Fun Flicks and fabulous finds

Getting To Know the FILMCLUB Audience

Recently a British education charity known as FILMCLUB issued a list of 20 classic films they insist “should be watched” by children. They urged parents and grandparents to make sure that happens.

Most publications reprinted their call to action without comment or criticism. Here’s what they recommend:

TEN CLASSIC MOVIES FOR PRIMARY SCHOOL CHILDREN (ages 6 to 12)

  1. FILMCLUB logoThe Red Balloon (1956)
  2. Duck Soup (1933)
  3. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
  4. Oliver Twist (1948)
  5. The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)
  6. The Kid (1921)
  7. Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
  8. Singin’ In The Rain (1952)
  9. The Thief of Bagdad (1940)
  10. La Belle et La Bête (1946)

TEN CLASSIC MOVIES FOR SECONDARY SCHOOL CHILDREN (ages 12 to 18)

    1. North by Northwest (1959)

Screen capture from filmclub.org

  1. A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
  2. Metropolis (1927)
  3. It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)
  4. The Great Escape (1963)
  5. Twelve Angry Men (1957)
  6. The Night of the Hunter (1955)
  7. Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)
  8. Seven Samurai (1954)
  9. The Ladykillers (1955)

Malcolm McDowell in the Stanley Kubrick film A Clockwork Orange

Typical reader responses include “I can’t argue with any of those choices. They are all, deservedly, classics.” Others pleasantly debated about what should be added to the list, and what should stay. Most seemed to agree at least one Stanley Kubrick film should have been included — like Dr. Strangelove or 2001: A Space Odyssey.

But nobody seemed particularly concerned about how the kids might react to all this.

Before I continue, let me be clear — I am 100% in support of children discovering the world of classic cinema. But the key word is “discovering.” This is more like the Ludovico Technique.

It’s not easy, but it is possible for kids — in sufficient numbers — to discover vintage films they might truly enjoy and find relevant, thus triggering a prolonged interest. The trick is to let them find their own path. Especially at such a young age. Later, once one has their interest and attention, then one can suggest such canonized classics. That way, the worst-case scenario is they retreat to the types of classic cinema that more easily appeals to them — instead of retreating from an entire library of them.

That’s because, when one takes such an autocratic approach from the get-go, it tends to generate one of two responses: conformity or rebellion.

This is best exemplified in the film if….?

As is, FILMCLUB’s methods already shows signs of both, which is wholly avoidable because a much more constructive approach is not only feasible but immensely more rewarding for all.

“I hate black and white movies so I hate this one!”
- 9-year-old Joe after watching The Lavender Hill Mob

Let’s look at Duck Soup, for example. It’s arguably the strongest comedy on this FILMCLUB list, but the humour is mostly verbal — the kind adults tend to “get,” and kids don’t. Looking at the comments section, a curious pattern emerges that seems to prove this tendency. When the youngsters — especially pre-teens — articulate what they specifically like about the film, they always highlight the physical comedy (e.g. “the bit where he kept swapping the hats” gets mentioned a lot). Not the verbal gags.

They especially liked “the person who couldn’t speak.” I’ll give you a hint: it wasn’t Groucho.

The following seems to sum it up best:

“I really enjoyed this film because it was very funny, especially the mirror bit. The only thing that I didn’t like about it was that I didn’t understand it all.” – Oliver, 7 years old

Groucho Marx wonders why young kids prefer watching his silent brother over him in Duck Soup.

For the most part the remarks about Duck Soup are incredibly kind compared to what youngsters say about some of the other recommended titles. Singin’ in the Rain, for instance, tended to provoke complaints that it “broke into song every five minutes.” And the predominant descriptors for The Lavender Hill Mob were “boring” and “not funny.”

Of course, there were others who said they loved this Ealing comedy, but their write-ups were often a laundry list of production details, such as 10-year-old Matthew who says “A cool Charles Crichton film with Alec Guinness and lots more crazy people a great plot and a good finish to this silly story lasting a full 81action minutes superb!!! Everyone watch THE LAVENDER HILL MOB.”

I was a bit puzzled by Matthew’s enthusiasm and detail — and others like it — until I discovered the “FILMCLUB Guides.”

These “guides” are meant to be read by the kids before they watch a particular film, and are unquestionably designed to influence a positive response (sort of FILMCLUB’s version of “Serum 114“). Check out this one for Kind Hearts and Coronets, which follows the same format as the others.

The plot summary — or “What’s it about?” section — is loaded with subjective remarks such as “astonishing lead performances” from Alec Guinness, and that “the result is a masterclass in great acting – and a darkly hilarious movie to boot.” But the editorializing doesn’t stop there.

Screen capture from filmclub.org

At the end they tack on a “What We Think” section. The one for Kind Hearts reads: “Featuring more funny performances than you can count, Kind Hearts and Coronets more than deserves its reputation as possibly Britain’s best ever black comedy.”

In between, the guides predominately include nothing but positive, glowing review quotes — not a single dissenting opinion amongst them (even though a number of the selected films were critical and/or box office disappointments when originally released).

But what is most unusual is they also include a section called a “Review Starter.” They actually feed students opening lines for positive reviews they are expected to write.

Yes, they literally tell them what to say.

Screen capture from the “FILMCLUB Guide” for The General

Instead of coercing children to write fawning reviews of the films they’re made to watch, why not let them be honest? Why not let them articulate what they like — or don’t like — and encourage them to explain why? Speaking as someone who usually analyses Nielsen data, I can assure you their honest insight would be invaluable.

As is, it’s difficult to decipher which opinions are genuine versus those that merely ape what’s being programmed into them. Altogether, a great opportunity for learning — on all fronts — is being missed here.

