Archive for the ‘drama’ Category

An Alastair Sim-Margaret Rutherford Masterpiece: The Happiest Days of Your Life

December 21, 2013

Silverwolf was tempted to call this essay “The Happiest Eighty-one Minutes of Your Life”, but since this is a film review, and not a description of a roll in the hay, it seemed more appropriate to call it by the title of the film.

“The Happiest Days of Your Life” is a masterpiece, and we wish we could have included Frank Launder and John Dighton in the hyphenated part of our title. Launder was the director and script collaborator, while John Dighton wrote the screenplay, based on his stage play of the same name. The material is of the highest, and the acting is of the highest, and in combination this film will take you out of your world, and throw you back into the world of British boy’s private schools in the 1950s.

The plot is a bit silly, and of course unbelievable, but on it is hung a whole series of very witty and clever episodes, with sparkling dialogue. It commences with the arrival of a new teacher at Nutbourne College, a boys private school presided over by the misogynistic Alastair Sim as Wetherby Pond, the headmaster. Due to an error at the British Bureaucratic Educational Ministry, a girls school, which is being evacuated, is mistakenly relocated to Nutbourne, but Sim does not find out until the last minute, and is forced to accomodate a hundred girls plus staff at short notice. The girls school, St. Swithin’s, is headed by headmistress Margaret Rutherford, who is both adamant and forthright, and will brook no nonsense. When these two personalities clash, the sparks fly.

At the same time as Pond and Whitchurch (Rutherford) are figuring out a way to deal with the situation, new spanners are thrown in the works. Whitchurch suddenly remembers that she has invited some of the girls’ parents down to see the new school, while Pond is unexpectedly visited by three of the Directors of the Harlingham School, an institution of which Pond has been aspiring to become headmaster, as he tells his staff in the introductory scenes of the film.

The efforts of Pond and Whitchurch to keep the two sets of visitors separate, and to not let them know that now the school is co-ed, require split-second timing. And there are awkward moments, as when a locker door swings open in the supposed girls’ locker room, only to reveal three pin-ups taped to the inside. See how Miss Whitchurch explains her way out of that one!

Then there are some very clever lines that the casual observer may miss the intent of: Pond laments in one scene that the British Railways “don’t know their L.M.S. from their Southern Region”, or Pond’s complaint of the Ministry of Education, which has been passing the school’s dossier from one department to another for days, that “We’ve got to sit here while they keep on passing around.” Or, while analysing John Knox’s Latin tirade, “The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women”, Pond asks the class what they should do with the word “trumpet”. Talbot, one of the students, leans forward and whispers in the ear of the boy in front of him. Pond explodes with “Talbot, take another hundred lines!”

Then there are some nice touches, like the great comedienne, Joyce Grenfell, suddenly writing here name in the dust of a table-top. Or the French Master, Jouet, who is perpetually asleep, being awakened, and coming out of his sleep conjugating a French irregular verb.

John Dighton, the playwright who turned to film, may be the most essential ingredient in this masterpiece of cinema, for it was his play on which it is based, and we imagine many of the best lines of the film must come directly from it. Dighton went on to work on two other British Comedy Masterpieces, Kind Hearts and Coronets with Denis Price, which is also a must-see, and The Man in the White Suit with Alec Guinness. Dighton also has credits for two other excellent films, “Brandy for the Parson” and “Folly to Be Wise”. 

Standouts in the supporting cast, besides Joyce Grenfell, are the ubiquitous Richard Wattis, who must have been in virtually every good British Comedy Film ever made back then, Guy Middleton as Victor Hyde-Brown, the sports master who loves to drink and smoke, gamble and chase girls, and Edward Rigby as Rainbow, the caretaker who can get you blackmarket whiskey or petrol. “Times is difficult” is his justification. Amongst the Directors of the Harlingham School we find the great actor, Laurence Naismith, whom Sir Laurence Olivier chose to act in his incredible “Richard III”, and also the very genial Stringer Davis, who was married to Margaret Rutherford, and who starred with her in several of the later Miss Marple films.

