Mary Poppins

Talkie of the Week: Disney Series

USA 1964, 139 minutes, Technicolor, Walt Disney Productions, Distributed by Buena Vista Distribution. Based on Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers. Screenplay by Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi, Directed by: Robert Stevenson. Cast: Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, David Tomlinson, Glynis Johns, Karen Dotrice, Matthew Garber, Hermione Baddeley, Reta Shaw, Reginald Owen, Don Barclay, Arthur Treacher, Elsa Lanchester, Marjorie Bennett, Arthur Malet, Ed Wynn, Jane Darwell.

Plot summary: Mary Poppins is the kind of nanny every child dreams of. She‘s lovely, adventurous and full of magic, or simply supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

Mary Poppins_bwReview: Who does not know her, Mary Poppins, the bewitching nanny played by Julie Andrews? Arriving with the changing wind, she knows how to make a big entrance in the lives of the Banks family at a time when they need her most. The children of the household, Jane and Michael, have made a habit out of swapping personnel. They do not wish to be handled by stiff-lipped elders, they want to explore the world instead. Mary Poppins, upon arrival, seems to be just another dragon in disguise, another grown-up determined to take the fun out of their lives. However, when she slides up the stairs and opens her bag full of wondrous magic, Jane and Michael change their mind. They open their heart to the new nanny, a lady who believes in following the rules as much as bending them. Before she appeared, from heaven or out of thin air, chores and duty killed every ounce of joy in them, but with Mary, even the dullest of tasks turns into an adventure for the Banks offspring and ultimately also for their parents.

Rewarded with an Academy Award for her performance, Julie Andrews breathed life into a character who turned childhood longings into reality. Based on P.L. Travers’ first book, the silver screen version of Mary Poppins was dulcified, her story abridged to fit into 139 minutes of live action entertainment interwoven with musical numbers and animated sequences. Versatile, stage-tested and equipped with a genuinely clear voice, the Ms. Andrews gave her silver screen debut in Disney‘s masterpiece adaptation and proved she was the perfect choice for her first Hollywood alter ego. Although previously trumped by Audrey Hepburn for the screen version of My Fair Lady, Andrews was rewarded with the biggest laurels of industry success and thus extended her career from stage to film. Timeless in quality and style, Mary Poppins has since remained one of Julie Andrews’ most memorable films, a Disney classic children love to revisit as much as adults.

An instant success upon release in 1964, the film was re-released in 1973 and rerun on television on a regular basis. Also made available on home video and DVD, Mary Poppins has managed to stay entertaining and fresh over the duration of five decades. On December 10, 2013, the motion picture has now also been announced to be released on Blu-ray as a 50th Anniversary Edition, another milestone in the history of a film that still enchants my heart and always revives my belief in the power of imagination.

Alice in Wonderland

Talkie of the Week: Disney Series

USA 1951, 75 minutes, Technicolor, Walt Disney Pictures. Distributed by: RKO Radio Pictures, Based on “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass” by Lewis Carroll

Plot summary: To elude her dull lessons, Alice escapes into the nonsensical world of Wonderland where cats wear stripes and flowers can sing.

Alice in WonderlandReview: Every kid knows her. Alice, the English girl who is bored stiff by her daily lessons and dreams of a world different from her rule-filled own. As a child, I envied her for her adventures in Wonderland, a world so entertaining and scary all at once. Like her, I escaped boredom in my mind and created a world too colorful to make sense to adults. Had I spotted a White Rabbit with a pocket watch, I would have gladly followed him. But like Peter Pan, Mr. Rabbit never came and I was stuck with the poetic words of Lewis Carroll and a Disney adaptation I only recently learned to appreciate for its imperfection.

When Alice enters Wonderland, she meets a bunch of quirky characters: Mad Hatter and March Hare, a smoking Caterpillar, and the Queen of Hearts. Their customs are peculiar and differ from what the girl has learned to be conventional. They are interesting but also capricious, their language, attitude and behavior as unpredictable as the visibility of the Cheshire Cat. What begins as a great adventure soon turns into a series of unpleasant encounters. Based on Lewis Carroll’s famous books, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, Disney’s heroine stumbles from one oddity to the next until finally finds her way home again.

