Auntie Mame (1958)

mame

Starring: Rosalind Russell, Jan Handzlik, Roger Smith, Forrest Tucker, Coral Browne, Fred Clark, Peggy Cass

Director: Morton DaCosta

Summary: An eccentric heiress tries to raise her nephew to be a free spirit

Other Nominations: Actress (Russell), Supporting Actress (Cass), Art Direction, Color Cinematography, Film Editing

Positives

-I won’t end up seeing I Want to Live! With Susan Hayward (despite getting 6 Oscar nominations including Director, Actress and Adapted Screenplay), but I would be surprised if Rosalind Russell didn’t deserve Best Actress for playing the title role. It’s difficult playing an eccentric character, as the natural inclination to to go too big and wild, or to just be “wacky.” Russell (who played the role in the original Broadway production) is fun and offbeat, but she still maintains an emotional connection with the audience because she’s still acts like a plausible human being. Her terrific performance is the main attraction here.

-This is a genuinely funny, bawdy and sweet movie for the most part-it’s a comedy that definitely has some heart to it

-The production design is a lot of fun: Russell has on about 30 dresses and hairstyles throughout the course of the movie, and her appartment changes designs at least 8-9 times, each being more over the top than the last. The whole movie is stylish, including the unusual artistic decision that comes from its stage roots-many scenes end with a fade to black and a spotlight on Russell and I thought it worked here.

Negatives

-The movie is about being a free spirit and living life instead of just following the beaten path-this is fine, but the vast majority of people aren’t wealthy heiresses/children who inherited a massive fortune from their deceased father. These characters are divorced from any kind of common reality that a normal person might live it, so the message has some obvious counters to it from this perspective.

-At 2 hours, 23 minutes, it’s a bit long for a comedy and some of the scenes go on too long (Mame meeting her boyfriend’s family being the most obvious).

Overall

Really solid comedy with some heart, held together by an outstanding lead performance by Rosalind Russell

Rating: B

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Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)

hottinroof

Starring: Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, Burl Ives, Jack Carson, Judith Anderson, Madeleine Sherwood

Director: Richard Brooks

Summary: An alcoholic ex-football player resists the affections of his wife while his reunion with his father jogs a host of memories and revelations for both father and son

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Newman), Actress (Taylor), Adapted Screenplay, Color Cinematography

Positives

-Lots of great performances here, especially Ives (who wasn’t nominated for Supporting Actor because he was instead nominated and won for a different movie this year) and Sherwood who reprise their roles from the original broadway production, and Newman whose expressions are still able to communicate the aspect of his character that this version cut out due to the production code. Personally, I like Taylor in general but I haven’t seen a really great performance from her yet, although I know one is coming because I’ve seen it before. I can’t really blame her here though, as her husband Mike Todd (producer of Around the World in 80 Days) died in a plane crash during production and sucked the life out of her.

-This is a story entirely about character dynamics and themes, and even with the changes made from the original play, they’re very strong. Most every character is extremely well-defined and layered (and those who aren’t like Sherwood’s are still entertaining), and the themes of masculinity and the lives and relationships built on lying to each other are interesting and haven’t been explored in quite the same fashion in any of the other films I’ve seen for this project. I actually thought the big added scene in the 3rd act between Newman and Ives works pretty well, even if a lot of it just spells out what the rest of the play was already saying about these characters-it gives us a nice resolution if nothing else.

-Even though the score was sparse and recycled from other films, I liked the jazzy piano theme for Newman-Taylor scenes,and the harmonica theme for the Newman-Ives scenes.

Negatives

-It gets ridiculous after a while that they have to keep dancing around the obvious-that Newman’s character might be gay and his relationship with his deceased friend might have been more than just friendship. They may have scrubbed out the direct dialogue and added a scene where Newman lustily smells Taylor’s gown, but it’s still really obvious what’s everybody’s really talking about and it feels silly that the film can’t squarely deal with a core aspect of the source material.

Overall

Even with the changes to the original play, it’s still a sharp study of family relationships with a number of excellent performances that does a good job exploring some interesting themes.

Rating: B+

The Defiant Ones (1958)

defiant

Starring: Tony Curtis, Sidney Poitier, Theodore Bikel, Cara Williams, Lon Chaney Jr.

Director: Stanley Kramer

Summary: Two convicts, a white racist and an angry black man, escape while chained to each other

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Curtis), Actor (Poitier), Supporting Actor (Bikel), Supporting Actress (Williams), Original Screenplay*, B&W Cinematography*, Film Editing

Positives

-This entire success of the movie relies on the performances of our two leads, and they end up delivering, especially Poitier who was pretty much the only person who could have played the role at the time, given the kind of intensity and dignity he can lend to a film.

