of her unique look, her wise collaborations and a bewildering sexiness.

The German actress got her start in short silent flicks in that country and worked on the stage as well, with her long legs getting much attention. People often think her first picture was The Blue Angel, but that suggestion, created by Dietrich herself, was either one meant to add to her legend or a misinterpretation (she might have meant her first movie that mattered).

She was married and had a child while becoming a big deal in the German cinemas, and it was her performance in The Blue Angel that led Hollywood to seek her and her corresponding director, Joseph von Sternberg. The duo made seven films together for Paramount in their early years in America, most of them stellar pieces of art (see Shanghai Express, Morocco, The Scarlet Empress).

Von Sternberg knew how to physically use Dietrich to the best extent, and she too learned that angling her face upward while lit from directly above cast the best shadows that turned her face into an eye-catching enigma. Part of the false Dietrich legend suggests she had her face surgically altered on arrival to Hollywood to make her cheekbones more prominent. Those cheekbones are part of the look that screams sexy for a face that otherwise does not suggest a great beauty.

Dietrich’s move to America came well before that of her family. Although she never divorced her husband, they spent most of their marriage separated.

The actress’ sultry German accent and (frankly) bit of a speech impediment never hindered her in playing wildly diverse roles. She appeared in a couple westerns and played a gypsy in Touch of Evil.

Dietrich could play in comedies, and make fun of herself, but she was at her best in dramas. An abundance of strong scripts helped to pave her career with magnificent pictures, many of which will never be forgotten.

Judgment at Nuremberg


Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

A reporter character in Judgement at Nuremberg says he could not give away a story about the Nuremberg Nazi war crime trials in 1948 because America had moved on from the war and was no longer interested. If Americans were not interested in the trials then, they certainly had no choice but to be in 1961 with the release of this overwhelming movie.

What makes Judgment at Nuremberg so important? Take your pick: the award recognition, the acting or the story. Despite its more than three-hour run time, I was hooked and invested in the story from the start.

The plot follows one specific trial held in Nuremberg, Germany, that sought to determine the guilt of four court judges during the Third Reich and whether they could be held accountable for the atrocities carried out as a result of their sentences. Spencer Tracy plays “backwoods” American Judge Haywood picked to sit on the tribunal with two others and pass judgement on the men. He is put up in a mansion formerly occupied by Marlene Dietrich‘s Madam Bertholt, whose husband was executed at an earlier war crimes trial.

In court, where most of the drama takes place, Hans Rolfe, played by Maximilian Schell, defend the judges on the grounds that they merely delivered on the laws of the country they loved regardless of whether they were morally sound.  Richard Widmark‘s Col. Tad Lawson meanwhile prosecutes the men on the assertion that they perverted justice in enacting the will of Adolph Hitler and subjecting those who came before them to death and sexual sterilization.

Three of the four judges on trial are immediately unlikable, while a fourth, Burt Lancaster‘s Ernst Janning, refuses to recognize the authority of the tribunal and becomes the subject of the majority of testimony we witness through the camera’s lens. We notice early on that Judge Haywood is sympathetic toward Janning and will require undeniable proof that he should be held accountable for the sentences he delivered. The chips seem to be stacked in this man’s favor until a last-minute statement declares his guilt.

The drama in Judgment at Nuremberg is electric. From the moment Max Schell starts to speak in German –hair and spittle flying– one cannot help but be hooked. Director Stanley Kramer used a unique device in allowing audiences to hear the majority of the dialogue in English. The court uses interpreters who translate through headsets worn by whomever in the room does not understand the language being spoken at a given time. During one of Schell’s wild opening lines, his dialogue switches into English as we view him from the interpreter’s booth. Nevertheless, the characters maintain the pretense of relying on the headsets whenever a person of the opposite language is speaking.

Although a number of American actors play German roles, they all do so amazingly. Lancaster is stoic but sympathetic while Judy Garland is a tormented soul on the stand. Montgomery Clift, meanwhile, is spellbinding to watch as the prosecution has him explain the trial leading up to his sexual sterilization and the defense forces a near admission of mental insufficiency. Dietrich is her usual brilliant, German self and has grown even more beautiful with age. Try as she might, she cannot turn off the sex appeal.

