Friday, April 27, 2018

Invitation to the Dance ( 1956 )

Most fans of MGM musicals of the 1950s can rattle off the titles of Gene Kelly's pictures when called upon, but I bet you 23-80 that the majority of these musical aficionados will forget to include Invitation to the Dance among those titles. 

This 1956 dance extravaganza features Kelly in not one, nor two, but three separate stories all told through the art of dance, sans dialogue. As early as 1947, Kelly had envisioned a film where dance could take center-stage. He wanted it to be a showcase of some of the most talented ballet artists of his time, gathered from around the world, but the brass at MGM - knowing that Gene Kelly's name would be drawing the audiences in - insisted that he star in all three segments. 

Some critics felt that Invitation to the Dance was too much dance to handle in one sitting and that may be. Kelly himself agreed with "those who found the whole thing a bit much", but, having seen it over the course of three days ( one segment each day ), I found it to be delightful. Each segment is entirely different from the others with the costumes, art direction, music, and dance styles all being unique. 

The first segment, "Circus" set in 18th-century Italy, features Kelly as a clown who is in love with a ballerina ( Claire Sombert ) that only has eyes for a great tightrope walker ( Igor Youskevitch ). The clown's love story parallels that of the character which he enacts daily in front of his audience. At the beginning of this segment, Kelly does a fantastic pantomime dance with the other members of the dance troupe and, later, Youskevitch's muscular prowess is a marvel to behold. 
The second segment, "Ring Around the Rosy", takes us from Italy to Paris, where a mad party is taking place. The host of the party has just given his wife ( Dephne Dale ) a new bracelet as an anniversary gift but shortly thereafter she passes the bracelet onto her lover, an artist ( Igor Youskevitch ). Then, within the span of one night, it goes from hand to hand ( with Claude Bessy, Belita, Diana Adams, Tommy Rall, Gene Kelly, and Tamara Toumanova all being recipients ) until it returns to the possession of the party host. This was the most explosive and creative of the three segments, featuring some very imaginative modern dance sequences. 

"Sinbad the Sailor", the last segment, is set in modern Arabia. Kelly portrays a sailor on shore leave who befriends a boy ( David Kasday ) with a magic lamp. Together they embark on a journey to the palace of a sultan, meeting a princess ( Carol Haney ) en route. This segment felt like the weakest of the three, because of the focus on the animation. The animation, while novel, extended too long, and seeing dancers in Arabian costume performing traditional dance would have been more welcoming. 
In the early 1950s, MGM had millions in frozen assets in England that they could not take out of the country. These funds could be used only if they employed British artists, and so in 1952, production on Invitation to the Dance began at Elstree Studios outside London. Since the majority of the dancers were from Europe, this seemed like a clever decision, but Gene Kelly, who also directed the film, later regretted the move because the soundstages were not nearly as large as the MGM soundstages in Hollywood and the smaller space made filming the large production numbers more difficult. 

In fact, Kelly later regretted the entire project. The production took much longer than planned. Since most of the ballet dancers had other dance engagements throughout the Continent, much of the film had to be shot in bits and pieces, and Kelly's quest for perfection led him to overwork his dancers. Russian dancer Igor Youskevitch said, "There were times, I think, when [Kelly] overdid things. He rehearsed us all so rigidly - and on cement floors! - that it required superhuman energy to not collapse."
After two years, Invitation to the Dance was completed. But MGM's distributors felt that there was no audience for it, especially with motion-picture attendance rapidly declining and television becoming increasingly more popular. The film sat on a shelf for two more years until it was finally released in special "art house" theaters throughout New York City in 1956. Ultimately, it grossed only $200,000 in North America ( $415,000 overseas ) making it MGM's biggest creative flop of the year. 