FILMCLUB insists the objective for their 20 “should be watched” films is to give children “a better understanding of cinema” — but they seem to be forgetting a few things about the true history of movies.

For one, a lot of early cinema wasn’t meant for kids in the first place — including many of their “should be watched” titles. They typically dealt with adult characters, concerns and stories because that was their primary audience.

Naturally some succeed in appealing to children anyway, such as It’s a Wonderful Life (story of a father contemplating suicide, and being brought back from the brink by a guardian angel), but at a running time of 130 minutes, it did provoke complaints that it was “long and i didnt understand the plot.”

Another fact FILMCLUB overlooks is that early films were meant to be seen in a theatre. It was a place where young and old would gather — remember, they had no ratings system — and it was not uncommon for the scene to get a bit chaotic and noisy. Below is a scene from a film called Nitrate Base which gives a hint to its atmosphere.

In just about every way, recreating an old-fashioned, theatrical experience would be preferable over dvd (most FILMCLUB screenings happen in classrooms, with kids sometimes having to sit on the floor). The means are certainly available to make that happen, and it’s a great way to bring true film history to life.

At the very least, if showing something like a silent film in a classroom, how about letting the kids add their own music and/or sound effects (similar to what the children did in that Nitrate Base clip)? It’s not only a great opportunity to get goofy, but inspire creativity and social interaction.

FILMCLUB, on the other hand, aims for a high-brow film festival-like experience with introductions, after-film discussions and everyone wearing VIP access passes.

But they insist it provides “some film fun.”

Adult audience watches the 3D film Bwana Devil in 1952, while FILMCLUB kids are given a modern-day film festival-style experience that includes wearing VIP access passes.

Wanna know what else is fun? Watching The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. in a theatre with a raucous crowd, and hearing them go “Hissssss!” every time the villain appears (in this clip it would sound at the 0:29 point). It’s a great socially binding experience which I’ve personally witnessed a few times. Unfortunately FILMCLUB doesn’t even list this film in its entire 3600+ title library; a curious omission considering it’s the only feature written by legendary children’s author Dr. Suess.

And for older teenagers, a midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show is an especially good opportunity for audience participation. Almost every city has one (in the UK, a pro sing-along is scheduled this month in London). Believe me, that’s an experience they’ll never forget — or likely regret.

NOTE: I don’t recommend watching Rocky Horror on dvd. As the clip below should demonstrate, home viewing is nowhere near as impactful.

So What Should We Do?

The question inevitably remains: Don’t we need to give the children some guidance?

The answer is easy. Just listen to what they’ve already told us.

Image from LIFE Magazine, July 1, 1946

Of course, FILMCLUB’s comments section — our best source of intel on what the kids like — is not entirely reliable or trustworthy. Some of the opinions — especially those from conformist-prone children — are sure to pay lip service to the FILMCLUB Guides. However, if the volume is large enough, the film’s genuine appeal is easier to glean.

We also must be mindful of the screening conditions, which seem damn uncomfortable (classroom settings, with blacked-out windows, and children having to sit on the floor). This would surely diminish the effectiveness of a screening, particularly if the film is more than 90 minutes long. Some are almost twice that length, and that can be painful if you’re in the cheap seats.

Plus, FILMCLUB’s inventory is missing a lot of titles such as the entire filmographies of Martin and Lewis, The Three Stooges, Hammer Pictures, the Andy Hardy series and Our Gang.

This leaves us with Disney films, Laurel and Hardy and the Carry On movies, which have historically had youth appeal.

Only four Carry On movies are present in the FILMCLUB inventory, but these consistently garner positive response. For example, Carry On Screaming has 50 comments, and I only spotted two that were negative.

The Three Stooges (Curly, Larry and Moe) in Healthy, Wealthy & Dumb. (Unavailable in FILMCLUB’s inventory)

Same goes for Laurel and Hardy films. Sons of the Desert has over 200 comments, and the vast majority are favourable. 10-year-old Yasmin’s comment about the film seems to nail it best: “This film was good because the men were really silly and acted like children.”

Bravo to Yasmin for figuring that one out. This important quality about the characters is often overlooked by critics and scholars, and is never mentioned in the associated 2-page FILMCLUB Guide. They instead describe it as “Tom and Jerry-esque tomfoolery” which is wholly incorrect.

The listed Disney titles also consistently attract high praise, especially with the younger kids, though the remake of The Parent Trap seemed more enthusiastically received than the original. 12-year-old Sanjana — one of the few to write anything negative about the original — appears to have identified the weakness:

This film did not keep the audience engaged, and after seeing the newer version I can safely say it did not live up to the modern film. The pace was a bit too slow and it dragged on a bit, but the ending was very abrupt. The modern film was more romantic. In this film, the characters were annoying and not very believable.

Many FILMCLUB kids say the 1970 WWII action/adventure/comedy film Kelly’s Heroes, starring Clint Eastwood, was “boring”

What I especially like about Sanjana’s comment is that it focuses on the three things which most often concerns kids (and audiences in general): pacing, story and characters. Plus, it addresses the audience’s reactions (“did not keep the audience engaged”) — not just the reviewer’s. I rarely see that mentioned in the reviews or comments.

One of FILMCLUB’s stated objectives is to nurture “intellectual development” and “open their minds.” But identifying the elements that provoke positive audience response — and which ones don’t — can lead to one of the best forms of learning there is; figuring out what people like to see. What makes them applaud? What makes them cheer? What makes them laugh? It is one of the essential elements of being a successful programmer. Unfortunately, there’s no apparent evidence FILMCLUB encourages this tactic.

For example, children complain about films being in black-and-white — a lot — but when they see a film they enjoy, it usually evaporates as an issue. Why do you think that is?

