Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Halfway House ( 1944 )

Ealing Studios, one of England's major film companies, made some exceptionally entertaining films during the 1940s-1960s such as The Lavender Hill Mob, The Blue Lamp, Mandy, Kind Hearts and Coronets, and Scott of the Antarctic. Early in their history they released a charming drama that came to represent the studio's signature style: genteel comedies focusing on the Everyman. 

This film was called The Halfway House ( 1944 ), and it tells the story of ten travelers from across Britain, each with a personal problem, who find themselves staying the night at a secluded Welsh country inn. After a few hours at the inn, the travelers begin to wonder why all the newspapers are dated from the previous year...and why the innkeeper's ( Mervyn Johns ) daughter Gwyneth ( Glynis Johns ) casts no shadow when she walks. 

"Time stands still here in the valley..."
Each of these travelers came to the inn by chance, and leave the inn with their problems resolved. One couple ( Francoise Rosay and Tom Walls )who lost their son during the war, struggle to come to terms with his death.  Another couple ( Pat McGrath and Philippa Hiatt ) plan to get married but must first face conflicting viewpoints about the war. A concert conductor ( Esmond Knight ) finds the strength and positive outlook needed to enjoy the last days of his life. A young girl ( Sally Anne Howes ) attempts to reunite her parents who are on the verge of divorcing ( Richard Bird and Valerie White ); and a couple of black marketers ( Guy Middleton and Alfred Drayton ) are made to feel remorse for their criminal actions. 

Like most British films, The Halfway House wastes no time in drawing you into the story and its characters from the onset. Esmond Knight, Tom Walls, Mervyn Johns - and his daughter Glynis - all give particularly compelling performances. Another star of the film, the inn itself, was perfectly cast. This lovely country oasis, supposedly located in "Cymbach" Wales, was in reality situated in the small English village of Portlock Hill, where most of the film's location scenes were shot. 
"A pause in time, a pause to stand still and look at yourself and your difficulties...a few hours to change your minds"

The Halfway House is not a serious drama and deftly mixes in comedy with the profiles of these characters from different walks of life with their different stories to tell. It is a cheerful film in spite of its somber theme and leaves you with a pleasant feeling, as though you just spent a comfortable night at an old inn yourself and listened to a thrilling ghost story. 

The only downside to The Halfway House is its ending. The message throughout the film is obvious even though it is conveyed subtly through the dialogue, but at the conclusion the innkeeper delivers a speech - presumably for the benefit of the guests - that attempts to "explain" their presence at the inn, and instead, relegates to dramatic propaganda. Nevertheless, The Halfway House is a prime example of Ealing Studios top-notch output from the 1940s and gives pleasure through innumerable viewings. 

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Impossibly Difficult Name that Movie Game

Twenty singing school girls all in a row, featured in a scene from a film you all know. Tell us the title of this film and you'll win a prize! Simply, isn't it? Or perhaps not.......

As always, if you are not familiar with the rules to The Impossibly Difficult Name that Movie game or the prize, click here!


Congratulations to The Tactful Typist for correctly identifying this scene from Portrait of Jennie ( 1948 )! This girls choir was performing when Eben Adams ( Joseph Cotten ) went to visit Jennie ( Jennifer Jones ) at her convent school to witness some of her friends who were taking the veil.

Friday, March 17, 2017

The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop - Book Review

In November 2016, Regan Arts released "The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop" by Richard M. Isackes and Karen L. Maness. This beautiful 11 x 14" hardcover coffee table book is fully illustrated with behind-the-scenes photographs of the impressive set backdrops that were created for the major Hollywood studios throughout the 1930s-1980s. 

Artists like George Gibson, Ben Carre, the Strang family, and J.C Backings finally receive their due recognition for the work they did on films such as The Wizard of Oz ( 1939 ), The Treasure of Sierra Madre ( 1948 ), Little Women ( 1949 ), Forbidden Planet ( 1956 ), The Sound of Music ( 1965 ), and Hello, Dolly ( 1969 ). 

