REVIEW: “Love in the Afternoon”

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Gary Cooper and Audrey Hepburn. Folks, that’s all I needed to hear to be interested in 1957’s “Love in the Afternoon”. And as if I needed any more prodding, this romantic comedy was directed, produced, and co-written by the great Billy Wilder. And then to add even more personal intrigue, “Love in the Afternoon” is set in the magical city of Paris. So you have an unlikely love story filled with good humor, some really strong central performances and the City of Lights. Sounds good.

One of the first things you’ll notice when watching the film is the dramatic age difference between Cooper and Hepburn. Cooper was 55 years old at the time and there were some people who had a problem with his casting. Hepburn plays a beautiful (and much younger) girl named Ariane. She lives in Paris with her father Claude (brilliantly played by Maurice Chevalier) who works out of their home as a private investigator. Watching Hepburn and Chevalier is pure joy. They have an adorable father/daughter chemistry which shows itself in her playful curiosity about his work and his father-like encouragement of her cello playing.

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One day Ariane eavesdrops as her father reveals to a client that his wife is having a fling with a wealthy American named Frank Flannagan (Cooper). She hears the trysts are taking place in Flannagan’s hotel room and that the husband plans to kill him. The curious and adventurous Ariane decides to go warn Flannagan of his upcoming demise. In doing so she finds herself smitten by the millionaire playboy’s charm. Her innocence and inexperience with love creates new feelings within her. On the other hand Ariane is initially just another victim of Flannagan’s globetrotting womanizing. But she leaves him in the dark about many things including her name and her far-fetched tales of her many boyfriends intrigues him. But is that enough to cure him of his playboy ways?

Wilder does a great job of getting us to love Hepburn and her character. She instantly comes off as pure and sweet and her childlike curiosity is adorable. That’s one reason we dislike Gary Cooper and his Flannagan character. We see that she is enamored with him but he sees her as just another toy. We genuinely worry for her as this unusual story plays out. But Wilder also shows that she’s not just a child with a bout of puppy love. She’s clever and, as Flannagan finds out, she can be abstruse. All of this is key to developing what is a well conceived love story.

This was the first of many screenplay collaborations between Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond. As you would expect from anything that Wilder has a hand in writing, the dialogue is slick and smart and his two lead actors handle it nicely. Hepburn was Wilder’s one and only choice to play Ariane but he wanted Cary Grant to play Flannagan. Grant turned down the role (as he did with several other Wilder offerings) which opened the door for Cooper. I admit, Cooper was an unusual choice and at first I wondered if he was going to fit. But as things move along, I think he captures what the role calls for.

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The film also features some good bits of humor. The dialogue itself can be quite funny and there are several running gags that become pretty outrageous. There’s a hilarious reoccurring bit with gypsy musicians who Flannagan pays to play for him whenever he has a woman over. But we later see them popping up in some of the most absurd locations. It’s very funny. I also have to again mention the fun moments between Hepburn and Chevalier. She is her usual peppy and sprightly self. But Chevalier is a real scene stealer and for me some of the best moments featured him on screen.

“Love in the Afternoon” is a movie I’m glad I finally caught up with. This is another energetic and intelligent Wilder film that hits the romance and humor it shoots for. “Love in the Afternoon” may not be up there with the great romantic comedies of its time, but it’s still a solid film featuring a wonderful cast, beautiful Paris locations, and a smart director who has no problem putting all of his pieces together.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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REVIEW: “My Favorite Wife”

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How can any true movie fan not love the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s? The once popular genre was recognized for its witty rapid-fire dialogue, wacky situations, bold and brash female leads, occasional slapstick humor, and a feverish battle of the sexes. During this wonderful time for comedies many actors and actresses saw their careers flourish including Cary Grant. In “My Favorite Wife” Grant matches wits with Irene Dunne in what is a shining portrait of this great genre.

