Monday, March 27, 2017

Maedchen in Uniform ( 1931 )

"What you call evil, I call the great Spirit of Love, which has a thousand forms..."

Manuela ( Hertha Thiele ), a sensitive 14-year old child, is sent by her aunt to a strict boarding school for officer's daughters operated by headmistress Frau Oberin ( Emila Unda ), a stern Prussian who believes that discipline and hunger strengthens girls....girls who will one day become the mothers of soldiers. Fraulein von Bernburg ( Dorothea Wieck ), a young teacher at the school, differs. She believes it is important to befriend the children and gain their trust. Like the rest of her students, Manuela is drawn to the sympathetic von Bernburg and grows to love her. However, when the headmistress learns of Manuela's affection for this teacher, she determines to expel her, because displays of emotion, especially love, within the school is strictly verbotten.

Maedchen in Uniform, a German production from Deutsche Film-Gemeinschaft, is a deceptively simple and yet profoundly psychological film, demonstrating the intense love a young girl could have for her teacher, especially when that girl is a mother-less child. It cuts deep and offers some rich food for thought, leaving you with a compelling desire to revisit it - and analyze it closer.

Director Carl Froelich, who had seen the play it was based upon ( "Gestern und Heute" by Christina Winsloe ) during its Berlin run, was touched by the story and wanted to bring it to film. Realizing it needed a woman's intuition to successfully translate it to this medium, he asked the play's director, Leontine Sagan, if she would be willing to direct it under his supervision. Sagan initially had her doubts, but Froelich encouraged her, knowing that her experience as a stage director would bring a fresh style to the picture...which she certainly did accomplish.

Even though all of the scenes are framed very simply, Sagan staged each of them for maximum effect, using every opportunity to make them anything but stage bound. Dialogue is often spoken off-camera, over-the-shoulder shots are well utilized, and, in two key scenes, montages give us an insight into Fraulein von Bernburg's thoughts. 

It is not a perfect film, however, there are frayed edges and the cuts between shots are especially apparent, but it is through this rudimentary filming, and Sagan's staging, that Maedchen in Uniform makes its impact, primarily by riveting your attention on the actions and reactions of the characters. 
Von Bernburg is a particularly complex character and Dorothea Wieck gives an excellent portrayal of this aloof, stern, but strangely admirable teacher, shielding her character's inner emotions behind an impenetrable mask. It is clear why the students adore her so much. She cares about them in a way that none of the other teachers do. She champions love and justice in a prison environment guided by unmerciful authoritarian regulations that attempt to stifle individualism and natural affection. 

But von Bernburg is also a paradox. "You never know how to take her. She will be stern one moment and then so sweet the next. It's very strange...." shrewdly observes Ilsa, the student's playful ringleader. The very love and affection she desires to give to her students she suppresses out of respect for the school's regulations and her ingrained sense of equity. Manuela desires to draw nearer to von Bernburg but she is "always so distant". Even in private she will not return Manuela's affection. Favoritism will, and must, not be considered. 

"Pull yourself together, child! You know that I cannot make exceptions, otherwise the other children will be jealous."

Instead, she acknowledges their individuality ( Fraulein von Bernburg alone addresses the girls by their Christian names ) and strews hints of tenderness to them when she knows she will not be observed by her superior. One such act is bidding good night to the students in her dormitory with a kiss on their forehead. All of the students are starving for affection, which is evident in their eager anticipation of this nightly routine. It is when Manuela witnesses her teacher's empathy during that first night that she comes to love her. 

Budding passions are bound to erupt within the confines of the boarding school, and those who do not focus their infatuation on von Bernburg instead develop crushes among each other....but Manuela's love is different. Hers is not merely a passing infatuation for the young mistress. She wants the nurturing love of the mother who was torn from her and attention from someone who cares about her. Fraulein von Bernburg recognizes this, and she worries about Manuela. Unlike the other children who admire her, Manuela truly needs her. 
The photogenic Hertha Thiele, in her film debut, gives a compassionate performance of this deprived girl. While Maneula is among her fellow students she has a proud and independent spirit, befitting the daughter of an officer, but in her encounters with Fraulein von Bernburg she suddenly becomes child-like, shy, and emotional. This vulnerability that she brings to the character makes the audience understand the deep despair ( and suicidal inclination ) she later feels when the headmistress demands isolation as her punishment. By the film's gripping finale, we are as much concerned about Manuela's well-being as the other girls are, all of whom rally to her defense to save her from death. 

