Sunday, April 25, 2021

"Would You Rather" Tag for Epic Story Month!

I am participating in the Epic Story Month event hosted by Heidi at Along the Brandywine, and I have finally had a few minutes to devote to answering the official tag!

Would you rather... 

1) …fight a dragon or a giant? 

I rather think I'd pick the giant because giants can't fly and don't breathe fire.  I think my chances of survival go way up because of those two factors.  Besides, the odds of me being accompanied by Ewan McGregor in weird armor and funny hair go WAY up if I'm fighting giants.

2) …time travel back to ancient Egypt or go to Mars? 

Ancient Egypt!  Oh my goodness, I was so obsessed with Eyptology when I was in my tweens.  I had half a semester in college on the history of ancient Egypt too, and it was so fascinating. 

3) …explore a deep dark cave or a long lost, underwater city?

Another easy one for me to answer.  I have always longed to go SCUBA diving and explore underwater shipwrecks and so on.  An underwater city would be just as exciting, I think!  This is another long-time obsession -- when I was seven, we went to Disneyland, and I only remember two rides we went on.  One was It's a Small World, which was much more geared toward my little brother, and one was their Submarine Voyage, which I guess no longer exists.  I loved it, and have been really fascinated by SCUBA diving and submarines ever since.  

And, yes, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) is one of my favorite classic Disney movies :-)  I just showed it to my kids for the first time a couple weeks ago, and they thought it was lots of fun.  They also pointed out that the Nautilus appears to have a smiley face on one side, as shown above!

4) …be a court jester or lead a wagon train? 

Oh, a wagon train!  A wagon train!  I am no good at making funny jokes or doing tricks, and I hate being the center of attention, but I am capable of being bossy and making decisions, no problem.  Plus, having written a whole book that takes place on a wagon train, I feel like I'd at least have some chance of leading one well.

5) …eat a meal with hobbits or Master Tumnus? 

The hobbits.  Any hobbits.  Well, maybe not Ted Sandyman.  But any other hobbits, absolutely.  Hobbits know how to eat well!

6) …walk through an enchanted mirror or jump into a pool leading into another world? 

Um, do I know where either of those lead?  It doesn't make much difference either way if they're both going somewhere unknown.  I suppose the pool holds slightly more appeal, just because I like to swim.

7) …live in a castle or a house in the treetops? 

Well, when I was a young teen, I used to daydream that *I* got to marry Fritz (James MacArthur) from The Swiss Family Robinson (1960) and live happily ever after with him in our own tree house on the family's island, so I'm definitely going with the house in the treetops.

8) …go over a waterfall in a barrel or climb Mt. Everest? 

I'll take the mountain.  I like snow.

9) …ride a buffalo or be a cannoneer in a sea battle? 

Are we talking an American Bison or a Cape Buffalo?  Because I hear that cape buffalo are the most dangerous animals on earth, so I'm not going near them, thanks.  And all in all, I think I'd take the sea battle because I do like naval warfare stories.

10) Bonus question: you’re caught by the Bad Guys and tied up to a chair when a fire erupts at your feet (long story ;)). Do you break the ropes and tumble out the window, yell for help, or hop your chair across the room to take refuge in the cold fireplace/chimney corner?

It all depends on if I'm tied back-to-back with Henry Jones Jr. or Henry Jones Sr.  I think I'd have more luck with the chair-hopping or the rope-breaking if I had Jr.  If it's Sr., I'll yell for help and hope for the best, I guess.

That was such fun, Heidi! :-D

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

My Ten Favorite Epic Movies

When I was growing up, back in the dark ages when DVDs hadn't been invented yet, my brother and I called these sorts of movies "two-tapers" because they were so long, they required two VHS tapes to hold them.  You knew just from looking at their double-thick cases that they were going to contain astonishing scenery, sweeping character arcs, and possibly some major historical events.  We loved to pull those off our family's shelves when we were laid up with a bad cold, knowing that for three or four hours, we'd be completely absorbed in someone else's troubles and struggles and triumphs and able to forget our own headaches and sore throats.

