My Journey through Films and Film Songs 17

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Watching English Films in 1950s #4

Roman Holiday relates the story of a European princess on an official tour of Rome, who craves freedom from the stifling rules of protocol and behaviour binding her and wants to see Rome on her own. Two of the people involved in the production of Roman Holiday were on the Hollywood blacklist mentioned earlier. Dalton Trumbo, who wrote the script along with John Dighton did not receive credit for his work and director Bernard Vorhaus worked on the film as an assistant director under a pseudonym.

Roman Holiday ushered in another Hollywood icon, British actress Audrey Hepburn, acting opposite the charismatic Gregory Peck. Director William Wyler was looking for an actress who was different from the curvaceous Italian stars of that era. She was perfect for him, “no arse, no tits, no tight-fitting clothes, no high heels”. He thought she would be a sensation. Audrey Hepburn won an Academy Award for her acting in Roman Holiday and was the first actress to win an Oscar, a Golden Globe Award, and a BAFTA Award for a single performance. She was nominated for the award four times more and was ranked the third-greatest female screen legend by the American Film Institute.

The contract of Gregory Peck, who played a journalist in the film, gave him solo star billing, with newcomer Audrey Hepburn listed much less prominently in the credits. Halfway through the filming, Peck asked Director William Wyler to elevate her to equal billing, a unique gesture in the annals of Hollywood. Roman Holiday received critical acclaim and is considered a classic. The film was popular in the US immediately after release, but collections dropped thereafter. It was, however, very successful outside USA, particularly in the UK and the Commonwealth, that included India, where viewers found similarities between the heroine and Princess Margaret of England, whose affair with commoner Peter Townsend was then a hot topic in the media.

Another remarkable film that was produced earlier but was released in India at this time was The Good Earth (1937), based on a novel of the same name by Pearl S. Buck that we had enjoyed reading. Pearl S Buck won the Pulitzer Prize for the book in 1932, and the book was part of her body of writing on China that earned her the Nobel Prize in 1938. The film was about Chinese farmers who struggle to survive, and a family that breaks up but is reunited when a swarm of threatens the entire village. The visuals of this climax in the film are unforgettable. The film won Academy Awards for Best Actress and Cinematography and was nominated for Best Director, Best Film Editing, and Best Picture. Paul Muni who played the role of a Chinese farmer in the film was well known for his roles in biographical films like in The Story of Louis Pasteur (1935) and The Life of Emile Zola (1937). Since he was not an Asian, when offered the role, Muni is said to have told the producer, "I'm about as Chinese as President Herbert Hoover.”

Apart from Academy award winning or nominated films, we watched many other memorable English films. I mention some notable films of that period that I enjoyed then and recall now with nostalgia.

Four Feathers (1939), based on a novel of the same name by A.E.W. Mason, starring Sir Ralph Richardson and others, tells the Victorian period story of a man accused of cowardice and his efforts to redeem his name. Widely considered the best of the numerous film adaptations of the novel, this version was hailed for its beautiful desert spectacles, superb camerawork, comparable to Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and solid performances by the cast.

Madame Bovary (1949) is an adaptation of Gustave Flaubert’s classic novel that was a rage with students of the time. Jennifer Jones played the role of Emma Bovary, the wife of a low-income apothecary, who adopts the path of adultery to achieve her ambition of living a life of luxury, breaching the Second French Empire’s repressive cultural norms in the 19th century. Fearing trouble with censors for the bold theme, the script was focussed on the obscenity trial of the author Gustave Flaubert, played by James Mason. “Every woman in France wants to be a Madame Bovary”, the author declares in the court.

Fabulous Senorita (1952) was one of a series of Latin American themed musical comedies starring Estelita Rodriguez that were released in USA at this time. It was a rip-roaring comedy that got viewers flocking to cinema halls wherever it was released in India. It also spawned local versions like Anokhi, a Pakistani film starring Sheila Ramani, Manamagan Thevai (1957) in Tamil and its Telugu version Varudu Kaavaali starring P Banumathi.

