The Stolen Airship (1967)

Magnificent boys in their flying machine

A delirious fusion of live-action and animation very loosely based on Jules Verne’s 1875 novel, The Mysterious Island, this glorious fantasy is a heady kaleidoscope of boys’ own adventure, wild invention, political satire and knockabout action, with occasional moments of whimsy and a huge amount of humour.

Verne’s novel is set during the US Civil War and sees a group of Union prisoners escape by hot air balloon to the titular Pacific Ocean island. However Czech film director, Karel Zeman, often called the ‘Czech Melies‘, uses Verne as a jumping off point for madcap escapades as a group of schoolboys makes a bid for freedom from an oppressive and corrupt regime.

Brave, bright eyed, loyal and combative, they steal an airship and fly to a remote island, and in their absence are tried in their absence and sentenced to hang.

Zeman’s energy and imagination are boundless and we’re treated to a multitude of Heath Robinson-style devices and flying contraptions, as well as Mission Impossible-style face masks, sharks, shotgun-toting boot-makers, dancing ducks, and pirates.

Heath Robinson, I presume?

Among the fights, physical humour and acrobatic antics, a woman castaway becomes allies with boys and together they run rings around the men trying to subdue them.

Old buoy; Captain Nemo

In the middle of the madness, and lifted from The Mysterious Island, there’s a brief meeting with Verne’s most memorable creation, Captain Nemo, who’s portrayed as a tech-loving Methuselah, while his submarine, the Nautilus, is handily labelled ‘Nautilus’.

Ideas tumble over each other at dizzying speed in a bewildering mix of illustrative styles, musical interludes, and stock footage.

Much of Zeman’s style may seem familiar to you and that’s likely due to his influencing not only his countryman, the famed animator Jan Svankmajer, but also to the filmmakers Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, Ray Harryhausen, and Wes Anderson.

Spies are us

More specifically, The Stolen Airship, with it’s love of steampunk tech, a fairground rumpus, zeppelin, an incompetent bowler-hatted spy, and with a corrupt official and his glamorous wife bearing more than passing resemblance to Baron Bomburst and his wife, it seems to have been a considerable influence on the Cubby Broccoli’s 1968 family musical fantasy, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

I suspect the screenwriter of that film, Road Dahl, would have enjoyed this occasionally macabre and surreal tale with its shades of Kafka. And Zeman’s merry mocking of social conventions and keen eye for the absurdities of life also takes aim at pomposity, greed and stupidity.

Scrumptious? Moi? Truly?

His film is undeniably underpinned by the thrill of freedom, and is unmistakably political in its ruthlessly condemnatory of the military, which along with the corrupt bureaucracy and a surveillance society, are ridiculed throughout.

And there’s also a great deal of courage in Zeman’s needling of authority as this was made in the period immediately before The Prague Spring, the period of political liberalisation and mass protest in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic which ended abruptly at gunpoint on 21 August 1968, when the USSR invaded the country to suppress the reforms.

Absurdly charming, and occasionally just a little bit saucy, I watched it in its native Czech language without subtitles and so lost some of the nuance and detail.

What I received in perfect clarity was Zeman’s breathless collision of invention, cynicism and optimism. An absolute delight throughout, The Stolen Airship beat The Beatles’ psychedelic animation Yellow Submarine, to the punch by a year, and I loved every extraordinary minute of it. Please watch.

You can read my review of the 1916 adaptation of Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island, HERE

You can read my review of 1929’s The Mysterious Island, HERE

Read my review or the 1941 Russian adaptation of The Mysterious Island, HERE

You can read my review of 1951’s Mysterious Island, HERE

And you can read my review of 1961’s Mysterious Island, HERE

@ChrisHunneysett

Mysterious Island (1961)

A showcase for the sublime talent of stop-motion maestro Ray Harryhausen, this sci-fi fantasy family adventure sensibly swaps the plodding civilisation building of Jules Verne’s source novel for monster action and romance.

Faithful to Verne’s novel, the story begins during the US Civil War where we see a handful of men escape the war in a hot air balloon and cast by a storm to a Pacific Ocean island. And it’s at this point the film and the book depart ways, only to be reunited towards the end with the appearance of Verne’s greatest creation, the legendary sub-aquatic explorer, Captain Nemo.

Nemo introduces the castaways to the Nautilus

Though not related in to Disney’s 1954 adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which is Verne’s other novel featuring Captain Nemo, this version of The Mysterious Island is very much an unofficial sequel in tone and style, and was clearly intended to capitalise on the box office success of previous film, even if the $2m budget of Mysterious Island pales next to the $9m cost of Disney’s movie.

Very much in the Disney mould of the time, the men are suitably manly, the women exist to be rescued and romanced, and everyone is white, except for Neb who is black. He is however promoted from being the freed slave of Verne’s book to a ranking soldier, albeit only a corporal. There’s no pet dog or adopted orang-utan as in the novel, and I doubt Disney would never have failed to include those opportunities for cuteness.

A British production shot at Shepperton Studios, England, it’s directed by Cy Endfield, whose most enduring work is 1964’s action adventure, Zulu, a period war movie set during the 1879 Anglo-Zulu War in south-eastern Africa. Well worth a watch, Zulu features the terrific Stanley Baker, a rousing Welsh choir, and is responsible for introducing Michael Caine to the world.

In Endfield’s hands Zulu is a Western in all but name, with British imperialism taking the place of American imperialism. And Enfield similarly delivers Mysterious Island as a Western, and has the story play out – at least until Captain Nemo appears – as disparate frontiers-people coming together to face local challenges to survive. Only with mutated creatures are the principle threat, rather than ‘injuns’.

Plus the pyrrhic endings of both films are free of triumphalism and prefer to strike a downbeat note, suggesting a disillusionment with and a critique of the development of the US, viewing it as an errand of violence, exploitation and squandered utopia.

Sting in the tale

It’s no surprise these are works of Endfield, who was exiled in Europe as a result of being blacklisted by HUAC*.

*HUAC - The House Committee on Un-American Activities - an investigative committee of the United States which investigated alleged subversive activities of citizens and organisations suspected of being communist.

The monsters are crafted by ingenious care and dedication by the peerless stop-motion master, Ray Harryhausen, who enjoyed a lengthy partnership with American producer Charles H. Schneer, one which lasted up to Harryhausen’s final creature feature, 1981’s Clash Of The Titans.

Harryhausen introduces into Verne’s work an creatures of enormous size, including a flightless bird, a crab and giant bees, the latter also appearing in Dwayne Johnson’s 2012 adaptation, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island.

As well as the stop-motion work, the production uses scale models and giant props such as a crab’s claw. Plus some lovely matte paintings complement the decent location work in Catalonia, Spain.

Lady Fairchild is aiming to survive

The island’s volcano provides lots of bubbling lava which is always great to see on screen, especially when it flows in torrents in the explosive finale. And the underwater photography is fun, as is the ‘incredible’ electric gun.

Plus the lost sunken city finally gives the film something of the sense of the epic, as does the battle with another great Harryhausen addition – a giant octopus. Meanwhile the exterior of Nemo’s submarine, the Nautilus, owes far more to Disney than to Verne.

Leela, sorry, Elena

In contradiction of Verne’s strict ‘no gals allowed’ policy, a Hollywood sensibility catapults a pair of women onto the island in the glamorous upper class form of Lady Mary Fairchild and her niece Elena, whom the balloonists find washed ashore.

As Lady Fairchild, Joan Greenwood is wonderfully, assertive and courageous in cut-glass accent, and the notorious Rank Films starlet, Beth Rogan, is generally either screaming or swooning, and ends up dressed as Leela from TV’s Dr Who. There’s little room for working class women in the world Verne.

South African-born actor, Dan Jackson, appears as Neb, the only non-white character, and the first of the balloonists to be attacked on the island. Then true to the book, he’s relegated to the domestic sphere while the other four men go off manly adventuring.

But least in this film Neb has the two ladies to keep him company, which must be something of an improvement in circumstance, for in the book he’s left home alone with an adopted orang-utan called Joop.

