Friday, April 26, 2013

Classic Film Review: Meet Me In St. Louis

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
Directed by: Vincente Minnelli
Starring: Judy Garland, Margaret O'Brien and Mary Astor

Meet Me in St. Louis -- one of those big, bold musicals from MGM that, to this day, remain a classic example of how to incorporate song and dance when weaving together a story.

The picture itself is a slice of life -- one year in the life, to be exact, of the Smith family (the last name chosen, presumably, to imply normalcy. This is your everyday, average, relatable family).

For the Smith clan, music is a part of everyday life. When someone breaks into song, they are actually doing it -- and everyone either gathers around to listen or joins in with their own lyrics. Unlike some musicals, where the songs are simply an expression of emotion that doesn't necessarily mean the characters are actually singing within the context of the narrative, the Smith's in Meet Me in St. Louis are similar to the von Trapps in The Sound of Music -- all aspects of life, whether good or bad, are worth singing about. And isn't life just grand?

The opening number, named after the film's title, starts with the sounds of a little girl humming as she walks upstairs in preparation for her afternoon bath. When she eventually breaks into song, her Grandpa chims in, before the song carries out the front window and continues with Judy Garland pulling up to the house in horse and buggy.

Set in 1903, the narrative follows the highs and lows of the Smith family -- from falling in love, to dangerous Halloween stunts to Christmas miracles. The simplicity of the story is ultimately made extraordinary by its catchy musical numbers. And, really, can anyone else sing like the legendary Judy Garland?

As Esther Smith, second eldest daughter to Alonzo (Leon Ames) and Anna (Mary Astor), Garland is a revelation. Not only does her voice carry the emotional weight necessary for the role, but her natural interactions with her co-stars make you forget you are watching a big star and not just some regular girl from down the street. And that's a high compliment.

Whether she's longingly singing about her (at first) unrequited love for John Truett (Tom Drake) in "The Boy Next Door" or simply horsing around with her sisters Rose (Lucille Bremer) and little Tootie (the always adorable Margaret O'Brien), Garland infuses each scene with her contagious energy and charisma. You can't create that kind of natural talent and Garland has it in spades.

Margaret O'Brien (left) and Judy Garland
Meet Me in St. Louis is the rare female-centric musical where the boys are secondary and take a backseat to sisterly bonds and rebellious feminine spirit. In Hollywood, where male characters tend to be more well written than females (a problem we still see to this day), it's refreshing to see John, the main romantic lead, come off as an underdeveloped drip in comparison to Esther and the other lady Smiths. And even though Esther pines over John (although we are never quite sure what she sees in him), she makes him really work for her affection, even taking a bite out of his arm in anger at one point.

The songs are all upbeat and catchy -- specifically "The Trolley Song" -- and director Vincente Minnelli expertly lenses all the beautiful costumes and choreography. It's one of the most strikingly vivid films you are likely to see.

However, much of the pleasure viewers will derive from Meet Me in St. Louis is its charming central family. One scene, early on, subtly provides insight into their familial closeness when the entire Smith clan tries to calmly eat dinner even though they know full-well that Rose is expecting a long-distance phone call from a male admirer who may or may not propose to her (and on the newest advancement in technology, to boot!). Their excited and nervous energy around the dinner table -- and their honest-to-goodness happiness when the young suitor finally phones Rose -- illustrates that bond with very little fuss.

It's this attention to the little details where Minnelli excels. It's all about the small moments in life and Minnelli takes great care to illustrate the love that binds the Smith's together. Regardless of what is happening in the great world outside their borders, their relationships, built on solid foundation, is what keeps them going everyday.

As Tootie remarks, "Wasn't I lucky to be born in my favourite city?"

That kind of innocence and the pleasure the Smith's take in their safe little existence provides this rousing musical with a beating heart at its core.


Monday, April 8, 2013

Classic Film Review: Julia Misbehaves

Julia Misbehaves (1948)
Directed by: Jack Conway
Starring: Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, Peter Lawford and Elizabeth Taylor

It was the rare Hollywood film that featured a female lead that abandoned her husband and baby to pursue a career as a music hall performer. But thus is the premise of the MGM comedy, Julia Misbehaves.

After completing a series heavy dramas, British star Greer Garson turned her talents to performing in a light comedy -- one that sees her sing, dance and throw around zingers like the best in the business.

Julia Packett (Garson) hasn't seen her estranged husband (Walter Pidgeon) or daughter Susan (Elizabeth Taylor, only 16 years old at the time) in nearly 20 years. While William raises Susan in Paris as a single parent, Julia traipses around the world, basking in the glow of the spotlight and her most ardent fans. When she unexpectedly receives an invitation to her daughter's impending nuptials, Julia is both shocked and touched by this act of kindness and familiarity. As she barters her way to secure passage on a steerage ship -- and vows to win enough money gambling to buy Susan Christmas presents for every year that she's missed since her birth -- Julia finds herself firmly embedded in everyone's lives the minute she lands in Paris. Her constant meddling leaves William on the verge of madness, especially when Julia gently nudges Susan away from her betrothed and into the direction of Ritchie (Peter Lawford), a young artist who not-so-secretly pines over Susan. And, despite her brash nature and matchmaking schemes, William can't help but fall back in love with the woman who left him all those years ago.

