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JOHN LENNON, SUNSET BOULEVARD AND THE PRICE OF FAME

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2020 marks two anniversaries. The first is the 40th anniversary of the murder of ex-Beatle John Lennon (1940 – 1980) by the social misfit, Mark David Chapman (1955 – ). The second is the 70th anniversary of the release of Sunset Boulevard. Although they are separated by some thirty years, each event acts as a reminder of what can happen when the desire for fame gets out of hand.

At 10.50pm on December 8th, 1980, Chapman watched as Lennon and his wife, Yoko Ono (1933 – ) made their way through the entrance of the Dakota building, dropped into a combat stance, and fired five shots from his Charter Arms .38 Special revolver. Four bullets struck Lennon in the back and shoulder. The fifth missed and shattered a window.

Lennon was rushed to the Roosevelt Hospital where three doctors, two to three medical attendants, and nurse spent ten to twenty minutes trying to revive him. The doctors even tried opening his chest to perform a manual heart massage, but the damage to the vessels around his heart were too great. John Lennon was announced dead on arrival at 11.15pm.

Lennon had been shot at close range by four hollow-point bullets. Two had passed through his body, one had lodged itself in his upper left-arm, and a fourth had lodged itself in his aorta. The autopsy concluded that Lennon died of “hypovolemic shock, caused by the loss of more than eighty-percent of blood volume due to multiple through-and-through gunshot wounds to the left shoulder and left chest resulting in damage to the left lung, the left subclavian artery, and both the aorta and aortic arch.”

John Lennon’s murder and the plot of Sunset Boulevard mirror one another in many ways. Lennon was murdered by a deranged lunatic who believed he could achieve notoriety for himself by murdering a popstar. Similarly, Sunset Boulevard tells the story of a long forgotten, and equally demented, film star who achieves a return to fame by murdering her gigolo.

Sunset Boulevard was the product of a collaboration between Billy Wilder (1906 – 2002), Charles Brackett (1892 – 1969), and Donald McGill Marshman, Jr. (1922 – 2015). The story was based, in part, on the Evelyn Waugh (1903 – 1966) novel, The Loved Ones which recounted the author’s experiences in Hollywood and the funeral business. Wilder, who had become fascinated by American culture whilst living in Berlin, dreamt up a story about a long forgotten silent film star who resides in one of Sunset Boulevard’s grand houses. Brackett suggested making the story about the star’s comeback, whilst Marshman, Jr. suggested using it to explore the relationship between the forgotten film star and a young man.

Sunset Boulevard’s success was aided by three factors: the writing of Wilder, Brackett, and Marshman, Jr., the direction of Wilder, and the cinematography of John Francis Seitz (1892 – 1979). Seitz gave Sunset Boulevard a dreamlike quality in which fantasy and reality blend together almost seamlessly. The fantasy world Norma Desmond inhabits is shot in deep focus and made to look dark and ominous. By contrast, the real world that Joe Gillis inhabits is depicted as well-lit and filmed in a documentary-style fashion.

Numerous actors were considered to play Joe Gillis, including Fred MacMurray (1908 – 1991) and Montgomery Clift (1920 – 1966). Clift was originally signed to play the part, but withdrew from the project at the last minute. The role eventually went to William Holden (1918 – 1981).

Joe Gillis is a down and outer. Prior to meeting Norma Desmond, Gillis’ situation is so dire that he actually considers returning to his newspaper job in Dayton, Ohio. He is hounded by debt collectors, forced to use the telephone at Schwab’s drugstore because he cannot afford one of his own, and is even fired by his own manager. Gillis believes that he can live the life of an expensive playboy by reading Desmond’s script and entertaining her deluded fantasies. The problem is that he has to make a Faustian pact in order to do so.

The reason Gillis finds Desmond’s offer so tempting is that he has become jaded about the Hollywood system. He represents the writer as just a mere cog in the movie-making machine. He notes the general lack of recognition for the writer and his craft, the writer’s uncertain prospects, the likelihood of executive meddling, and the ever-present risk of plagiarism. He complains that Hollywood will reject your script if it is too original or if it is not original enough.