Friday, April 20, 2018

Louisa ( 1950 ) - When Grandma Starts Neckin'

What do you do with a meddling mother-in-law? That's a subject that has been addressed in many comedies over the years, one of which was Louisa ( 1950 ) which starred Spring Byington as the titular nuisance. Actor and former president Ronald Reagan, who always had a knack for playing comedy, portrayed the leading man in this amusing Universal Pictures comedy that has sadly fallen into the realm of obscurity. 
Hal Norton ( Reagan ) is a well-to-do architect whose life turns upside-down when he discovers that his widowed mother, Louisa, who lives at home with his wife and children, has fallen in love again and plans to re-marry. He had recently encouraged her to stop interfering in the lives of his family and to get out of the house and take part in social activities, but he did not expect her to woo the first man she met! This man happens to be the local grocer, Mr. Hammond ( Edmund Gwenn ), who doesn't resemble Hal's father in the least. Hal's children ( Piper Laurie, Jimmy Hunt ) find grandma's romantic behavior comical, while Hal simply thinks it is absurd. His dislike for Mr. Hammond changes when he invites his boss, Mr. Burnside ( Charles Coburn ), over for dinner and finds that he, too, has become smitten with his mother! Comic mayhem then ensues when the two beaus go head-to-head vying for the attention of the charming Mrs. Norton. 

The script, penned by Stanley Roberts, milks the over-65 romance angle to its fullest, cleverly hinting at how adults in love, at any age, behave like teenagers. Hal and his family learn a valuable lesson from the episode, too: they were interfering in Louisa's life as much as she interfered in theirs when she was certainly at an age to live her own life and make up her mind on whom she wished to marry. 

"There is no fury like a discarded lover of 65"

It's rare to see a December-December romance with older actors in the lead roles, getting all of the juicy dialogue to banter around; and it is even rarer to see one with such capable actors such as Charles Coburn, Spring Byington, and Edmund Gwenn taking on these parts. It is these actors who make Louisa such a delightful little comedy. Coburn especially steals every scene that he is in, in a role a bit reminiscent of his Uncle Stanley character in George Washington, Slept Here ( 1942 ). Also in the cast was Connie Gilchrist ( once again as a smart-alecky maid ), and Martin Milner. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

From the Archives: The Restless Years ( 1958 )

In this scene from The Restless Years, Miss Robeson ( Virginia Grey ) is announcing to her drama students that she is looking for lead performers for the upcoming school production of "Our Town". Miss Robeson is hoping Sandra Dee ( in the second row ) will sign up for the part, but the girl  is hesitant. It takes a little coaxing from her boyfriend John Saxon ( front row ) to convince her she is good enough. 

From the Archives is a 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 :

Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Warriors ( 1955 )

By 1955, Errol Flynn, that rakish swashbuckling actor of the 1930s, was no longer the young and frisky new kid on the block. He was a veteran of some fifteen adventure films, and all that vine-swinging, sword fighting, heavy drinking, and wooing of women took its toll on the physical appearance of the handsome lad. In The Warriors, Errol is slightly plumper around the waist and his step is not quite as spry as it once was, but the glint is still in his eyes and he remains as handsome as least, for this viewer. 

Walter Mirisch, who was production head of Allied Artists, the studio that was releasing The Warriors ( the most prestigious production in the history of the company ) wrote that: "[Flynn] did not look well in the picture. His face was puffy and he was clearly too old for the role, but I hoped careful photography might offset that. It didn't. Before we started to shoot, I asked him to diet and hopefully lose some weight, which he didn't do. There were only traces left of the face, physique and charm that he had brought to The Adventures of Robin Hood, Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk and all those other great adventure films of his youth."
The Warriors, released in England as The Dark Avenger, tells the story of the 14th-century ruler, Edward the Black Prince, portrayed by Flynn, who quells an uprising plot devised by the French nobleman Comte Robert De Ville ( Peter Finch ). Joanne Dru is cast as the young and comely widow Lady Joan Holland, who takes shelter with her two sons within the walls of the Prince's castle.

