Goodbye, Mr. Chips
The main work of analysis is by Zeffirelli in Tea with Mussolini. Ross’s first film has a perennial theme sketched in Marshall’s The Goldwyn Follies and fully stated in Hawks’ Ball of Fire, to name two American examples.
Rattigan’s vast, elaborate screenplay has for its subject a “decadent democracy” in the parlance of the Axis, the subject is the war.
Ross opens on the playing fields of Brookfield, which figure significantly in the action. The central point is their defense, the final expression something like good sportsmanship.
Vincent Canby (New York Times) read the book in order to prepare himself, gave a sort of précis of it, and dismissed all of the film as dross that is not Chips. Variety considered it “a sumptuous near-miss”. Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) saw a rebuke of “the class system” and thought the film “a lot better than you might have expected.”
Ross brilliantly adopts as his mainstay Lindsay Anderson’s work with Miroslav Ondricek in if.... the previous year, he and Oswald Morris achieve great things, nevertheless the vitally important sequence Pompeii-Paestum-Capri was denigrated as “travelogue wallow” by Tom Milne of Time Out Film Guide, who regarded the work as “incredibly bloated” overall.
The songs by Leslie Bricusse are geared to innocence and early experience, mainly, and lend themselves to the very rare utterance attained first and last.
Pauline Kael in The New Yorker did not find it so (Halliwell’s Film Guide cites her review, and describes the film as “slow and slushy”).
Play It Again, Sam
The film critic and the fashion model.
They have anxiety in common, also she’s married and he’s divorced.
The spirit of Bogey is an inspiration to him.
The husband is a man of many deals, businesswise.
It all must end amicably, and for the critic this is Casablanca, “hill of beans” and all.
Filmed with great skill and very beautifully by Ross.
The Last of Sheila
“Who rose from call girl to columnist”, folks, and that’s the clue to the whole works, a film about devising a film called The Last of Sheila with everyone you need, writer and wife, actress and husband, agent, director, producer (the late columnist’s husband, with whom she had quarreled that night at their home in Bel-Air).
The Wellesean joke is that the producer has the writer’s script for a film called Freak Show that’s not going anywhere.
Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times almost alone perceived the key and was as a consequence more alive to the proceedings than most of his colleagues.
The Sheila Green Memorial Gossip Game takes place at various ports of call on the Côte d’Azur by virtue of the producer’s yacht (said to be Sam Spiegel’s).
Just in case anybody missed Play It Again, Sam, another look at the Ross deployment of picture-perfect art in the service of Hollywood satire that cuts to the bone of inspiration.
The Bad and the Beautiful and Two Weeks in Another Town are indicated.
The final joke is the writer’s puppets versus “the director’s cut”.
Variety was expecting maybe All About Eve, as its reviewer said, and found instead “a major disappointment.”
Sondheim & Perkins’ screenplay won the Edgar.
The Sunshine Boys
A very delicate proposition, advanced not without a certain devil-may-care in the attributions. There being, as Elaine May discovered in Ishtar, a Jeffersonian dichotomy of sorts, you have to deal with them, or it. Thus the last best hope gets a Democracy Project, and you wonder why. So the fragmentary lines appear, and you harvest the quicksilver romance of a bygone era with no discernible epoch, except perhaps this. Beckett and Chaplin are reflected in the dressing room mirror.
Ross borrows an idea from Farciot Edouard for his elastically conceived telescoping scenes.
The Seven-Per-Cent Solution
A complex fantasy on an observable model, the Second World War, which is why the role of Dr. Watson is played by an American.
The figments include Dr. Freud and Sherlock Holmes, also Mycroft and a Frenchwoman, Baron Leinsdorf and the Pasha who rules the Ottoman Empire (cocaine is a leading metaphor).
“Camp whodunit”, according to Time Out Film Guide. Variety and the New York Times had nothing but praise.
The key of the tormenting tutor is Sjöberg’s Torment, Bergman’s first screenplay.
The Goodbye Girl
Nowadays they give Pulitzers to Broadway plays by girls with cramps, this is the transitional phase announced in The Producers.
