Here's what inevitably happens. I share a movie with a friend or a loved one. Something I think they'll really like but probably have not seen. They love it, and I tell them "That was one of my Dad's favorite movies."

So here are some of those movies, my memories and thoughts, and what made them my Dad's favorites.


Monday, May 11, 2009

GUNGA DIN (1939)










“Gunga Din” is a rousing adventure yarn, spun from the poem by Rudyard Kipling and combined with elements from Kipling’s “Soldiers Three” stories by prolific authors Ben Hecht and Charles McArthur. Hecht contributed to the screenplays of seven films released in 1939, including “Stagecoach,” “Wuthering Heights,” and “Gone with the Wind.” A marriage subplot of “Gunga Din,” completely fabricated by Hecht and McArthur, is reminiscent of their most famous theatrical collaboration, “The Front Page,” itself adapted to the silver screen numerous times.

The story of “Gunga Din” follows the exploits of three fun-loving British sergeants stationed in Colonial India, who, along with Gunga Din, their regimental bhisti (water-bearer) longing to throw off his lowly status and become a soldier of the Queen, become entangled with a deadly murder cult.

I know that my Dad enjoyed this film for its action and humor, for the comedic interplay of the main characters, and for its moving climax of self-sacrifice. There is a heightened and exaggerated level of performance from Cary Grant, Victor McLachlan and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. that lends the film lightness and energy. Grant in particular as the happy-go-lucky treasure hunter chews the scenery with abandon, afforded one of the rare opportunities, along with “Sylvia Scarlett” and “None But the Lonely Heart,” to affect his native cockney accent.

It’s an adventure movie for the 10 year old boy in all of us.



Director George Stevens learned his craft working on westerns and on comedies for Hal Roach, and both influences are in evidence here in the mix of low comedy and high adventure. It’s impossible to imagine Stevens adopting this light-hearted approach to soldiers and war in his later films. During World War II, Stevens and his film unit, the "Stevens Irregulars," would document the Normandy landings, the liberation of Paris and the discovery of the Nazi extermination camp at Dachau, forever influencing the tone and content of Stevens’ films.

Watching “Gunga Din” today elicits mixed and conflicting emotions, particularly in its treatment of colonialism in general and the Indian people in particular. Whereas the three British soldiers are the obvious heroes of the piece, it is the Indian Gunga Din who is eventually revealed to be the bravest of the lot. However, Din’s wish to essentially be British, even when seen in light of his rejection and treatment by his own people, is demeaning. The producers had originally intended to cast Sabu, a fifteen year old native of India, in the role of Gunga Din. When Sabu proved unavailable, they instead cast 47 year old Caucasian Sam Jaffe, whose most recent role had been the 300 year old High Lama in “Lost Horizon.” Jaffe gives a powerful, heart-wrenching performance, but it’s embarrassing that none of the three most prominent Indian characters in the film are portrayed by Indians, or even Asians. American Abner Biberman, most known for essaying criminals and convicts, plays the treacherous Chota, and Italian-American Eduardo Ciannelli plays the monstrous Guru. All give powerful, affecting performances, but in the Indian equivalent of blackface. Noting that none of this is uncommon or unusual for a film of this era does little to lessen its sting.

If a modern viewer can look past this (and there is a whole other argument to be addressed as to whether a modern viewer SHOULD look past this), then “Gunga Din” can be a wonderfully entertaining experience from a cast and a director at the height of their powers to entertain.


The influence of “Gunga Din” is far reaching. “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” has whole sequences that feel lifted from “Gunga Din.” Soldiers involved in extra-military treasure hunting adventures are in evidence in films as disparate as “Kelly’s Heroes” and “Three Kings.” And “Gunga Din” was remade as a western starring Sinatra’s Rat Pack as “Three Sergeants,” with Sammy David Jr. taking on the Gunga Din role.






Buy Gunga Din at Amazon.com.

© 2009 Edward Bowen

Monday, May 4, 2009

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (1974)


At least three things distinguish “Murder on the Orient Express.”

