Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Oscar Statuette

Another Oscars season has come and gone and so it only seems fitting that I dedicate a post to perhaps the most famous work of art in motion pictures. If you didn’t get the hint from the title- it’s that much desired little gold statuette-Oscar.

Just to let you know, I don’t quite care for the Oscars. For me, it’s an overly long night full of scripted jokes, a little too much excess and self-indulgence. Besides the awards are given on basis of a mix of snobbery and guilt- which can drive me crazy. Still, I assume like most people, I end up hating myself and flipping it on TV for a few minutes to indulge in well, the indulgence.

Regardless of my own personal opinion of the Oscars, winners are usually a fairly decent standard of quality in Hollywood. Still, when you think of all the greats who were snubbed only to receive an “honorary” Oscar a year before they’re dead- it makes me a little peeved. Anyhow- Oscar Night is generally the premier awards night in Hollywood and everyone wants to hear their name called so they can give their stupid little speech for two seconds before they are cut off. Enough ranting.
Sinatra and Donna Reed with their Oscars

Officially Oscar is called the Academy Award of Merit and has been given to members of the movie business since 1927 by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science. The first actual statuette was given in 1929. Interesting enough, the statuette was designed by one of the most important art directors in Hollywood history- and it is to him that I also dedicate some of my post.

Cedric Gibbons with the very award he designed (above)
and one of his sets 
So, in 1927, the newly formed Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science held its first awards night for the movie business. It was a hit and soon became the highest award in the industry. Aware of their new regard in show biz, the Academy commissioned a statuette befitting of their honor. Cedric Gibbons, MGM’s art director and one of the Academy’s founding members, designed the statuette. In case you ever wondered, according to the Academy, the statuette features a crusader holding a sword on top of a reel of film. Gibbons drew up this idea, got it approved and then had a notable Los Angeles-based sculptor, George Stanley (who also did work for the Hollywood Bowl) to actually make the idea come to life. The nickname of “Oscar” was apparently given (according to Academy legend) by the Academy’s librarian who called it her “Uncle Oscar.” Eventually, by the mid-30s, the nickname was widely used and it was officially adopted by the Academy in 1939. The standard came to be that Oscar was plated in gold and manufactured in Chicago. During the World War II, gold was rationed and the statues were made cheaply though after the war ended, winner could turn in their awards for the real deal.
Gibbons, it turns out, was quite the big man in Hollywood. He ran MGM’s art department from the studio’s inception and basically ruled it with an unbelievable amount of power. Apparently, everything had to go through his approval if it didn’t have his actual touch on it. Because of this, his name appears on thousands of MGM credits for years. He was a little hated by some- for pretty obvious reasons-but the quality of his work was incredible. He had this iconic look that just brings you back to the Golden Age of Hollywood. A lover of the elegantly linear Art Deco style, Gibbons believed movie sets shouldn’t reflect the “real world”- instead they should be ideal canvases in which the art of the film takes place. The hallmarks of a Gibbons set were perfectly polished floors, pure white walls, and elegant furnishings. In a word, Gibbons set the scene perfectly for the escapist films of the time and id it with such class that it is incredible. Who better to design the hallmark award for the glamorous and truly unrealistic world of Hollywood's elite that we are all so obsessed with?

That little statue even appeared in a few films because it’s an award so synonymous with the industry. Consider, Judy Garland’s A Star is Born (speaking of Oscar snubs), when Norman Maine bursts on the stage and upstages Vicki during her Oscar acceptance speech. Norman accuses the Hollywood elite gathered there of ignoring him while his wife (whom he loves) rises quickly to popularity. It isn't a story line so out of touch with reality, if you really think about it. Of course, that scene ends horrifically, but what Oscars ceremony isn't without its flubs? One thing that I do think is interesting is how that Oscars scene is set up; I always wonder if that is what the Academy Awards during the Golden Age actually looked like. 

No matter how you personally view the Academy Awards, enough people place them in high enough esteem to make them important. In actuality, I find the award’s story more interesting than the award itself- but I’m a little biased in the matter.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Hedsor House: Filming Location of Quartet

