In 1948 Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were in their prime. The combined success of A Matter of Life and Death, I Know Where I'm Going! and Black Narcissus had cemented their status among the most inspiring and innovative filmmakers of their day. When J. Arthur Rank heard their next project was going to be a film about ballet, his heart sank and his financiers panicked. They needn't have worried, for the result is a total masterpiece, both among their work and in its own right.
The Red Shoes is a breathtaking film, a perfect marriage of spectacular visuals and a slow-burning, heartbreaking story. It blends the original fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen with powerful undercurrents about art, obsession, jealousy and devotion. The whole thing is held together by Powell and Pressburger's trademark direction, which blends fantasy and reality effortlessly, taking the audience on a highly imaginative journey. The first time out you will be so overwhelmed you won't know what to think, save that the film is something very, very special.
Dance has always been a popular subject on film; even Metropolis has several minutes of it, as Maria's robotic double seduces her audience of impressionable voyeurs. But notwithstanding the other problems of most mainstream efforts (Grease, Flashdance, Step-Up etc.), there are many examples of dancing being used to either needlessly pad out a film or to disguise narrative shortcomings. On the one hand, we have the twenty minutes of roller skate dancing in Heaven's Gate (which is about twenty minutes too long). On the other hand we have the ending of The Millionairess, with Peter Sellers and Sophia Loren waltzing on the balcony with nothing but contempt for their viewing public.
The Red Shoes' first big strength is that it falls into neither of these traps. The dance sequences in it are not only beautiful, but they are filmed with the same sense of discipline and restraint exercised by the ballet teachers when drilling the dancers. Although the film is over two hours long it never feels baggy, because the dancing is kept to a minimum and only used to initiate a plot point or important piece of character development.
This is particularly true in the centre of the film, when the whole of 'The Red Shoes' ballet (written specifically for the film) is performed on screen. Like many older films, the dance sequences are filmed in long takes with straightforward editing, to give a sense of scale and the level of physical preparation which went into choreographing the dance. But more than that, this 20-minute sequence is filled with enough visual brilliance and imagination to rival anything in Moulin Rouge! or Spirited Away.
The Red Shoes is a classic Powell and Pressburger film because of the unique way in which it blends fantasy and reality. During the eponymous ballet, we drift between the realistic portrayal of the dance, as something being performed on a physical stage, and the more fantastical view of the world which is coming entirely from the mind of the central character. In one magical moment the red shoes magically appear on Vicky Page's feet, and as she dances with the shoemaker she sees in his face the faces of the different men dominating her life. These touches come so quickly and so seamlessly that it is a challenge to say where we are at any given moment. But there is enough beauty and passion in these scenes to prevent us from getting lost or confused.
The Red Shoes is often cited as one of the most visually extraordinary films ever made - a moniker which it thoroughly deserves. Of all the films made in the golden age of Technicolor, this is probably the best (pipe down, Wizard of Oz purists: it's not that good). It's not just that the colours are so perfectly rendered on screen, but they are used symbolically and sparingly to convey the deeper themes of the picture. Take the scene where Maurice Lermontov is picking out the exact pair of red shoes that Vicky will wear for the ballet. What could have been a simple showcase for Jack Cardiff's cinematography becomes a multi-layered and intriguing scene which hints at the nature and motives of certain characters.
As you might have guessed by now, The Red Shoes is not centrally a film about ballet. You certainly don't have to be a fan of ballet to enjoy it. The original fairy tale is about a singular passion which comes to dominate a person's life. That passion for dancing is made physical in the magical shoes. which force the wearer to dance forever, until - in the original version - she cuts off her own feet and dies. And while there may be nothing quite so graphic in this version, the ending is every bit as earth-shattering.
Vicky Page, played brilliantly by Moira Shearer, is a young woman who desires nothing more than to dance. In one of the film's key scenes, Lermontov questions her about why she wants to dance. She asks him, "why do you want to live?"; he replies, "I don't know exactly why, but I must" and she repeats his answer. Page's talent is something that she does not fully understand, and Lermontov gives her a chance based solely on her technical abilities. But as the film moves on, his tutelage develops into something a lot more personal, and Vicky is forced to question her raison d'etre still further.
The Red Shoes is a brilliant examination of jealousy and obsession, centred around the conflict between art and love. Both inspire great levels of devotion, whether to ideals (the art of dancing or the dream of love) or to practical gains (money or marriage). But unlike many modern films, The Red Shoes keeps a lid on this jealousy until the very last scenes. There are several moments throughout of Lermontov and Julian Craster essentially fighting for control of Vicky, both as a person to be loved and as a object to be marketed. But these conflicts are never directly over the girl, with most of their conversations surrounding individual sections of music, interlaced with tart remarks about standards and ambitions.
Vicky is caught in the middle of a powerful love triangle consisting of love, art, and the gifted individual. On the one hand, she is drawn to Lermontov, who offers her success and nurtures her talent but cannot allow her to love anyone. He despairs at his prima ballerina who leaves the company to get married, remarking: "a dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love will never be a great dancer. Never.". On the other hand, there is Craster, a talented composer who is devoted to Vicky whilst wanting to further his own career via the opera. He is the only one who can offer her love, but the sting in the tale is that her talents must come second to his ambitions.
In the climactic final scene, we see these two forces come to blows as Vicky breaks down and does not know what to do. After Craster leaves, Lermontov consoles her and she prepares to perform. But suddenly, clad in the red shoes, she dances out of the theatre, all the way to the railway station and to her tragic end. Many might questions this small inconsistency (why is she wearing the red shoes at the start of the ballet?), but as Powell pointed out it makes sense when we examine what motivates her to leave the theatre. Did she choose to go of her own free will and love for Julian, or did the shoes make her go against her will?
The Red Shoes is a magnificent achievement, with fantastic central performances, breathtaking visuals and a wonderful soundtrack. Its influence can be seen in most of the great Hollywood musicals of the 1950s and 1960s, and there has never been a film about dance (or ballet) which has captured the art in such a fascinating manner. It is hard, however, to call it Powell and Pressburger's best film, because of their extraordinary body of work. One thing is for sure - Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan has a very hard act to follow.
Since the brand was revived several years ago, Ealing Studios have developed a reputation for quaintness. With the exception of John Landis' underrated Burke and Hare, the majority of the new Ealing's output has been frothy, often retrograde films designed solely for the export market. How easily we forget that the self-same studio once produced some of the darkest, edgiest and blackest comedies the world had ever seen. And there is no better example of this than Kind Hearts and Coronets, which takes pride of place with The Red Shoes as one of the finest British films of the 1940s.
Describing any old film as 'edgy' comes with problems. Changes in social attitudes since the 1940s means that, on one level, filmmakers are now able to show a wider range of subjects to a greater extent than ever before. Under this line of argument, what was once considered edgy, radical or insightful now looks timid and tame. But even if we accept this as a general rule, Kind Hearts and Coronets still stands as a proud and intriguing exception. Like Peeping Tom eleven years later, it has retained its emotional impact even after its aesthetic achievements have been surpassed.
Kind Hearts and Coronets is a comedy about a serial killer, at a time when the vast majority of films involving murder sought to completely demonise the assailant in question. More than that, it is about a serial killer who vengefully targets the aristocracy, who while waning in power still held a great deal of influence in government and high society. The film is a vitriolic attack on the British class system, thinly disguised as an erudite comedy of manners. To paraphrase Macbeth, it may look like the innocent flower, but it is most definitely the serpent under it, and its venom is ruthless and bitter.