Despite their narrative complexity, Walt Disney was interested in adapting Lewis’ stories  early on but had to take several hurdles until he was able to begin with the production. Rewritten and re-imagined several times, the film finally premiered on July 26, 1951 and met with a lukewarm response. Although not slated by critics at the time, the animated feature did not attract a loyal audience. Cut down to fit into 75 short minutes, Disney’s version was incomplete and deemed Americanized by fans of Lewis Carroll’s original stories. Despite its imaginative artwork and catchy tunes, the film was not popular until its re-release in 1974 when a new generation appreciated Alice in Wonderland for its eccentric (or arguably psychedelic) content.

Now considered a children’s classic, Carroll’s books and Disney’s adaptation have influenced and shaped the imagination and childhood of many kids around the world. Although remade many times, Alice is still a beautiful blond girl in a lot of hearts and minds. Her world, both fantastic and real, stands for a time lost to us all when nothing compared to the power of imagination. When movies still made a difference in our lives and dreams were more than just the sum of our daily actions. Alice is a symbol of innocence, creativity and curiosity. A carefree child who, not unlike Wendy Darling in Peter Pan, is entangled in a mélange of fantastic tales and adult rules she has learned to escape at her own discretion.

Watch the original trailer here and refresh your memories of an enchanting Disney classic now available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Spellbound

Talkie of the Week: Spellbound

USA 1945, 111 minutes, black & white, United Artists. Director: Alfred Hitchcock, Written by Angus MacPhail and Ben Hecht, Based on the novel The House of Dr. Edwardes by Hilary Saint George Saunders and Francis Beeding. Cast: Ingrid Berman, Gregory Peck, Michael Chekhov, Leo G. Carroll, Rhonda Fleming, John Emery, Steven Geray, Paul Harvey, Donald Curtis, Norman Lloyd, Bill Goodwin, Wallace Ford, Art Baker, Regis Toomey.

Plot summary: When Dr. Edwardes arrives at Green Manors, levelheaded Dr. Petersen is spellbound by the new hospital director who has a secret she is determined to uncover.

spellbound_b&wReview: Dr. Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergman) is the sole female doctor at Green Manors, a mental hospital in Vermont. Among her colleagues, she is known as efficient and detached, an image she sheds upon arrival of new hospital director Dr. Edwardes (Gregory Peck). Edwardes is charming but also struggles with a phobia his esteemed colleague finds conspicuous: he gets upset whenever he spots dark, parallel lines on a white background. Despite her ulterior instincts, Dr. Petersen is attracted to the handsome doctor who has a secret she is determined to uncover and thus solve the mystery of his phobia.

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Spellbound was produced by David Selznick, a collaboration that didn’t turn out as fruitful as initially intended. For their third common production, Selznick brought in his own psychoanalyst to turn the plot into a puff piece on therapy and celebrate his own positive experiences. Hitchcock, however, known for his independent streak, frequently butted heads with the interfering analyst and hired Salvador Dali to add an intriguing touch of surrealism to his now famous dream sequence. Originally almost twenty minutes long, the scene was eventually cut down by Selznick and has only been available in its edited form since the release of the film in 1945.

Shot as a mystical thriller with a captivating storyline about mental illness, Spellbound was successful upon release. Rewarded with an Academy Ward for Best Score and five additional nominations, the film was popular with movie goers and critics alike, and is still entertaining on DVD and Blu-ray today. Blessed with a suspenseful plot and two haunting leads, the film has what it takes to keep its audience on the edge of their seats and continues to be one of Hitchcock’s mid-career treats.