A truly great scenic backdrop artist expects to have his work go unnoticed....for if his backdrop was recognized as being a backdrop than he would have failed in his task of creating a proper illusion. Many of the artists featured in this book created such wonderful backdrops that even while staring at the set photographs included you'll be wondering just what is painted and what is real. Take, for example, this image from MGM's Girl of the Golden West ( featured on pg.166 ), none of the buildings in this scene are real - all were painted by Ben Carre. Stunning. 

Girl of the Golden West ( 1938 ) backdrop

"The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop" profiles some of the most talented scenic artists in the history of film and also gives an insightful look into the art of scenic design and how backdrops function in film. Isackes and Maness' essays are a breeze to read and the layout of the book is as beautiful as the images pictured. It is certainly a must-have for the library of any film fan interested in the history of art direction. 

Lost Horizon ( 1937 ) with painted mountains visible in the background

To learn more about "The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop" and Karen Maness click here

Monday, March 13, 2017

The English Village Setting of the 1940s

Films are by far the most marvelous means of personal escapism and during the 1940s, a time of war, anxiety, and sorrow, the American people certainly needed a place to escape to. Hollywood, being a most benevolent servant of the Arts, created and then delivered us to our destination. They gave us the storybook English village - idealistic communities home to gentle townsfolk such as the local minister, the elderly matriarch ( often played by the great Dame May Whitty ), the gossiping storekeeper and the kindly bartender. 
With their winding gravel paths, gentle meandering ravines, and stately oaks, these English villages were our perfect refuge. Charming, compact, and inviting, they represented tradition, tranquility, neighborliness and, most importantly, solidity....something majestic England herself felt she was losing. 

The English village setting originated from Universal Studios and can almost be single-handedly attributed to the talent of one man : Charles D. Hall. As an art director for the studio between 1925 and 1936, he had created some of the earliest one-street village settings in pictures such as Dracula ( 1931 ), The Invisible Man ( 1933 ), and Frankenstein ( 1935 ). These marvelous re-creations of European hamlets were later used in part for the Sherlock Holmes series starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, made during the 1940s. This is especially evident in Sherlock Holmes Faces Death when, outside "The Rat and the Raven Inn", we see the familiar Vasaria archway of The Ghost of Frankenstein ( 1942 ). 
Metro Goldwyn Mayer later became renowned for their picture-postcard cobblestone villages as well. Although the studio had a separate production facility in the very heart of merry ol’ England ( MGM British Studios ) it was still more economical for them to build outdoor sets in Hollywood rather than to send their major stars overseas. Hence, the quaint Devon countryside setting of Random Harvest ( 1944 ), the little town of Penny Green in If Winter Comes ( 1947 ), and the stunning Technicolor replica of the English coastal village of Sewels in National Velvet ( 1943 ) were all in fact filmed in sunny California. 
The legendary art director Cedric Gibbons created the most picturesque of these sets, as well as “fronts” to numerous stately manors in films such as Pride and Prejudice ( 1937 ), The Canterville Ghost ( 1944 ), and The White Cliffs of Dover ( 1944 ).

Another well-known art director who was famous for village settings was Richard Day. Among his 263 film credits were The Ghost and Mrs. Muir ( 1947 ) with its classic seaside village of Whitecliff, and the rugged Welsh mining town in How Green Was My Valley ( 1941 ). 
Alas, the conclusion of World War II brought an abrupt end to the English village setting. Soldiers were returning home and had jobs, wives, and babies to cope with and “escapism” was no longer the necessary desire of movie-going audiences. Color, glamour and music were the new hungers of the American people, as were gritty realistic dramas. Location-filming was also becoming more economical and these artificial sets were no longer needed. 