Daniel B. Ullman penned the script which, while hardly outstanding, is entertaining enough and easy to follow ( always a plus with "historical" films ). It moves along at a brisk pace and gives you little chance to yawn. The capable Henry Levin ( Journey to the Center of the Earth ) took the directorial helm and the beautiful background scenery was captured on location in England on the grounds of Elstree Studios where they utilized the castle that MGM had erected for Ivanhoe ( 1952 ). 
Rounding out the cast is Yvonne Furneaux, Patrick Holt, Michael Hordern, and Robert Urquhart....but, alas, no Alan Hale. He passed away five years earlier.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The Impossibly Difficult Name that Movie Game who could this violinist be? I'm sure most will instantly recognize the film this scene is from, but since I'm feeling generous today I'll contribute a hint to help: this grey-haired fiddler had a son who was quite famous as a television actor for many years and who also played the oboe. 

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 who correctly guessed "The Last Holiday" ( 1950 ) starring Alec Guinness and Kay Walsh. This fiddler is none other than David McCallum Sr., principal violinist of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and father to the actor David McCallum. In the film, this fiddler was a symbol to Mr. Bird of impending death.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Old Man Khottabych ( 1957 )

Lenfilm Studios, one of Russia's most famous film production companies, made a number of great children's films in the 1940s and 1950s, one of which was Old Man Khottabych ( Старик Хоттабыч ). This 1957 classic was based on the 1938 children's book of the same name by author Lazar Lagin, who also penned the screenplay for this picture. 

It tells the story of a little boy named Volka, who discovers an ancient clay vessel that contains a 3,000-year-old genie named Khottabych. Like most depictions of genies in film, this fellow isn't what you would expect from the noble line of jinn and his acts of benevolence often result in trouble for Volka...especially since the old man is completely out of touch with modern times. However, no matter how much mischief he causes you can't help but love him as Volka does. He's a gentle old man with narrow eyes, a long white beard, a wily sense of humor, and a sweet-tooth for Eskimo pies. Much of his magical powers are contained in his beard which he needs to pluck a strand of hair from in order to weave his spells. 

Like Jeannie in the 1960s television series I Dream of Jeannie, old Khottabych is beholden to his "master" for freeing him from his bottled captivity and desires to honor his savior in extravagant ways. But little Volka is a Young Pioneer ( the Soviet version of the Scouting movement ) and, like a loyal Communist, does not consider it right or just to accept riches or favors without sharing them with others. Old Khottabych doesn't understand this way of thinking and by the end of the movie, he finds that the only way he can please Volka is by sharing his tricks with everyone at the circus...which he happily joins since they serve Eskimo pies there in abundance. 
Old Man Khottabych is one of Russia's most beloved family film classics and justly so. The story is an engaging mix of fantasy, adventure, and humor with great acting and some impressive special effects of flying carpets, disappearing people, and floating objects. Nikolai Volkov gives an especially good performance as Khottabych. His relationship to Volka is like a tender grandfather and you can clearly see why in his eyes he considers the lad "the illustrious Volshya, honored of all boys". Alyosha Litvinov ( Volka ) and Genya Khudyskov, who portrays Volka's schoolmate Zhenya, are also ideally cast. 
What is most interesting to see in the film is the images of city life in Moscow and the Communistic mindset of its citizens, even the children. When Khottabych desires to bestow upon Volka a palace with his name engraved on a plaque outside the gate, Volka adamantly refuses such a gift unless it is donated to his school and shared among his fellow students. An odd but admirable statement for a child to make. When Khottabych is upset with Volka's teacher, Olga, he desires to curse her but this, too, Volka puts an end to. He goes to great lengths to persuade the old man that he loves and admires his teacher. If this were an American film, Volka would be clapping his hands at the thought of his teacher having a curse put on her! Ah yes...the differences in cultures. 

Old Man Khottabych won the Moscow International Film Festival Award and the Vancouver International Film Festival Award upon its release in 1957. It was released in the States three years later under the title The Flying Carpet and is currently available on DVD, dubbed in three different languages with subtitles in thirteen different languages. Unfortunately, this is a Russia-issued DVD, so unless you have a region-free player you are better off viewing the film here on Youtube. It is not only in HD but also features English subtitles. Even old man Khottabych could not conjure up a copy of the film so easily as this!