Thursday, October 9, 2014

THE TROUBLE WITH ANGELS 1966

I grew up in the 60s, the era of the “fun nun.” And while it’s true I attended Catholic schools almost exclusively during my youth, the real-life the nuns I encountered on a daily basis bore more a resemblance to Jessica Lange’s steely Sister Jude in American Horror Story:Asylum than all those spunky, irrepressible, exhaustingly adorable nuns that littered the pop-cultural landscape in the wake of the 60s reconfiguration of the Catholic Church and Vatican II.
Sister Luc-Gabrielle (The Singing Nun) and her ecumenical earworm of a pop-ditty, Dominique, topped the charts and actually outsold The Beatles in 1963. In 1965, Julie Andrews and those Nazi-thwarting nuns of The Sound of Music broke boxoffice records nationwide. Sister Luc’s life story was Hollywoodized in 1966’s The Singing Nun, which was little more than perky Debbie Reynolds playing perky Debbie Reynolds in a wimple. Moving on to groovier, more socially-relevant pastures, Mary Tyler Moore played a toothsome, inner-city nun wooed by Elvis Presley (of all people) in his last film, Change of Habit (1969). But perhaps the ultimate nadir and apogee of the entire 60s "nuns can be fun!" mania has to be the sitcom that launched a thousand Johnny Carson monologues: Sally Field as The Flying Nun (1967-1970): a credit it took the actress an entire career, three Emmys, and two Oscars to live down.
Rosalind Russell as Mother Superior (Madeline Rouche)
Hayley Mills as Mary Clancy
June Harding as Rachel Devery
When I was very small, nuns onscreen seemed like near-mythic figures of virtue, wisdom, and heroism on par with cowboys in white hats and combat soldiers at the front. The embodiment of Christian values in human form, they were untouchable (and, all-importantly, untouched), and representative of all the noble (aka, maternal) female virtues. But as I grew older, the long-suffering, queenly type of nuns portrayed in movies like The Bells of Saint Mary’s (1945), Come to the Stable (1949), and The Nun’s Story (1959) struck me as just another variation of the “grand lady” stereotype.

Come the 60s, when overt displays of religious piety began to be viewed as corny by the moviegoing populace, nuns became overnight comic foils. Much in the way that viewers today never cease to find amusement in little old ladies engaging in comically inappropriate behavior like smoking joints, swearing, expressing sexual rapaciousness, or rapping (kill me now); nuns became the go-to images of charmingly comic inappropriateness. Anti-establishment humor, so popular at the time, relied on clearly defined standards of decency to offend, so in the mid-60s it was nuns – those walking anachronisms of starchy morality – who played Margaret Dumont to a world of counter-culture Grouchos.
Tolerance Tested 
Reverend Mother falls victim to the old bubble-bath-in-the-sugar-bowl trick 
To avoid the appearance of mocking Catholicism, these films took the position that their comedy contributed to “humanizing” nuns (not a bad idea, as nuns can be pretty terrifying, and solved the outsider bullying problem by placing the antagonist “in-house.” Meaning the standard set-up always finds a high-spirited, independent-minded novice (how does one solve a problem like Maria?) butting heads with a staunch defender of the old-order; in most every instance, the imposing figure of Mother Superior: your typical  imperious disciplinarian, wet-blanket authority-figure, and parental surrogate,

Thanks to over-saturation, it didn't take long for the whole wacky nuns sub-genre to fall into a series of overworked, sitcomy tropes (nuns on scooters, nuns in brawls, nuns in discothèques), but in 1966, director Ida Lupino made what I consider to be one of the absolute best movies to come out of the whole “fun nuns” genre, if not indeed one of the best, most egregiously overlooked comedies of the 60s: the delightful and surprisingly moving, The Trouble with Angels.
Fleur de Lis & Kim Novak meet The Dragon
Set in fictional St. Francis Academy, a conservative, Catholic boarding school for girls in Philadelphia, The Trouble with Angels chronicles (in seriocomic vignettes) the misadventures of rebellious, head-strong Mary Clancy (Mills) and her bumbling partner-in-crime, Rachel Devery (Harding), as their mischievous antics provoke the mounting consternation and ire of the school’s formidable Mother Superior (Russell).
Marge Redmond as Sister Ligouri, Russell as Mother Superior, and Binnie Barnes as Sister Celestine