Judgment at Nurembergis an incredibly emotional story to watch. Toward the end, footage of the English emancipation of one of the concentration camps is brutally painful and it becomes impossible to not side with the bully of a prosecutor in Widmark. The movie otherwise does an objective job of presenting the two sides of the argument, which is no easy feat.

The Scarlet Empress

Ring a Ding Ding

The Scarlet Empress (1934)

If there ever was a woman to play the ruthless empress of Russia, Catherine the Great, it would be Marlene Dietrich. Much of The Scarlet Empress, however, is marked by the rather innocent time in the young royal’s life, which brings out a delightful side of Dietrich we rarely enjoy.

Dietrich is German Princess Sophia Frederica who is selected by Russian Empress Elizabeth (Louise Dresser) to marry her nephew. John Lodge as Count Alexi escorts the beautiful young woman to the frigid country, encouraging her by saying the prince is fabulously handsome. Once in her new homeland, and renamed by the Empress as Catherine, the girl discovers her husband-to-be is an ugly “half-wit”. She goes through with the marriage to Grand Duke Peter (Sam Jaffe) but never sleeps with the man, who tells his aunt he hates the woman. The Empress is demanding a son from Catherine to take over the throne, but it is not until the German discovers the Empress herself has a lover in Alexi that she beds a palace guard. The result is a royal son, but knowing it is not his kin, Peter is enraged.

Once Empress Elizabeth dies, Peter’s insanity grows as he terrorizes the country as czar. He wants to marry his mistress once he disposes of Catherine, but his wife has been busy making sexual allies of every man in the Russian military and is able to overpower her spouse, leading to her reign.

Dietrich is unrelentingly beautiful in The Scarlet Empress. This was her sixth film with Director Josef Von Sternberg –the one who “discovered” her in Germany– and the man had sought to make the most beautiful movie ever. I do not think I would go that far, but it is visually stunning and at the time might have been the most lovely thing to appear on screen. The blonde Dietrich spends the majority of the movie with her mouth open, which combined with wide eyes produces an effect of innocence and ignorance. She stares mystified at most of what she sees and speaks in a breathy voice when she speaks at all. Given Catherine’s subordinate position in the palace, she typically speaks only when spoken to. All that changes, of course, when the queen dies and Catherine takes control of her sexual possibilities and power. She blatantly inspects a military troop and selects a captain as her conquest. He will eventually lead a magnificent storming of the castle with all soldiers on horseback cantering up the palace stairs.

Sam Jaffe as the imbecilic prince is outstanding. This wonderful character actor is not only hideous with his crooked teeth and disheveled hair but his queer manner of speaking that is utterly creepy really makes for a hateable man. His character is infantilized by his mistress companion who is constantly retrieving the man’s toy soldiers from the various rooms where he leaves them. One finds it hard to believe he could have any sexual impulse to need such a mistress, given his seeming level of immaturity.

The fantastic sets add a whole other layer of bizarre to the movie. The palace is filled with grotesque statues of disrobed, decrepit men, some holding candles, others acting as chairs. Any young woman entering such a setting would be terrified, but Dietrich as Catherine takes it all in the stoic fashion required of a young woman in those days.

Source: Ben Mankiewicz

The Blue Angel (Musical Countdown #53)


The Blue Angel (1930)

The Marlene Dietrich of the German-made Der Blaue Engel is almost unrecognizable as the Dietrich that would reign supreme in Hollywood in the decades to come, and yet it was through this film that the prominent image of later years would begin to take shape. The deep speaking and singing voice are absent here, and the face and body are softer, but the role is unmistakably Dietrich.

     The Blue Angel was chosen by director Josef Von Sternberg from the 1905 story “Professor Unrat” by Heinrich Mann as prominent German actor Emil Jannings‘ first talkie. Austrian-born Von Sternberg established his home permanently in the U.S. at age 14 and was already established in Hollywood by the time this project arose. He was selected to guide Jannings through his first sound film because Hollywood was far ahead of Germany and its main studio Ufa at this time. Von Sternberg’s place at Paramount also was thought to be a decent link for the film to reach American audiences. The story, that of a prudish high school professor who finds himself seduced and then humiliated by a cabaret singer, appealed to the two men for separate reasons. Jannings reveled in characters who were subjected to humiliation and degradation as Professor Rath is in The Blue Angel. Separately, Von Sternberg’s disdain for the female sex had him often pursuing stories that illustrated the destructive nature of women. This “erotic humiliation” as one author put it* would be the subject of a number of Von Sternberg-Dietrich collaborations.