Neb’s dead, baby. Neb’s dead (almost)

Michael Craig plays Captain Cyrus Harding* as a stolid leader of men, who relies on his rank to lead, instead of any noticeable charisma. Far from being the genius engineer of the book, Harding breaks the balloon’s only control device and is therefore responsible for casting them across the ocean.

*Smith in some versions

Once on the island Harding immediately imposes martial law, and ‘drafts’ into his command the two Confederate balloonists: Sergeant Pencroft and Gideon Spilitt, who serve as light comic relief to Harding‘s gruff leadership.

Firmly men of the Union in the book, they’re now Confederates, presumably to help garner an audience in those US states who were on the losing side of the war.

Having previously originated the role of Riff in West Side Story on Broadway, Michael Callan is enthusiastically energetic as the romantic lead, Herbert Brown and makes an attractive pairing with Beth Rogans Elena.

Best remembered for his role as an agitated police inspector in Peter Sellers’ Pink Panther franchise, Herbert Lom appears as Nemo. Presumably the budget didn’t stretch to a return for Disney’s Nemo, James Mason.

Lom’s late entrance was echoed in 2018’s superhero movie Aquaman, and the Czech-born actor’s accent gives Nemo a sense of being ‘other’, though he doesn’t reveal he’s the deposed Prince Dakkar of India, as happens in the novel. And instead of having a grudge against the British Empire, Nemo is trying to solve the world’s food crisis.

Nemo and the castaways. We’ve circled Neb’s shoulder so you can see him

As with Harryhausen’s other classic productions such as 1958’s The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, and 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts, the musical score was composed by Bernard Herrmann. Though it’s more than adequate for this film, the Oscar-winning composer for Hitchcock’s Psycho and Scorsese’s Taxi Driver would probably be the first to agree this is not among his finest work.

Mysterious Island hasn’t aged terribly well, the pace will seem slow for a modern action audience and the effects will feel very creaky and stiff. And they don’t represent Harryhausen’s finest work which is undoubtedly the skeleton fight in 1961’s Jason and the Argonauts.

Nevertheless Harryhausen’s work retains its charm and should be appreciated for the craft and dedication involved in its making, and of course it’s part of an important chapter of the history of movie special effects. Plus they anchor this still very watchable film, one of the superior adaptations of Verne’s book.

You can read my review of the 1916 adaptation of The Mysterious Island, HERE

You can read my review of 1929’s The Mysterious Island, HERE

Read my review or the 1941 Russian adaptation of The Mysterious Island, HERE

You can read my review of 1951’s Mysterious Island, HERE

And you can read my review of 1967’s The Stolen Airship, HERE

@ChrisHunneysett

Mysterious Island (1951)

Treating Jules Verne’s 1875 novel The Mysterious Island as a leaping off point, this black and white sci-fi adventure serial of 1951 is a throwback to two decades earlier and the days when Larry Buster Crabbe took to the skies as Flash Gordon.

Yes it’s preposterous and silly, yet it’s also daftly enjoyable, due in large part to its enthusiastic and impressively straight-faced cast, as well as for possessing none of Verne’s reluctance to embrace cosmic romance.

Verne’s book is a semi-sequel to his 1871 novel, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, and is notable for featuring Verne’s most celebrated creation, the mercurial billionaire genius inventor and subaquatic explorer, Captain Nemo.

The novel: hot air

Set during the US Civil War, the book sees a group of Union prisoners escape by hot air balloon to the titular Pacific Ocean island, where Captain Nemo assists their survival.

This fifteen chapter movie serial from Columbia Pictures is subtitled ‘Captain Harding’s Fabulous Adventures’, with the upright engineering officer and leader of the balloonists is played with no-nonsense square-jawed heroism by Richard Crane.

It all begins faithfully enough, and spending a lot time at the Civil War allows for plenty of opportunity to hook in any Western fans who may be watching by mistake.

 My name is Darth Vader. I am an extraterrestrial from the planet Vulcan

Anyway, five intrepid men and a dog escape in a balloon from a stockade, and when a storm carries them to an island they have to – check notes – foil an alien invasion.

As Verne’s novel is a bit of a slog, I can’t help but think had the author known as the ‘Father of Science Fiction‘ built this kind of excitement into his story, it might be more widely read today. Sadly Verne never did and the world had to wait until HG Wells‘ arrived for Martians to invade.

Bring out the gimp

The alien invaders of this story however, are from Mercury, a nod perhaps to Orson WellesMercury Theatre, whose 1938 radio play of HG Wells’ ‘The War of the Worlds’ became infamous for terrifying those who listened to it. Well, perhaps not. There isn’t the budget here for that kind of meta-behaviour.

Referred to as ‘a girl’ who has ‘the appearance of one from another planet’, Karen Randle manages to maintain her dignity as the comely alien scientist, Rulu, whose mission is to extract a super explosive element in order to conquer the Earth, using a laser gun and a mind-controlling wand.

And then you simply reverse the polarity of the neutron flow

Caught between the Volcano People and Mercurians, err, Mercutions? Mercuroorians? Ohh, whatever. Caught between the Volcano People and aliens, the balloonists are assisted in saving the world by Leonard Penn as the suave and avuncular Captain Nemo, who appears early but doesn’t have much to do.

African American actor Bernard Hamilton, plays Neb. He’s billed last, is often stood apart from the others or excluded from the frame entirely, and is generally the last man in line as the balloonists queue up to escape from yet another threat.

There’s a huge amount of what looks suspiciously like stock footage used at the beginning, and the costumes and props have been recycled from a production with a more generous budget than this. Which I’m guessing is any other production.

Neb; not first

The emphasis is on action with many enthusiastic fistfights and shoot-outs. Director, Spencer Gordon Bennet, a name who you may feel compelled to partially invoke at the serial’s weaker moments, seems happy enough to always accept the first take of any shot, and the editor is seemingly under strict to always, but always, cut to the chase. Plus there’s a lot of running about the Southern California countryside, later to be a favourite location of TV’s sci-fi series Star Trek.

The story rockets breathlessly along as if it’s scared it might lose your attention at any moment, consequently the balloonists aren’t able to do any of the building and farming work which occupies much of their time in the novel.

Neb, not even third

On the plus side the writers know their audience and the myths and fears of the US are played upon by dressing the pirates as English merchant seamen, a decision which has echoes of the Revolutionary War, and the technologically advanced alien invaders point to 1950’s anti-Soviet paranoia.

I have a strong nostalgic liking for this kind of nonsense, especially as no-one involved in this is under illusion as to the value of what they’re making. Cast and crew are all aware they’re making a disposable action adventure for kids of all ages, but everyone gets stuck in like the pros they are, and their love of the game is just about enough to overcome myriad shortcomings and jolly the audience along with them for the ride.

You can read my review of the 1916 adaptation of The Mysterious Island, HERE

You can read my review of 1929’s The Mysterious Island, HERE

You can read my review or the 1941 Russian adaptation of The Mysterious Island, HERE

You can read my review of 1961’s Mysterious Island, HERE

And you can read my review of 1967’s The Stolen Airship, HERE

@ChrisHunneysett

The Mysterious Island (1941)

A USSR production, this historical action adventure is a straightforward and mainly faithful rendering of Jules Verne’s novel of 1875. Undermined by a varying mix of production values, it’s most notable for taking Verne’s celebration of the energy and innovation of the US and subverting it into a dire warning of capitalism’s threat to communism.

The Mysterious Island, is a semi-sequel to Verne’s 1871 novel, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, both featuring Verne’s most celebrated creation, the mercurial billionaire genius inventor and subaquatic explorer, Captain Nemo.

Being a Russian-language production of the Odessa Film Studio without subtitles, and not having the least command of Russian, all nuance within the film was lost on me, but the melodramatic broad strokes are clear.

A title card; please translate

True to Verne the film begins with a brief battle during the US Civil War and sees four men, a boy and a dog, escape by hot air balloon from a prison to a distant pacific island, where they battle pirates, redeem a wild man of the woods, adopt a pet ape and encounter the legendary Captain Nemo.