-I don’t know whether to call this a positive or negative, but I kind of ended up liking the incredible irony to the ending that I can’t really get into because of spoilers. Nonetheless, the reactions of the characters to what happens plays nicely as a final coda.

Negatives

-This is Stanley Kramer’s bread and butter-a blunt “message” movie about a liberal cause; ironically, my favorite movie of his is one of his few that breaks this pattern, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Message movies can be fine, but here, there really isn’t a lot of depth beyond just “interacting with people of other races can lead to understanding.” Capra did this kind of thing too, but his better movies had much more memorable characters along with some really iconic scenes. While this was certainly a risky and “important” movie in its time, some of that has been lost as we’ve seen much more thoughtful movies on race.

-The frequent cutaways to the sheriff’s posse aren’t that interesting because we ultimately don’t care about their characters at all. The biggest problem is that dicking around with the posse and the guy complaining about his hound dogs breaks up the tension and the tight pacing of the rest of the movie.

Other Stuff

-Apparently, Sammy Davis Jr. and Elvis wanted to play the leads in this movie together-that would have either been terrible or amazing with nothing in between.

Overall

The story and characters aren’t anything special for this era where the theme itself isn’t so bold and progressive, but the performances come through and make this a solid movie to watch even if there have been plenty of better movies with the same message.

Rating: B-

*Gigi (1958)*

gigi

Starring: Leslie Caron, Louis Jourdan, Maurice Chevalier, Hermione Gingold, Isabel Jeans

Director: Vincente Minnelli

Summary: A Parisian girl is raised to be a kept woman but dreams of love and marriage

Other Nominations: Director*, Adapted Screenplay*, Musical Score*, Original Song (“Gigi”)*, Art Direction*, Costume Design*, Color Cinematography*, Film Editing*

Positives

-The art direction was very good-it had tons of elegant gowns, it was colorful and bright (mostly in pastels which was a slightly unusual color choice that worked, made it look like a painting), and it had a lot of nice location footage in Paris

-All the leads are charming to various degrees. Chevalier somehow hasn’t missed a beat in the 26 years since I’ve seen him and is still lovely and wonderful (and still can’t really sing all that well, something I’ll get to later), Jourdan is handsome and lively and one of the best romantic leads in his era, and Caron is cute and spunky in the lead even if some of the sparkle she had in An American in Paris was gone for me.

Negatives

-Again, most of the time it’s hard for me to enjoy a musical unless 1) there’s some really catchy and memorable songs or 2) there’s some really great dancing; this has neither, which is especially strange because dancing was kind of Leslie Caron’s thing, it’s why she was brought into Hollywood in the first place. I’m not a fan of what I call “talk-singing”, where there really isn’t singing, but instead people are just kind of talking in rhythm with the music-the Chevalier musicals had it, and so does this. When I can’t remember a single musical number in a movie right after I watched it, that’s a problem.

-It lacks anything story or character-wise that distinguishes itself from another other romance movie, with Jourdan as a wealthy playboy who has to decide whether he wants to finally settle down or not, and Caron as a bratty commoner who’s different than anyone else Jourdan has met before in high society (which ends up making me not liking how it finishes up at all). I also didn’t sense that much chemistry between Caron and Jourdan.

Overall

Other than some visual flair and overwhelming French-ness, it’s a very average and forgettable musical that somehow won 9 Oscars (with Adapted Screenplay being the most inexplicable) including Best Picture, a then record.

Rating: C

Separate Tables (1958)

tables

Starring: Deborah Kerr, David Niven, Burt Lancaster, Rita Hayworth, Wendy Hiller, Gladys Cooper

Director: Delbert Mann

Summary: The boarders at an English resort struggle with emotional problems

Other Nominations: Actor (Niven)*, Actress (Kerr), Supporting Actress (Hiller)*, Adapted Screenplay, Dramatic/Comedy Score, B&W Cinematography

Positives

-The movie is based off the play Separate Tables, which is comprised of two unrelated stories involving people staying at a hotel; what the movie does is expand and combine them into a single narrative. Of the two plot-lines, I really enjoyed the one with Kerr-Niven-Cooper. The story there is reminiscent of Marty, which is probably why they picked Delbert Mann to direct this film. While not quite as effective (or focused) as that film was, this is still a great story about two people whose lives are incomplete and lonely and their last chance is probably each other. This is the best performance I’ve seen from Kerr in this project so far, and she plays against type, reminding me a lot of Olivia De Havilland in The Heiress, both in her character and her appearance. Niven also gives one of the best performances of his career, perfectly straddling the line between sympathetic and overly-pathetic. His Best Actor win is pretty shocking however, as he’s not on screen all that much-less than 24 minutes, which set the record low and is still second to Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs. As good as he is, I would have probably given the Oscar to Poitier for The Defiant Ones among the 4 nominated performances I watched. Cooper was the definition of character actor in a time when they had mostly died out and is always perfect as a rich, snobby jerk.