In a further comparison to Peeping Tom, the film had a rocky ride with the censors when first released. Sir Michael Balcon, then-head of Ealing, sought to distance himself from the film, believing that the public could not handle its ironic treatment of the subject matter. In line with the restrictive Hays Code, the American distributors requested that Robert Hamer added a ten-second epilogue, to show Louis Mazzini getting his comeuppance in a way while the original ending only implied. While Alec Guinness went on to win an Oscar for The Bridge on the River Kwai, neither Dennis Price nor Robert Hamer would ever reach this level of success again. Film critic David Thompson described the latter's fortunes as "the most serious miscarriage of talent in post-war British cinema".
Many of the classic Ealing comedies used present events to satirise the past and vice versa. Passport to Pimlico satirised both the Berlin airlift and the exile of the Dutch monarchy to Canada, while some commentators have argued that The Ladykillers is a send-up of the post-war Labour government. Kind Hearts and Coronets was made in the year of the Second Parliament Act, which further curbed the power of the House of Lords and with it the aristocracy. The real-life political attack on landed wealth is contrasted with the lethal attacks of Louis Mazzini, with the aristocracy being 'killed off' in both cases.
Kind Hearts and Coronets has a very poisonous view of the British class system, and in particular of the aristocracy's attempts to justify its position. While marrying out of love may have brought Mazzini's mother poverty, marrying for wealth and "good breeding stock" brings nothing but misery. Whatever diversions the D'Ascoynes may pursue (the navy, photography, the church, hunting) there are a universally inward-looking bunch, with little time for anyone whose interests or backgrounds are not identical to their own.
Although Mazzini is of noble blood, his training as a draper, shop assistant and bank clerk gives him a middle-class status, something which simultaneously repulses and pleases him because it serves as the perfect cover for his crimes. The closer he comes to his goal of becoming Duke of Chalfont, the more he takes on the characteristics of a D'Ascoyne, shunning his childhood sweetheart Sibella (Joan Greenwood) and refusing to help Lionel in his hour of need. The film brutally depicts the entrenched arrogance of the British elites, something which has persisted longer after the D'Ascoynes of this world have withered away.
Dennis Price, who had previously found fame in Powell and Pressburger's A Canterbury Tale, is absolutely extraordinary in the lead role. Having been aptly described as "sourly handsome", he presents Louis Mazzini as a man of immense class and sophistication, but who is also capable of being cold, dismissive, callous and sociopathic. Price was always self-deprecating about his acting abilities, describing himself as "second-rate" and "lacking the essential spark." But whatever else happened in his career, this performance is enough to dismiss all such deprecation.
What makes his performance so interesting is that, for a lot of the time, Price doesn't speak. The prolific use of voiceover gives his performance a silent movie quality - not because his movements are exaggerated, but because his facial expressions and posture play a bigger part in his characterisation. Normally this amount of voiceover could quickly become tedious, but here it works brilliantly, taking us behind Mazzini's mask of dignity. It makes his deadpan expression all the more funny, as the most unspeakable things are uttered without the merest twitch of his lips. It is as though we were inside the mind of a killer, hearing his darkest deeds completely uncensored and without any license on the part of the screenwriter.
Kind Hearts and Coronets' themes of love and class are also expressed in Mazzini's relationships with women. For most of the film he is taken with Sibella, who marries Lionel but confides in Louis due to their friendship as children, and increasingly out of desperation as just how boring her husband is. Louis strings Sibella along, playing with her heart strings and being glad to kiss her while knowing he can never bring himself to be with her. This is a further example of Louis' corruption as he grows closer to his goal, becoming as cold and as haughty as the people who caused him to swear revenge.
If Sibella is the proud plaything who is ultimately beneath his stature, Edith (Valerie Hobson) provides the security of wealth and the moral backbone Louis needs. Their initial meeting, while her husband is still alive, indicates that such a marriage would not be any fun: her strong religious conviction forbids drinking, leading her husband to keep gin and whisky in his dark room. Much of the film plays out like a bedroom farce as Louis tries to keep the two women from ever meeting. In the final scene, he has to choose between dull security and loving disgrace, quoting from The Beggar's Opera as he struggles to make up his mind.
The humour in Kind Hearts and Coronets is as black as can be, with multiple jokes about hanging and all the murders having a comedic quality. These range from the general being blown up as he opens the caviar, to the admiral mistaking port for starboard and sinking his ship, and finally Mazzini's employer dying of shock after inheriting the title. There are dozens of laugh-out-loud moments, such as Mazzini's comments after shooting down Lady Agatha D'Ascoyne: "I shot an arrow through the air; she fell to earth in Berkeley Square." But a lot of the time the film is so edgy and so forthright that you're almost afraid to laugh: the barb is so strong that to laugh is almost too easy a response.
The film is most popularly remembered for Alec Guinness, who plays all eight members of the D'Ascoyne family. He was originally only offered four roles, but pressed Hamer to cast him in all eight after reading the script. Suffice to say, he's magnificent, with each family member having clearly developed character traits and quirks, and each looking hilariously pompous in all that make-up. The split-screen shooting used to put all eight characters on screen is utterly seamless, and Hamer's direction is totally first-rate.
Kind Hearts and Coronets is a perfect black comedy, which is as funny as Monty Python and the Holy Grail and as artistically accomplished as the best work of Powell and Pressburger. The performances are all superb, particularly from Guinness and Price, and Robert Hamer's direction gives the film a note-perfect pace so that all the jokes hit the spot. Over 60 years since it took the world by storm, it remains the darkest, edgiest and funniest of the classic Ealing comedies, and will be reducing generations to fits of laughter for years to come.
The two worst devices in film criticism are nostalgia and the arrogance of youth. On the one hand it is foolish to assume that all films from the past have a natural superiority over those made today, just as it is foolish to say that a hand-written letter is entirely superior to e-mail. On the other hand, in an age where almost anything can be said or done legally on screen, it is stupid to assume that a film like Black Narcissus doesn't still hold up.
At first glance, Black Narcissus would seem like a lot of other melodramas released around the Second World War: emotionally shallow, overly simple, badly constructed and ultimately dull. But after its off-putting theatrical opening, the film quickly begins to defy our expectations and serves up a lot more in the way of both style and substance. What starts off shakily ends up as a brilliantly gripping, intense psychological thriller with great performance and stunning expressionist visuals.
To give credit to the cynics, the opening ten minutes are a little uneven. Their style is much more quirky and offbeat than we would expect from Powell and Pressburger, even considering the level of quaintness in A Canterbury Tale. May Hallatt's role as the elderly caretaker is very off-balance in both her performance and its surroundings. The opening is also laden with exposition, and as the camera lingers on the luxurious décor of this former seraglio, we struggle to engage with our surroundings for more than a few moments.
Once the nuns arrive, however, the film takes off and you forgive all its subsequent quirks of fate. The film is a visual delight, with Jack Cardiff's Oscar-winning cinematography bringing real character to both the costumes and the architecture. Most Technicolor films are praised for how bright their primary colours are, but in Black Narcissus what sticks with you is the white on screen, from the shimmering robes of the nuns to the pale walls of the convent and the flickering candles in between. The production design is so effective that you soon forget that all of this was shoot at Pinewood Studios, and all the vistas of the Himalayas are either murals or matte paintings.
