Opulent movie musicals were a staple of the 1950s box office as hits like Annie Get Your Gun (1950), Oklahoma! (1955) and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) encouraged big studios to pump them out regularly. This film was a cultural sensation at the time and represented the high point of Yul Brynner's career as he also appeared in The Ten Commandments (1956) and won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in this film. Like many musicals there is dreadful overacting, many forgettable songs and an over reliance on spectacle but this film does not have the giddy joy of Gigi (1958) and at two hours and seventeen minutes it quickly becomes a drag.
Welsh governess and widow Anna Leonowens, Deborah Kerr, travels to Siam in order to teach the children of King Mongkut, Yul Brynner, but is angered when he reneges on his promised to find her and her children a house outside of his palace. She is initially shocked by the inhumane practices that he is in support of as he has multiple wives and over 100 children while maintaining slavery in his country and encouraging sexism. She educates his children and they begin to learn about their nation's position in the world and facets of western culture such as Christianity and etiquette. As Leonowens and Mongkut begin to develop romantic feelings for one another he softens and is more susceptible to her lobbying against slavery and desire to have him reach out to other world leaders like Abraham Lincoln. One of his slaves, Tuptim, Rita Moreno, is in love with Lun Tha, Carlos Rivas, and wants to run away with him but is prevented from doing this by Mongkut who rules with an iron fist. At a party that Mongkut throws for foreign politicians he is a success but is confronted by Tuptim about his treatment of her.
If the film were to be made today I assume it would be hit with a flurry of angry opinion pieces written for The Guardian as it definitely has a pro-Imperialist bent that makes watching the film an awkward experience. Leonowens lectures Mongkut about his lack of faith and essentially serves as a missionary which has uncomfortable parallels to "The White Man's Burden" as a native person is converted to British culture by a beautiful white woman. The presentation of the culture in Siam is also stereotypical as we hear gongs being banged regularly and are invited to look at the locals not as human beings but as exotic animals. Then there is the fact that they all speak English poorly and are mocked for this with their malapropisms and inability to pronounce certain words correctly becoming a running gag. Leonowens also addresses all of them as children and the implication that even the most powerful and successful native is less intelligent than a low ranking white person is offensive. If the film had treated these characters with respect and avoided feeling like an advertisement for Imperialism it would have been a better film and this offensive messaging may be what keeps the film from being as popular as Mary Poppins (1964) or Fiddler on the Roof (1971).
Despite my issues with the character she plays I thought that Deborah Kerr was typically graceful and self possessed in the lead role and so I was left enjoying her delivery of lines but hating their content. She also maneuvers around in her dresses quite well and her dancing is very good but I do think an actress who could sing would have been a better choice for the role. It is obvious that Kerr is lip-synching and this makes her musical numbers less powerful. Obviously not everybody can be Julie Andrews but there were talented performers around at the time who would have been a better fit. Brynner earned much praise for his work in this film and played the role on stage for 25 years but whether it was just the way the role was written or the way he was so one note throughout I find it hard to love the character. He spends most of the film yelling "Et cetera, Et cetera, Et cetera!" and this line did not become funnier the more he said it and his singing left something to be desired. Next to Kerr I wondered why she had any interest in him at all as he registers as trying too hard while she seems perfectly natural when delivering dialogue.
The film's greatest assets are the costumes worn by Kerr and the production design which gives us a colorful palace to feast our eyes on. Irene Sharaff deservedly won an Academy Award for her work on the film and when we see Kerr in dress after beautiful dress we understand why as they take your breath away. As for the visuals they elevate the film as the pinks and blues that appear frequently differentiate the film from others in the musical genre.
Being forced to watch something in a classroom is likely not the best way to digest a film so I thought I would watch this German hit again to get a feel for it outside of my teenage frustrations. It remains one of those films that I think is very good but don't understand all of the fervor and emotion for after seeing it again and I don't know if I ever will. This upset Pan's Labyrinth (2006) to win Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards and it is a worthy winner as the film puts it's setting and the sociopolitical climate it depicts to good use.
