Thursday, April 28, 2011

Film: Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

Title of film: Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967)
Directed by: Stanley Kramer
Starring: Spencer Tracy, Sidney Poitier, and Katherine Hepburn
My rating: ★★★★★

Summary: Matt and Christina Drayton (Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn), two white liberals, come face-to-face with their principals when their daughter Joey (Katharine Houghton) surprises them with the news that she plans to marry Dr. John Prentice (Sidney Poitier), a black man. The mother and father are faced with a difficult decision: give the young couple their blessing even though they know they will have an extremely difficult life together, or not and break up two people so obviously in love. Though unsure at the beginning, Christina wants to give the pair her blessing, while Matt most certainly does not. The decision is made harder by the fact that it must be made by the time the two leave for New York that evening, and by Dr. Prentice's parents (Roy Glenn and Beah Richards) joining them for dinner. Mr. Prentice also does not want the two to marry. In the end, Matt sits everyone down, including the maid, Tillie (Isabel Sanford) and the family friend Monsignor Ryan (Cecil Kellaway). He then tells them that he, too, knows what it is like to be in love and that he can not keep Joey and Dr. Prentice from that. To the surprise of all, he gives them his blessing. Then the newly formed family finally sits down for dinner.

My take: Growing up in the deep South, this movie had a special importance to me. As a white woman living in Alabama, I have heard my fair share of racist comments ranging from the stereotypical to the absolutely ridiculous. In fact, I am one of the least racist people I know. Throughout Guess Who's Coming to Dinner I continuously changed my mind about what "rating" I would give the film. It started at three stars and ended at five after Spencer Tracy gave his unbelievable soliloquy that literally brought Katharine Hepburn to tears. I don't know a single person in this state who, in real life, would say the things his character said or agree to what his character agreed to. That in itself should bring me to tears. Here we are, forty-four years later, and still I see and hear racism every where I go. And not only from white people but from black people as well, just as Dr. Prentice's parents had their opposition to the relationship. When Joey says "I wouldn't let him go now, even if you were the governor of Alabama. I mean if Mom were," I knew exactly to what she was referring to, or whom rather. Governor Wallace, the most racist governor the state of Alabama has ever had (and possibly the United States) was seceded by his wife, Lurleen Wallace in 1967, when Guess Who's Coming to Dinner was released. In fact, it is Lurleen Wallace whose namesake is given to the building in which I attend class everyday. It is embarrassing that there are still people, and people I know well, who are just as racist as Governor Wallace, so many years later.

Aside from my personal background/emotions mixed in with the film's I truly enjoyed it. Katharine Hepburn's acting was, of course, superb (she did win the Oscar for Best Actress for the role). I must admit, when Joey said "He thinks you're gonna faint because he's a negro" I about choked on my popcorn. I loved her character's bluntness with the whole situation. When one is in a position like that, it would be backtracking to skirt around the issues instead of getting right to it. I'm glad the writer saw this when creating her character.

One random thought – did people back then really honk every time they pulled up to a house? Definitely there was no chance of surprising anyone! I think now it would almost be considered rude!

Spencer Tracy's monologue at the end was by far the best part of the film, especially knowing that he passed away 17 days after filming ended and this was the last scene shot (or so I've read). It was as if he knew that he didn't have much longer and decided to put his whole heart, everything he knew about acting and everything he could know and throw it all in for those last few minutes."There'll be 100 million people right here in this country who will be shocked and offended and appalled and the two of you will just have to ride that out, maybe every day for the rest of your lives. You could try to ignore those people, or you could feel sorry for them and for their prejudice and their bigotry and their blind hatred and stupid fears, but where necessary you'll just have to cling tight to each other and say 'screw all those people'!" he says. And that is true today. There are still those people and, I fear, there will always be those people. But Guess Who's Coming to Dinner took that attitude and exposed it to what it is — stupid fear. And for that, this film gets (and deserves) five stars.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Film: Arsenic and Old Lace

Title of film: Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)
Directed by: Frank Capra
Starring: Cary Grant, Priscilla Lane, and Raymond Massey
My rating: ★★★★

Summary: Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant), a dramatic critic, discovers on his wedding day to Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane) that his two spinster Aunts (Josephine Hull and Jean Adair) have been contributing very unselfishly to their favorite charity: poisoning lonely men and burying them in the cellar. The film, based on the play of the same name, follows Mortimer as he runs about in a panic trying to keep his Aunts from killing any more men, getting his brother Teddy (John Alexander) who believes he is Theodore Roosevelt committed, and keeping his brand-new marriage afloat. All this while trying to keep his other brother, Jonathan (Raymond Massey) and his brother's assistant, Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre), from killing him. In the end, Dr. Einstein escapes, Jonathan is taken into custody, Teddy and the Aunts are committed to Happydale Sanitarium, and Mortimer learns that he isn't a Brewster after all.

My take: Where to begin? Arsenic and Old Lace is really the first, true non-musical comedic classic Hollywood film I have viewed, and I must say I'm loving the genre! Cary Grant said that this film was one of his least favorites, and that his acting was horribly over the top. I think it quite the contrary. After just watching him in An Affair to Remember, I find it a true testament to his acting skills the way he was able to play such a panic-stricken, comedic character in Arsenic and Old Lace. (It also doesn't hurt that he's not exactly an eye-sore either). Without Grant's irreplaceable acting skills, the over-the-top comedy to a film centered around 13 dead men in the cellar, would have been lost. Cary Grant should always be looked upon as one of the best Hollywood actors that ever lived, not only because he could act, but because he could act without relying on any prop, special effect, curse word, or sex scene as so many other actors do today.

