THE EL NINO SCREENING ROOM PART II: More Comfort Films To Get You Through the Storm

Yesterday, I shared three films deserving of a viewing on a wet winter’s night, with a steaming mug of cocoa in your hand. Today, I offer you three more. Two of the movies conjure up warm feelings of romance, while the third is a cult film that deserves more attention than it has gotten. All three films have terrific scores.

NOTTING HILL  notting-hill-movie-poster-1998-1020234276 (1999, directed by Roger Michell)

Genre films are, by their very nature, formulaic – certain tropes must be present, after all, to qualify the film for genre status. Nowhere is this more evident than the modern romantic comedy. The wacky best friend, the disapproving parent, the unsuitable rival, the forced complications that would not ensue if only the lovers would just talk to each other! Is it no wonder people are so divided on whether or not they will engage with the genre?

I myself like a good romantic comedy, but it has to be really good. I accept the formulaic necessities, as long as they’re fresh and funny, as long as the actors are attractive and believable and the script and direction are not tired.

For a short time from the late nineties through the early millennium, the genre was dominated by a series of British films. These were largely well written and well acted some of the finest artists on the British stage and screen. The complications were well thought out, and a community of quirky characters replaced the “wacky best friend” (one of the most irritating icons in the genre). Great fun was had by all.

I think Notting Hill is the best of these films, featuring Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts at their best. We know now that Grant is nothing like the lovable “stumbly bumbly” everyman he used to portray (look up Estella Marie Thompson), but there was a time when he could do no wrong in films of this sort. And Roberts, who sometimes leaves me cold, is incredibly warm and alluring here. She plays Hollywood superstar Anna Scott, whose incredible success has made her an object of international desire and a deeply lonely person. Grant’s Will Thacker is a likable nobody, a bookstore owner who sells travel books (to virtually nobody) and who surrounds himself with the previously mentioned delightful circle of quirky friends. The varied stories of these characters are interesting, and the actors who play them – including Rhys Ifans and Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville – are wonderful.

Ultimately, however it is in the presentation of an everyman’s up and down love affair with a film legend where this film succeeds. All romantic comedy couples “meet cute” – here, Will and Anna’s meeting is understated and witty. View it here.

The inevitable troubles that are thrown at our couple seem like very possible obstacles for a famous person and her not-famous lover, and Roberts and Grant play each beat with realism suffused with just the right touches of humor and melodrama. Plus, this film has a truly terrific score. In the days before it got tiresome, romantic comedies played on our emotional strings with popular songs, which then increased their coffers when we bought the soundtrack. (I did buy this soundtrack.) Watching a montage of images of Julia Roberts underscored by Elvis Costello’s “She,” I almost believe that she is one of my favorite actresses. (Though, alas, she is not.) Another montage of Hugh Grant nursing his broken heart through a stroll through the stalls of the Notting Hill flea market (as the seasons change rapidly) is made all the more poignant by Bill Withers’ raspy crooning of “Ain’t No Sunshine.”

If you don’t like romantic comedies at all . . . well, I can’t help you. You’re basically a lost soul. If you do like them – even if you are on the fence – this is one of the best of the late century examples of the genre.

NOW VOYAGER

Unknown     (1942, directed by Irving Rapper)

Every year, my film students do a project where they are assigned a classic Hollywood actor and have to research, watch films and write about their star. I model this assignment by covering the career of Bette Davis. Davis is not my favorite Hollywood legend, but I choose her so that every year I have an excuse to watch Now Voyager.

On the surface, Now Voyager is a love story about an ugly duckling who throws off the emotional shackles of being tied to an unloving mother, undergoes a Cinderella-like transformation, and finds love with a charming, unhappily married man. However, since this is a Bette Davis film, it is much more than a typical romantic melodrama. It is a “woman’s picture” that is actually about the woman, not about how the woman will find her man but how she will find herself. Unlike so many melodramas of the 1940’s, it does not wrap itself in a neat little bow at the end, and yet the final scene is more satisfying than any traditional neat ending could have been.