Norma Desmond, Sunset Boulevard’s antagonist, was based on a myriad of silent film actresses. The name is believed to be derived from the silent film star, Mabel Normand (1892 – 1930) and the film director, William Desmond Taylor (1872 – 1922), who’s sensational 1922 murder has never been solved. Suggested models for Desmond include Norma Talmadge (1894 – 1957), Mary Pickford (1892 – 1979), Pola Negri (1897 – 1987), Mae Murray (1885 – 1965), Clara Bow (1905 – 1965), and Valeska Surratt (1882 – 1962).

Norma Desmond was played by former silent film star, Gloria Swanson (1899 – 1983). Like Desmond, Swanson had been a major silent film star and was known for her beauty, talent, and extravagant lifestyle. And like Desmond, her film career faded with the coming of sound. Unlike Desmond, however, Swanson was able to accept the end of her film career, moved to New York in the early-thirties, and pursued a successful career in theatre, radio, and television.

Norma Desmond has come to symbolise an entire generation of silent film stars whose were thrust aside by the advent of sound. When her star fell, Desmond retreated into her gothic mansion and built up a fantasy world where she was still a big star. At one stage she tells Gillis that she had the floor of her ballroom tiled at the behest of Rudolph Valentino (1895 – 1926), as though Valentino was still a big star. She speaks in melodramatic tones, acts like an infatuated schoolgirl in Gillis’ company, and engages in acts of emotional blackmail through mock suicide attempts.

Desmond refuses to admit that the “parade has long since passed her by.” Incapable of functioning in the real world, she has constructed a fantasy life for herself. Any attempt to bring her out of her stupor is met with either denial or indignation. Towards the end of the movie, Gillis informs her: “Norma, you’re a woman of fifty, now grow up. There’s nothing tragic about being fifty, not unless you try to be twenty-five.” And just like John the Baptist in Salome (the 1891 Oscar Wilde tragedy Desmond has chosen to adapt), Gillis pays for the faux pas with his life.

When Sunset Boulevard premiered, Louis B. Mayer (1884 – 1957) reportedly shouted at Billy Wilder: “You bastard! You have disgraced the industry that made you and fed you. You should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood.” Mayer had reason to be angry, too. Sunset Boulevard is perhaps one of the most scathing criticisms of Hollywood ever made. The film indicted Hollywood for its treatment of the writer, its obsession with youth, its toxic star system, and cult of celebrity worship.

In a world of social media and reality television, the murder of John Lennon and the story of Sunset Boulevard is more potent today than ever before. Thanks to reality TV and social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, it is far too easy for mentally unstable people to achieve easy fame. How long will it be before society produces another Mark David Chapman or Norma Desmond?

The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) vs. The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)

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Hollywood has been remaking movies since the beginning. And with a few notable exceptions, most of these films have failed to capture the magic of the original. Even today directors seem convinced that they can produce Hollywood magic by creating an endless array of sequels, remakes, and reboots. Nevertheless, there still exists that rare category of film screaming to be remade.

One such movie is The Thomas Crown Affair. Neither the 1968 original nor the 1999 remake manages to surpass the other. Whilst the original excels at style and sexual tension, it is overshadowed by the remake’s plot and music score. Both films are essentially “style” movies. They rely heavily upon atmosphere to draw in an audience. The cool jazz of the 1999 remake is a massive improvement over the original. There can be no denying that Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman” is better suited to the film than the original’s “Windmills of Your Mind.”

But what the remake wins in music, it loses in style and sex appeal. From Faye Dunaway’s wardrobe to Steve McQueen’s three-piece suits, the style of The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) has become an iconic part of 20th century style. The tailored suits and designer skirts lend themselves to the film’s upmarket atmosphere and help enhance the sexual tension, which is far more palpable here despite the remake’s decision to show more explicit sex.

The 1999 film makes enormous improvements on the original’s plot. In the original film, the audience is never granted a satisfactory explanation as to why a wealthy, sophisticated gentleman would waste his time organising a bank robbery (the explanation that he does it for kicks barely passes muster). In the remake, the director, John McTiernan and the screenwriters, Leslie Dixon and Kurt Wimmer, decide to make Crown an art thief. It is a crime that makes Crown seem intelligent, cultured, and sympathetic.