Black Narcissus is an intriguing exploration of sexual repression, made intriguing by its relative subtlety and understatement. Some of this is down to the context in which the film was made; even though Powell considered it "his most erotic movie", there is no open consummation of love or lust, and if such scenes had been attempted they would never have got passed the censors. But most of it is down to Powell's brilliant camerawork and Pressburger's slow-burning script. The camera is fixed on the nuns' faces to reveal every little twitch or slight smile that reveal more than words ever could.
The film explores sexual repression through a number of interesting opposites. The most obvious of these is the relationship between Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) and Mr. Dean (Roger Farrar). The camera treats these two characters very differently: when Clodagh is in shot, the camera focuses on her face and she is never seen out of her habit, to show her purity and resilience. With Mr. Dean, on the other hand, we get to see a whole lot more: there are many wide shots of him stomping around in short shorts, and at least one close-up on his hairy chest. Farrar is the antithesis of everything Clodagh stand for - wild at heart, uncouth, unkempt, and massively attractive.
Under these circumstances, the easy thing would be to focus solely on the rivalry between these two characters and end up with Sister Clodagh resigning from the order to be with him. But Pressburger is too clever to let that happen, and instead the story plays out like a duel of principles with the prize being right rather than being in love. Both Dean and Clodagh are established as intelligent, determined and resourceful characters whose conflict comes primarily from a conflict of opinion rather than a botched desire to suppress Freudian urges.
As the plot develops and Sister Ruth becomes a more prominent character, we begin to understand the intelligence behind this decision. For most of the film in which Sister Ruth plays no massive part, we are led to believe that Dean is an obstacle to the nuns' success, someone whose disregard for their religion and way of life threatens both the success of the convent and the purity of their order. But once we discover Ruth's fate, we realise that the source of evil or temptation was not so much Dean as the nuns' perception of him. In the eyes of the film, temptation is not something that comes from 'out there', beyond the safety of Christian walls. It is inside of all of us, and more often than not we drive ourselves to give into it.
If we think of Black Narcissus as a version of Adam and Eve, that helps to illuminate its spiritual and psychological theses. At the beginning we believe that the convent is like Eden, a safe, perfect place surrounded by a strange land, and with Dean as the serpent who enters the Garden bringing temptation with him. But after we see what has happened to Ruth, the story departs from this in one of two ways. Either we are still seeing a Christian myth play out, but with more emphasis on perception and delusion than on physical evil. Or what we are seeing is something more humanist, where the evil is simply the torment of opposites coming together under one roof.
The key scene in Black Narcissus comes when Sister Clodagh stumbles into a room and finds Sister Ruth wearing a dress and red lipstick, looking immensely proud and increasingly wanton. Here we have opposing depictions of womanhood: one is intensely sexual to the point of madness, the other pure and virginal but also naïve. Both Clodagh and Ruth are driven by a kind of faith - Clodagh by her belief in God and her need to prove herself, and Ruth by her belief that Dean loves her and that no-one must stand in her way. When Dean spurns her, shouting "I don't love anyone!", it is as much a loss of faith as Clodagh's departure, if not moreso.
Fantasy plays a prominent part in Black Narcissus. Throughout the story we see flashback to Clodagh's youth in Ireland, and slowly realise her motivation behind becoming a nun. She remembers the man she loved through objects; the emeralds worn by the general's son remind her of those given to her for her wedding day which never took place. These scenes were banned when the film was first released, presumably because of its insinuation that nuns were simply failed lovers, women who didn't measure up to the men of this world. And then we have the ending, which takes us straight to the heart of expressionist horror. The way in which the screen turns red as Sister Ruth faints, or the terrifying close-ups of her eyes, foreshadow the great work of Dario Argento in Suspiria.
The film also has a strong but subtle political elements. The film was released around the time of India's independence from Britain, and its final scenes have been interpreted as Britain trying to make a dignified exit from a land it could neither control nor understand. The culture clash between different religions (in this case Christianity and Hinduism) is played out very subtly, and foreshadows the more frightening and hysterical clashes in The Devils and The Wicker Man. Crucially, the film doesn't fall into the imperialist trap of portraying the British as wholly rational and the 'natives' as overtly savage. As the nuns start to disintegrate and more intelligent Indian characters come forward, such accusations become redundant.
Black Narcissus is a great effort from Powell and Pressburger which is almost up there with The Red Shoes. The performances are superb, with Deborah Kerr managing to seem composed and conflicted simultaneously and Kathleen Byron scaring us to death as Sister Ruth. The film remains visually astounding, the script is subtle even in its maddest moments, and there is enough tension and brains bubbling beneath the surface to keep anyone enthralled. A hugely compelling piece and a must-see for thriller fans.
Romantic drama is a hard genre to get right, both on paper and on screen. Some are so light and frothy that they leave no lasting impression; others, like The Snows of Kilimanjaro, are overblown, overwrought and in most cases over-long. I Know Where I'm Going! is a textbook example of how to do this sort of film properly, taking a relatively simple story and making it memorable through a series of strong performances, a great script and remarkable direction.
One of the common criticisms laid against romantic films, whether dramatic or comedic, is that they lack substance, relying on the charm of the performers to take an audience's mind off a highly clichéd or conventional premise. But while that criticism may carry a certain weight with regard to more recent rom-coms, it can't be fairly levelled against I Know Where I'm Going!. This is not because of the film's age, or its positioning in the golden age of melodramas. It is instead because the film is subtly inventive, adding precious moments of surprise in its every twist and turn.
I Know Where I'm Going! begins with a woman setting off to marry the man of her dreams, who is rich, powerful, influential and lives in the magical land of Scotland. These early scenes, with Wendy Hiller in full-on daddy's-little-girl mode, explore the age-old desire of young girls to be princesses and ride off into the sunset with a handsome prince. The twist, however, is that Joan Webster is not your average girly princess: she is a driven, ambitious woman who has known what she has wanted all her life. The opening credits explore her childhood in the manner of a BBC newsreel, showing a series of clear turning points underscored by Home Service narration.
If the character of Joan Webster were to turn up in a film today, she would most likely be characterised as having OCD or some form of neurosis. Perhaps she would have been a suitable soul-mate for Jack Nicholson at the start of As Good As It Gets. She has her entire life planned out meticulously, knowing exactly what and who she wants and how she intends to get it. Her constant desire to get to the island comes as much from her compulsive urge to be punctual as the desire to meet the man she is marrying.
For the first ten minutes the film confronts this idea in a very broad, head-on way. We see Wendy Hiller in the railway carriage pouring over her routine, behaving in a very controlled and restrained manner. But for the rest of the film Emeric Pressburger's script explores her character and surroundings much more subtly. Superficially, the story of I Know Where I'm Going! seems very predictable - put simply, there's not that many men on the island. But the film plays out economically and keeps its emotions and dialogue in check, giving us a number of pleasant surprises along the way.
The film is very good at planting seeds of doubt in Webster's mind, and demonstrating her infuriation at seeing her planned perfection disrupted. These disruptions start off very small, with her oversleeping and having to carry her clothes off the train in a heap. As the weather delays her trip to Kiloran, she slowly but surely begins to adjust to the landscape, even if she doesn't find herself warming to the place until the final reel. When she finally hears her fiancée on the radio, she assumes there is something wrong with his voice and asks him if he has a cold. These little moments don't seem like much when they first play out, but as the plot unfolds their significance becomes clear.
