Blog Directory CineVerse: May 2022

It's time to tip our hat to this 99-year-old masterpiece

Monday, May 30, 2022

Harold Lloyd is regarded as the third genius of silent film comedy (although there are certainly more than a trio that can claim this status), right behind Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Perhaps his finest hour (73 minutes, to be exact) is Safety Last, a timeless laugher from 1923 with a higher ratio of yuks per minute than arguably any funny film ever made. Here’s a summary of our CineVerse group’s talking points when we met last week to analyze this unimpeachable classic (to hear a recording of our group chat, click here).

What elements in Safety Last stood out as impressive, unique, noteworthy, or unanticipated?

  • The events and stunts look and feel real, largely because the movie was shot on location outdoors in Los Angeles using actual buildings and featuring non-acting crowds that arrived to watch. It also looks authentic because Harold Lloyd and a human fly stuntman actually scaled that building, with a circus performer used for the foot-hanging-from-a-rope scene. Lloyd and these performers took significant risks and jeopardized their lives to make the action appear as genuine as possible. The filmmakers don’t use special effects or rear screen projection. Lloyd’s stunt work is all the more remarkable considering that he lost a thumb and index finger on one of his hands a few years earlier.
  • Lloyd, unlike silent comedian contemporaries Chaplin and Keaton, benefited from an everyman look and quality as well as his rounded spectacles, which gave him a more intelligent yet fallible appearance. Lloyd is billed as “the boy,” but his employee card clearly lists him as “Harold Lloyd.”
    • Lloyd said in interviews: “Someone with glasses is generally thought to be studious and an erudite person to a degree, a kind of person who doesn’t fight or engage in violence, but I did, so my glasses belied my appearance. The audience could put me in a situation with that in mind, but I could be just the opposite to what was supposed…In the pictures that I did, I could be an introvert, a little weakling, and another could be an extrovert, the sophisticate, the hypochondriac. They looked alike in appearance, with the glasses, which I guess you’d call a typical American boy.”
  • The movie’s first half primarily takes place indoors, while outdoor scenes dominate the second half.
  • The picture goes non-stop without any slowdown or weak scenes and is chock full of great jokes and gags—the finest and most extended of which is the scaling of the building—but there are gags within gags and climaxes within climaxes that layer the film with comedy and thrills. Amazingly, however, this 73-minute film only has about 10 scenes.
    • Despite its reputation as one of the greatest and funniest silent comedies, arguably, Safety Last is more entertaining and fulfilling as a thriller than a comedy.
  • Fascinatingly, Lloyd made more films and money than Chaplin and Keaton combined in their prime years.

Major themes

  • Good and bad timing. The boy is pressured to arrive at work on time, and frequently it appears that time is not on his side, but an actual clock face serves as a lifeline and continually he has the benefit of fortuitous timing. Consider, too, all the visual nods to time: the clock face, his body swinging like a pendulum, and the timeclock at work.
    • From the start, we are told: “The boy was always early.”
  • The economic and practical challenges of surviving and thriving in an increasingly industrialized metropolis. From public transportation that can’t accommodate him to throngs of angry customers seeking service in a busy department store, the boy is faced with one obstacle after another. His lack of capital also proves daunting.
  • Adapting quickly to your environment and thinking fast on your feet. Despite the numerous impediments and setbacks he faces, the boy learns to rapidly and intrepidly use surrounding resources to his advantage: from passing cars that transport him to work to coat hooks that hide him from the landlord to scissors he employs Solomon-like to settle an argument between two customers to a flagpole that helps him escape an angry dog.

Similar works

  • Films by Chaplin and Keaton, including Modern Times, Steamboat Bill, Jr., and The General
  • Man on Wire
  • Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol
  • Die Hard
  • Project A

Other films by Harold Lloyd

  • The Freshman
  • Speedy
  • Grandma’s Boy
  • Why Worry?
  • Never Weaken
  • Girl Shy
  • For Heaven’s Sake


Bizarre love triangle

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Costume drama period pieces that depict a historical event can be hit-or-miss affairs, depending on the caliber of acting, production values, attention to detail and authenticity, and directorial prowess. Thankfully, A Royal Affair, directed by Nikolaj Arcel, excels in most of these areas and provides a fascinating history lesson by reenacting a true-life story that many moviegoers know nothing about: how the mentally ill King Christian VII of Denmark is persuaded by his wife Caroline and his physician Johann Struensee to reform the laws and edicts of his country for the betterment of the Danish people, and the love triangle that ensues between these three characters. The CineVerse faithful deconstructed this picture last week and offered several interesting readings and insights into the film, shared below (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here).

What did you find distinctive, unexpected, refreshing, or satisfying about A Royal Affair?

  • The movie is well cast, with Mads Mikkelsen, Alicia Vikander, and Mikkel Felsgaard playing their parts memorably and believably.
  • Many period dramas set in this era, especially stories about surreptitious romantic trysts and depicting the carnal natures of key characters, indulge in more nudity and titillating visuals designed to arouse the audience. This film shows relative restraint in its bedroom scenes without trying to exploit actress Alicia Vikander.
  • King Christian initially presents himself as a buffoonish, impish, and selfish pursuer of base pleasures and upholding little dignity or grace, despite his status. But he becomes a more sympathetic personality as the movie progresses. We see how little power he truly possesses and how he has been set up as a figurehead who is patronized and tolerated by the court and his stepmother. As we are more exposed to his mental illness, it’s easier to feel empathetic toward Christian, who is supposedly only 17 years old.
  • This is based on true characters and events, with less dramatic license taken than in many other historical cinematic dramatizations. If you didn’t know anything about the real Christian VII of Denmark and his queen and physician, you might assume that the filmmakers greatly exaggerated this story, its love triangle, and the reforms made by Christian and his children. But research supports this narrative as being predominantly accurate and authentic: There actually was a royal scandal involving these three, the dates given are mostly correct, and the majority of the events portrayed are grounded in fact.
  • This story is all the more intriguing and amazing because it hasn’t been dramatized before in a major motion picture, unlike the many iterations of, say, Marie Antoinette or Queen Elizabeth.

