Tuesday, December 16, 2014


As a hormonal pre-teen whose nether regions went all atingle at the sight of Oliver Reed’s Bill Sikes waking up in Shani Wallis' bed in the 1968 kiddie musical, Oliver!; no one wanted to see Ken Russell’s adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love more than I. More to the point: no 7th grader with a wholesale unfamiliarity with either D. H. Lawrence or Ken Russell wanted to see Oliver Reed appearing full-frontal naked in a movie more than I.
But it was not to be. For although my track record for persuading my mom to grant me permission to see age-inappropriate films on the basis of their “seriousness of their content” was one both impressive and fruitful in one so young (my being both a shy and humorless 12-year-old got me into Bonnie & Clyde, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and They Shoot Horses, Don't They?), little did I know that my hopes for pulling the same stunt with Women in Love were dashed thanks to my parents having previously seen the controversial film adaptation of Lawrence’s lesbian-themed novella, The Fox a couple of years before. As 1967s The Fox and Women in Love (released in the US in 1970), were both promoted less with an eye toward their highbrow literary origins and more pruriently to the inherent sensationalism of their then taboo-shattering nudity and sexual frankness.
Alan Bates as Rupert Birkin
Glenda Jackson as Gudrun Brangwen
Oliver Reed as Gerald Crich
Jennie Linden as Ursula Brangwen
Eleanor Bron as Hermione Roddice
That I had been able to wheedle my way into the “Recommended for Mature Audiences” films listed above is largely attributable to the fact that they all pitched themselves as important, self-serious motion pictures commenting on contemporary issues. On the other hand, Women in Love, betraying a perhaps well-founded lack of faith in America’s interest in or familiarity with D.H. Lawrence, and hoping the lure of eroticism might offset the stuffy reputation of British imports, chose to go the exploitation route. Like The Fox before it, which used lesbianism as its prime publicity hook, Women in Love moved its homoerotic nude wrestling scene front and center as the defining image and focus of its entire marketing campaign.
And while I’m certain all of this paid off handsomely at the boxoffice, closer to home (seeing as it only solidified my mother’s perception of D.H. Lawrence as a high-flown pornographer, and strengthened her resolve to keep me far away from any film bearing his name) that particular marketing strategy ultimately proved disastrous to my private campaign to get a look at Oliver's reed. Roughly nine years passed before Women in Love's rounds at the revival theaters and my suitable chronological age coincided.
The stylish (if not eccentric) mode of dress of the Brangwen sisters not only establishes them as modern, independent-thinking women at odds with their  dreary, working-class surroundings, but assert Women in Love's subthemes of internal (emotion and instinct), external (nature and environment), and man-made (industry and art) conflict.
Gudrun and Ursula Brangwen are two emotionally restless sisters whose naturally colorful natures chafe at the drab-grey existence proffered by their working-class status as schoolteachers in the coal-mining town of Beldover in postwar England, 1921. Both women are dreamy loners unable/unwilling to fit in with their surroundings. Both are also, if not exactly looking for love, reluctant to duplicate the domestic desperation of their mother, and therefore curious and receptive to exploring the experience.

Gudrun (Jackson), the youngest, is a self-styled artist and free-spirit sensually attracted to power and passion. (And, it would seem, brutality. In one scene she is shown becoming excited by the sight of Gerald mistreating a horse. In another, stimulated by a story an artist [Loerke] relates about having to beat one of his female models in order for her to sit still for a painting.)
"I would give everything...everything, all you love...for a little companionship and intelligence."
Vladek Sheybal  as Herr Loerke, a homosexual artist (Richard Heffer as his lover) presents Gudrun with a possibly of platonic love
Ursula (Linden), more of a realist and more sensitive than her sister, nevertheless envisions fulfillment as something achievable only through the surrendering of oneself to an idealized vision of one-on-one domesticated bliss. Into these sisters' lives, as though summoned by mutual longing, arrive Rupert Birkin and Gerald Crich; best friends of dissimilar emotional temperament who contribute to forming, in their coupling with the sisters, two contrasting yet complimentary halves of a cyclical treatise on the conundrum that is passionate love vs. romantic love. The perpetual struggle between the sexes.
Woman in Love #1- Rupert & Ursula's loving relationship is often photographed in nature
Ursula finds romantic kinship - if little in the way of stability - with Rupert (Bates), a school inspector possessed of extravagantly quixotic theories about nature, life and love, all seeming to channel from a nascent awareness of his bisexuality. Meanwhile, Gudrun, perhaps out of want of stimulation or, as Rupert surmises, a lust for passion and greed for self-importance in love, is drawn to Gerald (Reed), the brutish, aristocratic son of the town’s coal industrialist. A shared quest for power, corrosively mixed with a need for both intimacy and independence, makes theirs a passionate, albeit combative, relationship more or less doomed from the start.
Woman in Love #2 - Gudrun & Gerald's doomed relationship is often photographed in dark surroundings
Intruding upon Ursula and Rupert’s self-perpetuating emotionalism and Gudrun and Gerald’s incessant power plays, are: Hermione (Bron), Rupert’s one-time love and the walking embodiment of orchestrated eroticism with none of the heat; and Rupert himself, whose unrequited love for the mulishly impassive Gerald encumbers his relationship with Ursula.
Men in Love - Rupert advances the possibility of an implicit, perfect love shared between two men
Many films have used the entwined relationships of two couples to explore the inconsistent, conflicting complexities of spiritual and physical love (my favorites being Mike Nichols’ Carnal Knowledge and Closer), but Ken Russell’s Women in Love gets to the heart of the matter (so to speak) in a way that is as visually poetic as it is emotionally painful. It's one of the most intelligent and genuinely provocative films about love I've ever seen.