If you can figure that out, and make more such titles available, the more likely your audience will expand their thinking and explore more. Especially as they mature and grow older.

Sadly, FILMCLUB’s current system of imposing a narrow list of adult-selected “should be watched” titles, and pressuring young impressionables to parrot a positive review of them, robs kids of a valuable self-discovery — and the rest of us of a rich insight.

Children — like Yasmin and Sanjana — are often smarter than we give them credit. They certainly deserve more in this circumstance.

Screen capture from filmclub.org

That all being said, the overall idea of FILMCLUB — students programming films for their friends and classmates — is definitely a worthy pursuit. If you listen to your audience, you ultimately learn so much from them, and people in general. It’s a great thrill figuring out what makes them applaud.

I used to do something similar (program festivals at York University) and one of the things I learned was never to program The Night of the Hunter again (one of FILMCLUB’s “should be watched” titles). That was my biggest disaster. Try it yourself with a youth audience. See if you experience the same reactions I did, and let me know. I’d be curious to find out if what I witnessed 23 years ago at Nat Taylor Cinema still holds true today.

I’ll admit this much: it wasn’t the gorgeous black-and-white cinematography that had them snickering and walking out.

And if you’re one of those doing the programming, you might also find some good tips in this document which was written and refined over a period of years. It’s based on a number of proven formulas for success.

Though the article is quite dated now — it was prepared back when film societies still used theatres and projected in 35mm — it makes a lot of good suggestions that are still applicable today.

Most important is Suggestion #7: “Get to know your audience… listen to what they have to say.”

“GIGLI doesn’t need a review; it needs an inquest”

North American dvd cover design

In the entire history of cinema, has there ever been a film as universally hated as Gigli? There could be one or two, but not likely.

Of course, Gigli was despised of long before it was released. For months the advance buzz was that the film was terrible. But this “buzz” was sourced from one advance review, published on a website in March 2003, from some anonymous guy who attended a test screening. Just one. His crassly-written, amateur-style “review” was later rehashed in entertainment news right up until its release four months later.

It also didn’t help that the marketing campaign stuck to its foolhardy romantic comedy strategy, and the advance press kept insisting its stars played mob assassins.

If that wasn’t bad enough, there was a growing weariness over the constant “Bennifer” coverage. The once affectionate gossiping had turned nasty. Altogether, it was easily predicted the critics were going to slaughter Gigli before they even saw it.

And, boy, did they ever.

It’s difficult to choose which review is the most vicious. Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle gets a clever one in with this opening: “Gigli doesn’t need a review; it needs an inquest. The movie is dead on arrival.” I was especially amused by Jamie Russell’s BBC review, and the remark that “having your skin flayed by a potato peeler would be less painful.” What’s curious is that they all essentially mimic what the first review had already said four months earlier — just more eloquently, and with better grammar.

Never have so many critics agreed on one thing. Here’s a video review I assembled that includes excerpts of the critical response:

One of the very few who dared to defend it — though weakly — was Roger Ebert. Richard Roeper’s response to that was typical of the backlash such an effort tended to provoke. To even think of having any kind words for the film was almost suicidal back then.

The savagery was so widespread that Gigli is currently listed in Yahoo! Movies as the #1 “Bottom Rated Movie of All Time”.

In 2004 the Razzie Awards named it Worst Picture and further handed it awards for Worst Screenplay, Worst Director, Worst Actor, Worst Actress and Worst Screen Couple. In 2005 they gave it one more award: Worst ‘Comedy’ of Our First 25 Years.

Early poster design

This last award provides a good clue as to the misguidance of this negative backlash. Remember, this is a film that originally ended with the lovers going their separate ways, and Ben Affleck’s character getting killed. Dissing it because it failed as a romantic comedy is like complaining an apple isn’t an orange.

NOTE: If you don’t mind unlimited spoilers, this link provides extensive details of what the original ending looked like.

Truth was, audiences at test screenings predominately enjoyed the first version. It was the ending that was a letdown. That’s why the producers only tinkered with that.

Why did it need changing? Quite simply because its stars (Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez) were in the midst of a very public love affair at the time. It was widespread knowledge they had met and became lovers while making Gigli. These early audiences weren’t prepared to see — or interested in seeing — a bittersweet tragedy involving “Ben and J. Lo” (as they were commonly referred to back then). The film’s finale was just too much of a wet blanket for them. They wanted a happier ending.

And, so, the film was withheld from release, $5 million spent shooting a new ending, and a tragedy of another sort unfolded instead.

One of the early advance posters for Gigli gives a decent impression of the dark and cheeky tone the marketing had in the first place: “Murder. Blackmail. Temptation. Redemption… It’s been a busy week.”

With its new happy ending it was instead marketed as a romantic comedy but, despite these unfortunate changes, the film still has a lot of great things in it.

Final release one-sheet.

There are loads of well-written monologues, great cameo appearances by Christopher Walken and Al Pacino, and even the smaller roles — as played by Lenny Venito and Lainie Kazan for instance — bring a lot of fun to the party.

As for this being yet another story involving a Ben Affleck character sleeping with a lesbian, Gigli is not a woeful copy of Chasing Amy as many have insisted — including defenders of the film. The film makes it quite clear that Lopez’s character is actually bi-sexual, and that their relationship is more driven by their respective dominant desires and submissive needs. It’s not as effectively realized as in Secretary, but I like the film’s daring anyway. It’s not the kind of relationship that often shows up in a Hollywood film.