I absolutely love Maggie Smith- so I had to see her new movie, the Dustin Hoffman-directed Quartet. The film has an incredible British cast (headed by Mags of course) and an amazing soundtrack. I also noted its magnificent filming location that I felt fit the themes and characters of the film perfectly. So I’m going to devote a little post to the filming locations of Quartet.
To begin with, the whole idea of the movie is that an elderly opera diva returns amongst her old friends at a retirement home for musicians, the fictional Beecham House. Amongst these old comrades, are the other members of a one-time famous quartet that includes her ex-husband. If I had another favorite in the film, it would have to be the amazingly versatile Pauline Collins. Her performance as the lovable Cissy puts an adorable face on the often-uncomfortable moments of elderly senility.
As far as plots go, Quartet is fairly predictable; but it has a refreshing dialogue, an all-star cast and a lot of enjoyable performances by these incredible actors and musicians. I discovered that lots of the “residents” of Beecham House were actually retired musicians and singers and the genuine talent portrayed on screen was very much appreciated by me.
I discovered after leaving the theater that Dustin Hoffman directed Quartet at Hedsor House in Buckinghamshire, which is about an hour outside of London. I read into the history a little bit and what I discovered was that it was a property with an esteemed history. It seems that King George III originally had the home commissioned and it was designed by Sir William Chambers. The house tragically burnt down in the 1860s and was restored and basically rebuilt in an “Italian villa” style. The focus of the new renovation is usually the grand domed hall with the great staircase. If you saw the film, it’s the location of Jean’s triumphant arrival to Beecham House.

Hedsor House has since been renovated a few more times. During the Victorian times, I think things might have gotten out of hand a little stylistically, but since then, restorations have favored a truly magnificently elegant Georgian look.  

I simply adore Georgian-style anything and even though I promised at the beginning of the blog that I wouldn’t concentrate on architecture- I just loved this elegant home so much. I felt the house itself fit in so well with the cast and the tones of the movie: very British, very smart, and very classy- even in moments of potential vulgarity. I feel that filming locations have been very well-used recently. The setting of the film should fit with your theme, or at least the tones of your film, so that it creates a seamless piece. I feel that Quartet accomplished this task with aplomb.

Also of note is that the home sits on a huge property. Bordering it is a lovely old Norman Church that was also featured in the film. St. Nicholas’ of Hedsor has one of the finest Victorian-renovated interiors in the area and it is an absolutely lovely Church. It also has that unique and genuine British feel. I don’t know about you, but this type of English church situated in a quaint little English village always makes me think of Miss Marple… which just makes me happy.
If you didn’t get it already: I enjoyed Quartet. Not for its quick-moving plot or crazy gimmicks, but because it was unique, it was incredibly well done, it was genuine and it was so truly British. For me, it was a refreshing change to find in the movies.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

"The Barkleys of Broadway" Surrealistic Painting

In the final Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers pairing, 1949’s The Barkleys of Broadway, there is very little to note. It is neither beloved nor even generally remembered except for the fact that it is the famous dancing couple’s last pairing in film. Still, I have a small place in my heart for this Technicolor farce: despite the nonexistent (or at least, unoriginal) plot and the pointless bickering of the main characters. Let’s be honest, we don’t watch Fred and Ginger movies for the plot: we watch for the incredible music and dancing. The Barkleys, however, is not incredible, but it is enjoyable enough: especially the couple’s melancholy, lovely reprise of one of my favorite Gershwin tunes, “They Can’t Take That Away from Me.”

Still, ignoring this film would be a great folly. The first reason is for the funny little painting that I’ll describe. The second is because The Barkleys is a wonderfully astute period piece: poking fun at existing Hollywood issues and illustrating Hollywood’s delusional postwar mentality.

First: the painting. So, let me set up the “plot.” Josh and Dinah Barkley are a highly successful dancing act in New York. But they have their marital issues and Dinah feels underappreciated. Early on, these problems come to a climax when the couple attends the unveiling of their portrait. In a lighthearted stab at the new surrealistic art movement, established Hollywood really did a number with this portrait (completed by an unnamed artist). The painting is absolutely ridiculous: the profiles of Josh and Dinah are molded into a pan and pancake respectively. The idea is that Josh molds Dinah, who would be lost without him. Cue argument, breakup, and attempt at independence and of course a number of musical numbers that reunite the couple.

I love this painting because for me, it illustrates the major problem with the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers relationship, even as the film pokes fun at the problem. We all know that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were equally talented. Nowadays, Ginger usually receives her props for doing everything Fred did backwards and in high heels. Still, at the time critics usually scoffed at Ginger and gave Fred credit for the genius and success of the earlier, frolicking Art Deco-filled flicks.

This painting literally illustrates a key theme in both the film and in history’s viewing of the Fred and Ginger professional relationship: that one was an overlooked but equally talented partner. It is as ridiculous as the painting not to give Ginger (or, in the movie, Dinah) her credit.  An injustice, certainly, but a theme worthy of an entire movie: doubtful.

The Barkleys of Broadway is as out of touch as some of postwar Hollywood itself. Surrealism is now seen as vogue and musicals as passé, so the Barkleys appear on the wrong side of history: lauding the latter and mocking the former.

But are they?