Major themes

  • The constant struggle for enlightenment, wisdom, and reason against the forces of oppression, ignorance, and selfishness. The doctor and the queen value knowledge, progressive thinking, and science and try to use their influence on the king to amend the laws and practices that will better the people of Denmark. But they are continually thwarted by the court, which favors maintaining the status quo, embraces religious rules, and resists critical thinking and the age of Enlightenment.
    • This is a theme that has significance today, as the world continues to see conflict between those who put stock in science, rational thought, and progressive advancements and those who hold fast to old beliefs and values that would set back the pace of progress.
    • reviewer Casey Broadwater wrote: “Politically minded viewers will notice parallels to several current arguments—from healthcare reform and women's rights to class warfare and the separation of church and state—and the film leaves the nagging impression that perhaps we haven't come as far since the Enlightenment as some of us would like to think.”
  • The pleasures and perils of forbidden love. Caroline is in a loveless arranged royal marriage in which she essentially has no power and receives and gives no affection to the king. She finds love and affectionate intimacy with Johann, the king’s doctor.
  • A complicated love triangle. The private lives and fates of King Christian, Caroline, and Johann are intertwined.
  • Serving a greater good. Caroline and Johann collaborate to influence the king to make changes for the good of their subjects, including persuading the king to prevent the court from making rules and laws. In doing so, they risk political turmoil, personal safety, and criticism from the Danish people.
  • Wearing and hiding behind masks versus revealing your true identity/nature.

Similar works

  • Queen Margot
  • Farewell My Queen
  • Amadeus
  • Dangerous Liaisons
  • Marie Antoinette
  • The Favourite
  • The Great
  • The Other Boleyn Girl
  • The Duchess
  • The Tudors
  • Anna Karenina
  • A Tale of Two Cities
  • The Madness of King George
  • The King’s Speech


It's high time we take a closer look at High Noon

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Cinematic westerns don't have to be action-packed affairs brimming with violence to resonate with audiences. Case in point: High Noon, which this year marks a 70th anniversary. Our CineVerse group recently took a deep focus lens to this picture and analyzed its many facets, as summarized below (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here; to hear the most recent Cineversary podcast episode celebrating this movie, click here).

Why is this movie worth celebrating 70 years later? Why does it still matter, and how has it stood the test of time?

  • High Noon is one of the very finest and most commercially successful, acclaimed, and award-honored westerns ever made.
    • It was nominated for seven Academy Awards, eventually winning for best actor, earned by Gary Cooper, best song (as represented by Do not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin’, which also became a popular musical hit), best film score, and best film editing. Consider that, in motion picture history, very few westerns have ever been nominated, let alone won Academy Awards. High Noon was also among the top-grossing movies of 1952.
    • It places #27 in the American Film Institute’s 2007 list of the 100 greatest American films of all time, ranking as the second greatest western ever, on that list, among six westerns that made the cut. On a separate list of the 10 greatest westerns of all time, High Noon came in just behind The Searchers.
  • This is also likely the most controversial western ever, at least up to that point. That’s because it sparked a lot of debate after its release due to its political undertones and questioning themes, particularly considering that 1952 was the height of the red scare era, a time when witch hunts by Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee (also called HUAC) were conducted with the goal of outing communists in Hollywood. 
    • High Noon’s story can be interpreted as an allegory for the Hollywood community, like the town of Hadleyville, turning its back on a brave but reluctant hero who is threatened by a malevolent force eager to destroy him – much as HUAC and McCarthy were successful in destroying the careers of those in Hollywood who would not name names and denounce their communist ties.
    • Several people involved with the production, including screenwriter Carl Foreman, actor Lloyd Bridges, and cinematographer Floyd Crosby, were suspected of being communist sympathizers. Foreman was soon blacklisted after composing the script.
  • High Noon still matters because of the evident artistry on display. Screenwriter Carl Foreman, cinematographer Floyd Crosby, director Fred Zinnemann, producer Stanley Kramer, composer Dimitri Tiomkin, and editors Elmo Williams and Harry Gerstad distinguish themselves here as fine craftsmen whose talents stand out, producing a work of lasting brilliance despite a measly $750,000 budget. 
    • The film’s simple but effective monochromatic compositions, clever cutting and montaging, effective pacing, recurrent musical theme, and memorable performances coalesce to create a highly effective, gripping, and emotionally potent morality tale in the guise of a western.
    • Several ingenious compositions stand out, especially those involving moving camera shots. Examples include shots framed from one side of a storefront window that reveals parallel planes of action on each side of the glass; shots of the Miller gang riding past the storefronts; an effective image of a spinning wagon wheel in the foreground and the passing town in the background; and the unforgettable crane shot that pulls away from Kane standing solitary in the empty center of town, revealing his utter isolation and implied powerlessness amidst a vast humanless landscape.
  • High Noon has also stood the test of time thanks to its evergreen thematic elements. Sure, the frontier town milieu is antiquated. Still, the essential messages at work – themes of betrayal versus loyalty, alienation versus inclusion, bravery versus cowardice, and duty and honor versus self-preservation – continue to resonate. This is a story that can transcend any genre; give it a science fiction setting, for example, and it could still work beautifully.
  • The thespians picked to play these parts are exceptional. What a deep bench—from Thomas Mitchel and Lloyd Bridges to Lon Chaney Jr. and Katy Jurado to Harry Morgan and Otto Kruger. Even the smallest roles are well cast.

How was High Noon innovative or different, especially compared to previous Hollywood westerns?

