The 1950s found Alfred Hitchcock in his prime. Freed from both the shackles of the British studios and the meddling of David O. Selznick, he was finally free to make the films he wanted to make, exactly the way he wanted to make them. This period yielded many works which have become cemented classics - Strangers on a Train, Rear Window and North by Northwest. But Vertigo is arguably his finest work, being unbearably suspenseful and the greatest depiction of obsession in all of cinema.
Although it was received mixed reviews when first released, Vertigo is now recognised as a highly influential work on filmmakers. Individual directors have paid tribute in their own way: Martin Scorsese has waxed lyrical about it in interviews with the AFI, while Mel Brooks used it as one of the main bases for his affectionate parody, High Anxiety. Its impact on the horror and thriller genres is plain to see, influencing films as varied as Single White Female and Mulholland Drive.
The ironic thing in all of this is that Vertigo is not a characteristic Hitchcock film. It does not conform, at least not entirely, to the various tropes and conventions which we now associate with Hitchcock. Most of his thrillers are driven by narrative: the story is everything, and the characters involved in it are there only to advance the story in which they find themselves. Vertigo is more of a character study, with the narrative and much of its complexity deriving directly from Jimmy Stewart.
Hitchcock described Vertigo as his most personal film, and it isn't hard to see why. Apart from the artistic freedom that he enjoyed making it, much of the film is self-reflexive: it is about his approach to filmmaking and especially his attitude to women. Hitchcock famously remarked that actors should be treated like cattle - being pushed and prodded around, told what to do, with someone else doing all the creativity. This approach is writ large in Vertigo in such a way that the characters mirror it directly.
Scottie, played by Stewart, is Hitchcock, obsessively analysing people's motivations and behaviour, following them at length and attempting to mould them to look and act the way he wants. His dark obsession with Judy reflects Hitchcock's fascination with blondes: he wants her to be 'Madeleine', her character, because that it is the only version of her he cares about. But for all his hard work, no understanding is gained; the relationship is one of fascination, but never comprehension or satisfaction.
A comparison can be drawn between Vertigo and Peeping Tom, Michael Powell's incendiary masterpiece from two years later. Both films have male protagonists who are obsessed with perfection, which they convey or project in their attitude to women. Both films are self-reflexive, shedding light on the relationship between a filmmaker and the actors who end up in font in his camera - a relationship which, in both cases, turns out to be fatal. And both are triumphs of their genre, which fulfil expectations in terms of terror and suspense while still feeling fresh and ground-breaking.
A further similarity between the films is their extraordinary cinematography. Robert Burks collaborated with Hitchcock extensively between Strangers on a Train and Marnie, and his mastery of Technicolor is on a par with Powell's old master, Jack Cardiff. The recurring deep, passionate reds are as dazzling as anything in The Red Shoes, and are complimented brilliantly by the piercing, threatening blues of the New Mexico skyline and Stewart's purposeful eyes. The film invades your senses with its manipulation of colour, with every shot brimming with menace and intent.
Equally impressive are the dream sequences. These are better integrated than the dream sequence in Spellbound, famously directed not by Hitchcock but by Salvador Dali. Hitchcock may not have the literacy of Dali when it comes to Freudian imagery, but the effects are impressive for the day. Better still is the image of Kim Novak as Judy emerging as 'Madeleine' - she appears to shimmer as fantasy and reality attempt to merge into a macabre fairy tale, to the internalised delight of Scottie.
A further highlight of the film is Bernard Herrmann's soundtrack, perhaps his best and arguably his most famous other than Psycho. As Scorsese observed in an interview with Sight and Sound, the score is built in spirals and circles, mirroring the obsession of the character as he keeps coming back to the same point. The score is ever-present but not intrusive, perfectly judging every scene and never doing the work for the actors, as can often happen in melodrama.
But what makes Vertigo ultimately so suspenseful, and so successful, is its confidence and attention to detail which is present in every aspect. Everything about its plot, its character construction and execution of suspense has been meticulously figured out, and yet it still has the ability to keep us guessing and genuinely surprise us at each turn. There are few thrillers which are so confident about the strength of their twist that they feel the need to withhold it for so long and so willingly. The twist when it comes is an absolute belter, rewarding our attention and pulling us further in.
If Peeping Tom is the cinematic Bible on voyeurism (with Blue Velvet a very close second), Vertigo is the accompanying volume on obsession. It shows with great detail and intelligence how unhealthy fascinations can start with something so small, and grow almost beyond the host's control until they have consumed everything else. Scottie takes the snoop job as an innocuous favour to an old friend; the first sight of Madeleine plants into his mind a seed of sympathy, a desire not to see her harmed. From the moment he has saved her life, this desire grows into fascination, to the point where he cannot imagine life without her (hence his silence at the sanatorium).
The story of Vertigo is a further reflection of obsession. We are made to study the characters, asked to decipher their every facial tic until we too are in danger of becoming obsessed with them. The twists and turns that occur make us simultaneously elated and frustrated - elated at what truth they reveal, frustrated that we could not spot them sooner. Both the characters' story and our experience of it end as they began - with one big shock which cements these emotions.
Jimmy Stewart was blamed by Hitchcock for the film's failure when first released. Hitchcock thought the age gap between Stewart and Novak was too obvious, and the two never worked together again. In hindsight, it was a triumph in conveying the theme of a seemingly innocent man being manipulated and corrupted - a process which he both resists and encourages. Stewart, once the wholesome leading man in Mr Smith Goes to Washington and It's A Wonderful Life, is transformed into what is arguably the most skin-crawling character in 1950s cinema. It is a masterclass in subtle madness, and remains his finest performance.
Vertigo is a terrifying triumph in every aspect of its execution. Hitchcock's subsequent efforts saw his abilities gradually diminish, but here the master is at the peak of his powers. The story is complex and rewarding, and the atmosphere which Hitch creates through lighting, music, colour and composition, is unbearably tense. Like Mulholland Drive more than 40 years later, Vertigo will pull you in to its dark, troubled world until you are unable and unwilling to escape. If you come away from this review convinced that I am obsessed, it means that the film has done its job.
Revisiting films that we loved as a child is not always a good experience. Disney films took up such a large portion of our childhood viewing that the stories and imagery of said films became bound up with our notion of childhood itself. Hence it can be depressing or disconcerting to revisit these films as an adult, either to find that they were never really that good, or that the messages they contained were in hindsight deeply questionable.
But for every time that Disney falls short or gives ample ammunition to cynics like me, we also get films which reaffirm our love for the company and the way in which they tell stories. Sleeping Beauty reaffirms Disney's good record with folk and fairy tales, with a near-perfect adaptation of Charles Perrault's story modelled on Pyotr Tchaikovsky's ballet. The result will send your heart soaring, being gleefully enjoyable, scary and romantic, all in the right places.
That said, there is a certain bitter-sweetness to revisiting Sleeping Beauty. While it is a really great film in its own right, it is also Disney's last truly great film until the renaissance 30 years later. The film stands on a threshold between the golden age, where Walt Disney was personally involved in every film, and the wilderness years era where the company declined into increasingly safe and mediocre fare. There are little hints in Sleeping Beauty of what was to come, including Wolfgang Reitherman's presence as a supervising director.
The one partial weakness of Sleeping Beauty is the quality of its animation. The film still looks stunning, with a wide range of bright, expressive colours, intricate backgrounds and very appealing character designs. But the colours are ever so slightly paler and less fluid than in Snow White, and there is a less of a shimmer to the cinematography than, say, Cinderella. Part of this was a conscious decision by Disney, who wanted to depart from the polished feel of these two films. But there are also shortcuts taken throughout, with the early reliance on narration, the multiple still book shots, and the crowd scenes where hundreds of extras are frozen to the spot.
Considering that the film was the most expensive Disney had ever made, this might send alarm bells ringing. But the good news is that shortcuts aside, all the money on Sleeping Beauty went to the right places, namely the story, music and characters. While the production took eight years in total, the voice acting was recorded in full very early on, and only minor changes were made when the songs were added near the end of animation. As a result we get a fairy tale adaptation which doesn't need to rely on its visuals to weave its magical spell.
