Sunday, August 21, 2011

Good Neighbors (TV)

(UK Title:  The Good Life)
Written by
John Esmonde & Bob Larby
Starring Richard Briers, Felicity Kendal, Paul Eddington, Penelope Keith

Chemistry between the cast can be a big factor in the success of a TV show, and it was the cast of The Good Neighbors that helped turned it into one of the greatest of British comedies.

At the time, Richard Briers was a star of British TV, starring in a handful of shows in for almost 15 years.  A comment of his about turning 40 got writers Esmonde and Larby to thinking, and the results was The Good Neighbors.

Briers was Tom Good, a draftsman working on such important projects as designing a hippopotamus to be given away as a toy in cereal boxes. Tom has just turned 40, and is tired of work and wondering what to do with his wife.  So he decides to chuck it all and live self-sufficiently.  In Surbiton, a suburb of London.  Out goes the back lawn and in comes a garden, chickens, goats and other animals.  He uses the dung to power the house and his excess crops to barter to get other items.  His wife Barbara (Felicity Kendal) joins in.  Though this does cause conflict with their best friends and neighbors Jerry and Margo Leadbetter (Paul Eddington and Penelope Keith).  Jerry thinks the idea is bound to fail, but is happy to put up with Tom's madness.  Margo, on the other hand, thinks the others are crazy, and is worried that the farm next door will ruin the quality of the neighborhood.

Penelope Keith, Richard Briers, Paul Eddington, Felicity Kendall The show is funny due to the characters.  Tom is gung ho on living self-sufficiently and is constantly coming up with way to make it work.  Barbara is a bit more skeptical, but seems to get a kick out of the effort and its little triumphs and setbacks.  The two of them have one of the most ideal marriages in TV history -- they're both smart, witty, sexy, and deeply in love with each other. 

Margo is the opposite.  She's is a strong believer in proper behavior, the type who wants everything to be just so.  She feels that the whole enterprise is doomed to failure.  Not that she won't help if called upon -- the Goods are her friends -- but she does get a bit uptight about the idea of pig dung.  Jerry is used to her quirks and perhaps secretly admires what Tom is doing, even if he knows he could never do it.

The acting is perfect.  Tom is a man with an idee fixe, but he's self-aware enough to know that sometimes he goes too far.  He can also the the humor in the situation.  He and Barbara trade quips that are almost up to the level set in The Thin Man.  Felicity Kendal is delightful at every turn.

Penelope Keith's Margo is often the butt of jokes for her lack of flexibility, but basically she's a good person underneath.  Jerry is more down-to-Earth, but indulges her and the Goods.

The show ran three seasons in the UK as The Good Life, so successful that the taping of the final show was attending by Queen Elizabeth.  A few years later, it started showing up in the US as PBS stations in the early 80s, but the name conflicted with an earlier failed sitcom of the same name, so it was retitled Good Neighbors,* where it became a popular PBS Britcom.

After the run, the cast moved on.  Paul Eddington became Prime Minister (in the classics Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister).  Briers did more sitcoms, and appeared in a Doctor Who episode** among other things.  Penelope Keith went on to BBC stardom in To the Manor Born and other shows.  Felicity Kendal did stage work with Tom Stoppard*** and recently appeared in the Rosemary and Thyme mystery series and a Doctor Who Episode.****

While still well regarded in the UK, the show is forgotten in the US, partly because it only appeared in syndication on PBS, so the audience was small. But it's one of the delights of British comedy.

*The only difference is the title in the opening credits.

**"Paradise Towers," one of my favorites.

***I enjoyed her performance as Christopher in a televised version of Stoppard's farce On the Razzle. "Catch me a half-witted cab, you hansom fool."

****"The Unicorn and the Wasp"

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

image (1943)
Written and Directed by
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger
Starring Roger Livesey, Deborah Kerr, Anton Walbrook
IMDB Entry

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is one of the lesser known major productions of the 1940s (in the US, at least).  It is rarely mentioned in film histories, and was greeted with a good deal of scorn because of the nature and timing of its subject matter.  Its title implied a certain well-known character would be present, but that character wasn't even there in name (though the lead character looked like him).  Yet it is a charming and overlooked film with a lot to say.

