Category: reviews

classic film reviews

Review: Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

“I shot an arrow in the air, she fell to earth in Berkeley Square”

My fascination with post-war British cinema keeps growing and growing!  For my birthday, I went on a small shopping spree at DVD Planet and picked up a few new Criterion DVDs for my collection.  One of these was Robert Hamer’s Kind Hearts and Coronets starring Dennis Price, Valerie Hobson, Joan Greenwood, and a whole lot of Alec Guinness.  This film was my first taste of Ealing Studios, one of the prominent British production studios in the 1940s and 50s.  Ealing was run by Michael Balcon (Daniel Day-Lewis’ grandfather) and was responsible for the output of such British classics as The Lavender Hill Mob, The Ladykillers, and Passport to Pimlico.  In 1944, Ealing was bought out by J.Arthur Rank, but Balcon remained studio chief until the 1960s.  One of Laurence Olivier’s first films–Perfect Understanding with Gloria Swanson–was filmed at Ealing under its first studio chief, Basil Dean (who would later direct Olivier with Vivien Leigh in 21 Days Together).

Kind Hearts and Coronets is a sinister and highly entertaining dark comedy involving a young man named Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price), a relative of the wealthy D’Ascoyne family whose mother was disowned for marrying beneath her.  Louis decides that the D’Ascoyne fortune is rightfully his, and plots to murder all eight D’Ascoynes (played by Alec Guinness) standing in the way to his immediate appointment to dukedom.  Alec Guinness is my favorite thing about this film, and is one of my new favorite people.  He plays eight characters in Kind Hearts and Coronets and it’s just brilliant because none of them are more over the top than the others, and he blends in so well!  Then of course there’s Dennis Price who is wonderfully wry in an understated performance, and Joan Greenwood, who is interesting all around, especially her voice.  I started watching her in The Importance of Being Ernest with Michael Redgrave last night at my friend Mark’s and can’t wait to see the rest.

Robert Hamer wrote and directed this film, and hats off to him because the script is so sharp.  One of the things I found particularly interesting is that I think this film is pretty racy for 1940s standards.  Granted, England didn’t have the Hayes Code to contend with, but in the documentary Made in Ealing (one of the special features on the Criterion DVD), Michael Balcon says that Ealing did not deal well with sex in films, and Kind Hearts and Coronets features an adulterous relationship and makes no qualms about it.

I really loved this movie and can’t wait to see more of the famous films that came out of Ealing.  Please put Kind Hearts and Coronets on your netflix queue if you haven’t yet seen it.  It’s a fabulous movie!

Grade: A

classic film reviews vivien leigh

Review: Waterloo Bridge (1940)

I always get excited when I have the opportunity to introduce my real life friends to my favorite films, especially when those films also introduce them to Vivien Leigh and/or Laurence Olivier.  Not many of the people I know in real life are as into old films as I am, and certainly no one in my close circle of friends knows as much about the Oliviers as I do.  However, most of my real life friends were fellow film studies majors, so it’s surprising to me that there isn’t more old movie love.  Even so, most of them are willing to watch some of these films with me on occasion. Today, felling bored, I decided to go hang out at my friend Cathy’s house.  She told me to bring some movies or tv shows because she still had some homework to finish.  I chose Waterloo Bridge, starring Vivien Leigh and Robert Talyor.  Cathy had only seen Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire, and confessed to not having cared much for Blanche DuBois, but she was interested in seeing a different side of my favorite actress.

Waterloo Bridge is my second favorite Vivien film (Gone with the Wind being #1).  Directed by Wizard of Oz producer Mervyn LeRoy for MGM, it stars Vivien as Myra Lester, a sweet and charming ballerina in WWI London who has a whirlwind romance with a “Scottish” soldier named Roy Cronin played by Robert Taylor (I put Scottish in quotation marks because Taylor makes no attempt at any sort of accent what-so-ever).  When Roy is called to the front the day before their wedding, Myra goes to see him off at the station and misses her performance at the theatre, for which she is promptly sacked by the tyrannical Madame Kirowa (Maria Ouspenskaya).  Her friend Kitty (Virginia Field) is sacked along with her and the two eventually turn to prostitution to pay the bills after Myra sees Roy’s name on a newspaper casualty list.  It turns out Roy isn’t really dead, though, and when he returns, Myra’ has to battle is with her conscience.

Though Myra is in many ways the complete opposite of Scarlett O’Hara, Vivien plays her with an intensity and an air of sadness that is every bit as touching and interesting as her previous role.    There is one scene that particularly stands out for me in Waterloo Bridge:  Myra goes to Waterloo Station in search of the night’s customers.  She walks through the throngs of soldiers returning home from the front, coquettishly smiling at the men as they walk by.  The camera cuts to a line of men alighting the latest train and we see a flash of Roy’s familiar face and signature khaki trench coat.  Cut back to Myra and we see her face change in an instant from coquetry to disbelief as she sees what we see.  It’s all in Vivien’s eyes.  Robert Osborne of TCM has called this moment one of the greatest in film history, and I would have to agree.  Vivien played it with the vulnerability of a silent film star (a la Lillian Gish). It makes me think of the final scene in Chaplin’s City Lights when the girl realizes it was the Tramp who payed for her eye operation.  The way Charlie’s face just changes in an instant.  No words are needed.  Mervyn LeRoy directed it brilliantly and it’s perfect.