Julia Misbehaves is part screwball comedy and part family drama, with a dash of romance thrown in for good measure. It's the type of crowd-pleasing concoction that made MGM a household name. Although the audience knows that the film will inevitably have a happy ending -- not only for Julia and William but Susan and Ritchie, as well -- you take pleasure in watching all the loose threads come together.
(Left to right): Lawford, Taylor, Pidgeon and Garson.
Garson, in particular, exhibits an innate ability to convey a multitude of emotions in a single glance. Witness her fragility in the scene where she is reunited with Susan for the first time since the girl was a newborn baby. Swathed in a white dress, Julia has abandoned any semblence to her former life as an entertainer. And, despite the fact that she ran off all those years ago, a natural maternal instinct kicks into gear when she locks eyes with Susan and she can't help but reach out to the young woman and desire a close mother-daughter bond.

And while it takes nearly 45 minutes before Garson and Pidgeon unite on screen, watching them navigate through the awkwardness of being married to a complete stranger is a delight to watch. Their relationship -- what little of it once existed -- is gradually revealed through their blossoming friendship. When Julia and William sing together at the piano it's as though they haven't spent nearly 20 years apart.

And while you watch the film for Garson and Pidgeon, you also stay for Taylor and Lawford. With two romantic plotlines, Julia Misbehaves nearly topples under the weight of too many story threads and stolen glances, but it's a joy to watch four young actors pair off and fall in love. And kudos to whoever crafted the idea that Ritchie take Susan on a picnic and lure a bear to follow them so that he can act the part as her saviour and protector. That's a new one! And Taylor and Lawford are charming in the scene.

In the end, Julia Misbehaves suffers from a meandering script (with multiple plotlines that involve a fake fiance for Julia, an extended stage sequence that drags on for far too long and a couple of false endings), yet manages to stay afloat thanks in large part to Garson and her charming costars.

A fun, if unremarkable, little comedy.


Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Celebrity Birthday: Marlon Brando (1924-2004)

"To the end of his life, Marlon Brando insisted that he had done nothing special. In his view acting was a trade like plumbing or baking. The only difference was that he played characters instead of unclogging drains or kneading loaves of bread. This was not false modesty; he believed what he said. But what he believed was untrue."
~Stefan Kanfer (opening passage from Somebody: The Reckless Life and Remarkable Career of Marlon Brando)

Today would have marked Marlon Brando's 89th birthday. And, in my biased opinion, he was the greatest film actor. Ever. And that warrants a blog post, me thinks.

Unfortunately, for a large handful of people, Brando has been reduced to a mumbling, fumbling actor whose eventual reclusive lifestyle resulted in a variety of perceived eccentricities and ballooning weight gain. And, yes, while Brando wasn't your average film star, he deserves more credit than he is often given by newer generations just discovering his work for the first time.

As I wrote last year: after reading Stefan Kanfer's biography in 2008, I realized that Brando was so much more interesting than even his craziest character incarnations. He used the Method when performing, well before it was mainstream. He was an activist at heart, battling racial segregation in America in the 1960s and providing a public voice for struggling First Nations actors. He remained loyal to family and friends who stuck by him through thick and thin, including maintaining long-term friendships with neighbours Jack Nicholson and Michael Jackson. He had plenty of Hollywood rivals, including an ongoing feud with Frank Sinatra. He had volatile relationships with women, marrying three times and fathering (at least) 10 children. He never abused drugs or alcohol, yet often fell prey to his weakness for food.

Brando's autobiography amongst my other loot.
Last week, I finally managed to track down a copy of his out-of-print autobiography, Songs My Mother Taught Me, and I look forward to reading about his life from his own perspective.

(FYI, for all you Toronto readers: Check out The Hollywood Canteen near Honest Ed's for rare, hard-to-track-down film collectibles. It's where I was finally able to locate a copy of his autobiography).

While Brando may not have the enduring iconic status of Marilyn Monroe (a former lover) or the near-rabid fanbase of James Dean, the mark he left on cinema has its own special lasting effect. While Monroe and Dean were both talented, beautiful performers, neither could inhibit a role quite so effortlessly as Brando.

Without Brando there would be no Robert DeNiro (well, 70s-era Robert DeNiro anyway) or Daniel Day-Lewis. He continues to inspire and influence -- often imitated but never duplicated. And that, in part, is the sign of a true talent.