Friday, April 15, 2016

Movie Review: Hans Christian Andersen

Hans Christian Andersen (1952)
directed by Charles Vidor, starring Danny Kaye

(Note: This is my entry in the Words, Words, Words! Blogathon, Hosted by the Classic Movie Blog Association.)

Hans Christian Andersen (Danny Kaye) is the most contented man in all of his tiny village. Even though he's only a humble cobbler, his knack for spinning fairy tales out of the air dazzles the children and keeps Hans himself happily living in fantasy land. However, his tales don't sit well with the local schoolteacher, who sees his charges abandoning their books to listen to Hans. He demands that Hans be kicked out. Peter (Joey Walsh), Hans' young ward, protects his friend's innocence by convincing him to leave town for Copenhagen. Hans, overcome with the city's glamor, agrees and sets off for a grand adventure. Along the way, he wins the hearts of many people with his charming stories and songs. But one day, the naive storyteller meets a beautiful ballerina (Zizi Jeanmaire) and her angry, shouting director-husband (Farley Granger). Hans is immediately smitten with the dancer's charms. Even more so when he realizes she's the victim of an abusive marriage. His much more practical friend Peter thinks Hans is setting himself up for tragedy. But Hans is too busy pouring out his heart into a new tragic fairy tale, "The Little Mermaid," to listen. Little does he realize that he's living out his own story in a way he never imagined...

Hans Christian Andersen is one of those movies that is far more fascinating to me for what it suggests about the people that make it and watch it than for anything in the movie itself. It's a movie about one of the most famous storytellers that ever lived, the man whose best fairy tales ("The Little Mermaid," "The Ugly Duckling," "The Snow Queen") feel as timeless as the oldest stories on earth. And yet, this movie, the most famous filmed version of Andersen's life tries to honor him while simultaneously working its hardest to obliterate Andersen himself. 

It's a biopic movie, told as a fairy tale. The film even opens with a title card that says flat out they're going for pure fantasy here, no facts: "Once upon a time there lived in Denmark a great storyteller named Hans Christian Andersen. This is not the story of his life, but a fairy tale about the great spinner of fairy tales." I have to admit, it's kind of refreshing to have one of those "great artist" movies that just tells you upfront that it's not even going to pretend to a smidgen of accuracy. I've sat through so many biographical movies (the Bronte sisters melodrama Devotion being the latest and silliest) that diligently smuggle in a few facts here and there like they're crushing up some vitamin pills in the dessert. Instead
of trying for halfhearted realism, the makers of Hans Christian Andersen choose enthusiasm and magic, all the way.

Instead of making Hans Christian Andersen into the difficult, depressed, ambitious man he was, here he's a happy, singing cobbler who spins dreams for children. Instead of being a busy, proudly perfectionist writer, in this movie he stumbles into authorship in the way a man in a fairy tale might stumble into a magic castle. Instead of being a man who longed for adulation and worked hard for patronage, the Andersen that Danny Kaye plays is a simple soul whose happiest moments are when he can bring a smile to a child's face.

It's an approach to biopics that is, despite the awkwardness, kind of charming in its sincerity. This movie, helped along by a string of hummable Frank Loesser songs and a Danny Kaye performance that miraculously holds things together, is a sweet tribute to the way fairy tales can make us feel. How they can cheer us in times of trouble, help us find humor in strange places, and, as the character of Hans finds out, how they can sometimes mislead us into thinking people much less than they are.

However, the thing that makes Hans Christian Andersen a truly strange film for me, for all it's many enjoyable parts is that the very people who want to honor Andersen's life by telling it as a fairy tale end up with a film that seems as if it were made by people who never actually sat down and really read his fairy tales at all.

And seeing as how this film was a Samuel Goldwyn pet project, that's very likely the case.

My grandmother gave me a book of the complete fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen when I was a child. And one thing I learned very quickly was that Andersen fairy tales were dark. Not the dark of unabridged Grimm fairy tales; Andersen wasn't crude enough to scare
you with blood and gore alone. Oh no, you read Andersen, you get treated to gems like "The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf," in which a girl who makes the fatal mistake of using a bread loaf to keep her feet dry is rewarded with a stint in a peat bog as a witch's statue. She is forced to stay in this immobile state while hearing people on earth tell her story and weep over her sin for generations. Later on, our bread-treading girl gets to show her penitence by flying around as a bird, giving bread crumbs to other starving birds until the crumbs add up to the bread she misused. Other Andersen tales include "The Red Shoes" (a girl nearly dances herself to death until her feet are cut off), "The Story of a Mother" (a woman who fights Death tooth and nail for the life of her child, to the point of pressing thorn bushes against her bare chest and giving up her own eyes, only to be told her child is better off safe in Heaven) and "The Snowman" (a snowman falls hopelessly in love with a stove, melts, and is forgotten).