The title comes from a series of satirical cartoons by British cartoonist David Low. In his hands, Colonel Blimp was a fat, mustachioed old man who spent his time in the Turkish bath and propounded idiotic nonsense about the nature of the army and war.  Blimp was stupid and ridiculous, and it was odd that Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger chose the title of the film when they were saying something almost entirely opposite.

We are introduced to Major General Clive Wynne-Candy, who is captured as part of a war game exercise he's running when soldiers surprise him in the Turkish bath when the deliberately jump the gun.  Wynn-Candy (who at this point is made up to match the cartoon Colonel Blimp) is irate at this breaking of the rules and when his moustache is ridiculed, he attacks the leader of the soldiers, saying, "You don't know what it means."

The movie then goes back 40 years, where Clive Candy, a recent winner of the Victoria Cross in the Boer War, decides to go to Berlin to stop a German agent from making up lies about the British there.  He meets Edith Hunter (Deborah Kerr) and fights a duel with the German officer Theodor Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook), who quickly becomes his friend as the recuperate in the hospital afterward.

Candy returns to England, and ends up fighting in World War I. Too old when World War II breaks out, he starts organizing a home guard.  And his paths continue to cross paths with Kretschmar-Schuldorff.

The theme of the film is about doing the honorable thing.  Wynne-Candy* is of the old school, where you shake hands with your opponent after the fight is over.  He comes to learn that things change.

The major delight of the film is in the details and the surprising emphasis. The lead up to the duel, for instance, is shown in fine detail as everyone discusses the rules and conditions.  Yet the actual duel is not shown, and I think the film is better doing it that way instead of going for the obvious.

The controversy was due to the character of Kretschmar-Schuldorff.  It takes nerve to portray a sympathetic German character in English at the height of the blitz, but Powell and Pressberger manage to pull it off**.  Still people did object.

Kretschmar-Schuldorff, Wynne-Candy, and Johnny Cannon Of course, the film has some great acting.  Roger Livesey imbues the young Candy with a charming dash and vigor that ages realistically as the character ages.  Woolbrook's Kretschmar-Schuldorff is calm and charming, and is often the voice of reason to Wynne-Candy's delusions of honor.  In her first starring role, Deborah Kerr plays three roles as the loves of their lives.***

The film ran into problems with censorship.  The British government no doubt thought the title referred to the cartoon Colonel Blimp and thought an attack on the military.  Winston Churchill seems to have taken a strong dislike to it, since the cartoon Blimp was often considered to be referring to him.  Because of this, it was not shown in the US until 1945, where a modified form was released.  It was cut down further, so the full version (including the frame tale, which is where the movie drives home its message) was rarely seen.

Appreciation of the film has grown over the years, and it's now considered by most film buffs as a classic.  It was honored by a release in the Criterion Collection recently, with all the scenes restored and a wealth of additional material.  With luck, it will become known outside of the art house crowd and appreciated for its charm.

*He adds the first part of the hyphen when he marries Barbara Wynne (Deborah Kerr).

**It helps that Kretschmar-Schuldorff is anti-Nazi.

***My wife saw the film without seeing the cast list and decided that Edith Hunter looked a lot like Deborah Kerr.  I told her it was Deborah Kerr.  Then when Barbara Wynne came along, she said, "Now she looks like Deborah Kerr."