At the centre of both versions of The Thomas Crown Affair is the relationship between Thomas Crown and Vicki Anderson (Faye Dunaway)/ Catherine Banning (Rene Russo). In the original film, Crown and Vicki compete as equals causing a sexual tension to pulsate through the entire film. Similarly, in the remake Crown and Banning act as mirror images of one another. Unlike the original, however, the sexual tension quickly fizzles out when the pair form a romantic attachment to one another. At this moment, the erotically-charged battle of wits is replaced with a soap opera-style romance that is, frankly, embarrassing to watch.

In both versions of the film, Thomas Crown is presented as an elegant, sophisticated alpha-male who amassed his wealth thanks to a shrewd business mind and a willingness to take extreme risks. When Crown isn’t making multi-million-dollar deals at the corporate board table, he’s pursing hobbies like polo, gliding, yachting, and golf.

Both Steve McQueen and Pierce Brosnan portray Thomas Crown as a bored millionaire playboy: the type of man with an almost insatiable need for adrenaline. There are, however, marked differences in the way each actor portrays the character. Steve McQueen plays Crown with the kind of roguish charm that made him the “King of Cool” in the sixties and seventies. By contrast, Pierce Brosnan plays Crown as a charmer, the kind of man who feels comfortable in country clubs and golf courses because he’s lived around them his entire life.

As mentioned before, competing against Thomas Crown are the insurance investigators Vicki Anderson and Catherine Banning. Both are largely similar characters. Both have resided in Europe, both are sophisticates, and both come to suspect Thomas Crown merely because they find him attractive. In terms of characterisation, Catherine Banning is certainly the more nuanced of the two.

There is one area, however, where Vicki Anderson excels over Catherine Banning. Sex appeal. At the age of forty-five, Rene Russo (who, it must be said, is a perfectly fine actress) looks too old to be playing the part of a sultry sex kitten who is supposed to be the source of all men’s fantasies. (Faye Dunaway, by contrast, was only twenty-seven and looks every part the sex kitten). Better choices would have been Sharon Stone, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Kim Basinger, Kate Winslet, Emanuelle Béart, and Monica Bellucci.

In 2016, Variety reported that Michael B. Jordan was set to star in a second remake of The Thomas Crown Affair. Those wishing to remake the film should heed the following advice. They should combine McQueen and Brosnan’s portrayals of Crown to create a character a witty, urbane, charming, and roguish anti-hero. They should retain the style and sex appeal of the original film, but follow the remake’s lead when it comes to music and plot. And, finally, they should make absolutely certain that they cast the right actress as the female lead. Only then will we get the film we truly deserve.

I’m Done with Modern Movies

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For the life of me, I cannot remember the last time I saw a contemporary movie that was memorable in any way. Despite having access to both television and Netflix, I have found it virtually impossible to find a movie that I actually thought was worth watching.

It would be wrong, however, to lay the entirety of the blame on either mainstream television or Netflix. (Although it is entirely fair to argue that the litany of rubbish offered by television is a symptom of a dying medium). Rather, it is indicative of a problem that has pervaded the entire filmmaking industry. Modern filmmakers appear to be content with making defective movies. Movies that feature predictable stories, two-dimensional characters, and an over-reliance on visual effects.

This was not always the case. For years Hollywood was known for producing great, culture-defining films. The classical period of American cinema (which lasted from the 1930s to the 1960s) produced films like Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, and Ben Hur, among many, many others.

Similarly, the 1960s and 1970s saw a renaissance in film as filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, and many others reinvented and reinvigorated motion picture. This became the era that produced films like the Godfather, the French Connection, and the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

Hollywood’s total lack of artistic brilliance has been caused by three problems: the lack of originality, the lack of artistic merit, and the saturation of progressive politics in the industry.

Modern Movies Lack Originality

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The most conspicuous problem inflicting Hollywood today is a total lack of originality. Neither their stories nor their characters appear to have any originality or depth whatsoever. Most films today are either remakes, reboots, sequels, are based on comic books, or are about superheroes. Now there is nothing wrong with these films in and of themselves, but when every single movie made is one of these five things, it starts to get a little tiresome.

