“…What happens is of little significance compared with the stories we tell ourselves about what happens. Events matter little, only stories of events affect us.” Rabih Alameddine, The Hakawati
The Artist 2011 Written, directed, and co-edited by Michel Hazanavicius. The exception – a French film. In the style of black and white silents with minimal, end of film sound. Seven Academy Awards including Best Film and Best Actor. With Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo.
Veteran silent film star, George Valentin, helps aspiring actress, Peppy Miller, to secure her first role. She becomes a star. The studio decides not to make more silent films. Valentin declares talkies are a fad, but feels subconsciously threatened, literally dreaming with sound effects. In defiance, he produces his own silent film.
Peppy’s talkie opens the same night as Valentin’s effort (the latter tanks), the stock market crashes, the actor’s wife kicks him out. Everything he owns is auctioned. In despair, Valentin inadvertently sets fire to his apartment. Peppy visits him in hospital. She insists he recuperate at her home, then threatens to quit her next film if he doesn’t co-star. No one wants to hear him talk, but they find a way. Great ending. Utterly charming and original.Amazon Prime and Netflix
Singin’ in The Rain 1952 Directed and choreographed by Gene Kelly. Screenplay by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. If you haven’t seen it, you can’t legitimately call yourself a movie fan.
Silent film star, Don Lockwood, has been successively paired on the screen with Lena Lamont (Jean Hagen). Fans think they’re an item. Actually, she makes his skin crawl. (Wait until you hear that voice!) One evening, escaping a crowd, Don meets Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) who pretends not to know who he is. They serendipitously face one another again when she jumps out of a cake at a party he’s attending. Much to Lena’s fury, Don pursues Kathy.
The studio is transitioning to talkies. Don and his Sancho Panza, Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor), already sing and dance. (To say the least.) An elocution number with their “coach” is grand. The Dueling Cavalier, a period drama, has terrible issues with microphones, but it’s Lena’s screeching that dooms it from the get-go. Meanwhile Don is making time with Kathy. “Singin’ in The Rain” anyone? Don, Cosmo, and Kathy come up with the idea to make the dud into a musical. Kathy will secretly speak and sing for Lena. They pull it off, but puffed up Lena takes credit until… Terrific. Amazon Prime
Chaplin 1992 Produced and directed by Richard Attenborough. Adapted from Chaplin’s My Autobiography by Chaplin and Chaplin: His Life and Art by film critic David Robinson. With Robert Downey Jr. (Chaplin), Marisa Tomei, Dan Aykroyd, Kevin Kline. Geraldine Chaplin plays her own grandmother. Downey won the BAFTA, but not The Academy Award. A thorough biography i.e. liberties were taken, depiction is glossy, but Downey is undisputedly wonderful and one gets a good sense of Chaplin’s extraordinary life.
We see a hand to mouth British childhood and the incarceration of Chaplin’s unbalanced mother, juvenile acting with his brother Sydney, an invitation to Hollywood by Mack Sennett where brilliant improvisation catches everyone’s eye and Chaplin invents Little Tramp; the rise to box office gold, and owning his own studio.
Innovation, multiple talents, sizeable ego and a wandering eye that rests exclusively on very, very young women propel him. All this is told in flashback from Switzerland to which Chaplin was exiled with his last great love. Thoroughly entertaining. Amazon Prime
Stan & Ollie 2018 Directed by Jon S. Baird. With Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly. Late in their fading, tandem careers, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy have problems both with the studio and each other. (Stan feels Ollie betrayed him.) In order to stay in the public eye and perhaps mount a film based on their own ideas, they agree to an eight month tour of music halls in the United Kingdom and Ireland. Seats, however, are depressingly empty. The duo is further humiliated by having to judge beauty contests and cut ribbons.