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
As I’ve expressed in previous posts, so-called “family films” held very little interest for me when I was a kid. It's not that I thought they were beneath me (I did), it just that I found most of the 1966 options inoffensive family entertainment (when I was all of 9-years-old) to be pretty offensive. On the one hand, there was the “wholesome smut” genre, typified by Bob Hope’s Boy Did I Get The Wrong Number, and Jerry Lewis in Way…Way Out; and on the other, live-action Disney films, which, when not engaged in music or magic, were so plastic and artificial (The Monkey’s Uncle, That Darn Cat!) they were like images beamed from another planet.
Given that my older sister attended an all-girls’ Catholic school and was a huge Rosalind Russell fan (she turned me into a Russell Rooter by having me watch Gypsy and Auntie Mame when they aired on TV, and by always calling my attention to how much Tony Curtis looked like her in Some Like It Hot), there was never any question about whether or not I was going to see The Trouble with Angels when it came out. No problem… like many 60s era little boys and girls, I harbored a mad (secret) crush on Hayley Mills.
Mary Clancy on the verge of a "Scathingly brilliant idea"
I’ll admit my expectations weren't very high, but from the minute I saw the pre-credits sequence which features an animated Haley Mills (complete with wings and halo) mischievously blowing out the torch of the Columbia Pictures lady, The Trouble with Angels had me in its pocket.
Part insubordinate teen comedy, part sensitive coming-of-age film; part female buddy picture, part generation-gap farce (crossed with a little Sunday School theology), The Trouble with Angels is something of a family movie miracle. Certainly divine intervention is at least one explanation for a film which doesn't exactly tread new comedy ground feeling so refreshingly original.
Of course, the most obvious miracle worker is trailblazing actress/writer/director Ida Lupino, here directing her first film since 1953s The Bigamist. She handles both the comedy and drama with real aplomb, and gets engaging performances out of her talented cast of seasoned performers and newcomers (June Harding, who gets an “introducing" credit, is especially good). 
Girl Power
A true Hollywood rarity, The Trouble with Angels is a major motion picture directed by a woman and written by a woman (Blanche Hanalis from Janet Trahey's 1962 memoir, Life with Mother Superior) that is also a depiction of teen life from a strictly female perspective. That's character actress Mary Wickes as Sister Clarissa. She reprised her role for the sequel, and, 26-years-later, dusted off her nun's habit again to appear in both Whoopi Goldberg Sister Act movies.

Lupino's deft touch is in evidence in the stylish manner in which the episodic sequences are tied together with clever connecting devices (the departure and triumphant return of the school band is a wonderful bit of visual shorthand), and in the largely silent scenes conveying the maturation of the Mary Clancy character. Best of all, Lupino manages all of this without resorting to cloying sentimentality, mean-spiritedness, vulgarity, or the kind of over-the-top slapstick that bogged down the 1968 sequel, Where Angels Go…Trouble Follows.
Madame Rose & Her Daughter, Gypsy
Rosalind Russell famously portrayed the mother of stripper/author/talk-show-hostess, Gypsy Rose Lee in the eponymous 1962 musical. The Trouble with Angels brings mother and daughter together again (for the first time) as Miss Gypsy herself  portrays Mrs. Mabel Dowling Phipps, interpretive dance instructor

PERFORMANCES
The Trouble with Angels' original title (changed sometime during production) was the far less whimsical-sounding, Mother Superior. Well, the name may have been changed, but there's no denying that the film’s comedic, dramatic, and emotional focus remains with the character embodied by the actress who is the film's chief asset and most valuable player: Rosalind Russell. Whether getting laughs for her pricelessly droll delivery of simple lines like "Where's the fire?" or adding unexpected layers of emotional poignancy to scenes providing us brief glimpses of the woman behind the nun's habit; Rosalind Russell gives a wonderful, subdued performance. No Sylvia Fowler (The Women), Auntie Mame, or Mama Rose flamboyance here. Russell downplays beautiful and conveys volumes with those expressive eyes and peerless vocal inflections.
After appearing to the students to be coolly unmoved by the loss of a friend, in private, Mother Superior gives vent to her full anguish. Russell's performance in this scene alone single-highhandedly raises The Trouble with Angels far above the usual family film fare

The Trouble with Angels is well-cast and well-acted throughout. Marge Redmond as Sister Ligouri, the mathematics teacher who sounds like a race track bookie, is very good in a role similar to that which she played for three years on The Flying Nun. Former Disney star, Hayley Mills (19-years-old) and co-star June Harding (25) display a winning and relaxed rapport and make for a likable contrasting duo of troublemakers. Both are real charmers from the word go, and every moment they are onscreen is a delight. Mills, soon to graduate on to adult roles (with nudity, yet!) is just excellent. Her performance gets better with each viewing. Before movies became a total boys' club in the 70s, for a brief time in the 60s, there seemed to be a small surge in movies which placed the friendship between teenage girls at their center: The World of Henry Orient (1964) and I Saw What You Did (1965) are two of my favorites.
June Harding never made another motion picture after The Trouble with Angels, and at age 25 it's not likely she could have ridden that teen train for much longer, but I always thought she would have made a wonderful Emmy Lou in a film adaptation of the Bobby Sox comic strip by Marty Links

Jim Hutton (makes an unbilled cameo as Mr. Petrie ("Sort of like Jack Lemmon, only younger."), the headmaster of the progressive New Trends High School 


THE STUFF OF FANTASY
One of the more impressive things about The Trouble with Angels it how beautifully (and effortlessly) it balances scenes of broad comedy and gentle humor while still allowing for sequences that are surprisingly touching in their humanity and compassion. Here are a few of my favorite scenes...no matter how many times I see them, the comedic ones make me laugh, the dramatic ones get the ol' waterworks going:
COMEDY:  Where There's Smoke, There's Fire
DRAMA: "I Found Something Better"
COMEDY: Binders Sale
DRAMA: The Christmas Visitors (dam-bursting waterworks scene)

