Fantasia

Talkie of the Week: Disney Series

USA 1940, 125 minutes, Technicolor, Walt Disney Productions. Distributed by: RKO Radio Pictures. Master of Ceremonies: Deems Taylor. Music written by Johann Sebastian Bach, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Paul Dukas, Igor Stravinsky, Ludwig van Beethoven, Amilcare Ponchielli, Modest Mussorgsky and Franz Schubert. Music performed by Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Plot summary: Modern animation meets classical music, from The Sorcerer’s Apprentice to Schubert’s Ave Maria.

FAntasia posterReview: In the late 1920s and 30s, Walt Disney first mixed animated pictures with classical music in a series of cartoon shorts called Silly Symphonies. As an advancement of this concept, he soon started working on The Sorcerer’s Apprentice based on Goethe’s famous poem and Paul Dukas’ composition. Created to boost Mickey Mouse whose popularity had suffered in the shadow of the Silly Symphonies, the piece was colorful and lavish, and thus soon burst the budget. Without much ado, Mickey’s short was included in another production, a film Disney’s favorite mouse was destined to become the signature star of. Designed as a concert with a Master of Ceremonies, a famous conductor and a real orchestra, Disney’s third feature broke new ground. By combining live action scenes with animated stories, Fantasia blurred the lines of reality and imagination, of classical music and pop culture imagery.

Released on November 13, 1940 the film was received with mixed reviews and mild audience approval. On the eve of America’s entry into WWII, the majority of movie goers was looking for funny cartoons rather than sophisticated culture. Unfortunately, Fantasia didn’t attract music lovers either. Instead, they turned up their noses at Disney’s picturesque concept. For them, the animation destroyed the power of classical music and its most appealing effect, the stimulation of the human mind and its imagination. It presented prefabricated pictures rather than create an atmosphere that allowed the audience to form their own inside their heads. That form of criticism may sound peculiar to film enthusiasts. After all, a movie is nothing but a sequence of moving pictures. But it is also a fair argument for anyone who appreciates the fine art of music and all the emotions it evokes.

Re-released to theaters several times during the war and after, Fantasia had a hard time making enough money and was finally presented in different versions and shorter cuts. Released as part of the Walt Disney Classics collection in 1990, the film finally found everlasting success on VHS and laser disc. It is now available in its full glory on DVD and Blu-ray as a compilation with Fantasia 2000, a film that finally continued what Walt Disney himself had once planned to be a series of motion pictures inspired by the best of classical music and tales.

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Lifeboat

Talkie of the Week: Lifeboat

USA 1944, 96 minutes, black & white, 20th Century Fox. Director: Alfred Hitchcock, Written by Jo Swerling, Based on a novella by John Steinbeck. Cast: Tullalah Bankhead, William Bendix, Walter Slezak, Mary Anderson, John Hodiak, Henry Hull, Heather Angel, Hume Cronyn, Canada Lee and William Yetter Jr.

Plot summary: After a nearly fatal attack in the middle of the Atlantic ocean, a disparate group of survivors has to decide whether or not to trust the enemy whose offer to help may or may not reflect disputable intent.

Lifeboat_posterReview: There are film enthusiasts who worship directors for their ability to bring stories to live on screen and make them memorable beyond their own lifetime and momentum. Welles, Wilder, Capra, Sirk, Lang, Houston, Wyler, Cukor, Ford, Mankiewicz, Minnelli to just name a few, each name standing for his own precept of quality, his own formula to narrative veracity. Alfred Hitchcock, no doubt, belongs to that eclectic league of masterminds whose style outlived its time and entered the halls of classic fame. With success stories such as The 39 Steps, Rear Window and Vertigo under his belt, Hitchcock is still remembered by film fans around the globe and frequently paid homage to by contemporary filmmakers. Although not peaking until the 1950s, his career was multifaceted and long-lived, spanning from the mid 1920s to the mid 70s.

In 1943, he took on a project called Lifeboat, a story originally based on an unpublished novella by John Steinbeck. Set in the midst of WWII, the tale brought up the blurry lines between decency and necessity for survival in times of war. Shot with only ten actors in a limited setting, Hitchcock turned the already dramatic plot into a claustrophobic parable about the complexities of human behavior under extreme circumstances. Unafraid of addressing cruelties and moral ambiguities, Lifeboat was released on January 28, 1944 and won instant disapproval by a number of critics who frowned on the supposedly favorable depiction of German characters. Despite this controversy, however, the film was nominated for three Academy Awards and brought Tallulah Bankhead a well-deserved New York Film Critics Circle Award for her memorable performance as pert journalist Connie Porter. In 1950, Screen Director’s Playhouse turned Lifeboat into a successful radio play with and introduction by Alfred Hitchcock and Tallulah Bankhead as his acclaimed leading lady. You can listen to the adaptation here.

For Hitchcock fans and classic movie buffs, the film does not only offer a brilliant ensemble cast but also a story that will keep you on the edge of your seat through the whole ninety-six minutes. Designed as an intimate play, Lifeboat is a real gem for anyone who likes to savor topnotch acting and tangent dialog. Praised by critics today, Lifeboat is now available on DVD with a delicious two-parter interview with the master of suspense himself.

In Loving Memory

In 1916, my grandma was born. August 18th was her birthday. Gregory Peck was born that year, so were Kirk Douglas, Betty Grable and Olivia de Havilland. WWI was haunting Europe, leaving an entire generation lost and scarred. Radio was the connection to the world and newspapers the main source of information. Irving Berlin was a big name in music and Cole Porter presented his debut, See America First, on Broadway. Al Jolson was big in show business, as well as movie stars such as Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks. James Joyce published A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man while Claude Monet and Henri Matisse created some of their most beautiful paintings.

The world my grandmother grew up in seems so different now from ours and yet I always felt our souls were one and the same.When she entered her teens, she was affected by the Great Depression like everybody else. Those years shaped her understanding of money and security, and made her frugal despite her generosity. When she was barely of age, the world was shaken by another World War, a catastrophe that shaped her decisions about marriage, family and friendship. When the war was over, the world changed yet again, with women (despite their inferior legal status) struggling to juggle their jobs, children and returning soldier men. In the 50s, my grandma couldn’t afford to live the dream of a housewife, she had to work to support her two children because her husband’s salary alone didn’t suffice. She worked in a field she had been trained in with her father’s permission before the war and stayed with the same company until she finally retired at sixty. It took her years to afford a washing machine or other amenities, her household eating up much more time, without the help of her husband. I don’t know how she did it, but she cooked every day and created delicious meals on a tighter budget than I am scraping by today. She was a beloved host and as a child I always aspired to get as much praise for my cooking as she did.

It is her discipline, warmth and love I remember the most, the everyday routine she kept even after she had long stopped working. Her closet always looked impeccable, with neatly folded sheets and her well-groomed wardrobe. Her clothes were ladylike, her hair curly and naturally gray. When I close my eyes, I immediately see her in the kitchen, an apron safely tugged around her waist and her glasses steamed up from adding a secret ingredient to my favorite dishes. I often wonder how she would feel about my vintage life today and remember the feeling of reaching for the phone to ask her for a recipe or some advice long after she had already passed away. Sometimes I hear her voice in my dreams and I see her face smiling at me. When I wake up, I always feel blessed but also lonely for her presence, then I realize how many of the things I love were cherished and celebrated by her in a humble way. She read whodunits, loved music, embraced solitude as well as company and liked to talk to me at least an hour every day. Like me, she also loved Perry Mason and when I look at Della Street in her senior years, I always feel reminded of my grandma and what a gift it was to have been loved by her.