I was in my early 20s the first time I saw Women in Love and I really thought I understood it then. But it seems with each passing year, the film reveals itself to be about so much more than I'd initially thought. Women in Love is one of those rare films that seems to grow smarter in direct proportion to the amount of life experience one chalks up. So it would seem, although you couldn't have convinced me of it at the time, my mom was right in thinking I was too young for this. Not that I wouldn't have loved to have seen Alan Bates and Oliver Reed in the buff, but Women in Love is far too mature in its themes for any of this to have made sense to me as an adolescent. Sumptuously filmed, magnificently costumed (by Shirley Russell), and so exceptionally well-acted you can watch it again and again without ever unearthing all the delightful nuances in the actors’ performances; Women in Love is a thoughtful, surprisingly restrained film, and a pleasant departure from the operatic bombast of Russell’s later works.
Gudrun's desire for power and its liberating effects is poetically dramatized in a sequence in which her lyrical dancing tames and eventually overcomes a threatening-looking herd of highland cattle. (Amusingly, a herd which, when photographed from the front, share Gudrun's coloring and haircut.) 

My favorite thing about Women in Love is how artfully it tackles the unwieldy topic of love; especially the pain and emotional upheaval born of that overused word never seeming to mean the exact same thing to any two people at any one time. 
Obscured by illusion, distorted by need, thwarted by cowardice, the impulse to love may be innate and instinctual, but it’s also intensely confounding. Ken Russell contrasts images of nature with images of the encroaching industrialism of postwar England to dramatize the natural urges of the characters as being in conflict with their repressed, intellectual notions about love. Ursula, Gudrun, Rupert, and Gerald all do a great deal of thinking and talking about love, but none betray a  trace of genuinely having any idea of what love really is or they want. 
As suggested by Women in Love's repeated use of the popular song, "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles," the characters all harbor romantic illusions about love: its potential for fulfillment, its ability to heal wounds, the emotional void it can fill. Conflict arises out of whether or not the grasping need of desire is capable of giving way to the vulnerability required of love.
Love & Death:  In a pairing shot that many critics of the day thought too heavy-handed (which, of course, meant I absolutely loved it), the drowning death of the film's only romantically idyllic couple (Sharon Gurney & Christopher Gable) is contrasted with Ursula & Rupert's unsatisfying first tryst. A premonition of blighted love, a graphic representation of romantic ideologies at cross purposes; the women's poses can be interpreted as lovingly embracing or greedily clinging to the men, the men, unequivocally adopting gestures of disentanglement.

While Ken Russell's operatic zest and Larry Kramer's graceful screenplay mercifully spare Women in Love from the kind of over-reverential airlessness common in most film adaptations of classic novels, I attribute the lion's share of the credit for the film's vibrancy to the talents of the amazing cast. 
In an era that required so may actresses to play the compliant love interest to counterculture antiheroes, Women in Love was a refreshing change of pace in presenting two women who have a say in what they want from life and love. Personal fave Glenda Jackson (looking quite smart in her blunt, Vidal Sassoon bob) emerged in this film as something of the "New Woman" of 70s cinema.
Blessed with a mellifluous voice and an articulate beauty that radiates strength, intellect, and fleshy sensuality, Jackson is Old Hollywood star quality without the lacquered veneer. Much in the same way I attribute Woody Allen with unearthing Diane Keaton, Ken Russell and Glenda Jackson are a pair forever locked together in my mind. Her performance as Gudrun Brangwen, certainly one of the more complex, emotionally paradoxical characters in literature, is almost wily. Throughout the film she wears the look of a woman in possession of a secret she dares you to find out. The quintessential Ken Russell heroine, Jackson won the Best Actress Oscar for her performance, and deservedly rose to stardom on the strength of this film. 
A real scene-stealer whose presence is very much missed when her character is required to recede into the background early on, is the ever-versatile Eleanor Bron as the pretentious Hermione: a potentially ridiculous individual made real and sympathetic by Bron's prodigious talent. Only after I'd read the book did I really come to appreciate the spot-on perfection of Bron's performance.
Women in Love as a costume film/period piece, tightrope walks a space between stagy theatricality and naturalism that few but Russell - with his talent for finding natural locations that look like stage sets for an opera - could pull off. Alan Bates fits the film's romantic setting perfectly (although I find him to be so swoon-inducingly beautiful, I can’t say I've ever been able to really evaluate his performance with much objectivity), and Jennie Linden is effective in the somewhat thankless role of Ursula.
Reed and Jackson bring such smoldering dynamic intensity to their roles that their scenes together always feel slightly dangerous. I can't think of a single other actress who could appear opposite Reed in a scene and leave you concerned for his safety. I think Reed's Gerald Crich is his finest screen performance. Employing his trademark whispers to great effect, he somehow manages to be brutish, refined, and heartbreakingly vulnerable all at the same time.