The Case of the Black Cat

Talkie of the Week: The Case of the Black Cat

USA 1936, 66 minutes, black & white, Warner Bros. Director: William C. McGann, Written by F. Hugh Herbert, Based on The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat by Erle Stanley Gardner. Cast: Ricardo Cortez, June Travis, Jane Bryan, Craig Reynolds, Carlyle Moore Jr., Gordon Elliot, Nedda Harrigan, Garry Owen, Harry Davenport, George Rosener, Gordon Hart, Clarence Wilson, Guy Usher, Lottie Williams and Harry Hayden.

Plot summary: When Peter Laxter calls Perry Mason to change his will in order to test the loyalty of his granddaughter’s fiancé, his actions result in a series of sudden deaths the prosecution investigates as murders.

Review: Following four silver screenTCOT Black Catadaptations with Warren William starring as Perry Mason, Warner Brothers took another shot at success in 1936 by releasing The Case of the Black Cat based on Erle Stanley Gardner’s seventh whodunit, The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat. Introducing Ricardo Cortez as the famous attorney-at-law and June Travis as his irreplaceable Della Street, that new production did not follow up on previously disappointing attempts of turning Mason into a Nick Charles but rather tried to soak up the essence of Gardner’s original novel. Featuring Garry Owen as private eye Paul Drake, an important asset to Mason’s law practice, and Guy Usher as district attorney Hamilton Burger, The Case of the Black Cat was suspenseful and noir right from the start. What the film lacked, however, was that kind of enticing chemistry between the story’s main characters, an ingredient Raymond Burr, Barbara Hale, Bill Hopper (as well as William Talman and Ray Collins) would so easily create on the small screen two decades later.

Although hard to compare to the smashing TV show of the 1950s and 60s, this adaptation from 1936 already took a step into the right direction. Regardless of his excellent performance skills and gentlemanly quality, Warren William did not get to leave a lasting mark as Perry Mason and unfortunately, nor did Ricardo Cortez with his one-time chance at proving himself. June Travis, as the fourth actress to breathe life into Mason’s skillful girl Friday, also didn’t make a big enough difference to win the hearts of Gardner’s fans. Just like her predecessors, she was pretty and useful but never as distinctive as the character in the original books.

In general, The Case of the Black Cat offered a calmer version of Gardner’s crafty lawyer, especially when compared to the screwball-induced The Case of the Lucky Legs and The Velvet Claws, the improved take on the novels still did not stand out enough, however, to attract a larger audience. Today, The Case of the Black Cat is a great little film for anyone who loves Perry Mason. Although for most, Raymond Burr will always be the perfect Perry and Barbara Hale his unrivaled Della, this film is a great example of how Hollywood has always tried to tell stories the audience has already embraced. It is also a treat for anyone who is enamored with the 1930s, the slang, movies and fashion of those troubled days.

Available on the Perry Mason Mysteries DVD boxset.

Della Street

Everyone who knows me is aware of this: I’m a big fan of Della Street. I have been for many years, ever since I was a kid and watched the Perry Mason TV movies until my grandma introduced me to the original show from the 1950s and 60s. That’s when I liked her even more, for her skills, her style, her elegance. She’s the epitomized girl Friday who was brought to life by Helen Trenholme, Claire Dodd, Genevieve Tobin, June Travis and Ann Dvorak in the 1930s, by Gertrude Warner, Jan Miner and Joan Alexander from the mid 40s to 50s, and ultimately by my favorite, Barbara Hale, in the classic TV show and movies.

Created by Erle Stanley Gardner in 1933, Della Street entered the scene along with her famous boss, attorney-at-law Perry Mason in The Case of the Velvet Claws. Included from the first novel on, Della was a little feistier upon introduction, but every bit as skillful and loyal as in the following eighty-one whodunits. It was made clear from the start that Della had quite an influence on Perry, that their relationship ran a little deeper than that of an employer and his confidential secretary. Always supported by their friend, private eye Paul Drake, their cases took center stage however and the couple never went beyond an ardent kiss. Proposing to her a couple of times, Perry Mason was generally turned down by his irreplaceable office pearl  who understood that he wasn’t the type to settle down, nor was she willing to spend her life without him in a large home as a housewife and mother. So she stuck it out with him through hundreds of cases in the books and movies, on radio and finally on TV.

