Sunday, January 27, 2019

Vital Viewing (Anglo-Saxon Cinematic Chronicle Edition)

I know at times this blog can be pretty America-centric, or, if you want to be technical about it, United States-centric ("America" is more like the nation's nickname.) What can I say? My Polish, Slovak, Hungarian, and Irish ancestors chose to settle here rather than in, say, Greenland. I mean, this country is my birthplace, my homeland, my reference point, the reason I speak English--

Wait a second. English? But I'm not English, I'm American. Except there's no American or United States language to speak of, so English it is. And if I'm going to do a post about a foreign country, why not use my own vocabulary as a starting point and make it about England? Or Britain. Or Great Britain. Or Britannia. Or the British Isles. Or the United Kingdom. (See how good my English vocabulary is? I know all the names!)

More specifically, this post is about British history. Even more specifically, this post is about British history as it's been portrayed in motion pictures. I've always found movies (as well as PBS miniseries) that take place during some part of Britain's long history interesting. Of course, there's been dozens, even hundreds, made both in Hollywood and Britain itself (as well as made in Britain and financed in Hollywood--and vice-versa), but due to time constraints--mine and yours--I'm going to focus on just three very good ones that taken together cover almost a millennia. And I'll throw in a little historical research of my own to set up each clip.    

 The serious-looking dude pictured above is Sir Thomas More, Lord High Chancellor of England (among other duties, he was in charge of the country's judiciary) during the reign of King Henry VIII. Well, he didn't hold that position during the entire reign, as he was forced to resign. Here's what happened. Henry's wife Catherine of Aragon couldn't give him a male heir, thus raising the prospect of a war of succession once the monarch died. So Henry, who was Roman Catholic, as was most everyone else in England at the time, asked the Pope to grant him a divorce. The Pope refused, so Henry went and started his very own religion, the Church of England (Episcopalians belong to the American branch.) More was against all this, and refused to sign an Oath of Supremacy stating that a king doesn't have to defer to a Pope in matters of faith, especially holy matrimony. More's refusal to say one thing and think another was turned into a play titled A Man for All Seasons in 1960 by British writer Robert Bolt that had successful runs in both the West End and on Broadway. It was turned into a 1966 movie directed by Fred Zinneman (From Here to Eternity, High Noon), with a screenplay by the playwright. Bolt doesn't necessarily declare More the greatest or most noble person who ever lived, and presents whatever criticisms that he has through the views of More's exasperated family and friends as he steadily descends into a self-contradictory martyrdom  (More agrees that the then-Pope was little more than a unprincipled shill for the Holy Roman Emperor, but supports him anyway, thinking the Bible leaves him no other choice.) However, Bolt does appreciate and sympathize with More's basic dilemma: how to be true to oneself without bringing ruin down on oneself, and that's really what A Man for All Seasons is all about. More isn't trying to overthrow the King or prevent the King from doing what he has his mind set on doing. More just doesn't want to pretend to agree with it. That's not too much to ask, is it? (Yes, as it turns out.)  Bolt also puts into More's mouth several stirring speeches about the Rule of Law that play well in these increasingly corrupt times. Such as in the following scene. More (Paul Scofield in an Oscar-winning performance) has just let a man who may (and in fact does) represent a threat leave his house, much to the astonishment of his wife (Wendy Hiller), daughter (Susannah York), and daughter's suitor (Corin Redgrave) :    


While More was defending the rule of law, new laws were being passed making it a crime to disagree with the King (played in the film by Robert Shaw.) More's disagreements were never stated outright, but just assumed by his unwillingness to sign or take various oaths. He refused to attend the coronation of Anne Boleyn (played by Corin's sister Vanessa) as Queen, and refused to sign the Oath of Succession, acknowledging any children Boleyn should have (a daughter, eventually) as a rightful heir to the throne. The latter was the last thing More refused, not due to any change of heart but because he was arrested and thrown into the Tower of London. He was found guilty of treason, and beheaded in 1535. It wasn't much consolation to his friends or family who by then were long gone, but in 1935, the Vatican, still smarting from the loss of one of Europe's most prominent nation-states, made More a saint, and in 2000 Pope John Paul II declared him the patron saint of statesmen and politicians. Pray to him the next time Trump tweets.

Now, for our next British history film, let us go back in time about 400 years to the 12th century and...