First, it’s a who-dun-it with a most unusual, outrageous, and original solution. We can thank Agatha Christie and her 1934 novel for that. It’s a surprise ending only equaled in the writer’s oeuvre by “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” in 1926, which contains a distinctly literary twist ending.

Second, the striking and elegant costume and production design by Tony Walton, who began his film career ten years earlier with “Mary Poppins.” It’s a gorgeous color depiction of the era, filtered through years of cinematic influences, and lovingly photographed by Geoffrey Unsworth at the pinnacle of his impressive career.

Third, it has an all-star cast to end all all-star casts, one that would put Irwin Allen’s casting director to shame. In their careers, the 15 principal cast members amassed a total of 29 Academy Award nominations (with 8 wins), 42 BAFTA nominations (with 9 wins), 21 Emmy nominations (with 5 wins) and 11 Tony nominations (with 6 wins). Six of its stars (John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Vanessa Redgrave, Colin Blakely, Rachel Roberts and Albert Finney) were simultaneously appearing in important West End shows during the film’s production. This elite group of theater actors is joined onscreen by seven unquestionable movie STARS (Sean Connery, Lauren Bacall, Richard Widmark, Tony Perkins, Jacqueline Bisset, Michael York, and Ingrid Bergman). Established character actors Martin Balsam and Jean-Pierre Cassel round out the cast. You might also recognize George Coulouris, Thatcher in "Citizen Kane," as the helpful doctor.



The script by Paul Dehn provides several of these actors with juicy, melodramatic parts. Director Sidney Lumet, on an odd but successful hiatus from gritty, urban, contemporary films “The Anderson Tapes,” “The Offence,” “Serpico,” and later “Dog Day Afternoon” and “Network”) allows the performers to sink their teeth firmly and enjoyably into the scenery. Of particular note are Lauren Bacall as the loud, obnoxious American widow and former actress, Wendy Hiller as the aloof and emotionless Russian princess, Rachel Roberts as the severe and unyielding German maid, Tony Perkins as a mother-obsessed personal assistant, resonating back to his most famous role as Norman Bates in “Psycho,” and in particular Ingrid Bergman in a brief but Academy Award-winning performance as a psychologically unbalanced Swedish missionary.



But it is Albert Finney’s unselfconscious turn as Belgian detective Hercule Poirot that carries the show. Finney virtually disappears into the role, both psychologically and physically, concealed in make-up and mannerisms. He completes the transition from leading angry young man to character actor he began in “Scrooge” four years earlier, briefly taking on the mantle usually reserved for Alec Guinness. It’s a revelatory performance, and a detective very unlike any that American audiences had seen before. In 1974, Poirot, who appears in 33 of Christie’s novels and 51 of her short stories between 1920 and 1975, had rarely been portrayed in the movies or in television. Charles Laughton was the first to play the detective in a West End production of “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” titled “Alibi.” Only four actors (Austin Trevor, Martin Gabel, Tony Randall, and Horst Bollmann) essayed the role in film or television prior to 1974. It is Finney who defined the character with all its dandified eccentricities, slow and deliberate mannerisms, sudden bursts of passionate energy, and dazzling mental pyrotechnics.

video

Director Lumet tells a wonderful story about his cast:

A charming thing happened at the first reading of Murder on the Orient Express. Five stars of the English theatre were appearing in the West End at the time -- John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Vanessa Redgrave, Colin Blakely, and Rachel Roberts. Sitting with them were six movie stars: Sean Connery, Lauren Bacall, Richard Widmark, Tony Perkins, Jacqueline Bisset, and Michael York; Ingrid Bergman and Albert Finney bridged both worlds.


They began to read. I couldn't hear anything. Everyone was murmuring their lines so quietly they were inaudible.


finally figured out what was happening. The movie stars were in awe of the theatre stars; the theatre stars were in awe of the movie stars. A classic case of stage fright.

I stopped the reading and, saying that I couldn't hear a thing, asked them to please talk to one another as if we were at Gielgud's house for dinner. John said he'd never had such illustrious guests to dinner, and off we went.

Buy Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express at Amazon.com.

© 2009 Edward Bowen

© 2009 Edward Bowen

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