The problem doesn’t stop at just narrative, either. Modern film characters are often two-dimensional and, as a result, rather dull. They are mouthpieces for certain ideological beliefs and are therefore often presented in entirely black or white terms. The problem with this, of course, is that people in real life are usually complicated. They make mistakes, hold contradictory views, and often behave in irrational ways. One would never see an obvious racist like Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) in The Searchers or Jett Rink (James Dean) in Giant. These characters, though they reflect real life, are just too politically incorrect, too human to be presented in any real or sympathetic manner.

A lot of this comes from the travesty that was Star Wars and the litany of ‘blockbuster’ movies it left in its wake. Taken on its own merits, Star Wars is an excellent movie. However, it convinced Hollywood’s film producers that they should devote more time and money to producing shallow, unsophisticated movies that movies of genuine depth and meaning.

Big blockbuster movies are all well and good, but I am an adult and I would like to see movies with a certain level of maturity.

Modern Movies Lack Artistic Merit

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The next glaring problem (though it is one that many people without a knowledge of film or film history would fail to notice) is the total lack of artistic merit in modern filmmaking. The films of the past often prided themselves on their creative and technical brilliance. Modern filmmakers, by contrast, seem more than happy to rest on their laurels and make easy cliched movies.

With the possible exception of Martin Scorsese’s, The Aviator, I cannot remember the last time I saw a movie that made me marvel at its cinematography or that had a score which riled my spirit. I can, however, remember classic movies that managed to do all those things and more. I can remember marvelling at the cinematography in Lawrence of Arabia and sitting in awe of the chariot race – which utilised real stuntmen – in Ben Hur.

Modern filmmakers seem content with spending all their time and money on hey-wow visual effects and completely neglect the most important elements of film: story and character. As a consequence, they cheat their audience by offering sub-par films.

Modern filmmakers rely on visual effects because it is easier than trying to create compelling storylines and memorable characters. They choose to rely on computer-generated-imagery and blue screen because it is easier and safer (cowards) than using real stuntmen and practical effects.

The problem with all this is that the audience knows it’s being cheated. The car chase in Bullit looked so realistic was because, well, it was realistic. It used real cars driven by real people on real streets. A lot of modern movies, by contrast, look fake because, well, they are fake.

Modern Movies are Left-Wing Propaganda

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The third problem, and the one most egregious, is that Hollywood has become a propaganda outlet for progressive politics. They produce films that are so ideologically driven that one can virtually predict everything that is going to happen before it occurs. And, much like people who have been ideologically possessed, these films tend to be so boring they’re not worth wasting your time on.

The fact that Hollywood has become infected with ideologically possessed, far-left individuals is, to some extent, understandable. Filmmaking is an enterprise that attracts highly creative people who, for the most part, tend to be on the political left. The problem, rather, lies in the fact that all the films Hollywood now produces carry a left-wing bias.

Hollywood has become an echo chamber in which “woke” vies are communicated and no other views are allowed to get in. Those associated with the movies compete at the Oscars and at the Academy Awards to see who can be the most virtuous. And they criticise and demean anyone who doesn’t agree with them. They are like Marie Antoinette saying “let them eat cake” as the peasants starve to death in the streets. They are completely out of touch.

The problem with the films being produced today is that their left-wing bias has made them completely shallow and totally predictable.

HOLLYWOOD STEPS OUT

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There is more to life than just politics. And in the spirit of such a sentiment, this article will take a light-hearted focus on an aspect of popular culture. In specific, it will examine the stars, personalities, and faces that are featured in the 1941 Merrie Melodies cartoon, Hollywood Steps Out.

The cartoon takes place in Ciro’s Nightclub, which is located from 1940 to 1957 on Sunset Boulevard. A neon sign ironically advertises a meal for $50.00 (US$860.00 in today’s money). The first two stars we see are Claudette Colbert (1903 – 1996), famous for playing sophisticated women in light-hearted comedies and emotional dramas, and Don Ameche (1908 – 1993), a film and radio personality who played debonair men. Seated behind them are Adolphe Menjou (1890 – 1963) and Norma Shearer (1902 – 1983), who played spunky and sexually liberated women.

The first interaction occurs between Cary Grant (1904 – 1986), iconic for playing debonair leading men, and the Swedish-American film star, Greta Garbo (1905 – 1990), who is acting as the cigarette girl.

