Thursday, May 30, 2013

Funny Face (1957)

4 Nominations, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Cinematography - Ray June
Nomination: Best Costume Design - Edith Head and Hubert de Givenchy
Nomination: Best Writing, Story and Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen - Leonard Gershe
Nomination: Best Art Direction, Set Decoration - Hal Pereira, George W. Davis, Sam Comer, and Ray Davis

Funny Face is one of those classic films that I felt like I had already seen even though I had never watched it, likely due to the ubiquity of the image of Audrey Hepburn dancing in skinny black pants (perhaps it was just watching this commercial so many times that made me feel that I had already seen the movie).  I figured it was time to finally give Funny Face a proper viewing and enjoy it as a film instead of iconography.  Unfortunately, little in the film worked for me outside of the iconography.

Funny Face tells the story of a bookish young woman who, despite her initial intellectual dismissal of the fashion industry, soon becomes a part of the world she once looked down upon.  Sound like a certain film starring Anne Hathaway and Meryl Streep?  Indeed, Funny Face is The Devil Wears Prada without the devil, and this is the root problem with the film.  It's a narrative largely devoid of conflict.  The screenplay throws in a few minor roadbumps in the romance romance between the characters portrayed by Hepburn and Fred Astaire, but they don't add up to much and there's little to stand between the characters other than their own idiocy.  Hepburn's character is unlikable, Astaire's is uninteresting, and their romance is unconvincing.

Yet those who reflect fondly on Funny Face rarely mention the romance of the characters, instead reminiscing about the fashion.  Indeed, Givenchy's costume work is stunning, and though the dresses aren't as iconic as his work in Sabrina, Givenchy and Edith Head were well deserving of their Oscar nomination.  Astaire's dancing is great as always, though there are fewer opportunities for him to dance than in his best works.  Of course, it is Hepburn's dance that is best remembered, and though the scene comes off as more than a bit goofy in the context of the film, it's easy to see why it has gained such iconic status.

If you're an Audreyphile or a fashionista, Funny Face will be up your alley, but otherwise you can just watch the GAP commercial.

Remaining: 3144 films, 871 Oscars, 5398 nominations

Monday, May 6, 2013

Vivacious Lady (1938)

2 Nominations, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Cinematography - Robert De Grasse
Nomination: Best Sound, Recording - James Wilkinson (RKO Radio SSD)

George Stevens was one of the great "actors' directors" in film history, directing performers to 18 Academy Award nominations and two Oscars in his career, while picking up a pair of Best Director trophies for himself in the process.  Though he had made a couple of dozen short films prior to Vivacious Lady, he was relatively new to feature films, and only Alice Adams in 1935 had earned an Oscar nomination for a performer (though three of his other films - Swing Time, Quality Street, and A Damsel in Distress - had earned nominations in other categories).

For Vivacious Lady, Stevens teamed up with two performers undergoing periods of transition in their careers.  James Stewart had found success in his early roles, but was just beginning his partnership with Frank Capra that would result in many of his greatest films and make him a screen legend.  Ginger Rogers was in the process of ending her partnership with Fred Astaire and was moving toward a greater focus on non-musical films.

Vivacious Lady saw these three legends-in-the-making come together to make a lighthearted and largely forgettable film.  The film is the story of a young botanist (Stewart) who falls in love with a nightclub singer (Rogers) on a trip to bring home his ne'er-do-well cousin (James Ellison).  The two marry after only one day of knowing each other, and Stewart's character must figure out how to tell his father (Charles Coburn), the president of the university where he works.  Once the cat is out of the bag, everyone is predictably displeased, and hijinks predictably ensue.

Vivacious Lady is one of those romantic comedies that is neither terribly romantic nor comedic.  The film gets by on the boyish charm of a young Jimmy Stewart and the lighthearted sass of Ginger Rogers.  Both give safe but likable performances, relying on their considerable charisma more than any acting chops.  The script moves along briskly and mostly effortlessly, and the film is entertaining enough without offering anything terribly unique.

Each of the triumvirate of major talents associated this film would quickly move on to bigger and better things, and Vivacious Lady feels like an easy interlude for the trio.  It's an enjoyable enough film to watch if you can catch it on television, but it's a largely forgettable effort by some very talented filmmakers.