Captain Nemo; sleeping with the fishes

Eduard Pentslin’s only directed five features of which this was his second, and there’s nothing in his approach to filmmaking or to the material to suggest he should have directed more. His camera is too often and simply pointed at characters while they stand about in conversation, so on the rare occasions we’re treated to a screen wipe or whip pan, it’s quite alarming.

A midnight swim to recce a pirate ship is nicely staged, the subsequent shoot-out raises the spectre of excitement, and the volcano is impressive. But none of this is wildly exciting.

The novel

However the location work is strong, with the mountainous island composed of vertiginous slopes and wild crashing surf, all of which offers a much needed and welcome sense of the epic. And though I don’t know where it was filmed I do know the actors are risking life and limb in those breakers on the beach.

The acting style is perhaps best described as theatrically manly, and while there’s lots of joshing it never quite slips into full thigh-slapping panto-mode.

As the book spans several years, inter-title cards fill in time gaps in the narrative, and their use seem wildly outdated for a film arriving two years after the vivid Technicolor dream of Judy Garland’s The Wizard of Oz.

Stock footage is used to add colour rather than thrills or narrative, and though it was common practice for a considerable time after this movie, the monkeys and leopards which supposedly populate the island are so clearly library footage they feel as if they’re dropped in from a great height from a different continent.

In contrast to many other adaptations, the character of Jupe the orang-utan is included, and though his close-ups are inserts of a real orang-utan, actor Andrei Sova gets to monkey around in a hairy body suit among the rest of the cast.

Captain Smith: mean, moody, magnificent

Alexei Krasnopolsky is commanding and stern as Captain Smith*, leader of the balloonists, and to my mind resembles Rasputin, the supposedly degenerate ‘mad monk’ associated with the pre-revolutionary Russian royal family.

*Smith is named Harding in some versions of the story.

As the aged Captain Nemo, Nikolai Komissarov sports a biblical beard even more impressive than that belonging to Smith. Nemo’s advanced submarine, the Nautilus, swims very close to Verne’s description, and now submarines had dived from science fiction to science fact, the Nautilus looks ever more alien and advanced.

Of greatest interest is the subtext which twists Verne’s lauding the white male colonisation of the world into a piece of pre-Cold War anti-US propaganda, and double downs on Verne’s own apparent racism in order to do so.

The Nautilus; a craft of joy and beauty

As a determinedly militaristic score plays, the Western capitalist colonists build a thriving civilisation which includes a windmill, carts, boats and an electric telegraph.

Verne considered American expansionism a good thing, but I doubt the Russians agreed, and here American expansionism is very much portrayed as a threat. Americans are first encountered as a society at war with itself and at the end of the film the balloonists are sailing into the sunset leaving a burning paradise in their wake.

However there is a great deal of buffoonery as well and at times I was reminded of Claude Rains’ line in 1942’s classic romantic drama, Casablanca, and his description of the US ‘blundering into Berlin‘.

Central to the negative portrayal of Americans is the African American character of Neb, who in the book is a freed slave turned ‘faithful servant’ to Captain Smith. I’m unsure of the exact nature of their relationship in the film, but Neb is clearly subordinate to Smith.

According to IMDB.com, Robert Ross was an actor of African American descent who emigrated to the Soviet Union in 1928 and became ‘the first black man to become a citizen of the USSR’. Alongside Weiland Rodd, Ross was one of only two African American actors employed at Mosfilm, and was also an physical instructor at The Russian State University in Moscow.

Ross plays Neb, who true to the book, is the film’s sole non-white character, is relegated to the ‘female’ role of ‘the domestic’, and is paired with the orang-utan, Jupe*, as comic relief. Neb isn’t the only balloonist to be portrayed as a simple minded buffoon, but his presence is central to the anti-American slant of the film.

*named Joop in the novel

Neb; central to the slant of the film

Though I suspect Verne would decry any suggestion of racism in his work, his paternalist racism is evident in his treatment of Neb, and it fits easily alongside the US doctrine of Manifest destiny, the belief in the God-given superiority of the white race. The survivors of the book take the fortune bequeathed by Nemo to acquire ‘a vast domain in the state of Iowa‘.

Despite Verne being a firm Americanophile, there’s no acknowledgment this Iowan land was available to be bought as a consequence of the removal of the Native Americans to Kansas, allowing Iowa to be admitted into the Union as a state in 1846.

Some filmmakers who’ve adapted The Mysterious Island have displayed their own prejudice by dismissing or marginalising Neb as a character. And nearly all filmmakers have avoided including Jupe at all, though this is probably due more to the difficulties of animal wrangling rather than any sensitivities surrounding race.

I suggest the Russian filmmakers understood exactly Verne’s racism, and decided to use it to further their own political agenda. This version makes strong use of Neb, giving him plenty of screen time and emphasising his relationship with Jupe.

But where Verne regarded African Americans as a lesser race than white Europeans and found humour in elevating Jupe to Neb’s social equal, this film uses the Neb and Jupe comic relief double act to suggest their fellow balloonists, and therefore all Americans – and by extension all western capitalists – as one step closer to animals than the fine upstanding comrades of the USSR.

Hollywood director, D.W. Griffith, would have understood exactly what the Russian filmmakers were doing.

And no doubt ‘Uncle Joe’ Stalin’s Politburo considered this a helpful message to propagate on the brink of war, as the USSR would have understood themselves to be when this film entered production, and were most definitely at war with Germany by June 1941.

This is a middling adaptation of The Mysterious Island, fascinating for Verne completists and for those for with an interest in pre-Cold War propaganda. Mostly I was left feeling a doofus for not being able to speak or read Russian.

You can read my review of the 1916 adaptation of The Mysterious Island, HERE

You can read my review of 1929’s The Mysterious Island, HERE

You can read my review of 1951’s Mysterious Island, HERE

You can read my review of 1961’s Mysterious Island, HERE

And you can read my review of 1967’s The Stolen Airship, HERE

@ChrisHunneysett

The Mysterious Island (1929)

This epic sci-fi melodrama feature is absolutely terrific fun due in no small part to its gleeful abandoning pretty much all of Jules Verne’s novel on which it’s based.

Discarding fidelity for crazed creative ambition, it hits the creative sweet spot between the high-minded social consciousness and outrageous spectacle of Fritz Lang’s German expressionist classic, Metropolis, and the all-out gung ho whizz bang of Buster Crabbe’s Flash Gordon adventure serial.

An army of mermen pull along a captured and tethered submarine

Verne is often referred to as the ‘Father of science fiction’, and 1875’s The Mysterious Island, is a semi-sequel to his 1871 novel, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. It’s notable for featuring Verne’s most celebrated creation, the mercurial billionaire genius inventor and subaquatic explorer, Captain Nemo.

Verne’s novel is set during the US Civil War (1861-1865) sees a group of Union prisoners escape by hot air balloon to the titular Pacific Ocean island, where an elderly and dying Nemo secretly assists their survival and only reveals his presence at the end of the story, and discloses himself to be Dakkar, an Indian Prince deposed by the British Empire.

The novel: absent

There’s an absence of Verne in terms of character or story, but a filmmaker’s love of their source material is never a guarantee of fidelity. Yet the author’s spirit is in every frame of this tremendous movie bursts with Verne’s spirit of adventure, love of exploration, and sublime imagination. Plus it’s wrapped up with a moving and respectful finale.

Plus we have land and underwater battles, a giant squid, an army of humanoid fish people with costumes inspired by Melies, and – I kid you not – a drunken orgy. Verne was a writer who hunted down every opportunity to avoid including women in his stories, and would presumably be aghast at the very thought. Great fun for the rest of us, though.

We’re treated to twice the usual number of submarines and other wondrous technology, plus there’s a volcano, a giant squid and rapacious European powers seeking to overthrow Lionel Barrymore’s Count Andre Dakkar, a generic European aristocrat, rather than the Indian Prince of the novel. The name of Nemo is never mentioned.

However we can sense Verne’s influence extending beyond this film, with Nemo/Dakkar cast as a proto-Dr Who, an irascible older scientist accompanied on his futuristic vessel by two younger and attractive companions to provide across some across-the-class-barricades romance.