...Eleanor of Aquitaine. Aquitaine is actually a region of France, where Eleanor was from originally. In fact, she was queen consort of France for a while, and actually participated in the Second Crusade. But her marriage to King Louis VII was doomed for a variety of reasons, including an inability to give him a male heir (that again), her unpopularity with some of the barons of France, and the fact that she didn't seem to like Louis all that much. So they divorced, Louis got the kids, and Eleanor got land, a lot of land, that, as the Duchess of Aquitaine, had been hers originally. In fact, these lands made her quite a catch.  More than that, it made her a potential kidnapping victim, as that was a not uncommon form of marriage proposal back in the 12th century  (and you think male privilege is bad now.) This is where British history comes in. To protect herself, Eleanor married Henry II, soon-to-be King of England. Now, Henry had one of British history's more interesting reigns. I almost chose another film about him concerning Thomas à Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, of whose murder Henry may been complicit. It seems Henry and Becket disagreed on the limits of papal authority (wasn't I just talking about that?) But the film I chose instead deals with Henry and Eleanor's children, two of whom went on to become king, the Crusades-happy Richard the Lionhearted, and John II, who, under duress, issued the Magna Carta, which started England (and eventually its offshoot, the United States) on the long and winding road to democracy. However, 1968's The Lion in Winter, based on James Goldman's Broadway play (though, unlike A Man for All Seasons, this one closed early), takes place before all that. If Henry VIII's problems arose because of the lack of a male heir, Henry II (played in the film by Peter O'Toole) had far too many, and that proved a problem. One son, also named Henry, led a revolt against him! For some odd reason, he was made king while his father was still alive, and still king himself, but in name only. Henry the Younger wanted more than just a title, and that's where the trouble started. Eleanor supported her son's revolt, which turned out to be the wrong side of the revolt, and spent the next 16 years in prison. She did sometimes get a holiday furlough, and that's starts this movie off. The film opens with Katherine Hepburn, as Eleanor, returning to Henry's French getaway (originally the estranged wife's getaway.) The son that had revolted was now dead from dysentery, a common battlefield ailment throughout most of recorded history (even as recent as World War II), and that left Richard and John in competition for the kingdom, even though the guy who it belonged to was still alive! Eleanor supports Richard, Henry supports John, and that forms the basis of the plot. I should say plots, counter-plots, and general skullduggery, not all of it historical in nature, but given the dog-eat-dog nature of medieval politics, is hardly out of place. Also, in this version of history, Richard is gay. Actually, that's the subject of much debate among non-Hollywood historians (LGBTQ scholars likely finding it more believable than those who may feel history and homosexuality are mutually exclusive terms.)  What's missing from A Lion in Winter, missing from the movie (though not the stage) version of A Man for All Seasons, missing from most movies about royalty, missing from most movies about any kind of leader, even a democratically elected one, are the people the rulers, and would-be rulers, want to rule over. At best, they're afterthoughts. But that's not so surprising. As anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, and, yes, historians, have long known, rank is everything, even if one doesn't much care for the responsibilities that come with rank. In the following scene, it's the loss of rank that's got Eleanor bummed:    


 She might as well be singing, nobody knows the troubles I've seen...

The movie ends with Eleanore on her way back to the pokey. But it's not the end of her life. After Henry II died, Richard the Lionhearted, who won the succession battle, sprung her from prison, and she actually ruled England while her son was off fighting a Crusade. When Richard was kidnapped by the Holy Roman Emperor on his way back (as chronicled in Ivanhoe and numerous Robin Hood movies), she helped raise the ransom and negotiate his release.  She survived Richard, and lived well into the reign of her other monarch-son, John. When she was almost 80, she became a prisoner of a war between England and France (royals in one country owning so much property in another is bound to cause tensions.) This time it was John's turn to spring her from prison, which he did with help from his army. Eleanore eventually retired to, of all places, a convent in France, Fontevraud Abbey. She took the vows and died a nun. After her death, she was entombed next to her estranged husband on the Fontevraud grounds. No longer an abbey today but instead a tourist attraction, you'll find next to the tomb her effigy (not the bad kind but a statue lying on its back.) Eleanore is shown reading the Bible, though the drama of her own life matches anything she's likely to find in that book.  As for Katherine Hepburn, she picked up her third Oscar (and she wasn't done yet!)

Now I'm going to jump ahead about 800 years to...