Given your average ratio of anticipation to disappointment, it came as no small surprise to discover, after having waited so many years, Women in Love’s fabled nude wrestling scene more than lived up to its reputation. Satisfied with merely being sensually enraptured by the sight of two obscenely sexy actors wrestling in the altogether; I wasn't at all prepared for what a dramatically powerful and daring scene it is. Daring not in its exposure of flesh, but in its exploration of a subtextural, taboo attribute of a great many onscreen male relationships (and, I daresay, many real-life relationships as well).
I'm not sure who said it, but someone once made the keen observation that homophobia in men is not really rooted in a general distaste for male-on-male sexual contact, but rather in the fear of "What if I like it?"
Heterosexual men have established a social order in which they have left themselves few avenues allowing for the expression of male affection. In lieu of this they have contrived a network of female-excluding, male-bonding rituals so convoluted and complex (sports culture, strip clubs, ass slapping, "bros before hoes" guy codes, homophobic locker room humor, bromance comedies, misogyny masked as promiscuity [the Romeo syndrome], etc.) you sometimes wish they'd just have sex with each other and get it over with. One can't help but feel that the world would be a less aggressive, insecure place if they did.
In Women in Love, Rupert and Gerald's friendship is really the most intimate, passionate, and loving relationship in the film, but Rupert uses words and lofty theories to mask his inability to fully confront his own sexual confusion, while Gerald is too emotionally remote to allow himself to address the issue at all. On the heels of the death of Gerald's sister and following Rupert's less-than-fulfilling consummation of his affair with Ursula, the two friends find themselves at a loss for how to "appropriately" comfort to one another. So, as is the wont of repressed heterosexual males the world over, Rupert and Gerald resort to displays of physical aggression as a heterosexual means of expressing homosexual intimacy.
As the friendly combat gives way to a physical exhaustion matching their physical closeness, it's clear to Rupert that Gerald feels "something" akin to his own feelings. But before that ultimate intimacy can be broached, Gerald, in an act of willful misunderstanding, finds it necessary to break off what has been established between them before things have a chance of preceding any further. (Wrestling by firelight, the very natural state of their nudity is made vulgar and shameful by the intrusion of the modern electric light he abruptly switches on.)
As a fan of 70s movies, what makes this sequence particularly compelling for me is how it symbolically evokes the unaddressed subtext in all those post-feminism, male-centric buddy pictures of the decade. Films like Butch Cassidy & the Sundance KidMidnight Cowboy, and Easy Rider - films in which women are shunted off to the sidelines - are all essentially male romances. In each film, women are present, even loved, but there's no getting past the fact that the deepest, most profoundly spiritual love occurs between the male characters. Women in Love's wrestling scene dramatizes the struggle men face when affection for another man is felt and (in this instance), the societal and morality-imposed roles of "friend" are found to be inadequate.
It's an outstandingly courageous sequence whose confrontational frankness wrests Women in Love out of the past and centers it far and above what most mainstream filmmakers are willing to do today. Who knew? A sequence I only expected to be a feast for the eyes proved to be food for thought as well.

Women in Love was promoted with the tagline ‒ “The relationship between four sensual people is limited: They must find a new way.” And while this might sound more like the tagline for 1969’s Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, it does at least touch upon the theme of the inadequacy of classically “romantic” notions of love in a modern world, and the need for a kind of sexual evolution.
The Proper Way to Eat a Fig
Almost as scandalous as Women in Love's nudity was the inclusion of a scene (not in the book) where Rupert compares a fig to female genitalia. The words are taken from D.H. Lawrence's 1923 erotic poem, Figs, which can be read in its entirety, HERE

None of the characters in Women in Love is able to fully align what they presuppose about love (nor what is true to their natures) with their present realities. In an earlier post about Mike Nichol’s Closer, I wrote:
“The four protagonists fumble about blindly seeking love without knowing how to return it, demanding love without earning it, and giving love without committing to it.”

The same can be said for the characters in Women in Love. And although more than 70 years separate the creation of the two works (Patrick Marber's play, Closer, was written in 1997, D.H. Lawrence's novel was published in 1920) it intrigues me that after so many years and so much human progress, the basic cosmic riddle that is love remains essentially and eternally unchanged.
Rupert - "But I wanted a man friend eternal...as you are eternal."
Ursula - "You can't have it because it's impossible."
Rupert - "I don't believe that."

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

ANNIE 1982

After seeing so many billboards, bus shelters, and mega-posters around town heralding the forthcoming release of the latest screen incarnation of Annie – that pint-sized, ginger juggernaut of Broadway 1977 (and for those keeping score, this marks adaptation # 3) – I figure I’d better get around to covering John Huston’s 1982 mega-budget, mega-hyped, mega-merchandised movie version before public reaction to the remake (pro or con) influence my memories.
Motivated as they are (more often than not) by income rather than ideas, remakes are an irksome Hollywood inevitability I'm prone to dismiss on principle alone. The remaking of iconic films like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory or Brian De Palma’s Carrie is an obvious fool’s errand; the inevitably substandard results forgotten before they even get a DVD release. But I can't say I feel the same about remaking flawed films. In fact, affording as it does a genuine creative opportunity for a filmmaker to "get it right" the second time around; it's the only kind of remake that does make sense to me.
The 1982 movie version of Annie took a while to grow on people. Regarded as a beloved classic by many today, Annie on its release was greeted with a mixed critical reception (nominated for 5 Razzie awards, winning one for Aileen Quinn as Worst Supporting Actress); was trashed in the press by the show's lyricist, Martin Charnin ("Terrible, terrible, it distorted everything."); and though it emerged one of the top ten moneymakers of the year, its steep budget ($40 to $50 million), hefty marketing campaign ($10 million) and the record $9.5 spent on acquiring the rights, meant it wouldn't come anywhere near breaking even or showing a profit for many years.
While I wouldn't go so far as to call Annie a classic, neither would I label it the out and out flop its detractors make it out to be. Sure, at times the script is uneven to the point of feeling erratic (Hannigan's 11th hour character redemption will give you whiplash), but I still find its changes to be a marked improvement over the theatrical production. And, thanks to its bouncy score, boundless - if unharnessed - energy, and capable, hardworking cast, Annie manages to be entertaining in spite of never really gelling into the kind of touchstone movie musical event its Broadway success (and producer Ray Stark's investment) augured.
Aileen Quinn as Annie
Albert Finney as Oliver Warbucks
Carol Burnett as Miss Agatha Hannigan
Ann Reinking as Grace Farrell
As every living human must by now know, Annie is the significantly retooled movie version of the Tony Award-winning musical phenomenon based on Harold Gray’s comic strip, “Little Orphan Annie.” Set in the Depression-era New York of 1933, Annie is the story of a spunky, unflaggingly optimistic little orphan who, while dreaming of finding her parents, manages to rescue and adopt a bullied, stray mutt; win the heart of a billionaire industrialist; play cupid for his devoted secretary; thwart a bilko scheme cooked up by the villainous orphanage matron, Miss Hannigan and her partners in crime, Rooster and Lily; and by fade-out, appears poised, with the help of FDR, to take on the Great Depression itself.
Bernadette Peters as Lily St. Regis, Tim Curry as Rooster Hannigan
The estrogen answer to 1962s Oliver (what DID little girls do in dance recitals before this show?) Annie is notable – before “Tomorrow” took on a life of its own as one of the most overexposed (and in turn, annoying) songs ever written – for representing something of a 70s pop cultural turning point. In a social climate reeling from inflation, the oil crisis, post-Watergate disillusionment, Vietnam fallout, and the hedonism-as-religion retreat into sex & drugs that typified the disco era (it opened mere months before the release of the bleak Looking for Mr. Goodbar): Annie was among the first non-ironic, unapologetically hopeful entertainments to emerge from a decade noted for its cynical self-criticism. Annie’s assertively retro, “corny is cool” aesthetic rode a nostalgia zeitgeist which embraced the intentional camp of TVs Wonder Woman, Star Wars' updating of the 1930s movie serial, and fueled the comic book-mania behind 1978s Superman and Robert Altman’s musical, Popeye (1980).