The “flaming homosexuals” that were Richard III and William Shakespeare according to the Off-Off-Off-Off director, “a cretin from Mars”, don’t go down easily with the critics.
The flaming chorus line wants improving too, “younger”.
Cincinnati and Chicago meet, love on the roof and it rains on their pizza, etc.
Vincent Canby said, “it’s as if Zsa Zsa Gabor had become our Euphues,” in the New York Times.
Lincoln goes to a cathouse at the Improvisation, success, a movie shoot in Seattle.
Land of Cockaigne, split off from the Stevenson Democrats ca. 1968 (NY).
The homosexual antique dealer who fails to pay his actress wife her due (London).
The philanderer and the wife’s revenge (Philadelphia).
Cost of the engagement (Chicago).
Two dramas, followed by a vaudeville (Matthau as Phil Silvers) and a knockabout.
“Yes, well, the Pacific Ocean was a lot more interesting in those days” (cf. Louis Malle’s Atlantic City).
Hockney to open.
A great masterpiece, photographed by David M. Walsh.
The position is described as finding the husband in bed with a live boy and a dead-to-the-world girl, an inviolate sort of disaster. “With Nixon in the White House, good health seemed to be in bad taste.”
Variety, “less than successful.”
Vincent Canby (New York Times), “no comedy can be completely perfect.”
Dave Kehr (Chicago Reader), “leaden fluff.”
Time Out, “quick and varied comedy... a bit glum.”
The contretemps suffered over Le Sacre du printemps is understood as important, if not absolute. It is preceded by Jeux, which “they didn’t understand”. L’Après-midi d’un faune is a fortunate scandal.
Kenneth MacMillan is the decisive factor in the film with his reconstructions of Jeux and Le Sacre du printemps (Nijinsky’s choreography had not been researched at the time of filming), which show the transition from Fokine to Massine and early Balanchine and “a new plastic art.”
The technique employed by Ross is fragmentary, almost kaleidoscopic, Diaghilev hearing an orchestra rehearsal or viewing costumes, Nijinsky rehearsing Le Sacre du printemps, amid the various business of the drama. Anton Dolin as Cecchetti provides a foundation.
Michael Curtiz treated the theme in The Mad Genius, Ben Hecht in Specter of the Rose, Powell & Pressburger in The Red Shoes.
There is a suggestion of Ken Russell in the orange briefly clasped by the title character (Valentino), and of Orson Welles in South America at the crisis.
The main sense conveyed is the vortex of the Ballets Russes.
Pennies from Heaven
A modicum of Busby Berkeley, fair lashings of Edward Hopper, a reconstruction of “Let’s Face the Music and Dance”, etc.
The blind girl and the song salesman.
The title number, sung on the gallows.
“The fun should come from the extreme contrast between Arthur’s romantic daydreams and the awful realities of his life,” said Vincent Canby of the New York Times, who mentioned Brecht (“unlike Brecht”) and frankly averred, “I’m not sure I know what this all adds up to.”
“Neo-Brechtian” was Variety’s word, “technique smothers”.
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times missed the point, “dazzling and disappointing in equal measure.”
“Unattractive nonsense,” says Halliwell’s Film Guide, which admired the original, apparently (“hard enough to get at”).
Chicago, in the Thirties, where The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is laid.
Max Dugan Returns
For a dramatist, this is an ideal mise en scène in a way, almost an operatic treatment. Ross invents an entire city ambience, or deduces one. Anyway, and beyond all doubt, he turns aside from the script to concentrate exclusively on his settings.
Neil Simon wrote it, Jason Robards, Marsha Mason, Donald Sutherland and Matthew Broderick act it, they know their business, let them get on with it. Ross takes it in stride, he’s uncommonly sensible, here’s a grim realist’s view of Los Angeles stripped down and resold. Deus ex machina meets professional skeptic.
Much of the technical writing establishes certain features of the script masoretically. The English Lit chat postulates Great Expectations, not Les Misérables, for example. The philosophical side thrusts suggest, in conjunction with the ending, Boethius possibly.
