Posted by Jill Blake on November 26, 2016
Aside from George Cukor’s visually stunning musical masterpiece My Fair Lady (1964), Pygmalion (1938), directed by Anthony Asquith (with Leslie Howard receiving co-director credits), is the only other significant film adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 stage play of the same name. Of the two films, Pygmalion is the more faithful adaptation and arguably the better movie. Although it lacks the splashy technicolor, catchy Lerner and Loewe musical numbers and intricate Cecil Beaton designed costumes featured in My Fair Lady (and those incredible hats!), Pygmalion tosses aside the showiness (although Schiarpelli fashions are nothing to sneeze at) for a more genuine and authentically English production. Its stripped down approach accentuates the stark contrast between the ill-mannered, uneducated, poorly dressed flower girl, and the simple, well-spoken, dignified elegance of a duchess. The success of this adaptation is likely due to Shaw himself. Producer Gabriel Pascal obtained filming rights from Shaw directly, who was originally hesitant to make the deal. The playwright was involved in the production, lending his talents to the adapted screenplay, which won him the Academy Award in 1939. Despite his involvement with the film, Shaw was greatly disappointed with the tacked-on happy ending. Shaw was aware that his original ending wouldn’t be in the film, so he negotiated a reasonable compromise with Pascal. Unbeknownst to Shaw, Pascal had filmed an ending which was different from what was agreed upon. When he discovered Pascal’s changes, the notoriously difficult Shaw was quite mad, and rightly so. Maintaining his integrity as a well-respected playwright was paramount, and altering the outcome of two of his most famous characters jeopardized that, or so he thought. Moviegoers in the 1930s wanted to see even the most flawed of characters find some sort of happiness, especially in their romantic lives.
Posted by Susan Doll on August 22, 2016
Director Garry Marshall, who died last month at the age of 81, owned American popular culture in the last quarter of the 20th century. His sitcoms from the 1970s introduced characters so iconic their costumes are on display in the Smithsonian, and his romantic comedies of the 1980s re-set the conventions for the genre. Set your DVRs to catch Marshall’s first foray into feature films, How Sweet It Is, Saturday, August 27 at 8:00am EST.
Marshall’s strength as a director was also his weakness—the enormous popularity of his work. It was his strength because, like the moguls of the Golden Age, he knew how to produce well-crafted entertainment for the mainstream public; it was his weakness because that style, by its very nature, is never innovative, ground-breaking, or even edgy. It hits mid-America where it lives, but it is the bane of culture critics. In an interview, Marshall made a fair comparison when he stated that he set out to be “the Norman Rockwell of television.”
Marshall was a graduate of the journalism department at Northwestern University, which is also my alma mater. Over the years, he gave back to the school that had helped him learn to write. When I was a graduate student in film studies, he returned once or twice a year to offer short classes on writing or directing to the production students. After he completed his first two films, Young Doctors in Love and The Flamingo Kid, he hosted advance screenings at a local theater for Northwestern students. In the 1980s, he and his family donated money to build a dance and theater center on campus.
DVR alert—thanks to this month’s Marie Dressler tribute, coming up on June 6th TCM is running the 1914 comedy feature Tillie’s Punctured Romance. This is a hugely important work in film history—just about any film reference will tell you so. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say: “Tillie’s Punctured Romance is notable for being the first feature-length comedy in all of cinema.” Wow. I mean, right? Just wow.
Except… it’s hard to give credit to Tillie’s Punctured Romance for being the “first feature-length comedy in all of cinema” when there was another feature-length comedy released on August 10, 1914, four months earlier.
And you want to know the best bit? This earlier film, arguably the true first comedy feature in film history, is a gender-bending treat that suits today’s mood much better than the fusty old melodramatic complications of Tillie’s Punctured Romance. Click the fold below and let’s find out more!
Posted by Susan Doll on May 23, 2016
Tomorrow night, May 24, at 9:45pm EST, TCM airs a charming romantic comedy with the unfortunate title of The Ghost Goes West. Unfortunate, because the title is misleading. The film is neither a horror tale, nor does it have anything to do with the Wild West. Released in 1936, The Ghost Goes West is a British film set in Scotland and Florida.
Robert Donat plays a dual role as the 20th century Scotsman Donald Glourie and his 18th century ancestor Murdoch Glourie. During a skrimish with British Red Coats, Murdoch is too busy chasing girls to fight for “the glory of Scotland,” a vague reference to the various tensions with Britain in that century. During battle, Murdoch is blown to bits, save for his Scottish tam o’ shanter, which flutters lightly to the ground. While in limbo between heaven and hell, the Scotsman is dubbed a coward by his deceased father for his shameful behavior in battle. Murdoch is returned to earth as a ghost and cursed to wander the halls of the Glourie castle.