Sadly, the one character who keeps getting forgotten about is Brian played by Justin Bartha. Though he is a key character who helps drive the plot, he’s all too often pushed into the background while the main action goes on without him. The jokes that play on his mental illness are rarely necessary or effective either. But I do like how his seemingly nonsensical babblings about “The Baywatch,” and his love of Australian accents, eventually come together to provide a fitting happy ending for his character.

Much of the criticism has harped on selected sound bites such as Lopez’s “turkey time” bit, but they all make sense when seen in context. Christopher Walken‘s “ice cream” commentary is another example. By itself it seems bizarre and nonsensical but, within the context of the scene — a cop trying to extract information — its purpose is obvious.

The French Connection had a similar moment, but the audience at least had the benefit of seeing the Roy Scheider character briefly turning away and chuckling, letting them in on the gag. Gigli is not as direct, but it does offer this scene which helps illustrates much the same point.

It would be great to see the original cut surface someday, and presented as the cheeky relationship crime drama it really is. When I think back on two of my favorite Martin Brest films – Going in Style and Midnight Run — they both end in a similar way with the lead character walking off to an uncertain end — alone — but satisfied they did the right thing. It sounds sad, but it’s so fitting — so perfect — it always makes me smile.

Unfortunately, since it was Revolutions Studios‘ idea to change the ending in the first place — and the resulting film became a box office catastrophe — it’s doubtful they will ever release the original cut.

There are ample reports writer/director Martin Brest and studio head Joe Roth fought quite fiercely about changing the ending. Brest fought against it, of course, and Roth ended up vowing never to give directors “final cut” authority again.

Frankly, I can’t say I blame the studio for wanting to make the changes they did. At the time, it seemed the best course of action. Test audiences did like the film. They just hated the ending.

But that wasn’t Brest‘s fault either. It was just bad timing to release that kind of ending, at that stage in the “Ben and J. Lo” phenomenon. Nobody could have predicted any of this when they started making the film.

What somebody should have realized was that changing the ending would delay the distribution by at least six months. This was especially dangerous for a film that already had a lot of press coverage.

As the months continued ticking by, people were starved for insight. That one advance review was the only meal they could find, and the press fed off of it repeatedly. During all this, the once fawning “Ben and J. Lo” coverage became snide, unflattering “Bennifer” commentary. The star couple had worn out their welcome, and the bad Gigli buzz just gave a lot of people the ammunition they needed to mow them down for good.

It’s quite a shame. The ingredients of a pretty good film are still there.

—-

Special thanks to The Wife whose honest feedback helped with the final edit of the video review. Thanks should also go to the Yellow Submarine movie for inspiring the “All Together Now” homage it features. The song, as it appeared in that movie, seemed a perfect way to showcase all the critical reviews.

Dennis Hopper and “The American Way”

Dennis Hopper could bring any movie to life. He simply throbbed energy. I remember when I first watched Apocalypse Now, I was getting bored as the story lumbered towards the final act — then Hopper appeared.

He seemed like such an alien presence — totally out-of-place in this movie — but his energy and humour was a welcome change from the dreary tone the film was embracing.

Now, sadly, he’s gone. But we are left with a huge assortment of films that benefited from his being there. One of these is The American Way.

The American Way — better known in North America as Riders of the Storm — was the victim of terrible marketing and distribution. As I recall it only played a week or so at the Eaton Centre Cinemas (one of Toronto’s worst multiplexes) before being dumped on the video market.

Nowadays, the few who have seen it probably only saw it on VHS as it has yet to be released here on dvd. Consequently, The American Way is arguable his most sorely under-rated film.

Thankfully I found a Spanish release dvd, and offer this video review.

Fun Flicks of the 50s | “Roman Holiday”

roman

Roman Holiday introduced Audrey Hepburn to the world

Premiered August 27, 1953 (New York, New York)
Directed by William Wyler
Starring Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck, Eddie Albert and Tullio Carminati
118 minutes
Released by Paramount Pictures.