However, what struck me, even as a kid, way more than the brutal punishments and death that exist in Andersen stories, is the tone of isolation and suffering that permeates even his more whimsical tales. He could find anguish in two toys sitting on a mantel or in a Christmas tree. His characters are almost crushed under the weight of unrequited love, a personal pain that hardly ever seems to happen in our Perrault and Grimm fairy tales. Even when people win and find happy endings, they're bittersweet after the taste of so much sorrow.

And yet, Andersen's tales often succeed in speaking so well to people (children and adults) because they never take for granted those hurt feelings that sometimes really do last our whole lives. There's a reason the phrase "ugly duckling" has become a permanent part of the lexicon. And the physical tortures he inflicted on his characters could sometimes be the perfect metaphors for a character's feeling. In the original "The Little Mermaid," the mermaid not only trades the voice that would allow her to speak her feelings to her beloved human. She also endures the pain of invisible knives cutting her feet every time she walks; the price she pays for becoming a new person is a life without true rest or relief.

This is the problem with Hans Christian Andersen the Movie. At no point is it possible to connect Danny Kaye's happy cobbler with a man who could understand deep feelings of loss or a lack of belonging. The movie does hint in this direction by giving us a plot about Hans falling in love with a ballerina and, thanks to his lack of real world understanding, imagining her as a damsel in distress who loves him, too. It gives a touch of poignancy that the movie badly needs. However, the movie works so hard to emphasize the whole angle of Hans Christian Andersen, Friend to All Children, that it can't connect the man to his own actual work.

So, after all that, what makes Hans Christian Andersen a movie worth watching? Danny Kaye. After seeing so many great comedians crash and burn on the Shoals of Sentimentality (it's pretty tricky to switch to sincerity if all you're used to is snark), I was pleasantly surprised with how well Danny Kaye managed to convince me that he really is a goodhearted, humble soul who makes children smile. His idea of Hans is a man who's simple but never simpleminded. He's not dumb, he just finds too much wonder in the world to pay attention to those boring everyday matters. He gets along with kids because they're on the same wavelength. Kaye has the charisma and the acting talent to make these scenes work. Whether he's inventing "Thumbelina" for a little girl outside his jail cell or "The Ugly Duckling" for a boy with a shaved head, he's always good company. Oh and when he sings the song, "I'm Hans Christian Andersen," it will never leave your head. 

Kaye's counterpart is Joey Walsh, a child actor who plays Hans' young ward Peter (at least I guess he's a ward, the movie never really explains). Just as Hans is the child in the grown man's body, Peter is the adult in a child's boy. It's his job to explain to Hans why he has to focus on the business of cobbling shoes as well as making fairy tales. He is the one who stays by Hans' side and tries to protect him from the humiliations that others might heap on him. And Peter is the one who understands where Hans' ill-fated attraction to a married ballerina will lead him. Joey Walsh is fine in the role and the moment where Hans tries to send his friend away in a fit of temper is surprisingly sad.

Hans Christian Andersen is so much a Danny Kaye showcase that, other than Peter, the supporting characters don't fully register. Which is a shame because the whole unrequited love subplot, with Farley Granger and Zizi Jeanmaire as a dancing couple locked in a complex love-hate relationship, really begs for more explanation.

Farley Granger famously summed up Hans Christian Andersen as "Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets boy." He was pissed off at Goldwyn for foisting him into the underwritten part of the dance director who simultaneously bullies and worships his wife. Granger was nearing the end of his glory days as a Goldwyn contract player and playing second banana in a Danny Kaye vehicle could hardly have sweetened the deal. Kaye also, reportedly, saved most of his charm for his onscreen moments, carping at his director, his fellow actors, and complaining whenever he felt cheated of something. He objected to Granger getting to sing in a duet with Jeanmaire, taking the part for himself. 

Granger answered second-class treatment and a second-class part with a second-class performance. He looks great in costume but can't muster up much than bored petulance. But then, what can you do in in a part that asks you to play one half of a sadomasochistic love affair in a brightly saturated, singing kid's movie? Maybe George Sanders could have pulled that one off but not the clearly bored-out-of-his mind Farley Granger.

