Lady and the Tramp (1955, Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson and Hamilton Luske)

Lady and the Tramp was Disney’s first CinemaScope film. Amusingly, though an academy ratio version was produced at the same time, the modern home video unit created a pan and scan version for DVD, instead of just using that full frame version. Nice of them. We watched the CinemaScope version this time (the fiancée occasionally informs me we’re having Disney festivals). Though Disney’s finest visual achievement, Sleeping Beauty, was a few years later, Lady and the Tramp in CinemaScope is a breaking of the motion picture. The modern visual language of cinema grew from these films, owing everything to these early widescreen Disney pictures. Film–even with special effects–simply couldn’t do what Lady and the Tramp does… there’s no worry about focus in the frame, no worry camera movements… it’s incredibly free. Of course, as special effects and cameras have become able to duplicate Tramp’s achievements, no one has used them as well.

Unfortunately, the other inspiration from these Disney films is the damn set-piece. In Lady and the Tramp, it’s the songs. There’s an incredibly useless song in the middle of an incredibly useless scene (Lady in the pound), one only used to bring in the song. Without the scene, the film would move smoother… all it does is bring in new characters. These CinemaScope Disney films inspired George Lucas quite a bit and he one-ups Walt on these superfluous characters–Lucas made action figures out of them after all. That scene, along with the ending, foul up the otherwise pleasant experience. The ending, however, owes a lot more to old Hollywood–with the romantic leads taking backseat to the eccentric supporting casts.

Before that first, fiancée-induced Disney film festival in 2003, I never thought I’d see these films again (I saw them, of course, as a child, undoubtedly at the wrong aspect ratio). Today, after recently sitting through history get a big dis in grad school, I’m even more appreciative of acknowledging their influence than usual. I tend to just say Sleeping Beauty and let that film be it, but there’s something magical about Lady and the Tramp. It’s not supposed to be real life–a quality live action film had lost by the 1950s (it’s never recovered from the loss)–and Lady and the Tramp is better for that condition. It’s an utterly commercial venture, but it’s still filled with pleasing awe… Whether its creators were excited about making the film (I’m not sure when Walt Disney had fully drained the life from his employees), it certainly seems as though they were and it carries over to the viewer.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson and Hamilton Luske; screenplay by Erdman Penner, Joe Rinaldi, Ralph Wright and Don DaGradi, based on a story by Ward Greene; edited by Donald Halliday; music by Oliver Wallace; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Peggy Lee (Darling), Barbara Luddy (Lady), Larry Roberts (Tramp), Bill Thompson (Jock), Bill Baucom (Trusty), Stan Freberg (Beaver) and Verna Felton (Aunt Sarah).


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The Rage in Placid Lake (2003, Tony McNamara)

Placid Lake is a guy, not a town. I’d never seen a trailer and I didn’t spend any time reading about it, just queueing it since Blockbuster has so very little, and I always assumed it was a town. Had I read about it, I would have watched it sooner, since Rose Byrne is in it and she isn’t in enough. Ben Lee (who I guess is a punk rock guy of some fame) plays Placid Lake. Lake has just graduated from high school. He’s been raised by his parents to be the uber-geek–in elementary school, his mother puts him in a dress to show his classmates (who pummel him) how close-minded they are. It gets little better for Lake as he gets older, and for the first half hour, the film layers the story in multiple flashbacks, which isn’t at all as tedious as it sounds. That first hour is light and fast, amusing the viewer into genuinely caring about the characters (Byrne plays the best friend/love interest-to-be), even if Lee isn’t as good an actor as his co-stars. His personality does some of the work and it’s not even his fault Placid Lake isn’t better.

Since it was dedicated to amusing me, I couldn’t discern the film’s quality in that first half hour, but once I could, I eased into the viewing experience. Placid Lake is a good film, it’s just not particularly heavy. Director McNamara knows both how to use a wide frame and how to keep the viewer entertained. Maybe since the main character survives a fall off a roof–making a full recovery–it becomes obvious the film’s stakes aren’t particularly high, it’s just going to be an enjoyable experience. Oddly, instead of concentrating on the love story, the film moves away, concentrating on the character’s self-image. Lake goes to work in an insurance company, welcoming the soul-sucking experience. All the self-awareness of office culture feels a little bit too much like Office Space and, well, “The Office.” It’s a wink-wink joke–Placid Lake likes work in the office–nudge, nudge. But it’s always agreeable.