Well, here are my ten favorite epics.  Note:  Both Shakespeare and Tolkien have been purposely excluded from this list because otherwise it would just be all them.

1. Ben-Hur (1959) 

When Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) is unjustly imprisoned by his former best friend (Stephen Boyd), he vows revenge, but eventually learns revenge is less sweet than he'd expected. Possibly the greatest spectacle epic ever filmed.

2. The Great Escape (1963)

The Nazis brilliantly put all their worst Allied eggs (Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, James Garner...) in one prison camp, and naturally all those escape artists work together to escape. I love this on so many levels, from the whole band-of-misfits-working-together angle to the clever planning to the actual escape itself. And it's based on a true story!

3. How the West was Won (1962)

One family heads west, and various members of it get caught up in various aspects of settling the Old West, from frontier life to the Civil War to building the railroad to fighting outlaws.  Boasts a truly impressive cast, including James Stewart, John Wayne, Debbie Reynolds, Gregory Peck, Carroll Baker, Robert Preston, Lee J. Cobb, Eli Wallach, and soooo many more.

4. The Longest Day (1962)

The story of the D-Day invasion during WWII, told from many viewpoints, with one of the most impressive casts ever assembled: John Wayne, Richard Burton, Robert Mitchum, Henry Fonda, Sal Mineo, Richard Todd, and a very young Sean Connery, to name a very few. Until we had kids and lost our big chunks of movie-watching time, Cowboy and I used to watch this together every D-Day.

5. Gettysburg (1993)

Another talented ensemble cast shows many of the events leading up to and during the turning point of the American Civil War. Jeff Daniels turns in a wonderful performance as Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberalain, one of my personal heroes.

6. Giant (1956)

A spoiled East Coast beauty (Elizabeth Taylor) marries a stubborn Texas rancher (Rock Hudson), and they spend twenty-five years trying to figure each other out. One of the first movies I can remember seeing, and my favorite James Dean movie.

7. The Big Country (1958)

A ship captain (Gregory Peck) retires from the sea and moves to Texas to be near his fiancee (Carroll Baker), makes friends with her best friend (Jean Simmons), has a deliriously long fistfight with her father's foreman (Charlton Heston), and tries to diffuse a feud.

8. Australia (2008)

A newly arrived Englishwoman (Nicole Kidman) and a drifting Drover (Hugh Jackman) struggle with thieves, a war, and Australia itself to find a way to be together.  The only movie where I get cowboys AND WWII soldiers :-)

9. The Alamo (1960)

Davy Crockett (John Wayne) leads a bunch of freedom-loving Americans to Texas to help the freedom-loving Texans fight for independence.  They hole up in the Alamo mission with Col. Travis (Laurence Harvey) and Jim Bowie (Richard Widmark) and a hundred other men and fight off overwhelming enemy forces for days and days and days.

10. Les Miserables (2012)

Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) evades a dogged policeman (Russell Crowe) for decades, adopts a young girl (Amanda Seyfried), saves the boy the girl loves (Eddie Redmayne), and finally dies in peace.  Oh, and everyone sings about everything, all the time.  Also, there's a small revolution.

This has been my first contribution to the Of High Stakes and Daring Deeds event hosted by Heidi for six weeks at Along the Brandywine.  Stay tuned for more epic story posts!

Monday, April 12, 2021

Hamlet as retold by Andy Griffith

Okay, but I absolutely loved this?  I mean, I already love Andy Griffith, and obviously I adore Hamlet.  So how would I not love this little retelling, which I guess Griffith did as part of a stand-up act at some point?  Oh man, it's so good.  It made me laugh, and it made me lonesome for North Carolina, and so... yeah... I dug it.

(I especially got a kick out of what he decides the moral of the story is.)