Vivien had good supporting help from fellow cast mates Robert Taylor and Virginia Field.  It’s funny because I always say I don’t think Robert Taylor could have acted his way out of a paper bag, and it should irk me that he’s supposed to be Scottish, but for some reason I always let it slide (until someone on a message board says Taylor was the best actor in the film, then I say ‘Did we watch the same thing?  You’re joking, right?”).  Vivien originally wanted Laurence Olivier to play Roy, and that would have made more sense given the fact that Olivier at least had a British accent, but Robert Taylor and Vivien work wonderfully as a romantic team in this film. I think it’s because Taylor played Roy with the right amount of charm and optimism that perfectly balanced Myra’s sadness.  They also looked really good together.   This is made evident in m favorite scene in the film, in which Myra and Roy meet for a date at the Candlelight Club.  Robert Taylor looks so sharp in his black military uniform, and Vivien is ethereal in a polka-dot chiffon gown by Adrian.  It’s enough to take your breath away watching to them dance to Auld Lang Syne as the orchestra puts out the candles and they share their first kiss.  There’s something infinitely romantic and nostalgic about the whole thing.

Apparently Waterloo Bridge was a favorite for both Leigh and Taylor, and they enjoyed working together for a second time (the first time being on A Yank at Oxford in 1938).  Watching this film, it is easy to see why the two stars had fond memories of it.  It will surely stick with you for a while.  I’ve seen it numerous times and never get tired of it.  I think it’s beautiful, and I do love a good wartime romance.  If you haven’t seen it yet, please do!

Rating: A

reviews vivien leigh

Review: A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

From February 18-21, The American Cinematheque put on an Elia Kazan retrospective at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood.  This past Saturday, I met up with my friend Mark and his friends Will and Jay for dinner at the French Quarter restaurant in the French Market in West Hollywood.  We talked of films and politics, book projects and my upcoming trip to London for school.  Afterword, three of us went over the Hollywood for a double bill of Kazan’s Baby Doll and A Streetcar Named Desire, both starring Karl Malden, and both based on Tennessee Williams plays.

Baby Doll was a film I’d only seen bits of pieces of on TCM.  It was quite a racy little number.  In between films, there was a Q&A session with Carroll baker, the lead actress in Baby Doll, which was really interesting.  Then, it turned out Oscar-winning actress Patricia Neal (Hud) was in the audience!  A lot of people crowded her to get her autograph.  Millie Perkins, star of the 1959 film The Diary of Anne Frank was also there.  I love when remaining old celebrities come out of the woodwork for these kinds of events.  Only in Hollywood!

My main reason for attending the screening was to see A Streetcar Named Desire on the big screen for the first time.  It has been one of my favorite films since I discovered Vivien Leigh ages and ages ago.  This is such a powerful movie and Vivien is a tour-de-force as Blanche.  Much like her first turn as a southern belle in Gone with the Wind 11 years prior, Vivien’s Blanche absolutely steals the show.  It seems to be the general consensus among a lot of people that Marlon Brando is the one to watch in this film, but not so.  Seeing it in the theatre, when one is forced to pay attention, it is easy to see that the heart and soul of the story is Blanche, and the heart and soul of the film is Vivien.  She and Brando have great onscreen chemistry, but it is Vivien’s wounded butterfly that demands the most attention and sympathy.

Vivien first played Blanche on the London stage in 1949, where she was directed by Laurence Olivier.  At the same time, Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, Karl Malden, and Jessica Tandy were being directed by Elia Kazan on Broadway.  When Vivien was offered the role in the film due to her commercial appeal, she is reported to have had initial difficulty integrating herself with a cast of Method actors, and she and Kazan often disagreed on how they thought Blanche should be portrayed.  Some regard Streetcar as the best thing to happen to Vivien’s career, while others (mainly those close to her) regarded it as the biggest mistake due to her own mental problems, which were beginning to get out of control around the time Streetcar was filmed.  Whatever the case, it is without a doubt one of the best screen performances of Vivien’s career, and one of the best screen performances in film history (*author’s opinion).

What I’ve always loved about Streetcar is that this is a film that relies solely on the strength of the actors’ performances, our attention is always on the characters.  I guess this is why three of the four leads won Oscars, there was little to no room for not being up to perfection in this film.

Streetcar is a sad film that is pretty tough to watch sometimes (not because it’s boring, but because it’s harrowing seeing a person descending into madness).  Kazan gets laurels for making it a great artistic achievement, and the cats gets cheers for being AMAZING.  If you love films, or Vivien Leigh, or anyone and you have yet to see this movie, please do.  It ranks among the best.

This review was terrible.  Apologies!

Rating: 5 stars