  • There’s minimal action until the last several minutes. Most westerns seek to entertain audiences with more physical conflict in the form of gunfights, fistfights, horseback chases, and more violence that is spread throughout a movie’s runtime.
  • The climactic gunfight is not exaggeratedly extended or stylistically depicted; we aren’t shown, for instance, multiple angles, slow motion, or protracted exchanges of gunfire. Instead, it’s quick, dirty, and realistic – one villain is shot in the back, and Miller tries to take Ann hostage. Kane doesn’t demonstrate any derring-do or do anything particularly heroic, although he shows cleverness when he escapes from the burning barn on horseback.
  • The story is told and shown virtually in real-time, depicting roughly 105 minutes of diegetic action within an 85-minute movie.
  • Most westerns are morally transparent: you clearly know the good guys from the baddies. In High Noon, there are a lot of grey areas concerning loyalties, duty, and rightness and wrongness; some townspeople prefer Miller’s lawless ways, others are doubtful of Kane’s motives, and others are indecisive. Are the villagers bad or wrong for not having Kane’s back? Each has their reasons and can rationalize their decision not to get involved. Is Kane foolish and reckless for not leaving town, possibly putting other people’s lives in danger? By the conclusion, it’s easy to deduce that Kane was in the right and made the correct choice to stay and fight, but we have to ask ourselves what we would do if we were one of those citizens in that situation.
  • The protagonist is stoic and heroic, but he’s also realistic, honest, and flawed: He admits to being frightened and abandons his lawman duties at the end. That's why his victory feels hollow at the end—Kane gives up the badge and rides off in bitterness and disgust.
  • Curiously, the antagonist, Miller, is not shown until the very end, although his expected arrival is given great importance by the characters. When he steps off the train, we aren’t even shown his face until a few moments later – a face that isn’t necessarily shocking or intimidating. The Miller reveal is rather anticlimactic when you ponder how much significance his impending arrival was given.
  • High Noon is not so much a traditional western as a parable or morality play depicting a social problem that transcends any genre.
  • Most westerns at this time were being filmed in color and were lavished with bigger budgets. This is a low-budget black-and-white affair, which described many poverty row oaters of this era; but unlike shoestring budget productions by lesser studios, High Noon could boast of top talents in front of and behind the camera. The filmmakers aimed for a documentary-like visual aesthetic and realism by choosing black-and-white minus the glossy production values.
  • This was the first major instance of a popular ballad theme song in a western, which was much copied thereafter in other films.
  • Despite these differences from previous pictures in the genre, High Noon employees many of the motifs, clichés, and patterns one would expect from a western, including a showdown climax that takes place on the streets of a deserted town; good characters vs. evil characters; a love story involving a pretty woman – in this case, two attractive and strong females; one or more scenes in a saloon filled with rough-and-tough customers; and the casting of great character actors and western movie faces we’ve come to expect and love, including Lee Van Cleef, Jack Elam, Sheb Wooley, and Ian McDonald.

How was High Noon influential on cinema or popular culture?

  • Before High Noon, few dramatic films featured songs sung with lyrics; after High Noon, many did—especially westerns. Interestingly, the theme song prophesizes what is going to happen— the lyrics give hints as to Kane’s struggles to come as the story advances.
  • High Noon demonstrated the effectiveness of using time as a source of dramatic conflict; the frequent medium and close-up shots of clock faces percolate the suspense and continually remind the viewer of Kane’s seemingly doomed status. This movie sets the visual template for a deadline-driven story in which temporal matters are crucial to the characters and the plot.
  • This movie proved that strong female characters with greater agency made for a better story and enhanced the dramatic conflict. High Noon is blessed with two powerful woman characters: Amy, a female with strong religious convictions who refuses to acquiesce and be subservient to her husband; and Helen Ramirez, who runs her own business and proves to be a strong-willed, independent thinker who is fearless in the face of intimidating men. She inspires Amy to have her husband’s back. In fact, Amy plays a crucial role in saving Kane by killing one bad guy outright and tussling with Miller, which gives her husband the upper hand in that showdown. Essentially, instead of the male hero rescuing a damsel in distress, here we have a female hero rescuing a male in distress.
  • The prominent facial close-ups in High Noon may have encouraged later filmmakers to employ this tight facial framing, especially Sergio Leone in his spaghetti westerns like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
  • Several movies and television shows were arguably inspired by High Noon, including Shane, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Wild Bunch, Once Upon a Time in the West (particularly its extended opening sequence at the train depot), Forty Guns, Rio Bravo, and the TV series Gunsmoke. The films Outland and Three O’Clock High were also influenced by High Noon, and there was a 2000 TV remake of the same name.
  • High Noon is credited as the first Hollywood Western to feature a Mexican actress in a significant role – in this case, Katy Jurado as Helen Ramirez.
  • This picture also catapulted Grace Kelly’s brief but memorable acting career.

Why is Gary Cooper the right actor to play Marshall Will Kane? 

  • Cooper brings to the role the multiple morally righteous and virtuous characters we’ve seen him play in so many previous films, from Mr. Deeds Goes to Town to A Farewell to Arms to Sergeant York to The Pride of the Yankees. It’s easy to root for him based on his likable visage and earnest eyes alone.
  • As Kane, Cooper looks pained and aged – thanks in no small part to the fact that the actor was suffering from stomach ulcers, nagging hip discomfort, lower back pain, and a recent romantic breakup. His hangdog expressions, world-weary countenance, and quiet demeanor lend pathos to this personality, making it easy for us to feel the weight on his shoulders. We see the doubts behind his eyes and the strained sense of honor and compromised dignity.
  • He’s not an invulnerable force like a John Wayne protagonist or Clint Eastwood’s man with no name. Kane is utterly human and vulnerable, capable of forgetting his place as a lawman by punching the bartender in the saloon and shedding tears of fear in private as the clock strikes down. He’s also not very persuasive or vocally insistent, despite the extreme danger he faces.

What themes, messages, or morals are explored in High Noon?

