31 May 2011

Went the Day Well?

Elizabeth Allan and Thora Hird fight for king and country in Went the Day Well?

The other day I caught an afternoon screening of Went the Day Well? at Film Forum. Based on a Graham Greene story and made by the ever so British Ealing Studios and Brazilian émigré director Alberto Cavalcanti, Went the Day Well? is perhaps one of the greatest examples of a propaganda film ever made by the Allies during the war.

In the film a group of British soldiers on maneuvers arrive in the small hamlet of Bramley End. The villagers welcome them into their homes but soon some odd things are noticed about the soldiers—one marks his sevens in the European style; another has a bar of Viennese chocolate in his bag. Realizing their cover is about to be blown, the soldiers announce their true identities (they are German paratroopers sent ahead of a planned German invasion) and round up the villagers in the local church with the idea of keeping their presence in the village a secret until the invasion occurs. What the Germans don’t count on is the strong determination of the English to fight for England. The villagers organize and attack the Germans with many resulting casualties. 

The most startling aspect of the film is how quickly the women in the village join in the fight. It's rare to see a film from this time period with woman behaving so violently. One woman’s actions were so unexpected that they brought a gasp from the audience when I saw it. 

What makes this film such a great piece of propaganda is that the story is set in 1948 and told in flashback by a local villager who in the beginning points out a gravestone with German names saying, "They wanted England, these Jerries did, and this is the only bit they got." Yet the film came out in 1942 when the idea of victory over Germany was far from realized. I would love to know what English audiences thought of the film at the time. Did it boost their spirits with thoughts of potential victory? Or did it confirm what they already knew, that in a time of crisis good old British resolve will win the day.

Went the Day Well? plays at Film Forum through June 2 but if you can’t make it, do try and get it on DVD. 

30 May 2011

Memorial Day

Memorial Day ceremonies, Ashland, Maine, 1943 

Formerly known as Decoration Day, Memorial Day commemorates those members of the Armed Forces who died while serving their country. So while you enjoy the day off, please take a moment to remember the dead.

from the Library of Congress.

24 May 2011

Grove Street

In the West Village, where Grove Street bends towards Hudson, stands a row of houses (numbers 4-10) that are a wonderful reminder of New York’s past. The four brick homes, built between 1825 and 1834, represent the typical Federal style of the time. With red facades, small dormer windows, and little if any ornamentation, this simple look was popular on the East Coast at the beginning of the 19th century before the more opulent Greek Revival style took hold. 

I'm quite fond of this style (I did, after all, live in Boston for years where Beacon Hill is filled with Federal-style homes) and like to look for little details that give each house their own unique look. For example, a door knocker shaped like a hand, a design popular during the Victorian era, is a nice complement to the plain green door. 

Next door is Grove Court, which can be seen through the wrought-iron black gate. Originally named “Mixed Ale Alley” because the homes were built for various tradesmen, the houses in Grove Court were considered unusual at the time because they didn’t front the street, something that just wasn’t done. 

Today only residents and their guests are allowed inside the courtyard. I hope to get an invite one day to take a closer look at what appears to be another amazing group of houses.

Photos by Michele.

22 May 2011

Flower of Riches

In China, the peony is known as the flower of riches and honour. Looking at these lush pink beauties I understand why. I adore peonies, especially when I bring them home with their buds tightly closed and wake the next morning to find their petals fully unfurled. They help brighten a room on an overcast day like today and are just lovely.

Photo by Michele.

21 May 2011

His Girl Friday

As you can tell by the title of this blog, I love screwball comedies. And I especially love those that feature my beloved Cary Grant. So it’s no surprise that one of my favourites is Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday. Exhibiting some of the fastest talk in film history, His Girl Friday is a biting and hysterical satire on the newspaper world and one of the best films of Hawks’ career.

In 1928 Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s play The Front Page entertained Broadway theatergoers with the story of Chicago newspapermen and the seedy world they inhabited. The play made a smooth transition to the silver screen in 1931, its dialogue well suited for the new sound medium. When Hawks suggested remaking the story in 1939, he was initially met with skepticism. What fresh approach could he take to the popular story?