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
The Trouble with Angels was a boxoffice success when released and is well-liked and remembered with great affection by many, yet it remains one of those movies which seem to have somehow fallen through the cracks over the years. It’s not exactly forgotten (while available on DVD, the only time you can see it in widescreen is when it screens on TCM) but it rarely seems to come up in movie circles. Part of this is due to the film being a somewhat innocuous, at times glaringly old-fashioned comedy (in 1966, where there really teens who idolized Burt Lancaster and Jack Lemmon?) with no agenda beyond the modest desire to entertain while passing along a few life lessons and a simple message about growing up.
And while the above may serve as a fairly apt description of the movie on its most superficial level, I think it's a mistake to dismiss a film merely because its ambitions ‒ which The Trouble with Angels surpasses with ease  are humble, and chooses a light comedy touch over the bellylaugh sledgehammer. (Although I've never seen it, internet sources recommend the similar 1954 British comedy, The Belles of St. Trinian's for fans with broader tastes.)

For me, The Trouble with Angels remains one of my favorite "comfort food" movies; a thoroughly enchanting, fumy, sweet-natured movie capable of stirring up warm feelings of nostalgia. In this instance, the very distant memory I have of when I was so young that movies like this made me associate organized religion with kindness, compassion, and empathy. So sad that religion is so often used today as the banner behind which so many seek to cloak their fear, ignorance, and hatred.
Maybe it wouldn't hurt if those "fun nuns" made a comeback.

BONUS MATERIALS
Rosalind Russell reprised her role as Mother Superior in the 1968 sequel, Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows, but Hayley Mills was conspicuously absent. Some say it is because Mills was back in Britain and overbooked with film projects. Others attribute it to the rumor that Russell and Mills didn't along. A rumor supported by Rosalind's Russell's 1977 autobiography, Life's a Banquet, in which Russell writes: "Haley Mills was a demon. She used to stick out her tongue whenever I passed (she couldn't stand me) and she was bursting at the seams with repressed sexuality."
Mills, for her part, has denied there was ever any bad blood between them.

Actress June Harding (Rachel Devery) has a website where she has posted many of the letters she wrote during the films production: June Harding Official Website 

Listen to the theme song to Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows by Boyce & Hart HERE

In 1974, Hayley Mills dropped her Disney princess image for good (as well as her knickers) in the bizarre but oh-so engrossing British thriller, Deadly Strangers co-starring Simon Ward and Sterling Hayden. A real departure and available on YouTube HERE


Copyright © Ken Anderson

Friday, September 26, 2014

WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY 1971

Do kids really like watching other kids in movies and on TV? I certainly know I didn’t. At least not what passed for kids in the TV shows and movies of my youth. My inability to relate to that hyperactive genus of freckle-faced precocity known as the child actor contributed to my childhood aversion to Disney, so-called “family entertainment,” and basically any film or TV program which trained its spotlight on adorable, towheaded moppets. Hence, I was nearly in my 30s before I got around to seeing Mary Poppins, Pollyanna, The Sound of Music, and The Parent Trap; all movies I've come to adore as adult (ultimately the demographic most invested in the sentimentalized idealization of that trauma-filled age-span known as childhood), but which held little interest for me as a kid because I simply saw no connection between myself and those miniature, adult-impersonators onscreen. 

Take, for example, the TV sitcoms of my youth: Beaver Cleaver of Leave it to Beaver was a pathological liar whose wobbly moral compass and iffy common-sense could be effectively shut down by the feeble taunt of “chicken!”; those ginger twins, Buffy & Jody of Family Affair were like these too-good-to-be-true, animatronic wind-up dolls; Dennis the Menace was a well-intentioned but nevertheless misogynist, passive-aggressive sociopath; and don’t even get me started on that mayonnaise-on-white-bread-with-Velveeta-slices Brady Bunch clan.
Either absurdly goody-goody or possessed of an annoyingly thickheaded inability to ascribe consequence to action; these characters may have warmed the hearts of nostalgia-prone adults clinging to revisionist reveries of childhood as a time of mischievous scamps getting into adorable “scrapes,” or wide-eyed cherubs spreading sunshine and rainbows wherever they went; but I might as well have been watching The Twilight Zone for all their resemblance to the pint-sized Gila monsters I went to school with.

Of course, there were a few rare exceptions. Given my own dark disposition, I had no problem with the refreshingly odd Pugsly and Wednesday Addams on The Addams Family; I took considerable pleasure in Jane Withers as the hilariously bratty antithesis to the sugary Shirley Temple in 1934's Bright Eyes (“My psychoanalyst told me there ain’t any Santa Clause or fairies or giants or anything like that!”); and was perhaps most impressed by Patty McCormack’s Rhoda Penmark in The Bad Seed, who was essentially James Cagney in a pinafore. And of course, one of my all-time favorites was the 1968 musical, Oliver! with its ragtag cast of underage pickpockets, thieves, and swindlers.
If anything is to be gleaned from this, it’s that, as a child, I longed for an alternative to these antiseptic images of childhood just as my parents yearned for something beyond the The Donna Reed Show/Father Knows Best model of family. Sure, kids could be sugar and spice and all that, but kids are also self-centered, very sharp, and crueler than most adults would like to admit. And childhood, while certainly a (perceived) joyous and carefree time when viewed from the perspective of adult responsibility and stress, is nonetheless scary as hell and fraught with one mini-trauma after another.