One also should mention the zippy musical score written by Mischa Spoliansky. The upbeat music has the viewer going from the get-go, and, though you probably won’t notice it on the first viewing, the score is used very wisely during the progression of the film.

The great Zen Japanese artists believed that a great work of art should always contain a flaw, since perfection was against the state of Nature, and there is one minor flaw in “The Happiest Days”. You’d never catch it if we didn’t live in the age of digital video, where you can observe a clip over and over in a short space of time. Imagine trying it with a 16mm or 35mm projector and film.

The flaw comes when Victor Hyde-Brown picks up the phone to check on his racing results with his bookie, and begins to speak to the operator (Joan dear) before he actually has the receiver and mouthpiece in place. We’ve seen this error over and over in old movies, and we suspect they didn’t bother to reshoot the scenes because they figured the audience would never catch it on the first viewing (when the mind must put itself into a state of belief in the reality of what it is seeing, or else it cannot play the game of watching and enjoying a film).

But the greatest strength of the film comes from Alastair Sim’s absolutely-flawless acting. Every gesture, every facial expression, every inflection of the voice is so professionally done, that one is aware one is watching a Master perform. Ten years earlier, Sim was an excellent actor, as can be seen in the Inspector Hornleigh series with the great Gordon Harker. By 1950 he was himself a Great Actor.

“The Happiest Days of Your Life” was also a trailblazer in the sense that it showed a comedy about a British private school could be a commercial success. This film undoubtedly was an influence on the creation of the St. Trinians series of comedies, also with Alistair Sim. You’ll note that Frank Launder, the director, also directed, wrote, and produced the five St Trinian’s Films, the first three of which are top-hole, while Ronald Serle, who did the background drawings behind the main titles, also did similar drawings for the St Trinian’s films.

All in all, “The Happiest Days of Your Life” will give you a very happy 81 minutes of viewing. It’s humor is wholesome enough that children can enjoy it, while quick-witted adults will garner an entirely different level of pleasure from its dialogue.

“The Happiest Days of Your Life” — a real Masterpiece.

Hoooooooooooooooooooooowwwwwwwwwwwwwwww! — Silverwolf

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La Cinematheque Youtube: The Ancient Film Student’s Dream

September 27, 2012

If you could have told some of those film students 40-odd years ago that the films they were paying $2 (silver coinage) to see once in the theatre, they could, two score hence, see over and over for just the cost of their internet service, they wouldn’t have believed you. But that is the current reality on youtube and various other archives that have large stores of films in the public domain.

Never has the student of cinema had such an array of films to choose from, and one could, in the course of one twenty-four hour period, see all or most of the major works of countless great cineaste “auteurs”. The French were really the ones to push the “auteur” theory, that films are the direct and sole inspiration of one man, the director-writer, instead of the insipid Hollywooden-American factory technique (you can’t call it a theory) of churning out exactly what it knew it would take to bring them into the boxoffice. The “auteur” theory was prominent in Italian Cinema too, and in Svensk it was manifest in Ingmar Bergman. (Svensk cinema is where they take flickas to the flickers). In Hollywood, only a few survived the factory-production rigidity, like Hitchcock, but most were soon forgotten, as are most good technicians.

In Britain, one gets the feeling it was a combo of auteur and studio demands. But starting in the late fifties, it certain feels like films were becoming the expression of the director as auteur more than a puppet on the strings of the producer. However, everywhere, even in Europe, those who chose to go their own way often had horrendous problems financing their movies, like a compulsive gambler who has suckered so many friends out of money, he can no longer raise a stake. Welles and Fellini both had this problem sucking energy out of their creative drives. Welles bitterly described it as having to put 99% of his creative energy into raising money from producers and put only 1% of it into actually creating the film. We can only imagine what would have been produced if he could have put 100% into his films.