Hawks soon found the answer. One evening, while doing a read through of the play, he asked an actress present to read the part of Hildy Johnson, one of the newspapermen. He was struck by the different nuances a woman brought to the role and decided that Hildy Johnson was going to be female. This change would allow him to introduce the battle of the sexes and enter the realm of the screwball comedy.

In His Girl Friday, Walter Burns (Cary Grant), the ruthless publisher of the Evening Sun newspaper, is greeted by his former wife and ace reporter, Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell), who informs him that she is getting married to an insurance salesman, Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy). Walter, still in love with Hildy, decides to thwart her plans and win her back. The upcoming execution of a convicted cop killer becomes Walter’s ruse to get Hildy to stay. Playing on her reporter’s instincts, Walter convinces her to wait long enough to get an interview with the murderer, Earl Williams (John Qualen), and prove that he was mentally unfit at the time of the crime. Hildy, torn between her yearning to lead a “normal” married life and her inability to ignore a story, relents and helps Walter. In the end, she turns her back on domesticity and embraces her true calling as a reporter.

The film opens with a great tracking shot of a bustling newsroom and the arrival of Hildy and Bruce. Upon entering her ex-husband’s office, Hildy immediately begins sparing with Walter, thus establishing the basis of their relationship—they are at their happiest when fighting. Hildy quickly admonishes Walter for interfering with their divorce.

Hildy: Hiring an airplane to write ‘Hildy, don’t be hasty, remember my dimple, Walter.’ It delayed our divorce by 20 minutes while the judge went out to watch it.
Walter: I don’t want to brag but I still have that dimple and in the same place.

Hildy may say she’s over Walter, but it is obvious to the audience that the chemistry between the two is still there.

Walter Burns as played by Cary Grant is perhaps the most dapper-looking publisher in film history (but then again, let's be honest. Grant was always the most dapper-looking anything that he played). With his well-groomed hair and perfect fitting suits, Walter is “the king of the universe” at the Sun. Charming and witty, he is never at rest. He is in motion throughout the film, his mind constantly churning, trying to solve endless problems. When Hildy announces her impending marriage, Walter immediately sets out to sabotage it. “Is there any way we can stop the 4:00 train for Albany from leaving town?” he asks his editor. “We could dynamite it,” is the reply. “Could we?” Burns wonders out loud. He spends the remainder of the movie, always one step ahead of Hildy, trying everything to win her back.

Grant is in top form, delivering his lines with devilish glee. In one scene, he adlibs “the last man to cross me was Archie Leach a week before he cut his throat.” Archie Leach, of course, was Grant’s birth name.

Rosalind Russell as Hildy Johnson shines in what is arguably the best female reporter role in film. Originally intended for Jean Arthur, it is hard today to think of anyone else in the part. Russell gives as good as she gets and manages to keep up the fast-paced banter with Grant.

All too aware of his true nature, Hildy spends most of the film on guard, trying to cut Walter off at the pass. Others might fall for his charm, but Hildy has too much history with him.

Bruce: He’s not the man for you. I can see that. But I sort of like him. He’s got a lot of charm.
Hildy: Well, he comes by it naturally. His grandfather was a snake.

The hapless Bruce Baldwin is caught between the two. Ralph Bellamy’s slow reaction to Walter and Hildy and his befuddled expressions makes him a perfect counterpart to Grant's urbane Walter. He even gave Grant one of his best adlibs in the film. When Walter sends Evangeline, one of the many people who do “favors” for him, out to get Bruce arrested, he answers her question of what Bruce looks like with “He looks like that fellow in the movies, you know, Ralph Bellamy.”

The film is rounded out with a stellar supporting cast, including the mole-like John Qualen as murder Earl Williams, Gene Lockhart as the stumbling sheriff, Abner Biberman as Walter’s henchman Louie, Billy Gilbert as the comical messenger Joe Pettigrew, and a  slew of strong supporting actors as the motley crew of reporters who fill the pressroom.

The film title is followed with a statement that the story depicted in this film is about “newsmen from long ago. Now, once upon a time…” Whether or not the news world of His Girl Friday is fictional, the warning announces to the audience that they are entering a different world, a cutthroat place where reporters are constantly trying to out best each other to get the scoop. In one scene, the reporters ask the sheriff to change the time of Williams’ hanging so they can make the city edition. And early in the film, the audience learns that Walter left Hildy on their wedding night to cover a fire; their honeymoon was spent in a coalmine covering a strike. In their world, the story always takes precedence.

