Tag Archives: James Stewart

Katharine the Great

Katharine HepburnKatharine Hepburn (1907-2003) is the subject of a major retrospective through February and March at the BFI in London. Much as I admire her, I find a little of her goes a long way – but she did appear in some wonderful films during her six-decade career, including several of my all-time favourites. Here’s a list of my top five Katharine Hepburn films from the vast collection screening at the BFI.

1. The Philadelphia Story (1940)
The Philadelphia Story poster 2Who could forget Hepburn as the haughty, ice maiden who has a meltdown on the eve of her society wedding when Spy magazine sends an attractive young reporter (and his photographer girlfriend) to cover her big day, her still-smitten first husband turns up, and she discovers that the high moral standards she imposes on others are occasionally hard to adhere to herself. An Oscar-winning James Stewart (for my money he could have won the award for his drunk scene alone) and an especially charismatic Cary Grant also star in this glorious, sophisticated and very funny classic from director George Cukor.

2. Woman of the Year (1942)Woman of the Year poster

Hepburn plays a famous political newspaper columnist who first spars with then falls in love with her newspaper’s sports editor in this utterly delightful George Stevens romantic comedy which features one of the all-time great comedy sequences, when Hepburn’s gal-about-town character tries to prove that the domestic stuff is as easy as pie, and comes a memorable cropper in the kitchen. Like The Philadelphia Story, this is a particular delight for wardrobe-watchers as Hepburn’s clothes were designed by the great Adrian. And it’s also the first of the nine films that she made with her real-life long-term love, Spencer Tracy.

3. Summertime (1955)

Summertime posterWhile other middle-aged female stars were forced to play bitter and twisted women clinging on to their youth (and their men) – All About Eve, Sunset Boulevard etc – Hepburn gave a wonderful, appealingly vulnerable performance as a “spinster” falling in love for the first time during a holiday in Venice in this beautiful and sensitive film by director David Lean. Neither the 40-something Hepburn nor Venice ever looked lovelier.

4. The African Queen (1951)The African Queen posterJohn Huston’s exciting First World War-set adventure/romance stars Hepburn as a buttoned-up missionary who finds herself (in more ways than one) when she and boozy steamboat captain Humphrey Bogart (who won his only Oscar for his performance) undertake an increasingly dangerous journey downriver, taking on the elements, the river currents and even the Germans at various points.

5. Alice Adams (1935) Alice Adams poster

Despite what the poster says, Hepburn was in fact in her later twenties when she played the awkward young social climber whose compulsive need to put on airs and graces (and force her slightly screwy family to do the same) is her undoing in this gentle comedy from George Stevens. It also starred a young Fred MacMurray, and Hepburn counted it as one of her favourite of her own films.

* Visit www.whatson.bfi.org.uk for the full programme

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Style on Film: Rear Window

Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Rear Window (1954) is not only a masterwork of suspense; it’s also something of a fashion show with Grace Kelly/Lisa Freemont trotting out one gorgeous summer ensemble after another for both our and James Stewart’s delectation. After all, as James Stewart’s character points out: this is the Lisa Freemont “who never wears the same dress twice”.The costumes in this ravishing-looking film were designed by that doyenne of movie designers, Edith Head, and they had to highlight the differences between Lisa Freemont, socialite and model, and her relationship-shy guy, photo-journalist LB Jefferies. We know Lisa is a class act from the first moment we glimpse her in smouldering close-up, leaning in for a kiss – the simple, elegant single strand of pearls speaks volumes. If the pearl necklace and tasteful make-up didn’t immediately connote class and wealth, then Lisa’s description of her beautiful dress being “straight off the Paris plane” gets the message across. With its deep “V” neckline at the front and back,  and full, frothy skirt, it strikes the perfect Grace Kelly balance between sexy and chic, and was undoubtedly one of the most influential movie dresses of the 1950s. As you can see here, she wore it with a thin black patent belt, strappy black heels and a white cape and gloves.

