Sunday, 28 July 2013

A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935)

There are countless versions of this play done to death every summer, it is the perennial Shakespeare in the Park favourite (such as the Priory Players' 2013 version - left). There have been a few cinema versions too, most recently a stylish and enjoyably relaxed 1999 version with Kevin Kline and Michelle Pfeiffer. This particular forgotten classic however comprehensively belies the notion that Shakespeare is only for British actors.

Being a Hollywood film, its cast is therefore mostly American, although with only one or two expatriate Brits thrown in to that endearing, now long lost community once known as the Hollywood Cricket Club.

The team behind the camera, significantly, is also richly European and talented, primarily that of its chief coordinator Max Reinhardt, who brought his grand semi-musical interpretation of Shakespeare's play to the silver screen with the assistance of Warner Brothers. And a silver screen it is too, shimmering with light and magic thanks to Hal Mohr's cinematography, in the spirit of the story. Another significant name attached to the project was composer/arranger Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who began a long association with Warners.

The remaining cast were from the cream of Warners' contract players. Ensemble character stars like Frank McHugh, Hugh Herbert, Dewey Robinson and Joe E. Brown were regular comedic faces in those days, and they add to the flavour of the film in their scenes as the mechanicals - and at their centre of course, is the one and only James Cagney.

The sight of Cagney's head being transformed into a donkey's is one of those rare cinema moments that just has to be seen, worth the admission alone, for the sheer novelty of seeing this legendary movie gangster being transformed into something rather different. Cagney invests the role of Bottom with all the passion and enthusiasm that he brought to all his cinema and theatre work, and is a suitable reminder that he was more than just a tough guy.

The transformation of Bottom is a highlight for me, particularly in any film version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, as the play usually cheats the audience of seeing the transformation by having it take place offstage. Bottom's antagonist, in this case, is the mischievous Puck, played with a delightful childish chuckle and
revelatory energy, by Mickey Rooney (on loan from MGM). As summoned by the imposing Victor Jory as Oberon, Puck also works his mischievous magical influence on the young lovers of the piece (for Shakespeare comedies wouldn't be Shakespeare comedies without them!), Ross Alexander, Jean Muir, crooner Dick Powell, and taking her bow on the silver screen, pretty young Olivia De Havilland, who emerges as Hermia with all the eager enthusiasm and talent of a young actress fresh out of drama school. The cinema was a medium she was to later adapt and soon grow to love.

In short, all those involved in A Midsummer Night's Dream hurl themselves into it with great gusto, as well as the knowledge that they were involved in something unique and quite special. Sometimes Shakespeare is taken for granted as being good just because it's Shakespeare. This Hollywood (but never Hollywoodised) classic demonstrates just how enjoyable the play can be. For me, it's the definitive film version.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Goldfinger (1964)

The Bond Brand

For me, the Bond films are an acquired taste. Very formulaic, and rigidly so until Casino Royale in 2006. With their variations, the Bond formula generally seems to run as follows:

1. The opening shot (literally) through a gunsight

2. The pre-credits sequence

3. The titles and theme song

4. The mission set-up (with M and Q)

5. Meeting the villain and Bond Girl No. 1

6. Meeting Bond Girl No. 2

7. The finale

All these elements found their ideal mixture in Goldfinger in 1964, the defining film of the series which also had one of Bond's most formidable adversaries, with Sean Connery at his most assured in the central role from first scene to last.

He may not be the exact Bond as written in the books, but as with so many good actors' interpretation of a role, Connery is the image that has stayed in the minds of cinemagoers, and which all subsequent Bond actors in the role have since had to emulate.

It probably helped Sean that he had actors the stature of Honor Blackman to deal with, fresh from The Avengers, as Pussy Galore - probably the most outrageously named character in the movies.

And then there is Goldfinger himself - brilliantly played by Gert Frobe in a role which set up his international film career - and his equally sadistic Oddjob, memorably played by Japanese American wrestler Tokiyushi "Harold" Sakata, with a nice line in sly grins and a lethal bowler hat.
Goldfinger is not a supervillain per se, but one who is sadistic enough to leave Bond to die in a famous laser execution scene - nothing at all to do with the Ian Fleming novel, but one of a number of the film's beautiful conceits.

In Fleming's novel there was an unsuccessful attempt to raid Fort Knox - but this was the 1960s, the era of John F. Kennedy, the civil rights movement, and the emerging space age, when all things were possible, and in director Guy Hamilton's eyes, the idea of a break-in not working would be understandably anti-climactic to the cinema audience. There are various ludicrous twists such as the nerve gas sprinkled over the fortress only having a limited effect, but the film carries you along with enough suspense to make it look as if Goldfinger is really going to succeed in his elaborate scheme. For me, it's easily the most enjoyable of the series.

Thereafter, the Bond films went on an artistically downward (but financially upward) spiral of increasingly fantastic plots, gimmicky gadgets, and self-parody, but those that succeeded King Connery have their various interesting slants on the character. Connery's unfortunate successor was George Lazenby, who by his own admission couldn't act, and worse still had the challenge of emotional scenes that neither Bond or Connery had ever ventured into. Nevertheless, On Her Majesty's Secret Service remains one of the most underrated of the series.

 For many, Roger Moore became the Bond they most associated with, certainly the longest serving, from 1973 through to 1985. His laid back style fitted into the tuxedo easily, from his grounding on The Saint and other suave film and TV shows. So what if the sight of a car becoming a submarine was a bit daft - Moore was enjoying himself, and so were the audience.

The unluckiest of the Bonds was probably Timothy Dalton, who only had two refreshingly action-packed stabs at the character in The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill, before contractual difficulties, the transition of the Broccoli legacy from one generation to the next, and the dismantling of the Iron Curtain, meant that Bond laid low for a while. When he returned, it was in the shape of suave Pierce Brosnan , who like Roger Moore had done his groundwork on TV in the likes of Remington Steele. Up until Goldeneye in 1995, he was - next to Cary Grant - the Best Bond That Never Was.

When Brosnan cited Goldfinger as being his main artistic inspiration for becoming an actor, things had come full circle. Now Daniel Craig has, for better or worse (and mostly better), taken on the role deep into the 21st century and the post-Cold War years. The plots are becoming more baffling, the gadgets are gradually escalating once again, and in this Size Zero supermodel age there's always plenty of opportunity for more Bond girls (Barbara Bach, Grace Jones, Carey Lowell, Michelle Yeoh and Halle Berry among the most notable), so the formula is looking good after 50 years of repackaging.

Goldfinger was the peak of Bond's cinematic accomplishments, but there's still life in the old dog yet.

100 Favourite Films

100 Favourite Films