William Wyler’s Carrie (1952) was a film based on Sister Carrie, a novel by Theodore Dreiser, starring Jennifer Jones in the title role of a newcomer to Chicago looking for an opening and Laurence Olivier as Hurstwood, the manager of a restaurant in Chicago who falls in love with her. It was a sentimental tearjerker that ended with a destitute Hurstwood visiting Carrie, now a successful actress, taking only a quarter from the money she offers him and leaving after toying with the gas burner in her dressing room, as if contemplating suicide. Olivier’s performance left us heavy hearted for long afterwards.

Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight, (1952) relates the tale of a struggling, yesteryear comedian, played by Chaplin, who saves the life of a dancer, played by Claire Bloom, trying to kill herself for failing to get a break, after which both try to rebuild their lives. The film was boycotted in the USA because of Chaplin's alleged communist sympathies, but when it was re-released in the USA in 1972, Chaplin won his only Oscar, not for his acting or direction, which were superb, but for its Music Score. In my view, it is one of the best films of Charlie Chaplin.

In Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951), two strangers, one a tennis player (Farley Granger) and the other a psychopath (Robert Walker) meet on a train, accidentally. Aware of the tennis player’s problems with his unfaithful wife and planning to kill his own father, the psychopath suggests that they "exchange" murders. He argues that neither will be caught as lacking motive. Taking the other man’s silence as consent, the psychopath completes his part by strangling the tennis player’s wife and stalks the latter to kill his father, as his part of the deal. The master of suspense is at his best, keeping the viewers on the edge of their seats all the time.

The Desert Fox, (1951) is about the World War II German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, starring James Mason in the title role. Based on a book by Brigadier Desmond Young, the film glorified Rommel as a brilliant commander and successful strategist in desert warfare, a non-Nazi participant in the war and one of the conspirators who tried to overthrow Hitler. To ensure authenticity, actual documentary footage of World War II was used throughout the film. We became ardent fans of James Mason after watching his performance in this movie.

The War of the Worlds (1953)> was a science fiction film, in which the Earth is suddenly invaded by Martians. It was the first of several feature film adaptations of H G Wells' novel of the same name. The setting was changed from Victorian era England to 1953 Southern California. The War of the Worlds won an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects and went on to influence other science fiction films.

Cinderella, (1950), produced by Walt Disney was the first full length animation movie released after the Second World War. Watching fairy tales in animation was a novelty for us. The film was a big hit and stayed on in Variety Cinema for several weeks. Disney’s subsequent films, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp and Sleeping Beauty were also big hits.

The Living Desert (1953) was the first full length feature film in Disney's <True-Life Adventures series of documentaries focusing on zoological studies. The film was inspired by a 10 minute footage of a battle between a tarantula and a wasp shot by a doctoral student at the University of California. Disney believed that real, sustained stories could be told in these nature pictures.

The Sound Barrier was a film on the hazards aeroplanes face when they tried to exceed the speed of sound. The film was directed by David Lean, who later attained fame for directing the epics The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Doctor Zhivago (1965), Ryan's Daughter (1970), and A Passage to India (1984). The loud noise of zooming jets characterised The Sound Barrier, that had solid performances by Sir Ralph Richardson, Nigel Patrick, and Ann Todd.

During this period three British films were released in the form of anthologies of short stories written by W Somerset Maugham, Quartet 1948), Trio (1950) and Encore (1951). The author himself introduced each story, some of which were autobiographical. They were extremely enjoyable, showcasing the talent of the master storyteller. In Trio, the author surprises you in The Verger and Mr Know All and pulls your heartstrings in Sanatorium with the portrayal of life in a TB Sanatorium, before a cure was discovered for the dreaded disease. These films popularised the compendium film format, leading to 20th Century-Fox’s film O’Henry’s Full House (1952), another enjoyable film with heart touching stories like The Last Leaf and The Gift of the Magi. Richard Widmark displayed his villainous best in The Clarion Call and in a fleeting appearance opposite Charles Laughton in The Cop and the Anthem, Marilyn Monroe impressed us with her presence. We’re not Married was also a compendium film, though not an anthology because the stories were written by different authors. It is a comedy I remember with great pleasure to this day.

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More by :  Ramarao Annavarapu

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Views: 599      Comments: 1

Comment Great write up
Really enjoyed it.will these be in a book form also?

20-Apr-2024 21:15 PM

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