Socially isolated Stasi member Gerd Wiesler, Ulrich Muhe, is fixated on playwright Georg Dreyman, Sebastian Koch, when he sees one of his plays performed during the time of East German repression of art. Wiesler is said to produce plays that support the ideals of the government but Wiesler claims that he suspects him of being subversive so that he can carry out surveillance on Dreyman and his attractive actress girlfriend Christa-Maria Sieland, Martina Gedeck. He begins to feel a connection to the couple over time and tries to shield Dreyman from the Stasi even as Sieland works as an informant for them and is willing to trade sexual favors for the pills that she is addicted to. She has an ongoing relationship with powerful Minister Bruno Hempf, Thomas Thieme, and Wiesler believes that if Dreyman is caught for doing anything then Sieland will become Hempf's full time mistress. He puts himself in danger when he publishes an article about suicides in a West German magazine. Wiesler hides his actions and Dreyman faces no punishment but the raiding of his house has tragic consequences and Wiesler finds himself demoted. Years later Dreyman finds out that he had been watched over throughout this period and learns that Wiesler protected him.
The film shows that the environment present in a society like this one turned everybody against one another as even two lovers found that they could not trust one another and their greatest ally was the man watching over them. There was of course the opportunity for certain people to manipulate the system and get sex, money or power out of it but even they do not seem happy. Everybody is miserable but they are too afraid to change and would rather remain scared and under the watchful eyes of their friends and neighbors than do anything to improve their situation. Sieland is a weak woman as she values the pills she is addicted to over her principles and long time partner. We understand her anxiety however as the weakest among us would probably act like her in looking to protect ourselves by finding somebody, anybody else to pin blame on. Her desperate scramble to save her own life is not driven by anything in particular as she is shown to be fairly miserable as she is and even acting, which she would claim is her passion, does not energize her enough to fully explain her decisions.
Then there is the fact that the one man who does resist the system and try to criticize it in some way is the character that we feel most distant from. He is not emotionally brittle like Sieland or sad and closed off like Wiesler but popular and successful with audiences and peers. This man of principles with his friends and easy smiles seems out of place in this environment and we feel confident that he will come away unscathed from the ravages of this time period. He is more of an object of Wiesler's envy as this man who can walk through life so easily and experience the connections with other humans that he struggles with. His competence at almost everything is maddening but we all have the desire to protect this sort of talent and Wiesler does just that.
The film looks good but hardly has the memorable color palette of a film like Barbara (2012) or the grittiness of that film. You walk away from this film with more knowledge of this period of German history than you previously had but the impact of the story may fade over time.
Gary Cooper was often sold as the All-American boy during this era of his career as he was shoved into Sergeant York (1941) and The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935) but his true feelings come through in this film. Playing a character who is meant to be genial he seems angry throughout the film and the dismissive glances that he throws at the poor that he is meant to be helping make for an odd film. Frank Capra goes for his usual populist, feel good tone but Cooper sets the whole film off on a strange tilt and you can read whatever weird subtext you would like into the film.
Wealthy heir Longfellow Deeds, Gary Cooper, inherits a large fortune after the death of his rich uncle but falls under the spell of his manipulative lawyer John Cedar, Douglass Dumbrille, who sends him to New York City. Babe Bennett, Jean Arthur, is a reporter who wants to get the inside scoop on Deeds and so pretends to be a ditzy girl but writes nasty articles about him in which she dubs him "Cinderella Man." Bennett begins to genuinely fall in love with Bennett and Deeds avoids being taken advantage of by Cedar but the news of Bennett being a reporter breaks up their relationship. He buys a large farm for the poor who live in the small town he comes from and leaves it open for them to live on if they are willing to work on the land for free. Cedar attempts to have Deeds declared mentally insane and he becomes depressed as a result of all the public scrutiny. He is too depressed to defend himself in court but when Bennett steps up to defend him against unfair charges from Cedar he is suddenly rejuvenated and proves that he is sane.