Like many of their other films, I Know Where I'm Going! sees Powell and Pressburger dabbling in fantasy and applying magic to an otherwise realistic setting. These dabbles begin on the train to Glasgow, when Webster is sleeping with her wedding dress hanging in a see-through case above her. Suddenly the dress disappears and we move into her fantasy of being married - albeit jokingly, since she is being married to her fiancée's company, thanks to her father's confusion. Later in the same scene we see the train passing through tunnels made of tartan while the narrator whispers the chorus to 'The Bonnie Banks o'Loch Lomond'.
The film draws on a number of mythical elements which give depth and credibility to the situation. These range from the Laird's story about the Viking ship which anchored in the whirlpool Corryvreckan, to the practice of counting the beams and making a wish on the first night spent in a new room. To some extent these follow in the tradition started by Sir Walter Scott and carried on in Brigadoon, since they paint a fanciful portrait of the Highlands and Outer Hebrides. But the film is not entirely a tourists'-eye-view, and is populated with enough believable supporting characters to stop things drifting too far into fantasy.
Although it seems an odd comparison, the story of I Know Where I'm Going! is not all that far removed from that of The Wicker Man nearly 30 years later. Both films centre on an individual who comes to a remote Scottish community driven by a singular urge to find someone. Both Joan Webster and Sergeant Howie are outsiders in this community and cannot comprehend its way of life - although the former doesn't have to put up with pagan worship or naked dancing. The central similarity, however, is that the goal of their respective characters is essentially a McGuffin. Just as the girl in The Wicker Man never really went missing, so we never meet Lord Beringer, or get to count his money. He might as well not exist, for his only function is to bring her to the island, and the weather does the rest in managing to keep her there.
The mythical elements of the film are ultimately what lift it out of being predictable fare. The stories which Torquil regales to his guests include a tale about a rope being made of virginal hair which would never break, since true love is stronger than anything. The sub-plot surrounding the curse gives his character a sense of mystery, so that we enjoy their relationship while picking our brain as to what this curse could be. One of the best scenes in the film sees Torquil and Webster arguing on the stairs about the local customs and the latter's decision to go out in a gale to get to the island. When our leads do finally get together, their entanglement with the curse makes it seem a whole lot less contrived, while raising the question of whether their love was chance intervening on fate or fate playing out in a different way than they had intended.
I Know Where I'm Going! has impressive production values for a film of its time and budget. The storm scenes, where the boat flounders and drifts into a whirlpool, are impressively executed. You do feel like you are in the boat with the characters, with the spray soaking your face and the boat lurching one way and then the other. Capturing the whirlpool and the boat involved a lot of complicated editing, with multiple location long-shots being spliced together with model shots and studio shoots in which the cast were doused in buckets of icy water. All Powell's efforts pay off, creating a storm sequence which is gripping and inventive.
The performances are also of a high calibre. Wendy Hiller is on great form as Joan Webster, nailing the character in the very first scene and displaying the same formidable femininity that would serve her well in The Elephant Man. Roger Livesey is a great match for her, combining humour, humility and a deep-seated integrity (plus he looks good in a kilt). Among the supporting cast, real-life Captain C. W. R. Wright is a well-chosen Colonel Barnstaple, and Valentine Dyall turns up in a rare non-villainous performance as Mr. Robinson.
I Know Where I'm Going! is a top-notch romantic drama which is understated but ambitious and whose ideas remain fresh and engaging even after 65 years. The performances are charming and convincing, and really bring Pressburger's myth-injected script to life. It isn't quite the masterpiece that Martin Scorsese had claimed it to be, since its quirkier sections are occasionally overbearing (tea with the Robinsons, for example). But it marks a definite improvement on A Canterbury Tale and the start of the prime years of Powell and Pressburger's careers.
One of the things you realise from revisiting classic Disney films is just how short the majority of them are. In the entire Golden Age, when Walt Disney was personally involved in every production, only Fantasia breaks the 90-minute mark - and since that's essentially a collection of short stories, you might well argue that it doesn't count.
For the most part the length is deceptive since it gives the impression of modesty, when for the most part the halcyon days of Disney were anything but modest. This is even the case with Dumbo, a film made quickly and on the cheap to make up for the financial losses incurred by Fantasia and Pinocchio. Clocking in at just over an hour, it unfolds at a breezy, efficient pace while offering up a couple of nice surprises. While it never hits the heights of Snow White (how could it?), it's still a really good film which has stood the test of time.
The biggest visual difference between Dumbo and its predecessors lies in the choice of colours and shades. While Snow White, Pinocchio and Fantasia all boasted deep Technicolor reds and pastel shades, Dumbo is lighter, brighter and cheerier, reflecting the boisterous atmosphere of the circus rather than the darkness of the queen's castle, Pleasure Island or Chernabog's mountain. The early section where the circus animals are introduced is so bright that it closely resembles the Silly Symphonies cartoons, particularly Father Noah's Ark from the mid-1930s.
This more light-hearted, cartoonish look is in equal parts a reflection of the source material and the production problems Dumbo encountered. As well as having to keep the budget down, Disney and director Ben Sharpsteen were at loggerheads with Herbert Sorrell, leader of the Screen Cartoonists Guild's labour union. In May 1941, after Disney's repeated refusal to sign his animators up to this union, the entire animation staff walked out for five weeks, leaving the film half-finished. Disney's mistrust of those involved in the strike is reflected in 'The Clown Song', in which the clowns "go and hit the big boss for a raise".
When reviewing The Pursuit of Happyness on BBC Radio 5 Live, Mark Kermode quipped that the film was "the live-action version of Dumbo... it's pain, pain, pain, pain, pain, pain, pain, pain, pain, and then ten seconds of "it's alright" at the end". Notwithstanding the ins and outs of Gabriele Muccino's film, this (deliberately) flippant assessment is a little unfair. While the story is more straightforward and limited in scope than a good many Disney films from this period, it makes up for this with genuine emotional depth, resulting in a tearjerker which works on people of all ages.
Because the scope is so limited, the film becomes much more of a character piece which is interrupted by the action surrounding it. None of the early set-pieces are spectacularly staged, and so we are forced to look to the characters to see us through. This is where the cartoonish animation style comes into its own: each of the animals are intimately drawn, allowing us to get a real sense of the relationships between them even after a few close seconds. The film is very close to the silent era work of Chaplin and Keaton, in conveying complex emotions through gesture alone - a comparison reinforced by the fact that Dumbo never speaks.
Dumbo's story is one to which we can easily relate. It's akin to Chaplin's The Kid in the amount of sadness and disappointment (and pain) foisted upon the characters by the "cold, cruel, heartless world." Neither film is mopey or self-pitying, and since the animation is so understated you never feel like you're being manipulated into feeling sorry for Dumbo. Instead your heart genuinely goes out to a character who never intentionally hurt anyone, who is ridiculed just because he looks different, and whose playful curiosity about the world always leads to him getting hurt. The animation of Dumbo is terrific, getting a full gamut of emotions out of a very challenging set of facial features.