According to Jay Jorgensen’s superb book, Edith Head – The Fifty Year Career of Hollywood’s Greatest Costume Designer (Running Press), Hitchcock’s brief to Edith Head was that Grace “was to look like a piece of Dresden china, nearly untouchable”. And yet, for most of the movie, it’s Lisa who is trying to seduce the incapacitated (he has broken his leg) Jeff … For her second seduction scene – where she’s thwarted by her man’s fascination with his neighbours and the possibility that one of them has bumped off his wife – Lisa is a vision of sophisticated sensuality in a black chiffon dress and the ubiquitous pearls, this time a triple strand necklace.

On the third evening of Jeff’s “last week” in his plaster cast, Lisa turns up looking suitably business-like in a sleek, mint-green skirt suit – after all, she is about to go into action as a detective, having been informed, by Jeff, that he saw their murder suspect going through a handbag stuffed with trinkets . As she unpins her veil and peels off her gloves, she explains to Jeff why this makes it all the more likely that he has done away with his wife: “Women don’t keep their jewellery in a purse getting all scratched and tangled up. And they don’t leave it behind either..”

For this scene, the single strand of pearls is back, along with plain, pearl disc earrings – but the whole effect is enhanced by Lisa’s beautiful satin halterneck top and, especially, the fabulous, clunkingly great, multi-strand pearl bracelet on her wrist. Not only does it add a bit of pearly pizazz to the elegant ensemble but it adds weight to Lisa’s case for the prosecution.. “Why, a woman going anywhere but the hospital would always take make-up, perfume and jewellery. .. It’s basic equipment. And you don’t leave it behind in your husband’s drawer.”Next, Lisa gives Jeff a masterclass in what else a woman would pack if she was going away for the night … an exquisite negligee. The story goes that when Hitchcock saw Kelly in this nightgown, he asked Edith Head to put in “falsies” to beef up her cleavage. But an indignant Kelly instead stiffened her back and stuck her chest out, and she and Head managed to convince the director that his instruction had been followed. The weakest link, in my view, in Grace Kelly’s wardrobe for Rear Window is the day dress she wears when Lisa goes snooping in the suspect’s apartment. It has always reminded me of curtains -albeit expensive ones.. See what I mean?I think the other issue I have with this frumpy frock is that I could equally imagine Stella (the wonderful Thelma Ritter), Jeff’s middle-aged, world-weary nurse, wearing it. I much prefer Lisa’s final look of the film – which is inspired by her man’s wardrobe, and which we see in a slow tracking shot, from the  Gene Kelly-style loafers up to the watermelon pink men’s shirt (which Head nipped in with a scarf ring at Kelly’s waist). 

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Style on Film: Bell, Book and Candle

It’s not a Christmas classic of anything like the calibre of It’s a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street, but Bell, Book and Candle – the 1958 romantic comedy about a Manhattan witch who falls in love on December 25th – is one of my favourite festive season films. It may have been James Stewart who attracted me to the movie in the first place, but nowadays I love it not just for his performance as the publisher who falls under the spell of a sultry sorceress – but also for the stylish, beatnik wardrobe slinkily worn by Kim Novak  – and designed by Jean Louis. Here’s how she looks when we first see her, in her character Gill’s primitive art shop – wearing her black polo neck and trousers and red tunic.

The film begins on Christmas Eve when Gill tells her cat Pyewacket how she yearns for a man – before she knows it she’s falling in love with new neighbour Shep Henderson (James Stewart). Later that evening, at the Zodiac Club where she and the rest of the Greenwich Village chapter of the sorceress sisterhood hang out, she discovers that Shep is about to marry her old school nemesis – and suddenly, using witchcraft to get the guy doesn’t seem like a bad idea. Here she is coming home in her velvet hooded cloak, scarlet muffler and bright red gloves which match the red satin shoes she showed off in the club.

Later that evening, as if by magic, Shep stops by Gill’s place – and they get to know each other.. The romance begins on the settee where Shep gets an eyeful of Gill, whose slashed-neck, long-sleeved maroon evening gown looks fairly conservative – until she turns round to reveal that, like many of the dresses that Kim Novak was photographed in during this period,  it has no back.

After the spell has been cast, the couple spend an enchanted night which climaxes with a swoonsome love scene at the top of the Flatiron Building on a snowy Christmas morning. Admittedly, some of the colours in the film are a little dreary (including Kim Novak’s hair which looks slightly pinkish on my DVD) but the simplicity of the clothes and the fact that they all work together makes it super-stylish. Easily the best outfit in Gill’s wardrobe of blacks, maroons and reds is the one which features a tomato-red snood and matching gloves, plus a show-stopping leopard-print cape which is just as fashionable now as in 1958.