Friday, April 09, 2021

"Saigon" (1947)

Although Saigon (1947) generally gets classified as film noir, I'm really not sure why.  It isn't very dark, although it does involve crime and death.  I think it gets called noir because it pairs Alan Ladd with Veronica Lake, and the other three films they star opposite each other in (This Gun for Hire [1942], The Glass Key [1942], and The Blue Dahlia [1946]) ARE definitely noir indeed.  So I think people just assume this is too, since it was made in the '40s, stars Ladd and Lake, and has some really snarky dialog.  

I don't know... it just doesn't feel noir to me.  A little dark and cynical here and there, but whatever.  Maybe it's because this has never been released to VHS or DVD, so not enough people have seen it to know whether it is or isn't noir?  Which is a shame, because basically the only way you can see it is on TV, or via a grey-market copy.  Man, how I wish Universal would release it to DVD like they have so many of Ladd's other pictures!  Or maybe that nice company (I think the same Canadian company that put out his The Great Gatsby [1949]?) who's released a couple of collections of Alan's movies the last year or two could do another set and include this?  

Well anyway, now you know why this review is peppered with stills and promo pictures instead of my usual screencaps.  If it ever comes out on DVD, I will get all the screencaps my little heart could desire and either do a new post or just replace what I've got here, most of which I found on Pinterest.


(This is going to be full of spoilage, but I figure since you can't buy a copy to watch, you aren't going to care.)

Saigon opens in a doctor's office, with Major Larry Briggs (Alan Ladd) waiting for the doctor's report on a guy in his Air Force crew.  The doctor says he's terribly sorry, but Briggs's buddy, Captain Mike Perry (Douglas Dick), has a fatal (unspecified and vague) brain condition and only a couple of months to live.  Which IS a pretty dark way to open a film, I will admit.  Briggs begs the doctor not to tell Perry the diagnosis, saying he'd rather tell Perry in is own way.

Briggs then hustles off to meet up with another Air Force pal, Sgt. Pete Rocco (Wally Cassell).  He tells Rocco the truth, and insists that they're just not going to tell Perry he's going to die.  Perry has no family back home in the US.  (Oh, yes, we're all in... China?  Vietnam?  Japan?  Somewhere vaguely Southeast Asia.)  There's no reason to hurry him back to the states -- they'll just give him the best couple of months of his life and let him live in happy ignorance until one day, he's gone.

Rocco says Perry has the right to be told, but he's very used to obeying Briggs's orders, so he goes along with it.  They welcome Perry to the bar and set out to have a very good time indeed.

It seems they've all been mustered out of the Army Air Force now that the war is over,  (or the Navy?  This movie is VERY VAGUE on details -- but maybe that's because the year this was released is the year the Air Force became its own branch of the Armed Forces, and so they just left it vague because that wasn't quite done yet?).  But they've just been kind of hanging out over in Southeast Asia?  Or maybe they've been waiting for Perry to get a medical discharge?  I've watched this multiple times now and still haven't figured out all those pesky little details, so I think the movie just shrugs them off.  It has more important business to accomplish, like getting Veronica Lake's character on the scene so she and Alan Ladd can get those sparks flying.

So, anyway, Briggs and Rocco and Perry take on a job flying a Rich Guy (Morris Carnovsky) to Saigon from whatever indeterminate Southeast Asia place they're all in.  (I mean, it probably mentions it during the film and I just didn't catch it?  Maybe?)  They're going to get ten thousand dollars for this job, and that's not peanuts -- and the Rich Guy will even supply the plane!  Which, it turns out, is ancient and probably stolen and may or may not fly, but hey, for ten grand, they'll give it a whirl.  Especially since Briggs and Rocco plan to spend their share on giving Perry a last couple months of extreme happiness and fun.