 ...George VI, on the throne from 1937 to 1952, from the British Empire to the British Commonwealth. George never expected to become king. That position was reserved for his older brother Edward, who did indeed sit on the throne for about a year before he decided he'd like to marry an American divorcee and was forced to abdicate (Edward probably could have gotten away with it today as the royal family and its supporters look more kindly upon American divorcees than it once did.) So George got the job. But what exactly was this job? The Magna Carta had finally come to full fruition, and George was what they call a "constitutional monarch", the head of state but not the head of government. Under this system, a monarch has very limited powers. Among them, the power to select the Prime Minister, the power to strike down a law passed by Parliament, the power to dissolve Parliament, and, what we'll get to in a moment, the power to declare war. Actually, that sounds like a LOT of power to have! But in reality a king or queen would be reluctant to do any of those things without Parliament's OK for fear of provoking renewed calls for the abolishment of the monarchy, rioting, maybe even a civil war (go watch the 1970 movie Cromwell to see how the last one turned out for the crown head.) Let's face it, if since the late 19th century the main argument in favor of royalty is that it ensures stability, it behooves a royal not to do anything destabilizing. So George's job was mainly ceremonial, inspecting the troops, laying down wreaths, working the scissors at ribbon-cutting ceremonies, that kind of thing. Then one day, for the second time in a quarter of a century, Britain found itself in a war with Germany. Somebody had to go on the radio and rally the English people. Of course, Winston Churchill would be doing quite a bit of that in the next few years, but he was not yet Prime Minister. The man who was, Neville Chamberlain, did go on the radio, but doubts were beginning to be raised about him (doubts that would soon hit the stratosphere.) So the duty fell upon George. And besides, Britain technically wasn't at war until the King said it was at war. But there was a problem: George's stutter. Stuttering (also called stammering) is today believed to be a neurological condition, one that's very difficult to control, especially if the stutterer is an adult. But back in the 1930s, many people still saw it as a character flaw. More to the point, stuttering made a person seem nervous, frightened even. George understandably did not want to go on the radio sounding like this: "I ask th-them to s-stand c-c-c-c-calm, f-f-firm, and uni-ni-nit-ted in this t-time of t-t-t-t-t-trial..." If that had gone out over the airwaves, the entire population might have fled to the Arctic Circle! So George (played in this clip from The King's Speech by Colin Firth, who won an Oscar--British history certainly comes in handy at awards time) and his speech therapist Lionel Logue (played by Geoffrey Rush) went to work:

Though a highly acclaimed film, The King's Speech has had some criticisms directed toward it. Like any historical movie, it contains historical inaccuracies. For instance, the prominence of Winston Churchill. At that particular point in time, Churchill was still seen as a has-been politician, and wouldn't have been at the King's side on the royal balcony (though later on he was more than welcome there.) And then there's the film's very premise. George's stammer is made to seem central to world events of the day, when in fact it really was no more than an interesting sidelight (a sidelight that many didn't even know about.) Still, the King did go on the radio, and people were rallied. And he rallied the country in other, equally impressive ways as well. Instead of watching the war play out on a Canadian newsreel, George, his wife, and two daughters remained in London, and barely escaped being killed when a couple of bombs fell on Buckingham Palace (he and his family were eventually persuaded to spend at least their nights at Windsor Castle, outside of London, though this was kept a state secret.)  George subjected himself to food rationing, even bathwater rationing, and went without central heating for extended periods of time, in a successful effort to show the English people that they were all in this thing together. Overcoming his shyness (practically a symptom of stuttering), he made morale-boosting visits to the troops in war zones, and took regular tours of London's heavily bombed East End. As with Churchill (the original comeback kid) during those dark days, George became a symbol of the national will, the epitome of the famed British stiff upper lip. Royalty really is the luck of the draw. Had Wallis Simpson not flirted her way into Edward VIII's heart, a man who many believed to be a Nazi sympathizer would have sat on the throne of England (maybe Wallis should have been knighted for her service toward the nation.) George VI, an egalitarian at heart, got everything back on track again. British history could have easily ended in 1940 or so, but didn't. In fact, British history persists to this very day. Speaking of which...

...I can't wait for the movie.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Quips and Quotations (Musical Comedy Edition)


Laughter is much more important than applause. Applause is almost a duty. Laughter is a reward.

--Carol Channing

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Irresistible, You Fool

Dancer/choreographer/singer/actress Gwen Verdon was a mainstay of The Great White Way for decades, but she actually got her start on the other side of the continent as a "specialty dancer" in Hollywood musicals and even nonmusicals that nonetheless needed a dance scene. Generally, a specialty dancer appeared in only one scene, or sequence, and wasn't seen again for the rest of the film. Some specialty dancers, such as Cyd Charisse and Ann Miller, went on to become full-fledged movie stars. That didn't happen in Gwen's case, so the Californian native went east, where she became a full-fledged Broadway star, first in the 1954 show Can-Can, and, more decisively, the next year in Damn Yankees, for which she won a Tony. When it came time to turn Yankees into a motion picture, Gwen was a shoo-in to repeat her role as the satanic seductress Lola, though you might get the opposite impression from the above headline that appeared in the 1950s tabloid Tempo News. In fact, you  might have thought Hollywood was through with her. Why, exactly, was she "too hot"?