At least celluloid captured these marvels of set design for posterity, so today we can travel back in time at any moment to visit these pleasant oases of a bygone era…..villages that us Anglophiles hope still exist. 

Friday, March 10, 2017

The White Cliffs of Dover ( 1944 )

  I have loved England dearly and deeply, since that first morning, shining and pure, 
  The White Cliffs of Dover, I saw rising steeply, Out of the sea that once made her secure.
  I had no thought then of husband or lover, I was a traveler, the guest of a week.
  Yet when they pointed " the white cliffs of dover!", startled I found there were tears on my cheek.

It is with these poetic words that the film The White Cliffs of Dover begins. Based on the narrative poem by Alice Duer Miller, The White Cliffs of Dover tells the story of an American widow ( Irene Dunne ) who, in a war-torn London of the 1940s, reflects back on the life she found overseas and the husband she lost in the Great War. Spanning twenty-some years of her past, we follow Susan Dunn from the first day she arrives in England as a young woman travelling with her father ( Frank Morgan ), to her first ball and her chance encounter with a baron ( Alan Marshall ) who, instantly smitten with this Yankee, persuades her to extend her stay and spend a few weeks with his family. Thus begins a new life for Susan, a life filled with moments of happiness and later.... great sorrow.

The first time I saw this film, it was the story that appealed to me; now having seen it more recently it is the quality of the film that becomes its notable feature. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was the grand lady of the great film studios and when it came to telling a tale of honor, patriotism, and self-sacrifice, she knew how to give the audiences the best she could give in entertainment. Hence, this film abounded with top-notch performances from MGM's roster of stars, beautiful sets, a well-written script, and, above all, that Louis B. Mayer trademark stamp of approval - class. Graced with a stellar cast including many of Hollywood's famed British "colony": Gladys Cooper, Roddy McDowall, Dame May Whitty, Sir C.Aubrey Smith, Peter Lawford and a very young ( and uncredited ) Elizabeth Taylor, this picture is indeed oozing with sophistication.

Ronald Colman had originally purchased the rights to Ms. Miller's poem and he may have possibly thought of starring in a production of it himself, but instead he sold the rights to Clarence Brown, who in turn sold it to MGM on the condition that he be the director of the picture. Clarence Brown had recently completed filming The Human Comedy, which became a personal favorite of Louis B.Mayer's and, like that film, The White Cliffs of Dover is a story of war, the soldiers who fought it, and the courage their loved ones at home had to muster to face a life without them. It was, understandably, a common theme at the time, and Mrs. Miniver ( 1942 ) - another MGM production - is probably the best example of that genre. 

Although The White Cliffs of Dover never won critical praise or garnered any awards like Mrs. Miniver, it nevertheless is a noteworthy production with a distinct charm of its own. Interestingly enough, the film's flag-waving message was written in such a way that you cannot help feeling patriotic about England and America at the same time. Our heroine was clearly not intending to spend her entire life in England and, when she first encounters the baron's family, their compliments on how "very un-American" she is hurts her. She is sorely tempted to return home. But her future husband persuades her to stay, and she comes to love his family and their England as "dearly and deeply" as a native. Still, throughout her life, she holds on to her American spirit and proudly has her infant son wave to the US soldiers as they march through London on their way to battle the foe overseas, reminding him that he is "half a Yankee!".
It is at the end of the film that the audience gets to share in the moral that she had to learn the hard way : having pride in being American, or in being English was not the issue at stake, but the important thing was to unite to fight the common enemy, the Axis forces, to pave the way for future peace. The White Cliffs of Dover was released in May, 1944...exactly one year before VE day.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Cinderella ( 1947 ) aka Zolushka

Classic foreign films are often presented as being moody, atmospheric dramas or visual voyages into surrealism, but anyone who has enjoyed a classic Russian film knows how beautiful and how colorful their films truly were. They definitely did not follow the brooding European noir-style trend of the 1940s and 1950s. 