Jannings would eventually find himself quite unhappy with the picture as it transformed from a film featuring him to one featuring a new star. The role of Lola-Lola, the burlesque singer, was highly coveted and it was not easy for Dietrich to land it with certain members of the studio set against her. The Dietrich legend has often established The Blue Angel as the woman’s first movie, but that is far from the truth. She had been well established on the German screen for years in addition to stage roles. It was in a play “Two Neckties” that Von Sternberg saw in Dietrich what he wanted for his Lola-Lola. Her side role offered up an air of indifference and the costuming allowed for her figure to be evident as well –a necessary attribute for the scantily clad Lola-Lola. Von Sternberg began his work that would continue in their films to come of lighting Dietrich in a specific way as to bring out the best shapes of that unique face (the star would later be falsely rumored to have had dental surgery to create the hollows beneath her cheekbones). The director primarily lit her from above, which accentuated her brow and made smaller her nose. Three “dinkie” lights were used in close ups to slim her nose as well. A Rosher Bullseye lens was employed to bring the actress’ eyes into sharp focus while letting the rest of her features appear soft.

The plot follows Professor Rath, whose disrespectful students like to call Unrat or “garbage”, as he tracks the source of his pupils’ “pornographic” postcards to The Blue Angel night club. There he finds the subject of the photos, Lola-Lola, and is taken aback by her upfront sexual attitude while lolling in her dressing room. Having left his hat behind and taken Lola’s panties with him instead, Professor Rath is forced to return the following night. This time he defends Lola from the advances of man looking to turn the gal into a “champaign hooker” and Lola is impressed by his protection of her. After too much drink, Rath spends the night. Reaching school late the next day, his students mock his love of Lola, which they witnessed at the club, and the professor is asked to resign. He seeks Lola’s hand in marriage and takes to the road with the troop.

Five years pass and we see Rath applying clown’s makeup while Lola traipses about in housewife garb. Rath appears incredibly worn down and old while Lola still radiates youth. The troop manager/magician informs the couple their next stop is the Blue Angel where they are sure to profit off Rath’s hometown acquaintances coming out to see his new profession/disgrace. Rath tries to resist but Lola insists upon the performance. Once back at the Blue Angel, a french performer stays on when he eyes Lola and begins to chase her about in front of her husband. Now depressed into an unmoving trance, others must apply Rath’s makeup and wig and lead him onstage where he is thoroughly made a chump. Offstage, Lola is allowing the Frenchman to seduce her and spying this, Rath leaves the stage to strangle his spouse and fight others. The sequence is the most uncomfortable in an already unpleasant story as Rath crows as a crazed rooster while Lola and others scream and spectators take on expressions of horror. Rath eventually stumbles into his old classroom and dies gripping his desk.

Throughout the first half of the story an ever-silent and emaciated-looking clown figure often walks through the dressing room eyeing the initial contacts between the professor and Lola. His expression, emphasized by makeup, is one of sheer sadness as if he is witnessing what once happened to him at the hands of this siren, which perhaps is substantiated by Rath’s later stage role.

The English-language version of The Blue Angel was filmed simultaneously with the German one but the latter has become the preferred version as the strong accents of some actors make the English take difficult to understand at times. Dietrich is the most comfortable in the English rendition as her speaking of the language is quite adept and her character even suggests that it is her native tongue. Jannings can be a challenge to understand, and he mingled German in with his English lines further complicating matters. Many of the side characters’ lines and any background chatter is also maintained in the performers’ native language. Although the version destined for America cuts away from a stage performance by Lola that shows the woman’s skirtless backside, it maintains all other scenes depicting the undergarment-laden singer. Another variance is in the lines of the most notable song of the movie: Falling in Love Again. In German the words translate to “From head to toe/I’m made for love…for that’s my world/and nothing else at all.” The more cynical English version is “Falling in love again/never wanted to/What am I to do?/Can’t help it.”