Redeemed by resilience, curiosity, and a limitless capacity for hope and dreaming, I've long held that children, in essence, aren't really that different from adults. Author Roald Dahl understood this, and that is why the ofttimes frightening, marvelously witty and acerbic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (adapted from his 1964 book, Charlie & the Chocolate Factory) stands out as one of the few children’s movies from my childhood I recall with a great deal of fondness. Here was a terribly sweet children's movie that didn't need the sugar-coating.
Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka
Peter Ostrum as Charlie Bucket
Jack Albertson as Grandpa Joe
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is a straightforward fairy tale - complete with moral and happy ending - that takes place in a world where the fantastic and magical exists side by side with the prosaic and practical; in other words, the world as kids see it until we adults start to stick our noses in.
One day Willy Wonka, an eccentric, reclusive, candy manufacturer around whose identity swarms mysterious Gatsby-like legends, decides to open the doors to his wondrous candy factory to five lucky winners of  Golden Tickets he’s hidden in Wonka Bars shipped all over the globe. The winners and one guest receive a tour of his factory and a lifetime supply of chocolate. The winners:
Germany
The gluttonous Augustus Gloop (Michael Bollner) and his mother (Ursula Reit, who always reminds me of an off-diet Elke Sommer)
England
Spoiled Veruca Salt (Julie Dawn Cole) and her salted peanut magnate father, Henry (the wonderful Roy Kinnear)
America
Ill-mannered Violet Beauregarde (Denise Nickerson) and her pushy, used-car salesman dad, Sam (Leonard Stone)
America
Rambunctious TV-addict, Mike Teevee (Paris Themmen) and his schoolteacher mom (Nora Denney)
...and most deserving, poor-as-a-church-mouse Charlie Bucket, who takes his beloved Grandpa Joe with him (and not his hardworking mom, but more about that later)
The four initial winners of the Golden Ticket are all comfortably well-off children (save for Veruca, who's loaded) whose want for the prize stems largely from a kind of entitled greed indigenous to comfortably well-off children. Only poverty-stricken Charlie (who has to attend school AND help his mother support four bed-ridden grandparents) harbors the dream of winning the ticket to improve his lot and that of his family. Thus, with sweet-natured Charlie the parable's obvious hero, and rival candy manufacturer Arthur Slugworth (Gunter Meisner) the villain, the four “naughty, nasty little children” must serve as emissaries of the film’s moral (our behavior and our hearts are the architects of our fate) and as foils for their unpredictable and mischievous host, Mr. Willy Wonka.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
I love the setup and structure of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The first half of the film being rooted in reality‒well, a charming kind of storybook reality, after all, we’re asked to accept that Charlie’s four grandparents have not set foot out of the bed they all share for twenty years‒the second half, a pure flight of fantasy wherein a common childhood dream comes to life: a visit to a magical candyland that’s part Disneyland, part amusement park funhouse, and part house of horrors (adults tend to forget how much kids enjoy being frightened and gleefully grossed-out).
From the start, the film does a great job of piquing interest in Wonka by having him discussed, Citizen Kane fashion, at length before he makes an appearance. It also gives us a likeable and sympathetic hero to root for in Charlie, who’s saved from being a totally pathetic character by being blessed with a loving, oddball family. Conflict rears its head in the form of the other four Golden Ticket winners, who may be amplified versions of archetypal bratty kids, but, with the possible exception of Veruca, are not malicious or mean-spirited (even the awful Mike Teevee precurses questions to his host with a polite, “Mr. Wonka…” ).
Touring the candy factory in the S.S. Wonkatania
The two halves of the film complement one another nicely, for the first half is appropriately dingy and sentimental (bordering on cloying), setting the stage for the second half which, in mirroring the unpredictable spirit of Wonka himself, explodes into a colorful, anarchic phantasmagoria that plays havoc with the genre expectations of the children’s movie.

In fact, one of my favorite things about Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is that it is such a sublimely nasty twist on the traditional tolerant celebration of childhood precocity that fuels so many films intended for children. Wonka’s factory‒ a place where anything is possible…an environment wherein the laws of reason, logic, or physics don’t apply‒ recall those marvelously anarchic Warner Bros. cartoons. The at-odds, adversarial byplay between Wonka and the kids evoking for me the comic clashes between Bugs Bunny (unflappable, always one step ahead, just a little screwy) and Daffy Duck (unchecked id combined with brazen self-interest).
While panic reigns, Wonka watches Augustus Gloop's probable drowning in the chocolate river with detached, intellectual curiosity. Mrs. Gloop's outburst ("You terrible man!") never fails to crack me up.