Remaining: 3145 films, 871 Oscars, 5402 nominations

Friday, May 3, 2013

The Romance of Transportation in Canada (1952)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Short Subject, Cartoons - Tom Daly

"Romance" and "transportation" are two words not often heard in the same sentence, let alone one with the inclusion of the word "Canada."  Yet in 1952, the National Film Board of Canada released the animated short "The Romance of Transportation in Canada," a humorous 11 minute short that shows the historical development of transportation in Canada.

The National Film Board of Canada is one of the most recognized entities in Academy Awards history, receiving 72 Oscar nominations, 11 competitive Oscars, and an honorary Oscar.  The NFB's importance in both cinematic history and in promoting Canadian culture cannot be overstated.  "The Romance of Transportation in Canada was the first film from the National Film Board of Canada to receive a nomination in the "Short Subject, Cartoons" category.

This isn't my favorite of the NFB's offerings.  Its narrative structure is more in the style of a promotional film than a story, but the film moves along briskly and there is a nice, subtle sense of humor that pervades the film.  It is also brightened by a lively score from the great Eldon Rathburn that almost singlehandedly keeps the film from dragging.

If you only have time to watch one NFB short (which are generously offered for free viewing on the NFB website), there are better options than "The Romance of Transportation in Canada," but if you have a little time it's worth checking out.

Remaining: 3146 films, 871 Oscars, 5404 nominations

Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Glenn Miller Story (1954)

3 Nominations, 1 Win

Win: Best Sound, Recording - Leslie I. Carey
Nomination: Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture - Joseph Gershenson and Henry Mancini
Nomination: Best Writing, Story and Screenplay - Valentine Davies and Oscar Brodney

Watching The Glenn Miller Story, it is impossible not to reflect on how much the biopic has changed over the past half century.  In modern films like Ray, Walk the Line, and The Iron Lady, the film is judged in large part by how closely the lead's performance resembles the film's subject.  Performers go to great lengths to fully inhabit the person they are depicting, studying footage of deceased figures or spending time with those who are still alive.  One of the best ways to score an Oscar nomination is to portray a famous figure in a biopic in a convincing manner.

This wasn't always the case.  While performers would adopt noticeable accents or change hairstyles to resemble the subject more closely, it was far more common for the performer to put forth his or her own film persona, only slightly modified.  James Stewart's performance in The Glenn Miller Story is an example of this, as he retains his unmistakable aww-shucks Jimmy Stewart persona while portraying the famous bandleader.

This isn't to say that Stewart didn't push himself at all.  He reportedly worked hard to learn to play the trombone, and though he didn't play the actual notes heard in the film, he convincingly mimics the motions of a trombone player, at least well enough to fool me (while I don't play trombone, I played in bands throughout middle and high school and have a passing familiarity with the instrument).  He is far less convincing as a bandleader/conductor, but I was still impressed by his work on the trombone, something that would be a given in modern times but was far more rare at the time The Glenn Miller Story was made.

Aside from his mimicry of Miller, Stewart's chemistry with costar June Allyson is obvious, with Allyson's spunk and charm pushing Stewart a bit out of his comfort zone.  Stewart was one of the most reliable stars in film history, capable of turning in a solid performance even with the least talented of co-stars, but like most actors, he comes alive when paired with real talents.  Allyson brings out the best in Stewart, and the two starred in two other films together (both biopics), The Stratton Story (1949) and Strategic Air Command (1955).

The film has some truly wonderful scenes, namely the Army marching scene in which Miller gets the band to swing and the scene toward the end of the film in which Miller and his band play on through an air raid.  There are also fun cameos from Louis Armstrong, Gene Krupa, and others that will appeal to jazz fans.  The narrative structure is a collection of set pieces instead of a fluid story, however, resulting in an uneven pace and choppy storytelling.

I also wasn't terribly impressed with the score.  The music performed by the characters in the film is outstanding and sounds great, but the score itself is a generic Hollywood score, and was a wasted opportunity to create a jazz-infused score, possibly with nods to Miller's music.  Instead it consisted of generic legato orchestra music that is instantly forgettable.

Despite the film's unevenness, it's a very enjoyable film that is absolutely worth watching.  The music is great, Stewart is relatively convincing as Miller, and the chemistry between Stewart and Allyson is exceptional.

Remaining: 3147 films, 871 Oscars, 5405 nominations