While Annie’s overwhelming success guaranteed it a movie sale (then the highest price ever paid for a theatrical property), media over-saturation in the intervening years made it a prime target for parody. When producer Ray Stark (Funny Girl) made known his plans to mount a big screen version, industry naysayers wondered how 1982 audiences would respond to what many saw as the show's machine-driven sentimentality. Questions arose as to the issue of overexposure (Annie was still running on Broadway, and would until 1983) and wondering if the public was up to weathering yet another shrill rendition of “Tomorrow” sung by a red-tressed, brass-lunged moppet.
Instead of turning Annie's most well-known song into a potentially wince-inducing showstopper, director John Huston (or Ray Stark, depending on the source) wisely gets the song out of the way by having Quinn sing a traditional version over the opening credits. Later she performs a subdued, a cappella rendition when she meets FDR. As Eleanor & Franklin join in (Lois De Banzie& Edward Herrmann), Warbucks' comic, schmaltz-resistant reluctance works to effectively diffuse similar audience response.

As a West Coaster, I’m one of those guys who’d rather have a poor movie adaptation of a Broadway show than none at all (see: A Little Night Music), so I was on board for a movie version of Annie from the get-go. But what really made it a must-see film for me was the unusually high caliber of talent Stark engaged both in front of and behind the camera.

What he assembled was a dream cast for Annie; actors who not only visually fit their roles to a T, but bravely bucked then-current Hollywood musical tradition by actually being able to sing and dance. Albert Finney, while acquitting himself very nicely in the 1970 musical, Scrooge, would be the first to admit he’s neither a singer or dancer, but Carol Burnett, Ann Reinking, Bernadette Peters, Tim Curry, Geoffrey Holder (Punjab), and Roger Minami (the Asp) all had their start in musical theater.
By 1982, Andrea McArdle, Broadway’s original Annie, was roughly the right age to play Lily St. Regis, so a massive, year-long, publicity-baiting global search was launched to find the perfect little orphan. Cute 9-year-old Aileen Quinn beat out 9,000 crestfallen (if not scarred for life) Annie applicants, winning the title role in what was then the most expensive musical ever made. 
She & Sandy Make a Pair, They Never Seem to Have a Care. Cute Little She...it's Little Orphan Annie
Aileen Quinn was paid the exact same salary as Bingo (one of three dogs portraying Sandy) 
Now, this is where things started getting weird. Broadway veteran Joe Layton (Thoroughly Modern Millie) was on hand to create the musical numbers (which makes sense), but the choreographic chores for this 1930s period musical - an innocent, if not naive, family entertainment swarming with children - fell to Arlene Phillips (which makes no sense at all). Certainly not if you're even remotely familiar with Phillips' hypersexual choreography for the Eurosleaze dance troupe, Hot Gossip, or if you've ever seen her patented brand of disco/aerobic writhing in the films The Fan and Can’t Stop the Music. I'm personally a huge fan of Phillips' work, but even I had to scratch my head on this one. However, nothing raised eyebrows higher than the news that Annie, now known as Ray Stark’s baby (“This is the film I want on my tombstone”), was to be directed by Oscar-winner John Huston: a Hollywood veteran of forty years, making his first musical at age 75.
If "Easy Street" falls short of what one would expect for a rollicking number featuring the likes of Bernadette Peters (who looks absolutely gorgeous), Carol Burnett, and Tim Curry - and it does - it's because it was shot two months after the film was completed (and by the looks of it, in a hurry) after it was decided to scrap the full-scale, already in-the-can version which is rumored to resemble the "Consider Yourself" number from Oliver.
Theories abounded as to the soundness of such a decision (Mike Nichols, Herb Ross, and Grease's Randal Kleiser had all been attached to the project at various times), but insiders likened Stark's handing over a lavish musical to a veteran director best known for gritty dramas (Reflections in a Golden Eye, The Treasure of Sierra Madre, The Misfits) to a similar situation back in 1960 when uber-serious director Robert Wise (I Want to Live!, The Haunting) hit major league paydirt when he took on as his first musical projects, West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965).