If you mention Roman Holiday to someone who has seen the film before, there’s a good chance his or her face will light up, and a smile appear. It’s that kind of movie — and such universally loved films are a rarity.
There have been a variety of opinions made as to why the film is such an enduring success, and most tend to credit then-newcomer Audrey Hepburn. It’s a fair assumption. Her portrayal of Princess Ann instantly won the hearts of movies goers when it was released in 1953. Within two weeks of its premiere Hepburn was on the cover of Time Magazine, accompanied by a four-page profile of her life and career thus far.
“This girl may make bosoms a thing of the past”
Time Magazine struggled to define what made Hepburn such a phenomenal presence, and this excerpt seems to best state its case:
The skies over Hollywood have exploded with new stars time and time again: heavily accented femmes fatales like Pola Negri, sturdy peasants like Anna Sten, indestructible waifs like Luise Rainer or Elisabeth Bergner, calendar girls like Marilyn Monroe, dignified stars from London’s West End like Deborah Kerr. Audrey Hepburn fits none of the clichés and none of the clichés fit her. Even hard-boiled Hollywood personages who have seen new dames come & go are hard put to find words to describe Audrey. Tough Guy Humphrey Bogart calls her “elfin” and “birdlike.” Director John Huston frankly moons: “Those thin gams, those thin arms and that wonderful face…” Director Billy Wilder, who is slated to direct Audrey’s second picture (Sabrina Fair), contents himself with a prophecy: “This girl, singlehanded, may make bosoms a thing of the past.”
The truth is that the quality Audrey brings to the screen is not dependent on her figure, her face, her accent (which is neither quite British nor quite foreign) or even her talent. Belgian-born (of a Dutch mother and an Anglo-Irish father), she has, like all great actresses from Maude Adams to Greta Garbo, the magic ability to bridge the gap between herself and her audience, and to make her innermost feelings instantly known and shared.
Later, in the same article, director William Wyler is quoted as predicting, “”That girl is going to be the biggest star in Hollywood.” Judging from the countless biographies and tribute books that still get published today about the actress, he is arguably correct. Audrey Hepburn remains one of the greatest stars Hollywood has ever seen. But no one element ever makes a film great, and Roman Holiday is one in which all the elements combined in perfect harmony.
“Joe, we can’t go running around town with a hot princess!”
As with most popular films the first essential ingredient is a great script, or – to put it more succinctly — a remarkable tale filled with lovable characters. In this case the story is of a beautiful princess who slips away from her stuffy responsibilities to live life as a commoner for a while. Princess Anne (Hepburn) not only picks the wonderful city of Rome as her playground, but she also unwittingly encounters Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck); a financially strapped journalist who soon realizes her true identity and decides to prey on this opportunity to get a well-paid exclusive published. He enlists the help of his photographer buddy (Eddie Albert) to take compromising pictures of her exploits but, along the way, this princess and the pauper duo discover romance too.
Paramount Pictures originally wanted the film shot entirely on their Hollywood lot, but director William Wyler insisted that real locations be used. Wyler could best be described as the Steven Spielberg of his time. Much like his modern-day counterpart, he directed some of the most commercially successful films of his era. For example, his film The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) was one of the top ten grossing films of the 1940s. But Wyler was never a director who allowed his visual style to overwhelm his story or characters, but to complement them. One of the reasons he choose to shoot Roman Holiday in black & white, for example, was so that the splendor of Rome wouldn’t distract from these crucial elements – yet the real locations were essential to capture the reality of the setting. Curiously it became the first Hollywood film shot entirely in Italy.
“I’ve never been alone with a man before. Even with my dress on.”
Wyler also employed as many locals as he could for supporting roles, to add to the authenticity. But, of course, the crucial role was of Joe Bradley, played by screen legend Gregory Peck. Cary Grant was originally slated for the part – the script was written with him in mind – but he turned it down because he felt he was too old to play Hepburn’s love interest. In retrospect, Peck proves to be an ideal choice.
Up until that time Cary Grant had a strong track record for appearing in screwball comedies such as Bringing Up Baby (1938), His Girl Friday (1940), Arsenic and Old Lace (1941), The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947) and Monkey Business (1952). He had also done some remarkable physical comedy in Gunga Din (1939), as well as a number of successful romantic comedies such as The Philadelphia Story (1940) and I Was a Male War Bride (1949). Even in his more serious films, such as the war propaganda film Destination Tokyo (1943), room is always found to exploit Grant’s flair for comedy. His style would surely have leaned more towards the comical than Peck’s more stately presence, as proven by the performances that garnered him four Academy Award nominations — The Keys of the Kingdom (1944), The Yearling (1946), Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), and Twelve O’Clock High (1949). Plus, Peck relished the opportunity to lighten up his image. His input ultimately made some of the best scenes possible.
In the “Mouth of Truth” scene Peck asked Wyler if he could try a gag he’d once seen Red Skelton do. Wyler obliged, provided he didn’t clue Hepburn in on the joke. The scene was shot in one take and, as the film reveals, Hepburn’s reaction was clearly an unscripted one. Not to mention, delightfully funny. This reliance upon genuine emotions is a key reason for the film’s success. Even at the casting stage.
Though other actresses had been considered for the princess role — Jean Simmons and Suzanne Cloutier in particular – it was Hepburn’s screen test that secured her choice. As described by the 1953 Time Magazine article, Hepburn played the part “a little nervously, a little selfconsciously. But Wyler had played a sly trick on the newcomer by ordering the British director who made her test to keep his cameras turning after the scene was over. When the word “cut” rang out, Audrey sat up in her royal bed, suddenly natural as a puppy, hugging her knees and grinning the delighted grin of a well-behaved child who has earned a cookie.”
“She was absolutely delicious,” says Wyler. “We were fascinated,” says Paramount’s Production Boss Don Hartman. “It’s no credit to anyone that we signed her immediately.”
Even Gregory Peck recognized the importance of Hepburn’s presence in the film. Contractually – as an established Hollywood star – Peck was assured sole starring credit, but when filming was completed he realized it would have looked silly not to share the credit with Hepburn. So he insisted that Paramount include her name alongside his in all publicity, and in the opening credits.
“Hit him again, Smitty!”
The film was released at a time when the tabloids were following the story of Princess Margaret, who had fallen in love with a commoner named Peter Townsend. The story parallels were too striking for audiences to resist, and helped ensured the film’s success. Ultimately life ended up reflecting art, as both stories had similar bittersweet conclusions. Consequently, in subsequent years, this real-life drama was erroneously credited as an inspiration for the film, even though the original script had been written four years previously.
More than 50 years since its release, the appeal of Roman Holiday is still strong. In 2002 the American Film Institute (AFI) named it the fourth best love story of all time in its 100 Years… 100 Passions list. Similarly, in 2008, the AFI named it the fourth best film in the romantic comedy genre. But the clearest indication of the film’s lasting appeal is the existence “Roman Holiday Tours,” where travelers to Rome can visit the various locations featured in the film. One such tour even offers a photo opportunity with a vintage Vespa, which figures prominently in the film. Countless fans obviously can’t resist imagining – even if only for a short time – they are having a Roman holiday just like Ann and Joe.

If you mention Roman Holiday to someone who has seen the film before, there’s a good chance his or her face will light up, and a smile appear. It’s that kind of movie — and such universally loved films are a rarity.

There have been a variety of opinions made as to why the film is such an enduring success, and most tend to credit then-newcomer Audrey Hepburn. It’s a fair assumption. Her portrayal of Princess Ann instantly won the hearts of movies goers when it was released in 1953. Within two weeks of its premiere Hepburn was on the cover of Time Magazine, accompanied by a four-page profile of her life and career thus far.