Always a little altered in the adaptations, Della remained steadfast, pretty and faithful to her boss and got marry to him once in Warner Brother’s very free version of The Case of the Velvet Claws in 1936. In general, Della Street was quite sassy in the Perry Mason films of the 1930s and frequently involved in taking flight from the police on radio a decade later. With television being a more conservative medium in the late 1950s, Barbara Hale did not get to flirt with Raymond Burr’s Perry as much as her predecessors, but thanks to their on screen chemistry and her intuitive acting, the seething romance between Della and Perry continued in the hearts and heads of many Perry Mason fans until a kiss in 1993’s The Case of the Telltale Talk Show Host finally confirmed their relationship.

Never described as anything but beautiful in Gardner’s original books, Della Street donned platinum hair and brunette curls, as well as alluring outfits that were appropriate for the office. As the Della Street who’s left a lasting impression on her audience, Barbara Hale wore outfits that were typical of the time between 1957 and 66: figure-hugging, feminine and always covering her knees. Upon the insistence of executive producer Gail Patrick Jackson, Della did not follow every trend when the 60s introduced new hemlines every year and thus stressed the classy elegance Ms. Hale had established for her TV alias. With her limited collection of clothes, Della often changed her outfits by combining her blouse or sweater with another skirt. Her trademark look can be pinned down to waist shirt dresses (including one with her embroidered initials), pencil skirts, cardigans and blouses that embellished her neck with a bow. In the first season, Della was also constantly running around on mules which she later replaced with a classy pair of heels. As an accessory, Della often wore a pearl necklace or a charm bracelet on her left wrist while her little finger frequently showed the presence of a simple ring, matching her boss’ on his own hand. From time to time, Della was also seen wearing a necklace with a pendant showing her initials, long before Carrie Bradshaw made it fashionable for a whole new generation.

In the 1980s, Barbara Hale returned to TV with her longtime screen partner Raymond Burr and continued the tradition of presenting Della as efficient, warmhearted and dressed to the nines. Again, following contemporary but conservative fashion, Della combined over-knee skirts with stylish boots, turtleneck sweaters, blazer jackets and two layers of pearls. Without changing her hair as much as on the original show (while avoiding the beehive), Della Street kept her cropped, practical curls which added credibility to the on-screen depiction of Perry Mason’s tireless associate.

Today, Della’s look can be re-examined on DVD and copied thanks to the many vintage stores and new designs that are inspired by more graceful times. With a circle skirt and scarf, a classy faux vintage suit or classy heels, it’s easy to feel as sophisticated and charming as Della Street. Add a full head of curls, matching intimates and a petticoat to your outfit and you’ll perfect the sentiment. From where I’m standing it is worth the effort, paying tribute to a character many real life secretaries still love to look at for inspiration.

His Girl Friday

Talkie of the Week: His Girl Friday

USA 1940, 92 minutes, black & white, Columbia Pictures. Director: Howard Hawks, Written by Charles Lederer, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, Based on the play The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. Cast: Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Ralph Bellamy, Gene Lockhart, Porter Hall, Ernest Truex, Cliff Edwards, Clarence Kolb, Roscoe Karns, Frank Jenks, Regis Toomey, Abner Biberman, Frank Orth, John Qualen and Helen Mack

Plot summary: Editor-in-chief Walter is used to getting his way until his ex-wife Hildy returns to New York to get married to an insurance man from Albany who will take her away from the newspaper business.

Review: His Girl Friday is a fast paced screwball comedy directed and produced by Howard Hawks, starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. Based on the play The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, the 1940 adaptation was altered by the playwrights themselves and additional screenwriter Charles Lederer. Russell’s Hildy Johnson, originally male on stage, was turned into a quick-witted female reporter who is trying to get away from her ex-husband and editor-in-chief Walter Burns, played by Cary Grant.