Paradoxically, we could say that there are now so many important movies that the serious film student “must” see, that if he were to see them all, his entire life would pass in the movie theater, and his lack of real life experience would make him unable to empathetically respond to the situations that arise in the film. Film is a veritable opium den where hundreds-of-millions, perhaps billions, of human beings live away their lives, watching a real-seeming fantasy that could never actually occur to them, especially in a socialist society that crushes and fragments the energy of the individual into a thousand superficial directions, and leads to a life lived in lines, dealing with bureaucrats.

Still, there have been so many amazing films made, one cannot but admire the medium as a vehicle that can say so much, almost everything, although it can never duplicate the interior thoughts and reality that a writer of fiction, especially in the first person, is capable of. Film can never express subjectively all that writing can, but no writing can duplicate the cinema’s specific moulding and manipulation of the viewer’s consciousness by the film maker so that they see only what he wants them to see, by his directing their attention. Writing is a dream created by the writer, but seen differently in the mind’s eye by every individual reader. Film is a dream in which everybody sees exactly the same images, but whose emotional reaction in the viewer always differs. (Though notice how, in intelligent discussion of a film, two different people can share the same subtle perceptions as to style or effect that show hardly any difference.)

Whether the film student should watch films at all, or start virgin with only the images in his head to guide him, and never let any other influence him (or even make films without ever having seeing a motion picture or operated a camera, as in the anthropological experiment of Worth and Adair’s, conducted in 1966, in which they gave cameras to a group of Navajos and asked them to film whatever they wanted from their own perspective, in order to learn how certain cultures look at things, something that never could be gleaned from just making films of the people in these cultures)— this is a decision that now few can make given the almost immediate stationing of the tot in front of the television or DVD player. Even the government schools are getting into the act, robotizing the brains of the small children in front of the computer screen, so that those brains can quickly become mechanical and uncreative, and fodder for that “high-paying job” that will never exist.. Soon there will be no unspoilt individuals.

But given the popularity of film, and its amazing possibility of letting us see Shakespeare’s Globe anytime, anywhere, and in any form we like, and for not even that while-a-way-a-shilling Shakespeare charged, we know that people are not going to give up this new form of crack cocaine, invented such a short time ago. And for those who want to study the past milestones of this medium, there never has been such an amazing school and campus of Film Studies as youtube, the cinematheque in a box on your desk.

Hooooooooooooooooooooooooooowwwwwwwwww — Silverwolf

Bogarde’s Rocket: Cast a Dark Shadow (1955)

January 17, 2010

Perhaps one of the earliest vehicles that helped launch the film-acting career of Dirk Bogarde was his excellent performance in “Cast a Dark Shadow” (1955), directed by Lewis Gilbert. In this film we can see all the characteristic strengths of Bogarde’s acting in protean form: the shifting in and out of working-class accents, the ability to charm and dissemble convincingly, the “losing control” of one’s emotions when pushed too far, all these are included in the character of Edward “Teddy” Bare, the evil protagonist of the film.

Basically, the film concerns Teddy Bare’s successful murder of his wife, a woman twenty to thirty years his senior (played by Mona Washbourne), for money; a successful murder attempt which backfires when “Tedeh”, as his first wife calls him, finds out that she left him no money, only the house they live in, although she was on the brink of re-writing her will so that Teddy got the filthy lucre too. Unfortunately for him, he murders his wife the day before she calls in the lawyer to change her will, a decision her barrister strongly councils against. But Edward doesn’t know this, so his successful attempt lands him nothing but the house, but “not a sausage” muneratively speaking.