You’ll forgive me for occasionally confusing the daughter Sonia here, for the granddaughter Susan in Dr Who. And yes, though the terrific Jacqueline Gadsden’s Susan spends a lot of time waiting to be rescued, is also sexually confident, violently combative, loyal, daring and scientifically trained.

The island itself is not isolated in the Pacific but just offshore the fictional European kingdom of Hetvia, and the story swaps the US Civil War for an attempted European coup. There are no balloonists, dog, castaways or pirates, and no sign of the former slave Neb, or indeed any non-white characters.

Dakkar is a scientist inventor and an egalitarian hero in this version, while the villainous black-caped Baron Falon and his army of henchmen resemble Cossack horsemen, whose invasion of Dakkar’s island home seems designed to invoke the 1917 Russian revolution and the threat of Communism. It also speaks against over-reaching power of European monarchy and in favour of the equality of all ‘men’. That is, it seems designed to play to the political prejudices of its audience in the New World by demonising the Old World.

‘I dunno boss, it sounds as if they’re singing. Something about, radio gaga?’

Produced on a grand scale which suggests this was intended as a Hollywood response to Lang’s 1927 masterpiece Metropolis, the filmmakers commit to their barking vision in quite magnificent style. We’re encouraged to gasp in awe at the glorious Art Deco design, extensive use of miniatures, large crowds of extras posing as workmen, futuristic control consoles and prodigious industrial machinery.

Plus they give us giant underwater lizards interacting with live action humans long before Ray Harryhausen did it in the stop-motion classic One Million Years BC. And the giant octopus is wonderful. Various sizes of submarines and parts of submarines are used, with the smaller scale models possessing a lovely Gerry Anderson charm, and clearly inspired the look and feel of 1936’s Flash Gordon. Watching this you realise Gordon‘s rocket ships were really re-tooled flying submarines.

It’s not all a hymn to modernity and the machine age though, with the story drawing on imagery of European legend as a beautiful maiden is used as a Siren to draw an enormous sea beast to its doom.

And we’re given actual hymns, with sweaty chest-baring workmen praising god in song as a prelude to a submarine launch, a surprisingly moving scene in itself despite it being presumably included as a calculated appeal to a US Christian audience.

The not-Nautilus is ready for blast-off

Writer and director Lucien Hubbard previously produced 1927’s Oscar winner, Wings, and he fills his 90 minute running time with all manner of great stuff, such as platoons of horse guards, sunken triremes, a duel to the death and a race to repair a sub before the crew asphyxiates.

Hubbard provides us with some very impressive underwater photography where he can, and the rest of the time he uses theatrical tricks, such as making the diving-suited actors mimicking the effect of walking in water, much as later films would have actors mimic the effect of zero gravity.

And the use of sound in this this hybrid production reminds us there was no clear divide between ‘Silent’ films, and Talkies’. Many of Barrymore’s scenes’ using synchronised sound for his dialogue, and inter-title cards used elsewhere.

Plus it’s as noisy as hell. The constant score is accompanied by wonderful and frequent array of industrial noise hisses and clanks, plus hoofbeats, gunfire, animal noises, sung prayers and general alarum.

Despite the name this tremendous entertainment bears almost no relation to the novel, but it captures something of the spirit of Verne, while speaking to the versatility of his ideas and the great flexibility of his greatest creation, Captain Nemo.

I enjoyed this immensely, and if you’re more a submarine than sci-fi fan, there’s still plenty for you to enjoy as well, so dive right in.

You can read my review of the 1916 adaptation of The Mysterious Island, HERE

You can read my review or the 1941 Russian adaptation of The Mysterious Island, HERE

My review of 1951’s Mysterious Island is HERE

You can read my review of 1961’s Mysterious Island, HERE

And you can read my review of 1967’s The Stolen Airship, HERE

@ChrisHunneysett

Black Widow

As the titular Russian assassin of Marvel’s latest superhero blockbuster, Hollywood star Scarlett Johansson is given a run for her money by her equally charismatic and talented co-star, Brit actress Florence Pugh.

In what’s intended as Johansson’s swan song in the role, the competitive pair banter to enjoyable effect in a dead pan manner through a stunt and CGI-filled globetrotting spy action thriller grounded by contemporary concerns.

Fans of the franchise will remember Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff died in 2019’s Avengers Endgame, so it’s no surprise this is set prior to that, and takes place just after the events of 2016’s Captain America: Civil War.

There are parachutes, avalanches, facially scarred henchmen, a secret lair a Bond villain would be proud of, and a cadre of female assassins Honor Blackman’s Pussy Galore would be happy to command. This is Marvel parking their tanks on franchise rival James Bond’s lawn, with all guns blazing while pulling wheelies and doughnuts.

Having been memorably dismissed by Judi Dench’s M as a misogynist dinosaur, 007’s next film No Time To Die features the first female 00 agent, a sign of progress from a franchise which celebrates its 60th birthday next year.

Pre-emptively spiking bond’s progressive guns, Marvel provide us with not one but four female agents, adding to Johansson and Pugh’s dynamic duo the former 007 co-star Olga Kurylenko, as well as cannily casting the Oscar winning actress Rachel Weisz. Who happens to be the wife of current Bond, Daniel Craig. None of this is by accident or coincidence.

Brit actor O-T Fagbenle performs the role of ‘Q’ in providing the women with their vehicles, and in case you’re in any doubt where Marvel’s aim is, we’re even given a glimpse Roger Moore’s 007 film, Octopussy on a TV screen.
There are also nods to the Mission Impossible and Jason Bourne series, not least in the casting of one-time Bourne star, Weisz.

This assault on 007’s cinematic space is not only a further demonstration of how flexible and successful Marvel’s ongoing superhero franchise is in aping various genres, but also an example of how attack is the best form of defence.

By aggressively providing what is in essence a gender-flipped Bond film, Marvel deflects justified criticism it’s received by belatedly handing most high profile female Avenger a solo adventure long after Iron Man, Captain America and co. have had multiple films. Even Ant-Man has had two films to call his own.

However Marvel could now perhaps argue ‘we couldn’t make this movie until we’d ‘found’ a Florence Pugh’. i.e. someone who has the requisite star power and screen presence to casually outshine Johansson in her own film.

Having grabbed a best supporting actress Oscar nomination for outgunning Meryl Streep in 2019’s literary period drama Little Women, Pugh’s not the least intimidated by Johansson and is mostly in a playful mood as she steals the film with breathtaking insouciance.

And having chalked up Johansson and Streep as victims during her irresistible rise, it begs the question who else is prepared to be cannon fodder for Pugh’s career?

That said, Johansson is a generous co-star to Pugh, with the screen siblings sharing a squabbling repartee which at one point pointedly echoes that of Sean Connery and Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, a similar estranged couple rediscovering the meaning of family.

Speaking of the former Bond, Connery, you may mock some of the Russians accents in this film, in which case I suggest you check out Connery’s Russian accent in 1990’s submarine thriller The Hunt for Red October, and judge whether such considerations are worth an iota of your time.

The possession of vials of mind control gas power the plot, a deliberate physical manifestation of the exploitation of women by manipulative, violent men, the key theme of the film.

In addressing the issues of the #MeToo movement, the film acknowledges and respects the victims who’ve suffered while emphasising healing and the recovery of independence and self worth, as well as offering a note of optimism.

That said, Australian director Cate Shortland puts confident entertainment at the forefront while spending enough time on character to give emotional weight to the action. If more than one set piece sequence reminds you of 1995’s Bond film Goldeneye, then all that proves is Shortland understands her brief as she brings it all nicely to a boil in a finale featuring a massive aerial assault.

This may sound a familiar ending to seasoned Marvel watchers, but far from being the unimaginative rehashing of a much used idea, it’s best understood as being in keeping with Marvel’s signature finale. It’s not as if Marvel are unaware they keep ending films in this manner.

Exciting, funny and full of in-jokes and references, Marvel fans will find plenty to enjoy, and for everyone else, well, you wait six years for one James Bond movie to arrive and now two are coming along at once.