Besides being a terribly unhappy story, The Blue Angel is essentially flawless. All performances are quite compelling and standout above the more technical aspects of the film that merely act to propel the story forward. As predicted, The Blue Angel did launch Dietrich’s international intrigue, and she took to Hollywood the night of the film’s premiere. She would leave behind a husband and daughter as she began work on other Von Sternberg pictures, but they would join her in Hollywood years later.

This post is part of the Musical Countdown onWonders in the Dark that runs through Nov. 10.

*Source: Marlene Dietrich (Applause Legends Series) by Alexander Walker

Shanghai Express

Ring a Ding Ding

Shanghai Express (1932)

When Joseph Von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich came together to make a movie, it in nearly all cases would place the heroine in an exotic setting. Von Sternberg, who was responsible for bringing Dietrich to Hollywood through the German production The Blue Angel, nearly recreates the woman’s character in that film –Lola Lola– through the one in Shanghai Express –Shanghai Lily. Dietrich was a far cry from the actress she would become when she made this the fourth collaboration with her director Von Sternberg. The man had put it upon himself to mold the Dietrich he found in Germany into a woman he held in his mind’s eye, and succeed he did. Dietrich’s performance here is full of the sultry seduction burlesque singer/dancer Lola Lola embodied with the same teasing air.

Shanghai Lily –whose real name is Magdalen (nearly the Magdalene that was Marlene’s real middle name)– is among the passengers taking the Shanghai Express train from Peking. She is the notorious white prostitute who sent many a man to ruin. Also on the train is her ex-lover Captain Donald Harvey (Clive Brook) a medical officer in the English military. The two loved each other before many a man turned the woman into Shanghai Lily. The feelings remain between them but Harvey is angry not only because of why they split but because of what his woman became. Lily has also made a fast friend of a Chinese hooker Hui Fei (Anna May Wong) and repelled an older English woman worried about her dog in the baggage car and a doctor of religious philosophy.

The train is traversing war-stricken China and is initially stopped and inspected for a rebel spy. The man is apprehended and the train moves on but is halted at another stop after a character aboard the train, Mr. Chang (Warner Oland), alerts his rebel pals of the trouble. Chang holds the train hostage while demanding the rebel previously removed be released. Harvey is identified as the most valuable passenger as he is expected to perform surgery on an important Englishman as soon as the train reaches its destination. Agreements are reached but Chang plans to gouge out Harvey’s eyes because he blocked the rebel from having his way with Lily. Shanghai Lily sacrifices herself to save the man she loves but it is likely Harvey will never know what she did for him.

The plot of Shanghai Express is riveting. The dialogue is great and the performances superb for the most part. Unfortunately, Dietrich’s delivery of about half her lines comes out contrived. She spouts off compelling words with seemingly no emotion behind them as if Von Sternberg instructed her as to how to say them and she did so but without any conviction behind them. Some critics praised this unemphasized manner of speaking, but for me it comes off as bad acting. That’s not to say Dietrich is not thrilling to watch. Von Sternberg has created a chiaroscuro dream land through his use of lighting and smoke. Dietrich is featured in what seem to be almost still photographs throughout the picture as she poses in incredibly artistic ways, as indicated in the stills I’ve included here.

Although Lily and Lola Lola share some characteristics, the Dietrich here is, as I mentioned, far from the one who would perform in films not directed by Von Sternberg in years to come. Her wide-eyed darting glances make her look young and secretive and her voice is at a higher octave than the register she would use to growl out lines later on. To see her this young, however, is stunning in and of itself. Her face is so beautiful and Von Sternberg’s lighting of it so impactful that Shanghai Express could be viewed without sound and still be a wonderful picture.

  • Shanghai Express is set for 2 a.m. ET Sept. 26 and 10 p.m. ET Nov. 14 on TCM.

Source: Marlene Dietrich (Applause Legends Series) by Alexander Walker

A Foreign Affair

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Foreign Affair (1948)

I find it difficult to resist films featuring Marlene Dietrich or Jean Arthur but for entirely separate reasons. Whereas Dietrich is fascinatingly powerful and seductive in her typical roles, Arthur is adorable, innocent and hilarious. For the two of them to appear in a film together was a rather unexpected find, but quite rewarding.