So Edward sets about finding a new, well-heeled older widow, and finds her in the person of Freda Jeffries, played very strongly by Margaret Lockwood. Thinking he’s found another treacly pushover like his first wife, Edward tries to stampede her into buying a piece of property, but the strong-willed Mrs. Jeffries, now Mrs. Bare the Second, will have none of it, as equally she will have none of “Ed” sleeping in a separate room, as he casually suggests. (The transition from his first wife Monica’s “Tedeh” to his new wife’s straightforward “Ed” is a subtle but revelatory mutation.) As she puts it, she’ll go “pound for pound” with her new husband, but nothing more. As she laughing jokes before they are married, she had been tempted a couple of times to re-marry, but then she discovered that her suitors were “more interested in the money-bags than in the old bag”. The fact that she can laugh so heartily at this joke shows Mrs. Jeffries is not only a good sport, but also a realist. And Lockwood gives such a strong, believable performance throughout that one would have to say she actually steals the best acting award from Bogarde in this flick. And one can see why Hitchcock pegged Lockwood for her role in “The Lady Vanishes”, although “Cast a Dark Shadow” affords her a much wider range of acting situations to display her talent. And director Lewis Gilbert doesn’t lose the opportunity to capitalise on Lockwood’s legs, as did Hitchcock in that early scene from “The Lady Vanishes” where Lockwood prominently displays her nice appendages while standing on a chair. Here, Gilbert photographs Lockwood from a low angle, with her legs crossed, and we start to gather that Edward Bare was not wholly without carnal motives when he hitched up with Lockwood. But looks are incidental to the acting talent which serves Lockwood well in this film.

Bringing up third place in the Thespian honors is Kay Walsh, who gives a straightforward, realistic performance so different from her later role as a neurotic medium in “Seance on a Wet Afternoon”, Bryan Forbes’ little masterpiece, which co-starred Richard Attenborough in a character that looked and acted very similarly to his performance in “10 Rillington Place”. And rounding out the cast are Robert Flemyng as the lawyer who sees through Bare’s game immediately, and Kathleen Harrison as Amy, the maid, who is about as bright as paint — dull, matte latex.  But Silverwolf digresses.

The final scenes, in which Lockwood realizes she has married a cold-blooded killer, and the final denouement which gives the reader a certain “schadenfreude” as evil reaps its own reward, leave the satisfied feeling one should feel at the end of a detective novel (the film is based on one by Janet Green) or thriller film. And the genre differs from the typical whodunit, in that the audience knows early on who the murderer is, and the main question is: will he get caught and if so how? This is a technique used frequently by Georges Simenon in his psychological novels, which has become quite widespread in mystery-detective-thriller literature, and which probably originated with Dostoyevsky in “Crime and Punishment”.

Before going we should also mention the highlighting of Lita Roza, the former singer with the Ted Heath Orchestra, in the nightclub scene, a chanteuse whose brief appearance  matched her brief career in films. But what is of interest in her performance is not her herself, but the performance of the bald-headed extra in the slightly out of focus background, who nods his head approvingly, seems to speak to some invisible companion as he points out the singer with his cigar, and smiles. Truly a stunning performance from an extra, so subtle that most viewers will miss it, and one of the best efforts by an extra since Silverwolf saw that hog run out of the roadway as the gang of outlaws galloped into town in Michael Winner’s “Lawman”. But Silverwolf digresses again.

All in all, one must say that Bogarde’s performance in this film shows him as an artist way ahead of his age in maturity, a quality one sees in many top-drawer actors. Albert Finney, Alan Bates, and Tom Courtney all exhibited a similar feeling of mastery in their acting at a very early age. In modern times one can sense this quality also in Dominic Monaghan and Honeysuckle Weeks. But in Bogarde’s case we can plainly see that extraordinary acting talent that launched him into that vaunted circle of the top British actors of the 60s to 80s period: Lawrence Olivier, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Alan Bates, Albert Finney, and Tom Courtney (and please forgive Silverwolf for leaving out the legions of other incredible actors that seemed to spring up like mushrooms after a warm rain in the British Theatre and Cinema). In fact, the role is probably a bit too thin and confining for Bogarde (as mystery characters are prone to be) but it still gives him a wide scope to show his acting talents.

So, if you want to take your mind off your short positions in the stock indexes and the currencies for a few, brief, blissfully worry-free hours, Silverwolf would strongly recommend you take a decko at “Cast a Dark Shadow”, one of the early booster stages of that extraordinary acting phenomenon known as Dirk Bogarde.

Hoooooooooooooooooooowwwwwwwwwwww! — Silverwolf