Radio personality Bert Healy (Hollywood Squares host, Peter Marshall) is joined by the lovely Boylen Sisters in a rendition of "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile"
After months of the kind of strenuous prerelease hype that turns critics against a film before it even opens, Annie premiered here in Los Angeles at Mann’s Chinese Theater in May of 1982. I was in line opening night (fewer kids at evening shows), having by now fairly whipped myself into a veritable frenzy of enthusiastic anticipation. With that cast, director, choreographer, and score; I was certain Annie was going to be every bit “The Movie of Tomorrow” its ads promised.
A photo I took of the Burbank lot which Warner Bros. and Columbia Studios shared since the mid-70s.  Behind this wall is Annie's $1 million New York outdoor street set 
I love that I get excited by movies (seriously, I gave myself a nosebleed at the SF premiere of Thank God It’s Friday), but I had double reason to be worked up over Annie. First, as one of the biggest movie musicals to be released since my Xanadu epiphany (read here), Annie represented the first musical I’d be seeing since becoming a dancer. Second, I knew a couple of the dancers in the film who were hired for reshoots of the Radio City Musical Hall sequence and the since-jettisoned, grand-scale, “Easy Street” number, and both assured me that Annie was going to be a bigger hit than Grease
Annie's Orphan Pals
Captured in one of the rare moments one of them isn't staring directly into the lens
or glancing distractedly at something off camera 
Primed for Annie to be more of an event than a movie (it was one of the first films to charge a then-record $6 admission price), my first viewing was so ruled by my desire to like it, I can't attest to really having seen the actual film at all. As I recall, my first look at Annie was an exhausting evening of willful self-deception and near-constant internal cheerleading: I laughed too loud and hard at bits of business that barely warranted a grin, and I gasped in delight at predictable plot developments which must have seemed ancient back in the day of Baby Peggy. My only reactions that weren't artificial and inappropriately oversize were for the showy musical numbers, which were indeed pretty spiffy. Still, I’d literally worked up a sweat trying to stave off disappointment...all in an effort to convince myself that I was having a good time.
And the weird thing is, I really I did have a good time. I just didn't have a great time, which is what I expected of a $40 million film that took two years to make. Which leads me to ponder the double-edge sword of hype. When it comes to movie marketing, there’s sell and there’s oversell: the former being when you give the public information, the latter is when you give them ammunition.
Seeing the film a second time convinced me that Annie's problem wasn't that it failed to live up to expectations; it's that it failed to live up to its own potential. 
Make a Wish
A victim of its own success, Annie was torn between the simple charm of its storyline
and the Hollywood dictate that it be a larger-than-life musical extravaganza

As I’m fond of saying on this blog, a movie doesn't have to be perfect in order to be enjoyable or somebody's favorite. Annie's a glowing example of that principle in that it's a movie I never recommend to people, yet one I revisit often when I need my occasional overproduced movie musical fix. Straight dramas and comedies require cohesion in order to work. Not so with musicals. Musicals (happily) are by-design, broken into singing and non-singing interludes which, if need be, can be appreciated table d'hôte or à la carte. Annie is arguably at its best when experienced as separate scenes and isolated dance numbers. This way, the effectiveness of certain scenes (such as when the confounded Warbucks watches Grace put Annie tenderly to bed) aren't handicapped by clumsy adjoining sequences, and the musical numbers that click ("We Got Annie") get to stand alone and apart from those that fizzle ("Easy Street," to my shock and amazement).
I Think I'm Gonna Like It Here
When Annie gets something right, it does so spectacularly. Annie's first look at the Warbucks household ("Is this a train station? Are we going on a train?") is one of my favorite sequences. The member of the staff upon whose shoulder Annie is riding is dancer Don Correia (ex Mr. Sandy Duncan) one of several A Chorus Line alumni in the cast
One of the more fascinating things about those old Our Gang comedies of the 30s is how natural all those kids were. No matter how often they were called upon to mimic grown-up behavior, the charm was in their essential, unaffected childishness shining through.
In Annie, the little girls cast as orphans are all experienced troupers culled from Annie productions all over the world, and it shows. While the film is desperately in need of an Annie with the kind of screen magnetism of a young Patty Duke, Hayley Mills, or Jodie Foster - something to set her apart from the other orphans and justify an audience's concern for her welfare - Aileen Quinn is a perfectly swell Annie (to use the vernacular). While not over-blessed with talent, she is has an earnest, winning quality, a pleasant voice, and best of all for an old grouch like me, fails to grate on my nerves.
This is in stark contrast to the rest of the orphans who are literally children working like Trojans to act like children…and they don’t succeed! Annie was my first exposure to this kind of Disney Channel, plastic child-actor aesthetic that seems to have become the norm these days: old-before-their-years showbiz kids who can only impersonate (badly) the behavior of real children.
"You step on my cues Molly, and you'll find your close-ups on the cutting-room floor."
Had Quinn been a star, no one would fault her had she pulled a Helen Lawson
in regard to her scene-stealingly cute co-star, Toni Ann Gisondi.
I’ve no real quarrel with the performances of Annie’s grown-up cast. Finney is amusingly broad and cartoonish as Warbucks, Reinking is at her most eloquent when she lets her lithe body do the acting, and, the always-fabulous Carol Burnett is left to do all the comedy heavy-lifting as the perpetually pickled Miss Hannigan - a role she’s ideally suited for. Perhaps too much so. Burnett is a lot of over-the-top fun and never less than fascinating and spot-on. But watching her I can’t help thinking, as I often do watching Maggie Smith on Downton Abbey, she could do this kind of role in her sleep.
Carol Burnett made her Broadway musical debut in Once Upon a Mattress in 1959. Annie marks her very first movie musical appearance
Annie’s musical numbers always put a smile on my face. Sometimes because they’re so good, sometimes because the lip-syncing is so poor or the execution is so unpolished, I have a hard time believing they made it into the completed film. Six songs from the Broadway show failed to make it into the film and I honestly can’t say I miss them. And of the four songs written expressly for the film, the only two I could have done without are “Dumb Dog/Sandy” (in which the lyricist commits the Sondheim-wouldn't-do-this crime of putting the word "residing" into the mouth of a little girl we'd previously heard say "piana" for piano), and the entire Rockettes section of “Let’s Go to the Movies.” 
We Got Annie
In one of my favorite numbers, Roger Minami, Ann Reinking, and the late great Geoffrey Holder
dance together all-too briefly, but its pure magic. 
"I guess I'll never know the feeling of running fingers through your hair..."
Burnett's delivery of this witty lyric from the duet, "Sign" got one of the film's biggest, most spontaneous laughs 
It's The Hard Knock Life
Can we please pause a second and appreciate Annie's amazing horizontal split jump?
I Don't Need Anything But You
Annie gets it right in the charming finale, which gives Quinn the closest thing to a Shirley Temple moment 