“This girl may make bosoms a thing of the past”

Time Magazine struggled to define what made Hepburn such a phenomenal presence, and this excerpt seems to best state its case:

Time Magazine cover with Audrey Hepburn

Time Magazine cover published September 7, 1953, less than two weeks after the film’s New York premiere.

The skies over Hollywood have exploded with new stars time and time again: heavily accented femmes fatales like Pola Negri, sturdy peasants like Anna Sten, indestructible waifs like Luise Rainer or Elisabeth Bergner, calendar girls like Marilyn Monroe, dignified stars from London’s West End like Deborah Kerr. Audrey Hepburn fits none of the clichés and none of the clichés fit her. Even hard-boiled Hollywood personages who have seen new dames come & go are hard put to find words to describe Audrey. Tough Guy Humphrey Bogart calls her “elfin” and “birdlike.” Director John Huston frankly moons: “Those thin gams, those thin arms and that wonderful face…” Director Billy Wilder, who is slated to direct Audrey’s second picture (Sabrina Fair), contents himself with a prophecy: “This girl, singlehandedly, may make bosoms a thing of the past.”

The truth is that the quality Audrey brings to the screen is not dependent on her figure, her face, her accent (which is neither quite British nor quite foreign) or even her talent. Belgian-born (of a Dutch mother and an Anglo-Irish father), she has, like all great actresses from Maude Adams to Greta Garbo, the magic ability to bridge the gap between herself and her audience, and to make her innermost feelings instantly known and shared.

Later, in the same article, director William Wyler is quoted as predicting, “”That girl is going to be the biggest star in Hollywood.” Judging from the countless biographies and tribute books that still get published today about the actress, he is arguably correct. Hepburn remains one of the greatest stars Hollywood has ever seen. But no one element ever makes a film great, and Roman Holiday is one in which all the elements combined in perfect harmony.

“Joe, we can’t go running around town with a hot princess!”

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Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck at the Spanish Steps landmark in Rome

The story is of a beautiful princess who slips away from her stuffy responsibilities to live life as a commoner for a while. Princess Anne (Hepburn) not only picks the wonderful city of Rome as her playground, but she also unwittingly encounters Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck); a financially strapped journalist who soon realizes her true identity and decides to prey on this opportunity to get a well-paid exclusive published. He enlists the help of his photographer buddy (Eddie Albert) to take compromising pictures of her exploits but, along the way, this princess and the pauper duo discover romance too.1

Paramount Pictures originally wanted the film shot entirely on their Hollywood lot, but director William Wyler insisted that real locations be used. Wyler could best be described as the Steven Spielberg of his time. Much like his modern-day counterpart, he directed some of the most commercially successful films of his era. For example, his film The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) was one of the top ten grossing films of the 1940s. But Wyler was never a director who allowed his visual style to overwhelm his story or characters, but to complement them. One of the reasons he choose to shoot Roman Holiday in black & white, for example, was so that the splendor of Rome wouldn’t distract from these crucial elements – yet the real locations were essential to capture the reality of the setting. Curiously it became the first Hollywood film shot entirely in Italy.

“I’ve never been alone with a man before. Even with my dress on.”

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Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck enjoy a game of cards during the filming of Roman Holiday

Wyler also employed as many locals as he could for supporting roles, to add to the authenticity. But, of course, the crucial role was of Joe Bradley, played by screen legend Gregory Peck. Cary Grant was originally slated for the part – the script was written with him in mind – but he turned it down because he felt he was too old to play Hepburn’s love interest. In retrospect, Peck proves to be an ideal choice.

Up until that time Cary Grant had a strong track record for appearing in screwball comedies such as Bringing Up Baby (1938), His Girl Friday (1940), Arsenic and Old Lace (1941), The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947) and Monkey Business (1952). He had also done some remarkable physical comedy in Gunga Din (1939), as well as a number of successful romantic comedies such as The Philadelphia Story (1940) and I Was a Male War Bride (1949). Even in his more serious films, such as the war propaganda film Destination Tokyo (1943), room is always found to exploit Grant’s flair for comedy. His style would surely have leaned more towards the comical than Peck’s more stately presence, as proven by the performances that garnered him four Academy Award nominations — The Keys of the Kingdom (1944), The Yearling (1946), Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), and Twelve O’Clock High (1949). Plus, Peck relished the opportunity to lighten up his image. His input ultimately made some of the best scenes possible.

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Audrey Heburn as Princess Ann in Roman Holiday

In the “Mouth of Truth” scene Peck asked Wyler if he could try a gag he’d once seen Red Skelton do. Wyler obliged, provided he didn’t clue Hepburn in on the joke. The scene was shot in one take and, as the film reveals, Hepburn’s reaction was clearly an unscripted one. Not to mention, delightfully funny. This reliance upon genuine emotions is a key reason for the film’s success. Even at the casting stage.

Though other actresses had been considered for the princess role — Jean Simmons and Suzanne Cloutier in particular – it was Hepburn’s screen test that secured her choice. As described by the 1953 Time Magazine article, Hepburn played the part “a little nervously, a little selfconsciously. But Wyler had played a sly trick on the newcomer by ordering the British director who made her test to keep his cameras turning after the scene was over. When the word “cut” rang out, Audrey sat up in her royal bed, suddenly natural as a puppy, hugging her knees and grinning the delighted grin of a well-behaved child who has earned a cookie.”

“She was absolutely delicious,” says Wyler. “We were fascinated,” adds Paramount’s Production Boss Don Hartman. “It’s no credit to anyone that we signed her immediately.”