This shallowness–and it’s not too shallow, the pat message about being one’s self gets shot down in a few ways–hurts a lot of the performances in the film. Since it’s called The Rage in Placid Lake, there’s never enough between Byrne and her father (played by “Spider-Man” Nicholas Hammond), but there’s also not enough in Placid’s office. He has an office manager, played by Christopher Stollery, who gives a deep portrayal as a seeming alpha male who has sold himself out… and is all too aware of it.

Whatever the film’s problems, it’s still quite good and I only wish it were more readily available, particularly since Byrne is so damn good in it.

Oh… and having a theme based on (without credit) Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home” doesn’t hurt either…

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Tony McNamara; director of photography, Ellery Ryan; edited by Lee Smith; music by Cezary Skubiszewski; production designer, Roger Ford; produced by Marian Macgowan; released by Palace Films.

Starring Ben Lee (Placid Lake), Rose Byrne (Gemma Taylor), Miranda Richardson (Sylvia Lake), Garry McDonald (Doug Lake), Jesse Spence (Jenny), Simone Cullinan (Sharon), Socratis Otto (Bozo), Toby Schmitz (Bull), Nathaniel Dean (Lachie), Stephen James King (Angus) and Nicholas Hammond (Bill Taylor).


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Escape Me Never (1947, Peter Godfrey)

Until now, I’d seen all of Eleanor Parker’s readily available films (the ones on VHS, laserdisc, and DVD) except Escape Me Never. She made two films with Errol Flynn, playing the lead in the other, Never Say Goodbye, and a supporting role in Escape Me Never. Ida Lupino plays the lead female. Parker plays the other woman, who’s married to Gig Young, who’s playing Flynn’s brother. It makes little sense and the whole film hinges on an agreement with the viewer never to question Flynn being irresistible.

The film is set in Venice in 1900. While the Venice sets, gondolas, canals and all, are quite nice, Lupino spends her first scene talking in 1940s slang. I’ve never seen Lupino in anything before and Escape Me Never certainly encourages me to be wary about seeing her in anything again. It’s not just the slang–or the special lighting she gets–or even her accent appearing and disappearing… she’s just really annoying (though her ludicrous costumes might contribute). Flynn is bad as well, somehow he’s impossible to take seriously as a tortured composer. Gig Young is fine, but looks and acts like he belongs in a different movie–one actually set in 1900….

Eleanor Parker–in one of her most glamorous parts–is so completely lost I can’t even mount a grand defense, which is fine, since it’s the studio’s fault. A few years before, Warner had given Parker the villainous role in Of Human Bondage (which she essayed brilliantly), but in Escape Me Never, her character’s not responsible for her objectionable actions and so the character has no depth. It’s probably Parker’s shallowest role, but it fits the film’s opinion of women. Women, it observes, are only of value for the reasons Flynn (and Flynn alone) says… There’s even a line about it. More than one, probably.

It’s impossible to imagine anyone speaking the film’s dialogue and conveying any sense of quality. Thames Williamson’s script is occasionally so ludicrous, along with Lupino’s shoddy performance, I was convinced the film was a farcical comedy. The scenes of Flynn, Lupino, and Young walking through the mountains, dressed in lederhosen certainly seems like it belongs in a farce. When the film moves its focus to a mountain resort (incredibly modern-looking for 1900 in Italy), the farce stops amusing and the viewer realizes it’s supposed to be serious. Escape Me Never came at the end of the studio system–Flynn and Lupino were on their way down while Parker and Young were moving up–and it’s a fine example of the system’s failings. It’s another one of those films I always had available on hand, but never watched for no good reason, only to watch it and wonder why I ever did, the original avoidance turning out to be fortuitous.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Peter Godfrey; screenplay by Thames Williamson, from the novel by Margaret Kennedy; director of photography, Sol Polito; edited by Clarence Kolster; music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold; produced by Henry Blanke; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Errol Flynn (Sebastian Dubrok), Ida Lupino (Gemma Smith), Eleanor Parker (Fionella MacLean), Gig Young (Caryl Dubrok), Reginald Denny (Mr. MacLean), Isobel Elsom (Mrs. MacLean), Albert Bassermann (Prof. Heinrich), Ludwig Stössel (Mr. Steinach) and Milada Mladova (Natrova).