Well, according to the article, written in the wake of her Broadway success in the baseball-and-Beelzebub musical, Gwen "can't get to home base with Hollywood umpires", meaning that her scenes were either trimmed or cut out of a movie altogether by censors. Gwen herself is quoted as saying that "Boston has never seen me", but she was "...allowed in...cities where there was progressive education." The latter quote reminded me of the "communities standards" test the Supreme Court once invoked in an obscenity case. I must tell you, I was a bit surprised when I came across this article. I never knew that Gwen Verdon was once thought of as only appealing to the "prurient interest", to borrow another memorable Supreme Court phrase. She was undeniably sexy, and remained sexy for quite a long time (when she was 50, she appeared on stage wearing an outfit much like a bikini in the original 1975 Broadway production of Chicago.) But this article is from the same decade that saw the rise of Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, Ava Gardner, and Gina Lollobrigida. Those ladies didn't exactly come across as Taliban charm school teachers. I wonder if the whole thing wasn't written by some press agent, which was a common practice back then. Of course, censorship was a genuine threat during the homogenized 1950s, in particular, and, at the time, famously, in Boston (the joke went that the city's library system had an extra branch just for all the banned books) and the movie studios did have to be careful. However, the well-publicized threat of censorship, but one that was nonetheless successfully dodged (except in Boston), well, that could fill up those theater seats that were being increasingly abandoned in favor of television. So it was a fine line Hollywood had to walk, and someone like Gwen had to dance.

The line was often walked religiously. Literal religion. Until the advent of the beach movie in the 1960s, the greatest number of scantily-clad females could be found in biblical pictures, and 1951's David and Bathsheba is where we find then-specialty dancer Verdon, her red hair hidden beneath a black wig, playing a slave girl (as were most professional dancers in 1000 BC, at least according to Hollywood): 


Now for something a little less devout (unless you're a disciple of Anton LaVey.) In this scene from the 1958 film version of the aforementioned Damn Yankees, Lola presents a ballpark figure to Tab Hunter, who, in a brilliant bit of acting, looks as though he's just been hit with a line drive: 

Gwen Verdon, at her sexy, and, lest we forget, talented, best. As controversial as the above two clips may have been in the 1950s, were they being shown now for the very first time, I doubt there would be any calls for censorship. But even if there were...

 ...Boston can now be easily detoured.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Vital Viewing (Gotham City Domestic Help Edition)

Thespian Alan Napier was born on this day in 1903 (he died in 1988.) He is best know for playing Bruce Wayne's butler Alfred in the tongue-in-cheek, 1960s superhero TV series Batman. The very first actor cast for the show, the  6′ 5″ Napier describes in the following clip how it all came about:

Now here's a clip from Batman itself (note just how much the 6'2'' Adam West, who played the series eponymous costumed crimefighter, and the 6'3" Cesar Romero, who played the villainous Joker, are both literally cut down to size in Napier's presence):

Wow! Did you see Alfred handle the Joker? He could be a superhero himself!

 Albeit a superhero in desperate need of a tailor.

It may be his most famous role, but Napier's career was hardly confined to playing Alfred. A graduate of London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, he worked alongside John Gielgud and Robert Morley. In 1937, he appeared in a revival of Heartbreak House, supervised by that play's author, George Bernard Shaw. He moved to Hollywood in 1941, becoming a member of the British expatriate community there, and over the years had roles in such films as The Invisible Man Returns, Random Harvest, Lassie Come Home, The Uninvited, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, Hangover Square, Johnny Belinda, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, The Court Jester, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and Marnie. These were all just supporting parts, but in an early (1949) television production of Arthur Conan Doyle's The Adventure of a Speckled Band, Napier got a chance to play...

...the world's greatest consulting detective. See for yourself:

 Will Benedict Cumberbatch ever play Alfred? Stay tuned. Same bat-time, same bat-channel.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Quips and Quotations (Screen Legends Hobbies Edition)

I touch them sometimes, with the flat of my hand very gently, amazed again and ever again that little tubes of long-dried pigment could be arranged in such lovely order, that an instant of times gone by, people long dead, music faded away, eyes long ago dimmed and empty, could suddenly be alive once more and very real

--Edward G. Robinson, a noted art collector in his later years.