The movie starts with arguably the funniest courtroom scene ever filmed. Nick Arden (Grant) is before a judge seeking to have his wife Ellen (Dunne) declared legally dead after being missing at sea for seven years. He’s there with Bianca (Gail Patrick) who he plans to marry after the judge’s ruling. Everything goes as planned but as with all screwball comedies the harmony doesn’t last long. You see, Ellen isn’t dead and she shows up after being rescued from a deserted island.

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When Ellen reveals herself to Nick things get pretty complicated. He’s crazy about her yet he doesn’t know how to end it with Bianca. It also doesn’t help that he’s a bit spineless and cowardly. He drags things out leading to one comedic complication after another. And that’s what makes this movie so great. The nutty situations, the back-and-forth banter, and the hilarious head-butting between the two leads.

One of the biggest strengths of “My Favorite Wife” lies in its screenplay. It’s sharp, funny, and void of any of the trappings that befall many of today’s “comedies”. You’re always running across a great scene or hilarious line. For instance take the opening courtroom scene. Veteran character actor Granville Bates plays the grumpy and cantankerous Judge Bryson. He steals the scene with his growls and impatience. It’s a perfect tablesetter for the fun and playful tone that carries through the entire picture.

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Of course a movie like this has to have good performances from capable talents who can pull it all off. I’ve already talked about Cary Grant and as expected he is fabulous. He has his usual charisma but he also shows off his impeccable comedic timing. But the real star just may be Irene Dunne. Dunne has been called the greatest actress to never bring home Oscar. Watch her here and you may understand why. She matches Grant line for line and gag for gag. She gives a great performance and steals one scene after another. Randolph Scott and Gail Patrick are also a lot of fun in solid supporting roles.

“My Favorite Wife” is a really good film. It features a sharp and sometimes corny wit and some really fun performances. Even though it was nominated for three Academy Awards, the film is rarely mentioned among the list of the great screwball comedies. And while I’ll admit that it may be missing that special ‘something’ which may hold it back, I still think it’s a great picture that any lover of comedy or movies should see.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

Classic Movie Spotlight: “Charade”

Classic Movie SpotlightAny movie starring the suave Cary Grant and the gorgeous Audrey Hepburn automatically catches my attention. Yet for some inexplicable reason I had not taken time to watch “Charade”. Well now I have and I can say without hesitation that it’s a real treat. Stanley Donen produced and directed this 1963 film that plays in almost every genre. It can be considered a Hitchcockian thriller, a slick romance, or a side-splitting comedy. But more importantly all of these elements fit together nicely in what turns out to be a well conceived and sharply directed picture driven by some wonderful performances. And would you expect anything else when you have this kind of talent involved?

The movie begins with a murder. We see a quick scene of a man being thrown from a train that’s speeding through the French countryside. This turns out to be Charles Lampert and his death is what triggers the mystery component of the film. Hepburn plays his wife Regina who is winding down her skiing trip in the French Alps. It’s here that she first meets an alluring stranger who goes by the name of Peter Joshua (Grant). After returning to Paris and finding everything in her apartment gone, Regina is notified by the police that her husband had been murdered while trying to leave the city. At his funeral three mysterious and shady looking men “pay their respects”. In actuality, the three were past partners with Charles in an elaborate scheme to steal $250,000 worth of gold. They are determined to get the money and think that Regina knows where it is.

It’s this mystery that serves as the main course of the film. Who is it that murdered Charles? Who is it that would do anything to get their hands on the $250,000? Who can Regina trust? Can anyone trust Regina? These are all viable questions and the movie never tips its hand too early. Instead you find yourself suspicious of every character at some point in the film. Peter pops back up but it may not be by accident. Grant nicely creates an aura of suspicion mixed in with his character’s self-assured charm. I loved it every time he showed up. The three men from the funeral, wonderfully played by James Coburn, George Kennedy, and Ned Glass, throw aside the ‘honor among thieves code’ and are as untrustworthy as they come. Regina has to navigate through this cast of questionable characters but does so with the help of the CIA administrator named Hamilton Bartholomew played by Walter Matthau.