In an overly-sentimental reuniting of Fred and Ginger, do we want Hollywood accepting the cynicism and even bizarreness of the modern world, so aptly illustrated in surrealist paintings? The answer is a resounding no. We want the fun, the joy and the music that Fred and Ginger originally gave us. We want to listen to a Gershwin tune in an Art Deco nightclub. I dare say we even want a pointless, silly plot. We’re looking for those feelings of prewar nostalgia and innocence: when Hollywood (and the world it reflects) wasn’t confronted and influenced with all that modern nonsense. Nonsense that doesn’t like musicals and that mocks Ginger Rogers in silly paintings of breakfast foods and cooking utensils. I think the makers of The Barkleys realized that, in the end, their vision of the world and the post-war, epic-Hollywood world would be defeated. So they take their nostalgia to the extreme: making a valiant effort at even defeating terrible modern art.

Sure, I’m on the wrong side of history too: guiltily liking this movie. But what do I care? If I can enjoy all the harmless fun in The Barkleys and appreciate its inclusion of a key issue in Fred and Ginger history through a nonsensical little painting- it is only to the discredit of the establishment. At least, that’s what I’m telling myself as I write this and listen to my Fred Astaire soundtrack recordings…

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Sherlock "Reichenbach Fall" Turner Painting

Recently, BBC’s acclaimed reinterpretation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famed detective, Sherlock, has become quite popular, creating an even cultish audience and ensuring, perhaps, the survival of this famous literary creation for years and years to come. To a painting in this series, I dedicate my post.

Reichenbach Fall

In the Series 2 season finale, the makers of the show played with the concept of Holmes’ “Reichenbach Fall.” I’ll take a moment to explain this. When Doyle was writing the Holmes and Watson short stories, he eventually got tired of the same form of writing, even though they were incredibly popular. Therefore, in “The Final Problem,” Doyle “killed” Holmes, who falls off the Reichenbach Falls, a Swiss waterfall, whilst struggling with his great nemesis, Professor Moriarty. After public outrage, Doyle, against his wishes, raised Sherlock from the grave, fabricating an implausible, albeit desired, solution to the problem.

Final Problem Illustration

This idea of faking death appears in the series in a similar manner. I won’t spoil it for you, but I do urge you to watch the series if you have time. At the beginning of the finale, which was titled “The Reichenbach Fall,” homage is made to the Doyle’s stories. The episode begins with Sherlock retrieving a famous painting, The Reichenbach Falls. For Sherlock Holmes aficionados, this painting, via its title, sets the stage for the coming action, which has been played out and reinterpreted in a myriad of manners.

1804 Painting that appears in Sherlock
Consequently, The Reichenbach Falls is an actual painting done by the British Painter J.M.W. Turner. Turner was a Romantic painter of some renown. Although I really don’t care for Romanticism, Turner’s evocative landscapes are enjoyable enough. In 1804, he actually did a series of watercolors of this waterfall. Actually, for not being a fan of the Romantic painters, this is the second Turner painting I’ve dedicated a post to- so I don’t know what it says about me and my personal preferences.

I think this painting was used in the episode for a couple of reasons. The first is obviously to pay homage to the Doyle story in the “Final Problem”-inspired episode. I think, however, that the makers of the show liked the idea of a waterfall. A theme of the episode is personal downfall, urged on by outside forces. What’s a better symbol for the personal (and physical) downfall that occurs, than the constant moving waterfall, which is a very literal version of a fall.

The recovery and recognition of a painting can also be used as a probing point for further questions into the character. If Sherlock can recognize what is real and what is not in others, can he recognize in himself? Is his pride his own “Reichenbach [down]fall”?
Sherlock Finale

Finally, as a great English painter, Turner’s painting helps create an atmosphere worthy of a British classic like Sherlock Holmes. The makers of the show certainly realize the association with the stereotypical cold English nature and the famed detective who evoked all these traits. If you’re trying to create an essentially British masterpiece- fill it with British people, British locations, British… paintings, and you have a modern British drama, played out on an operatic, albeit modern, scale. Which is exactly what you get with Sherlock.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Maltese Falcon (1941)- The Stuff Dreams are Made of