Moira Shearer was Goldwyn's original choice for Doro, the object of Hans' infatuation. Unfortunately, Shearer became pregnant and the role went to Zizi Jeanmaire, the famous ballerina who danced into international stardom with her 1949 interpretation of Carmen. I say, unfortunately, not because I have any real problem with Jeanmaire, but because I have a real soft spot for Shearer whose redheaded, wide-eyed beauty seems much more in tune with the damsel in distress that Hans dreams up. She was also a better actress than Michael Powell liked to admit; her tragic fates in The Red Shoes and Peeping Tom wouldn't carry nearly the bite if Shearer's characters didn't seem so joyously alive.

Jeanmaire on the other hand, plays Doro as a preening, self-absorbed cliche of a French ballerina. She's saucy and smirking, the kind of woman who seems more likely to inspire, well, Carmen, than The Little Mermaid. She's got charm but I never once believed her chemistry with either Kaye or Granger. Still, Jeanmaire does get a great moment at the end, when Doro finally, for the first time, realizes that Hans is a human being with feelings that she has completely taken for granted. The slow-dawning understanding in her eyes allows us to see, for the first time, Doro as a woman who could dance The Little Mermaid and mean it.

Also, Zizi Jeanmaire does get a fine showcase for her talents with The Little Mermaid ballet, choreographed by her husband Roland Petit. Some reviewers don't care much for the ballet interlude in the film, but I think it's a treat, adding a welcome touch of darkness and starkly beautiful pantomime to a very bright, tuneful movie. Also, if it wasn't for me looking up facts about Petit and Jeanmaire, I might never have found out about this gorgeous real-life couple of almost sixty years, who, in addition to their balletic brilliance, had the gift of looking perpetually adorable and in love in nearly every photo taken of them.

At the time of its release, Hans Christian Andersen was a smash success for Samuel Goldwyn, then in the twilight of his movie-making career. And yet, this movie exists uneasily in the land of semi-classics. It's too fondly remembered by too many people who saw and loved it as a kid to be totally forgotten. And yet it doesn't fully click for a lot of people, myself included. Really, if anyone nowadays wants to tackle a Hans Christian Andersen movie musical that actually puts some of the real Andersen in it, I would be behind them all the way. I would pay money to see someone write a song about that time when Hans Christian Andersen stayed with Charles Dickens and made himself The Most Annoying Houseguest of All Time (so annoying in fact, that he reportedly inspired Uriah Heep). Can you imagine the Dickens-Andersen duet?

In the end, even if the 1952 Hans Christian Andersen is not fully to my taste, I can still concede that there's room enough in this world for all kinds of fairy tales. The kind that end in Hollywood box office and the kind that end in peat bogs. The kind that tell what a man's work means to someone and the kind that tell us that storytelling, no matter how silly or serious, really matters.

Favorite Quote:

"The other day I asked my Gerta what time it was and she said that the minute hand and the hour hand weren't speaking to each other. They were both in love with the second hand. And they wouldn't make up until they met at twelve o'clock. And no one could tell the time until then."

Favorite Scene:

Danny Kaye singing "I'm Hans Christian Andersen." It's just so irresistibly catchy.

Final Six Words:

Sugar-spun fantasy of writer's life

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Farewell, Patty Duke

It has a name!

Patty Duke (1946-2016)

Monday, August 10, 2015

Farewell, Coleen Gray

Duke, you should have taken me with you!

Coleen Gray (1922-2015)

Monday, June 15, 2015

Farewell, Christopher Lee

I hate being idle. As dear Boris used to say, when I die, I  want to die with my boots on.

Christopher Lee (1922-2015)

There's a certain comfort in knowing that you don't have to try to be the coolest person in the world. Christopher Lee already was that person.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Movie Review: The Man Who Knew Too Much

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)
directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Leslie Banks, Edna Best, Peter Lorre

(Note: This is my submission in the Fabulous Films of the 30s Blogathon, Hosted by the Classic Movie Blog Association.)

Happily married Bob and Jill Lawrence (Leslie Banks and Edna Best) are on a winter holiday at a European ski resort with their young daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam). While there, they laugh and dance and intermingle with all kinds of interesting new people, from the suave Louis Bernard (Pierre Fresnay) to the strange, funny Mr. Abbott (Peter Lorre). But their vacation suddenly turns into a living nightmare one night when Louis falls to the ground, shot by an unseen enemy. It turns out that Louis Bernard was in fact a government agent and before he dies, he passes on a vital secret to the Lawrences. The secret is an imminent assassination in London, one that threatens to start a second world war. But before the couple can act on the information, the assassins, led by the ever-smiling Abbott, kidnap young Betty. This forces the couple to keep their mouths shut, even as the danger draws closer. However, they refuse to give up and instead, choose to search for Betty on their own. Bob and his trusty brother-in-law Clive (Hugh Wakefield) take to the back alleys of England, hunting down leads that range from the weird to the truly bizarre. Still, Abbott is onto them and so are the rest of the assassins. The family will have to find the strength and courage to save Betty and somehow do it without betraying their own country. It's a battle of wits and wills and there's no telling what could happen...