First and foremost, Sleeping Beauty is a brilliant example of how to adapt a fairy tale. It is a great deal more faithful to Perrault's version than Cinderella was, playing everything straight and working overtime to sustain the feeling of magic and wonder it generates. Cinderella came a cropper because Disney made changes to the central character, adding a layer of unintentional cruelty to the final outcome. Aurora is far more innocent and genuine, with her reactions to every event that transpires being completely believable and empathetic.
There is a wonderful innocence to the whole production, which roots the fairy tale in its period of origin and allows all the more theatrical and pantomime details to emerge naturalistically. With Cinderella, there was a feeling of Disney taking a 17th-century story and using it to justify a 1950s view of women, with a deliberate emphasis on contentment within domesticity, servitude and pipe dreaming. With Sleeping Beauty, the story is treated and presented as a product of its time; all the different elements make complete sense and none of the plot points or character developments feel like they have been manipulated or tweaked behind the scenes.
Sleeping Beauty is also an example of the great potential in pantomime. The term is often used as an insult to describe something which is needlessly ridiculous or over-the-top - a criticism that results from the material trying to be something it's not. Like any genre or style, pantomime can be effective when it is openly accepted and put in the hands of people who understand the rules. Like its predecessor commedia dell'arte, it thrives on comic timing, and on this count alone the film is a masterpiece.
The characters in Sleeping Beauty all correspond to the archetypes and character arcs of any modern pantomime. The two lovers (Aurora and Philip) may be the main people that we root for, but they aren't really the agents of the plot: they succeed because they are helped by both the supporting cast of characters and circumstances beyond their control. These supporting characters (mainly the three fairies) do most of the work in combatting the villain (Maleficent), having limited powers of their own but relying in ingenuity to protect Briar Rose. There's also a lot of comedy based around confusion, with the arguments between the two kings or the king and Philip resembling the bluster between the king and the duke in Cinderella.
The protagonists in Sleeping Beauty are all thoroughly appealing, whether because they fit archetypes we know and love, or because they are simply well-written. Aurora may be incredibly beautiful but she's still as impulsive and curious as we would expect teenagers to be; her reaction both to seeing Philip and being told she can't see him again are really believable. The fairies are a lot of fun, with the sensitive Fauna busying herself quietly while Flora and Merryweather scrap over anything from the plan to hide Aurora to the colour of her birthday dress.
The film is also beautifully paced, thanks largely to its soundtrack. Setting the story to Tchaikovsky's ballet is a masterstroke because it gives the film a consistent and brilliant rhythm, which in turn keeps the plot moving forward. The score is powerful and evocative enough in its own right, but where songs are added they don't trample on Tchaikovsky so much as reshape it, particularly the recurring theme of 'Once Upon A Dream'. The cast sing beautifully, particularly Mary Costa as Aurora, and the woodland scenes with Rose and the animals rival Snow White for their gleeful charm.
Like all good pantomimes, Sleeping Beauty has the capacity to be dark and creepy when it needs to be. One of the most striking moments in the whole film is the hypnotism of Aurora, in which our heroine is led in a trance away from her guardians, into a dark tower and to touching the fatal spinning wheel. For all the scariness of Snow White, these scenes are every bit as creepy as the Evil Queen's transformation, and the score really drives home just how threatening Maleficent is.
Maleficent is arguably the greatest villain that Disney ever created. Her character design is quite superb, with a sinister blend of black, purple and pale green topped of by the flowing cloak and demonic horns. Not only is her motivation pure spite, but she goes about her evil work in a cruel but enticing way. She charms you with her elegance and quiet delivery, only to terrify you with her outbursts and the immense power she commands. Eleanor Audley's vocal performance is simply perfect, bettering her previous work for the company as Cinderella's Lady Tremaine.
Sleeping Beauty is a truly great Disney film which has only grown in stature over time. While its animation isn't as glossy or as polished as Disney's 1940s efforts, it excels itself everywhere else, with enthralling characters, a fantastic villain, great comedy and a beautiful soundtrack. Every emotional development is perfectly judged and complimented by the next, making it Disney's best all-round effort since Snow White. It's just a shame we had to wait another 30 years for them to produce something this good again.
In my review of Elf nearly twelve months ago, I said that "the single biggest problem with most Christmas films is that they have little or nothing to do with Christmas." I argued that Elf fell into both main traps of Christmas films, being unashamed in its celebration of consumerism and unambitious in settling for schmaltz instead of brains.
But of course, not every proper Christmas film has to directly restage the Nativity. As much as I heap deserving praise on Whistle Down The Wind, there are many other ways of approaching the meaning of Christmas which do come off, often in surprising ways. The Holly and the Ivy is one such surprise, beginning as a somewhat risible, unintentional comedy but then slowly revealing itself to be an intelligent, moving and compelling drama. While Bryan Forbes' work remains the gold standard in this genre (at least for British filmmakers), it has much that deserves to be celebrated and more than enough to recommend it.
The Holly and the Ivy is part of a long tradition of British talent collaborating with European, American or other foreign influences. Britain has always been a cultural melting pot, in which different peoples and cultures have mingled and shared ideas, resulting in work which is distinctive, if not unique. The most famous example of this would be The Archers, comprising English director Michael Powell and Hungarian writer and producer Emeric Pressburger. In this case, an English director (George More O'Ferrall) is working with a Russian screenwriter (Anatole de Grunwald) to adapt an English play by Wynward Browne.
It would be glib to say that the finished project resembled a bizarre cocktail of opposites, being two parts Anton Chekhov and one part English comedy of manners. But in truth, that's exactly what it is. The surface and much of the opening is old-fashioned English comedy, with the kind of awkward, stiff-upper-lip conversations that can make 1950s films pretty tiresome. But as things go on the influence of Chekhov grows, and the film becomes less about comedic understatement and more about repression, anxiety and loneliness.
For this reason, the opening is both silly and forgettable. The film is theatrical in nature, relying heavily on montage and with most of its early dialogue consisting of characters walking into rooms, saying their lines and then cutting somewhere else. O'Ferrall makes the common mistake of increasing the number of locations to appear more cinematic, which only draws attention to the fact that the translation from stage to screen is not a smooth one.
Our introduction to the characters is hampered by this failure in translation. O'Ferrall takes the kind of conversations that are normally handled via exposition in the first act, and restages them in a really awkward way. The film grows increasingly silly as the characters are crowbarred into being in the same place for Christmas, with plot convenience taking priority over logic. Denholm Elliott gets the silliest hand of all; having been told by the Major that there was no way he could get leave, the Major changes his mind for no reason the second that he's out of the room.
Once we get to the house, and have adjusted to the vagaries of the characters, the film slowly but surely gets into gear and reveals more of its true nature. It becomes less about a bunch of characters thrown together for the sake of laughs, and more about questions of duty, desire and how family conflicts come about. Even the setting takes on a different character, feeling more like the oppressive domestic settings of The Three Sisters or Uncle Vanya, being places of little comfort from which there is seemingly no escape.
Like Chekhov, or his predecessor Henrik Ibsen, the drama of The Holly and the Ivy emanates from frustrations and secrets kept from different family members which eke out as a result of spending time together. In this case it is Margaret's past, involving an affair with a US serviceman and an illegitimate child who died of meningitis. Margaret is criticised for seeming distant from her father and indifferent to his plight, in complete contrast to both her sister and their dynamic when she was a child. The sisters' relationship is reflected in their aunts, one of whom is childlike, the other so curmudgeonly that she's sometimes hard to take seriously.
The film adeptly recreates the awkwardness of family get-togethers, with many family members having to hold their tongues and repress their true feelings. Some of this could be chalked down to the period in which the film was made; people were not as open in expressing their feelings, possibly due to fear of being disciplined or a greater emphasis on paternal authority and respect. But what really sells the film, as a good drama and a Christmas film, is a feeling of burdens being lifted at least somewhat by the end. There is genuine development with these characters, and while the film doesn't offer easy answers, it offers hope where it can.