4/5 stars

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1916)

Deep dive into Verne

Breathtaking in its pioneering use of underwater photography, this silent two-hour feature is a globetrotting epic of action adventure, romance and comedy, and though contains some problematic elements, it’s an early high water mark in Hollywood spectacle, an impressive early entry into the canon of Jules Verne adaptations, and by far the biggest box office success of its year of release.

The novel

An adaptation of not one, but two major works of the man often referred to as the ‘Father of science fiction’, 20,000 Leagues combines elements of two of Verne’s novels, namely 1871’s adventure, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, and 1875’s semi-sequel, The Mysterious Island, bringing together the twin adventures of Verne’s most celebrated creation, the mercurial billionaire genius inventor and subaquatic explorer, Captain Nemo.

From this rich material we experience a tale of rape, murder, child abuse, kidnap, and betrayals. Plus there are fistfights, a sea battle, a colonial uprising, a reconciliation of long lost family members, as well as ghosts, devils, and real live sharks.

For those not overly familiar with the source material, 20,000 Leagues is set in 1866, and sees Professor Aronnax and two male companions kidnapped by a middle aged and vigorous Nemo, who takes his captives sailing around the globe in his technologically advanced submarine, The Nautilus. Meanwhile The Mysterious Island is set during the US Civil War (1861-1865) sees a group of Union prisoners escape by hot air balloon to the titular Pacific Ocean island, where an elderly and dying Nemo secretly assists their survival and only reveals his presence at the end of the novel.

The Professor & niece

When it came to adapting this material for his 1916 production, for the sake of cinematic expediency, Verne’s appallingly contradictory timeframe is rightfully given the old heave-ho by Scottish director and screenwriter Stuart Paton, who sensibly also jettisons much of the ballast of Verne’s ponderous scientific explanations, and in true Hollywood fashion introduces female characters to provide romance and intrigue to Verne’s nearly all-male world.

Paton also introduces female characters such as Aronnax’s adult niece, who replaces the manservant Conseil as one of Aronnax’s companions, and on the Mysterious Island there is a young woman wearing a leopard print dress, who replaces the male castaway of the novel. Although Aronnax’s niece plays little part in the film, the female castaway ‘A Child of Nature’ as she’s billed, is central to the story. And yes, though much of what she does is invented by Paton, there’s no denying it’s an exuberant and captivating performance by actress Jane Gail.

Paton’s script cuts back and forth between the parallel stories of Aronnax on The Nautilus, and the escaped balloonists, eventually bringing the plot-lines together in a terrifically staged finale before ending on a note of poignant dignity which I suspect Verne would approve. This is a great example of how to ruthlessly hack an unwieldy source material into a platform for great cinema.

Child of nature, right

Typical of the era, the Asian characters of Nemo and ‘A Child of Nature’ are played in brownface, a now rightfully discredited technique. Yet A Child of Nature’s inclusion allows for an inter-racial Caucasian-Asian romance between her and a balloonist, which is quite the something in a film released the year after D. W. Griffith’s infamously racist, The Birth of a Nation.

This romance doesn’t occur in Verne, and is possibly inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which features a crew of shipwrecked men encountering a beautiful girl and her wizard father on a desert island. Nemo is explicably described as a ‘wizard’, and also deals with issues of colonialism and race.

On another note, the romance as portrayed may not be interpreted as such as by a modern audience, there’s no explicit kissing for example. However if we the audience are expected and required to interpret two rape scenes as rape scenes, and not ‘just’ assaults, then we’re similarly beholden to interpret their flirtatious behaviour in scenes as romantic and sexual in intent.

Neb, right

However the film is less kind to the balloonist, Neb, Verne’s sole Black character in these books. Treated with jaw-dropping racism in the novel, The Mysterious Island, this film introduces Neb only to quickly cut him from the film. This happens so alarmingly abruptly I first assumed the copy of the film I was watching was missing a reel.

However Neb’s very noticeably absent from an important scene at the end where the cast are brought together. We can only speculate what happened to poor Neb, and why he ended up so ruthlessly dispatched to the cutting room floor. The treatment of Neb and the casting of Nemo in subsequent adaptations is something I’ll address in another post.

Nemo himself stands alongside Sherlock Holmes as a great example of a literary character whose cultural existence has a life beyond his creator, and who’s longevity in the popular consciousness relies far more on countless and varied media interpretations for fame than for people reading the books. Many more people will be familiar with their names than will have ever read the source material.

Featured in graphic novels, cartoons and now in video games, such the 2015 Japanese mobile game Fate/Grand Order, Nemo’s been portrayed by Russian, Egyptian, Czech, and Puerto Rican actors, as well as by Indian and Pakistani ones. And it’s in The Mysterious Island, not the more famous 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, that Verne reveals Nemo is an Indian Prince whose wife and child was murdered by the British during the historical Indian Rebellion of 1857, also known as The First War of Independence.

Nemo

It transpires Nemo is really Prince Dakkar, son of the Hindu raja of Bundelkhand, and a descendant of the Muslim Sultan Fateh Ali Khan Tipu of the Kingdom of Mysore. When Verne was writing The British Empire and the Third French Republic were competing for global superiority, and painting the British as the villains would no doubt be a winning strategy for the French writer, and not damage his sales either at home or in the US, a country often celebrated and the source of heroic characters in Verne’s work.

In 1914 when filming of this version of Nemo began production, the world had changed again, with The Great War, as The First World War was then known, was beginning in earnest. And here Nemo’s story is fudged considerably by Paton, who removes some historical context and shifts the blame away from the British.

The map showing India

We learn instead that Nemo’s life in aquatic exile aboard The Nautilus began after he was falsely accused of inciting a rebellion in the unnamed Asian country of his birth, one under colonial rule by an unnamed European. A map on the wall in one scene indicates it is indeed India. However the military uniforms appear more generically European, perhaps French or German than British. It’s possible all Europe colonialism looks the same to Americans. I’m not an expert in military uniform and perhaps the costume department had a surfeit of those costumes readily available.

Nemo’s tragic backstory role in the rebellion is relegated by Verne to a couple of paragraphs, however here it’s portrayed in flashback at the end of the film, with the rebellion allowing for some impressive sets and crowded battle scenes. Rather than being purpose built the sets look suspiciously as if they were borrowed from another production, but they add to the sense of spectacle and allow for a fittingly huge finale.

Williamson bros.

Despite readers of The Mysterious Island being familiar with Nemo’s origin story, interestingly, and presumably for publicity purposes, a title card claims Prince Daakar’s {sic} tragic story has never been told by Verne. The author died in 1905 and so wasn’t available to dispute the claim.

The title cards are fascinating in themselves. The first grandly proclaims this to be ‘The First Submarine Photoplay Ever Filmed’ which is catnip to fans of submarine films such as myself, as well as making this film hugely significant in the realms of special effects and cinematography.

Jules Verne

The second tells us it was directed by Stuart Paton and photographed by Eugene Gaudio, then the third card states the submarine photography was possible by using the inventions of the Williamson brothers, who ‘alone have solved the secret of under-the-ocean photography’ and we’re introduced to the Ernest and George Williamson themselves, who smilingly doff their hats for us. They can be justly proud of their work. And then we’re shown a still photograph of Verne himself, a shame he wasn’t around to see himself honoured so. Imagine if JRR Tolkien had been so honoured by Peter Jackson in his magnificent 2001-2003 Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The shark hunt

There’s a strong commitment to exterior location filming, and the underwater work is phenomenal. An astonishing underwater shark hunting trip is executed with the type of contemporary disregard for health and safety associated with the worst excesses of Cecil B. DeMille, which makes for a very exciting watch.

This undersea footage was shot in the Bahamas where Walt Disney 38 years later shot his 1954 James Mason-starring version of 20,000 Leagues, and for the same reasons, a great deal of natural light and very clear water.

In 1916, underwater cameras weren’t used to shoot the underwater scenes staged in shallow sunlit waters, but the Williamson brothers used a system of watertight tubes and mirrors to allow the camera to shoot reflected images of the scenes as they took place.