In the next scene, we are introduced to Edward G. Robinson (1893 – 1973), who rose to fame playing gangsters in films like Little Caesar, talking to Ann Sheridan (1915 – 1967). Robinson makes reference to the fact that Sheridan had been voted the actress with the most “oomph” by asking her how her “oomph” is.

The cartoon then pans across a series of tables. At the first table is Henry Binder and Leon Schlesinger (1884 – 1949), both of whom were Warner Brothers staffers. The next three tables are empty. The first is reserved for Bette Davis (1908 – 1989), famous for playing unsympathetic, sardonic characters. The second is reserved for Kate Smith (1907 – 1986), the corpulent American signer. The third is reserved for the cast of Blondie, a radio sitcom that ran from 1939 to 1950. Finally, a fire hydrant has been reserved for Daisy the Dog.

The cartoon then takes us to the cloaking room. Johnny Weissmuller (1904 – 1984), an Olympic swimming champion best known for playing Tarzan (the famous Tarzan yell is his), hands Paulette Goddard (1910 – 1990), a former Ziegfeld girl and film star, his coat. Following Weissmuller is the burlesque dancer, Sally Rand (1904 – 1979). Rand hands Goddard her famous feathers and leaves, presumably naked.

At the bar sits James Cagney (1899 – 1986), famous for playing gangsters, Humphrey Bogart (1899 – 1957), famous for playing cynical and hardboiled characters in film noir pictures, and George Raft (1901 – 1980), also famous for playing gangsters. They are depicted drinking, planning a crime, and pitching pennies.

Harpo Marx (1888 – 1964), the famous prankster of the Marx Brothers, is seen lighting a match under Greta Garbo’s feet.

Next, Clark Gable (1901 – 1960), the undisputed King of Hollywood and star of films like Gone with the Wind, is depicted sitting alone at a table.

Bing Crosby (1903 – 1977), a famous crooner known for songs like “White Christmas, introduces the composer Leopold Stokowski (1882 – 1977) as the evening’s entertainment. Stokowski was best known for his work on Disney’s Fantasia.

In the restaurant, Dorothy Lamour (1914 – 1986), an actress and singer, asks James Stewart (1908 – 1997), known for playing shy, everyman characters, if he would dance with her. Stewart runs away after seeing Lamour dance and leaves behind a sign saying, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (a reference to one of Stewart’s films).

Several famous stars are depicted on the dance floor. Tyrone Power (1914 – 1958), known for playing swashbuckling and romantic leads, dances with the Olympic champion figure skater and film star, Sonja Hennie (1912 – 1969). Frankenstein is depicted dancing mechanically. The Three Stooges, one of the most iconic slapstick comedy groups of all time, poke and slap each other in rhythm. Oliver Hardy (1892 – 1957), the fatter half of the Laurel and Hardy comedy duo, dances with two women at the same time. Finally, Caesar Romero (1907 – 1994), dances with Rita Hayworth (1918 – 1987), star of films like Gilda.

Mickey Rooney (1920 – 2014), who found fame playing Andy Hardy, and Judy Garland (1922 – 1969), a notable singer, dancer, vaudevillian, and film star best remembered for playing Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Rooney asks Lewis Stone (1879 – 1953), an American character actor, if he can have a “heart to heart talk” with him.

For the next performance, Crosby introduces Sally Rand (he introduces her as Sally Strand, no doubt for legal reasons) and her famous bubble dance. The radio personality and bandleader, Kay Kyser (1905 – 1985), calls to his students. These are William Powell (1892 – 1984), known for playing debonair men, Spencer Tracy (1900 – 1967), known for his natural style and versatility, Ronald Colman (1891 – 1958), Errol Flynn (1909 – 1959), the Australian-American film star famous for playing swashbuckling heroes, Wallace Beery (1885 – 1949), and the English cricketer and film star, C. Aubrey Smith (1863 – 1948).

The Austro-Hungarian born actor, Peter Lorre (1904 – 1964), known for playing creepy and cowardly characters, is depicted sitting at a table by himself. Henry Fonda (1907 – 1982), known for playing characters brimming with heroic integrity, sits at the next table. The voice that calls out “Hen-ree” is a reference to Alice Aldrich of the Aldrich family. Finally, J. Edgar Hoover (1895 – 1972), the legendary first director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, is depicted repeating “g” over and over again.