His Girl Friday is perhaps best known for its rapid-fire dialogue delivered at a machinegun pace. The overlapping dialogue helps to amplify the chaos going on in the story. The actors often appear to spit out their words, as if in a race to finish first. In one scene, where Walter and Hildy try to outtalk each other, they sound like auctioneers. Hildy finally hits the table with her fist and shouts, “sold American.”

Many critics have debated exactly how fast the dialogue is, with some going so far as to time it. While it is true that the actors speak quickly, some of the speed is achieved by how the audio was recorded. Hawks did away with booms during the shooting, choosing to use multiple microphones instead. Unable to operate them at the same time, the sound engineer had to frantically cut back and forth between them, creating much of the overlapping dialogue. This allowed one actor’s pause to be filled with lines from another. Hawks also used quick cuts between scenes that add an element of speed. Hawks is often credited with being the first to use overlapping dialogue and whether or not the claim is true, he certainly mastered the technique in this film.

Hildy interviews Earl Williams.

His Girl Friday by its nature is a loud film—people shouting, ringing telephones, gun shots. So the film’s few quiet moments tend to be the most striking. One of these is the interview scene between Hildy and Williams. Opening with a dissolve, Hildy is sitting, dominant in the frame, speaking softly to Williams through the bars of his cell. The scene slows the film down to give the audience enough time to take a breath and also implies the seriousness of what Hildy is trying to do—save a man’s life. Another scene is when Molly, the woman who innocently befriended Williams, visits the pressroom only to be verbally abused by the reporters. After she departs in tears, the men remain silent, aware of their cruelty. The silence is only broken by a phone call for Hildy who greets the room with the condemnation “gentlemen of the press.” 

One of the issues addressed in the film is that of a woman’s role. Hildy is torn between wanting to be a “real woman” who stays at home and being a journalist. In the beginning, she appears set on the idea of becoming a housewife. As the film progresses, though, her claims of wanting to leave journalism behind sound less convincing. Caught up in the excitement of writing her career-making story, Hildy blurts out “I’m no suburban bridge player. I’m a newspaperman” to the waiting Bruce. She doesn’t realize until later, when the euphoria has started to wear off, that Bruce is gone for good.

Gentlemen of the Press.

Hildy has struggled to be “one of the boys” in the news world and not just a “Girl Friday.” Dressed in pinstripes, Hildy banters easily with the men in the pressroom, smoking and cracking jokes. Even with Walter, she is often treated like a newsman. In the beginning of the film, Walter waxes nostalgically about their marriage. When Hildy admonishes him, he insists she trapped him into marrying her, claiming he was “tight” the night he proposed. “If you’d been a gentleman, you’d have forgotten all about it,” he says. When Walter lights a cigarette, Hildy must ask not only for cigarette but also for a light. And when she goes to light a cigarette in the restaurant, Walter leans over and takes the match from her before she can light her own.

The climax of the film comes with Earl Williams' escape. Hildy, who is making her exit to catch the train to Albany with Bruce and his mother, is giving her farewells to the newspapermen (“don’t forget your pal Hildy Johnson”) when her speech is interrupted by the sound of gunfire. The men rush to the window while Hildy lingers by the door. The men soon run to the phones, and Hildy hesitates only until they leave before grabbing a phone and calling Walter. Her decision has sealed her fate. Soon after, when the two are arrested for hiding Williams in a desk in the pressroom, Hildy and Walter are handcuffed together, symbolizing their union.

The film ends with Walter and Hildy planning to remarry. The camera stays in the pressroom while the audience sees Walter and Hildy head out the door and down the stairs. Hawks, never one to be sentimental, doesn’t leave the audience with the vision of a rosy marriage. Hildy is left to carry her heavy typewriter while Walter is once again diverting their honeymoon to cover a story. For two newspapermen, there could be no better ending.

15 May 2011

Abingdon Square

A favourite pastime of mine is to wander around the West Village. Last weekend, I stopped at Abingdon Square Park to check out the farmers market. Although nowhere near the scale of the Union Square Greenmarket, the vendors at Abingdon offer up a small but choice selection of goods, from vegetables and fruit to baked goods and plants. Speaking of which, check out these lovely flowers blooming in the park. They were huge!

