Roman Holiday (1953)

Roman Holiday – 1953

Director – William Wyler

Starring – Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck

In the 1950’s while the majority of Europe was struggling to re-build after World War 2, the United States was going like gangbusters.  Everything from the automotive and manufacturing industries, to the housing market, to the film industry was experiencing a general growth spurt.  This optimistic, forward-looking outlook on the future is in stark contrast to the over-all worldview of films coming out of war-torn Europe.  

Roman Holiday, set in post-war Rome, is a light and breezy fairy tale of a story.  A product of the United States, it paints a very different picture of life in Rome than to the films that came out of the Italian Neo-Realism movement of the same time period.  Those films often dealt with the hardships of everyday life.  Balancing the need for money, food, and shelter, with the morality and reality of stealing, community-interaction, and poverty.   A film like Roman Holiday seems light-years away from this awareness of the dark-side of humanity.  The highest stakes presented in this film have to do with embarrassment, and to a slight degree, greed.

The story centers around the rebellious princess of a fictional country, played with verve, and a naive charm by Audrey Hepburn, visiting Rome on a mission of friendship.  Gregory Peck plays a down-on-his-luck, two-bit, American reporter looking to get from under the thumb of his cantankerous editor.  Looking for adventure, Princess Ann sneaks away from her security detail one night to take in a few of the sights of Rome.  Unfortunately for her though, she had been given a sedative before she left, and winds up drowsing off on a park bench.  Enter Peck’s Joe Bradley.  After a few minutes of trying to get a cab to take her home, he relents and takes her back to his place.  Eventually he figures out who she is, and sets in motion a plan to get an exclusive, candid interview from the princess.

In order to preserve the ruse that she is undercover, he pretends to simply enjoy her company and offers to show her the sights of the city.  Predictably, his feelings for her begin to change as the day goes by, and by the end he is conflicted by the dual draws of monetary stability, and newfound love.

Despite presenting a completely different tone, and perspective on the post-war situation in Italy, Roman Holiday remains a rather charming, fun, romantic movie.  Mostly thanks to Hepburn’s wide-eyed optimism and energy the film stays engaging and charming, managing to avoid any weighty issues such as the war.  In truth we never believe for a minute that these two people won’t hit it off completely, and truthfully that’s okay.  More than anything this is a love letter to the city of Rome, and we spend the entirety of the film enjoying it along with our two main characters.  Completely worth the watch, but in my opinion, Charade starring Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant, Walter Matthau, and the city of Paris is a far superior film and more deserving of being on this list.

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My Man Godfrey (1936)

My Man Godfrey – 1936

Director – Gregory La Cava

Starring – William Powell, Carole Lombard, and Gail Patrick

When talking about films of the Hollywood studio system from the 30’s and 40’s, one of the first genres that comes to a lot of people’s mind is the screwball comedy.  These zany, farcical, films are usually the farthest thing from realism, with characters so far-fetched and ridiculous that they couldn’t possibly be real.  One prime example of the screwball comedy, and not-coincidentally the only example I had seen up until recently, was the much-loved Bringing Up Baby, starring Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant.  I didn’t like Bringing Up Baby, point in fact, I hated it.  And it, being the most prominent example of the screwball comedy, led me to the mistaken impression that I just didn’t like the genre.  Recently, I learned something.  Upon my viewing of the fantastically fun My Man Godfrey, I learned that I was wrong. 

Godfrey follows the rise, and the adventures, or rather the mis-adventures, of the titular Godfrey and the spoiled, nearly detestable members of the Bullock family.  Starting out in the city dump, where Godfrey is living, the flakey and fickle Irene Bullock hires him on as the family’s butler after he is claimed in a scavenger hunt as a “forgotten man”.  The real conflict comes into play when Gail Patrick playing the fantastically poisonous Cornelia Bullock, sister to Irene, sets her mind on ruining Godfrey, and having him fired based on a small slight she received from him during the aforementioned scavenger hunt.