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There are several other things that help make “Charade” a really good film. I’ve mentioned how well the mystery element of the story works. But the movie also has its share of hilarious scenes particularly those featuring Grant and Hepburn’s playful banter. I also felt there was a believable romantic chemistry between the two that I bought into despite the noticeable age differences. And then there’s the great look of the film thanks to the fantastic cinematography of the brilliant Charles Lane as well as carefully chosen locations scattered throughout beautiful Paris. And I just have to talk about the cast again. Hepburn is lovely and you just can’t take your eyes off of her. Grant’s performance is a reminder that he was not only a very polished actor but he could also be very funny. This was one of his final roles, and even though he’s older and grayer, he still masterfully handles each and every scene. And while I’ve never been the biggest Matthau fan, he’s perfect here as is Coburn.

I have no idea why I waited so long to catch up with “Charade”. It’s a highly satisfying mishmash of several movie genres that I love and it’s anchored by two performances from two of Hollywood’s all-time greats. Fantastic direction, beautiful cinematography, and a perfect supporting cast give this movie a familiar yet distinct style that I truly loved and responded to. Now there are a few plot holes that you could nitpick about and there may be a couple of things that are a little too silly to buy into. But I found it to be an entertaining time and it’s a film that shouldn’t fly under any movie fan’s radar. If you haven’t seen it, don’t take as long as I did. It’s definitely worth your time.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Roman Holiday”

Classic Movie Spotlight

roman_holidayI don’t mean to be repetitive. But at the risk of sounding like a broken record, they just don’t make romantic comedies like this anymore. This 1953 classic from director William Wyler is a beautiful blueprint for a genre that seems to struggle with making quality movies these days. “Roman Holiday” brings together the always good Gregory Peck and the adorable Audrey Hepburn in a film that could almost be considered a fairy tale story. But while the film embraces some of the elements that make a good romantic comedy, it dodges a few of the conventions which have become all too familiar.

“Roman Holiday” was the star-making role for a young Audrey Hepburn. After appearing in several smaller roles this was a bigger performance that caught the world’s attention. A lot of that attention is because of Gregory Peck. Peck was instrumental in getting Hepburn’s name out there after realizing she was going to be big. Interestingly enough Peck wasn’t Wyler’s first choice. The director first sought after Cary Grant but Grant turned it down after reading the script. Peck once said that anytime he received a comedy script he knew Grant must have turned it down first. Well I don’t think anyone is griping about how things turned out. Peck and Hepburn have a charming chemistry as they explore the unique relationship between their characters.

The story for “Roman Holiday” was written by Dalton Trumbo but it was credited to Ian McClellan Hunter. Trumbo was one of the Hollywood Ten and was blacklisted for his communist ties and failure to cooperate with Congress. It was during that time that he penned the story. To make things even more interesting, “Roman Holiday” won the Academy Award for Best Story (as the category was known at the time). Hunter would accept the award but it was Trumbo who earned it. Only in 2011 was full credit given to Trumbo was his work on the film.

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His story follows Ann (Hepburn), a princess of an unmentioned country who is on a European tour stop in Rome. Ann is young and adventurous and she wants to experience the life outside of her closed in ornate walls. She’s tired of the strict itineraries and stuffy hobnobbing so one night she lets out her frustrations. The royal family doctor gives her a sedative to calm her down but before it can kick in, she sneaks out of the embassy to experience the sites and sounds of Rome. An American reporter named Joe Bradley (Peck) stumbles across Ann sound asleep next to a fountain. He doesn’t recognize her at first but after a comical series of events he learns her identity and sees her as a big story that could eventually land him back in New York.