One of the central themes of the film is the conflict between duty and desire. The conversations between David and Jenny are similar to those in Brief Encounter (which also starred Margaret Leighton). Jenny's love and need to care for her father are contrasted by the devotion and escape offered by her lover. Both characters are at an important crossroads in their life, in which the wrong decision could lead to a lifetime of regret and loneliness, whichever side they choose.
The Holly and the Ivy is also intelligent in examining the meaning of Christmas. Unlike many more overtly religious offerings, it has the confidence to talk about the non-Christian origins of many Christmas traditions, tying them subtly into the story. The title derives from the popular carol, with the holly representing the male and ivy the female of a given household. Does the Reverend run the house, or does his daughter? And who in turn rules her life?
The dialogue also mentions a mediaeval feast at which three buckets of water were thrown over a curate, and comments about days being added to the calendar around the Winter Solstice, with "no-one being really sure what they were for". Comments like these are used to tease out the characters' insecurities and the feeling of inertia at all being together and not knowing what to do. They also prevent the moral from feeling schmaltzy, having the decency to be honest with us so that it feels truthful.
The film also shows the failure of communication that religion can cause, albeit inadvertently. The children keep secrets from their father because he would react like it was a moral issue, or because he has convinced himself that such truths cannot exist. At the end of the film he realises how blind he has been, being so wrapped up in serving others that he couldn't help those who truly needed him.
But rather than trample on the whole concept of faith or religious belief, the film does things the hard way and actually thrashes the issues out. There is a great scene at the end with Margaret and her father after the truth has come out. Margaret is fatalistic, believing that since we're all going to die anyway, there is no point in defining our lives around others. Martin answers that when we confront questions of meaning head on, we find life only makes sense through the expression of love, with Christ's love being the ultimate example.
The performances in The Holly and the Ivy are really good across the board. Ralph Richardson adopts an odd accent for the role, but he sounds very natural and is compelling even at his most doddery. Celia Johnson is a capable match for him, conveying the dilemmas and ultimate happiness of her character while resisting the urge to be melodramatic. Margaret Leighton has great screen presence, being similar in appearance and demeanour to a young Helen Mirren. And Denholm Elliott does very well, even if we're frequently distracted by how fresh-faced he looks.
The Holly and the Ivy is a very underrated Christmas film which definitely deserves a wider audience. Once we have navigated through its silly opening and settled into its theatrical direction, it really opens up as both a weighty and uplifting drama with great dialogue and well-developed characters. On top of that its examination of faith and Christmas traditions are intelligent and open-ended, to leave you with several questions even as you sit there smiling.
Action movies are often criticised for being stupid. They are looked down upon by critics and blamed by social commentators for causing the perceived anti-intellectualism of today's youth. While there are many examples of this genre, or indeed any genre that would fit the bill, action movies are capable of being just as intelligent or insightful as their more artistic counterparts. Gojira is a classic case in point, retaining its relative intelligence in spite of its dramatic creakiness.
The cultural influence that Gojira exerts is undeniable. Apart from generating a legion of sequels, crossover films and one god-awful American remake, it has become one of the most iconic Japanese artistic creations. But aside from its cemented status as a symbol of Western perceptions of Japan, its influence on cinema worldwide is just as marked. As well as directly inspiring works like Cloverfield and The Host, its imagery has influenced everyone from Matt Groening to Steven Spielberg, who dubbed the monster's death scream onto the end of Duel.
For better or worse, Gojira either created or cemented many of the conventions of the modern monster movie. The groundwork may have been laid by King Kong and The Creature from the Black Lagoon, but the conventions founded in Gojira are now so endemic that they deserve recognition. We have the central romance between two people who are destined to be together, set against the backdrop of their home being destroyed or, as with Jurassic Park, other people they care about being put in mortal danger. While most of the characters want to destroy the monster, one person wants to keep it alive to see what they can learn for it (a variation of King Kong, in which one character wants to make money from it). And there is a distant or geeky scientist who doesn't want to help, but ends up possessing the only thing that can stop the monster.
Like many classic foreign-language films, Gojira had a rough time with the American distributors. Just as Metropolis was heavily butchered to reduce its running time, so Gojira was taken apart and restructured in such a way that the American version looked like a totally different film. This version, called Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, was dubbed into English with new footage of Raymond Burr playing a reporter called Steve Martin - which leaves everybody free to remark that the American version is a complete joke. The disrespect which Terry Morse showed for the original is plain to see: even with the reams of new footage, the new version was 10 minutes shorter than the original.
Ironically, one of the big problems with Gojira is something which is characteristic of American action movies, particularly with more contemporary offerings. Like many recent CG-heavy action films, Gojira does end up being dominated by its special effects. Some of the set-pieces are incredible even now, such as the central 10-minute sequence of the monster breathing fire and laying waste to Tokyo. But like the American remake, the extent to which the set-pieces are emphasised prompts questions about the workings of the monster - chief amongst them being, why would it help a lizard to be fire-breathing if it lived underwater?
This dominance of effects is solidified by Gojira's melodramatic plot. It's wrong to attack one of the definitive monster movies for falling into the clichés it created, just as it's wrong to criticise The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari for having a twist ending. But you can still see all the plot points coming a mile off, and the characters are so clearly drawn from a visual point of view that you don't really have to second-guess. The moment you see the character with a scar and an eye-patch, you know there is something shifty about him.
There is some dispute in critical circles over how good or original Gojira's effects are. Roger Ebert, who called it "a bad film, but with an undeniable urgency", argued that the effects in King Kong were much more state-of-the-art, describing Godzilla the monster as "awkward" and "crude". It's an argument that has never been properly settled, not even when the two monsters went head to head in King Kong vs. Godzilla eight years after this.
In the end, the only way to judge the validity of Gojira's effects is whether or not they succeed in giving the monster character. This is not simply a case of whether or not he/ she/ it looks like a man in a beanbag wandering around on a set; it is whether the physical form taken by Godzilla/Gojira conveys or achieves the desired emotional response. The short answer to this is yes, because we do believe that the monster has intelligence and a personality. We aren't necessarily in floods of tears when the oxygen destroyer kills him, but there is still the feeling that something physical and tangible has departed, something in which we invested and believed.
Where Gojira differs from, and perhaps improves on King Kong is its political subtext. The film is an engrossing allegory for Japan's reaction to the events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and to the on-going US nuclear tests occurring in the Pacific. This was something which was not widely reported in the American press at the time, which coupled with political pressure might explain why the US version cut out most of the subtext.
The parallels Gojira draws between real-life events and those of the characters would have been strikingly clear at the time, and are arguably more so to us nearly 60 years later. The underwater explosions which are reported when the first ships sink are an echo of the after-effects of Bikini Atoll: the Americans exploded a device two-and-a-half times larger than expected, leaving hundreds of people within the supposed safety zone with acute radiation poisoning. The harrowing shots showing the aftermath of Gojira's destruction of Tokyo could be lifted straight from The World at War. Considering that Japan was still recovering from the long-term effects of the war, including these kinds of scenes was decidedly brave.
There is also a direct parallel between the real-life and fictitious characters. Dr. Daisuke Serizawa, played by Akihiko Hirata, is a convincing reflection of Professor Robert Oppenheimer, one of the chief scientists at the Manhattan Project which created the first bombs. When we are taken inside his lab, there is a mention of his "German friends", a sly nod to the fact that German and Austrian scientists pioneered many of the components of the atomic bomb. Serizawa refuses to use the device because he knows how devastating it can be on a small scale, a possible nod to Oppenheimer's mixed feelings following the Trinity test. While Oppenheimer remarked that he had "become death, a destroyer of worlds", Serizawa dies alongside his invention, lest it ever be used again.