Mimicking the fate of many beloved children's movies that were not exactly hits when first released (The Wizard of Oz and the aforementioned Willy Wonka being the most famous examples), Annie may have had to take her lumps back in 1982, but, true to her optimistic credo, she's weathered a great many more "Tomorrows" than her more critically-revered peers.
Meanwhile, my own feelings about Annie have remained roughly the same, with time adding (in equal measure) a degree of nostalgia and cheesy camp to my revisits to it, making for a win-win situation whatever mood I'm in. So, whether it's to laugh at the baffling amateurism of some scenes (what must the outtakes of the orphan's rendition of "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile" look like if this one, with its poor lip-synching and self-conscious "fun" was chosen?); ponder the possibility that perhaps all those up-the skirt-shots and peeks at women's underwear are part of a visual motif; or merely marvel at how impossibly young everybody looks... Annie may no longer be the movie of Tomorrow, but it offers a pretty pleasant look at yesterday.
I wish the 2014 remake of Annie all the best. We have yet to have our quintessential big screen Annie.

Want to watch a grown woman (Arlene Phillip) yelling at a bunch of overworked kids? Want to catch a glimpse of the deleted "Easy Street" number? Check out Lights! Camera! Annie! a 1982 PBS "making of" documentary on YouTube.

Tony Award-winner Andrea Martin portrays a grown-up Annie in this classic SCTV parody.

Life After Tomorrow, a fascinating 2006 documentary about the lives of former Annie orphans is available for viewing on Hulu.

IMDB notes in its Trivia section that the sound effects man during the Iodent radio broadcast is actor Ray Bolger in an unbilled cameo. As you can see from the photo above, the actor in question does indeed bear a resemblance to the Wizard of Oz star, but is NOT Ray Bolger. A call out to film buffs to identify this character actor.

Disco touched everything in the late 70s, and sunshiny anthems by mop-topped orphans were no exception. In 1977 disco diva Grace Jones performed what can best be described as a confrontational version of "Tomorrow" HERE.

Speaking of disco, did you know Aileen Quinn released a solo album? Me neither. Her album, Bobby's Girl, was released in 1982 to take full advantage of the Annie media blitz. Although disco was fairly dead by this time, that didn't stop Quinn from driving at least one child-sized nail into its coffin by performing an ill-advised cover of Leo Sayers' 1976 boogie anthem, "You Make Me Feel Like Dancing."   "Arf!" goes Sandy.

"I love you, Daddy Warbucks"
Copyright © Ken Anderson

Thursday, November 6, 2014


Rife with spoilers. Those who wish the mystery to remain a mystery should read no further.

Of the many films made from Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot mystery novels, I find 1982s Evil Under the Sun to be the most fun, but 1974s Murder on the Orient Express still heads my list as the most stylish, effective, and downright classiest adaptation of the lot.
Although I have fond memories of the publicity and glowing reviews surrounding its release; recall the weeks of long, serpentine lines queuing up outside San Francisco’s Regency Theater where it played; and I even remember going to a Market Street movie memorabilia shop to purchase the gorgeous Richard Amsel-designed poster (“The Who’s Who in the Whodunit”) which hung on my wall for many years...but for the life of me I can’t figure out why, given my interest, I never got around to seeing this in a theater during its initial release. 
Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot
Lauren Bacall as Mrs. Harriet Belinda Hubbard
Anthony Perkins as Hector McQueen
Jacqueline Bisset as Countess Helena Andrenyi 
My best guess is that it had to do with there just not being enough hours in the day to see all of the great films that came out that year. It was 1974, I was still in high-school, working weekends as a movie theater usher, and, as was my practice then and remains so today; when it comes to my own personal moviegoing habits, if I like a film, I invariably want to see it several times. This is great given my particular penchant for rediscovering new things with each viewing, but does tend to limit the amount of time I have left for partaking of the films that make up my ever-growing list of unseen movies. At least not without considerable effort applied on my part.