Godfrey, played with ease and charm by the wonderful William Powell, handles both Irene’s romantic advances, as well as Cornelia’s maliciousness with a calm, cool head.  As time passes, Godfrey becomes a trusted and valued member of the Bullock household, but he has no intention of remaining indentured to them for the rest of his life.  Godfrey has other plans, and as these start to become clear, everyone in the Bullock family starts to wonder what they will do without him, even Cornelia.

The writing, by Morrie Ryskind, and Eric Hatch, is lightning quick and very sharp.  The film is essentially a dense, solid wall of humor and heart, pushing forward regardless of what (or who gets in the way).  ***SPOILERS*** The one disappointment I had with the film, was the fact that Godfrey ends up with Irene, and not Cornelia.  The conflict, and therefore the magnetism and attraction between Godfrey and Cornelia was the strongest.  Irene, though likable, and interested in Godfrey in a romantic way, is not smart or deep enough of a character to make a proper match.  Cornelia is just as capable, just as smart, and just as big a personality as Godfrey, not to mention, they each could have taught the other a thing or two.  The story ended up with the wrong pair getting together, but the path getting there was super fun to take, and isn’t any less successful for going off track. ***END SPOILERS***

The real strength of this film lies in its actors performances.  The story is a fine outline, but doesn’t go much beyond the blueprint stage, and the cinematography is fine, but nothing groundbreaking or outstanding.  Powell, Patrick and Carole Lombard as Irene Bullock have a kinetic chemistry with one another that could carry any story pretty far, no matter how good or bad it was.  Powell had already made a name for himself as one of the caustic, lovable, alcoholic main characters of the beloved Thin Man series, and My Man Godfrey only helped to catapult him into further great roles (a lot of them in the Thin Man series).  Lombard and Patrick on the other hand are both new to me, but I’m definitely interested in seeing other examples of each (especially Patrick).

So…what have we learned here today?  Well, I’ve learned not to base my opinion of an entire genre on one crappy movie (sorry to those of you who like Bringing Up Baby).  I’ve also learned that all I have to do to make it in this world, is to move down to my city’s dump, wait to get caught up in some socialite scavenger hunt, go to work for them as a butler, and ride the gravy train on to success and good fortune.  My Man Godfrey was a lot of fun, and is definitely worth checking out.  I recommend it highly!

To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)

ToKillAMockingbird

To Kill A Mockingbird – 1962

Director – Robert Mulligan

Starring – Gregory Peck, Brock Peters, Phillip Alford, Mary Badham, and Robert Duvall

Upon starting this film,  I was under the mistaken impression that it was a completely different trial/courtroom movie.  Apparently, even though I had already seen it, not to mention the fact that it came out well over 30 years after To Kill a Mockingbird, I was confusing it with the 1996 movie A Time To Kill.  While I suppose there are similarities in the central themes of justice and race relations in the south, A Time to Kill, and To Kill A Mockingbird are two very different films.

To Kill A Mockingbird, is told entirely through the eyes and experiences of the trial lawyer’s children, Scout and Jem, and is more a tale of decency and acceptance than it is a courtroom pot-boiler.  The trial itself only takes up a small portion of the film, yet we can feel it’s influence throughout the entire story.  Characters that we meet through the course of the story exemplify the lessons and virtues of  the civilized behavior that the Atticus Finch character (the trial lawyer played by Gregory Peck) tries to teach his children.

This innocence and down home decency that the story is filtered through does, unfortunately,work against the emotion of the storytelling, and taints it a little bit.  Every plot twist and nuance is given a sort of ho-hum, boy howdy, type folksy quality that the story can never quite get beyond.  The unwavering goodness of the father figure, played in true 1950’s American style, never seems to get angry, or make a miss-step.  The good guys always wear white hats and the bad guys black hats, so they can be easily distinguished from one another.

On the plus side, it did function as a rather nice sort of fairy tale, much like one of the American Tall Tales.  Only instead of how Paul Bunyan  created the Great Lakes or hearing about how Pecos Bill roped a tornado, we learned how the Civil Rights movement quashed racism and bigotry, and how little kids are looked over and protected by the Boo Radleys of the world.  Operating on this level, To Kill a Mockingbird is an enjoyable film with just the right amount of heartbreak and joy.