There are a few wonderful films in which the entire plot surrounds the pursuit of a single object, in Hitchcock’s words, a “Macguffin.” I put it to you that no fictional object is more desired in the film itself, and even today, than the Maltese Falcon.
as Sam Spade in the Maltese Falcon (1941)
Spade (Bogart) and the Black Bird
This wonderful statuette is the catalyst of the plot of the Hammett novel, The Maltese Falcon, published in 1930. The book introduces one of Hammett’s immortal characters, the hardboiled private eye, Sam Spade. Like many of Hammett’s novels, The Maltese Falcon is not the average or even light mystery it may pose to be. I find Hammett had an uncanny ability to encapsulate human weakness and flaws in his characters. But I digress, the novel was adapted a few times, but the undoubtedly superior version is 1941’s The Maltese Falcon, directed by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart in one of his most famous roles.
Characters unwrap the worthless lead copy
The moment of truth: the testing of the black bird
(L-R): Spade (Bogart), Cairo (Lorre), Brigid (Astor), and Gutman (Greenstreet)
In the novel and in the film, the whole story follows attempts of different characters to acquire this mysterious “Black Bird.” Spade is hooked by the alluring Miss O'Shaughnessy, who draws him in but reveals little of the object of her desire. Gradually, it is revealed by “the Fat Man,” Gutman (played by Sydney Greenstreet in his debut role), that the Maltese Falcon is a statuette of amazing value. Hammett created an elaborate history that was put forward in the film. Without going into too much detail, the Falcon was originally cast of gold and gems as a gift of tribute to the King of Spain by the Order of the Knights of St. John, who were given the island of Malta. The extremely valuable object was stolen before getting to Spain and passed through a number of hands. Though made of gold, it’s been covered in black enamel to hide its value. Gutman was on the scent in the early ‘20s, but it slipped through his fingers. For 17 years, he’s attempted to find the statue and eventually discovered it in Istanbul. It was stolen by O’Shaughnessy and her loyal bodyguard, for Guttman, but they stole it and it was lost again.
Everyone clutching for the Falcon
Eventually, by basically a  miracle, Spade receives the statue, and after being promised money on his terms, turns it over to obsessed searchers. There is a celebrated unwrapping of the bird when (Spoiler) it is discovered that it simply a worthless lead copy. The characters are prepared to go back to following the trail of Falcon- but Spade turns them all over to the police. In the famous final line, a cop asks what the statue is, and Spades responds, in homage to Shakespeare, “It’s the stuff dreams are made of.”
At the end, Spade, who is without possessive greed, possesses the Falcon
Throughout the film, Cairo, Gutman and O’Shaughnessy are obsessed with finding the bird and gaining immeasurable wealth. This is beautifully exhibited when they desperately unwrap the bird, believing their toils are over. Crazed with greed, they think of nothing else and sacrifice anything, even their friends, for its attainment.
Brigid, imprisoned by her own obsession and greed of the Falcon
Like the bird itself, they believe under their dark covering, their obsession, they are rich and sophisticated inside. Each character puts on airs they don’t have, believing that wealth is imminent. Like the statue itself- inside they are as valueless as the Falcon- rotten to the core with their greed. They have lost themselves in attempting to retrieve history’s lost object. The Maltese Falcon is a symbol of obsessive greed and of the people who fall victim to it. They sacrificed everything for its possible attainment, and eventually lost even themselves to the pursuit.
basis of the Maltese Falcon
The Kniphausen Hawk
Besides being a lovely model of obsession of greed in films, it’s also a lovely object. Hammett almost assuredly based the statuette on the Kniphausen Hawk, a ceremonial pouring vessel in the Duke of Devonshire’s personal collection. This Hawk is made of garnet rubies and gems of incredible value and was created as a gift of some Duke or Count of something.
A Lead Falcon
Warner Brothers gave one Fred Sexton, a notable LA artist of the time, the job of creating the statue. Of note, Sexton was friends with the man believed to be the Black Dahlia killer. But that’s an aside. Sexton originally cast the bird in plaster. Many copies of the falcon were made during shooting, but few exist today. There are three copies of note that have incredible value. There are two lead copies that are, by the way, extremely heavy. During filming, Bogart dropped one on his foot, causing it to dent. There is also a more elaborate and beautiful (as well as lighter) resin copy that was used in many of the shots where Bogart was actually holding the statuette.
Publicity shot of Bogart with the Black Bird

Originally Jack Warner gave a lead copy to a friend, William Conrad. This has passed through hands. Another copy belongs to a collector and the resin copy was put up for auction a few years ago, netting much money. I also believe some more worthless plaster versions were given to some members of the cast. These either were lost, destroyed, or valueless- I can’t find out which.

Resin Falcon
The Maltese Falcon prop is one of the most desired in all of film history. One of the Falcons was actually stolen from the restaurant it was exhibited in for many years and is still missing. People still are willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for actual versions of the Falcon and even hundreds for crappy replicas. Adam Savage, of Mythbusters fame, went to extraordinary measures to create an accurate replica of resin and lead, which are exceptionally beautiful.

The quest for the falcon proves to be more a nightmare, than a dream,
for those obsessed with its possession
The price of the actual props used in the film are as valuable as Gutman’s assessment of the actual Maltese Falcon, if it were real. Truly, this Falcon is the stuff dreams are made of- perhaps not worthy of the obsession of the film’s characters, but certainly close.

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