Apr 26, 2008

Landmark Larceny

Rarely do I witness a film so moving, so exquisitely captivating and psychologically impactful, and so deft at magnifying the emotional intricacies of everyday life into powerful, universal statements that it leaves me nearly speechless, but it does happen. Vittorio de Sica's Ladri di Biciclette (The Bicycle Thief), a simple glimpse into a painful crux in the life of an impoverished family, is one such film, proving nearly defiant of description (though I wouldn't be me if I didn't try).

Bleak, stirring, and a portrait of desperation in scratchy black-and-white, The Bicycle Thief observes the turns of disillusion and contentment which cycle through the face of a young, gaunt man seeking to support his family in mid-2oth century Rome: like most of his working-poor contemporaries, security and happiness are evasive for him until a much-needed job is attained, then forfeited upon the occasion of the titular theft. But masterful de Sica seems to have left his plot and his dialogue intentionally simple to highlight the anguish the larceny creates for those who feel its effect - and the film follows its leads' struggle for a just and deserved denoument til the final few minutes of this moving masterpiece.

Though available on DVD, Thief is difficult to locate; it is currently available in for viewing in a video series on the video-sharing site YouTube. Just click this link to be taken to the film's first 10-minute segment (please note this an external link).

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Apr 23, 2008

Current Love: Marge & Gower Champion

Catching my fancy for some time now have been delightful dancing marrieds Marge and Gower Champion, the sometime-screen couple who lit up film with their inventive, acrobatic, and highly animated style of dance performance in the 1950s, while making their biggest impact on Broadway theatre in that decade and the years that followed.

Perhaps best known for his contributions as director and choreographer of such Broadway smashes as Hello, Dolly! and Lend an Ear, Gower met Marjorie Belcher, who performed under the name of Marjorie Bell, when the two were teens, and they maintained a platonic correspondence while they each pursued their respective romances and careers: Gower toured America with dance partner Jeanne Tyler, while Marge married Disney film animator Art Babbitt in 1937 (she was the live-action model for that year's animated version of Snow White). But upon reuniting years later, the two - newly-divorced Marge and solo act Gower - forged a deeper and more lasting cooperation when they wed in the fall of 1947, after devising various dance routines as a newly-founded partnership. The Champions' involvement in everything from Broadway shows to live television performances and film appearances (1951's Show Boat is among the best known of their films) garnered them a growing popularity as entertainers, and they kept just as stringent a schedule after son Gregg was born in 1957.

The couple continued their involvement in the world of dance even as the receding era of lavish musicals rendered them a less desirable film property: Gower funneled his creativity into Broadway, while Marge opted to scale back her contributions to raise their young son. (Gower eventually garnered 8 Tony Awards, the most ever won by a single recipient.) He died in 1980 on the opening night of his later-acclaimed 42nd Street; Marge, still active as she approaches 90, is a choreographer and dance instructor in New York City.

If you're unfamiliar with Marge & Gower and their dynamic screen presence, I highly recommend 1955's Three For The Show, an overlooked, under-appreciated gem of a film also starring Betty Grable and Jack Lemmon.

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Apr 22, 2008

Quote of the Week

"There are five stages in the life of an actor: Who's Mary Astor? Get me Mary Astor. Get me a Mary Astor Type. Get me a young Mary Astor. Who's Mary Astor?" - actress Mary Astor

Apr 5, 2008

Charlton Heston, 1924-2008

Before my formal and self-appointed introduction to classic cinema some ten years ago, my fascination with the scope and beauty of old movies was limited to but a few truly great films: The Wizard of Oz, The Ten Commandments, and Ben-Hur. As a very little girl I found myself fascinated with the agonizing tension in Hur's storied chariot race, and there are cherished fragments of my childhood wound up in the wonderment that was the biblical epic of yore: the grandeur and scale of the production, the timeless drama, the Charlton Heston.