They get the plane running and figure they can make it fly after all, but the Rich Guy hasn't shown up yet, just his "secretary" Susan (Veronica Lake), who has a bunch of luggage and a suitcase she insists on holding herself.  Everyone's ready for takeoff... but no Rich Guy.

And then, from not far away, there comes the sound of gunfire.  Lots of gunfire.  Many shots being exchanged from many firearms, some of which Briggs identifies from the sound as police guns.  Because he's cool like that.  He decides that they were paid to leave at a certain time, so up they will go whether the Rich Guy has arrived yet or not.  And takes off.  Much to the extreme consternation of Susan, who tries to grab the controls, jump out of the plane, or do anything else she can think of to get them to wait for her boss.  Nothing doing, though, and eventually, Rocco knocks her cold to stop her from crashing the plane.

Interesting aside: Veronica Lake actually knew how to fly a plane.  She got her pilot's license, and even flew her own plane across the country in 1948.  So if they'd let her grab the controls, she probably could've handled it.

Well, when Susan comes to, she's staring right into the eyes of the unknowingly doomed Perry, who turns out to be basically the American Good Guy personified, all friendly and cheerful and down-to-earth and NICE.  He's extremely gentlemanly toward Susan, and it's clear he's got a big crush on her.  As opposed to Briggs, who snarls at her and makes snide remarks and is as antagonistic as possible because The Powers That Be obviously had caught on to the fact that Ladd is never more swoon-worthy than when he's pushing away the woman he's secretly getting more and more interested in.  Works every time for him, that no one can deny.  So he keeps on riling her up whenever possible because... it works.  Whereas Rocco mostly makes wisecracks for her because he's just the sidekick and knows he'll never get anywhere with the female lead anyway.

And then the plane runs out of fuel and they have to crash-land in a rice paddy, because that's the only place you can ever crash a plane if you're in Southeast Asia.  They make such nice, exciting splashes, you know.  This leads to Briggs picking Susan up and carrying her through the water, grimacing in annoyance all the way because being nice to her just makes him crabby.  She fusses and fusses, and finally insists he put her down, so he does, about fifty feet from the end of the field.  That means she gets and wet and muddy after all, but hey, a girl has to have her pride!  You can't let crabby pilots carry you around everywhere!

Susan spends the next several scenes insisting she needs dry clothes.  This is her own darn fault and I feel no sympathy for her.  She could've waited to fuss at Briggs until he'd finished carrying her through the water.  Silly woman.

We all end up at this hotel, where the plot thickens, especially regarding how sappy Perry is getting about Susan.  Starry-eyed, love-struck, the works.  Susan just wants to get to Saigon with her briefcase, though, and merely tolerates his chivalry.  They all take a boat to Saigon, whereupon Briggs sneaks into Susan's cabin, finds her briefcase, opens it, discovers it's full of cash, steals the cash, mails the cash to Saigon, and then, when Susan discovers him sneaking around her room, tells Susan that Perry is dying of a brain cloud or whatever, so couldn't she please be nice to him?  To Perry, I mean, not to Briggs.  Briggs doesn't want Susan to be nice to him because then he might have to be nice to her, and that would Never Do because he's much too dedicated to flinging snide remarks at her.  Obviously.

Are you still following me?  Probably, because it's really not a very complicated movie.  Everyone gets to Saigon, and SURPRISE!!!  The Rich Guy didn't die in that shoot-out they heard before they left on the plane!  And now he's here in Saigon!  And he wants his money that Susan was carrying around in that briefcase!  But now the briefcase is empty!  And he thinks Susan took it!  And he thinks Susan is working with Briggs!  And then we all end up at this really fancy hotel, where Perry proposes to Susan, Briggs yells at Susan, the Rich Guy and his Henchmen shoot at people, Briggs kisses Susan, and Many Other Surprises Occur.

Also, the hotel has a gorgeous black-and-white checkerboard floor in this outdoor dining area that I really love, because I love checkerboard floors.  In fact, I have one in my kitchen.