For someone who likes to introduce herself as an Alfred Hitchcock super-fan, to the point that I wrote my college admissions essay on him, it's taken me an amazingly long time to catch up with this film. It's strange, but while the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much was ridiculously easy for me to catch on TV during the periodic Hitchcock marathons, its older (and thoroughly British) sibling from 1934 has been elusive. The experience of finally seeing the original film however, gave me a renewed understanding for why both movies are so inextricably paired together in critical discussion. Comparing them is irresistible but deciding between them is very difficult. The two films are such a perfect encapsulation of their respective decades and countries, with all the attending strengths and weaknesses, that preferring one to the other seems to be less of an aesthetic judgment and more like an epicurean deciding which tickles his palate. They're equally delicious.

Both films tell the tale of a more-or-less ordinary married couple who stumble into a dangerous world of espionage and assassins. Despite their naivete and seeming helplessness, the couple find new reserves of strength and determination when their own child is kidnapped to keep their mouths shut about an impending assassination.
In the 1934 film, the Lawrences are a sophisticated English couple vacationing at a Swiss ski resort with a young daughter. The husband is well-off and contented; the wife is flirtatious and happens to be a crack shot. In the 1956 film, the McKennas are a cheerful but sometimes hapless American couple traveling through Morocco with a freckle-faced son. The husband is a blunt, guy-next-door doctor who doesn't quite fit into his foreign surroundings any more than his long legs fit under Moroccan tables. His wife is a famous singer who gave up her career for the sake of her marriage. In both films, it's the husband that takes the active role in searching and fighting while it's up to the wife to use her great talent (sharpshooting and singing, respectively) to save the day. And in both films, it's the couple's very unassuming ordinariness that causes the ruthless villains to fatally underestimate them.
The great dividing line between the 1934 film and the 1956 remake is the tone. In the brightly colored and much more expansive remake, Hitchcock gives us a fresh-faced American couple, so complacent that they can crack morbid jokes over the various patients whose ailments funded their vacation ("You know what's paying for this three days in Marrakesh--Mrs. Campbell's gall stone"). He then proceeds to torment them 'til they crack. The fact that all of this is happening to James Stewart and Doris Day, two beloved Hollywood superstars, puts the frantic emotions of the couple front and center. All of this even while Hitchcock dazzles the eye with exotic settings and amazing set pieces. Everything is so immense that even Stewart and Day can unravel without anyone noticing. The 1956 movie sort of takes the  rotten-apple-core mentality of Shadow of a Doubt, in which another innocent American goes up against ruthless villainy and pairs it to the giddy visuals of something like To Catch a Thief.

The 1934 film on the other hand, is like the speedy little roadster next to the 1956 cruise ship. It's a much compacter version of the same tale, clocking in at a mere 75 minutes. It also is much sharper in the twists and turns of its moods, careening from lightweight comedy to tense thriller and back again. It doesn't linger nearly as much on the parents. To a large extent, Leslie Banks and Edna Best are just there to keep the story moving along. They keep the stereotypical stiff upper lip to the point that even when Banks reunites with his daughter, in the middle of a group of assassins, he tries to make light of the entire situation. The one government representative we meet is coolly annoyed with the couple's secretiveness, barking at them to put their country first. And in the end, the film's most memorable character is not the couple nor any of their friends. It's the villain. 

For all those who like to harp on Hitchcock's onscreen infatuation with his blonde leading ladies, I say that Hitchcock was just as enamored (in a cinematic way) with his villains. Peter Lorre, playing the kidnapping assassin Abbott, sets a template for the charming villain that Hitchcock would repeat again and again with actors like James Mason, Ray Milland and Robert Walker. 

The story goes that Peter Lorre had to learn his lines phonetically in order to play the mysterious Abbott. Not that anybody cared because, after his indelible performance in M, they were eager to get him. Lorre's acting here is really a marvel of assurance; it's a complete 180 degree turn from his cringing, desperate performance in M. Abbott is smooth and confident, with one of the most beautifully beaming smiles you could ever hope to see. When you put him up against the bluff, so-very British Leslie Banks, Lorre almost looks like the mischievous schoolboy tweaking the nose of the headmaster. He's the guy who tosses in a Shakespeare quote as a threat ("A long, long journey 'from which no traveler returns'") and then caps it off with the deadpan aside, "Great poet." 