Joe doesn’t let Ann know that he recognizes her and Ann tries to keep her identity secret. He calls a photographer friend of his Irving Radovich (Eddie Albert) to secretly capture some photographs of Ann for their big story while the three of them spend a playful day exploring Rome. Of course Joe begins to have feelings for Ann. I mean who wouldn’t? This is Audrey Hepburn were talking about. He’s faced with the decision of caring for her or cashing in his feelings for a big payday. It’s such a wonderful story filled with good humor and a lovely romance. Hepburn and Peck light up Rome with Albert playing the tag-along who gets in some good laughs.

“Roman Holiday” was shot in Rome, something that you didn’t see a lot of during that time. Unlike now where on location shoots are the norm, then it was a pretty special thing to have such an extensive shoot especially I’m a city like Rome. It was a brilliant decision. The city and all its beauty is on display throughout the film and Wyler treats Rome like one of the film’s characters. But it’s a supporting character. The city shows itself often but always as a support for the bigger love story. There are several magical scenes with Ann and Joe at some of the city’s major locations. One of my favorites is a playful moment at The Mouth of Truth monument. Peck pretends as if his arm is stuck in the mouth of the monument and he lets out a scream. Hepburn new nothing of this little gag. Only Peck and Wyler were in on it. It genuinely startled Hepburn who let out a loud scream of her own. It was completely spontaneous and Wyler was able to capture it therefore requiring only one take.

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“Roman Holiday” ended up with 10 Academy Award nominations. I mentioned Trumbo’s win but that wasn’t the biggest story. Audrey Hepburn, a relatively unknown actress at the time, would take home the Best Actress Oscar. This catapulted her into the spotlight and opened the door for her to star in several of my favorite classic films. Peck was right with his appraisal of the young beauty and she was always appreciative. They remained close friends for the rest of their lives. Their admiration for each other and their friendship translated into their performances and they give us a truly memorable screen couple.

I still love “Roman Holiday”. It’s a beautifully filmed movie that tells a wonderful story through some top-notch performances. The Rome locations provide such a pleasing sense of place and even in black and white Wyler gives you a very real feel for the city’s allure and vibrancy. It’s also one of those movies with several scenes that you’ll never forget. It’s easy to get lost in “Roman Holiday” and as an avid movie watcher that’s what I want. I want to be swept away by an interesting story about interesting characters. And in a romantic comedy I want to care about what I’m seeing. I want the story to be smart, the humor to be sharp, and the romance genuine. We get all of this and more in “Roman Holiday” which is one reason this great film has stood the test of time.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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5 Phenomenal Actors Who Never Won an Oscar

A few weeks ago I looked at 5 phenomenal actresses who were never given an Academy Award despite their incredible talent and strong careers. Today we are focussing on the men. I found this to be a much tougher list to put together. The number of great actors that never won the highest acting award would surprise you. And I found it incredibly difficult to leave certain names off this list. But I think a great case can be made for the five that made the cut. Now, as with the ladies, Lifetime Achievement Oscars don’t count. I’m talking about men who never received the heralded Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor awards. With such a healthy selection, it would be silly to call this the definitive list. But it’s clear that these 5 Oscarless actors are certainly phenomenal.

#5 – FRED ASTAIRE

While I’ve never been a huge fan of musicals, I’ve always appreciated the amazing contributions Fred Astaire made to the once flourishing genre. So it came as a big surprise to see that Astaire never won an Oscar. Now he did receive an honorary Academy Award after one of his retirement stints. But he was never recognized for his acting. Astaire was an amazing talent both with his dance and with his voice. But he was also a talented and always likable actor who made many quality films. There was a lot of doubt about whether he would make it in the movie industry but he would end up putting that to rest. He will always be recognized for his collaborations with Ginger Rogers. The two made a total of ten movies together including “Top Hat”, “Swing Time”, and “The Barkleys of Broadway”. He was superb in “Holiday Inn” alongside Bing Crosby. He would also make many well-received movies with the likes of Rita Hayworth, Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, and Audrey Hepburn. Fred Astaire made many films that should have garnered some Oscar attention. And this is coming from a guy not that crazy about musicals.