Gojira, like King Kong before it, uses the monster to physicalize a deep-rooted or pertinent fear within humanity. It explores the fears surrounding nuclear war, or more general fears about a seemingly unbeatable weapon. Gojira is characterised as an ancient monster, somewhere between Jules Verne and H. P. Lovecraft, rudely awakened from its long slumber by the nuclear tests. It is simultaneously a symbol of nuclear war itself, the unforeseen consequences or fallout (in both senses), and a physicalisation of the dark, self-preserving aggression at the heart of every human being.
It is rare that you get a monster movie, then or now, with such thoroughly intelligent subtext. But the film does have a couple of dramatic shortcomings which hamper its ability to convey these ideas. Because the film is constructed like a melodrama, complete with screaming heroines and muscular heroes, there isn't much in the way of tension in the scenes between Gojira's attacks. Whereas The War of the Worlds had moments of real threat, where it seemed like the aliens would win, Gojira always has a feeling of certainty about its outcome which is only partially mitigated by the old man's warnings at the end. Character development is in rather short supply, something which even Akira Ifukube's great soundtrack can't make up for.
Considering its budget and the development of special effects, Gojira holds up surprisingly well. It is more thought-provoking and emotionally involving than The War of the Worlds, if nothing else because it holds its nerve and gets the ending right. Its dramatic shortcomings are more or less made up for by the emotional impact of the more harrowing scenes, and the monster itself is pretty convincing. As a film in and of itself it's flawed and ropey in places, and while it can't hold a candle to King Kong (in either version), it is essential viewing.
Disney has a reputation for taking much-loved works of fiction and crowbarring them into marketable narrative and musical conventions. We may think this is a recent development, something that began with the Disney renaissance of the late-1980s and eventually led to Tim Burton's hugely disappointing Alice in Wonderland. But Disney has been taking flagrant liberties with author's works for decades prior to this. You only have to look at P. L. Travers, who made millions in royalties from Mary Poppins but felt betrayed by Disney's decision to add songs and animation to what she felt was an inherently dark and spiky work.
It is interesting that Peter Pan, a pet project of Walt Disney which was 14 years in the making, should also be at least partially guilty of this tendency. There is much to enjoy in this adaptation of J. M. Barrie's stage play, and the term 'Disneyfied' does not entirely apply due to certain sections which remain offensive. But for all the entertainment it provides, especially to younger children, it's not first-rate Disney by quite some distance.
Walt Disney had his eye on adapting Peter Pan since 1935, having been utterly entranced by the stage play from a young age. After four years of pestering, Great Ormond Street Hospital in London (who held the rights in accordance to Barrie's will) finally allowed Disney to make the film. Like PIXAR today, it took many years for Disney and his animators to work out how to translate the story to the big screen. This process was further delayed by WWII, when the studio was taken over by the US government and used for producing propaganda.
Peter Pan has become an integral part of the Disney stable and brand. The story of the boy who never grew up reflects Walt Disney's belief in retaining a childlike sense of wonder about the world around us, and not trying to bury our childhood and the lessons it contains. Tinkerbell has become an emblem of Disney in and of herself, appearing in several versions of the animated logo. The film is directed by three talented men who were present in some form throughout the Golden Age - Clyde Geronomi (who directed Cinderella and Alice in Wonderland), Wilfred Jackson (Song of the South) and Hamilton Luske (Pinocchio).
The relationship between the stage play and the finished film is an interesting one. The film retains certain conventions of Barrie's story, such as having Mr. Darling and Captain Hook being voiced by the same actor (Hans Conried in a good performance). But while it has always been traditional on the stage for Pan to be played by a girl, this is the first instance in which he was played by a boy, namely Song of the South star Bobby Driscoll.
The theatrical aspect of the film is maintained through the continued use of rotoscoping, a technique pioneered by Disney's rival Max Fleischer but used by Disney to great effect on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. This involved actors, including most of the voice cast, acting out their scenes on minimal sets built specifically for the film. The performances were filmed or photographed, and the animators would then use these recordings as a starting point for their drawings, allowing them to animate human movement more believably.
It is easy to forget how close the relationship between theatre and film was throughout the early days of cinema. Alfred Hitchcock famously complained that when sound first came in, studios all too often just filmed theatrical performances and put them in cinemas, creating what he called "photographs of people talking". Many great stars of the Disney Golden Age came from variety and music hall, and film work was, like television after it, viewed as inferior compared to a successful stage career. It is therefore fitting that aspects of Peter Pan are theatrical in nature, either in the storytelling or in the exaggerated characters.
The storytelling in Peter Pan is incredibly breezy. Coming in at just shy of 80 minutes, it bustles through the story at a fair old pace, never stopping for a breather or getting bogged down in unimportant details. This is again largely a reflection of the time, when feature-length animation was relatively new. Snow White was famously dubbed "Disney's folly", with his contemporaries believing that the only way to make money from cartoons was through shorts: it was possible to make a lot very quickly, rather than putting all one's eggs in one basket. Disney proved them wrong by obeying the maxim of Mark Twain: he put all his eggs in one basket, and he watched the basket.
The downside to Peter Pan in terms of pacing is that it does end up skimming over the surface instead of getting to grips with the substance of the story. It doesn't have any of the real darkness of Barrie's play, with the parents appearing uppity rather than overtly threatening. While Hook and Mr. Darling are played by the same actor, there is no attempt to explore the implications of this. Barrie characterised Hook in such a way that he came across as an exaggerated version of Wendy's father: the character represents both children's fear of adults and their accompanying resistance towards growing up. The film doesn't refute this idea entirely, but it doesn't give much time to it either.
The only instances where the film begins to get a real grip on the source are doing the songs, and even here there is a problem with convention. 'Your Mother And Mine', sung by Wendy to the Lost Boys, is both a very tender paean to parenthood and a poor man's 'Baby Mine' from Dumbo. The pirates' songs are really good fun but they are also generic, being close to anything else being churned out at the back end of Tinpan Alley. You could almost call the songs unnecessary because they don't bring out the story enough to warrant a place, but as with Dumbo they make the grade on a level of pure enjoyment.
The film is at its best with the musical slapstick sequences - something which is both its biggest strength and its greatest weakness. The confrontations between Hook and the Crocodile display great use of percussion to comic effect, with our villain defying death in a series of hilarious ways. These sequences are structured with a real sense of rhythm and comic timing, so that even at their most cartoonish (running on water), they depict real emotions and really enjoyable peril. The weakness derives once again from the fact that they are typical of Disney and not of the story itself; once again, we allow them because they are enjoyable in their own right, but it doesn't enhance the adaptation.
There are other problems with Peter Pan besides its concessions to convention. The biggest of these is the portrayal of Native Americans, an issue that would rear up again when Disney made Pocahontas in the 1990s. I tackled the issue of on-screen racism in my review of Gone with the Wind, arguing that mitigating racism as a product of its time does not entirely excuse the reprehensible nature of some depictions. Apart from the stereotyping of Native Americans in general, matters are made worse by the musical number 'What Made The Red Man Red?', which explains Indians' red skin as being a perpetual blush caused by their pursuit of women. It is interesting to note that Disney re-edited Song of the South to remove certain racist slurs, and yet nothing has been done with Peter Pan.
The only way to genuinely enjoy Peter Pan, in spite of everything I've mentioned, is to view it as 'the Disney version' of Barrie's work, rather than any kind of definitive adaptation. Subsequent adaptations have had their problems too (some, like Hook, more than others), and as a Disney film first and foremost it delivers. The animation is beautiful with a great choice or colours, the music is well-arranged and judges the mood very well, the characters are impish and interesting, and the action sequences are exciting. For introducing young children to Disney, it is a reasonable place to start, particularly for those who might not stomach the darkness of Pinocchio.