The story of Dumbo is also interesting because there is no one clearly defined antagonist. The majority of Disney's classic work is rooted in fairy tales, where good and evil are clearly defined and vividly expressed. But here, each of the potential main antagonists stoop to the authority of another. The female elephants may disown Dumbo and get their comeuppance in the form of peanuts, but they still bow to the ringmaster. The ringmaster may get attacked by Mrs. Jumbo, but his desire to exploit his animals is not specifically directed toward Dumbo, even when he is made into a clown.
One of the interesting inconsistencies in the film is the extent to which humans and animals can interact. It's established pretty much immediately that different kinds of animals can talk to each other, with the stork talking to the elephants and the elephants talking to Timothy mouse. But it isn't clear as to what extent the animals can and do talk to humans. On the one hand, we have the scene of Timothy whispering into the ringmaster's ear; on the other hand, there is no interaction between Mrs. Jumbo and the boy she beats up, or between her and the ringmaster. It's not a massive problem, but it is a small source of irritation when looking at the consistency of this world.
Because Dumbo is closely tied to the silent era, you would expect the soundtrack to play a sizeable role. Frank Churchill and Oliver Wallace won an Oscar for their work on the film, while 'Baby Mine' was nominated for Best Original Song. To this day it is guaranteed to make one teary-eyed, being sensitively arranged and beautifully sung by Betty Noyes. Other items in the soundtrack play on physical movements and rhythms, with 'Casey Junior' and 'Mr. Stork' taking their beats from steam engines and wings beating respectively. And let's not forget 'When I See An Elephant Fly', which boasts clever lyrics and whose chorus remains highly catchy.
But by far the most memorable scene in Dumbo is the Pink Elephants sequence - a sequence which by all accounts has absolutely no reason to be there. To borrow a term from Lindsay Ellis (a.k.a. the Nostalgia Chick), it's a classic Big Lipped Alligator Moment: a surreal interlude which comes out of nowhere, and once it's over no-one ever mentions it again. You can argue all you like about its role in the plot, and the problematic implication that Dumbo discovers his true calling by getting drunk. But the best thing to do is to celebrate the scene for what it is: a strange and terrifying example of the darkness in all great Disney films, a darkness which takes no prisoners and boggles the mind with its mesmerising beauty.
There has been some controversy over whether the crows in the film are racist depictions of African-Americans. Proponents of this view, like critic Richard Schickel, point to the leader of the group being called Jim Crow, relating to the segregation laws in America which lasted until the mid-1960s. But while this is an unfortunate coincidence, the crows do not conform to the then-stereotype of African-Americans as illiterate workshy layabouts. In Dumbo the crows are free-spirited, savvy, self-confident and intelligent. They are the most sympathetic to Dumbo's cause, and even if the magic feather turns out to be "just a gag", it was given with the very best intentions.
Dumbo remains a good all-round children's film which has at least some of the Disney magic still on show. It's not the most ground-breaking film in Disney's canon, with a slight storyline and little in the way of visual ambition. But it makes up for these enforced shortcomings through its huge emotional appeal, with a pathos and childlike curiosity which has weathered the test of time. It's no Snow White or Pinocchio, but this little old elephant can still fly.
The early works of Powell and Pressburger are tainted by their links with the Ministry of Information. Regardless of their merits at the time, 49th Parallel and One of Our Aircraft Is Missing are little more than well-made propaganda, designed to pull the Americans into the war. It was only as the tide turned and the need for such propaganda abated that the duo began to embark upon their truly great works.
A Canterbury Tale is a 'hangover point' in the duo's history: it contains remnants of their propaganda era in both its characters and its intentions, but it also represents something of a departure. There is a great deal more affection at work, both in Pressburger's screenplay which celebrates all that is English and Powell's direction which has moments of pure inspiration. While not their best work by quite some distance, there is much about A Canterbury Tale that is both enjoyable and admirable.
Like most of Powell and Pressburger's work, A Canterbury Tale takes place in a universe where fantasy and reality are constantly intertwined. Its mise-en-scene, to use a pretentious term, is an interesting blend of English realism in the manner of David Lean and the German expressionism of Metropolis and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. There are no dazzling transitions from one to the other like in The Red Shoes, but the film will often catch you unawares as it dips in and out of its expressionist elements. These are most noticeable in the scenes around Chillingbourne station, with their prominent shadows and exaggerated characters like the village idiot (more on him later).
But centrally, A Canterbury Tale is a film about the various links between past and present, and how it is important, if not vital, that these links should be maintained. There is a recurring line of "before the war came", as if our characters somehow feel that everything that went before is irrelevant. Ms. Smith certainly has no desire to return to the London shop from where she started. But as the film wears on we begin to recognise the value of the past, both in the internal development of the characters and in the external actions surrounding the Glue Man's crimes.
The film retells Chaucer's classic tale fairly loosely, with our travellers to Canterbury as modern pilgrims and Mr. Colpeper as the village squire, whose influence extends far beyond his official office. Much is made of the village's heritage and its place in history, being situated on the 'pilgrim's road' which goes straight to Canterbury Cathedral. There is a brilliant shot at the beginning where a mediaeval traveller releases a hawk into the air: it flattens its wings, before we cut to a shot of an aeroplane swooping down, and the traveller is replaced with a soldier. This is a magical moment, showing how the world has changed while situating this change in a landscape which still familiar. It is also a clear influence on the animations in Pink Floyd - The Wall, in which a dove is torn open to eventually form a bomber.
The mystery elements of A Canterbury Tale sit very oddly. It's the kind of story that Alfred Hitchcock would have loathed, partly because of his distaste for whodunits, but because there is little or no means to cultivate suspense. And even as whodunits go, the Glue Man's is story incredibly straightforward. We don't even need a scene at the beginning revealing who he is, because we eliminate the other characters so quickly.
As an abstract thriller, then, A Canterbury Tale doesn't work. But the film manages to get away with it because of where it situates this story. The most interesting thing about the Glue Man is not his identity, or his choice of weapon (if glue can be called a weapon). It is instead the motive, his reasoning behind his actions which he explains to our heroes on the train.
Colpeper is a character with a passion for the past, a passion so forthcoming that it mutates into a desperate desire to pass it on by any means possible. He explains that the reason he only attacked women was to stop them going out with soldiers - soldiers who could just as easily attend his lectures, and who upon leaving the town could pass the knowledge on. Colpeper despises frivolity, and when he is not lecturing he is either reading or working in his garden. Eric Portman plays his scenes very well, retaining an air of graceful tranquillity even when it seems he is done for.
Regardless of whether such action was morally justified, one can't deny that elements of Colpeper's crusade rub off, both on the characters and on the audience. Sergeant Johnson, played by real-life Sergeant John Sweet, begins the film deriding English customs; there are running jokes about his stripes "being the wrong way up" and the locals mistaking his quarters for shillings. But after venting his fury to the phone operator, he slowly begins to realise his place in Canterbury's heritage. Likewise, Ms. Smith eventually finds herself standing on the same hill as the pilgrims, and in a moment of magical realism, she can almost hear them right beside her.