At the next table is Boris Karloff (1887 – 1972), most famous for playing Frankenstein, Arthur Treacher (1894 – 1975), a comedian best known for playing stereotypical Englishmen, Buster Keaton (1895 – 1966), a silent-era comedian who legendary status is bettered only by Charlie Chaplin (1889 – 1977), and the Russian-American film star, Mischa Auer (1905 – 1967).  The man who asks them if they are enjoying themselves is Ned Sparks (1883 – 1957), a Canadian character actor known for playing serious characters.

At the next table is Jerry Colonna (1904 – 1986), a well-known musician and comedian, sitting with the invisible man. Finally, the woman Clark Gable has spent the entire cartoon chasing is revealed to be none other than Groucho Marx (1890 – 1977).

IT’S TIME FOR A RETURN TO TRADITION

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Modernity is in trouble. From the menace of migrant crime in Europe to the sexual transgressions rife in modern-day Hollywood, the moral argument for modernity is quickly waning. How did things go so wrong? And how do we fix it? Perhaps a return to traditional values and ideals are in order.

The modern world developed over hundreds of years. The post-medieval period has seen the advent of tolerance as a social and political virtue, the rise of the nation-state, the increased role of science and technology in daily life, the development of representative democracy, the creation of property rights, urbanisation, mass literacy, print media, industrialisation, mercantilism, colonisation, the social sciences, modern psychology, emancipation, romanticism, naturalist approaches to art and culture, and the development of existential philosophy.  From the computer to the mobile phone, the motor car to the aeroplane, the marvels of the modern world are all around us.

The modern world has replaced the Aristotelean and faith-based concept of human life that was popular in the Middle Ages with a worldview based on science and reason. Modern intellectualism, therefore, follows the example set forth by Cartesian and Kantian philosophy: mistrusting tradition and finding its roots in science and rationality.

Culturally and intellectually, the 21st century represents the postmodern era. Postmodernism can be difficult to define accurately because the various cultural and social movements that use it as their central philosophy define it for their own purposes. Jean-Franҫois Lyotard (1924 – 1998), who introduced the term in his 1979 book, The Postmodern Condition, defined postmodernism as “incredulity towards metanarratives.” Similarly, Encyclopedia Britannica defines it as a philosophical movement in opposition to the philosophical assumptions and values of modern Western philosophy.

Postmodernism came about as a reaction, indeed a rejection, to modernity. With its roots in the philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900), Martin Heidegger (1889 – 1976), Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939), and Karl Marx (1818 – 1883), the postmodernist rejects the philosophical theory of Foundationalism – the idea that knowledge is built upon a solid foundation – in favour of large-scale scepticism, subjectivism, and relativism.

The postmodernist likes to see himself as Beowulf fighting Grendel. That is, he likes to see himself as the mythical hero fighting the historical-critical monster. Inspired by doctrines of white privilege and toxic masculinity, and driven by an anti-capitalist (except when it comes to their I-phones), anti-racist (provided the person isn’t white), anti-imperialist (but only European imperialism), and anti-transphobic (because gender is a “social construct”) rhetoric, the post-modernist inspired neo-Marxists and social justice warriors have invaded the modern university and college campus.

Modernity and post-modernism have produced a swathe of existential and moral problems that the Western world has, as of yet, proved unable (or perhaps even unwilling) to solve. To begin, the modern world has abolished the central role that God, nature, and tradition has played in providing life with purpose. In spite of all its cruelty, the German sociologist, Max Weber (1864 – 1920) saw the Middle Ages as a highly humanistic period. Everything was considered to have a divine purpose. Even someone as lowly as a Medieval serf, for example, could feel that he had a role in God’s greater scheme. There was a sense of, as Martin Buber (1878 – 1965) puts it, “I-thou.” Modernity swapped “I-thou” for “I-it”. The human will replaced God as the ultimate arbiter of meaning.