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Cat People/The Curse of the Cat People

image Cat People  (1942)
Directed by
Jacques Tourneur
Written by DeWitt Bodeen
Starring Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Jane Randolph, Tom Conway
IMDB Entry
Val Lewton is one of the great names of horror film, even though he never wrote or directed anything.  He was a producer, but managed to put his own stamp on horror by using one rule that is still considered the bedrock of intelligent horror:  It's better to avoid showing the monster, letting the audience's imagination fill in the blanks with something more horrible that anything that could be put on screen.  In 1942, he was named the head of RKOs horror unit, charged with doing low-budget films.  The first of these was Cat People, and it is the bedrock upon which his reputation was built.
The story is about Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon), a Serbian-born woman who attracts the eye of Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) when he spots her drawing a black panther at the zoo.  He starts to flirt with her and goes up to her apartment, which has a strange statue of a man on horseback running a cat through with a sword. Irena tells her that in her village, some people turned to evil after an invasion, including devilish rites. 
Oliver buys her a kitten as a gift, but the animal is terrified of her, as are all the animals in the pet store when they go to return it. Despite this, he proposes to her.  They marry, but there's a catch -- she refuses to be intimate with him.  Oliver is caring and patient, but as time goes on, he confides her problems with his co-worker Alice Moore (Jane Randolph). Irena visits a psychologist, Dr. Judd (Tom Conway*), who tries to get to the bottom of things.  But Oliver starts spending more time with Alice -- both at work and out of it.  Much of it is innocent, but Irena takes it the wrong way.  She is spending a lot of time staring at that panther in the zoo. . . .
The horror sequences are well constructed.  The panther that stalks and kills is only shown in quick cuts and shadows, and you never know where it might show up.
Simone Simon plays Irena perfectly:  a woman with a dark secret, who loves Oliver deeply, but fears what that might mean.  She never became a big star -- she was rumored to be temperamental and difficult to work with -- but this is her signature role, and she's just fine as a woman worried about what she is. 
The movie was directed the Jacques Tourneur, who later collaborated with Lewton on I Walked With A Zombie. His atmospheric direction makes the scary sequences work nicely.**  What also makes it interesting is the subtext of sexual frustration and jealousy.
The film was a major hit.  Since it was made on a shoestring, the studio made a hatful of money.  The success allowed Lewton to continue his work redefining horror.  And, also it spawned a sequel.
image The Curse of the Cat People (1944) Directed by Gunther Von Frisch and Robert Wise
Written by DeWitt Borden
Starring  Ann Carter, Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Jane Randolph,  Julia Dean, Elizabeth Russell, Sir Lancelot
IMDB Entry 
Note: Spoilers ahead.  They really won't ruin your enjoyment of the first film, but if you're allergic, watch Cat People first.  I'll wait.
The Curse of the Cat People is probably the weirdest horror sequel ever. And I don't mean that in a good way.  It is clearly a sequel, but has very little horror in it.  Instead, it's a psychological study of a child with an active imagination who is ignored by everyone.
The movie takes part about eight years after the first film.  Oliver and Alice (Smith and Randolph again) are married and living in Tarrytown, NY, raising their 6-year-old daughter, Amy (Ann Carter).  Amy has a very active imagination and sometimes has trouble understanding the difference between fact and fiction.  The other children refuse to play with her, so she's off alone.  But as she passes what the other children call a haunted house, someone waves to her and throws her a ring.  When the houseman (Sir Lancelot***) tells her it's a magic ring, Amy makes a wish for a playmate.  And it is soon granted:  Irena (Simon) appears and starts to play with her.
Eventually, Amy admits to her parents that the woman in  an old photograph of Irena is her playmate.   This creates some serious issues, both with the fact Irena is Oliver's first wife and that she died at the end of the first film.
So where is the horror?  Or, for that matter, where are the cat people?  Nowhere.  The film is actually a psychological study of a lonely girl and her relationship with her parents as well as the strain it puts on both her and them.  It never explains whether Irena is a ghost or a figment of Amy's imagination.****
There are a few scary moments, but that's not the point of the film.  Indeed, the "horror" climax at the end seems a tacked on way to put Amy in danger and maybe give people a thrill.
Ann Carter is the show here.  She's not a great actor -- few child actors of the 40s were -- but she handles is well enough to get the point across.
Lewton wanted to change the name of the film to "Amy and Her Friend," but was overruled by RKO executives, who wanted people to connect this with the extremely popular Cat People.  And that certainly brought in people, only they were disappointed to discover the sequel was nothing like the original.
Lewton made several more horror films of the era, but the Cat People franchise ended until a remake of the original was made in 1982 starring Nastassja Kinski, which got mixed reviews and only did so-so business*****.  But the two originals were first-class movies, one horror, one drama, and both very entertaining.
*Conway is the brother of George Sanders, and you can see the similarities in their voice and appearance.
**Evidently, the movie led to a bit of Hollywood slang:  "The bus" was a term that mean a scary sound that turns out to be harmless.
***His real name was Lancelot Victor Edward Pinard.  Acting was just a sideline for him:  he made his mark as a Calypso singer, and is considered a major name in both Calypso and Reggae.  His song "Shame and Scandal" (written for I Walked with a Zombie) is a classic.
****Another trait of Lewton films:  it's often quite ambiguous as to whether the events are really happening or just imaginary.  When Alice is being menaced by a panther, it's very ambiguous as to whether the panther really exists, and in I Walked with a Zombie, there is also an ambiguity as to whether anything supernatural had occurred.
*****Its theme song, Cat People (Putting Out the Fire) was sung by Davie Bowie.