From a narrative point of view, however, A Canterbury Tale has its problems. After the scene in the railway carriage where Colpeper confesses, the film literally runs out of steam. At that point whatever mystery there was has been solved, and yet we still have to endure half an hour of sorting out all the loose ends. The Canterbury Tales in its original form was famously unfinished - maybe that was a sly joke on Chaucer's part, who knew deep down that things should not end on a whimper. All the scenes surrounding the pilgrims in Canterbury make sense in terms of their individual arcs - Smith hears from her old friend, Johnson gets his girlfriend's letters, and Gibbs finally gets to play a proper organ. But their execution is desperately contrived, so much so that it almost sours the whole film.
Then there is the more general problem of quaintness. So many films which are tarred with this label are defended as a celebration of Englishness. But while A Canterbury Tale does celebrate England and all her victories (a hangover from the propaganda days), it does come across as irritatingly picture-postcard at points. The entirely fictional village of Chillingbourne is a caricature of the English idyll, complete with hay carts and helpful landlords. A little bit of quaintness goes an awfully long way, and it is hard to go the distance without either laughing or shaking one's head in dismay.
For all their brilliance, Powell and Pressburger's record with comedy is not first-rate. Some of their films have great comic moments, like the scene in The Red Shoes where the choreographer produces an enormous champagne bottle and struggles to pour it out. But here such moments are more of a lurch from one extreme to another. The scenes with the camp village idiot, who can only say "That's right!", are funny in themselves but don't sit well with the surroundings. And that's not to mention the clunky romantic lines, like Johnson asking Ms. Smith what colour her hair is (it's black-and-white: we don't really care).
A Canterbury Tale is a partial success for Powell and Pressburger. It's hampered by its narrative shortcomings and its occasionally overbearing attitude towards the inherent oddness of England. But it redeems itself in the end through a number of beautiful scenes, coupled with fine performances (watch out for Charles Hawtrey as the tetchy station master). In the end it's a minor work, an improvement on their earlier wartime output and a good indicator of the brilliance to come.
There are many stories about fights between producers and directors, some of which have become Hollywood legends in their own right. Think of Terry Gilliam's quarrelling with Bob and Harvey Weinstein over The Brothers Grimm, which saw Gilliam's cinematographer fired, his casting choices vetoed, and ultimately resulted in his worst film. Or go a little further back, and think of Richard Donner's conflicts with Alexander and Ilya Salkind, which saw him replaced by Richard Lester mid-way through the shooting of Superman II.
But in the golden age of Hollywood, perhaps no fractious relationship is more famous than that of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick - a relationship which peaked early with the Oscar-winning Rebecca, and gradually deteriorated until the thoroughly un-suspenseful courtroom drama The Paradine Case. Notorious is at the upper end of the work Hitch achieved in his early years in America, combining a timely, pulpy story with a strong central relationship. While it never quite fires on all cylinders, and only truly takes flight in the final reel, it still includes much to be enjoyed or appreciated.
In order to enjoy Notorious, you must be willing to accept a rather big contrivance - namely that a beautiful woman who knows nothing about spying comes to work for the secret service, just because she used to date the man that they are targeting. It is a big suspension of disbelief even for the day, but Hitchcock does at least give their relationship credibility by crafting a pretty decent romance out of it. This romance is not as straightforward as Ingrid Bergman swooning into Cary Grant's arms - they start with a drunken fight in the car, and their relationship goes up and down from there.
Notorious benefits in this respect from some good dialogue courtesy of screenwriter Ben Hecht. The banter between Devlin and Alicia serves to build them up as characters with a certain amount of awkward sexual tension. Neither of them desperately like the other one, neither of them particularly want to be there - and yet as time goes by they find themselves drawn to one another. Alicia accuses Devlin of being afraid of women and being cold, and he is content to play along for the duration of the mission to maintain a professional distance. Both feel like complicated people with mixed emotions, a lot of which is internalised.
Fans of Mission: Impossible II may have realised by this point just how much their film borrows or steals from Notorious. Not only is the premise the same, but the relationship between the agent, woman and mark goes through the exact same motions. The rekindling of the relationship between the mark and the woman begins happily enough, with old memories coming to the fore and bonds re-forming. This results in the agent being side-lined until they go for the big break-in, wherein the woman is rescued when things go wrong. The relationship begins to sour, the agent and woman escape, and the mark gets what's coming to him. Of course, John Woo is not the only filmmaker to have stolen from Hitchcock, but it's hard to think of another film other than Disturbia which rips him off quite so blatantly.
Notorious is famous on a technical level for two key scenes. The first is the kiss scene between Bergman and Grant, which goes on for two-and-a-half minutes despite a clause in the Motion Picture Production Code which prohibited "excessive or lustful kissing, particularly when one character or the other is a 'heavy'." Hitchcock got around the ruling that an on-screen kiss could only last three seconds by having his actors kiss for three seconds, murmur to each other, and then start kissing again. It's a very effective ploy that makes the scene if anything more passionate - and would have given the priest in Cinema Paradiso a headache trying to remove every last kiss.
The other technical matter of note lies in Hitchcock's increasing use of crane shots and zooms. Perhaps the most famous shot in the whole film is the one that begins high up at the top of the staircase, and comes right down into Bergman's hand behind her dress, where the key to the wine cellar is being concealed. Not only are these shots as slick as his work on The Paradine Case, but Hitch's compositions is quite impeccable, picking up the details in people's faces and the different wine bottles. The cuts between the different dates on the bottles, as Claude Rains discovers what has happened, are very simple and effective.
Notorious has a very good central set-piece involving Devlin and Alicia infiltrating the wine cellar and coming across the uranium. Not only is the plot twist handled very well, but Hitchcock builds up suspense surrounding their discovery in a very novel way. Rather than cutting between our protagonists in the cellar and the bad guys walking along a very long corridor to come to them, Hitch cuts between the cellar and the number of champagne bottles left on ice, after which Alex Sebastian will make a short trip down to catch them.
This ingenious way of creating suspense comes back to Hitchcock's thoughts on content vs. technique and making the best use of the props available in a given scene. In an interview with the AFI in the 1960s, he gave the example of Cary Grant in North by Northwest, who escapes from an auction by getting thrown out for making nonsensical bids. Both this and the champagne bottles are Hitchcock being resourceful with decorative or incidental features, and in doing so deepening the environment in which the characters find themselves. This and his ruthless editing make the whole thing feel a lot less mechanical than it otherwise could.
In terms of its subject matter, Notorious sits within a tradition of works about ex-Nazis hiding out in South America. The natural comparison from this point of view would be The Boys from Brazil, Franklin J. Schnaffner's enjoyably silly romp about Hitler clones based on the novel by Ira Levin. Both films are fundamentally pulpy in nature, drawing on and exploiting recent scientific breakthroughs to further a science fiction-inflected story. While The Boys from Brazil used the beginnings of cloning as a springboard to different ethical issues, Notorious uses its MacGuffin to tie in with the political tensions in Europe, many of which had started over the capture of German scientists and the remaining V2 rockets.
Just as The Boys from Brazil is silly and flimsy in comparison to The Stepford Wives, so Notorious never entirely takes flight in the way that The Lady Vanishes did. Much of the problems with the film can be put down to Selznick, who made life increasingly difficult for Hitchcock and attempted to re-cast the film behind his back. Having failed to replace Cary Grant with Joseph Cotton (who would later star in The Third Man), Selznick resorted to sending Hitchcock constant demands for rewrites and reshoots. He eventually sold the picture to RKO, allowing him to claim 50% of the profits as well as $800,000 upfront.