Perry succumbs to his brain disease right on cue, leaving Susan and Briggs free to end the film walking away together into their unspecified future.  Also, the bad guys get stopped, and it turns out Susan really WAS just a secretary and is now reformed of her money-toting henchwoman ways.  But she and Briggs are still going to make snide remarks to each other because my goodness, why stop that fun just because they're in love now?

Is this movie family friendly?  Yeah, pretty much.  There's some shooting and some moments of people in danger, and Perry does die, and there's a very nice kiss.  No cussing or spicy bits, just some mild, flirty innuendo here and there, of the 1940s variety.  I'd let my kids watch it.  

Saturday, April 03, 2021

"Jane Eyre" (1943)

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte is my favorite novel.  I've read it at least a dozen times, most recently this past summer, when I inhaled it in three days.  So you'd better believe I am picky when it comes to adaptations of this particular story.  Just as picky as I am about Hamlet productions, in fact.  

So the fact that a DVD copy of the 1943 film Jane Eyre starring Joan Fontaine (as Jane Eyre) and Orson Welles (as Mr. Rochester) has a place on my movie shelves says a lot about this version, I think.

In order for me to really like a film adaptation of Jane Eyre, I have to like BOTH the Jane and the Rochester.  If I only like one or the other, I'm just not going to like the film as a whole.  And because I love those two characters dearly, I'm fairly picky about how they get portrayed.  This is as much about how they are written for the screen as about the actors, to be honest.  

I insist that Jane have an unwavering moral strength, but also an innate yearning for kindness and friendship.  In the book, she spends her whole life insisting on obeying God (and the conscience he gave her) rather than men.  Quite a few men try to break her to their own will -- John Reid, Mr. Brocklehurst, Mr. Rochester, and St. John Rivers -- but they all fail because she is calmly assured of her own worth in God's eyes.  She doesn't need their approbation, even though she "would always rather be happy than dignified" and aloof.  She wants friends, but she is perfectly capable of being alone if the would-be friends would draw her away from rightness.  

As for Mr. Rochester, in order to satisfy me, he must be unruly and irascible, but not cruel.  Selfish and defiant of convention, with a tendency toward loose morals, but still with a firm desire for doing the right thing by those who are in lower station than he is.  And he must gradually see the errors in his ways and repent of them.  Movie versions tend to leave out the scenes toward the end where he repents and asks God to forgive him for his behavior toward Bertha and Jane in particular, but I need to have the sense that that's happened off-stage.  

In the 1943 version, I am quite satisfied with both the Jane (Joan Fontaine) and the Rochester (Orson Welles).  And I didn't expect to be, actually.  I love Welles's radio show The Campbell Playhouse because he had such a rich, vibrant voice, but I didn't care for his movie Citizen Kane (1941) (but I'd like to watch it again to see if my opinion changes), and I'm not a big fan of The Third Man (1949) either. Those were the only things I'd seen him in when he was young, and I just couldn't imagine him as Rochester.  It was easier to imagine Fontaine as Jane because I like her a lot in Rebecca (1940), which is practically a retelling of Jane Eyre in a lot of ways.

So the first time I watched this, I was actually more interested in the child actresses than anyone else.  I love Margaret O'Brien, especially in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), and I suspected she would be a cute and sweet Adele in this.  

I've only seen Elizabeth Taylor as a child actress a couple times, so I was eager to see how she would play Helen Burns.  

And I knew Peggy Ann Garner from one of my favorite episodes of Combat! (1962-27), "Off Limits," where she was an adult, so I thought it would be neat to see her as a child playing the young Jane Eyre.  

Happily, none of the child actresses disappointed me either!  In fact, O'Brien is by far my favorite Adele in any of the six Jane Eyre films I've seen.  O'Brien and Fontaine have especially good chemistry.