-Besides the stuff from that storyline, I liked Hiller quite a bit even if her win is surprising given that she doesn’t get a ton of screentime, doesn’t have a lot of personality and doesn’t have any “big” scenes; both Peggy Cass and Cara Williams were more typical kinds of winners.

Negatives

-It hurts both narratives somewhat to combine them as there’s large gaps we we don’t see much of one of the storylines-heck, Niven is completely missing from the middle 40 minutes of the movie. I don’t know how else they would have done it, but the stories would have worked better as originally written.

-The other storyline involving Lancaster-Hayworth-Hiller is the lesser of the two and is just an okay romance story with Hayworth as an old flame re-entering Lancaster’s life after he’s already decided he’s going to marry Hiller.

Other Stuff

-Hiller was interviewed by a newspaper about her Oscar win and her response was the most British thing ever: “All you could see of me in the picture was the back of my head. Unless they give some award for acting with one’s back to the camera, I don’t see how I could have won. They cut my two best scenes and gave one to Rita Hayworth…Never mind the honor, though I’m sure it’s very nice of them. I hope this award means cash-hard cash. I want lots of lovely offers to go filming in Hollywood, preferably in the winter so I can avoid all the horrid cold over here.”

Overall

Very uneven but overall really well-acted and engaging movie, especially the Kerr-Niven-Cooper storyline which is clearly the highlight of the two.

Rating: B

1958 in Review

Other Notable Films from 1958

Vertigo: One of the most obvious and glaring BP omissions ever-the last Sight and Sound poll named it the greatest movie ever made, and the last AFI list had it at #9. However, it received a mixed response (and lost money) when it was first released for a number of reasons, including that it was slow, Jimmy Stewart was too old (being 25 years older than Kim Novak), overly long and that the movie lacks tension for the last 3rd because the mystery is revealed then (in a scene I think is one of the worst/most damaging in all of cinema). It’s been a couple years since I have seen this, but I actually didn’t love this movie and it’s not one of my favorite Hitchcock movies, much less one of my all-time favorites. I would be interested in seeing it again however.

Touch of Evil: Orson Welles’ famous film noir starring Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh that’s considered one of the best of the genre and maybe Welles’ best movie after Citizen Kane. In the National Film Registry.

Dracula (aka The Horror of Dracula): One of the best Dracula adaptations, starring Christopher Lee as Dracula and Peter Cushing as Van Helsing in what are probably their greatest roles. The color still looks great and the acting in general gives it a level of sophistication on top of its entertainment value that is rarely seen.

The Hidden Fortress: Maybe Akira Kurosawa’s most “fun” movie, this is a classic action-adventure starring (who else) Toshiro Mifune. George Lucas would later acknowledge its influence on Star Wars, both the first film and on Phantom Menace.

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad: One of Ray Harryhausen’s most famous stop-motion animation works and it served as a prelude to other similar works of his in the future like Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans. In the National Film Registry.

The Fly: One of the most famous horror movies to come out of America during this decade led by Hammer films in Britain, this is a pretty good movie that has mostly been overshadowed by its excellent remake. I will say that Vincent Price is good as ever and the famous ending is still legitimately disturbing.

1958 Nominees in Review

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: B+

Separate Tables: B

Auntie Mame: B

The Defiant Ones: B-

Gigi: C (Won Best Picture)

Solid but unexceptional, and the second time in 3 years they gave Best Picture to what I thought was the worst of the 5 nominees. Musicals have never and will never be a genre that I really like (although the Bob Fosse revolution helped immensely and we’ll get there eventually), and Gigi wasn’t even one of the top 5 musicals I’ve seen for this project (The Smiling Lieutenant, The Gay Divorcee, Top Hat, An American in Paris, The Love Parade, The King and I and Anchors Aweigh  were all clearly better IMO). The other movies were all at least pretty good and the top 3 aren’t that far off from each other quality-wise but even with it’s faults, I would have given Best Picture to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

1959 gives us a lot of interesting movies, although there are some major missed opportunities that I will talk about later. We have the rare courtroom movie that is generally accurate in presenting the work lawyers actually do most of the time; the movie that broke Gigi’s record for most Oscars just a year later and is still tied for the record with 11; One of the first major movies involving the Holocaust; a movie no one remembers, but has 9 past and future Oscar nominees (and five winners); and the shortest Oscar-nominated performance ever at a ludacris 2 minutes and 20 seconds