  • Betrayal and disloyalty. Despite protecting his fellow villagers for many years and making the streets safer for women and children, Kane is abandoned by his community at his greatest time of need.
  • Civic duty and responsibility. It’s been said that “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Instead of banding together and showing solidarity behind Kane, the community deserts him and shirks their obligations as responsible and engaged citizens.
    • Recall Martin’s notable remarks to Kane: “People gotta talk themselves into law and order before they do anything about it. Maybe because down deep they don't care. They just don't care.”
  • The dangers of moral corruption. Hadleyville has been carefully nurtured over the years to become an upstanding and safe place to raise families and engage in free enterprise. But the health and integrity of this community are only as robust as its moral core—the extent to which its citizens are willing to abide by law, order, decency, and virtue. Once they permit bad influences like Miller’s crowd to creep in, the town risks rotting from the inside out.
    • Kane resists this temptation toward moral corruption. DVD Journal reviewer Gregory Dorr wrote: “Kane has come to represent a sadly antiquated model of American man: an individualist bound by selfless and unyielding commitment to law and protecting those in his dominion; a man resistant to corrosive neuroses and unthwarted by moral relativism. As a result, Kane has become an icon for those who have not been roped into the post-sexual-revolution era of the “sensitive male” — from politicians, to columnists, to the fictional Mafiosi of HBO’s The Sopranos.”
    • Being forced to make difficult choices.
    • Kane is compelled to choose between courage, duty, and honor or self-preservation and cowardice.
    • Amy must decide whether to abide by her pacifist religious beliefs or stand by and protect her man.
    • Deputy Harvey Pell must choose between ego and friendship.
    • Kane’s friends—from the judge to Martin (the retired marshall) to Sam Fuller to Mayor Jonas to Herb—also have to decide whether to back Kane or not; each, in turn, forsakes him.

High Noon has often been called a liberal or progressive Western, one that was vilified in its day by conservatives like John Wayne and Howard Hawks, who labeled this film as anti-American and collaborated on 1959’s Rio Bravo as a sort of staunch rebuttal. But some argue that High Noon actually straddles the fence between being a liberal statement and a conservative one.  How can the film be interpreted politically today?

  • At the time of its production, the McCarthy witch hunts were going on when many Hollywood players were forced to name names of communist sympathizers—many of those persecuted made the brave choice to fight the persecution and stand ground.
    • Kane is betrayed and deserted by townspeople he thought were friends, just like many who were implicated, alienated, and blacklisted by confidants during the HUAC proceedings.
    • Screenwriter Carl Foreman said in an interview: “(Hollywood was) a community beginning to crumble around the edges as these high powered politicians came in ... putting this community through an inquisition that was getting more and more painful for a lot of people, and people were falling to the wayside one way or another. They were either capitulating to these gangsters – political gangsters from out of town – or they were being executed by them here. And I could see that my time was coming sooner or later – it was just being delayed by a couple years or so – and I wanted to write about that. I wanted to write about the death of Hollywood.”
  • High Noon is also seen as an allegory of the Cold War and U.S. foreign policy during the Korean War, where America went it alone against communist North Korea.
  • DVD Savant critic Glenn Erickson wrote: “High Noon is actually a better fit as a conservative fantasy about America fighting Communism in foreign wars. Good ol’ Kane ([like] General MacArthur and company) defeated Evil foes five years ago (roughly the end of WW2), but now Evil is back and it’s personal. Nobody gives a damn, or worse, they’re on the side of the Commies. Kane must go it alone. Poor General MacArthur, stabbed in the back by the politicians. The pacifist argument in High Noon takes a conservative turn as well. Amy Fowler is a pacifist Quaker, yet has married a man whose profession involves gunplay and killing. When Amy blasts bad guy Robert J. Wilke in the back, the movie crudely suggests that Christian pacifism is a myth promoted by people who have never had to fight to protect their loved ones. Amy earns the right to keep her man the American Way, by killing for it.”
  • High Noon was actually employed in a Solidarity poster in Poland in 1979, which indicates that the film means different things for different people at different times.

What is High Noon’s greatest gift to viewers?

  • Possibly its greatest gift is its tense tonality and suspenseful pacing. The genius of this picture is its faithful adherence to temporal realism: telling the story in approximately real time and continually reminding us of the approaching deadline by using insert shots of different clocks ticking down the minutes and seconds to zero hour, aka high noon. It’s not just the clock face closeups that matter—it’s also the nervous glancing at said timepieces by Kane and other characters, their expressions instantly conveying an anxious cognizance of the increasing hopelessness and desperation of the situation.
  • The filmmakers also cunningly generate apprehension in the audience by simple suggestion of forthcoming violence. Quotes like “You know there'll be trouble,” “He was always wild and kind of crazy. He'll probably make trouble,” “Nobody wants to see you get killed,” “Plenty of people feel he’s got a comeuppance coming,” and especially “Have you forgotten what he is? Have you forgotten what he's done to people? Have you forgotten that he's crazy? Don't you remember when he sat in that chair and said, 'You'll never hang me. I'll come back. I'll kill you, Will Kane. I swear it, I'll kill you.’” Foreshadowing sequences further tighten the knot, such as the barber commissioning more coffins and kids engaging in a tug-of-war and playacting a street shootout in which one child says “bang bang, you’re dead, Kane!”
  • But the film’s pressure-building pièce de resistance is the wordless two-minute montage sequence that ticks down the final minutes before noon, in which Kane composes his last will and testament, we revisit the expectant faces of nearly every character previously shown in the film within the environments we last saw them in, and we are shown the tracks that will bring Miller’s train into the depot at any moment, a merciless metal pathway to perdition. Every shot is rhythmically timed to span exactly four beats of the film’s main theme that thrums hauntingly and increasingly louder. Each successive shot is framed as a tighter closeup, and the music builds to an emotional crescendo, halting suddenly as we hear the sound of the train whistle–at which point we get four rapid-fire cuts of Ann, Kane, Helen, and the Miller gang. This is classic Hollywood filmmaking at its very best, pure cinema that uses simple but strong visuals, stirring music, and precision editing to tell a riveting story within the story with no dialogue needed.