The exterior of The Nautilus looks very close to how Verne described it, a very smooth cylindrical hull with a wooden platform on top for the crew to stand on. Whether in or on the water, it’s these scenes that make the film such a joy.

According to IMDB.com, 20,000 Leagues was produced at the unadjusted eye-watering cost of $500,000 by The Universal Film Manufacturing Company, a precursor to todays Universal Pictures. And it took a staggering $8million at the box office, comfortably outgrossing the second biggest hit of the year which could only scrape together $2.18million, thank you and goodnight, D. W. Griffith’s non-apology of an historical epic, Intolerance.

For the pioneering underwater photography which captures Verne’s love of technological innovation, this is madly impressive. When added to it being respectful and faithful to the source while offering spectacle, romance, comedy and action adventure, this sets an extraordinarily high bar that many of the subsequent adaptations of Verne fail to reach.

You can read my review of 1929’s The Mysterious Island, HERE

You can read my review or the 1941 Russian adaptation of The Mysterious Island, HERE

My review of 1951’s Mysterious Island, is HERE

You can read my review of 1961’s Mysterious Island, HERE

And you can read my review of 1967’s The Stolen Airship, HERE

@ChrisHunneysett

IN THE HEIGHTS

A scorching summer of cinema is guaranteed as this dazzling big screen adaptation of the smash Broadway musical dances into auditoriums to raise your spirits as well as the roof.

An electrical blackout on the hottest day of the year sees temperatures and tensions in New York reach boiling point in the predominantly non-white New York district of Washington Heights during a sweltering summer.

Played by supremely talented, wonderfully charismatic and unapologetically photogenic leads of Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, we follow their young adult characters as they juggle romance and careers.

While they struggle against social pressures and differing ambitions, their tight-knit local neighbourhood community is threatened by rising rents and gentrification, leading them to question their identity and futures.

Bursting with joy and optimism, it’s an emotional 21st century spin on 1961 classic West Side Story, which mines the same issues of racial tension and tolerance, but with a far more upbeat and positive finale which will have you crying, laughing and more than likely dancing in the aisles by the end.

Directed by Jon M. Chu with extraordinary pizzazz who previously made 2018’s smash hit romcom Crazy Rich Asians, it’s based on the stage musical of the same name by the gifted pairing of Quiara Alegria Hudes and Lin-Manuel Miranda.

The latter appears in a small role, and previously wrote and starred in the award-winning Broadway show, Hamilton, as well as writing songs for Disney’s 2016 animated hit Moana, and starring in 2018’s Mary Poppins Returns, where he played the cheerful cockney lampie, Jack. And as ever the outrageously talented all-rounder is more than happy to let others take the spotlight.

Raucous open air dance routines, which take place in the street, in swimming pools, in basketball courts and in nightclubs, and are performed with acrobatic and passionate exuberance and skill, and nod to classic Hollywood artistes such as Fred Astaire and Busby Berkeley.

However it’s also mercifully nostalgia free and is always forward looking, with its focus on the importance of passing a ladder down to the next generation, so they too have the opportunity to build a better future. This is a vision of the American Dream which values and emphasises a strong community is essential for allowing the individual to flourish.

The upbeat toe-tapping songs are irresistible, with my favourite being the powerfully anthemic ‘Blackout’, a metaphor for the neighbourhood’s frustration and determination.

An outright and welcome condemnation of the outrageous myth of the lazy immigrant, In The Heights argues hope is key, love exists in small gestures, and the key to driving society upwards is for individuals to have a stake in that society. Plus it stresses the importance of positive role models and representation in media, and politics.

Charting the changing face of the US, In The Heights celebrates the astonishing variety of the human race, and had it been released in the summer of 2020 as originally planned, it may have been considered a boldly provocative statement to the then US president whose immigration policies it resolutely refutes. Now it feels a celebration of positivity and better times ahead.

In The Heights is romantic as hell with dance numbers which burn up the floor, and providing a perfectly executed all-singing-and-dancing antidote to a profoundly difficult year, there’s no better excuse to visit your local cinema.

Stars: 5

High Society and me. A musical true love

A frothy and glossy escapist musical romantic comedy of 1956, High Society is a terrific example of the ability of filmmakers from Hollywood’s golden age to draw on existing material and fashion a sparkling fresh and brilliant entertainment.

It can also be understood as a great example of producer power, was a commercial and critical hit, and was nominated for two Oscars in the musical categories.

Employing irresistible star wattage of Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Grace Kelly and Louis Armstrong, the timeless tunes of Cole Porter and fabulous costume design of Helen Rose, it’s unmistakably the product of MGM, the studio which made the best musicals of the era, including 1951’s An American In Paris, and 1952’s Singin’ In The Rain.

Using a well established dramatic structure, and drawing on elements of American literature, it was produced as the post-war US consensus was being supplanted by the dawn of the teenager as a social phenomenon, and the film’s struggle to wrestle with the real world are all too evident. High Society is politically reactionary and has no sense of itself as herald to the end of the jazz age in which its stars and genre were mired, and sadly for lovers of the studio’s defining genre, High Society is the last great hurrah of the MGM musical.

I absolutely love it.

Kelly, Crosby, Sinatra, & Holm

Based on 1944’s Oscar winning comedy The Philadelphia Story, itself an adaptation of a Broadway play, High Society glides through its 111 minute running time in bubbles of glamour, charm and wit, as we watch a pair of tabloid journalists covering the upcoming high society wedding of a spoilt socialite who’s being courted by three different men.

Bringing four leads together all of whom were previous Oscar winners, Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Celeste Holm engage in song, dance, and repartee as they resolve various romantic entanglements over the course of one night and two days in a mansion in the wealthy enclave of Newport, Rhode Island, the high society of the title.

Crosby heads the romantic leads as C. K. Dexter Haven, a wealthy composer who lives next door to his ex, Tracy Samantha Lord, played by Grace Kelly. Meanwhile Frank Sinatra and Celeste Holme are the down at heel muckraking journalists, Mike Connor and Liz Imbrie, who arrive to cover the wedding for their magazine.

When Crosby isn’t singing, he strolls about in cardigans or black tie, and though it’s not a performance of great range or energy, he delivers his popular brand of avuncular charm, is given a veneer of cool by his association with musicians of the calibre of Armstrong, and is offered some reflected glamour by the glittering star power of Kelly, best known at this point for her work with Alfred Hitchcock.

Kelly

Kelly is perfectly cast in her last Hollywood appearance before abandoning Los Angeles for life in Monaco. Whether in slacks or a ball gown, the luminous Kelly sweeps all before her in a series of gorgeous costumes, including a far from revealing but indecently sexy swim suit.

Plus she delivers a terrifically accomplished performance in the mould of screwball-era Katharine Hepburn, and whether being deliberately over the top, drunk, angry or playful, Kelly can wordlessly make us aware of what she’s thinking, in the manner of another Hitchcock blonde, Ingrid Bergman.

Presumably the casting call asked for an actress less attractive than Kelly to play the second female lead. On this showing that would be every other woman in the world at the time. Which is hugely unfortunate for the wonderfully droll Celeste Holm, who’s teamed up with Sinatra in my favourite big screen performance of his.

Sinatra plays well with Holm, and he’s either smart enough to allow her space to shine, or possibly barely able to keep up with her, and Holme brings a level of dignity and self-awareness lacking in other characters. But Holm was repeatedly ill-served by Hollywood, and after High Society she didn’t make another film for five years.

Elsewhere Lydia Reed is winningly confident and sparky alongside Kelly as her young sister Caroline Lord, and John Lund plays George Kittredge, the culturally barren, nouveau rich cattle baron who’s Tracy’s intended beau.

Playing himself, Louis Armstrong is an invitee performer at a jazz festival Crosby’s character is holding on his estate, a plot device which allows Armstrong to pal about with Crosby and duet together on the number ‘Now You Have Jazz‘, which is supposedly – but clearly isn’t – filmed in front of a wealthy white festival crowd.

Jazz musician Louis Armstrong is granted not inconsiderable screen time, performs three songs and is granted the first and last words. This is fitting for his screen ‘character’ is a Greek chorus to the comedy, a dramatic device used by later musicals such as 1972’s Cabaret, 1975’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and 1978’s Grease.
I could write an entire post about radio broadcasters in movies acting as a Greek chorus by starting with 1979’s The Warriors and taking it from there.