Jason Robards can’t be beat in these dizzy realms where Marsha Mason is at home, and Donald Sutherland realizes all the advantages to a side-pocket role dispatched with English.
The credit sequence pays homage to Ronald Neame’s The Horse’s Mouth. There is a further reference to Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause in the duel between farm implements on a sloping country road.
Ross establishes the film in a scene modeled on the painter’s studio in Welles’ The Trial. Ren McCormack (Kevin Bacon) is leaping and dancing in a slatted cattle chute and barn, observed by Ariel Moore (Lori Singer), the daughter of Reverend Shaw Moore (John Lithgow). The Bible verses pertaining to “king David leaping and dancing before Jehovah” while “Michal the daughter of Saul looked out at the window” are cited in the trial scene at the end, and still the New York Times hadn’t a clue.
This solo dance sequence, which is set at night, takes advantage of the situation to suggest a fleeting intermittence evocative of Rodin’s instantaneity and Muybridge’s snapshots.
The drama is very amusingly contrived as a variant of Scripture, altering the fates of Saul and his daughter to find a very happy ending and give the lie to the Monthly Film Bulletin, which claimed “the celebration of teenage frustration as dance reduces the issues to the level of platitude.”
The major basis is Born Yesterday, except that the whole thing pivots at the end into The Farmer’s Daughter, after a modulation through McCloud: Our Man in the Harem.
A cocktail waitress is offered a rich hookup by a co-worker who shows her a bauble and boobies paid for in such a way. The waitress isn’t interested, she lives in Washington, D.C. with two homosexual men, she’s an honest girl who saves the life of the Emir of Ohtar in a shooting attempt, becomes a celebrity and is seized upon by presidential aides as a bride for the Emir to secure a military base in Ohtar. The first words spoken to her by his spiritual advisor are these, “blessed are the small ones that shall be made large.”
She doesn’t know about the wedding plans, only that she has a job in the State Department’s Department of Protocol. The people of Ohtar find out and revolt.
When you watch a perfect film like Play It Again, Sam or The Last of Sheila, you’re likely to mistake its perfection for a conspiracy between the cinematographer and the editor to hide what the director is doing. Herbert Ross has a choreographer’s mind for subtle masses in movement, and a poet’s detachment.
He takes an effect from Griffith and turns it to account in a variety of uses, setting the tone of a sequence with extreme close-up out-of-focus foregrounds. Goldie Hawn enters a room full of candles. Several angles have them right in front of the camera. Exterior night, wet pavement, cars move left to right, headlights reflected as verticals. They stop in front of the bright neon sign of a nightclub. Interior, particolored lights, birthday cake. Exterior, motorcycles arrive, headlights to camera. The sequence ends in a Casino Royale melee.
The crux has a TV show asking, “Patriot... or Prostitute??” The rage is expressed by Gail Strickland’s ruddy dress in front of the camera in extreme close-up, out of focus. Born Yesterday is quoted at the Jefferson Memorial. Two running press conferences give thumbs down and thumbs up. Testimony is heard by a congressional committee. Hawn appears before the public, with a three-second shot quoted from Seven Days in May. A freeze-frame that Capra would have used brings on the credits, to music by Sousa.
This is cinema in and of itself, related to Hitchcock in its rapidity and use of actors as elements of composition.
The Secret of My Succe$s
The simple thesis of The Secret of My Succe$s is that hard work and honesty are the secret of success. The structure is very beautiful. An MBA from Kansas comes to New York, accepts a position in the mailroom of a large and failing corporation, commandeers an office privily and saves the company.
This would be enough, but the stockholders are represented as one with a majority interest, the CEO’s wife, who dabbles in mail clerks while her husband is planning to lose the company to a takeover.
There is a further complication. The CEO is having an affair with a female executive he uses to spy out the spy in his midst, who is our MBA, his nephew.