Deeds is a genial, sweet fellow rather like the leads in many later Disney movies but the best character in this film is not Deeds but his girlfriend Bennett who is brought to life by the lovely Arthur. As an actress Arthur had better comedic timing than the often stolid Cooper and although I find his performance very peculiar in this film he is completely overshadowed by her when they are on screen together. She is quick witted and gives the audience the sense that she is humoring Deeds but also falling in love with him as she finds his honesty and directness appealing when compared to the fake men she encounters in the business she works in. In order to match all of the big gags occurring around her she has to go big and she does this successfully as she is not just a shrinking violet in the face of her leading man but proves herself to be a capable journalist and a woman of integrity.
The scenes between Deeds and Bennett are the best in the film as outside of these scenes the film tends to drag and becomes less of a hoot than it really should be. This is with the exception of one scene in which Deeds deduces that the members of an opera club are attempting to swindle him out of his money and even as they flatter him he resists giving them funds to support their expensive passion. This gets at one of the major points of the film as we are asked to look beyond the exterior of a person and appreciate that they may be far more intelligent that we expect them to be. When the film loses the plot it is daffy but does not have the delightful surprise of Capra's best films and it's wackiness begins to annoy even the most patient audience member. This is probably why the film is not held up next to Capra's best films but the film is certainly better than a lost cause like Lady for a Day (1933).
For his work on this film Capra earned his second Academy Award for Best Director and it is baffling as William Wyler was nominated in 1936 for his best film, Dodsworth (1936). Capra was one of the greats but I don't think he needed recognition in this year of all years.
I would argue that the films of George Stevens have not endured as well as those of his contemporaries have despite the fact that they were called some of the best ever made by contemporary critics. This sprawling, overlong soap opera was one of his biggest successes and beyond the members of the large James Dean cult it has failed to find an audience in the modern era. It's social message, which seemed daring at the time, now seems terribly outdated and the treatment of Mexicans verges on racist while the other plotlines in the film feel too close to something you would find on daytime television. Many of these prestige films from the 1950s have strong similarities to Dynasty and Falcon Crest so the high drama in the film, taken seriously at the time, is something to laugh at today.
Texan cattle rancher Bick Jordan, Rock Hudson, marries Maryland native Leslie, Elizabeth Taylor, and brings her back to his giant ranch where she struggles to fit into a completely different society. Leslie clashes with his protective sister Luz, Mercedes McCambridge, who dies while riding Leslie's horse and leaves a section of the ranch to Jordan's nemesis Jett Rink, James Dean, who is in love with Leslie. The men's fortunes change when Rink discovers oil on his land and becomes even wealthier than Jordan while Jordan disapproves of his wife's progressive views on the local Mexicans whom she treats with respect and kindness. Years pass and the two have children with their son Jordy, Dennis Hopper, disappointing his father by becoming a doctor and marrying Mexican Juana, Elsa Cardena. Rink opens up a large airport but has become an alcoholic and attracts the attention of Leslie's daughter Luz II, Carroll Baker, who is saddened when she finds out that he still loves her mother. Jordan finally confronts his racism when he stands up for his daughter in law.
My biggest issue with the film is that it aims to evoke memories of great epics like Gone with the Wind (1939) and From Here to Eternity (1953) but it lacks the complexity of those films and simplifies issues that would make for a more interesting film. The worst character in the film is Leslie who exists as an angelic beauty who is perfection in the film's eyes from the moment we meet her and does not change at any point in the film. The Mexican characters in the film exist purely to show how virtuous Leslie is and all of their big moments involve her dignifying them with her acknowledgement. Unlike Scarlett O'Hara she has no flaws and seems almost inhuman in addition to not going on any journey. This makes her moments of high drama neutered as we have not witnessed her fight for them and seen her change in any way. Stevens is all too happy to gaze at Taylor with several close up shots of her face but he does not seem at all interested in what is going on beyond Leslie's pretty façade.
Then we come to the fact that the film is just far too long as there is no reason that it should be three and a half hours long and sections of the film that could have been wrapped up in two minutes take twenty minutes to get through. For example, when Jordan and Leslie briefly break up and spend Thanksgiving apart as she attends her sister's wedding we see each of the turkeys they eat brought into their respective dining rooms and linger on shots of them looking sad for minutes. All of this could have been cut out of the film or shown within a few minutes as we could see Leslie depart in her train carriage and then have them reconcile at her parent's house in the following scene before cutting back to their ranch. Stevens needed to learn to cut a lot of the fat out of his films and in the case of this film most of the movie is trash.