#4 – LEONARDO DICAPRIO

From an early age, Leonardo DiCaprio defined himself as an exceptional actor through several incredible performances. He first caught the attention of movie fans with his portrayal of a mentally handicapped boy in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”. This would earn him his first Academy Award nomination. He would star in several recognizable films before making his big splash (pun intended) in James Cameron’s mega-hit “Titanic”. Following it, he began a defining collaboration with Martin Scorsese in films like “Gangs of New York”, “The Aviator” (which earned him his second Oscar nomination), and “The Departed”. Hey would then earn a third nomination in “Blood Diamond”. He would continue to do top-notch work particularly in “Shutter Island”, his fourth movie with Scorsese, and the fantastic “Inception” with director Christopher Nolan. DiCaprio has an impressive resume and several intriguing roles lined up. He’s earned his numerous nominations but cases could be made that one or more of them could have translated to wins.

#3 – ROBERT MITCHUM

It’s hard to believe that an actor who was so highly revered and with so many good movies on his resume never received an Academy Award for his work. Such is the case with Robert Mitchum. Mitchum really made a name for himself in the film noir genre with movies like “Crossfire”, “Out of the Past”, and “The Big Steal”. He also starred in “The Story of G.I. Joe”, a solid picture that would earn him his one and only Academy Award nomination. After playing in a variety of roles, Mitchum would give a mesmerizing and menacing performance in “The Night of the Hunter”. The rest of Mitchum’s career would feature numerous Oscar worthy performances in some really good films such as “The Sundowners”, the creepy “Cape Fear”, “The Longest Day”, “El Dorado”, “The Friends of Eddie Coyle”, and “Ryan’s Daughter”. Mitchum had a recognizable look and unmistakable voice. But he also had a booming screen presence that made his performances all the more memorable. It’s truly amazing that the Academy never recognized him for his work.

#2 – JOSEPH COTTEN

Joseph Cotten had a long film career that spanned over five decades. He was an actor that was always working but was never quite as popular as many of Hollywood’s big names. But personally I loved Cotten and he starred in some of my favorite classic movies. You know things are good when one of your very first feature films in the beloved “Citizen Kane”. Cotten’s performance as Leland stands out and it’s one of the film’s many strong points. After another wonderful collaboration with Orson Welles in “The Magnificent Ambersons”, he would star in one of my very favorite Alfred Hitchcock pictures “Shadow of a Doubt”. In it he delivers yet another true Oscar-calibur performance. The 1940’s were a great year for Cotten as evident by his work in “Gaslight”, “Portrait of Jennie”, and a spectacular movie that I think may offer his very best performance “The Third Man”. While not as strong as the 40’s, the rest of his career would offer several memorable roles in films like “Niagara”, “Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte”, “Soylent Green”, and “Airport ’77”. It’s stunning to me that Cotten never garnered any recognition from the Academy especially for his early work.

#1 – CARY GRANT

It almost doesn’t seem possible. Has Cary Grant really never won an Academy Award especially when considering his brilliant resume? Nope, he never won an Oscar and he was only nominated twice! In 1970 the Academy did give him a “We Feel Terrible for Always Passing You Over” honorary Academy Award, but that doesn’t make up for the shunning. Cary Grant’s career stands on its own and it goes without saying that it was a great one. Grant’s good looks and undeniable charm always translated well to the big screen. He gave so many brilliant and charismatic performances from the 1930’s until his retirement in the mid-60’s. Instead of giving a history, let me just name some of the wonderful films he’s been in and you explain to me how he never won and Oscar – “Bringing Up Baby”, “Gunga Din”, “His Girl Friday”, “The Philadelphia Story”, “Penny Serenade”, “The Talk of the Town”, “Arsenic and Old Lace”, “Notorious”, “To Catch a Thief”, “Houseboat”, “North By Northwest”, “Operation Petticoat”, “Charade”. There are several other great Cary Grant pictures but I think you get the point. He was a wonderful actor who always commanded the screen. He also gave us some of cinema’s greatest films.