Despite two very good central performances by Grant and Bergman, some of the supplementary characters feel overly caricatured to the point of being pantomime. Claude Rains puts in a very good, nuanced performance as Alex Sebastian, and none of the ex-Nazis are quite as over-the-top as their Boys from Brazil counterparts. But their efforts are almost for nothing when sharing a screen with Leopoldine Konstantin, whose exaggerated movements rival those of Rosa Klebb in From Russia with Love.
There are also little shortcomings in the plot which, while not disastrous, are rather irritating. Alicia is told that she should never visit the spies' base during the operation - and yet when she does, she seems in no danger at all; no matter how dangerous they make it sound, there is no sign of her being followed or observed by Sebastian's men. The MacGuffin is also bothersome on a practical level: we are told that the soil has uranium in it, and yet everyone uses their bare hands to handle it. You might argue that it doesn't matter how the MacGuffin works so long as it moves the plot forward, but it still manages to prey on one's mind.
Notorious is a good, solid Hitchcock thriller which succeeds through its two central performances and a number of suspenseful scenes. It never entirely gets off the ground, stopping and starting until the final reel and being hamstrung by the odd piece of over-acting. But by and large it has weathered pretty well, and is still enjoyable even in light of its problems. If nothing else, it serves as a fitting counterweight to its disappointing follow-up, which would force Hitchcock from Selznick's clutches for good.
When I reviewed The Adventures of Ichabod & Mr. Toad, I spoke about the level of compromise which is present in the Disney package films of the mid- and late-1940s. They are, in essence, formed from the wreckage of larger productions, some of which were abandoned with the onset of WWII, some of which were started after the war but soon ran into problems. It is therefore incredibly tempting to view these films very negatively, to look upon them as Walt Disney's desperate attempt to keep the crowd's attention until something more ambitious could be produced.
But while the package films are slight and heavily flawed, they all have a certain degree of charm and artistic value, even if they don't ultimately contribute a great deal to the Disney canon. Fun and Fancy Free is one of the better ones, with both of its stories being better shaped and told than either Ichabod or Mr. Toad¸ as well as being more in line with the Disney style. Both parts still have their problems, but while its successor could be tolerated, this one can actually be enjoyed.
One of the reasons why Ichabod & Mr. Toad came unstuck was because it departed so far from the source material - or more to the point, it didn't tie these departures into the overall Disney style. Not only is the Disney version of The Wind in the Willows so different that it shouldn't bear that name, but aside from the musical slapstick scenes it's not immediately recognisable as a Disney film. As for Ichabod, it's largely faithful to Washington Irving's story, but the animation and storytelling style is brusque and cheeky, in stark contrast to Disney's reputation as the epitome of sweetness and light.
In the case of Fun and Fancy Free, we have an original story (albeit one strongly rooted in the company's back catalogue) and a retelling of the classic fairy tale, Jack and the Beanstalk. There are still departures from the source material in the latter's case, especially around the nature of the giant. But these departures are in line with what we would recognise as classic Disney; while we might object to them as fans of the fairy tale, they do not feel out of character for a Disney film. Hence we can enjoy the film as a piece of light-hearted escapism without unusual animation styles stopping by to spoil the mood.
The first segment, entitled Bongo, was originally intended as a prequel to Dumbo. The two films have obvious similarities, with both characters being introduced on a speeding train, both being the star attractions of a circus, and both being unhappy with their lot in life. The opening to this segment is like watching Dumbo on a sugar high - we're introduced to Bongo with the fast forward button being held down, watching him perform a series of impressive tricks in a rapid montage. Whereas we grew to like Dumbo slowly, out of sympathy or pity, we're meant to be impressed by Bongo, and there's no second chance if we get left behind.
Once Bongo leaves the train and the action moves to the forest, the film moves swiftly into Bambi territory, with the theme of animals falling awkwardly in love and the complicated rituals of romance. The shift is made unnecessarily jarring by the sequence of Bongo's first night in the forest, running from all manner of flies, birds and creepy-crawlies. We go from the bright, Silly Symphonies style of the opening five minutes, into the creepy forest scenes from Snow White and then out the other side. This scene doesn't add anything to the story beyond wrong-footing us; had it been a little creepier, it could well be called a Big Lipped Alligator Moment.
The romantic section of Bongo is what you would get if you took the scenes in Bambi of Thumper and co. falling in love, applied them to the central character, and then coated it with so much schmaltz that it resembles the Care Bears. If you had any difficulty handling Bambi's sentimentality, you will be digging your fingernails into the palms of your hands during this part of the film. Despite a half-decent song from Dinah Shore, it goes on far too long, and there is so much pink among the fluffy clouds that it will start to hurt your eyes.
Fortunately, things pick up with the showdown between Bongo and the rival bear Lumpjaw. This section finds Disney borrowing quite liberally from Popeye, with Lumpjaw being cast very much in the Bluto mould. The fight scene is well-paced and surprisingly action-packed, with lots of punches being thrown and whole sections of a forest being destroyed. This section plays to Disney's strength in musical slapstick, with each part of the fight containing witty payoffs and the end result seeming justified. Certainly it makes up for the other big musical number, the awkwardly-titled and all-round uncomfortable 'Say It With A Slap'.
It's interesting to note at this point about how the different stories are framed. Both stories feature wraparounds from Pinocchio's Jiminy Cricket, voiced as per usual by Cliff Edwards. In the first story, he's very much involved, getting a good few minutes of screen time and a song before Shore takes over narration. But in the second section, which is framed with live-action, he's in the background, avoiding the gaze and feet of ventriloquist Edgar Bergen.
This live-action wraparound is creaky and shambolic, being poorly lit and directed with very little energy. Bergen's charming and occasionally funny, but his self-acknowledged shortcomings as a ventriloquist are in plain sight; if there was a drinking game for this film, you could take a shot every time his lips move. While both the dummies get a few juicy comebacks, you will spend a lot of your time pondering their resemblance to characters from The Goon Show. Although they precede their counterparts by at least a decade, there is precious little separating Mortimer Snerd from Eccles, or Charlie from Bluebottle.
While the wraparound is found wanting, the second animated segment is a lot stronger. Mickey and the Beanstalk is a really fun retelling of the classic fairy tale, taking all the plot points of the story we know and adding Disney magic in just the right places. The section is visually more accomplished, with the destruction of Happy Valley and the theft of the singing harp blending light and dark shades quite effectively. The growth of the beanstalk may be less impressive than the birth of Pinocchio, but there's a number of good physical jokes which play on the characters being really heavy sleepers.
The comic interplay between Mickey, Donald and Goofy is really well-judged. Donald is very funny, particularly when he breaks down early in the piece and tries to devoir his plate out of a desperate desire for food. His kinetic state is balanced out by Goofy's relaxed, droopy physicality, and Mickey serves as the rounded ringleader with the best intentions and his heads in the clouds. The film is notable for being the last time that Walt Disney would personally voice Mickey; while he did contribute voice talent for The Mickey Mouse Club on TV, this does represent the passing of a torch, through a story that Disney himself loved.
The only unsettling change to this section of the film is the character of the giant. While in the original stories he is characterised as being mean, cold and having a foul temper, here he is more goofy and childlike. It doesn't ring true when we first meet him, but the more time we spend with him the more intimidating he becomes, at least up to a point. Having him be able to change shape and size does make him more of a wizard than a giant, but he's still a believable and capable threat to our main characters, even though he doesn't quite get the ending he deserves.