Bette Davis gets to do everything here: be ugly, be beautiful, be loved, and display the backbone that was part of the actress’ New England heritage. She was an actress who never gave herself over to the men she played opposite; these actors either rose to the occasion or were swept away with the tide. The two men in Davis’ orbit throughout the film more than meet the challenge, Paul Henreid in a romantic way, and the inimitable Claude Rains as Davis’ mentor and friend. Henreid’s tactic of lighting two cigarettes changed the way men and women smoked for years. And Rains – an actor who for me can do no wrong – is so wise here that I can only wish that he had been my therapist when I was a young, confused lad with low self-esteem and a unibrow. Who knows what mountains I might have climbed!

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I won’t go into the many twists and turns of Charlotte Vale’s ascent to self fulfillment. Suffice it to say that the melodrama is kept to something of a minimum due to the fine performances, and that along the way great character actors like Gladys Cooper, Mary Wickes, Franklin Pangborn, Ilka Chase, Lee Patrick and Bonita Granville pop up to provide further drama or a humorous counterpoint to the dramatic proceedings.

And then there’s the score!

Max Steiner composed over three hundred film scores, including the classic soundtracks for Gone With the Wind, Casablanca, and A Summer Place. It used to be that you would buy the record of film scores because the music was so wonderful. You could turn on the radio and be swept away by Steiner’s famous themes. Now Voyager’s score is romantic and lush. You can imagine standing on the deck of a ship in the moonlight, dancing the samba in the jasmine-scented air, or clinging to your man and asking him to share the stars.

Maybe you could watch this movie with a friend!

Here’s a clip of Davis and Rains early in the film.

THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT     6a011279486fe528a40115706dd1c2970b

(1964, directed by George Roy Hill and based on the novel by Nora Johnson.)

Henry Orient is an odd and delightful film, a coming-of-age story about two teenaged girls trying to be extraordinary. Along the way, Marian and Val form an  unlikely obsession for a classical music composer named Henry Orient, played by Peter Sellers. They treat him the way other girls would treat a rock star, causing him no end of trouble in his private life.

The film occasionally deviates, telling the story from Henry’s point of view, and we learn that he is undeserving of anyone’s adoration. Henry is a total fraud: venal, self-involved, and without a drop of real musical talent. Yet, women are as taken in by his fake Continental charm as Val and Marian are, at least initially. His seduction techniques are the antithesis of Paul Henreid’s, crude and buffoonish; it’s a wonder that they work so well!

The film benefits from stellar performances by a quartet of fine actresses, including Phyllis Thaxter as Marian’s perfect mom, Paula Prentiss, as Sellers married lover, whose whose paranoia at being found out in her trysts is hysterical, and Bibi Osterwald, a wisecracking wonder as Marian’s mother’s live-in best friend. But the piece de resistance is Angela Lansbury, (in pure evil mom mode again two years after she made The Manchurian Candidate), as Val’s mother Isobel Boyd. She doesn’t appear until halfway through the movie, but then she dominates it, and every moment with her onscreen is pure, chilling, gold. The final showdown, when Isobel gets her comeuppance, always makes my throat catch.

tumblr_mzrv1spJEn1rd9jbko1_500                      $_35

Once again, the music, this time by Elmer Bernstein, turns the film into magic. The girls’ theme is charming, and the horrendous music credited to Henry Orient is a brilliant pastiche of the worst of the modern concerti of the 1960’s. Enjoy Henry’s concert here.

Why don’t more people know about this movie? I think that it’s timing was bad. There is something very old-fashioned about the story, with nothing that connects us to what was really going on with young people in the mid-1960’s. When the movie was turned into a stage musical (Henry, Sweet Henry), the producers tried to make the story more “with it” by having Val encounter a group of hippies in Central Park. The results were embarrassing, and the play faded into obscurity beside its more famous rival of that Broadway season: Hair. If nothing else, I hope this post sends some of you in search of a copy to watch. Sometimes it plays on TCM.

That’s it for now. I hope you will explore the six films I have suggested and let me know if you liked them. And once again, I would love to hear about your suggestions for comfort films.

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