Distracting my attention from Murder on the Orient Express was the pomp and circumstance attending the release of The Great GatsbyThe Godfather Part II, and Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. Simultaneously, Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder were defining funny for the 70s with Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, while on the serious side, my cineáste pretensions (and height) got me into theaters showing the arthouse pseudo-porn of The Night Porter and Going Places. Adding to this already full schedule, That’s Entertainment, The Phantom of the Paradise, and even the lamentable, Mame were on hand to satisfy my appetite for musicals.
Sean Connery as Colonel Arbuthnot
Vanessa Redgrave as Mary Debenham
Richard Widmark as Samuel Edward Rachett / Cassetti
Ingrid Bergman as Greta Ohlsson
More significantly, Hollywood was in the midst of a HUGE "disaster movie" craze (a genre I was as unaccountably besotted with then as kids today are about those Marvel comics things), so, what with the star-studded The Towering Inferno, Airport 1975, and Earthquake all being released in the same year - not to mention that star-leaden swashbuckling sequel to another favorite, 1973s The Three Musketeers - I suspect the glow of the stellar cast assembled for Murder on the Orient Express was perhaps not as dazzling to me then as it most assuredly seems now. More's the pity and my loss entirely, for I would love to have seen this delightful movie with an audience, at the height of its popularity.
Sir John Gielgud as Edward Henry Beddoes
Dame Wendy Hiller as Princess Natalia Dragomiroff
Michael York as Count Rudolf Andrenyi
Rachel Roberts as Hildegarde Schmidt
Happily, I did eventually come to see Murder on the Orient Express many years later (on TV), and, this being the days before the internet, the vast majority of the details surrounding the film were still unknown to me. In fact, my relative ignorance of the film's particulars and wholesale unfamiliarity with Agatha Christie's 1934 mystery novel in general, resulted in a viewing experience that could be summed up as a textbook case of "ignorance is bliss." I was totally swept up in the mystery, baffled by the clues, puzzled by the circumstances, and thrown by the surplus of suspects. It was bliss.
In hindsight, I can only conjecture that my naif experience of the film must have been in some ways on par with what director Sidney Lumet and screenwriter Paul Dehn envisioned for audiences when fashioning the project: Murder on the Orient Express felt very much like watching an actual film from the 1930s filtered through the very contemporary sensibilities of the 70s.
Jean-Pierre Cassel as Pierre-Paul Michel
Martin Balsam as Mr. Bianchi
Dennis Quilley as Antonio Foscarelli
Colin Blakely as Cyrus B. Hardman
George Coulouris as Dr. Constantine
Visually sumptuous, superbly-acted, extremely well-written, and highly entertaining; to this day I am amazed at the dexterity with which this particular adaptation is able to tightrope-walk between being a "fun" murder mystery and emotionally-engaging drama. Seeing it again after all these years, it's easy to see how Murder on the Orient Express sparked a renaissance of sorts in movies based on the works of Agatha Christie. But while many of the films that followed were very good, none were able to capture this film's unwavering panache.

Whether it be amateur crime-solver, Miss Marple, or the fastidious Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, the drill in an Agatha Christie mystery remains roughly the same (although Poirot travels in much tonier circles than Christie’s small-town spinster): a confined, preferably exotic, locale; a murder; a collection of eccentric/suspicious characters; multiple motives; multiple red herrings; a surprise twist or two; the presence of a canny sleuth to connect all the dots; and finally, the assembling of the suspects for the flashback reenactment of the and the unveiling of the guilty party.
Since the title, Murder on the Orient Express, already specifies the what and where; the fun is to be had in discerning the who, why, when, and how.

The who in this case is an individual of nefarious background and cloaked identity, mastermind of a vicious 1930 kidnap/murder of a three-year-old heiress. An act for which this criminal, in having made off with the ransom money and leaving a colleague to take the blame, has never been brought to justice. Now, five years later, in a luxury train trapped in a snowdrift in Yugoslavia, said individual is found dead of multiple stab wounds in a locked compartment.

The victim’s Mafia ties favor criminal vendetta as the most likely solution to the murder, but as is his wont; M. Poirot’s “little gray cells” alert him to the fact that there is something altogether too expedient in the unanimous airtight alibis of his traveling companions: fifteen-odd strangers of diverse background, class, and nationality; each possessing nothing in common; each unknown to either the victim or one another.
The Usual Suspects
As Poirot’s investigation leads to the unearthing of the details surrounding the kidnapping (a tragedy contributing to the deaths of at least four others) and the mysterious connection each passenger has to the event, Murder on the Orient Express establishes itself as the most engaging, suspenseful, and downright effective of the big screen adaptations of Agatha Christie I've seen.

On first viewing, I recall being very caught up in the mystery of it all and quite unable to figure out “whodunit” until the final, dramatically staged moments of the Big Reveal - a revelation of how and why which surprised me considerably more than I would have thought possible.
I really love everything about Murder on the Orient Express, but I’m especially fond of the significant role conscience, guilt, and the pain of loss play in the narrative. For even more persuasive than the film’s glossy production values and high-caliber performances (a rather amazing feat given their brevity), is its emotional poignancy. Most Agatha Christie movies end on a note of triumphant finality born of justice served and wrongs set right. But Murder on the Orient Express has an ending which always leaves me (softie that I am) with a mild case of sentimental waterworks, due to the fact that it touches – ever so lightly – on the sad reality that justice is sometimes hollow reward for the loss of loved ones no degree of rightful vengeance will ever bring back.
This melancholy ending to a truly elegant film lends Murder on the Orient Express an air of distinction that places it a mark above the other filmed Poirot mysteries.