Fun and Fancy Free does exactly what it sets out to do, providing a diverting and enjoyable 70 minutes filled with recognisable characters to buy Disney some much-needed time. It's hardly Disney's most ambitious or audacious effort, and it does have its fair share of problems, especially when it comes to Bongo's tone. But it's enjoyable and funny, with enough visual style to paper over the cracks in the storytelling. As an introduction to Disney it's far from ideal, but for passing the time on a rainy Sunday, it'll do just fine.
One of the criticisms I've often made of Steven Spielberg is that, in his 'serious' films like Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, there is a jarring mismatch between the portentous, dark tone of the subject matter and his attempts to win over a wide audience through needless sentimentality. This is not a problem in his better, more popcorn efforts like Jurassic Park and E.T., which embrace sentimentality as a key part of the story and character development.
But Spielberg is by no means the only filmmaker or brand which you could accuse of jarring emotional mismatches. Disney has a proud history of it, and there is perhaps no more illuminating example than Bambi, a film which embodies both this uncomfortable mismatch and Disney's reputation for softening the edges of its source material. It's a film which foreshadows several of the problems that future Disney films would develop, and like Spielberg's E.T. it is all-too-often dismissed as a reeking pile of schmaltzy, sentimental claptrap. But in spite of everything, we keep watching it, and it still has much to offer.
For starters, the visuals of Bambi are magnificent. The film is notable for being the first Disney film to utilise oils rather than watercolours for its background paintings. Tyrus Wong's background designs were revolutionary since their detail was concentrated at the centre of the paintings rather than the periphery, leading the audience to always gravitate towards the spot where the characters would be positioned. While a lot of the backgrounds are very obviously paintings (you can see the brushstrokes in the long grass), the detail and breadth of colour on offer is fantastic.
Bambi continues where Snow White left on in anthropomorphising the forest. But since Bambi is not rooted in European folk and fairy tales, the woods are a lot brighter and less creepy than they were before. And like Dumbo, the characters are beautifully drawn so that we have some idea of how they going to move or speak even before they have moved a muscle. Much of the film is silent, and in fact it could have been entirely silent if Disney had wished so: the story isn't overly complicated, the emotions are conveyed at the forefront and the pacing is reasonably good.
When the film was selected for preservation in the American Library of Congress' National Film Registry, the citation included praise for its "eloquent message of nature conservation." Coming from the generation who grew up with Ferngully and was whipped up into a frenzy by Avatar, you could point to Bambi as the film which created many of the clichés of mainstream environmental filmmaking. There is the rose-tinted depiction of the forest, the anthropomorphic protagonists, and the characterisation of 'man' as the distant, intangible embodiment of all evil. Such is its influence that its depiction of 'man' was voted the 20th greatest villain by the American Film Institute in 2003.
Regardless of whether this claim has any merit, there is no denying that Bambi is unbelievably cute. Outside of any environmental message it may have, the film is on one level about new-born children finding out how the world works. Bambi is naturally overwhelmed by everything he comes across, and his mishaps have to be played for comedic value to a great extent to keep him sympathetic. You can't criticise it for being soppy or sappy any more than you can criticise E.T. for being these things: that's their entire raison d'etre, and they fulfil their purpose with energy to spare.
One thing you can always rely on with early Disney is the soundtrack. The film contains the final work of Frank Churchill, who won an Oscar for his work on Dumbo but committed suicide during Bambi's post-production. While none of the individual songs are as distinctive or memorable as 'Heigh-Ho' or 'Someday My Prince Will Come', the score is beautifully arranged and timed to perfectly match the animation. The scenes of rain falling drip by drop upon the forest are brought to life through a variety of deep wind instruments including clarinets and bassoons, adding weight to all the wonder surrounding the central character.
While its influence isn't as high-profile as Snow White or Pinocchio, Bambi was a highly influential work on animation whose influence grew through re-releases. Aside from its legacy in environmental filmmaking, we can see hints in Bambi of what Hayao Miyazaki would achieve in Princess Mononoke. While direct comparisons are likely to be strained, both films depict deer as the commanding presence in the forest, whose actions influence the wellbeing of all other creatures. There are also aspects of Bambi in later Disney efforts. The cantankerous owl re-appears as Archimedes in The Sword in the Stone, and the device of a child losing his parents and coming back years later is a clear foreshadowing of The Lion King - as are the later shots of the stag duel and the characters being surrounded by fire.
The Lion King comparison does, however, illuminate some of the narrative problems with Bambi. As I mentioned in my review of Dumbo, the majority of classic Disney works are relatively short, with only Fantasia being significantly longer than 90 minutes. But even though it only lasts an hour, Bambi takes 40 minutes to get to the famous unhappy event, and there's only so much cavorting in meadows and clumsy ice-skating that we can take. At least with The Lion King we got an insight into Simba's development in the wilderness, while all we have to go on here is our suspension of disbelief (and a pointless midquel).
This brings us on to the most famous part of the film: the death of Bambi's mum. This scene has a huge reputation, being the first time that baby boomers were exposed to death through popular culture. Sir Paul McCartney was so moved by the scene that he credits it with starting his interest in animal rights. But whether through desensitisation or the film dating poorly, the scene in 2012 seems relatively tame. Since the mother wasn't constantly around Bambi, we don't feel quite as emotionally connected to her, so that even though her fate is worse than Dumbo's mother, it's the 'Baby Mine' sequence which remains the sadder.
This famous section is followed by an equally famous (or infamous) lurch in mood, as we move from the sad poignancy of father and son in the snow, to the bright colour of spring and multi-part harmonies telling us everything's okay. Having accepted that this film is essentially sentimental, it would be hypocritical to accuse Bambi of nakedly pulling on our heartstrings. But even outside of our emotional response, it's a huge and cumbersome lurch in tone which makes us feel like we have started the film all over again. It's like a Cecil B. De Mille film in reverse, where we start with God's great creation and then evil Man turns up at the end to ruin everything.
After the off-screen death and the resulting lurch into forced merriment, we come to perhaps the oddest, most questionable part of the whole film. The love section involves Bambi, now grown up, re-encountering Faline and falling in love with her. Sounds straightforwardly mushy - or at least it would be were it not for what precedes it. This involves the owl spinning his head around like Regan in The Exorcist, before launching into a cautionary speech about love so preposterous that it could have been included in Reefer Madness.
It might seem silly to complain about the sexual politics of a children's film, but they are a little telling when you come to think about it. Bambi depicts a world in which men get to fight, wander off and grow horns with little regard for their offspring, while the women are either protective mothers or incessant teases. This would be fine, if the film didn't overegg the teasing nature of its female characters by making them initiate all the romantic moments - not to mention the bizarre and grotesque decision to cover all the female rabbits in rouge.
Bambi is a film which deserves to be admired for its visuals and legacy, but which should not escape derision for its creative choices. Even without the questionable manner in which it depicts love, it takes an awfully long time to get going and some may still find it all too cute to bear. Ultimately it's redeemed by its extraordinary visuals, great soundtrack and up to a point its cheerful innocence. It's good but by no means great, being neither as rewardingly sad as Dumbo, not as ambitious as Fantasia, nor as all-round appealing as Snow White.