And my beloved tulips were in abundance as well. The park is a great place to stop while exploring the West Village. There is always a load of adorable dogs on view and a free bench on which to sit and rest ones feet.

But back to the farmers market. All of the vegetables on display were tempting but I settled on a bunch of lovely asparagus (look at that purple) and some nice crunchy radishes from a New Jersey farm.

Feeling very virtuous, I left the park only to run across Myers of Keswick. Probably the best purveyors of British goods in the city, stepping inside immediately reminds one of an old-time grocers, complete with vintage tin ceiling, stacks of sweets, and a store cat, Molly (I will have to post some photos of the interior at a later date).

Needless to say, I went inside and exited with some McVitie's Digestives. One can't have radishes with tea after all.

Photos by Michele.

11 May 2011

Cruising Around

I noticed some lovely, vintage looking bicycles outside the Soho Grand Hotel the other day. Just in time for the nice weather, guests at the hotel can now borrow one of the bikes, courtesy of Bowery Lane Bicycles, for exploring the city. Brilliant idea. 

The Soho Grand also has a fabulous bar. Just thought you should know.

Photo by Michele.

05 May 2011

Tulips Everywhere

Years ago I lived next to a historic site that included a series of gardens. I became a volunteer gardener on the weekends and was put in charge of planting bulbs in the fall. I knew nothing when I started and had to quickly become familiar with Latin names and learm which bulbs would have been found in a 18th-century New England garden. Needless to say I fell in love with the wonderful flowers and their names—Snowdrops, Keizerskroon, Butter and Eggs, Duc van Tol, Persian Bells, Absalon. I was especially fond of the tulips. So you can imagine my delight the other day when walking through the West Village, I spotted some tulips through a wrought-iron fence and captured the above image.

Or when walking through the West 20s, I passed through the flower district and found buckets and buckets of tulips. So dear readers you'll have to indulge me with these and other flower photos that I am sure to share over the next few weeks. I just can't help it.

Photos by Michele.

04 May 2011

It's the Old Army Game

As you dear readers know, Louise Brooks makes many appearances on this blog but opportunities to see her on the big screen are far and few between. So last night I made sure to be in line at Film Forum for a screening of one of her films— It’s the Old Army Game (1926).

The screening was part of a two-week long W.C. Fields series and included live piano accompaniment by Steve Sterner and an introduction by Fields’ granddaughter, Dr. Harriet Fields.

In the film, Fields plays a Florida drugstore owner with the wonderful name of Elmer Prettywillie. His business gets a boost when he rents space to George Parker, a questionable seller of New York real estate who falls in love with Prettywillie’s assistant, Mildred, played by Louise. When it appears that the locals may have been had by Parker, Prettywillie sets out to recoup their investments and everything works out in the end.

Prettywillie is the type of character Fields would often play—the harried man of the house who is constantly bothered by his family and neighbours, thwarted in his efforts to get some peace and quiet. It isn't one of Fields' best films but there are still some wonderful moments. In one scene, Prettywillie attempts to put out a small fire in a cigar box at his drugstore with a variety of useless vessels from an eyeglass to a teaspoon. In another, he attempts to quiet a baby in a very unconventional way. In fact some of the best scenes involve Fields and children, including one that is both funny and shocking (in short, he tries to throw a baby off a balcony).

Louise Brooks and W.C. Fields share their mutual admiration for each other.

And then there is Louise. If you’ve only ever seen her in Pandora’s Box or Diary of a Lost Girl, you’ll find her a delight here simply for the fact that she smiles so much. In an early scene, she sits at a soda counter, surrounded by firemen, eating an ice cream float and laughing. The beaming grin she gives Fields reveals that she’s fully aware of the attention she’s getting from the men and that she's amused by it all. In fact, Louise seems to be having a wonderful time throughout the film. Perhaps it’s because the film was directed by her future husband Eddie Sutherland or because of the mutual fondness she and Fields had for each other. Whatever it was, it worked.

Just watch this scene below where Louise leads her on-screen love interest on a little chase. From the expression on her face when she first spots him to the way she sashays down the street, she's flirty and fun and oh so modern. In essence, she’s pure Louise.


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