The symbolism of all this is clear enough to anyone who is not a professional film critic. Add to it that the MBA and the female executive fall in love, that the CEO’s wife fires her husband when the truth is known, and you see how a boy from Kansas makes it in New York (or anyplace else).
Canby saw in it too much of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, which is just one point of departure. Ebert found it immoral and dominated by his “idiot” theory, which is in need of some revision. Several reviewers almost understood the general principle of Superman at play, but none that one is aware of mentioned The Graduate. The Washington Post rather had the stick the wrong way about.
Ross’s views of New York are grand, memorable and accurate. Jack Clayton’s The Great Gatsby figures in his pastel corporate feast by the pool. There is an element of wizardry in his resolution of the romantic element, with all the lovers eventually meeting in a single bedroom late at night, farcically.
A curious film, which begins where Goodfellas ends. Essentially it’s a laboratory distillate of two abstract images, Neo-Denny’s Suburbia and The Mafia, which are brought into an interesting conjunction.
The director of Play It Again, Sam shows his realistic comedy style, with an addition of recent comedy tricks (the turtle in the garbage disposal provokes one of these episodes). It’s a quiet style that looks as if it might serve equally well for drama, and recognizes that a two-shot can be twice as funny as a close-up. Above all, it eschews the faux orchestral score of recent comedy enterprises.
Ross opens with a widely mobile Steadicam shot of Burton ‘90 campaign headquarters on election night, a flashforward. He then takes a camera car during the credits through Jefferson’s University of Virginia, and begins the film there in 1983.
This contrast is enough of an image, but there is more. The Kennedy/Nixon archetype is examined in two law school graduates, one a dirty trickster who goes into politics, the other a legal eagle at the Department of Justice.
All the President’s Men figures in the structure, also The Candidate (and by an irresistible reflection, Downhill Racer). Behind it all is the president’s reluctance to save the nation with blackmail in Seven Days in May, and a joke lifted from Lovin’ Molly confirms the analysis, which isn’t on party lines (LBJ is cited as in the trickster’s camp).
Ross’s contempt is amply expressed in his two leads, who do well enough under his direction. Richard Widmark has the job of telling the scoundrel, “you might win an election or two. You might even be able to sleep at night. But God help you when the people find out. They always do.” This is a senator out of Capra speaking to an aide about to run for Congress from Connecticut, financed by a crooked development company with mob ties or vice versa.
Canby thought it unfair to lowlifes, Kempley said it was strictly for Boy Scouts, Ebert considered the undercover work an easy thing to see through, all of which adds up to the title.
An early scene of Dennis Quaid taking his baby for a stroll and encountering muggers (he is a Federal agent, they are dispatched with no other weapon than the stroller) depends less on the script and the acting than the surfeit of style Ross has now developed and brought into play right from the outset.
Boys on the Side
The opening bar sequence effectively resumes the technique of Protocol. This is followed by a series of photographic setups as intensely compressed compositions sometimes expressed cinematographically (tilt-and-pan from picture on wall to bed and night table, girl reclining, view of city lights in the distance).
Gradually Ross abandons all that. He knows what acting is as generally received and gives several instances of this in the form of side action and bit playing. All these things are benchmarks of cinema as a visual and dramatic art. Ross has a different idea, a very original conception. He wants to see things, not representations, and paradoxically this requires a strenuous blankness in the actors, who act according to the conventions but as masks and dummies. It’s a variant of the Beckettian predicament. Any more, and these nondescript characters would be interesting dramatically. Less, and the sympathy of humanity is invoked. But as personages who do this or that, are seen as angry or smiling, everything about them is of interest.
Godard doesn’t mind marks and scratches on a movie, he says, because it reminds him he’s watching a movie. This style of acting might make you think of sculptors such as Giacometti.
Subtle differences are found in the actresses under the stress of these conditions. Mary-Louise Parker fights against naturalism, Whoopi Goldberg against dramatics, Drew Barrymore against the drama itself. This floating art is set amidst the photographic reality devised by Ken Adam and registered by Ross.
Evocations of Richardson’s a taste of honey and Huston’s Moulin Rouge conclude the thing.