Living on smart and funny dialog, His Girl Friday paints the breathless world of newspaper journalism in a time that’s long gone. It creates the myth of the ruthless editor-in-chief and his go-get-it attitude who would do anything to keep his star reporter from quitting her job. Cary Grant was an ingenious casting choice for the slick Morning Post chief who’s always cooking up a new idea to delay his ex-wife’s departure and wedding plans – Grant’s undying energy has the potential to leave the audience out of breath they get so caught up following his schemes. Rosalind Russell did an equally impressive job, slowly falling for her ex’ cabals although she smelled the rat behind his motives right from the start. Matching wit with her former husband and employer, she also easily outshines her new desired prey: fiancé Bruce Baldwin, a simple-minded insurance agent from upstate New York, brilliantly played by Ralph Bellamy. The restaurant banter between ex-wife, her husband-to-be and former spouse is one of the best scenes in the entire movie. But there are many more memorable and over-the-top moments a good screwball movie needs.

If you enjoy these kinds of comedies, this classic is a definite must-see for you. You’ll rarely stop chuckling about Grant’s and Russell’s entertaining repartee and the story itself has the quality to make you come back to this movie again and again.

Available on DVD, youtube and Hulu.

Adaptations

What’s the fuzz about adaptations?!

A short while ago I read a variety of articles about the supposed likes and dislikes of movie goers these days, all claiming that the general audience is tired of Hollywood’s perpetual adaptation game. Now I wouldn’t have stumbled upon that complaint if it hadn’t been argued that it’s a lack of original ideas in our time and age that brought on this development. It was basically suggested that adaptations are a fairly new development in film history, that all filmmakers know to do these days is to remake or adapt previously told storylines.

Now that assumption makes me chuckle. Actually, adaptations have a long tradition in filmmaking, it’s not as if it’s a present day invention at all. In general, we are rarely as original these days as most of us often care to believe – but maybe that’s what all this fuzz is about… If grandma was looking sensual, glamourous and grand in the odd adaptation piece in, say 1951, then her grand-daughters better don’t. Or shouldn’t. Or couldn’t?!

I don’t know how many movies and TV shows were based on already existing material in the past: plays, novels, short stories, fairy tales. I mean, how often was Shakespeare adapted in the early days of filmmaking? Does Laurence Olivier still ring a bell in Halmet (1948) and the five productions that have followed since? A Midsummer Night’s Dream was adapted several times, first in 1909. Romeo & Juliet one year earlier in 1908, kicking off an endless list of movies based on that particular Elizabethan play. The Thin Man was an adaptation when it first graced the silver screen in 1934, based on Dashiell Hammett’s popular detective novel. It was then turned into a popular franchise that brought on a total of six movies in thirteen years. Perry Mason is yet another example. Erle Stanley Gardner’s whodunits were adapted for both, the big screen in the 1930s and then more successfully the small screen in 1957 and then again in 1985. The Women was based on Clare Boothe Luce’s successful play.

The list is long and would only get longer if I considered all the shows and films that were inspired by previously written novels, songs, plays or short stories. It is safe to say that adaptions per se are everything but not a new development in film. Kiss Me Kate was an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew and first made its musical debut on Broadway in 1948. Theater in general has a tradition of adapting previously told storylines or real life events. Music has always picked up on that pattern, and so has art in general. One genre influences the other. Comics included.

So the fact that fictional material is still being adapted these days could not possibly be a reason for moviegoers’ negative reaction to it. The quality of the adaptation may play a much bigger role, but that, like so many topics, will always be a matter of taste. However, every adaptation comes with a critic and it’s left to your own imagination what’s worse, to be compared to an already existing piece of writing or to get a negative review on your original idea that may or may not have been inspired by another piece of entertainment or art. After all, it has often been argued that originality is a myth and every idea is based on another. That every story has been told before.

Personally, I enjoy good storytelling, adapted or genuine. Remakes however are often another story, but I’ve rambled about this already and won’t go there again. Instead, I’ll go watch a classic adaptation now, Arsenic and Old Lace for example. Or Mary Poppins, two classic gems, beautifully made.