We can't stop singing the praises of this musical gem

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Last month, one of Hollywood's finest musicals turned 70 years old. All these decades later, Singin' in the Rain continues to satisfy and satiate our desire for unbridled cinematic joy expressed in expert dancing and melody-making. What makes this movie stand apart from other pictures in the genre? Read on for reasons why Singin- in the Rain still matters today (to listen to the Cineversary podcast celebrating this movie, click here).

Why is this film worth celebrating 70 years later, and how has it stood the test of time?

  • It’s been called “the musical for people who don’t like musicals.” Perhaps that’s because it checks the boxes across several musical subgenres:
    • It’s a jukebox musical in which most of the songs are popular tunes, not just original music.
    • It’s a backstage musical wherein the plot is set in a theatrical context that focuses on a stage production or, in this case, a movie production.
    • You can call it a catalogue musical because it often features a catalogue of songs from a single songwriting source, here being MGM’s Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed.
    • Singin’ in the Rain is an integrated musical, as well, in which the music is used to advance or mesh with the narrative, and characters don’t just burst into song without reason.
  • It’s worth celebrating because Singin’ in the Rain stands as the pinnacle of the classic Hollywood musical, the apex of works produced by Arthur Freed at MGM – which also include the Wizard of Oz, Cabin in the Sky, Meet Me in St. Louis, Easter Parade, on the Town, An American Paris, and The Band Wagon.
  • The film also represents a collection of top talents at the height of their powers, in particular Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, Stanley Donen, and Arthur Freed, who have debatably never produced better work.
  • It’s cherished, as well, thanks to its chromatic vibrancy, being shot in sumptuous three-strip Technicolor, which really pops in the Broadway Melody sequence and the Beautiful Girl montage.
  • Singin' in the Rain also holds up because many of the songs and dancing seem spontaneous, improvised, natural, effortless, and made up on the spot. Many of the songs serve as musical representations and articulations of a character’s emotions, too. Cases in point: The Moses Supposes scene looks and feels a bit silly because Don and Cosmo apparently find the lessons ridiculous and can’t take the teacher seriously, so they treat the scene and the instructor somewhat irreverently, while Broadway Rhythm plays as kinetic and urgent, suggesting that the need to dance is essential for practical as well as personal reasons.
    • Infectious energy, enthusiasm, and playfulness pulse through these numbers, and you can’t help but tap your toes, hum along, and share many of the emotions felt by these characters. We appreciate the feeling of genuinely falling in love because Kelly sells it so well during the titular dance sequence.
  • What’s more, Singin’ in the Rain doesn’t date because it serves as a minor history lesson in how early movies were made, loosely documenting the problematic transition from silent pictures to talkies. It demonstrates how the machinery of moviemaking pulls off the magic trick: how microphones, lights, cameras, backdrops, and other elements function to help create a film. Because it was set in 1927, the year the first talking movies were released, it serves as a compelling period piece that helps Singin’ in the Rain from feeling outmoded.
    • Consider that the movie business continually confronts times of change and challenging periods of technical transition, whether it was the rollout of 3-D and widescreen in the 1950s or the initiative to install digital projection systems in theaters in recent years.
    • Slant Magazine reviewer Chris Cabin wrote: “The most exquisite and exuberant dream of the dream machine in transition, Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain includes perhaps one of the greatest examples of how art, with its constant advances and detractions, can at once wildly embellish and find the emotional truth of an artist’s persona. And it is, of course, the greatest film to date about the pitfalls and promises that come along with change in film, though its ideas are so clear and profoundly realized that they have by now become universally relatable. Made today, it might have been about the move from film to digital, from the theater to VOD, from print criticism to blogging.”
  • Despite winning no Oscars and not being cherished in its own era for its brilliance, Singin’ in the Rain ranks as the best musical ever, per the American Film Institute’s list of the Greatest Movie Musicals, places #5 in the AFI’s 2007 list of the 100 greatest films of all time, and commands a rare 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
  • Lastly, in a movie known primarily for stellar dancing and memorable music, it’s loaded with great comedic lines, like “She so refined – I think I’ll kill myself;” “Dignity, always dignity”; “Call me a cab”/“Okay, you’re a cab”; “Gee, this is dumb”; and the following exchange between Cosmo and R.F: “Talking pictures, that means I’m out of a job. At last, I can start suffering and write that symphony.”/“You’re not out of job, we’re putting you in as head of our new music department.”/Oh, thanks, R.F.! At last I can stop suffering and write that symphony.”

How was this movie innovative or different, especially compared to previous Hollywood musicals?