This is the first film Welles made in which he was not the director.  I wonder if that's why I like him better here?  Maybe he was able to be a little looser or more at ease than in Citizen Kane.  Or maybe he'd just gotten more used to the filming process.  Or maybe he's just admirably suited to this role.  He surprised me by how likable and charming he is in this role, even a little mischievous at times.  He has this little puckish twinkle in his eye when he teases Jane that I just loved.  It kept him from seeming too petulant or dictatorial.  In fact, I found him to be very sweet most of the time.  

And there's one scene that absolutely endeared this Rochester to me.  It's not in the book, but I loved it.  When he's nearly been burnt alive in his bed, after he's made sure everything is secure (trying not to spoil too much here), he suddenly realizes Adele may be in danger too, and rushes off with Jane to check on her.  And when he sees she's safe and asleep, he is filled with pity for her and regrets having spoken to her harshly earlier.  That was the moment, the first time I watched this version, that I knew I could approve of this Rochester.

Joan Fontaine is not one of my favorite Janes, but I do like her.  She lacks a little of Jane's inner fire most of the time.  She kind of passively gets pushed from place to place like a pawn on a chessboard... until she realizes she must leave Thornfield.  Then we finally see that inner steel, and by the end, I quite like her.  Still not a favorite, but that's okay.

(This paragraph and the next have some SPOILERS.)  They change up the story a bit, to make it fit into a brisk 97 minutes.  St. John Rivers (John Sutton) is now a doctor who attends patients at Lowood!  He's a kind friend to Jane at the beginning of the film, and appears a bit at the end too.  

So instead of Jane ending up with the Rivers family for the last third of the story, she goes back to her aunt's house when she leaves Thornfield.  That actually works very nicely, I think.  If you're going to cut out any big section of this book, the time with the Rivers is the bit to cut.  Jane does grow and mature when she's with them, but I feel like they don't need that as much in this version because she's already quite self-possessed and adult when she arrives at Thornfield, instead of being more hesitant and girlish yet.  (End SPOILERS.)

I really liked the staging of this version.  There are a lot of high shots looking down at Jane as a child, as you can see above, and lots of low shots that make adults feel menacing in the beginning.  Both help you get the sense that Jane is being pushed around and bullied.  

Rochester also gets shot from a low angle at first, or with most of his face in shadow, making him appear dangerous.  

And there are some amazingly atmospheric shots, almost noir-esque in their use of shadows.

I noticed when I rewatched it this week that there are a lot of ceilings in it, which made me laugh, since Welles's Citizen Kane is so famous for all its low shots that show ceilings.  I wonder if director Robert Stevenson or director of photography George Barnes did that on purpose, since Welles was the star?  Probably.  

Anyway, I mostly know Stevenson for his many Disney movies, like Kidnapped (1959) and Mary Poppins (1964).  He also worked on the screenplay for this, though Aldous Huxley gets the onscreen credit.

Oh, if you don't know what this story is about, it's about a young woman named Jane Eyre who takes a job as governess for a little girl named Adele who lives in a gloomy old mansion called Thornfield Hall.  Adele is the ward of the mercurial Mr. Rochester, and Jane and Rochester fall in love.  But then obstacles appear, and lots of drama happens, but it all turns out well in the end.

Overall, I really like this version of my favorite book, and if you'd like a good introduction to the characters without investing hours and hours of time, it's a good choice.  You can rent it on Amazon Prime and YouTube right now.  If you already know the story and would like a little taste of it, you can watch the proposal scene on YouTube:

Is this movie family friendly?  Absolutely!  No cussing, no racy bits added to spice up the story for no reason whatsoever (glaring at you, 2006 version), and there's only one part where Rochester mentions the fact that Adele is probably his illigetimate daughter, which is very quick and tasteful.

This has been my contribution to the 2021 Classic Literature on Film Blogathon hosted by Silver Screen Classics.  Click here to visit the official blogathon post, where you can find links to all the cool reviews people are contributing.