Even Gregory Peck recognized the importance of Hepburn’s presence in the film. Contractually – as an established Hollywood star – Peck was assured sole starring credit, but when filming was completed he realized it would have looked silly not to share the credit with Hepburn. So he insisted that Paramount include her name alongside his in all publicity, and in the opening credits.

“Hit him again, Smitty!”

Audrey Hepburn as Princess Ann, and Gregory Peck as commoner Joe Bradley enjoy a rareromantic moment in Roman Holiday.

Audrey Hepburn as Princess Ann, and Gregory Peck as commoner Joe Bradley enjoy a rare romantic moment in Roman Holiday.

The film was released at a time when the tabloids were following the story of Princess Margaret, who had fallen in love with a commoner named Peter Townsend. The story parallels were too striking for audiences to resist, and helped ensured the film’s success. Ultimately life ended up reflecting art, as both stories had similar bittersweet conclusions. Consequently, in subsequent years, this real-life drama was erroneously credited as an inspiration for the film, even though the original script had been written four years previously.

More than 50 years since its release, the appeal of Roman Holiday is still strong. In 2002 the American Film Institute (AFI) named it the fourth best love story of all time in its 100 Years… 100 Passions list. Similarly, in 2008, the AFI named it the fourth best film in the romantic comedy genre. But the clearest indication of the film’s lasting appeal is the existence “Roman Holiday Tours,” where travelers to Rome can visit the various locations featured in the film. One such tour even offers a photo opportunity with a vintage Vespa, which figures prominently in the film. Countless fans obviously can’t resist imagining they are having a Roman holiday just like Ann and Joe.

  1. Ian McLellan Hunter and John Dighton were originally credited as the scriptwriters, and they later won an Academy Award for their Roman Holiday script, but Hunter actually fronted for blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo. Trumbo was one of the Hollywood Ten who testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1947 and was subsequently barred from working in the industry. It wasn’t until 1992 that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) acknowledged his contribution and, on May 10th, 1993, his Best Writing Oscar for Roman Holiday was posthumously presented to Trumbo’s widow. In 2002 the video re-issue of Roman Holiday digitally added Trumbo’s writing credit.

Arthur Miller, The New York Times and “The Bicycle Thief”

The Bicycle Thief poster - CanadaThis year I’ve had the privilege to do a lot of work for Corinth Films in aid of their 60th anniversary release of The Bicycle Thief.

(NOTE: “Bicycle Thieves” is the title most often used in Canada and elsewhere these days because it’s a more accurate translation of the Italian title “Ladri di biciclette” but American arthouse theatre owners still largely prefer “The Bicycle Thief” — and if you’ve seen the film it is a much more effective title).

Amongst other things I got to design a new poster, press book and — for this Sunday’s edition — a quarter-page ad for the New York Times.

This week I’m wrapping up an update to the press book. The owner, John Poole, uncovered a treasure trove of articles and reviews from its original 1949 release (though made and released in Italy in 1948, it didn’t reached the U.S. until December 1949) and I’ve been scanning, proofing and formatting these. The archivist in me is having a ball.

One curious discovery was Arthur Miller’s original New York Times article about the film.

If you do a Google search you’ll find this oft-quoted line from Miller: “The Bicycle Thief is Everyman’s search for dignity – it is as though the soul of a man had been filmed.

Pretty good, eh?

But Miller doesn’t use that line anywhere in his original piece. He never wrote it.

So where did it come from? My guess is, a very clever publicist who put together this 25th anniversary promotional sheet when Richard Feiner & Company owned the U.S. rights to the film, and which later got reprinted in the Image Entertainment dvd release some years ago. Except for that quote, which opens the page, it’s word-for-word from the final section of the Times article.

Miller’s source article opens with a fairly lengthy overview of the state of Italian cinema at the time before he eventually slides into his discussion of The Bicycle Thief. Not a very catchy opening if you’re trying to promote that film alone. So that had to go.

But that would have left them with this as an opening: “The Bicycle Thief is about a man, a worker, who must have a bike in order to work at his job.”

Not exactly a grabber.

So, I suspect, whoever was doing the editing borrowed the article’s subtitle (something a Times editor would have written) which read “Arthur Miller Cites The Bicycle Thief As Everyman’s Search for Dignity,” and then dreamt up the second half of the line.

You have to admit, it’s a great line — “it is as though the soul of a man had been filmed” — which is little wonder so many love quoting it.

But it’s a bit disconcerting to see how so many on the internet have promulgated it now that its true source is in question.

Here is the full transcript of Miller’s original words, published January 8, 1950.

Successful women get no respect in this racket

UPDATE: This topic later became the inspiration for Enough Already: The Wonderful, Horrible Reception of Nancy Meyers; an essay I wrote that was published in Cineaction. It is available at Amazon, or you can read a text-only version here. It is worth noting that, after doing more research, the conclusions I arrived at were not entirely the same as those I highlight here.

The other night The Wife wanted to celebrate her birthday by going to the movies. Her pick was Julie & Julia. It seemed a safe bet. Written and directed by Nora Ephron, best known for her work on When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, this had the promise of being a good relationship story.

When the trailers appeared, I saw something else that looked promising; a new film from Nancy Meyers called It’s Complicated. Some years ago Street Eats creator Tess Loyson told me how much she loved her films, highly recommending two I hadn’t seen yet — Something’s Gotta Give and Baby Boom. At that point I was only familiar with What Women Want and The Parent Trap. The latter I enjoyed immensely. After watching the rest of her films — including the ample amount she’d written, co-written and produced — I knew I had to keep an eye on this woman.