Monday, August 1, 2011


Bedazzled (1967)
Directed by
Stanley Donen
Story by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore; Screenplay by Cook
Starring Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Eleanor Bron, Raquel Welch, Barry Humphreys.
IMDB Entry

Peter Cook is considered one of the great geniuses of sketch comedy. His wry but hilarious style was best appreciated in live acts, where he was a master of the ad lib, without making it sound like an ad lib.  That sort of talent did not translate well to films, but Bedazzled* was one of the better examples of his talent.

Cook started performing comedy in college, and rose to prominence with the seminal British comedy revue, Beyond the Fringe with Dudley Moore, Johnathan Miller, and Alan Bennett.  It was a departure for British comedy, and the spiritual grandfather of Monty Python, a show that wasn't afraid to be topical or to rock the boat.**  Many of the skits were written by Cook.

He and Moore hit it off, and they became partners.  Together, they did TV series, stage plays, and Bedazzled.

The movie is a comic retelling of Faust.  Stanley Moon (Moore) is a poor schlub at a restaurant who pines for coworker Wendy (Eleanor Bron). When he cannot attract her, he tries to commit suicide, but it stopped by George Spiggott (Cook) -- the devil.  George gives Stanley seven wishes in exchange for his soul.  All of them work out disastrously for poor Stanley.

Peter Cook and Dudley Moore The story, though funny, is second to the character of George.  Cook gave himself all the good lines, surprising little jokes that come out of nowhere and leave you laughing.  There's also a lot of subtle humor, as George quietly goes about creating nuisances like removing a wet paint sign from a park bench.

George introduces Stanley to the Seven Deadly Sins, including Lust (Raquel Welch) and Envy (Barry Humphreys***).  Promotion for the movie did make a big deal about Welch, but she only appears in a handful of scenes.****

The film was directed by Stanlen Donen, whose genius I've written about before. He tried to add a sixties sensibility to the whole affair, and seems to know best what to do with Cook's genius.

Cook and Moore continued to work on screenplays, but never had much success.  After the partnership broke up, of course, Moore appeared in 10 and Arthur and established himself as a star for a short while, but Cook never seemed to find the right vehicle for his talents.  His style and ad libs made him more suited to TV and stage than to movies.

Bedazzled was not a big hit, but is still one of the best examples as Peter Cook's comic talents.

*The original.  The less said about the 2000 remake, the better.

**I saw Beyond the Fringe on Broadway, but in 1965, when a new cast had taken over.  The original production did win a special Tony Award.

***Who later became an international superstar as Dame Edna Everage, possums.

****Welch in the late 60s was a major sex symbol for two reasons.  But at the time she was not much of an actress; she's managed to improve considerably, but there's a reason she never gets mentioned at Oscar time.