PERFORMANCES
People are fond of pointing out that Roald Dahl was not very fond of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, no doubt due to the extensive rewrites his adapted screenplay was subjected to by an unbilled David Seltzer (The Omen), and the shift of the story’s focus from Charlie to Wonka. This point would be persuasive save for two things: 1) Dahl’s heirs stated he would have liked the 2005 Tim Burton version (a film I found to be irredeemably wretched, so, so much for tatse), and, 2) With rare exceptions, an author’s ability to write a book doesn't mean a hill of jellybeans when it comes to understanding what makes a film work (see: Ayn Rand, Vladimir Nabokov, and Stephen King). As far as I'm concerned, to place the focus on anyone but Wonka would have been sheer folly, especially if you were lucky enough to land an actor as inspired as Gene Wilder to take on the role. 
Willy Wonka, as envisioned by Wilder, lives up to the alliterative suggestion of his name by being quite wonky indeed. Dressed in anachronistic high style, he sports a madman’s mane of wiry locks yet keeps his wits about him at all times; is enthusiastic and excitable as a child, yet remains unflappable and unflustered at even the most life-threatening (to the children, anyway) occurrences; and has bright, inquisitive eyes that can be warm and paternal one moment, wild and certifiably insane the next. A genial host, he’s witty, sharp, sarcastic, and not particularly child-friendly and seems singularly disinterested in being the surrogate parent and disciplinarian for the transgressions of his misbehaving guests.
"What is this, a freak out?"
The brilliance of Wilder's portrayal is that we expect the mystery surrounding Wonka to be cleared up when we meet him, but instead, it only increases. i don't care how many times or in how many ways Warner Bros. tries to wring income out of Dahl's book; Gene Wilder is the one and only Willy Wonka
Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein (both 1974) would reveal to a broader audience what a comic genius Gene Wilder is, but at this early juncture in his career, he gives a timeless performance worthy of an Oscar nomination, and is the main reason the film works at all, and why it has endured beyond its initial flop release to become a generational classic. (Although Wilder was nominated for a Golden Globe, the film received but one Oscar nomination: for Best Original Score.)
Any fan of The Bad Seed should find Julie Dawn Cole's vitriolic Veruca Salt a sheer delight

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
By the way, did I mention Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is a musical? No, I didn't, but that's because I was saving it for this section. At a time when movie musicals were becoming as bloated as Violet Beauregarde at maximum blueberry transformation, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory successfully bucked the trend toward entertainment elephantitis (as successfully as a film deemed a boxoffice flop upon release can be deemed a success) and came up with an appealing, bite-size musical that for once didn't overwhelm its subject and characters.
The songwriting team of Anthony Newly and Leslie Bricusse (Goodbye Mr. Chips, Scrooge!) reined in their usual tendency toward over-sophisticated melodies (although Cheer Up, Charlie, a real snoozer and always my cue to visit the snack bar, somehow snuck in) and came up with several engaging songs possessing the simple, sing-song lilt of nursery rhymes grade school. Best of all, each is staged in a clever, intimate scale that draws you deeper into film.
Director Mel Stuart wisely rejected the suggestion to expand the rousing "I've Got a Golden Ticket" into a large-scale production number that spilled out into the streets, a la 1968s Oliver!
Of course, those who were around in 1971 couldn't avoid Sammy Davis Jr.'s grooved-up version of "The Candy Man" being played 'round the clock on the radio. And though it reached No.1 on the charts and became the Davis' signature song, its omnipresence failed to garner the song an Oscar nomination (neither did the splendid "Pure Imagination") or boost public interest in the poorly-promoted film (Willy Wonka's visually unappealing poster and non-existent marketing campaign clearly show that Paramount didn't know how to sell it).
"The Candy Man" is sung by Aubrey Woods (here shown giving an inadvertent jaw realignment to a little girl who didn't know her cues) as Bill the candy shop owner. Both Anthony Newley and Sammy Davis, Jr. angled for the part. Once again, can we give it up for the wise decisions of Mel Stuart?

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
I saw Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in 1971 when it was released, largely at my older sister’s prodding. Then being unfamiliar with either Roald Dahl or the book (which I’ve since read it, and, as much as I love it, I find the film a vast improvement), Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory sounded far too much like Toby Tyler: or Ten Weeks with a Circus, a cornball 1960 film serialized on The Wonderful World of Disney that exemplified a great many of the things I hated about children’s movies. I was 13-years-old at the time, realism was all the rage, and the movies I most wanted to see in 1971 were Klute, Carnal Knowledge, Straw Dogs, The Devils, and Play Misty for Me; certainly not a treacly kiddie musical set in a candy factory.
Those catchy Oompa-Loompa songs are near impossible to dislodge from one's memory
Lucky for me my parents put their foot down; it was either Willy Wonka or stay home. As this post attests, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was one of the happiest surprises of my youth. It's a children's movie made by people who, like me, had perhaps grown tired of the conventions of the genre. It's funny in a lot of sharp, adult-centric ways (the Wonka-mania vignettes are real gems), its dialog is witty, and its characterizations frequently laugh-out-loud hilarious. And while there's a great deal of sweetness and sentimentality to the story, it never feels forced or phony. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory never ever made me cry when I was a kid, but now as an adult, each and every time I watch it, I get an attack of waterworks when Wonka, Charlie, and Grandpa Joe are flying over the city in the Wonkavator.
Nowadays, when children indulging in bad behavior is rewarded with Reality TV contracts or encouraged by viral YouTube videos, I guess a movie like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory really pushes a few nostalgia buttons of my own.