Snoods, hoods and cowl necks are Gill’s signature shapes and when she visits Shep at work , she ditches the sexy leopard-print cape in favour of a black one. Or does she? Look closely at the outfit she’s wearing as she enters his office ..

Yup, it’s lined with leopard print; in fact, as the next photo shows, it is actually the reverse side of the leopard print cape.

The leopard print is the most obvious example of why this film is so very now, and such a treasure trove for those of us who like to pinch ideas from the past. There’s also the matter of the make-up: red lips and nails (see the first picture) are the height of chic this Christmas. If you’ve never seen the movie and feel like some festive romance, check it out – there’s lots to enjoy.

 

 

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Hallowe’en Movies

It may not have inspired nearly as many movies as those cheerier, more wholesome, festivities that take place in December, but Hallowe’en rears its ugly, pumpkin, head in a rich mix of classic films – from family fantasies, such as ET, to such serious dramas as Kramer Vs Kramer.

It pops up in musicals, romantic comedies, thrillers and chillers. Just as there are certain movies which are perfect for getting us into a Christmassy mood, so there is a less well-documented collection of films which are ideal for conjuring up the spirit of Hallowe’en. Here’s my guide to essential Hallowe’en viewing.

HALLOWE’EN MUST-SEES
1. Arsenic and Old Lace (1941)
“Insanity runs in my family,” says Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) in this madcap black comedy. “In fact, it practically gallops.” And it’s all unleashed on one wild Hallowe’en night when he discovers a body stashed in the window seat of the quaint Brooklyn home shared by his beloved spinster aunts. Turns out they have a penchant for bumping off lonely old gentlemen. It’s not just Aunt Martha and Aunt Abi who are nuts; Mortimer’s brother Teddy thinks he’s Theodore Roosevelt, and his other sibling, Jonathan, is a maniac who flies into a murderous rage when anyone comments on his obvious resemblance to Boris Karloff…
This timeless classic blends high octane comedy – Cary Grant was never as hysterical as when he was playing the increasingly hysterical Mortimer – with black humour and the genuine chills provided by torture-loving Jonathan Brewster and his slimy, plastic surgeon, sidekick Dr Einstein (the ever-creepy Peter Lorre). It’s a great one to watch in the dark in the middle of the night .. Director Frank Capra followed this Hallowe’en-themed film with the greatest Christmas movie of them all – It’s a Wonderful Life.
2. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Two festive seasons for the price of one in this cult animation from the eccentric mind of Tim Burton, a magician of the macabre whose every film hints of Hallowe’en-style horrors. This musical, which was clearly inspired by Burton’s heroes, the illustrators Charles Addams and Edward Gorey, tells the story of Pumpkin Jack, the main man in Hallowe’en Town, and what happens when he tires of the Hallowe’en routine and tries his hand at being Santa instead..
TRICKS AND TREATS
3. Meet Me in St Louis (1944)
Is there anyone who has seen this heart-warming Judy Garland musical and doesn’t remember the traumatic trick-or-treating scene in which little Tootie (Margaret O’Brien) rises to the terrible challenge of approaching the front door of the scariest man in the street – and throwing flour in his face. Director Vincente Minnelli brilliantly captures the menacing mood as Tootie tentatively knocks on the door… and her jubilation as she realises that she is “the bravest of them all and the most horrible” after she has completed the task that none of the other kids would take on..
4. Everyone Says I Love You (1996)
Woody Allen’s joyful musical – in which stars ranging from Drew Barrymore to Alan Alda bravely sang old standards (regardless of how well – or not, in the case of Julia Roberts – they could sing) – follows a year in the life of a wacky Park Avenue family. One of the highlights is the Hallowe’en sequence when the children from the building come to the door to trick or treat. This being the wealthiest part of New York, you don’t just get a kid in a supermarket outfit singing a pop song; you get full, MGM-style, production numbers. And the one that the family falls for is a girl dressed as a banana, singing Carmen Miranda’s Chiquita Banana song, accompanied by two maracas-shaking boys in Mexican costume.
OF MICE AND BOGEY MEN
5. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
It’s not a horror movie, but this peerless film of Harper Lee’s wonderful book has an unforgettable scene, set at Hallowe’en, which is utterly terrifying. Our young heroine, Scout, through whose eyes the story is told, is set upon by an assailant in the dark as she and her brother Jem are returning home from a Hallowe’en pageant at their school. Scout is still in her ham costume and is knocked to the ground as the attacker lays into Jem. Her unwieldy, solid costume prevents her from seeing what’s happening and who her attacker is and stops her from being able to get to her feet. All of which adds to the suspense, which is brilliantly heightened by Elmer Bernstein’s magnificent music. The scene is not only extremely scary but also a pivotal point in the plot – as it leads to our first glimpse of the mysterious Boo Radley..