This problem has been further exacerbated by the alienation of the human spirit to nature. Science, for all of its positive qualities, has had the effect of rendering nature meaningless. No longer is a thunderclap the voice of an angry God, nor does a cave contain a goblin or a mountain harbour a giant. Science may be an excellent means for understanding facts, but it is not a substitute for wisdom or tradition when it comes to determining human purpose. No longer does the natural world command the sense of reverential majesty that it once did.

The answer to the problems of the modern, and, by extension, post-modern, world is a revitalisation of the traditional beliefs, values, ideas, customs, and practices that have made the Western world great in the first place. We must reject the destructive ideas espoused by the postmodernists and work to revitalise our traditions. It is high time we started taking some pride in the traditions that have made our civilisation so great.

THE LADY VANISHES

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This week for our cultural article, we will be examining Alfred Hitchcock’s (1899 – 1980) 1938 film, The Lady Vanishes.  Set primarily on a train bound for England from Central Europe, Hitchcock’s film weaves an intriguing and intense narrative around characters united and divided by their snobbery, self-centredness, complacency, and nationalism.

The Lady Vanishes is one-part comedy, one-part murder mystery, and one-part thriller. The film’s first act is rather comedic in nature. A recent avalanche has blocked the train lines, forcing most of the residents to remain at the hotel overnight. The hotel in question becomes so overbooked and so strained in its resources, that two of its guests are forced to sleep in the maid’s quarters. This first act draws the audience in with its lighthearted attitude and its mixture of verbal and physical humour. Not even the murder of a folk singer outside the hotel is enough to distract us from the revelry.

The first act ends with the disappearance of the film’s titular character, Miss Froy (May Whitty, 1865 – 1948). From this point, the film becomes a murder mystery with Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood, 1916 – 1990), a wealthy socialite, and her helper, the musicologist Gilbert Redman (Michael Redgrave, 1908 – 1985), searching for her. Here Hitcock begins to play subtle tricks on our minds. We, like Iris Henderson, know Miss Froy exists, but the other characters deny ever having seen her. Simultaneously, Hitchcock plays with our curiosity and our frustration. Eventually, Miss Froy is found and the film then climaxes with a thrilling and action-packed third-act.

Eventually, Miss Froy is found and the film then climaxes with a thrilling and action-packed third-act. This act becomes a fight for survival as the film’s British characters are forced to fight against unnamed foreign forced outside.

Throughout the Lady Vanishes, themes of nationalism and class-snobbery pop-up.  The film’s British characters and arrogant and insular in their attitudes. When it appears that they are about to be killed by foreign police officers, one Brit rather proudly exclaims: “They can’t do anything to us. We’re British subjects.” This is juxtaposed by the subtle undercurrent of politics, exemplified by the film’s antagonists, who may or may not be in league with Fascist Italy.

Then there’s the notion of social class and the snobbery and divisiveness that goes with it. (A reality Hitchcock, as the son of a trader, was quite familiar with). Hitchcock cynically links money and title together by having Iris return to England to marry Lord Charles Forthingale for no other reason than to appease her father, who is reportedly “aching to have a coat of arms on the jam label.” Then there’s the cricket-obsessed Charters (Naunton Wayne, 1901 – 1970) and Caldicott (Basil Radford, 1897 – 1952) representing the idle upper-class. (These two would become popular stock characters in numerous films, radio plays, and television shows).  And then there’s the travelling lawyer (Cecil Parker, 1897 – 1971) and his mistress (Linden Travers, 1913 – 2001) who avoid contact with those they deem beneath them, and who are perfectly prepared to lie to protect their precious social status.

The Lady Vanishes has frequently been credited as Hitchcock’s last great British film.  Hitchcock masterfully weaves elements of mystery, suspense, humour, international politics, class-snobbery, and nationalism together to form an intriguing story. The Lady Vanishes is still as intriguing today as it was nearly eighty years ago.

CASABLANCA

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For our weekly cultural article, we will be looking at the film Casablanca. Released in 1942, Casablanca delves deeply into themes of morality and human sacrifice, tentatively exploring both the good and bad aspects of humanity.

BACKGROUND

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The American Film Institute ranks Casablanca as the second greatest film of all time (ranked behind Citizen Kane).

The fact that Casablanca is still so revered, even after seventy-five years,  is nothing short of a miracle. The film was made on a tight budget in the style common to the studio system of the time, having been made on set with a studio director, studio writers, and studio actors.