Wonka: But Charlie...don't forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he always wanted.
Charlie: What happened?

BONUS MATERIAL
Fans of Joan Crawford's 1967 circus epic, Berserk will recognize (with some effort) George Claydon as one of Wonka's Oompa Loompas.

Fans of Lost Horizon (1973) will recognize the dubbed singing of voice of Liv Ullman in that film (Diana Lee) to belong to Charlie's mother (Diana Sowle) as well.

In 2013 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was turned into a West End musical. (Athough the title suggest little or no connection with the film, the show's score of all original music does include the Newley/Bricusse composition. "Pure Imagination.") Available on iTunes.

There are tons of sites devoted to trivia, production info, and hidden-joke theories surrounding Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. My favorite is the groundswell movement devoted to proving that Charlie's beloved Grandpa Joe is basically a selfish, lazy slob without a conscience. Precipitated by his first character-revealing response when Charlie is asked by his mother where he got the loaf of bread for dinner (suitable for a banquet, I'm sad to say): "What difference does it make where he got it? The point is, he got it!" and further exacerbated by his "magical" ability to get out of bed when there's something fun to do (aka, not work), a persuasive case is made against lovable Grandpa Joe throughout the web. Check out this link: Why Grandpa Joe is a Jerk , then, if convinced; join the "I Hate Grandpa Joe" Facebook page.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Monday, September 8, 2014

THE OMEN 1976

On the topic of the durability of certain horror films/suspense thrillers, a defining factor for me has always been whether or not the film in question continues to “work” long after its employment of the genre’s raisons dˈêtre (suspense, shocks, twists, surprises) have become well-known and anticipated.

For all its considerable merits, I don’t really regard The Omen as a classic horror film in the vein of say, Rosemary’s Baby (1968) or Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973) — it’s a tad too silly and market-calculated for that; however, I do consider it a classic “scary movie” in that it skillfully and stylishly makes good on its dominant purpose: to provide audiences with a rollicking good scare.
Gregory Peck as Ambassador Robert Thorn
Lee Remick as Katherine Thorn
David Warner as Keith Jennings
Billie Whitelaw as Mrs. Baylock
Harvey Stephens as Damien Thorn
A characteristic of a great many of my favorite horror films, certainly those I consider to be classics, is the sense that they emerge out of a larger social unease or cultural anxiety. That they are able to translate the vulnerability which lies at the core of fear into a narrative that serves as the cathartic expression of of vague, unarticulated unease. The  kind of unnamed dread that can lie just below the surface normalcy of calm. Rosemary’s Baby found its scares in the cultural instability of the 60s; Invasion of the Body Snatchers – the emphasis on postwar conformity and the threat of communism; The Stepford Wives – gender role reevaluation in the wake of feminism. These films understand that merely scaring an audience is to elicit a temporary reaction: a fleeting sensation akin to making them laugh at the unexpected. For a film to inspire real fear, it has to draw upon something infinitely more complex and deep-rooted. Films which understand this basic principle manage to enthrall and engage audiences years after the “spoilers” of their scare gimmicks have become common knowledge.
Patrick Troughton as Father Brennan
A lapsed Catholic about to get the point
Like that other favorite scary movie of mine, The Exorcist, The Omen is one of those rare horror films which rely heavily on shock effects, yet still manages to play fairly well the second and third time around. The over-the-top excesses of The Exorcist benefit significantly from the seriousness of intent and absolute conviction of its filmmakers (both director William Friedkin and author William Peter Blatty see the film as an earnest  treatise on the mystery of faith). The Omen, on the other hand, in spite of publicity-friendly lip-service paid by self-serious screenwriter David Seltzer and co-creator/religious technical advisor, Robert L. Munger, never convinces that it actually believes in its own pseudo-religious hokum. Rather, it feels like a scare-the-pants-off-America project dreamt up by a sophisticated William Castle (if one can imagine such a being).

Borrowing liberally from all that came before it while inventing a few tricks of its own along the way; The Omen is a skillful cut-and-paste of The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Bad Seeddesigned to cash-in on the post-Exorcist interest in the occult, the trend toward increasingly graphic depictions of violence in films, and the universal suspicion that all bratty children are likely the spawn of Satan.
Fans of religious supernatural horror will note that while there are no witches, tannis roots, or yellow cat eyes in attendance, The Omen, for all intents and purposes, narratively begins where Rosemary’s Baby ends: with the birth of the human antichrist into an unsuspecting world.