A Foreign Affair involves the two rather opposite women fighting over the same man, but that is not the plot of the story. Arthur plays a congresswoman who is visiting Germany to analyze the morale of soldiers in the post-war occupation effort. Dietrich is a German singer who performs in a club meant to be off-limits to soldiers, and she might also have been close to a major Nazi influence during the war. While there, Arthur as Phoebe discovers that one of the soldiers has shielded this singer, Erika, from scrutiny because he is carrying on an affair with her. That soldier is John Pringle (John Lund), who has also agreed to help Phoebe search out the scoundrel and in the process starts to fall for her. Torn between two women, his passion and his duty, and kept busy by attempts to cover up his involvement, John is careening toward a world of hurt if he is found out. The real trouble, of course, is in explaining himself to Phoebe and convincing her that he does care for her.

Arthur began the film behaving utterly unlike the characters I am used to seeing her embody. She wears glasses, has a somewhat goofily conservative hairdo, and is too busy taking notes on every passing moment to enjoy the view from the airplane. As she begins to loosen up through her contact with John, she enjoys life’s experiences rather than jotting them down and even buys a dress on the black market to be appropriately clad for that off-limits club.

Dietrich began the film also in a persona unlike what I typically see. We first meet her in a small flat ravaged by the war, wearing the simplest of clothing and fawning over a pair of nylons John brings her. I would not have called her helpless at this stage, but she certainly failed to exude the power customary of her roles. That changes, however, when we see the glittery and glamorous Erika perform at the club. As the film goes on, her confidence and cleverness shines through, especially when standing off with Phoebe.

A Foreign Affair is also a visually attractive film, despite being set in the ruins of Berlin. Director Billy Wilder oft uses reflections to complete his shots. Two specific devices –a mirror in Erika’s home and a window in the club– are used as a means to show two people in one shot with only one of them directly in front of the camera –one of my favorite cinematographic devices.

I would highly recommend A foreign Affair. It is a great combination of humor, drama and serious emotional situations, and I do not think any other actresses could better have filled the roles.

Around the World in 80 Days


Around the World in 80 Days (1956)

Around the World in 80 Days is one of the lesser acclaimed Best Picture winners and understandably so. The 3+ hour movie offers an epic adventure marked by little excitement and characters that are difficult to love or identify with. David Niven‘s Phileas Fogg, who takes up a wager that he cannot circumvent the earth in 80 days, is uptight and cold. Despite this he manages to attract Shirley MacLaine‘s Indian Princess Aouda, who Fogg and companions rescue from a ceremonial burning alive. The only endearing character is Passepartout, played by an actor known only as Cantinflas. The Spanish gentleman’s gentleman, womanizer and gymnast gives the film is comical edge and heart.

Returning to MacLaine, I am reminded of how many older films used white, American actors in roles of a different ethnicity. I at first did not recognize MacLaine being so young and with tanned skin. She really does not look Indian, but it must have been more important/convenient to have an American actress play the role. This sort of casting I found most off putting in the 1944 Dragon Seed, which features an all-star American cast for a film set in China. Katharine Hepburn, Agnes Moorehead, Hurd Hatfield, and Walter Huston are made up to look Japanese and their presence perhaps points to a severe lack of valued, Asian actors in Hollywood at the time. Although a few Chinese actors are included in 1937’s The Good Earth, Paul Muni was cast as the lead character. That film, along with The Story of Louis Pasteur, have me avoiding all Muni roles now. I have also seen Abner Biberman cast — and painted — multiple times as characters of a different ethnic background. In his first role in 1939’s Gunga Din, Biberman plays and Indian character; in (again) Dragon Seed as a Japanese soldier; in 1945’s Back to Bataan as a Japanese Captain. I guess the guy just had that look.  The examples from my memory, however, all occurred in 1945 and earlier, so why could Hollywood still not locate a naturally exotic-looking character for Around the World in 80 Days? Did MacLaine really have the sort of star power to be a necessary contribution to the film?

Around the World in 80 Days is marked by a fabulous cast of famous side characters. A pudgy Peter Lorre shows up for a scene, Marlene Deitrich rattles off a few lines and Frank Sinatra gets photographed from behind for numerous shots before showing his face. The movie could really be enjoyed more as a game to spot the famous cameo than as a work of cinematic art. But at least I can check it off my list.

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