Peter Pan is not quite the Disney classic that it is made out to be. While it has much in the way of magic and wonder in and of itself, its differences and distance from the source material prevent it from being the definitive take on J. M. Barrie's much-loved character. Aspects of it have dated, and fans of Pinocchio or even Dumbo may feel a little short-changed. But for pure enjoyment and entertainment, it has stood the test of time, and will continue to satisfy young children who never want to grow up.
When I reviewed Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs several months ago, I took the time to address the legacy of the Disney Company on our culture, and to analyse whether the baggage thus created has undermined our ability to enjoy their films. In the case of Snow White, it's relatively straightforward: the film is a masterpiece. But when we apply the same criteria to Cinderella, things get a little more complicated.
If Snow White is the film which established Disney's aptitude for European folk and fairy tales, Cinderella is the film which consolidated their easily marketable character archetypes, which would rear their somewhat ugly head during the Renaissance. You could almost call it Snow White's commercially-minded sister, since it occupies very similar territory in terms of source material but has far less innocent intentions. It's still enjoyable as a frothy pantomime, and contains much by way of visual beauty, but its problems are a little bit harder to ignore.
On the plus side, there can be little doubt that Cinderella looks beautiful. While in other Disney efforts it's the dark reds and deep blacks that stand out, this film offsets a relatively earthy opening with shimmering blues and whites at the ball. It uses Technicolor to its full advantage, using the brightness and high contrast of the colours to create a sense of magic which paler animation might not succeed in replicating. Even if you're a miserable cynic like me, you'd still find something to admire in the ballroom scenes or the transformations.
However, the openly bright and cheery animation is also an indication of the liberties Disney takes with the source material. It's well-documented that the famous glass slipper is a mistranslation on the part of Charles Perrault: considering that fairy tales were mostly passed down by word-of-mouth, it's understandable that you could confuse vair (meaning 'squirrel fur') with verre (meaning 'glass'). By the time Disney came along the Perrault version was the most widely-known on both sides of the Atlantic, and so it was the obvious version on which to base an adaptation. But while we can't blame Disney for that particular bout of artistic license, they are guilty of a more unfortunate departure.
The Disney version of Cinderella is a pretty accurate take on Perrault's story, including the pumpkin, the mice and the fairy godmother. But Perrault's version ends with the ugly stepsisters (here called Drizella and Anastasia) begging for forgiveness at how they treated Cinderella; Cinderella in turn forgives them and all three end up getting married. Perrault's closing words prize graciousness over beauty, intelligence or breeding, saying that "even these may fail to bring you success." The Disney version undermines this by having the stepsisters humiliated, and Cinderella rides off without them even getting a look-in during the final scene. In short, they take something quite uplifting and make it unnecessarily cruel.
This departure changes both the story and the central character quite drastically. It ceases to be any kind of Christian morality tale, about loving one's enemies and working tirelessly for the good of others, and becomes a story about getting what you deserve without doing the hard work first. In one of her typically sardonic reviews, the Nostalgia Chick called it: "the revenge fantasy where you show up to your high school reunion in a white limo and 40 pounds lighter wearing furs, all under the guise of innocence and martyrdom." Even if you don't take such a forthright view, it's certainly true that the expectations the film presents are more than a little askew.
These uncomfortable feelings become magnified by the context in which the film was made. Cinderella was Disney's first genuine feature-length effort since Bambi, after it had finally sorted out the jumble of half-finished efforts that had accumulated during WWII. In the aftermath of the war, there was a greater emphasis on the family unit in society, and with it came the promotion of female domesticity: women who were empowered during the war were now being told to stay at home and help rebuild the population. Cinderella appears to promote this, with the protagonist desiring to be whisked off by a prince, and not much else.
Cinderella is the archetype on which the modern Disney Princess phenomenon is based. It is the epitome of someone living their life based on aspirations which are simultaneously unobtainable (the prince) and beneath you (the resulting acceptance of domesticity). While these characteristics may have been exaggerated and refined still further with the Renaissance (not to mention the explosion in Disney merchandise), it's hard to let Cinderella totally off the hook. Even dismissing it as a fairy tale doesn't work, since all fairy tales contain morals to teach children the ways of the world: when done right, they are works of substance which are only fanciful or ridiculous on a superficial level.
At this point you're probably thinking: if you hate this film so much, why give it so high a rating? Why does a film with such a seemingly anti-feminist legacy merit a higher rating than the completely unobjectionable The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad? The answer is that when you put aside the unwelcome changes to the story and the repurcussions this has on creating real-life expectations, you are left with a frothy, fun little pantomime which is every bit as enjoyable as Peter Pan. Whatever my negative feelings towards the legacy of this film, as a piece of narrative cinema in and of itself it is perfectly entertaining.
Much like Peter Pan, the entertainment comes through when we embrace Disney's visual and musical conventions, in particular their talent for music-related slapstick. Some of the best scenes in the film involve the mice trying to evade the clutches of the fat, proud Lucifer, with Disney's talent for comic choreography coming through. There's nothing quite on the level of Hook's battles with the crocodile, or the tea party in Alice in Wonderland, but there's still more than enough to keep young children entertained. As for the music, it's not as memorable as other Disney efforts, including Snow White, but there's plenty of variety within the score by Paul J. Smith and Oliver Wallace - enough at least to take your minds off how annoying 'Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo' is.
When we stop trying to analyse the make-up of the central character, what we discover is that the Disney film focusses to a relatively large extent on the supporting cast. While you'd have a good case for attacking its take on Cinderella herself, the film is every bit as much about the stepmother, the mice or the king. It's much like Disney's take on Sleeping Beauty nine years later, in which the main protagonists don't do all that much, and the real drama lies in the conflict between Maleficent and the fairies.
The interactions between the King and the Duke are genuinely funny, with the physical comedy being well-timed and the sets playing up the pantomime quality, such as the King's enormous bed. The happy-go-lucky attitude of the cute mice is fun to watch, particularly in the dress-making sequence. And while Lady Tremaine is perhaps too understated and reserved to be a proper pantomime villain, she fulfils the criteria in terms of her cruelty towards the lead character and her seemingly awareness that she is being evil. Eleanor Audley would later voice Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty, and it's easy to view this performance as her audition for that role.
Cinderella is a harder film to like than many of its predecessors, sticking in the throat with its worldview where Bambi did with its overriding schmaltz. There will be many out there who will balk at Disney's treatment of the Perrault fairy tale, or simply object to it on the grounds of its legacy. But for those who stay or attempt to overlook this, it passes the time very nicely as an enjoyably frothy pantomime romp with visual beauty to spare. It's not classic Disney by any means, but it's still vaguely satisfying - in spite of everything.
One of the big steps we take in becoming adults is learning to accommodate our nostalgia for the things we loved as a child. We shouldn't deliberately disown the films, TV shows and other cultural icons of our youth; they played a crucial part in making us who are we, for better or worse, and in some way they continue to shape our cultural choices as adults. But we mustn't let ourselves be governed by a rose-tinted view of the past; it is a dangerous blinker on the critical mind, and most attempts to recapture said past result in failure.
Of course, it's very easy for me to say all this when I'm referring to things which did not affect me personally. I brought up this line of argument in my review of the fourth Indiana Jones film, since that series did not really impact me until I was a teenager; by then I already liked adventure stories, and they merely helped to cement this love. Lady and the Tramp, on the other hand, is one of the first films I can remember seeing, both in my home and in the cinema. Part of me regrets that it doesn't hold up quite as well in 2013 as it did in the early-1990s, but the rest of me can take comfort in the moments that make it a nice little charmer.
Like many Disney films released in the 1950s, Lady and the Tramp had a long gestation period, partly as a result of the delays caused by World War II. The original concept, involving Lady being replaced by the new-born baby, was first floated in 1937, but Disney dismissed it as being too sweet and not having enough action. The Tramp was added in the early-1940s, though he was originally known as Homer, Rags or Bozo. The animators worried that 'Tramp' would be too sexual for a children's story, pointing to the jazz standard 'The Lady Is A Tramp' which satirised New York polite society through the character of a socially wayward woman.