Through a suspiciously serendipitous coincidence of tragedies, American Ambassador Robert Thorn (Peck) is granted an orphaned infant born at the very second his emotionally fragile wife, Katherine (Remick), has given birth to a stillborn child. At 6am on the 6th of June, no less.
Displaying a curious lack of concern with paper trails for a politician, loving husband Robert decides to pull a Folgers Crystals switch on his wife and present the bouncing baby boy bundle as their own without telling her (she’s emotionally fragile, y’know), whom they christen Damien, a name even Minnie Castevet might find a tad Satan-y. 
Katherine's escalating belief that Damien wants to kill her might be traced to this haircut
As a still-photo montage illustrates, life is rosy for the Thorn family until Damien turns five, when, it must be assumed, all hell literally breaks loose. At this time I’d say violent death begins to follow little disaffected Damien around like a puppy, but he already has one of those. A rather king-sized, vicious-looking Rottweiler capable of devouring several puppies in one gulp, in fact, courtesy of one Mrs. Baylock (Whitelaw): mysterious replacement nanny and possessor of the least-huggable name in live-in childcare.
The previous nanny, about to give notice
That's Holly Palance, daughter of actor Jack Palance
It takes time, a little persuasion, and a rising body count, but Robert Thorn eventually comes to learn and  believe that his adopted son was indeed born of a jackal, bears the mark of the best (that dreaded 666 area code), and is the living antichrist. Will he be able to avert Armageddon and carry out the requisite ritual execution that will save mankind? Well, two sequels and a remake should give you a clue.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Being raised Catholic and coming from an extravagantly dysfunctional family has given me a leg-up in appreciating horror films which use specious religious scripture as the catalyst for familial turmoil. In fact, newcomers to The Omen, familiar only with its reputation, are often disappointed to discover that director Richard Donner (Superman: The Movie), following in the footsteps of Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and eventually paving the way for The Shining, has made The Omen just as much a psychological thriller about the emotional and mental disintegration of a family as it is a horror film about the unleashing of the Ultimate Evil. The questionable scenario of a father surreptitiously swapping his newborn child is made credible by the implication that Kathy is in some way emotionally and psychologically unprepared for the truth. The parental, almost caretaker attitude Thorn adapts toward his wife, plus the ease with which he's persuaded to take the orphan child, is an indicator of an underlying stress present within the marriage before the film even begins. 
Kathy: "We're the 'Beautiful People, aren't we?"
A significant part of The Omen's drama concerns itself with the internal erosion of a family deemed to "have it all." Although contemporary audiences may be disappointed by the film's pace and relatively low body count, most appreciate that the film takes the time to establish an atmosphere of normalcy before the introduction of chaos
Although nowhere near as subtle as Rosemary's Baby in casting suspicious events in such a light as to leave open the possibility of their malevolence being merely a manifestation of the fragile mental state of its protagonist; The Omen does manage to wring considerable tension out of Kathy's can't-quite-put-her-finger-on-it unease around her child by effectively refraining from having Damien behave in any manner that can be deemed overtly sinister (not true of the heinous 2006 remake, which had its Damien affect a perpetual evil scowl, which, in a child, only looks like persistent tummy trouble).
For the Thorns, a wealthy political couple with their eye on the Presidency, a child represents the realization of an idealized "perfect" family. And indeed for a time, the three enjoy an idyllic, picture-perfect bonding period. But, rather provocatively, Damien's true nature doesn't manifest itself in the performance of devilish deeds, but in a devoted mother having to confront the disquieting notion that not only is she afraid of her child, but perhaps doesn't even like him. The cracks in the Thorn marriage begin to show, unspoken tensions arise, and the end of the world is harkened by a family being emotionally and mentally being torn apart at the seams
Little Devil
I've always felt that one of the main reasons The Omen doesn't play out as preposterously as it does in summary is because the supernatural horror is kept within human-scale (an early script draft had Remick’s character admitting that her burning desire to have a child was rooted in the politically-motivated desire to project an image of a perfect family). Few horror films today seem to understand that without the firm establishment of the value of something human being placed at risk - that without getting audiences to appreciate what is being put at stake for the characters - no amount of high-tech violence or CGI explicitness is going to make a film genuinely frightening. Gross, repugnant, or gory, perhaps, but not frightening.
I don't do windows
PERFORMANCES
Legitimacy has always been the elusive, snobbish scourge of horror films. Regardless of the quality, attach Joan Collins or American-International Pictures to it and you’ve got yourself the cheapo half of a drive-in double bill; bump up the budget, sign Hitchcock or some arthouse favorite as director, and you’re looking at possible Oscar bait. In the wake of The Exorcist and Jaws, the horror film was riding a crest of mainstream legitimacy, making it possible for a film whose subject might otherwise have been considered best suited to Vincent Price and Beverly Garland, to attract the likes of Gregory Peck and Lee Remick.
Having to go from no-nonsense pragmatism to possible insanity as a man who slowly comes to believe he must kill his child in order to save mankind, Oscar-winner Gregory Peck (To Kill a Mockingbird) has, arguably, the role in The Omen with the broadest character arc. But as it capitalizes on the same qualities of stolid authority and compassionate strength which typified much of his film work since the 1940s, it's really not much of a stretch for the actor. Still, Peck's innate stability contrasts effectively with the regal fragility of Lee Remick, with whom he shares a tender and believable chemistry. 