The character who was of most interest to me was Luz as her fight with the annoyingly ‘perfect' Leslie made me like here. She is a clever woman who is able and has a love for her family and her land but when somebody like Leslie threatens her position she is not shy in attacking her. When she dies I was upset as I missed the forthright acting style of McCambridge throughout the rest of the meandering film.
There are unabashedly trashy movies from the 1950s that are wonderful because they are unashamed of being what they are and lean into the tropes of the genre that they are a part of. This film carries around a heavy weight of self importance that seems discordant with all of the improbable plot twists occurring on screen. In trying to include themes like feminism and racism the film fails as it pats itself on the back for simply touching on these themes but fails to actually to say anything about them that would have been progressive. If you want a great soap opera film from this era watch one of the four Douglas Sirk masterpieces made in the 1950s.
As somebody who has never been a fan of musical theater I approached this film with trepidation as it was put together by Stephen Sondheim, a staple of the genre, whose songs I have listened to and disliked. Part of my issue with his songs is that they all sound very similar and often sound dull and flat failing to inspire the sort of adoration that the songs from films like One from the Heart (1981) do. This film was essentially what I expected it to be as the songs were drawn out and unmemorable and the performances, even from Meryl Streep, felt so artificial and silly. Robb Marshall proves again that he can't direct a film to save his life as I dislike Chicago (2002) and Nine (2009) greatly.
The Baker's Wife, Emily Blunt, longs to have a child and when she encounters The Witch, Meryl Streep, and discovers that she will be able to become pregnant if she brings the woman a white cow, a red cape, a yellow strand of hair and a golden slipper. She and her husband The Baker, James Corden, travel around the woodland area they live in trying to find all of these items. They struggle to get the cow from Jack, Daniel Huttlestone, who sells it for magic beans that cause a giant beanstalk to grow in his backyard and bring a giant down to earth. Meanwhile The Witch tortures her daughter Rapunzel, MacKenzie Mauzy, by keeping her trapped in a castle and when she tries to escape with Prince, Billy Magnussen, she blinds him and traps her in the middle of a lake. Cinderella, Anna Kendrick, runs away from Prince, Chris Pine, who is enamored of her but he seduces The Baker's Wife and all of the traditional fairytale characters face a myriad of questions about their fate and position in their own stories.
One of the stage musical's biggest themes was sexual awakening and that is conspicuously absent from this film as the young characters have been made children and the tentative looks between the characters don't have the meaning that they should. This decision was made because the film needed to be PG and the fact that the characters really are little children actually makes the references to sexual awakening that are left in there seem discordant. The fact that Johnny Depp plays The Big Bad Wolf and talks about succulent flesh also made the moment feel even creepier as with his current reputation as a potential domestic abuse perpetrator. It would have been fascinating to see the children become young adults and so their sexual desires and fear of those who they want to explore them with could become more pronounced. The songs about this issue all have a very specific bent to them as they are sung cheerfully and without the lasciviousness that should be injected into the delivery of the songs.
Streep, who received an Academy Award nomination for her performance in this film, is spectacularly bad as one of our greatest living actresses camps it up with disastrous effects. As she cackles and outstretches her arms she does not make us understand the tragedy of her character as she is the ultimate overprotective parent who goes to great measures to protect her daughter but presents a danger to her with her unnecessarily harsh punishments. Her only true moment comes when she delivers the film's one great song, "Stay with Me", and her hurt and anger over her daughter's betrayal comes to light. She presumably received critical praise for this performance because of her stature as an actress because somebody with less pedigree would never have gotten away with such a hammy, overplayed performance. Maybe Bette Midler or Bebe Neuwirth would have been more suited to role than Streep is and the film would have been a more emotional experience.
Marshall also fails to make us excited about the two most attractive people in the film meeting and falling in love and for that I find it hard to forgive him. Blunt and Pine are given thinly drawn parts and she makes the best of what she has got but they cannot save the film. He was given so many resources but he fails to make much out of them.