  • It integrated different types of dancing, including tap, ballet, ballroom, jazz, can-can, and a more athletic style of hoofing and movement that, for instance, breakdance and hip-hop dancers can appreciate nowadays. Singin’ in the Rain also showcases some of the best male tandem dancing ever and three-person dancing.
    • Kelly, O’Connor, and Reynolds make it look easy, even though it was challenging work choreographing and executing these dance moves.
    • Amazingly, Reynolds had no professional dancing experience before being cast, although she was a skilled gymnast. It was also her first starring role in a musical.
  • Rare for a 1950s musical, most music in the film is recycled: All but two of the 15 songs, Moses Supposses and Make ‘Em Laugh, were used previously in movies, mostly between 1929 and 1939.
  • This musical actually has a solid plot with an intriguing narrative, as opposed to so many previous song and dance pictures. And the story was written directly for the screen—not based on a stage musical.
  • Unlike many prior musicals, where the screenplay was written first and then songs were composed to fit the story, the songs in Singin’ in the Rain existed first, followed by the script.
  • Indeed, it actually tells a story, depicting Hollywood’s challenging crossover from silents to talkies. We learn how the sausage is made: the placement of the microphones, lip-synching, synchronizing the picture and sound, a traveling cyclorama, the importance of test screenings, stiff competition between the studios, and the degree to which Hollywood actors were commodities owned by the studio (recall, for example, that Kathy is obligated to perform because of her contract with Monumental Pictures).
  • In her book, The Movie Musical!, film scholar Jeanine Basinger wrote: “It’s a film about film history, and its musical numbers comply. “Make ’Em Laugh,” with O’Connor doing an amazing tour de force of slapstick dancing, is about the violence of American silent comedy. “Moses Supposes” is like a Marx Brothers routine set to music. “You Were Meant for Me” is a gentle self-parody of typical love duets in movies, showing all the props used and how audiences are manipulated by them. “Beautiful Girl” is a tribute to a 1930s Busby Berkeley number, and “Good Morning” uses an old song as a setting for an imaginatively choreographed tap routine that displays several different types of movie dancing. All the numbers are about movies except “All I Do Is Dream of You” and the title tune.”
  • Furthermore, Singin’ in the Rain stands as an uncommon example in its era of a metafilm—showing movies within the movie and commenting on the creation, editing, and distribution of motion pictures.
    • Exhibit A: This film is chock full of references and nods to previous movies and filmmakers, and savvy watchers can have a lot of fun looking for the bread crumbs, such as:
      • The majority of tunes had been featured in previous Hollywood musicals, as mentioned earlier; in fact, this was the seventh time the song "Singin' in the Rain" was used in a film.
      • Make Em Laugh riffs on Cole Porter’s Be a Clown from 1948’s The Pirate.
      • The movie uses plenty of antique props and older sets employed in earlier films; for instance, Kathy’s jalopy was a fixture in the Andy Hardy series starring Mickey Rooney.
      • Studio boss R.F. Simpson and the musical director character of Cosmo were modeled on Arthur Freed.
      • The Dancing Cavalier director Roscoe Dexter is patterned after musical filmmaker Busby Berkeley.
      • The film mentions 1927’s The Jazz Singer, credited as the first feature-length talking picture.
      • The action scenes in "The Royal Rascal" use footage from the 1948 film The Three Musketeers.
    • Exhibit B: Singin’ in the Rain both lampoons and lionizes Hollywood and show business, hinting at the warts-and-all truth behind filmmaking with comedic criticism while also glorifying the glitz, glamour, and glory days of the studio system and early popular entertainment.
    • Exhibit C: There’s even a meta irony in this film. We see how Lina’s voice is dubbed by Kathy, who is a better singer, but Debbie Reynolds’ singing voice is actually dubbed by singer Betty Noyes in two songs: “Would You?” and in part of “You Are My Lucky Star.”
  • Lastly, Singin’ in the Rain continues Kelly’s trend of utilizing a more athletic, masculine, everyman style meant to relate to everyday people. Kelly is more physical and acrobatic than the Hollywood hoofer he was most often compared to, Fred Astaire, who was more smooth, sophisticated, and graceful. Kelly also enjoyed using props in his dance routines, which he does with much aplomb in Singin’ in the Rain via an umbrella, lamppost, hat, coin, scarf, couch, lampshade, curtains, or briefcase.

How was Singin’ in the Rain influential on cinema, comedy, or popular culture?

  • This movie was a major inspiration to later films and TV shows, including Moulin Rouge, High School Musical and its sequels, Chicago, The Artist, Rock of Ages, La La Land, and Glee.
  • Singin’ in the Rain showed how efficiently and effectively you could advance the narrative through dance and music. Ponder how most if not all the songs follow logically from a character’s motivation or previous explanation. Take the Fit as a Fiddle number, which establishes Don’s past and professional relationship with Cosmo, and consider why the title song comes later in the tale because it occurs just after Don realizes he’s in love, serving as a jubilant expression of his sentiments toward Kathy and the joie de vivre he’s experiencing.
  • Particularly with this movie, Kelly perfected a new approach to presenting dance on film. According to Kelly: “I tried to do things uniquely cinematic, that you couldn’t do on a stage. Call it ‘cine-dancing,’ or whatever, but I tried to invent the dance to fit the camera and its movements.”
    •’s Erin McCann wrote: “One of the best examples of this can be seen in Singin’ In The Rain, when the camera pulls back, the music swells, and Kelly dances using wide movements. Then, as the camera closes in on him, the music softens and his movements become less dramatic. This technique focuses your attention and creates a sense of intimacy; it’s a vastly different approach than previously standard massive wide shots attempting to replicate the spectacle of Broadway. It also allows for the increased use of depth in cinematic space.”
  • Singin’ in the Rain boasts perhaps the best and one of the first examples of physical comedy implemented in a dance number with Make ‘Em Laugh.
    • Consider how the Beautiful Girl montage, especially its first 60 seconds, serves as a kind of proto-music video with its colorfully costumed women, stylistic shots of marching female soldiers and a man shouting out of a megaphone, and various beauties clad in ostentatious attire. It feels like a kind of early MTV video with its rapid cuts and eye-catching visuals.

It’s rare for any classic film from the golden age of Hollywood to have two directors. Why were Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly the ideal collaborators?

  • They had co-directed an earlier film together that was a commercial and critical success: On the Town from 1949, starring Kelly and Frank Sinatra.
  • It would make sense for Donen to share directorial duties with the person responsible for choreographing all the dancing and who performed most of the dance numbers.
  • Film critics and scholars have noted Singin’ in the Rain’s longer-than-usual takes and an active camera that consistently travels and tracks with characters.
  • In his essay on this film for Deep Focus Review, Brian Eggert “Kelly learned that movement onscreen depends on the movement of the camera, and viewers of a stage performance saw something different than a film’s audience. On the stage, dancers appeared smaller and had to occupy the entire stage along with their costars, so large movements became more important than acting; on film, the camera could move along with the dancer, and the viewer could better appreciate specific movements onscreen, in particular, the actor’s ability (or inability) to remain in character during the dance…The key to cine-dance was shooting dance in such a way that dance never distracted from the film’s narrative thrust. To accomplish this, Donen used tracking and crane camera techniques that trail the dancing without the wobbly movements of earlier musicals, allowing Singin’ in the Rain’s dance sequences to contain a rare faithfulness to the narrative for a Hollywood musical, as the songs and dance blend seamlessly with the drama and humor.”

What themes, messages, or morals are explored in Singin’ in the Rain?