"Affection has no place here, it only arouses their emotions." - Frau Oberin

Maedchen in Uniform was made in the years just prior to the fall of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Nazi Germany. Because it was filmed during this tumultuous period, there is a strong anti-Fascist message throughout the picture... in fact, it forms the core of the film. The boarding school is not a place for the girls to learn and grow as individuals, but a place for them to dispel their emotionalism, freedom of thought, and rebellious inclinations. Germany demands tough women who will obey without question the demands society may make on them. This idea is reinforced throughout the film by frequent cuts to imposing statues of military leaders. Order and rule are Wichtigste! But there are severe dangers in a society that is dispassionate and without tolerance, as Frau Oberin comes to realize. 

Just two years later, when the Nazis came to power, Maedchen in Uniform would not have been permitted to be made. Many of the actresses in it were Jewish, and, those that did not flee Germany when they had the opportunity, died in concentration camps. "You were only first aware that they were Jewish when fascism was there and you lost your friends," said Thiele in a 1976 interview. The Nazis considered the film to be decadent and attempted to burn all copies of it, but due to its world-wide distribution it has become a surviving document to the anti-fascist sentiments of late Weimar-Germany.

The film was a great success throughout Europe upon its release and catapulted both Wieck and Thiele to international stardom. In America, the New York State Board of Censors initially wanted to ban it for its Sapphic implications, but First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who had seen a screening of it overseas, spoke up for its artistic merit, and they reconsidered their refusal to grant the film a license. 
Mordant Hall, a critic for The New York Times, praised Maedchen in Uniform as "a beautiful, tender, and really artistic cinematic work". It was truly groundbreaking at the time for featuring an all-female cast and a woman director at the helm ( Leontine Sagan earned a Venice Film Festival award for her effort ), and today, it remains a landmark in German cinema. 

What makes Maedchen in Uniform so compelling is the ambiguity of its overall theme. It suggests much but reveals very little. One thing is clear, it is a deeply humanist film with a simple story that was vividly brought to life through its exemplary filming and the outstanding performances of the entire cast, each of whom were so well suited to their roles, down to the most insignificant of characters. Emila Unda is marvelous as the drachen-like headmistress Frau Oberin, and Ellen von Schwanneke is adorable as the rambunctious Ilsa. Interestingly, all of the "girls" were portrayed by women in their mid-20s. 
In 1958, Maedchen in Uniform was remade in Germany with Lilli Palmer as Fraulein von Bernburg and Romy Schneider as Manuela, but both actresses failed to conceal their characters' sentiments, a key element that made the original so interesting. Wieck and Thiele never clearly revealed the thoughts and feelings of their characters. Palmer, being much older than Wieck when she took on the role, brought a more maternal nature to the character, wearing her emotions on her sleeve; while Schneider displayed none of Manuela's forlorn helplessness, thereby removing the pity the audience feels for the character.  

Given the serious nature of its plot, the original Maedchen in Uniform could have easily become dark and somber, but instead the film has a cheerful tone in spite of its rigid setting. Cinematographer Franz Weihmayr made the most of pleasing highlights and subtle shadows, and Sagan emphasized the comradery and playful spirit of the girls through little scenes that show common girl-school behavior. The students are often breaking the school rules....eating chocolate, passing letters, talking while dressing ( this is one of the pre-code moments that a few old men may find mildly erotic ). Director Ida Lupino would later use a similar technique to give heart to The Trouble with Angels ( 1966 ), also set in a private girls school.

Maedchen in Uniform is currently not available on DVD in the United States but you can view it on Youtube here ( subtitles can be seen by clicking "CC" ). It has the most accurate translation of any version I've seen.  