Acting as a Greek chorus to the story, introducing the setting and then commenting on events as they unfold, as well as being a character in the story, Armstrong is mostly at one remove from the narrative and he could be excised from the film entirely without his absence changing the story.

In contrast to the previous year’s drama, Blackboard Jungle, the film which made a star of future Oscar winner Sidney Poitier, High Society’s principal black star is clearly at times not on same set at the same time to white actors and has to be edited into scenes in which he is ostensibly a part.

Check out the final scene (from 2.27mins) where although nominally in the same scene, he never shares screen time with Grace Kelly. Armstrong is included but never incorporated.

A generous reading of Armstrong’s separation from the main narrative would be to suggest his performing and recording scheduling conflicts prevented a deeper integration in the narrative. A less charitable reading would be the studio were wary if not frightened of too much interaction of a black character with white ones, and Armstrong’s certainly not allowed to interact with the white female cast members in any way. And good luck spotting a black female actor.

Crosby & Armstrong performing ‘Now You Has Jazz

It’s important to recognise High Society was released in 1956, and although the segregation of public schools had been declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954, it was many years before this decision was universally implemented. Other laws of segregation weren’t overruled until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

With race being the defining political fault line of the US, High Society wants to exploit Armstrong’s cache as a long established and popular crossover artiste by contributing his jazz bona fides to the soundtrack and bringing his own fanbase to the films audience, but his role suggests a nervousness on behalf of the filmmakers who had to sell the film in a US market place.

MGM had at the time previous form with being vary of the controversial subject of race. The studio’s 1951 version of Show Boat notably tones down any ‘controversial’ racial elements compared to previous cinematic adaptions of the stage show on which it’s based.

However in theme and plot the film enforces existing racial boundaries. As one might expect of a mainstream entertainment which recognises social division in its title, maintenance of the status quo is a key theme of the film.

The script was written by a playwright John Patrick who’d previously written the NBC radio series Streamlined Shakespeare, and there’s a strong influence of Shakespeare scattered through the script – more of which later – so Armstrong’s narrator role may well have been included in the earliest draft. If so then casting Armstrong as the Chorus could be read as a deliberate act of segregation rather than a creative solution to a scheduling issue.

Patrick doesn’t steer away from the plot of the original film adaptation or the stage play which preceded it, but adding the Chorus – which Shakespeare used in Henry V for example – the audience to be guided into the heightened and otherworldly setting of High Society, as if leading us into a magical forest of one of Shakespeare’s arboreal comedies, one populated by the fairy Kings and Queens such as found in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, perhaps.

The Chorus is a visitor to this world of wealth and definitely not of or from it, a point underlined by Armstrong’s casting, and the musician’s persona can also be read as ‘blue collar’ and so acts as surrogate for all those in the audience not born to wealth. The film wants us to be amused by the superficiality of the Lord’s family behaviour and regard them with a mocking if warm detachment, and having the Chorus played by Armstrong helps to underline the idea the wealthy do things differently to the rest of us, they are apart, they are ‘other’.

This is story is about maintaining society’s status quo, keeping the high safe and separate in their gilded mansions and the rest of us, well, anywhere else. There is to be no storming of the barricades here, no tearing down of social division, but a determined raising of the drawbridge. This is a piece of high end comfort cinema, lavishly dressed with great tunes. If you want social conflict and a conscience, check out the Poitier flick instead.

Fitting the Shakespearean comic pattern there are two central couples, and all four must gain insight into themselves to find happiness with the correct person, and ‘correct’ is defined as with one whom not only shares a social standing, but also the person who reinforces the rigidly defined social divisions. The rich and the poor have their place, and are happier when the rigid social hierarchy is maintained.

We’re safe in assuming the family name at the top of this society is ‘Lord‘ is deliberately in keeping with Shakespeare’s habit of nominative determinism.

Taking place in a gilded world of enormous drawing rooms, private pools and a butler who offer visitors the south parlour as a waiting room, the film can feel as distinct from reality and as gloriously make-believe as a fairytale, a feeling underlined the magical appearance of a secret mechanical private bar from a book-lined wall.

Gatecrashing this magical realm are two journalists – rude mechanicals in Shakespeare terms – who cast a wry and cynical eye over the fabulous wealth the residents seem to treat with barely a second thought. And though they are drawn to it, they realise they are and cannot ever be part of it. Mike Connor’s brief fling with Tracy is comparable with the encounter between Bottom and Titania the Queen of the Fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. That Sinatra is playing Mike, comparable with the idiot turned donkey, Bottom, is surely am unacknowledged joke at the actor’s expense by the film’s producer. More of him, later.

This is a fantasy which asks us to engage and sympathise with a wealthy white upper class family as they negotiate concurrent romantic entanglements. And the softening of the cynical stance of a pair of muckraking journalistic interlopers encourage us to find sympathy in ourselves for this madly wealthy household rather than maintaining or hardening of our critical stance.

The head of the Lord household has placed his ‘kingdom in a state of chaos due to his latest extra-marital affair, a scandalous fling with a ballerina, and in doing so has become estranged from his daughter, Tracy.
Peace and order will only be brought to the kingdom when father and daughter are reconciled, which will only happen when she choses the correct romantic partner and comes to understand her parent’s worldview, making her fit to succeed her father in due course.

Father knows best, especially where his daughters love life is concerned, is a thoroughly 1950’s attitude.
This is also a coming of age tale, and if Sidney Blackmer as patriarch Seth Lord isn’t given a huge amount of screen time as the stern but loving father who uses his own discretions to teach his daughter about the adult world, it’s their reconciliation which signals the end of the movie. And the curtain comes down with a pleasing and impressive speed which some modern day filmmakers could learn from.

Like Ayesha, the white queen of H. Rider Haggard’s 1887 adventure novel, ‘She’, Tracy’s power seems only to exist as long as she remains in her own world, and the suggestion is if John Lund’s character, the cattle baron George Kittredge, is successful in his courtship of Tracy and takes her away, then she will become ordinary, a mortal being almost. Much is made of George’s wanting to put Tracy on a pedestal and adore her.

One thing the wealthy do differently to the rest of us is put on a music festival in their home. Crosby plays a composer whose house is full of musicians. And the life of Tracy Lord is full of the arts. She and her sister dance, sing, and play piano. They have no regard, interest or knowledge in the ordinary or everyday.

In part George Kittredge is a poor fit not because he’s self-made – Crosby’s character is only second generation wealthy – but because he values commerce above art.

Cole Porter’s fabulous songs have endured even more successfully than the film itself and have achieved a life of their own beyond the confines of cinema. ‘True Love‘ was Oscar nominated for best song but lost out to ‘Que Sera, Sera’ from Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. Some of them have been successfully re-recorded by later generations, such as ‘Well, Did You Evah!‘, the film’s best song, which was originally written for 1939’s DuBarry Was a Lady, and latterly recorded by Debbie Harry and Iggy Pop as part of a HIV/AIDS benefit project.

Sinatra & Crosby performing ‘Well, Did You Evah!

Being the greatest lyricist of his generation, Porter was capable of writing lyrics reflecting the film’s sense of magic and otherworldliness. He drops in classical references such as ‘Circe‘ the Greek goddess in ‘Little One‘, while also referencing more contemporary concerns, such as uranium, in ‘Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?‘ And yes, the song did inspire the name of the popular TV quiz show. And ‘she got pinched in the Astor Bar‘ from ‘Well, Did You Evah!‘ is as sly and funny now as it was then, especially with Sinatra’s astutely comic phrasing.

Not all the songs have aged as well, ‘Now You Has Jazz‘ is a decent example of the form, but the lyric ‘Jazz is the king, jazz is the thing that folks love the most.‘ seems unduly optimistic as jazz was about to be swept off the pinnacle of popular culture by rock ‘n’ roll.