The solid, rather old-fashioned performances of Peck and Remick are two of the main reasons why The Omen hasn’t been regulated to that slush pile I reserve for films I still adore but find impossible to take seriously anymore (Valley of the Dolls, The Poseidon Adventure, The Great Gatsby,Towering Inferno). Both bring maturity, intelligence, and a considerable amount of old-Hollywood gravitas to their largely reactionary, underwritten roles. A quality I'd not fully appreciated until I saw those blank slates Liev Schreiber and Julia Stiles in the remake and realized how ludicrous the whole enterprise feels without actors capable of conveying an appropriate emotional maturity.
Yanks Lee Remick and Gregory Peck get solid UK support from Royal Shakespeare Academy alumni David Warner and Billie Whitelaw. Understated and natural, Warner's photojournalist gets my vote as the film's best performance, but Whitelaw (who grappled with Elizabeth Taylor in 1973s chilling Night Watch) can't help but evoke a few unintentional camp laughs in a role that posits her nefarious nanny as the anti-Mary Poppins.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
After the headline-making excesses of The Exorcist, audiences were no longer satisfied with run-of-the-mill violence and death in movies. Fanned by the 70s "disaster film" craze and the escalating depiction of violence on television (I remember 1975s The Legend of Lizzie Borden and 1972s The Night Stalker both being taken to task for their content) America ghoulishly attended certain films in the express hope of being treated to ingeniously gruesome and spectacular deaths.
The Omen became one of the Top 5 boxoffice releases of 1976 in large part due to word-of-mouth over its then-shocking violence and faint-inducing tension. While (mercifully) not on par with even the level of violence you can find in a PG film today, The Omen's talked-about setpieces still manage to pack a punch. In line with what I mentioned earlier, one fully misses the point if it's assumed public reaction was due exclusively to the technical skill and ingenuity of the action sequences themselves; the violence in The Omen (which is surprisingly bloodless) got under people's skin because, in the context of the film, the deaths had the emotional weight of real jeopardy and loss. And Jerry Goldsmith's magnificently ominous score didn't hurt either. 
I saw The Omen on opening night (June 25, 1976) and while I can't vouch for anyone passing out, I can certainly attest to the many screams; the patrons who chose to sit out much of the film in the theater's lobby; and the fact that my sister (who really should have learned her lesson after The Exorcist and The Day of the Locust), at the occurrence of a particularly startling, now-iconic moment, burst into tears and had to be taken to the restroom to compose herself.
Love how the newspaper obligingly supplies a gruesome photograph of the corpse on the front page.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Time, too many parodies, too many awful sequels, my own lapsed Catholicism, and the swiftness with which its plot points became camp pop cultural clichés has softened The Omen a bit for me over the years, but I’m forever grateful that I first to know of The Omen in the most ideal manner possible: through its ad campaign. 
1976 was an amazing year for film. So amazing that all of my attention was taken up with the more high-profile, hype-attendant releases of the day: Hitchcock’s Family Plot, the US/Russian collaboration on The Blue Bird, Streisand’s remake of A Star is Born, Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, the remake of King Kong, Dustin Hoffman teaming with Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man, and Michael York in the sci-fi adventure, Logan’s Run. This was also the year that saw the release of The Man Who Fell to Earth, nostalgia-based films about both Clark Gable and WC Fields, Fellini’s Casanova, Liv Ullman’s return to Ingmar Bergman with Face to Face after her inauspicious shot at Hollywood stardom, All The President’s Men, and Network. Horror was coming on strong with the release of Carrie, The Sentinel, and Burnt Offerings. And I haven't even brought up the heavily-anticipated features by Altman, Bertolucci, Polanski, and Vincente Minnelli that also came out that year. As I said, 1976 was a particularly amazing year for a film fan. 
My mind and imagination was so wrapped up in these films that (strange as it seems) I had absolutely no foreknowledge of The Omen. So one day I was taking the San Francisco BART train to college school and I was confronted by this massive billboard in the terminal…this completely stark, black sign with white lettering:  “Good Morning. You are one day closer to the end of the world.” That was it! Nothing else. It stopped me in my tracks. I had no idea it was an ad for anything at all...it was just his creepy, eye-catching sign (T-shirts emblazoned with quotes and slogans were popular at this time). In the ensuing weeks, more and more posters began showing up all over San Francisco. Each just as cryptic, just as foreboding: “If something frightening happens to you today, think about it. It may be The Omen,” “You Have Been Warned,” and inevitably,“This is your Final Warning.”
It felt as if an entire month had passed before the signs began to include the 20th-Century-Fox logo in the corner, then eventually, written in blood red, the words, “The Omen,” with what I then thought were bowling ball finger-holes in the ‘”O” which of course I’d later discover were three sixes. 

By the time these teaser ads gave way to graphic art featuring a little boy casting the shadow of some kind of beast, ads divulging the cast (real, honest-to-god Hollywood movie stars!  Not straight-to-Drive-In nobodies!), I was like a fish on the hook. The movie I had known absolutely nothing about beforehand had become the film I HAD to see.
I was too young to remember the groundbreaking "Pray for Rosemary's Baby" ad campaign that launched the film that still remains my #1 favorite horror movie of all time, but I'm grateful that the creative minds behind the marketing of The Omen gave me my own personal 70s version of the experience. Happily, once it was released, The Omen more than lived up to the hype and was quite the goosebumpy thrill-ride I thereafter sought to re-experience time and time again that summer. Indeed, a good deal of the goodwill I currently harbor for this film is due in large part to the pleasant memories I have of being young enough to allow myself to get so thoroughly caught up in the whole groundswell of excitement that accompanied the release of The Omen in 1976.
"On this night, Mr. Thorn, God has given you a son."
Copyright © Ken Anderson