Cinderella, aka Zolushka, is a prime example of their imaginative styling. This family film combines live-action with some marvelous stop-motion animation, to create a beautiful presentation of the traditional fairy tale. It is a delightful film, filled with ingenuous characters who wear their emotions on their sleeves. 

Zolushka was released by Lenfilms in 1947 and follows the traditional Cinderella fable quite closely with poor little Zolushka slaving away in the country cottage where she resides with her step-mother and her two step-sisters, patiently waiting for the day when she will be freed from them. Unlike the original story, Cinderella now has a father....the Royal Forester. Why does this father let his daughter be a servant to his second wife and his two step-daughters? Because, like many Russian films, men who are married to nagging wives are portrayed as broken men, accepting of their situation and not willing to speak against their wives. It is certainly a far cry from the portrayal of domineering Russian men that we are shown in American films.
One day, the fairy Godmother senses the child's desire to glimpse the royal ball taking place that evening, and magically bedecks Zolushka in garments fit for a princess, sending her along the way in a royal carriage with the stern warning that she leave the ball before the strike of midnight, that bewitched hour when her garments will return to tatters. 

Zolushka is at the ball but a few hours when she falls in love with the young prince, a noble lad who returns her affection. Together they are transported to the Land of Magic, courtesy of the court magician, where Cinderella realizes the kind of happiness that she missed all the years before. It is at that inopportune moment that the clock strikes midnight. Cinderella flees from the palace in the nick of time, only to lose her glass slipper in her flight. This slipper becomes the only clue for the Prince to use when he seeks out the identity of the unknown beauty who stepped into his life. 
In Cinderella, all of the characters speak honestly and openly of their feelings toward each other ( good or bad ) and this unabashed candor is so very refreshing to watch. We tend to mask our feelings so often, or feel ashamed of expressing our true feelings to others, so it is truly wonderful to see characters be as frank as we, ourselves, would like to be....and should be. 

Yanina Zhejmo, who portrays Zolushka, was a popular actress in the 1940s, combining the adorable facial features of Sonja Henie with the singing voice of Ilona Massey. She perfectly captured the humble qualities of Cinderella as well as her childlike nature, which is surprising, considering she was 38-years old at the time of filming. Zhejmo made a number of films throughout the 1930s and 1940s, but, unfortunately, most of these are not available online. Her final feature film was voicing the titular character in The Snow Queen ( 1957 ), one of Russia's most beloved animated classics. 
Aleksey Konsovskiy, who plays the Prince, was also in his mid-thirties. While he looks like a sissy from outward appearances, this Prince is actually quite a man...and more noble in nature than most young men seen in modern films. Both Konsovskiy and Zhejmo perform two lovely operetta-like songs. 

One of the most entertaining characters in Zolushka is the King, played by Erast Garin. This eccentric king has a very low patience level and when he becomes exasperated he throws off his wig and declares he is going to join a monastery (!). Outdoing his zaniness is the Minister of Dance, who naturally serves no other position but to prance around the court and amuse the king.  
Characters like these, added to the fantasy animation-style settings, clearly imply that Cinderella was meant for children to enjoy. However, the film is so engaging that you need not be a child, or watch it with a child, to enjoy it. It stands as an admirable example of classic Russian cinema : imaginative, humorous, and highly entertaining. 

Cinderella is available for viewing on Youtube colorized with subtitles, and in its original black and white format.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

From the Archives : Michael Redgrave Arrives in Hollywood

In this 1947 publicity photo, Michael Redgrave is seen disembarking a train in Los Angeles. The actor, one of England's top ranking box-office favorites at the time, had just arrived in Hollywood for his first American film production Secret Beyond the Door, released by Universal Pictures. Little did he realize what a long and illustrious career he had ahead of him. 

From the Archives is our latest series of posts where we share photos from the Silverbanks Pictures collection. Some of these may have been sold in the past, and others may still be available for purchase at our eBay store :
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