Although Grant is the glue that holds Arsenic and Old Lace together (he was really the only non-clueless individual!) my favorite character was by far Dr. Einstein. I've only ever seen Peter Lorre in one other film, Casablanca, so it could be by sheer coincidence, but his character in both films are eerily similar. If I had seen more of his movies (which I hope I do someday) I would assume that he is type-cast in these sidekick, criminal-that-you-can't-help-but-to-like type roles. Although in actuality Dr. Einstein (who we later learn is not a doctor at all) would be just as guilty as Jonathan, I'm sure I'm not the only person who hoped that he would escape.

Jonathan is in himself a whole other topic. There were scenes where I was actually scared of him! What I loved most especially is the way he was introduced at the beginning of the film, when Mortimer came across Jonathan's child hood photo. This photo marked a strange resemblance to the photo of Benny "Freckled-Face" Haynes (Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer) that Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye receive in White Christmas. Hopefully "Freckled-Face Haynes, the dog faced boy" didn't turn out quite as menacing. I thoroughly enjoyed the running joke that characters said Jonathan looked like Boris Karloff, who played Jonathan in the Broadway play version and was still doing so at the time this movie was being produced.

Teddy, the other Brewster brother, was another character that made this a true comedic classic. His innocence in burying the "yellow fever" victims almost makes me wish there were more people in the world who believe in the good of others (obviously not to that extreme). His character immediately reminded me of Lionel Jeffries' character in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Grandpa Potts.

Grandpa Potts also liked to go on excursions to "Africa" and such places, although one could merely call him eccentric and not quite as crazy as Teddy.

I always love when stage actors repeat their stage roles on-screen and do it wonderfully, as Josephine Hull, Jean Adair and John Alexander all did.

While I enjoyed the fast-paced drollery of Arsenic and Old Lace, there were times I was about to bite my nails off, and I don't even bite my nails! Of course no one would ever refer to this film as a "nail biter", but the stress of Mortimer trying to balance all those variables well, quite frankly it stressed me out, too! Even with that, Arsenic and Old Lace receives four stars, because of fantastic acting, fantastic screenplay, and who can argue with watching Cary Grant for two hours?

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Film: An Affair to Remember

Title of film: An Affair to Remember (1957)
Directed by: Leo McCrary
Starring: Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr
My rating (out of 5): ★★★★

Summary: An Affair to Remember follows two far-from-single people, Nickie Ferrante (Cary Grant) and Terry McKay (Deborah Kerr) who meet on a ship en route to New York City. Nickie is going to meet his fiancé, Lois Clark (Neva Patterson, and Terry, her boyfriend Kenneth Bradley (Richard Denning). While on board the ship they meet and, though trying to avoid one another, seem to bump into each other quite often (as fate in movies will have it). When the ship docks in France, Nickie asks Terry to go with him to visit his grand-mere (Cathleen Nesbitt). During the visit, the two realize that they are in love with one another. Right before parting, they decide that they will meet in six months at the top of the Empire State Building. Both split with their significant others (who happened to be their financial stability) and got jobs; Terry, singing, Nickie, painting. Once the six months are up, Terry is on her way to meet Nickie when she is in a horrible accident. Although the film does not show it, one would assume she is hit by a car. Nickie waited for her until midnight, then left. Because of the accident, Terry cannot walk and does not want to tell Nickie this, because she is unsure if he has the ability to help her get well and she does not want him to feel obligated to. The two go about their separate lives until running into each other at a show, both happening to be with their exes. All they exchange is a "hello" until the next day, Nickie looks up Terry in the phone book and pays a call to her, bringing her a shawl that his grandmother had said she wanted Terry to have on their visit. He seems rather angry and Terry will not tell him that she cannot walk. He is about to leave when he recalls that the owner of the shop that sells his paintings told him about a woman who came in with little money, and asked to have a painting that Nickie had painted of Terry and his grandmother. He then remembers that the woman was in a wheelchair and, in a moment of understanding, rushes to the bedroom to see said painting hanging in Terry's bedroom. The couple embraces as Terry says "If you can paint, I can walk. Anything can happen, right?"

My take: At first I thought the movie (with running time at almost exactly 2 hours - 119 minutes) would be dull at points. I was mistaken. Cary Grant was breathtaking as usual, and while I'm not a huge fan of Deborah Kerr looks-wise, she grew on me by the end of the film. My favorite parts were really at the beginning, when the two were throwing sarcastic comments at one another. For example, Nickie asks Terry for a lighter and she says something to the effect of "You could light it with that inscription, couldn't you?" referring to the inscription on the inside of his cigarette case that says (in French) "in memory of three unforgettable nights aboard the 'Caroline.'" Once the two get lovey-dovey it still has comical moments, such as when the two first see the other with their true partners.

It bothered me that the film never really shows Nickie and Terry kissing. It is implied that they do, but the camera only shows from their waists down, as they are on a staircase that blocks their top halves. They exchange a few pecks on camera but no real, passionate kiss. I realize that this movie came out way before it was common and acceptable for people to be rolling around naked on-screen, but a passionate embrace would have been nice.

The last 30 minutes of the film frustrated, well to put it bluntly, the hell out of me. I was practically screaming at my laptop (I watched the film on Netflix's Instant Watch) "TELL HIM!" But the ending was grand, I was so afraid that Terry would let him walk out of the apartment without finding out and that the ending would not be a happy one. But it was, thank heavens, and none too soon, for I was about to fast-forward to the ending just to see if they'd end up together! For lovers of the past and romances, I would definitely recommend this film.