When the inept publicist finally makes an effort, crowds gather to cheer the celebrated team. Their wives are visiting at the time. Private conversations occur. Sniping becomes listening. Ollie is ill and had been warned not to embark on the tour. Stan won’t consider replacing him. Warmth returns to the friendship. The rest of trip is cancelled. In fact, Laurel and Hardy never worked on stage together again. A little film. Nicely done, but dependent on whether you buy the actors as the men they portray. Perhaps, if you think of it as channeling. Amazon Prime
The Day of The Locust 1975 Based on the 1939 novel by Nathanael West. Directed by John Schlesinger. With Donald Sutherland, Karen Black, Geraldine Page, Richard Dysart. Takes place just before WWII. A film painter, a randy dwarf, an aspiring actress, an aggressive stage mother and a volatile, repressed accountant plagued by unrequited love make bad decisions in a decadent environment and suffer for it. Critics called the depiction of Hollywood as “a dumping ground for broken dreams,” “a wonderful critique on loneliness and desolation.” Perhaps save this one for better times. Amazon Prime
The Bad and the Beautiful 1952 Directed by Vincente Minnelli. With Kirk Douglas, Lana Turner, Walter Pidgeon, Dick Powell, Gloria Graham, Barry Sullivan. Producer/Director Jonathan Shields has screwed just about everyone with whom he began in the film business while trying to shed his once-studio-head father’s bad reputation. Told in bitter flashbacks by those he betrayed but eventually helped make famous, we watch every self serving, Machiavellian move he’s made on the way up. Way down on his luck, Shields is asking his former friends to work on a film for which he can’t secure financing without their participation. A pithy melodrama and grand of its kind. Amazon Prime
Two Weeks in Another Town 1962 Directed by Vincente Minnelli. In a last ditch effort to revive his career, has been director, Maurice Kruger (Edward G. Robinson) accepts a directing job in Rome on a film he once would never have considered. Ostensibly for old time’s sake, he hires self-destructive actor, Jack Andrus (Kirk Douglas), whom he mentored years ago.
Andrus is just out of a lengthy stay at a sanatorium and thrown by being given a dubbing job, rather than a featured role. Still, it’s a paycheck. He spends off time with the film’s female lead who, in turn, pines for its insecure male lead. The film is over budget and behind schedule. Kruger has a heart attack. Andrus is asked to take over. Everything goes better with him at the helm. The ending speaks to – no good deed goes unpunished.
Made by the same team as the preceding film, this one is thought by many to be based on the fraught relationships of Linda Christian, Tyrone Power and Daryl Zanuck. Gritty, psychological portrayals are said to make up for narrative faults. Patience depends on your appetite for well played clichés. Amazon Prime
Trumbo 2015 Directed by Jay Roach. Starring Brian Cranston. With Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, John Goodman, Michael Stuhlbarg. Dalton Trumbo (a voluble member of The Communist Party), was one of ten screenwriters who testified before the HUAC without naming names. (He spent 11 months in a Federal Correctional Institute.) Blacklisted, he’s forced to become a pseudonymous author for low budget films in order to support his family. He conscripts his wife and children as support staff putting further strain on the situation. We see him as single minded.
Despite suspicion and threats (notably by Hedda Hopper), Trumbo holds on to the new work, even nominated for an Academy Award he can’t claim. When famously liberal Kirk Douglas hires the screenwriter for Spartacus, he’s credited. The film received considerable praise, including that of newly elected John F. Kennedy Jr., and went on to great success.
The Blacklist, not solely due to this, of course, began to dissipate. Criticized for detail inaccuracies and the lionization of someone who was pro-Soviet at the time, this nonetheless gives a credible impression of the man and the way he coped. Showtime trial on Amazon Prime
Hail Caesar! 2016 Written, produced, edited, and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. With George Clooney, Josh Brolin, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton. An almost vaudevillian send up of the film business centering on studio fixer, Eddie Mannix (a real person), and the kidnapping (for ransom) of empty-headed star, Baird Whitlock by a group of Communist screenwriters. While the actor is won over to their cause, the film in which he’s currently starring, Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ, is on expensive hold.
There’s an illegitimate birth, a briefcase full of money, and a submarine escape. Clooney is good at doltish. Depending on how much of a Coen fan you are, this is either fun or completely self indulgent. Amazon Prime and Netflix
Top photo: Bigstock