Over the next few years characters' names changed and various scenes were added or removed as Disney searched for the perfect story arc. In this time the only aspects of the film that remained constant were the two main characters and the dog's-level perspective on the human world (more on that later). It wasn't until 1953, around the release of Peter Pan, that Disney had the story anywhere near its finished shape, and even then changes were made right up to the release. The now-iconic spaghetti scene was almost cut by Disney, who felt that it was too silly; fortunately his animator Frank Thomas convinced him otherwise.
Lady and the Tramp is significant for being the first full-length Disney feature to be based on contemporary sources - namely Joe Grant's original pitch about Lady and Ward Greene's short story 'Happy Dan, The Whistling Dog' which created the Tramp. This is a little misleading, however, since the film is still essentially a period piece, judging by its fashions, transport and modes of address. The film has a contemporary spirit and a very 1950s view of the past, but it doesn't have the same flaws which hampered later modern-day efforts like The Rescuers or Oliver & Company.
The film is stylistically interesting in the lack of space given to human characters or faces. This idea is not without precedent - many Tom and Jerry cartoons featured just the hands, legs or voices of the humans. But what is interesting, at least artistically, is how much faith Disney puts in his audience being able to emote with animals as much as they would with people. He is so confident in the characters and (beautiful) animation that he deliberately reduces the humans' screen time, and gives very little that could explain the relationship between humans and animals, even in terms of scale.
In the past Disney stories centred around animals had always set up a balance between humans and animals in terms of screen time, and the boundaries in which the two could interact. Dumbo may be driven by its title character, but the ringmaster is shown at the same level or perspective as the elephant. The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad may have a lot of animal characters, but a human villain is inserted on their level to humanise them. In Lady and the Tramp, everything is seen from the diminished view of a dog; the film deliberately resists giving out details about the human world, leaving Lady as the only way in.
Like Dumbo or Bambi, there isn't really a lot of story in Lady & the Tramp. None of these stories have the great sweep or classic beats of the fairy tales adapted by the company: their charm is more slight and simple, playing on innocence and childlike curiosity about the world rather than exploring more complex tropes and ideas. Ultimately its staying power is not that great, since it's not as visually rich or narratively substantial as Snow White or Sleeping Beauty. But it does have a number of memorable moments, some of which have become icons of the Disney canon as a whole.
The visuals of Lady and the Tramp are very inviting. It begins modestly enough, opening like one of the package films of the 1940s with the shots of suburbia, falling snow and the heavenly choir. It's very close in fact to the Once Upon A Wintertime segment of Melody Time, right down to the slightly strange movements of the horses. But once Lady is introduced, the colour palette opens up and the rich summery colours begin to fill the screen and warm us up. The film is the first that Disney made in Cinemascope, and the widescreen format compliments the dog's-eye-view aesthetic.
The music is pretty nice too, even though none of the songs are as catchy as 'Heigh-Ho' or 'Baby Mine'. 'He's A Tramp' is one of the highlights, sung memorably by Peggy Lee and accompanied by great character animation. The film's use of barbershop in the dogs' howling is a nice touch, taking something relatively dissonant and shaping it to fit the character dynamics in the pound. Standouts elsewhere include 'What Is A Baby?' (also sung by Lee) and 'Bella Notte', with the resounding tenor complimenting the Italian chefs. 'The Siamese Cat Song' would also be memorable, were it not for the un-PC characterisation of the cats themselves, much like their counterparts in The Aristocats.
Like many Disney efforts of the time, Lady and the Tramp is at its best when it allows darker elements to encroach upon its sunny, chocolate-box world. The scene of Lady being chased by the dogs and the Tramp fighting them off is pretty tense; if we think of it in terms of human interaction, it's downright creepy. Likewise the scenes with the rat are quite threatening, like something had escaped from the dark woods in Snow White and the film was struggling to get rid of it by any means possible.
For the most part, however, the film is light, cheery and relatively stake-free. It's not as overtly schmaltzy as Bambi (which some may count as a mercy), but it's still a story driven by character interaction rather than reaction to other circumstances, and that in itself is no bad thing. We know pretty much from the outside where the story is going to go, and the film doesn't really deviate from the tried-and-tested beats of a class-driven romance. But the two main players are charming and convincing, with Barbara Luddy on fine form as Lady and Larry Roberts giving the Tramp a real swagger.
The supporting cast are well-voiced and generally solid. Verna Felton does a very good job as the highly strung Aunt Sarah, a complete departure from her graceful turn as Cinderella's fairy godmother. Bill Thompson is good as Jock, but he and Trusty don't have much to do other than stand around explaining the plot to Lady. Stan Freberg makes a nice little cameo as the Beaver, stretching out a single joke as far as it will possibly go. And the Mellowmen sing well for the dogs' barbershop quartet, even if their speaking accents are completely off-kiltre.
Lady and the Tramp is a good, solid, charming slice of fun which deserves some of its status as a Disney classic. It has none of the depth or staying power of the company's fairy tale ventures, and is hardly the most ambitious or ground-breaking love story committed to film. But its aesthetic departures and warm characters are enough to keep it both historically interesting and an enjoyable watch - especially with spaghetti.
It's a common complaint that American adaptations of British novels lose the quintessential nature of their source in favour of something more glossy and marketable. That's certainly true of The War of the Worlds, the first attempt to put H. G. Wells' iconic novel up on screen, and the first to come in the shadow of Orson Welles' ground-breaking radio play. It's not as tense as Welles' version, or as enjoyable as Steven Spielberg's take, but it is a perfectly passable adaptation with a number of strong points.
The film starts off with our narrator (played by English character actor Sir Cedric Hardwicke) guiding us on a whistle-stop tour through the solar system. He explains the hostile nature of other planets' atmospheres, concluding that if the Martians should invade anywhere, it would have to be Earth. The Martians are presented as an intelligent race, and we are to some extent shown the build-up to the invasion from their point of view.
Having started promisingly, it isn't long before some of the film's budgetary constraints become apparent. Like a lot of B-movies, the film is heavily reliant on stock footage during its bigger, more action-packed moments. Its re-use of the same shots of cannons firing and tanks rolling into battle make it seem like an ad campaign for the American army. In the middle of the film there is also a montage of destruction and chaos intercut with footage of the actors, a technique which would later be used to perfection in the opening sequence of Mad Max 2.
On the other hand, we have the special effects of the aliens. This is the element which Byron Haskin and his team had to get right, and generally speaking, they did. The swan-shaped copper aliens were specifically designed not to resemble flying saucers, and in the wide shots especially they are pretty threatening. They are not, however, tripods as detailed in the book; rather than walking (which is difficult to replicate mechanically), the war machines float via beams of blue light, which at the very least distract us from the wire work.
But while the war machine designs are truly out of this world, the Martians themselves are disappointing human. The faces of the Martians, which are replicated in their periscopes, are made up of red, blue and green panels, which are arranged to vaguely resemble the outline of a human face - the red panel is at the bottom to denote a mouth, and the blue and green panels above it could easily be eyes. As is so often the case, the aliens in The War of the Worlds look most sinister from a distance - when a Martian touches our heroine on the shoulder, it's a bit pathetic.
This version of The War of the Worlds deviates sharply from the novel in a number of ways, some interesting and successful, others less so. Most obviously, the action is relocated from 1890s Woking to 1950s California, and in doing so a lot of the substance of Wells' novel is lost. So much of the original story is about turning the accepted British political and social attitudes on their heads by portraying a war in which the British are the victims of an invasion rather than the conquerors. British imperialism, Herbert Spencer's natural selection and the 'English way of life' are all held under the microscope and shown to be ruthless and unjust.
By transferring the story to America, as Welles had done, The War of the Worlds becomes more about the Cold War and American fears of 'Reds under the beds'. Some of this substance fits quite nicely around the original plot: the Martians, who come from 'the Red planet', are demonstrated to be highly organised and efficient, and working collectively towards a single goal. But even as bald allegory goes, it's not as satisfying an examination of Communist threat as Invasion of the Body-Snatchers (which itself is trumped by the 1970s version by Philip Kaufman).