Its script has been voted by the Writers Guild of America as the greatest ever written. That, too, is a miracle. The script was based on a play that was never performed: “Everybody Comes to Rick’s”, by Murray Burnett (1910 – 1997) and Joan Alison (1901 – 1992).  The task of adapting the play to film was given to three separate screenwriters, who completed their task in three different locations.  Julius G. and Philip G. Epstein (1909 – 2000; 1909 – 1952) would finish theirs just a few days before filming began. Howard Koch (1901 – 1995), on the other hand, wouldn’t hand his in until filming was well underway.

And even then, scraps of dialogue and scene rewrites were being rushed to the set, the ink still wet on the page.

THE FILM

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Perhaps one reason for its long lasting success is its refusal to be categorisedCasablanca is one part war film – being presented against the backdrop of the Second World War, one part love story – Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), and Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) are embroiled in a bitter love triangle, one part political thriller, and one part allegory – presenting both the best and worst aspects of human nature.

Another reason is the stellar cast it boasts: Humphrey Bogart (1899 – 1957) – considered the greatest film star of all time by the American Film Institute, Ingrid Bergman (1915 – 1982) – one of film’s most naturally beautiful women,  Claude Rains (1889 – 1967), Sydney Greenstreet (1879 – 1954), Paul Henreid (1908 – 1992), and Peter Lorre (1904  – 1964).

SUMMARY

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Naturally, no one thought Casablanca would be a hit, people weren’t even sure if the allies would win World War Two.  However,  as Alrean Harmetz wrote in Round Up the Usual Suspects: the Making of CasablancaCasablanca seemed almost destined to be a film classic:

“There are better movies than Casablanca, but no other movie better demonstrates America’s mythological vision of itself – tough on the outside and moral within, capable of sacrifice and romance without sacrificing the individualism that conquered a continent, sticking its neck out for everybody when circumstances demand heroism. No other movie has so reflected both the moment when it was made – the early  days of World War II – and the psychological needs of audiences decades later.”

I believe Casablanca‘s long lasting success boils down to its depiction of the goodness of human beings in the wake of great evil. Early in World War Two, Casablanca was Vichy France, and therefore Nazi German, territory. In the film, Casablanca is depicted as a world of corruption, a crossroads where Nazis, members of various resistance forces, criminals, spies, and traitors come together. It is a fascist society where the oppressors imprison millions, where human life is a commodity to be traded for benefits. No one cares about anyone, save for themselves.

The imprisoned respond to their imprisonment in different ways: some fight against it, others try to escape it, and others try to profit from it. In one scene, a man is shot dead trying to escape. He falls under a poster of Marshall Philippe Petain (1856 – 1951), the Chief of Vichy France. We learn he was clutching a Free France handbill.

Desperate attempts to escape to freedom are understandable. But the film also presents us with an array of lowlifes and criminals, and, remarkably, even asks us to express pity for them. Signor Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet) is a shrewd and callous gangster who, it is suggested, profits from the sale of human beings.

The total disregard for human life is depicted in a scene where Ferrari offers to buy Rick’s friend and piano player, Sam, portrayed by Dooley Wilson (1886 – 1953). Rick refuses, saying “I don’t buy or sell human beings.” “Too bad”, Ferrari replies, “that’s Casablanca’s leading commodity.”

Then there’s Signore Ugarte (Peter Lorre), the North African black market dealer who represents disorganised criminal who profits from the misery of others. Rick ignores his pleas for help as he is arrested for murdering two German couriers in order to steal non-rescindable, French General Marshal Weygand signed, letters of transit.

Ultimately, Casablanca is a film of redemption and human sacrifice. It asks its audience to not only imagine winning the loves of their lives but asks them to imagine giving them up for the greater good.

Rick starts out as a cynical and resentful anti-hero. “I stick my neck out for no one”, he tells us at one point. By the end of the film, he has been transformed into a selfless hero. “It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world”, he tells Ilsa.

In the end, Casablanca shows the power of sacrifice and brotherly love over tyranny and evil. Even when everything is lost, hope can be found among those few human beings who are willing to put their personal needs aside and sacrifice themselves for others.