By Chuck Ross
With the Labor Day weekend upon us, here are two movies I consider must-sees — one on TV in a few hours, and the other on TV tomorrow afternoon.
First we have one of the best bio-pics ever put out by the major studios: "Lust for Life," starring Kirk Douglas as Vincent van Gogh. It was released in 1956 and made by MGM.
The script, by radio veteran Norman Corwin, is smart without being ponderous. It’s not full of bon mots, but neither is it overly sentimental.
The performances are outstanding. Douglas, who physically resembles the artist, inhabits the character in a way that expresses van Gogh’s internal and external conflicts simutaneously. Anthony Quinn plays painter Paul Gauguin, in a role that righfully was recognized with a Best Supporting Oscar. James Donald is excellent as Vincent’s brother Theo — and it’s hard to believe it’s the same actor who played the doctor the next year in "Bridge Over the River Kwai."
Behind the camera were two of the best, Russell Harlan and Freddy Young. Young would later paint the screen with breathtaking beauty for David Lean’s epics "Lawrence of Arabia" and "Dr. Zhivago." The wide-screen cinematography of "Lust for Life" is one of the highlights of the film.
All of this was put together with vivid intensity by director Vincente Minnelli, one of the major directors in Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s. Critic David Thomson, in his superb "New Biographical Dictionary of Film" wrote of Minnelli directing this picture that it "is a heartrending identification with an artist, as moving as anything in American cinema. And the artist concerned is not Firbank or Toulouse-Lautrec–but van Gogh, a harsh, clumsy mystic. ‘Lust for Life,’ has everything that is often found absent from Minnelli’s work: the use of color, costume, and bravura emotional acting to define a tragic human situation."
I wouldn’t be as harsh on Minnelli about his other work, but I certainly agree with Thomson about his praise for "Lust for Life."
The film is on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) tonight, Friday, Aug. 30, 2013, at 8:45 p.m. Pacific time (11:45 p.m. on the east coast.) It’s also available on DVD and while it’s not available for streaming on Netflix, it can be streamed through Amazon.
Let’s move on to my second recommendation this weekend of a movie on TV. Nothing pleases me more than being able to recommend to you movies that were huge flops when they were released that are actually fine films.
Here’s a case in point. The original "Unfaithfully Yours," a Preston Sturges movie from 1948. (It was remade in 1984 with Dudley Moore.) It screens tomorrow, Saturday, Aug. 31st, 2013, at noon, Pacific time, also on TCM (3 p.m. Eastern time). Like "Lust for Life," it’s also available in DVD, and for streaming on Amazon, but not Netflix.
Here’s what Pauline Kael said of "Unfaithfully Yours": "One of the most sophisticated slapstick comedies ever made, this classic, written and directed by Preston Sturges, got terrible reviews and failed at the box office. The hero, a symphony conductor (a parody of Sir Thomas Beecham), is played by Rex Harrison, who is at one of his comic peaks. During a concert the conductor, convinced that his wife (Linda Darnell) has been unfaithful to him, fantasizes how he will handle the situation in three different ways, according to the style of the music on the program–Rossini’s Overture to Semiramide, the “Pilgrim’s Chorus” from Wagner’s Tannhäuser, and Tchaikovsky’s “Francesca da Rimini.” After the concert, he tries to carry them out, scrambling them hopelessly. There are so many great lines and situations in this movie that writers and directors have been stealing from it for years, just as they’ve been stealing from Sturges’s other work, but no one has ever come close to the wild-man deviltry of the best Preston Sturges comedies."
While I like the movie, I’m not as wild about it as Kael was, and if you watch it thinking it will have the same high-spirited zaniness of Sturges’ "The Lady Eve" or "The Palm Beach Story," you’ll likely be disappointed. Nor does it have the comic wistfullness or bright dialogue of Sturges’ "Sullivan’s Travels."
Kael’s description of sophisticated slapstick is more to the point. I primarily recommend "Unfaithfully Yours" because I think it has one of the cleverest screenplays ever made.
Here are some thoughts by Sturges himself about why he thought the film failed at the box office. This is from the book "Preston Sturges By Preston Sturges: His Life in His Words.":
I believe the success or failure of any writing depends upon the residual. By that I mean what the reader has left in his mind after closing the book; what the spectator takes home with him after leaving the theatre or movie palace.
Years ago, in Chicago, I went with Father to see a matinee. He laughed so hard that he shook like jelly through the whole comedy, and as we walked up the aisle at the end of the performance, I turned to him enthusiastically, ‘That was some play, wasn’t it!’ The tears of laughter still wet upon his cheeks he turned to me and said indignantly, ‘What are you talking about? I thought it was rotten!’
It was years before I understood what he meant. Then I forgot it and very stupidly made ‘Unfaithfully Yours.’ The audiences laughed from the beginning to the end of the picture. And they went home with nothing. Because nothing had happened. It just looked like something had happened. The audiences ate my seven-course special and went home hungry.
The performances, I thought, were very good, and my favorite parts of the picture are the three prospects of Sir Alfred [the Rex Harrison character], which I tried to do as if written and directed by Sir Alfred, who is neither a writer nor a director. Imagining his own roles vividly, the marionette-like behavior of the other characters during the prospects is the natural result of Sir Alfred’s ability to have them say and do exactly what he wants them to do. Only one critic in the world recognized what I was trying to do; I was greatly criticized by a few others for verbosity and for using a static camera in those scenes…
“Unfaithfully Yours" received much critical acclaim and lost a fortune.