There you go. Those are my five phenomenal actors who have never won an Oscar. What say you? Agree or disagree with my list? Please take some time to share your thoughts on this week’s Phenomenal 5.

5 PHENOMENAL JIMMY STEWART FILMS

One of my favorite movie actors of all time is the great Jimmy Stewart. Throughout his career which spanned almost 60 years, Stewart compiled an incredible resume full of some truly classic movies. Known as an everyday man, Stewart had a great charisma and a wonderful likability on-screen. But his greatness wasn’t just restricted to the movies. He had an impressive military career serving his country during World War 2 and the Vietnam War. But keeping with his movies, I thought I would show this great actor some love by looking at five phenomenal movies of his. Now it’s hard to call this the definitive list. But I have no problems saying that these five Jimmy Stewart films are simple phenomenal.

#5 – “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”

This is the movie that made Jimmy Stewart into a big time movie star. “Mr Smith Goes to Washington” is the story of a simple but honest man who is sent to Washington to fill the position of a recently deceased Senator. Supposedly Stewart’s character would be easy to control and corrupt but that doesn’t turn out to be the case. This gem from Frank Capra caused a huge stir in Washington with several Senators and other government officials slamming it for daring to address possible corruption in our system. Regardless, Stewart is fantastic and his performance earned him a much deserved Oscar nomination.

#4 – “Vertigo”

Heralded by many (including the new Sight and Sound Magazine’s Greatest Movies list) as the best film of all time, this Hitchcock and Stewart collaboration has reached an iconic status. Personally, I don’t see it as the best movie of all time or even the best Hitchcock film but there’s no denying how wonderful Stewart is in the picture. The story is intriguing and suspenseful although at times slow and with a unfullfilling conclusion. But watching Stewart handle the material is a joy and I still say that his performance is the best thing about the film.

#3 – “The Philadelphia Story”

In 1940, Jimmy Stewart played in one of my favorite romantic comedies of all time – “The Philadelphia Story”. Teaming up with greats Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, Stewart still shines as a reporter who ends up in a tangled and sometimes hilarious web of love with Hepburn in the center. Grant and Hepburn are just as good as you would expect but I love Stewart’s performance. This is a great film and Stewart won his only Best Actor Academy Award for this role.

#2 – “It’s a Wonderful Life”

By now everyone knows “It’s a Wonderful Life” because of its status as a Christmas classic and I certainly wouldn’t take anything away from that. But it’s also a brilliant movie that’s driven by Jimmy Stewart’s fantastic work as George Bailey. From his onscreen chemistry with the gorgeous Donna Reed to his believable fall and eventual rise, Stewart owns every scene. He’s surrounded by a superb supporting cast and Capra’s direction is spot-on. But “It’s a Wonderful Life” wouldn’t be the classic it is without Jimmy Stewart.

#1 – “Rear Window”

While “Vertigo” gets most of the love between Stewart’s collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock, “Rear Window” is my personal favorite movie from Stewart as well as my favorite Hitchcock film. Elaborately staged and at times incredibly tense, “Rear Window” confines Stewart to one room where he becomes a voyeur, peeping into the lives of his numerous neighbors. He soon suspects one neighbor of foul play and as the story unfolds we wonder if he’s right or if he’s allowed his snooping to manufacture something that’s really not there. Stewart has a tricky role but he nails it and this is one of those movies that I can sit down and watch at any time. Stewart and Hitchcock at their best.

There ya go folks. My 5 phenomenal Jimmy Stewart movies. So what are your thoughts on this tremendous actor? Are you a fan or is he not your cup of tea? Please share your thoughts.