More frustratingly, the film makes big concessions to melodrama. We are required, for instance, to believe that Gene Barry is a famous and highly intelligent scientist, despite the fact that he looks every bit as chisel-jawed and rugged as Charlton Heston. When Ann Robinson's character questions him about this, he says that he shaved his beard off before coming to town and so no longer resembles his photo on the cover of Time. As laughable excuses go, it's up there with the line in The Hunt for Red October in which Sean Connery's unique accent is explained away by saying he is Lithuanian.
Being an old Hollywood film, the role of women is, shall we say, restricted. Robinson is required to scream and be hysterical on cue, while all the men around here can be noble, restrained and carry out a plan of action. While the male leads dash around the bunker, planning their attack on the Martians, she is left to hand up cups of coffee; and after the couple have sheltered in a tumbledown house, she makes Barry his breakfast first thing in the morning. The film may not be as sexist as The Snows of Kilimanjaro, but it's hardly pushing the envelope when it comes to female roles.
Despite these contrivances, however, we find ourselves bonding to these characters and staying with them for the course of the film. Although their introduction might be slightly silly, they are generally well-drawn and sympathetic. We certainly care about them enough to worry that they might get separated and never see each other again, as happens in the last twenty minutes when the film really girds its loins and shows human society on the verge of collapse. Critics of The War of the Worlds have written the story off as people running away for 90 minutes, but these scenes are both visually spectacular and emotionally engrossing.
The film is at its most interesting when it taps into the characters trying to cope with the invasion and depicting the surrounding chaos. Aside from the street scenes in which men are turning on men and money has become worthless, there are a number of moments of genuine panic or alarm which stick in one's mind. The scene of the vicar wandering out to meet the Martians while reciting Psalm 23 will have you on edge, as will the feeling of desperation after the aliens survive an atomic bomb.
As with all productions of The War of the Worlds, we eventually have to face one of the anticlimactic endings in literature. Having the aliens being killed by bacteria is a classic deus ex machina, drawing the action to a convenient close through a plot device which is deeply unsatisfying. But rather than go the way of The Blob or Invasion of the Body-Snatchers and leave us on a daring cliff-hanger, this adaptation takes the original ending and manages to fudge it further.
Wells was a scientific socialist who believed in rational progress towards a better society. In the book, our narrator takes shelter with a priest who loses his mind and meets a sticky end: the rational survive, the irrational do not. But Haskin and his screenwriter Barré Lyndon (an obvious but witty pseudonym) fudge this by inserting religious themes. Just before the Martians start falling out of the sky, the survivors are gathered in a church praying for a miracle. The narrator explains that "humanity was saved by the littlest things, which God, in His wisdom, had put upon this earth.". Suggesting after such carnage that God was involved all the time simply doesn't cut the mustard in this context.
The War of the Worlds is perfectly passable tosh. It doesn't have the political balls or ambition of Orson Welles' version, and it deviates from its source so wildly that purists will be annoyed. But there is enough schlocky B-movie charm in it to entertain for its short running time, and those who are not fans of Spielberg's version will probably enjoy this more. It's nothing to write home about, but as 1950s B-movies go it has lasted and dated surprisingly well.
In my review of High Society, I remarked that it is often the way that the first adaptation of a story often does it the 'tough', 'proper' way, then a second, softer version comes along which has more success but less going for it artistically. This is not just the case with commercial hits - A Place in the Sun won six Oscars at a time when Alfred Hitchcock was beginning to hit a rich vein of form. Looking at it now, it's like many of the films that go on to win Oscars: well-meaning, and in some areas well-made, but also far too safe and a little bit dull.
A Place in the Sun is the second adaptation of Theodor Dreiser's lengthy, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel An American Tragedy, first published in 1925. The novel drew inspiration from the story of Grace Brown, who was found dead in Big Moose Lake, Upstate New York in mid-1906; she was later found to have been murdered by her lover Chester Gillette, who was subsequently sent to the electric chair. The novel was turned into a play in 1926 and filmed under its original title by Josef von Sturnberg in 1931. Prior to this adaptation (of which Dreiser disapproved), there were rumours of a collaboration between Sergei Eisenstein and Charlie Chaplin to bring this story to the screen - rumours which sadly came to nothing.
There is a natural comparison between A Place in the Sun and Gone with the Wind, in that both works take a very long time to say relatively little. Both film adaptations successfully translate the baggy storytelling without explaining the emotional appeal of the books (if there is any). A Place in the Sun may be half as short as its patience-stretching predecessor, but even at 2 hours long there is not enough of a story to fill half that length, at least at the pace of George Stevens' direction.
Stevens, like George Lucas, is a far better producer than he is a director. He is very good at assembling talent, getting Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift in their respective primes. But he is not so adept when it comes to the actual mechanics and language of cinema: he can make sure the characters turn up on time, but he can't really tell a story with them. His editing is very lazy, his lighting if often third-rate (especially the car scenes), and his camera angles and composition are frequently amateurish. During the scene where Shelley Winters go to her doctor, there is all manner of junk cluttering up the foreground which is a distraction from a narratively vital conversation.
Despite being broadly speaking a melodrama, A Place in the Sun is an unusual mix of genres within this. It begins as some kind of rags-to-riches drama, then becomes a love story, then turns into a whodunit in which we already know the culprit, and then finally ends up as a courtroom drama where all the previous events are recapped. You feel like the sensible thing to do would be to pick one genre, use the section set in that genre as a starting point and flesh out the plot either forwards or backwards from there. But in the absence of a more highly skilled director, the material is just allowed to sit on the screen in the hope that at least some of it will take flight.
While the 1931 version was a relatively close adaptation, A Place in the Sun differs quite drastically from the novel in several key areas. Like a lot of 1950s films, whatever rough edges were in the source have been smoothed out or removed entirely, presumably to improve the film's chances of commercial success. While the novel begins with our protagonist being introduced to alcohol and prostitutes while working as a bell-boy, the film begins with George Eastman at the side of the road, going to work in the shirt factory. His past as a bell boy is mentioned very fleetingly in a conversation with the other Eastmans, and there is relatively little in Clift's performance to suggest a dark and shameful past.
While the lead character in the novel is of a genuinely lowly background, George Eastman is merely a distant relative of the man who owns the company. By having him as a long-lost nephew or even black sheep of the family, the film doesn't quite work as a story about social status. Because Eastman is not an outcast from the beginning, there is less of a sense of ambition, he has less to lose, and there is less inherent tragedy to his story. Perhaps the film's success lay in the seemingly scandalous idea that such a crime could be perpetrated by the well-off, but that in itself is not a new idea, nor is it conveyed here better than in other films.
Compared to High Society, A Place in the Sun does attempt to convey what remains of its themes through the central dynamic of its characters. Montgomery Clift isn't as overtly sociopathic as his 1931 counterpart, but he does give a convincing performance as a man who can never be properly accepted by polite society. Because he is no longer a rags-to-riches character in the strictest sense, the dynamic between Clift's character and that of Shelley Winters does work; we understand why Eastman cannot lower himself to her standards. Eastman represents the frustrations of the little man, the lower-middle-class man for whom the Angela Vickers of this world are unobtainable and the Alice Tripps are insufficient.
The film is also a convincing argument against infidelity, if only because the consequences of Eastman's actions are so severe. Clift's performance carries the film, as we see his sense of tribulation and frustration at having to cover his tracks to prevent Alice finding out about him and Angela. Coming from a generation where Fatal Attraction is the core text for the consequences of sleeping around, the reactions of the characters may seem relatively tame. But at least they seem vaguely believable: even though Winters is as annoying as hell, at least she is convincingly annoying.