However that’s aged nowhere near as badly as the icky staging of the torch sing Crosby sings to Kelly’s screen sister, which summons up the spectre of child sexploitation rife at the time in the Studios, and should be shocking to a modern audience in the era of #MeToo. And were High Society be remade today it’s the song that wouldn’t make the cut. As highly problematic as it is, it sadly it fits in with other songs of the era, notably ‘Little Girls‘, from MGM’s 1958 musical, Gigi.

Director Charles Walters was a choreographer turned director who as as well as directing films for Ginger Rogers and Esther Williams, made 1948’s Easter Parade with Fred Astaire and Judy Garland, received a Best Director Oscar nomination for 1953’s Lili, and directed the Frank Sinatra and Debbie Reynolds 1955 comedy, The Tender Trap.
There’s no signature artistry, just the absence of ego of a professional going about his business. When your star is also your producer, there’s rarely opportunity to do anything other than what you’re told. Certainly there’s none of the daring brush with 3D technology of 1953’s Kiss Me, Kate, or Gene Kelly’s experimental dance and design found in 1951’s An American In Paris.

Cinematography Paul Vogel as an Oscar-wining studio veteran journeyman who went on to shoot George Pal’s 1960 sci-fi adaptation, The Time Machine. His shots are always well balanced and composed so the audience know who’s the most important person in the room. Characters are usually fairly static within the frame, making it all the more startling when Kelly or or her screen sister flurry across a room.

The best we can say of his camerawork is it’s efficient and economical, with occasional daring pans from left to right, and though the camera becomes more agile in the musical numbers, it’s movement generally reflects Crosby’s laid back performance style.

There are no big theatrical set pieces and even the big ballroom scene at Tracy’s hen party, a great excuse for a swirl of costumes if ever there was one, hints rather than shows a crowd. And the big song and dance during the hen party is set in a drawing room where Crosby and Sinatra hide away.

In fairness the number is the storming duet ‘Well, Did You Evah! and remains not only only my favourite song in the film, but also one of my favourites in the Hollywood musical canon. Even the one crowd scene at the festival during the number ‘Now You Has Jazz‘ seems an out-take from a different picture.

Ralph E. Winters editing style allows the performances to breathe and to hold the audience in the moment. This is in contrast to the more excitable contemporary and haphazard style seen, for example, in 2019’s musical monstrosity Cats.

High Society’s production budget was an unadjusted-for-inflation $2.7 million, and US box office was a healthy and profitable $8.2 million. This compares favourably with 1952’s Singin’ In The Rain which scored for $7.2 million on a budget of $2.5 million.

Holme & Sinatra performing ‘Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?

Distributed by MGM, High Society sits high in their pantheon of great musicals, but was a joint production between two production houses, Sol C. Siegel Productions, and Bing Crosby Productions. Presumably the first provided the finance and the latter the talent, with the whole concept intended as a vehicle for Crosby.

Appearing in cinemas two years after Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, and Brigadoon, High Society is notable for what its not doing that those prior films did. Due to Crosby’s limited dancing ability there’s no outrageously macho and colourful ballet such as the barn building dance in Seven Brides, or the muscular staging of a Gene Kelly number. In fact none of the leads or support are famed for dance skills, though Sinatra could hoof his way through a scene if required.

Although never upstaged Crosby is canny enough to let others have their time in the spotlight. However
there’s an unmissable line concerning how handsome he used to be, and by implication still is to a degree.
This doesn’t soften the achingly clear and embarrassing age and glamour gap between romantic leads Crosby and Kelly.

Crosby, 5′ 7″ & Kelly, 5′ 7″

Having an older male starring a younger female seems to remain every Hollywood producer’s dream pairing. And Crosby certainly isn’t immune to the fantasy. Crosby was 53 years old at the time, Kelly was 27.
Helen Rose’s costumes achieve their aim of making Kelly look divine.

Though the use of studio sets, projected backdrops and second unit location work with extras driving cars pretending to be the leads now look decidedly false, they were common practice and would have been accepted by audiences at the time.

Lacks the scale of non-MGM musicals which shortly followed, such as 1961’s West Side Story, or 1965’s The Sound of Music, which addressed the themes of social conflict and Nazism head on. Compared to those behemoths High Society is a frothy endeavour, with even Julie Andrews’ movie featuring a singing nun-turned-nanny who marries her rich boss, seem hard hitting.

The golden age of MGM musicals kicked off with Fred Astaire and Judy Garland in 1948’s Easter Parade, includes 1949’s On The Town, and you can argue amongst yourselves whether 1954’s An American in Paris is ‘better’ than 1952’s Singin’ In The Rain. I love both but always favour the latter for a rewatch as its joyous frivolity makes for the easiest of watches.

High Society saw the MGM studio declining as a creative force. It’s principal stars were ageing – by Hollywood standards – and cinema was threatened by the usual suspects such as the growth of TV, changing demographics and tastes, and the social creation of the teenage generation. But for a run of flamboyant escapist entertainment, the MGM golden age is hard to match.

MGM released ten musicals in 1948, then nine in 1951, and ten more in 1953. It released eight musicals in 1955, before High Society became one of four films released in 1956. There were five the following year, only one in 1960, none in 1961, and only five in total in the 1960s. There was one original musical in the 1970, and the anthology That’s Entertainment!, a showcase of MGM’s greatest hits and a great introduction to their musicals. Two more anthologies followed, though they were seen primarily a way of generating cash in the pre-home video era for MGM’s new owners.

Of two hundred MGM musicals listed on IMDB.com, High Society is number 177 by release date. The only ones of note which follow it are 1957’s Silk Stockings featuring Cyd Charisse, and 1958’s wildly problematical Gigi.

From the sense of other worldliness, images of ruined houses and the backdrop of fin de siècle, the ghosts of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 Jazz-age novel The Great Gatsby, are inescapable. The book was enjoying a renewed interest and re-evaluation and its influence is clear. It can be seen in Crosby’s character throwing not only an extravagant party in his house but an entire festival, one clearly designed to attract the attention of his beautiful soon-to-be-married-to-someone else next door neighbour. And he pointedly describes himself as inheriting the wealth of his bootlegger father, the same means by which Gatsby acquired his fortune.

Tracy holds her hen party in one of the many emptied decaying mansions which line the coast, a situation described in the novel, and it’s possible to imagine long after the credits roll, that the characters and otherworldly kingdom the movie conjures up continue to exist in their own magical bubble of reality quite separate from our mundane reality.

High Society celebrates its 75 years anniversary this year, and as I’ve yet to watch it on the big screen, maybe I’ll get lucky and it will find itself released back into cinemas to celebrate. What a swell party that would be.

FINDING JACK CHARLTON

Stars 4

The life of one of football’s most popular and down-to-earth figures is illuminated in this fascinating, funny, poignant and deeply moving documentary of football legend Jack Charlton, who sadly died this summer.

From winning the World Cup with England to managing Middlesbrough and the Republic of Ireland, ‘Big’ Jack was a highly competitive, uncompromising, honest and passionate talent whose appeal was rooted not only in his success, but also his work ethic, charm and sense of humour.

Filmed during the last 18 months of his life and charting his struggle with dementia, this respectful and compelling account is released to coincide with an awareness raising campaign for the suspected impact of brain damage caused by playing the beautiful game.

Made with full cooperation and intimate contributions from his wife Pat and son John, it’s desperately sad to see this once most vigorous of men unable to remember his sporting exploits, and tragically it was confirmed last week his brother Bobby also suffers from dementia.

There’s room to touch upon Jack’s difficult relationship with Bobby, as well as exploring in some depth how his tenure of the Irish national side helped fuel a rise in national confidence and contributed to the peace process.

Among the excellent footage is the moment he describes his coaching style as simple and direct, which football aficionados might consider overstating the case, and as a coach he admitted to having a distrust of ball-playing centre-halves – so Lord knows what he thought of his England partner Bobby Moore then.

But there’s not enough time spent exploring his time as manager of my team, the uniquely stylish Middlesbrough – a job which would be the crowning glory of anyone’s career.

Although never denying his blunt manner was capable of ruffling feathers, Jack always delivered, was true to himself and always gave 100%, and that’s why he will always remain an inspiration.