Myers came out with The Holiday in 2006 and, to me, it just confirmed she’s a masterful filmmaker. Rarely had I laughed so heartedly, and been so charmed. My only quibble was with the super-syrupy New Year’s Eve ending. It wasn’t needed — at least not as played, with such overbearing cheer — and she should have had the confidence to know that. Granted, people like Spielberg have made bigger missteps than that.

So now she’s coming out with It’s Complicated, and it’s sure to be worth watching. But it got me wondering. Why couldn’t I remember her name appearing in any of my reference books about great directors? Or Nora Ephron’s. After the movie I went home and checked.

Just as I thought. No listings. Couldn’t find Penny Marshall either. Until Meyers and Ephron came along, Marshall brought in more box office dollars than any woman in Hollywood.

Some of the books in my collection have over 500 directors named, and it’s not just a boy’s club listing. Kathryn Bigelow could be found. Even relative newcomer Sofia Coppola shows up too. Leni Riefenstahl, of course (the final scene of Star Wars was inspired by her Triumph of the Will, after all, but you’re better off checking out Walter Grauman’s 633 Squadron. The Death Star battle is almost shot-for-shot from the climax of that film). Doris Wishman? What’s she doing there? Have any of you seen a Doris Wishman film? Check out the trailer below for Dildo Heaven. It’s a good example of the quality you can expect (NOTE: The content is very PG).

The first assumption for this oversight might be that it’s disdain for popular Hollywood cinema. But that’s nonsense. Much has been written about the mega-hits of Spielberg, Lucas and James Cameron. More recently there is already tons about the Batman movies, the Lord of the Rings trilogy — certainly anything based on a comic book or fantasy tale. All have been releases from major Hollywood studios, just like the films from these ladies.

No, I think the big problem is that most of the so-called experts out there are men. Guys who dream of being in the shoes of the masters they worship. Unless the ladies flash some big breasts, or show a lot of macho action, you’re not likely to get a film geek’s attention. Even if a woman excels in a genre tradition most often associated with the established “greats.”

In the 1930s and 40s, for example, there was a popular film genre called the screwball comedy. Some of the biggest directors of that era took turns with it, including Frank Capra, Howard Hawks and George Cukor. Nowadays, though, the only ones who tend to get praised for the modern-day “screwball” is the Coen Brothers, in films such as Raising Arizona, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Intolerable Cruelty and Burn After Reading. But the films of Nancy Meyers are clearly more direct descendants of this classic form. They have also made more money.

I Love Trouble (which Meyers wrote and produced) is definitely inspired by the classics Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday. Something’s Gotta Give features the slapstick humor and verbal sparring that is often characteristic of the genre. So too is The Parent Trap, with its journey of a divorced couple falling in love again, not much dissimilar from The Awful Truth and The Philadelphia Story. Judging from its trailer, It’s Complicated revisits that premise too. The Holiday directly references the genre often, particularly with Eli Wallach’s explanation of the “meet cute,” plus the one video Kate Winslet is seen watching is His Girl Friday. Cross-dressing men was another popular element in the genre (the most well-known example is Some Like It Hot), and What Women Want took it one step further by having Mel Gibson journey into the minds of women. Not just their clothes.

So it strikes me that Meyers warrants credit along with her fellow, far more respected, great directors. A lot more credit. She knows her film history — certainly it’s most difficult genre, which no one else has mastered as successfully these days — plus she knows how to write, direct and create entertainment people want to see. It’s more than you can say for Doris Wishman.

—————-

Here’s some math on worldwide box office, thanks to Box Office Mojo:

The Parent Trap – $92,108,518
What Women Want – $374,111,707
Something’s Gotta Give – $266,728,738
The Holiday – $205,135,324

Total for four Nancy Meyers-directed films (we’ll leave out those she wrote and/or produced): $938,084,287

Now let’s do some math for the Coen Brothers
Since only domestic totals are available for some — and we want to give them a fighting chance
— we’ll add up everything

Blood Simple – $3,851,855 (domestic lifetime)
Raising Arizona – $29,180,280
Miller’s Crossing – $5,080,409 (domestic)
Barton Fink – $6,153,939 (domestic)
The Hudsucker Proxy – $2,816,518 (domestic)
Fargo – $60,611,975
The Big Lebowski – $17,451,873 (domestic)
O Brother, Where Art Thou? – $71,868,327
The Man Who Wasn’t There – $18,916,623
Intolerable Cruelty – $120,217,409
The Ladykillers – $76,747,441
Paris, je t’aime (”Tuileries” segment) – $17,335,978
No Country for Old Men – $162,113,329
Burn After Reading – $161,128,228

Total for fourteen Coen Brothers films: $753,474,184

And, just for the hell of it, let’s look at the numbers for one of today’s most celebrated directors:
Quentin Tarantino
Again we’ll add up everything he’s directed to help compensate for the lack of foreign numbers

Reservoir Dogs – $2,832,029 (domestic only)
Pulp Fiction – $213,928,762
Four Rooms (co-director) – $4,257,354 (domestic only)
Jackie Brown – $39,673,162 (domestic only)
Kill Bill, Vol 1 – $180,949,045
Kill Bill, Vol 2 – $152,159,461
Grindhouse (co-director) – $25,422,088
Inglorious Basterds – $245,753,357

Total for eight Quentin Tarantino films: $864,975,258

—————-

The success of Marshall and Ephron is equally impressive. To date Julie & Julia has grossed over $90 million. That’s about the same amount the last ten Woody Allen films have made domestically.

I’m just saying.

As for our night at the movies, it was definitely fun. The film’s only weakness was that which is typical of true life stories; no neat and tidy story structure, and a less-than-fulfilling conclusion. Tarantino has committed worst crimes.