6. Hallowe’en (1978)
The low-budget chiller that spawned several sequels and a series of spoofs (the Scary Movies etc), this creepy horror flick takes place on October 31 when a psychotic killer, who has been mistakenly released from an institution, returns to his family home to pick up where he left off 15 years earlier. Jamie Lee Curtis followed in her mother Janet “Psycho” Leigh’s filmic footsteps by being something of a magnet for the murderer..
SAUCY SORCERESSES
7. I Married a Witch (1942)
Veronica Lake – she of the peekaboo fringe, petite figure and impish face – was brilliantly cast as Jennifer, the mischievous minx of a witch, who, having been burned at the stake in the 17th century, plots revenge on the modern-day ancestor of the puritan responsible for her fate. She seduces him, wrecks his marriage plans and his political campaign and, of course, ends up falling in love with him in this downright magic romantic comedy which undoubtedly inspired the hit 1960s TV show, Bewitched, but is ten times funnier..
8. Bell, Book and Candle (1958)
As sexy sorceresses go, they don’t come more sultry and spellbinding (or chic) than the beatnik witch Gillian Holroyd in this stylish romantic fantasy/comedy which reunited Vertigo stars Kim Novak and James Stewart. Gillian takes a fancy to her new neighbour and uses her magic powers to make him fall in love with her and out of love with the bully who made her life hell at school. Needless to say that she doesn’t expect to fall hook, line and sinker herself …
This dreamy, Manhattan-set romance also stars Elsa “The Bride of Frankenstein” Lanchester as Gillian’s mad old aunt Queenie, while Jack Lemmon is great fun as Gillian’s brother, a wizard with a regular gig playing the bongos at the local witches’ hangout, the Zodiac Club, in Greenwich Village.
9. The Witches of Eastwick (1987)
Three witches for the price of one in this fantastical comedy: Cher, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer discover they have magic powers when a devilish stranger (Jack Nicholson) blows into town in answer to their prayers. He wreaks so much havoc that they ultimately have to draw on their powers to get rid of him too…
WICKED WITCHES
10. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Why The Wizard of Oz has become a staple of the Christmas TV schedule beats me: it should surely be reserved for Hallowe’en viewing. After all, you don’t get very many witches who are uglier than the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) with her hatchet features, snotter-coloured complexion, scrawny frame and stripy stockings. And that voice that saws right through one’s head as it cackles “Surrender Dorothy!”. Her entourage of flying monkeys in military costume aside, the Wicked Witch is a creature of convention with all the accessories that are considered de rigueur for a witch at Hallowe’en: broomstick, cauldron, pointy black hat….
11. The Witches (1990)
Considerably more evil than the Wicked Witch of the West – just watch how she gleefully pushes a baby in its pram down the steep slope to a cliff edge – is the Grand High Witch, played by Anjelica Huston in Nicolas Roeg’s movie of Roald Dahl’s book The Witches. With her Hitler-like oratory and her desire to wipe out a section of the population (ie: children), the Grand High Witch is one of the scariest sorceresses ever portrayed on film. And far too terrifying for young audiences.
On a lighter note, she is also one of the most striking-looking of all movie witches: you’ve got to admit that, in her slinky black satin, purple trimmed, dress, her long black gloves, Cleopatra-style hair and blood-red lips, she cuts quite a dash. At least, that is, until she peels off her human skin to reveal her real, hideous, witch face.
12. Sleeping Beauty (1959)
Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the most magnificent villain of them all? Not the Queen from Snow White, though she is a contender, but the elegant, beautiful and utterly evil Maleficent, the bad witch from Disney’s wonderful interpretation of Sleeping Beauty. Left off the guest list for the christening of Princess Aurora, this horned witch casts a terrifying spell on the infant: that when she turns 18, she will prick her finger on a spindle and die…
Like Anjelica Huston’s Grand High Witch, Maleficent is a vision in swathes of black and purple (clearly the only colours for any self-respecting sorceress to sport), and a supermodel of the supernatural world (by way of total contrast with her arch enemies – the three dumpy, frumpy good fairies). And forget your black cats and brooms; Maleficent has a crow as her assistant and can transform herself into whatever she likes – most memorably, a monstrous, fire-breathing dragon.