Murder on the Orient Express is the perfect, made-to-order film for the 70s cinema enthusiast who’s also a fan of Turner Classic Movies (uh,…that would be me). Directed by Sidney Lumet (The Wiz, The Group), in a style meant to evoke the look and feel of films made in the 1930s, and given a diffused, nostalgic sheen by cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth (Oscar-nominated for this film, Unsworth won the previous year for Cabaret), Murder on the Orient Express, although a British production, is one of the best examples of  Old Hollywood moviemaking to come out of the New Hollywood era.
The Orient Express
The titular star of the film gets a grand sendoff with a sweeping waltz theme that is one of the film's chief goosebump moments. Richard Rodney Bennett's glamorous, Oscar-nominated score is outstanding
On a relatively modest budget (just $1.4 million, if Wikipedia is to be believed), Murder on the Orient Express went on to win 6 Oscar nominations: Finney, Bergman (won), costumes, cinematography, score, screenplay - and became one of the top-grossing films of the year. With no nudity, foul language, or claims to social relevance; in the youth-obsessed 70s, Murder on the Orient Express was one of the few films capable of luring older audiences away from their TV sets. (The equally enthralled younger audiences approached it as something of a “thinking-man’s disaster movie.”)
For me, Murder on the Orient Express was a welcome respite from overlapping dialog, non-linear storytelling, gritty realism, and the sometimes-fatuous artistic pretensions of the cinema auteur. Taking a break from all that 70s navel-gazing, it was a real treat just to be entertained by a filmmaker who knew how to tell a story. Well-written (Paul Dehn’s screenplay is a witty, largely-faithful adaptation that plays fair with its clues), beautifully shot, extremely well-acted, and a great deal of fun to boot, Murder on the Orient Express was a return to escapism in an era preoccupied with confrontation.
Discovery of the Body

Not being such a devotee of Agatha Christie as to have formed an indelible impression of Hercule Poirot in my mind one way or another, I have to say I greatly prefer Albert Finney’s take on the detective over Peter Ustinov, who always came across as so enchanted by his own performance that I found myself distracted. In my review of the 1970 musical, Scrooge, I had this to say about Finney: “(he’s) a movie star with the heart of a character actor. Makeup and prosthetics which would swallow up lesser actors only seem to liberate him.” 
Only 37 years old at the time, Finney is near-unrecognizable as the 50-something Poirot, yet under all that makeup and padding is a sharp, focused performance. Seeming to inhabit the character in every minute aspect from body language to vocal inflection, it’s Finney’s darting, curious eyes which best convey the man behind the makeup. With chin forever bowed so as to appear to always be peering at people, take note of how active his eyes are in scenes where he's required to just listen. Those clear, piercing eyes are the true eyes of a master sleuth.
Finney commands the final third of the film with an amazing, eight-page monologue  
The rest of the cast is flawless; Anthony Perkin’s twitchy, mother-fixated Mr. McQueen (!) being a particular favorite of mine in that it almost feels like Perkins is doing a parody of Norman Bates. The regal Lauren Bacall looks to be having a grand old time as the gum-chewing, prototypical Ugly American; Jacqueline Bisset & Michael York are both so gorgeous as to qualify as special effects; and of course, Ingrid Bergman’s scene-stealing Swedish missionary is a delightful bit of acting whether one thinks she deserved that Oscar or not.

Murder on the Orient Express is a film that boasts many stars –  that luxurious locomotive and the high marquee-value cast, to be sure – but as far as I’m concerned, the film’s biggest star and MVP is production designer/costume designer tony Walton.
The Oscar-winning designer (for 1980s All That Jazz) is the jack-of-all-trades genius whose talent lent a distinctive visual pizzazz to Mary Poppins, The Boy Friend, Petulia, The Wiz, and many others. His elegant sets and larger-than-life costume designs for Murder on the Orient Express create an irresistibly stylized atmosphere of theatrical glamour.
Movie magic: In real life, the Orient Express would need to add an extra car just to store the hats

Although many fans of the film consider it to be the one aspect of Murder on the Orient Express they can do without, the opening sequence – a chilling montage detailing the 1930 kidnapping/murder that sets into motion the latter events of the film – is, for me, one of the strongest, most disturbing moments in the film. 
One of the reasons the opening sequence is so effective for me is because the use of newspaper images (all the more terrifying because the eyes never print clearly) brought back scary childhood memories of seeing newspapers reporting the Kennedy assassination, the murder of Martin Luther King Jr, the Manson killings, and the hunt for the Zodiac Killer.
As presented, it’s a dramatic series of events recounted in a random mix of reenactments, newsreel footage, newspaper clippings, and press photographs, which proves to be a virtuoso bit of short filmmaking whose choppy, stylized imagery evoke a kind of cinematic equivalent of a ransom note. It's a rousing good start to the movie, and I especially like how it matches, in a kind of cyclical intensity, the film’s penultimate sequence showing how the murder on the Orient Express was carried out.
As Christie’s Miss Marple mystery, The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, drew upon the real-life personal tragedy of actress Gene Tierney, the instigating crime in Murder on the Orient Express bears as obvious similarities to the 1932 Lindbergh kidnapping case.

A heretofore unaddressed factor contributing to why Murder on the Orient Express ranked so low on my “must see” list of films in 1974 was my then-limited, not altogether favorable, experience of British crime movies, circa the 30s and 40s. At a time when even the earliest American crime films crackled with tension, the few British films I’d seen struck me as terribly aloof affairs. I was never comfortable with all that British reserve (“Murdered you say? Bit of rotten luck, wot?”), and (wrongly) assumed Murder on the Orient Express would follow suit. 

While it's by no means as stuffy as all that, by the mid-70s, as American films became bigger, noisier, and in too many instances, dumber (those disaster films) the restraint of Murder on the Orient Express seemed positively invigorating. Clever plot, great dialog, and a three-act story structure all propped up by beautiful people in fancy clothes in exotic locations…whaddaya know?...suddenly everything old felt new again.
Copyright © Ken Anderson