And yet, I think the key to Lorre's brilliance in the role is his unpredictability. Just when you think you've gotten used to Lorre as the impeccably polite villain, he turns the tables and gives you moments of sadistic menace or even, in a startling scene, genuine grief. When his creepy female accomplice dies in a shootout, Lorre holds her and looks, for a moment, like a brother holding the body of his sister. And then the moment's gone. We never learn what they were to each other. We never really understand Abbott, who smiles innocently in moments where he should threaten and looks angry in moments when everything's going his way. But Lorre is so good in the role that he eclipses everyone else. Because of him, the film ends up less as a tale of two ordinary people up against evil and instead, becomes a briskly unsentimental film which sets up scenes and knocks them over like dominoes. This is pure suspense, with no more character development than absolutely necessary.

In comparing the 1934 film and the 1956 remake, it's quite striking to see how the role of the wife evolved over the course of two decades. In the first film, Edna Best carries on in the tradition of the sprightly, sophisticated wives of '30s films. There's something a little Nora Charles-ish about her in the way she sails through rooms, cheerfully flirts with other men (in the full confidence that her husband is watching and smirking) and shoots down clay pigeons with cool panache. 

However, once her child is kidnapped, Best is pushed to the side of the story. Her own grief at the loss of her child is relegated to one scene, in which Best staggering with the news of the kidnapping, turns glassy-eyed and spins into a faint, while Hitchcock briefly cuts to a whirling POV shot. From there, her husband's off to do the work of tracking down their child, with the brother-in-law along as the trusty sidekick. Best is benched for a good chunk of the movie from then on; she reappears for the famous Albert Hall sequence and then for a final shootout with the assassins. It's in those final moments that Best seizes her own action-hero moment, grabbing a rifle and delivering the shot that will save her daughter. Even if you could see it coming (Why else establish the wife as a crack shot?), it still comes off as an exhilarating bit of physical heroism, all the more so because none of the characters treat it as anything odd.

The 1956 film, by contrast, knows it's got Doris Day and a star gets a star part. Day's emotions are given much more depth and attention than Best's. The British film treats Best's motherly anguish as so much inconvenient baggage, with the government man basically snapping at her and husband for being so unpatriotic as to, you know, care more about the life of their child than the life of a statesman. The 1956 film by contrast has a prolonged, deeply uncomfortable scene of James Stewart drugging Day to calm her; the chin-up-old-girl spirit of the original has turned into cruelty. Day's torment during the Albert Hall concert scene is also drawn out much more than Best's. In addition to being a more openly emotional character, Day's housewife is a famous singer whose ambitions have been subtly snuffed out in favor of marriage. The irony is that, despite the fact that she seems, on the surface, like a much more retrograde archetype than the earlier Best character, Day does in fact use that same powerful voice to save both her child and the statesman. She's so much more repressed than Best's action hero and yet, because her film pays more attention to her, she comes off as much more heroic.

Now that I've finally crossed the 1934 film off my list, I can say with confidence that it's a sparkling, smart movie in its own right. It's the work of a young filmmaker just discovering the full range of what he can do and the mesmerizing shifts of tone, the charismatic villain, and the quirky bursts of humor all come together perfectly. Really, when I think about it, the experience of watching both versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much is like visiting their respective locations. The 1956 film is a trip through a dazzlingly colorful, overcrowded marketplace. The 1934 original is like a trip down a snow-covered mountain. Cool, exhilarating and all over in a rush.

Favorite Quote:

"You know, to a man with a heart as soft as mine, there's nothing sweeter than a touching scene. Such as a father saying goodbye to his child. Yeah, goodbye for the last time. What could be more touching than that?"

Favorite Scene:

The scene in which Edna Best is dancing with the spy. Her husband, playfully pretending to be jealous, takes her knitting and turns it into a unraveling bit of thread that quickly entangles her and her dancing partner. It's all light and romantic. And then in one of those perfect bits of Hitchcock turning on a dime, her partner falls down, mortally wounded, and the light thread that entwined them together has suddenly become a trap. It's really the ultimate metaphor for the Hitchcock movie. 

Final Six Words:

A champagne bubble balanced on knives

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Farewell, Leonard Nimoy

Logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end.
Leonard Nimoy (1931-2015)

Monday, February 16, 2015

Farewell, Louis Jourdan

I would rather be called a character actor than a star.
Louis Jourdan (1921-2015)