This post is our contribution to The Early Women Filmmakers Blogathon being hosted by Movies Silently. Be sure to check out the other great reviews of 20th century films directed by women. To read a comparison between this film and the 1951 French film Olivia, which was based upon Maedchen in Uniform, click here

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Dead Man's Treasure - The Avengers ( 1967 )

The Avengers has long been one of my favorite television series, so, when A Shroud of Thoughts announced the 3nd annual Favorite TV Show Episode Blogathon, I naturally chose to write about a classic from the 1965-1967 "Emma Peel Era" of The Avengers - "Dead Man's Treasure". 
This episode features Ministry agents John Steed ( Patrick MacNee ) and Mrs. Emma Peel ( Diana Rigg ) embarking on a motor rally in order to retrieve a top-top secret paper from you-know-where that a courier hid in a treasure chest, which happens to be the prize for winning the rally. However, this top-hush document is not so secret after all, and information of its whereabouts has leaked out....not only to the enemy agents who murdered the courier, but to a third agent as well. Hence, Steed and Mrs. Peel must not only match driving skills with their competitors, but also contend with a deadly killer on the rally. 
"Steed Rallies Around,
Emma Drives for Herself "
Treasure rallies have been around since the late 1940s, but few movies or television shows feature this fun sport ( with the exception of Walt Disney's Diamond on Wheels ), so "Dead Man's Treasure" is an especial treat to a rally enthusiast like myself. Unlike regular rallies that have teams ( made up of a driver and navigator ) who try to reach certain checkpoints within a precise time slot, treasure rallies instead have these drivers put their puzzle-solving skills to use and solve riddles to find the location of their next checkpoint. The first team to solve their way to discovering the final destination is the winner. If you ever participated in a treasure rally you would know that it is a thrilling jaunt that takes you to locations you never knew existed in your hometown. 

In Steed and Emma's case, the clues take them to some familiar and typically quaint English locations that were used in other Avengers episodes, such as the village of Aldbury ( a.k.a. Little Storping in the Swuff from "Murdersville" ) and Benstead's house ( Shenley Hall in Hertfordshire ) which also was Jordan's house in "The Bird Who Knew Too Much"
 "Swingingdale.....get a move on!"

All of The Avengers episodes have such intriguing beginnings but "Dead Man's Treasure" ranks among the best with the courier, having just been shot, racing towards Steed's flat to stagger in and utter the words "red....treasure chest" just before expiring. The series had a no-blood rule ( something that should be implemented in many of today's television shows ), but for this episode they broke the rule for drama's sake. Steed and Emma manage to deduce that the "red treasure chest" the courier had mentioned must in some way be connected to the invitation to the rally, and so they attend it. Once at the rally they do not expect to have new partners assigned to them. Poor Steed is stuck with Miss Penny ( Valerie Van Ost ) who enjoys rattling on about her numerous ex-husbands, while Emma is partnered with Mike ( Norman Bowler ) an affable young man at first, who later takes dangerous measures to ensure he wins the prize. Neil McCarthy and Edwin Richfield also star as two particularly amusing villains who are bent on sabotaging their competition. 
It is the location settings in this episode, the spunky Mancini-esque background music, and the light-hearted way that Emma and Steed handle the race that makes this such a fun way to spend an hour, but "Dead Man's Treasure" also features some witty lines that are up to the usual Avengers-class standard. For example, when a heavy parcel arrives for Steed in the mail, Emma inquires "Lead weights for your diving boots?", to which Steed replies, "Rock cakes from my Auntie Penelope". Steed takes a glance at Miss Penny's legs while racing towards a checkpoint and, distracted, he unintentionally makes a sudden turn, quickly saying "Short skirt.....er, short cut!". High octane stuff!
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If you have not yet discovered the wit and tongue-in-cheek hijinks of The Avengers, be sure to give the series a try. To learn more about The Avengers and check out reviews of episodes like "Dead Man's Treasure", click here. Also, stop by A Shroud of Thoughts to read other blogger's reviews of their favorite television episodes. 

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!

GAME OVER

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.
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