Two lovers, locked in a room—the future of the state itself depends on whether their roiling lust for each other will override their other emotions and compel them into a marriage. The last time these two saw each other, Danilo (Maurice Chevalier) thought Sonia (Jeanette MacDonald) was a whore. The first time they saw each other, Sonia knew Danilo was a gigolo. And if all this talk of prostitution sounds tawdry, just remember that is in fact what this is all about: the King has ordered Danilo to seduce Sonia because unless she has a compelling reason to stick around in the Ruritanian kingdom of “Marshovia” she’ll take her wealth with her, crippling the economy. This is about trading money for sex, and sex for money.
Fans of high culture of course know this story as the beloved Merry Widow (which is just this weekend finishing a glorious run at Chicago’s Lyric Opera–awesome stuff). Franz Lehar’s opera had been entertaining audiences around the world since its Vienna premiere in 1905. But the prudish censors who governed Hollywood in 1934 weren’t what you’d call fans of high culture. For them, Ernst Lubitsch’s film version of The Merry Widow was just a piece of smut.
So how exactly did this thing get made in the first place? And what did it have to do with the Marx Brothers?
If you were so inclined, you could convincingly argue that Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait is a representative example of its time: a costume drama that luxuriates in period detail (playing to the strengths of 20th Century Fox); .a character study told with inventive narrative techniques and non-chronological structure (ike Preston Sturges’ The Great McGinty or Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane); in glorious Technicolor (surging to popularity in the wake of Snow White and The Seven Dwarves).
Except…this is Ernst Lubitsch we are talking about. He did not make movies like everyone else.
If you have patience for yet one more Cinderella story, I’ve got a 1935 romantic comedy with an interesting behind-the-scenes twist.
This week’s Cinderella is Alice Adams, a Katharine Hepburn vehicle by ex-Laurel & Hardy cameraman George Stevens, adapted from a Booth Tarkington novel of the same name. It garnered Academy Award nominations for both Best Picture and Best Actress, and revived the moribund career of Hepburn (or at least until the next time her popularity hit the rocks, or the next time after that) and was a breakthrough career moment for Stevens, who reinvented himself as a serious director of significant Hollywood pictures and not just that guy who used to make “Boy Friends” comedies for Hal Roach (never heard of ‘em? You’re not alone). And yet, both Hepburn and Stevens fought to prevent the film from being as successful as it came to be. And therein lies our story.
“One of the dullest towns in America is the dreary community of Hotchkiss Falls in the mid-Hudson Valley. The odds are 1000 to 1 against our finding anyone there with an interesting story. However that’s where we are, so let’s take a look around.”
Screwball comedies generally came in one of two flavors. The Heiress On the Run, as the name implies, presented rich girls fleeing their lives of privilege to take up with working-class men (see It Happened One Night, Next Time I Marry, Lady in a Jam, My Man Godfrey, Holiday). The Cinderella Story is also self-descriptive: a destitute and desperate girl is mistaken for a rich debutante, pampered by an older Sugar Daddy, and ultimately takes her place among the social set (see Easy Living, Midnight, and Fifth Avenue Girl, and Ruggles of Red Gap is a gender-reversed variant).
But once, the world of screwball combined these two flavors: Slightly Dangerous is both an Heiress on the Run film and a Cinderella Story, and it gives us a chance to dig into what made these two screwball subgenres work.
Gregory La Cava’s 1939 comedy Fifth Avenue Girl is an excellent example of the 1930s style of romantic comedies, and possibly my favorite Ginger Rogers film of all. It is also a decidedly deviant 1930s romantic comedy that breaks more rules than it follows, and uses Ginger Roger’s natural downtrodden deadpan persona to tamp down the usual screwball shenanigans in favor of something altogether more quiet, and bitter. And if that doesn’t quite sound like comedy to you, then read on…
Ruggles of Red Gap is an odd duck. It is a crucial turning point into the formative genre of screwball comedy, but it isn’t easily recognizable as a romantic comedy nor is it especially female driven. It was Charles Laughton’s favorite screen role, but he’s not known for comedy, and his performance here consists substantially of standing still and trying to suppress an awkward smile. It’s a 1930s Hollywood comedy for the Downton Abbey set, whose most famous scene involves a British valet reciting the Gettysburg Address to a bar full of Wild West toughs.
In other words, it’s a movie that calls for some unpacking. So let’s get started!
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