  • Illusion vs. reality. Audiences are constantly seduced by the fantastical power of perfect-looking movies. But Singin’ in the Rain reveals that creating films involves sometimes imperfect technology that marries sound to image in a way that fools the mind into thinking that what we are seeing represents reality and looks effortless.
    • Recall how, early in the story, Don reminisces his backstory to the reporter, but we are shown the hard-luck truth of what he is exaggerating.
    • Ruminate on how Kathy portrays herself as a serious actress, but her real job is to jump out of cakes and function as a background player.
    • Mr. Simpson is the head of the studio and wants to come off as powerful, but he is afraid of angering his stars.
    • The plot itself is partially centered on how to get Lina to appear to have more talent than she really does. By peeling back the curtain and presenting Lina as the fraudulent talent she is, the illusion is broken for the crowd she entertains and the truth of Kathy’s singing gift is revealed.
    • The characters of Lina and Kathy, respectively, represent illusion versus reality as well as two distinctly different types of women vying for Don’s attention.
      • Lina is glamorous, rich and powerful, more classically feminine, and a platinum blonde, while Kathy is tomboyish, shorter, brown-haired, and a starving artist.
      • Lina is dim-witted, smart-alecky, urban, and vindictive, while Kathy is sharp, intuitive, humble, small-townish, and morally upright.
      • Lina demands the spotlight, but Kathy is willing to concede it.
  • Dignity vs. humiliation. Time and again, we are shown how Don, Cosmo, Kathy, and Lina try to maintain their self-respect and poise in the dog-eat-dog world of Hollywood but are regularly shamed, demeaned, and embarrassed.
  • Performing and performances. Singin’ in the Rain continually reminds us of the pressure felt by artists to impress and entertain audiences, nail the opportunity, and perform well in front of and behind the camera.
  • Getting closer to the heart of the matter via increased intimacy. In an interview, film historian Sam Wasson said: “The whole movie can be read as a progression from the exterior – the way it opens with that lie – to the climax of the Broadway Melody number, which is all about (Don’s) imaginings. We quite literally go from outside to inside, and the musical numbers themselves describe that progression.”

What is Singin’ in the Rain’s greatest gift to viewers?

  • Among its many gifts is the title track dance in the downpour by Gene Kelly, easily the most memorable music and visual from the film – one that transcends time and is referenced in popular culture to this day. Not only is this a logistical and technical triumph of mise en scene, but Kelly’s emotionally animated footwork and physical exuberance are unforgettable. We’ve certainly seen him do more athletically impressive movements to music, and this may not be his most complex choreography ever. Yet it’s the most believable dancing many have seen from Gene because it feels and looks like the way a young man might behave upon first realizing that he’s smitten with someone. We may not be able to tap tirelessly and flawlessly across the wet pavement like Mr. Kelly, but we can relate to the sheer joy that electrifies his legs and gives his feet wings. We can recall times in our youth when we stomped around giddily in rain puddles and twirled an umbrella. You simply can’t help but grin by the song’s end and feel young again. (And I’m occasionally reminded of the power and lasting influence of this number when I visit the produce section of my local supermarket; every so often while perusing the rows of carrots, radishes, kale, and spinach, I’m startled by the sudden operation of an automatic overhead irrigation system that plays the disembodied voice of Gene Kelly singing this song as the veggies are delicately misted. It’s little wonder why my produce is so crisp, fresh, and tasty—after all, a Hollywood icon has serenaded them!). Additionally, this song is probably Kelly’s best vocal performance on film, as well.
  • Greatest gift number two is Make ‘Em Laugh, which never fails to deliver on that title’s promise. Donald O’Connor is a sheer force of nature with his funny business here, and his pliant, slapsticky, superhuman performance speaks for itself. (This was the film and this was the scene that got my son to sit down for and pay attention to classic films back when he was five years old and a thousand Disney flicks were vying for his attention.)
  • Greatest gift number three is the Broadway Melody sequence: an uber-colorful medley of fanciful fantasy that blends several discrete dancing and musical styles. It doesn’t exist in the characters’ reality—Don recommends inserting it as a showstopper within a re-edit of the Dancing Cavalier. Narratively, however, it functions as a crucial turning point in Don’s ability to reveal his emotions to Kathy, and it externalizes his internal crisis about his acting skills keeping pace with his dancing aptitude and vice versa. One reading suggests that the Broadway Melody fantasy is a reaction in Don’s mind to Kathy’s criticism of his acting and how Don had compromised himself by not pursuing his true talent—dancing—and how he should return to it. Regardless of your interpretation, the garish hues, elaborate steps, balletic brilliance, nimble camera movement, and sheer number of moving parts in Broadway Melody are stunning, making it a self-contained masterpiece within a masterpiece.


Cineversary brings out the big guns to celebrate High Noon's 70th anniversary

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

In Cineversary podcast episode #47, host Erik Martin turns back the clock to commemorate the 70th birthday of one of the most beloved westerns of all time: High Noon, directed by Fred Zinnemann. In this installment, Erik serves as a trusty deputy of sorts to film scholar sheriff Glenn Frankel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic. Erik and Glenn explore how High Noon changed the western genre, why it’s worth celebrating seven decades later, its cultural impact and legacy, and what we can learn from this study in temporal tension today.
Glenn Frankel

To listen to this episode, click here or click the "play" button on the embedded streaming player below. Or, you can stream, download or subscribe to the Cineversary podcast wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Castbox, Stitcher, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, PodBean, RadioPublic, and Overcast.

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Fossils of furtive love

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

You’re putting extreme faith in your actors when you rely on them to carry a film that lacks plot, dialogue, characters, or closure. Fortunately, director Francis Lee’s Ammonite is acquitted nicely by the performances of Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan, whose characters spark an unexpected romantic relationship that forms the crux of this picture. We gave the CineVerse treatment to Ammonite last week; here’s a recap of our examination, below (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here).