Heston, 84 and suffering from Alzheimer's disease since 2002, died of unspecified causes this week in his Beverly Hills home. He is survived by his wife of 64 years, Lydia Heston, and two children, Fraser and Holly.

Heston, born in Illinois as John Charles Carter, has portrayed among America's, the world's and even mankind's most famous and influential men, both factual and fabled: Moses of the Bible, Europe's Michaelangelo, Marc Antony, Henry VIII, and Cardinal Richelieu. He played to receptive audiences in science-fiction fare like Planet of The Apes and Soylent Green. And his turn in movies as varied as his screen introduction, 1952's The Greatest Show on Earth, to 1965's masterful The Greatest Story Ever Told guaranteed his appeal over several decades, as well as that moviegoers would associate his performances with greatness, whether the word actually appeared in the film's title or not.

Sadly, much of Heston's cinematic contributions were overshadowed by his outspoken political activism in recent decades, but controversial or not, he has earned a place in the echelon of legendary actors who transformed the medium of motion picture into an effective and enduring means of playing out history's greatest, most profound, most impactful stories - those that will never cease to hold meaning to the human heart - as much as it is of entertainment.


"I can part the Red Sea, but I can't part with you (the audience), which is why I won't exclude you from this stage in my life. ... For now, I'm not changing anything. I'll insist on work when I can; the doctors will insist on rest when I must. If you see a little less spring to my step, if your name fails to leap to my lips, you'll know why. And if I tell you a funny story for the second time, please laugh anyway." - Charlton Heston on the announcement of his diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease, 2002

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Apr 1, 2008

From One Birthday Girl to Another

In a fate that even the MGM Publicity Department of yore would consider too uncanny to be real, April 1st marks the birthday of not one, but two of Tinseltown's brightest and most beloved stars: Debbie Reynolds and Jane Powell. Party on the set, anyone?!

Jane was born Suzanne Lorraine Burce in Portland, Oregon, on this day in 1929. She's probably best known for her role as Milly in the blockbuster Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), but Jane enjoyed over a decade of box office success as filmmakers found myriad means of incorporating her skill as a coloratura soprano into musicals of the day. Retiring from film in 1957 (she was not yet 40), she segued into stage performing, penned an autobiography in 1988, and currently lives in Connecticut. Next month will mark her 20th year of marriage to author and child actor Dickie Moore.

El Paso-born Mary Frances Reynolds - she was later christened Debbie by a studio mogul, but remained steadfast about retaining her true last name - came into being in 1932, and made her foray into film just sixteen years later. Her premiere movie under MGM's contract was the 1952 breakaway hit Singin' in the Rain, considered by many to be the greatest movie musical ever made, and Debbie instantly earned the title of America's Sweetheart, a role which she relinquished only after nearly a decade of film successes, a recording career, and the scandal that ensued when her 1955 marriage to crooner Eddie Fisher ended in a very public divorce. Being buoyant as ever, though, Debbie focused on stagework as the face of filmmaking changed to exclude her style of artistry, and after varied film appearances, television roles, entrepreneurial endeavors and the publication of her 1988 autobiography, my favorite girl is still in the spotlight today, actively promoting The Thalians, working to preserve the history of cinema's golden age, and frequently touring her one-woman show.

Being young, immensely popular and employed by the same studio, Jane and Debbie were often featured in films that were quite similar in style, content, and cast, and the pretty pair even co-starred together in a number of movie musicals, including Athena and Hit the Deck. Their best film together? 1950's Two Weeks With Love, a quaint comedy set in a Victorian-era vacation resort that features one of Jane's spectacular arias, an uber-romantic Ricardo Montalban, fireworks larceny, and an overly amorous Debbie, gorging herself on watermelon while admiring the spindly legs of a half-dressed Carlton Carpenter. Yeah. It's that good.

Hillary's Classic Cinema wishes a very happy birthday to two of its favorite ladies!

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