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1939 – The Best Vintage for Movies?

The Glasgow Film Theatre celebrates its 35th anniversary this year, along with the 70th anniversary of the  picture house that its building originally housed – the Cosmo. To mark the two birthdays, the GFT is devoting Sunday, May 10 to special celebratory events, including the screening of two films voted for by the public – one from 1939 and one from 1974.

Now, much as I love 1970s cinema, I can’t get excited about the choice of films for 1974. Okay, Woody Allen hadn’t yet settled into his film-a-year routine, so that partly explains the absence of a comedy… But then this was the year of Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein – and it would have been a popular choice. It was also the year of  the about-to-be-remade Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, the brilliantly suspenseful thriller about the hijacking of a New York subway train, and The Godfather. So clearly 1974 was, as Frank Sinatra would have said, ” a very good year”.

The films in the running for Glasgow’s viewing public to see on May 10 are, I think, a bit of a mixed bag, though, with one title streets ahead of all the others. They are: Lenny, Chinatown (in a superior class all of its own), Celine and Julie Go Boating, The Man With the Golden Gun and A Woman Under the Influence.

Much more appealing (to me anyway) are the 1939 nominations. Mind you, 1939 is regarded by many as the greatest year in Hollywood history. It seems as if every second film was a future classic during that 12-month period – after all, this was the year of The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind.

Great movies emerged from every genre. Westerns-wise, there was John Ford’s lyrical Stagecoach (with John Wayne), arguably the first classic western; in the comedy category there were such gems as George Cukor’s witty, all-star (and all-female) bitch fest The Women, the western spoof Destry Rides Again (with James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich) and the sparkling Ernst Lubitsch screwball comedy Ninotchka (which had cool beauty Greta Garbo not only laughing but also sending up her own frosty image). Bette Davis triggered more than a few tears that year with two particularly classy melodramas – The Old Maid and Dark Victory. And Jimmy Stewart and director Frank Capra caused hearts to be uplifted with their first collaboration, the idealistic and often very funny political drama Mr Smith Goes to Washington.

Since several of these titles feature on the 1939 list of films to vote for, I’m in a bit of a quandary. Although I suspect it will be The Wizard of Oz that wins the popular vote, and justly so, it would be wonderful to have the chance to see the other films on the big screen. It’s not as if any of them are shown anything like as often as Oz on TV. Ninotchka isn’t even available on Region 2 DVD – unless you fork out £50 for a Garbo box set!

So, the 1939 list of choices is: Stagecoach, Mr Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, The Wizard of Oz and Jean Renoir’s masterly (and eerily premonitary) La Regle du Jeu (The Rules of the Game).

Votes must be cast by 4pm, Friday May 1st – visit http://tinyurl.com/gftbirthday to have your say….

UPDATE – WEDNESDAY, MAY 6th

Well, no surprises: The Wizard of Oz did indeed win the public’s vote for 1939 while Chinatown was the choice for 1974. Here’s how the voting went:

1939
The Wizard of Oz – 34%
Mr Smith Goes to Washington – 27%
La Regle du Jeu – 21%
Ninotchka – 11%
Stagecoach – 8%

1974

Chinatown – 48%
A Woman Under the Influence – 16%
The Man with the Golden Gun – 14%
Celine and Julie go Boating – 12%
Lenny – 10%

Watch out for the Sunday Herald’s spread on the GFT’s twin birthday celebrations, including the case for 1939 as Hollywood’s best-ever year (by me), and Herald group arts editor Alan Morrison’s views on why 1974 was a bumper one for cinema.

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