But as much as it makes a decent fist to convey these ideas, for the most part A Place in the Sun feels just another melodrama about a love triangle. By about the fifteen-minute mark, where we are introduced to Elizabeth Taylor, we've got a pretty good idea of where it's going, and who Clift is going to end up with. The film plays so fully to the conventions of The Philadelphia Story and the like that there is no real dramatic tension, so we spend most of our time willing Stevens to get on with it. Even Alice's death isn't entirely a surprise: we may not have predicted how she would die, but we know who did it, why he did it, and what will happen to him at least half an hour beforehand.
There are also several sections of A Place in the Sun which are, in tone at least, completely silly. Some of this is bound up in the melodrama itself: only in these kinds of films could we cut to a lake shortly after a character mentions that she can't swim. But even if we overlook little things like this, there are moments where Stevens loses control and things get quickly out of hand. The random scene of the whole Eastman clan boarding a speedboat feels like it's escaped from a Gene Kelly film, while Alice's death is very unconvincing; while in the novel she is hit in the face with a camera and then drowns, here she simply falls in.
The courtroom scenes are some of the most uncertain in the film. Courtroom dramas are by their very nature a little ridiculous: the smallest actions have to be made histrionic in order to create drama out of what in real life is usually quite boring. But the trial scenes in A Place in the Sun make even the loudest moments in A Few Good Men look subtle by comparison. Eastman's prosecutor is downright cartoonish: with his sunken-in eyes and hobbling gait, you'd swear he was working for a Bond villain. And that's before he expresses his anger at Eastman by bringing the boat he was rowing into court, raising an oar above his head and then proceeding to smash up the boat while addressing the jury.
A Place in the Sun is a well-meaning but ultimately dull second attempt to adapt Dreiser's novel. Despite the good performance of Montgomery Clift and the few moments in which its themes come to the fore, it settles for soft edges and the safety of convention when it should have been trying to push the envelope. It scores over High Society in actually having something to say, and there is nothing about it that could possibly offend. But like High Society, having nothing with which to offend, or provoke any real response, if perhaps its greatest failing.
It's often the case that when 'serious' films with 'proper' stories are turned into musicals, they lose whatever substance or intelligence they had the first time round. It's an idea that can be supported by any number of musicals which have emerged in the early-21st century: musical versions of Shrek, Legally Blonde and Monty Python and the Holy Grail seem symptomatic of our culture's desperate need to recycle itself into more escapist, empty and fleeting forms.
The best thing to do at this juncture would be to pull out an effort from the 1950s, the golden age of Hollywood musicals, as an example that this trend has, at the very least, not always been the case. Unfortunately, this is not possible with High Society, one of the highest-grossing films of 1956. Charles Walters' remake of The Philadelphia Story successfully removes whatever substance or comic charm existed before. It still has some qualities of its own, but is ultimately a poor relation.
The first question is this: was a remake entirely necessary, beyond the obvious financial motivation? The remake doesn't really add anything new to the storyline, or put a new spin on the material by updating it. It doesn't even solve the central contrivance of the original, surrounding an ex-husband turning up at the wedding of his ex-wife, coinciding with the arrival of tabloid reporters. The original was notable for using this obvious plot device to get around the Hays Code, which prohibited the depiction of extra-marital affairs on screen. Without this context, High Society is exposed as a confection - there is no sensible reason for these characters to be interacting in this way.
It is possible to make a melodrama in which a woman has to choose between two or more paths in her life, symbolised by a couple of love interests. The most obvious example would be The Red Shoes, in which a ballet dancer has to choose between the artistic fulfilment of her director and the earthy compassion of her boyfriend composer. But equally you could point to the work of Douglas Sirk, particularly All That Heaven Allows, which served as the main inspiration for Todd Haynes' superb Far From Heaven ten years ago.
The big problem with High Society is that there is no subtext to anchor the central relationship. It's not that we need there to be subtext to enjoy the characters; the main theme of The Red Shoes isn't really brought to our attention until the climactic last twenty minutes. But when you have a cast of so many famous faces, we need something to believe that we aren't just watching a lot of stars enjoying themselves with no regard for the plot. There isn't the same level of contempt that is shown in The Millionairess, but the longer we spend in the company of Bing, Frank and Princess Grace, the less memorable the experience becomes.
Because the film is populated by famous people effectively playing themselves, we don't really believe in or care about any of the characters. The film quickly descends into a series of scenes of rich people either moaning, dancing, expressing regret or making fools of themselves. The natural charisma of Sinatra and Crosby, coupled with their obvious singing talent, means that we don't get quite so annoyed that we want to leave. But charm and affection in and of themselves are not enough to sustain what is already a rather frothy story. The only exception to this is the character of Caroline, Sam's younger sister played with great panache by child actor Lydia Reed. There is a real energy to her performance which is really lacking elsewhere, and she only gets 5 minutes of screen time at the beginning and end.
The lack of empathy we have for the characters is reinforced by the stagey direction. Walters began his career as a choreographer, and he does appear to be more interested in the dancing than anything else. The sets he uses on the film feature lots of big, open rooms with all the furniture spread out so that the cast can dance around them, and he relies too greatly on wide shots to capture the movement of the characters. The only close-ups we get, showing the characters' emotional shifts, are when the characters are standing still having drinks or gossiping in corners. The opening five minutes reinforce the stagey nature of the film: before the opening credits we get a fairly long overture with just a blue title card for company.
In defence of Walters, these kinds of conventions were present throughout 1950s Hollywood, and were down as much to the actors' preferences as those of the director. Many of the greatest stars of Hollywood musicals came from the stage, where performances were done 'in one take' and the show could not be stopped if any mistakes were made, lest the suspension of disbelief be broken. Gene Kelly famously insisted on restarting a dance routine from scratch whenever he made a mistake in any film he made. It may simply be that Walters was not as talented as someone like Michael Powell, either as a director or as an editor.
There are also a couple of redeeming features which prevent High Society from being entirely consigned to the dustbin of history. The musical score is pretty decent, providing a number of vaguely memorable set-pieces for the main stars. The film features Cole Porter's first film score in eight years, and a fair portion of the master's wit remains. 'What A Swell Party This Is' is a very fine duet, and a fitting way for two legends (Crosby and Sinatra) to cement their first screen appearance together. And 'Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?' is well-staged with inventive use of props for comic effect.
Any film which features Louis Armstrong can't be all that bad, and High Society benefits greatly from his presence. From our first encounter with his band, performing 'High Society Calypso' in the back of a bus, he lights up the screen whatever he's doing, and his jazz numbers with Crosby are very fine indeed. Armstrong and his band serve as a musical counterpart to the journalists, being vaguely impressed with the living standards of the idle rich, but also quick to roll their eyes at all their outlandishness and eccentricities.
The other redeeming factor for High Society is the odd moments of whimsy which punctuate the early stages, and which seem to have escaped from a completely different film. In one scene about 20 minutes in, Sinatra and his co-star Celeste Horn are greeted by the family for the first time. But instead of it being an awkward introduction, with Grace Kelly suppressing her fury at the tabloids covering her wedding, Sam and Caroline attempt to throw the reporters off the scent by pretending to be French. It's a really odd scene, coming across as a whimsical predecessor to the domestic mind-games of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.
But although this little moment is rather fun, it hints more than ever at the central problem with High Society. Somewhere in amongst the bright colours, swirling dresses, cocktails and camera shutters, there is a smarter, weightier, more ambitious and more entertaining film trying to get out. The flaws with High Society demonstrate all the values of The Philadelphia Story as a piece of drama, showing how all the qualities of both the play and original film have been watered down and bowdlerised by Hollywood convention.
High Society is the very definition of tosh. It is riddled with flaws left, right and centre, but the flaws are not quite bad enough to get seriously annoyed about. Neither wholly bad nor perfectly passible, it is a bland, flimsy meringue of a film; without either the comic timing or cinematic quality of the original, it just sits on the screen for 111 minutes doing nothing in particular. Whatever the merits of individual scenes or songs, as a whole it really disappoints, leaving the traditionalists longing for the original and the radicals dying for the David Lynch version, otherwise known as Eraserhead.