Describe what you found as unanticipated, remarkable, noteworthy, or distinctive about Ammonite

  • There is very little talking or exposition. This is arguably the quietest role Kate Winslet has ever played, and we rely significantly on nonverbal cues and facial expressions to better understand her.
  • The sex scenes are more graphic, explicit, extended, and forthright than many viewers would likely expect. These aren’t body doubles – that’s really Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan acting intimately in nude sequences that are debatably a step beyond Hollywood softcore. The actors demonstrate extreme trust, honesty, and daring in exposing themselves to this degree, and the results are hard to deny: We believe that Mary and Charlotte are genuinely passionate, aroused, and engaged.
  • The colors are primarily muted and drab, implying that Mary lives in a time and place where she cannot fully experience joy or express herself; however, the hues become more vibrant and energetic when Mary and Charlotte are romantically engaged.
  • Director/writer Francis Lee, a gay man, takes serious dramatic license with this material. The story is loosely based on the life of British paleontologist Mary Anning, but there are no records of her being a lesbian or being romantically involved with the real-life figure Charlotte Murchison, who was a British geologist. Consequently, the film proved controversial upon release and was criticized for taking liberties with a historical figure.

Major themes

  • Forbidden love and sexual awakening in a time of societal-imposed repression.
  • Feeling trapped and boxed in by society. The filmmakers use symbolism – such as a shot of an insect trapped in a jar – to suggest how Mary lacks the success, status, and recognition she deserves, while Charlotte lacks the autonomy and agency she deserves.
  • The patriarchal subjugation of women. Mary isn’t given proper credit in her time for her paleontological discoveries because she is a woman, and Charlotte is under the thumb of her domineering husband.
  • Tender care, patience, and trust are required to bring out the true beauty in someone. Just as Mary has to painstakingly prep each fossil she finds to reveal its hidden secrets, the two women must tenderly nurture their sensitive sides to uncover intimacy and affection.

Similar works

  • Portrait of a Lady on Fire
  • Blue is the Warmest Color
  • God’s Own Country
  • Dig
  • Vita & Virginia
  • Summerland
  • The World To Come
  • Tell It To The Bees

Other films by Francis Lee

  • God’s Own Country
  • The Last Smallholder


Sisters doing it for themselves

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

One of the most compelling movies ever made about female empowerment and coming of age, Mustang, directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven (her first feature film) offers an impressive cast of young non-professional actors and a narrative that elicits a range of potent emotions. CineVerse carefully evaluated this picture last week; our collective observations are encapsulated below (to hear a recording of our group discussion, click here).

What did you find surprising, memorable, distinct, or offbeat about Mustang?

  • The title is interesting, as it’s a word never mentioned in the story or given any context. We associate the word “mustang” with a free-roaming wild horse, a quality we can ascribe to the free-thinking and plucky sisters. It’s not called “Mustangs,” as in wild horses (plural), which suggests that the title refers more to Lale, the youngest sibling upon whom the tale increasingly focuses and turns.
  • Although the tension is palpable and the prospects for the sisters appear foreboding, grim, dour, and inescapable for most of the runtime, the filmmakers also carefully lighten the mood and give us moments of levity and elation, providing a pressure relief valve from time to time that keeps us from abandoning this story or the plight of the girls.
  • Mustang walks a fine line between criticism of a culture and outright condemnation of a country and creed. Without necessarily attacking the Islamic religion or Turkey as a nation, Mustang focuses on the unfairness of antiquated family values and customs that aim to keep women submissive and acquiescent.
  • The casting of the five daughters is excellent, with each actress bringing something special and idiosyncractic to each character, making each sister stand out and feel unique.

Major themes

  • The irrepressibility of female adolescence and sisterhood. Despite being subjugated, the five female siblings find joy and comfort in each other and, for the older sisters, in exploring their sexuality and femininity. Yet, they are individually more increasingly vulnerable as each older sister departs the house. By the last act, we feel how desperate the situation becomes for the youngest two after three of their older sisters are peeled away from them.
  • Rebellion against an oppressive patriarchal society that seeks to curtail any female agency or personal expression.
  • Hope for the next generation. Each sister experiences a different fate: the oldest, Sonay, embraces her arranged marriage life; Selma, the second oldest, numbingly and begrudgingly accepts this depressing destiny; the middle sister, Ece, kills herself rather than submit to a life of servitude; Nur, the second youngest, inspired by her strong-willed youngest sibling Lale, fights back. Lale proves that she’s sharp and resourceful, engineering an escape plan that may just work. We are encouraged by her drive, quick wit, and determination, and can feel optimistic that she and Nur will avoid any of the outcomes of their older sisters.
  • Fairy tale morality. This story functions as a modern-day fairy tale, allegory, or children’s fantasy in which five free-spirited princesses are locked away in a tower and seek escape. One reading is that they are threatened by a witch/evil stepmother, personified by their grandmother, and by an ogre, embodied by their uncle. Only the most cunning and ambitious of the princesses will harness the magic and the moxie needed to flee this evil kingdom.
    • Consider, too, how the sisters are symbolically “cast out of the Garden of Eden” when they are admonished for eating the fruit in the orchard.
    • Michael McDunnah with The Unaffiliated Critic, wrote: “Rather, what we see throughout the film is an attempt to expel these girls from the earthly paradise of their own natural states, from autonomy over the bodies that are and should be their birthrights. With its particular setting, Mustang presents an extreme version of the forces that seek to control and commodify female bodies, but those forces are familiar to every culture, and the struggles of the girls will, I think, resonate with every woman.”
    • Jonathan Romney of Film Comment wrote: “If Mustang is ultimately a fairy tale, an affirmative girl-power myth, then fair enough: these sisters are Rapunzels, doing it for themselves; a five-girl stampede.”

Similar works

  • The Virgin Suicides
  • The Diary of a Teenage Girl
  • Persepolis
  • Dogtooth
  • The Circle
  • One. Two. One
  • A Wedding
  • Bliss
  • Thirteen
  • Room

Also directed by Deniz Gamze Erguven

  • Kings
  • Two episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale


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