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Scandal (1950, Kurosawa Akira)

Scandal presents an incredibly humane side of Kurosawa, one his historical pictures don’t convey. He shows the desperate sadness of people and offers little visible hope throughout. There’s one scene, when the protagonist (played by Mifune Toshirô) and the main character (Shimura Takashi) come across a pond reflecting the stars and Mifune comments about the frequent beauty one finds in daily life. Scandal isn’t so much about those aesthetic moments, rather the type of person who can fully appreciate them. Mifune’s character, a painter, has it a little easier than Shimura, the alcoholic, gambling lawyer, but that scene equalizes them and allows them to communicate.

Mifune kept reminding me of Gregory Peck in this film–maybe because of the pipe (though I don’t think Peck had the pipe until later than 1950). He’s handsome and kind and he’s definitely the protagonist–but he’s not the main character. Or maybe he’s the main character and Shimura is the protagonist. I can’t remember… The Oxford says the main character and the protagonist used to the same, but in the modern sense, there’s room for a main character and a protagonist. In a Kurosawa film of this era, there’s definite room. He’s not as loose as usual with his character emphasis, but again, until forty minutes into the film, I didn’t know who the story was going to track. Shimura is in lots of Kurosawa films (in addition, of course, to Godzilla), but Scandal is his finest work. His role is the fallen character Renoir never could work out and Kurosawa does it instinctively. Instead of using the character sparsely–as the viewer painfully watches him repeatedly fail everyone he cares about–Kurosawa keeps it going, keeps bringing him back, keeps the viewer in as much pain as the character is in… and he or she is just as able to change the character’s behavior as the character is able to do.

Scandal is really early, so Kurosawa hadn’t gone over to scope yet and watching the film, one can see him pushing the frame. I’ve never seen Kurosawa projected and I realized almost immediately, these squarer images were just as breathtaking as his other framings. I suppose it’s one of the drawbacks of letterboxing–you realize what you’re missing by not seeing it in the theater. Since Scandal is so early, since the story is so traditional (a magazine slanders a romantically innocent pair of celebrities), and since Mifune is such a traditional leading man, it’s shocking when Kurosawa breaks the film out of the traditional form. There’s a wonderful scene at the end: on the right side of the frame are the two heroes and their amiable sidekick and on the left is Shimura. Kurosawa keeps it all in focus–Scandal has no relieving close-ups either–and the scene just goes on for a little while. Something about the positioning of the actors while surveying the desperation… in that shot, it is immediately clear how important a storyteller Kurosawa already was and was going to be.

Scandal is, of course, not readily available in the United States. I watched the UK Masters of Cinema DVD release, which–just like the last Masters of Cinema release I watched–had video problems, this time with interlacing. The film was available on VHS in the States, from Criterion’s parent company’s VHS arm, so maybe there’s a nice region 1 edition in the works.

The most pleasant part about Scandal is it gets better as it goes along, constantly building toward its final achievement.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Kurosawa Akira; written by Kurosawa and Kikushima Ryuzo; director of photography, Ubukata Toshio; music by Hayasaka Fumio; produced by Koide Takashi; released by Shochiku Company.

Starring Mifune Toshirô (Aoye Ichirô), Yamaguchi Shirley (Saijo Miyako), Katsuragi Yôko (Hiruta Masako), Sengoku Noriko (Sumie), Ozawa Eitarô (Hori), Shimura Takashi (Attorney Hiruta), Himori Shinichi (Editor Asai) and Shimizu Ichirô (Arai).


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