Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Leslie Caron Triple Feature

The lovely Leslie Caron

Fanny (1961) (***)
Father Goose (1964) (***)
The L-Shaped Room (1962) (*****)

I never knew much about Leslie Caron beyond the obvious - you know, classically trained ballet dancer turned Hollywood star who was discovered at age 19 by Gene Kelly and cast in An American In Paris (1951), leading the way to more fame and acclaim stateside in Lili (1953), Gigi (1958) and Father Goose (1964). Mam'selle Caron had that classic French look, her sunken cheeks and pouty lips suggesting reticence bordering on sadness.

Born in Paris of a French father and an American mother, Caron was spotted in Roland Petit's 1946 Ballet "Orpheus" by Gene Kelly and later came to the USA to partner up with such legendary hoofers as Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly before chucking her dancing shoes at age 25 to take on more dramatic roles - and the occasional romantic-comedy like Father Goose. The world was better for Caron deciding to stretch as an actress, as her work her in the early '60s proves. Her craft was exemplified in the three films I watched last night on Turner Classic Movies: Fanny (1961), Father Goose (1964) and The L-Shaped Room (1962).

First up, the best of the batch.

The L-Shaped Room (1962) (*****)
Directed by Bryan Forbes (UK, 126 minutes)
Cast: Leslie Caron, Tom Bell, Brock Peters, Avis Bunnage, Cicely Courtneidge

Why-oh-why is this out-of-print?

Leslie Caron reached her dramatic pinnacle playing Jane Fosset, an unwed pregnant woman who gathers strength from her odd roommates in a seedy Notting Hill tenant house, in Bryan Forbes' The L-Shaped Room (based on a novel by Lynne Reid Banks), for which she received a British Academy Award. (The Brits loved Caron, as she also won BAFTA's Best Foreign Actress award for 1953's Lili.) Like Fanny (the non-musical adaptation of the play based on Marcel Pagnol's Marseilles/Fanny Trilogy) and Lili (despite an Oscar nomination for Best Actress), this film remains criminally out-of-print.

This is a veddy British kitchen sink drama. Particulary striking is its frank depiction of hypocritical attitudes about sex, abortion and class; Jane Fosset is an innocent who is initially blamed for her condition, then blamed for not "taking care of it" in a sensible manner. She briefly considers getting rid of her child, but is so repulsed by the quack she visits (who sees only marriage or termination as options) that she resolves to have the baby alone.

It also boasts a stellar Limey cast. Tom Bell (H.M.S. Defiant, Prime Suspect, The Krays) plays Toby, a struggling writer that falls in love with new tenant Jane Fosset.

Tom Bell

Bell had the classic Angry Young Man look of this era - a thick pompadour of hair and a chiseled face like Tom Courtenay crossed with Laurence Harvey (but without Harvey's posh accent) - which apparently mirrored his real-life Angry Young Man persona as well. Bell famously insulted Prince Philip at an awards event and subsequently found himself virtually blacklisted in films, despite his dashing looks and status as one of England's finest and most promising actors. He would go on to have steady work in British television, however, though I didn't immediately recognize him as the same actor who 30 years later would portray Helen Mirren's backstabbing detective Bill Otley in Prime Suspect (1991). Bell passed away in 2006.

The great American actor Brock Peters, fresh off of his star turn as Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird, is next-door-neighbor Johnny, a West Indies jazz trumpet player (not exactly a stretch for Peters, whose parents were from Africa and the West Indies) and good soul who secretly loves Jane. As an actor, Peters had one of the most intense and expressive faces of his time; no one was better at showing angst and inner turmoil.

Brock Peters in "To Kill a Mockingbird"

The quintessentially coarse working-class landlady is Doris, played by veteran character actress Avis Bunnage (The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Sparrows Can't Sing, Coronation Street), who routinely got cast in "blousy woman" roles. She's not in a lot of scenes, but when she is on camera, she steals the picture. She's exactly the kind of source material Monty Python would later skewer in their working-class shrew caricatures.

Another standout is Cicely Courtneidge, who plays middle-aged lesbian tenant Mavis - we only learn Mavis' orientation late in the film in a great scene in which Leslie Caron asks about Courtneidge's great love and looks at a framed picture; we never see the picture, just Caron's knowing look and Courtneidge's reply of "It takes all sorts, dear." She also does a wonderful version of "Take Me Back To Dear Old Blighty" in British army fatigues that's worth the price of admission. The Smiths opened their 1986 album The Queen Is Dead with a sound bite of Courtneidge's rendition taken from this scene.

Mavis loans Joan her book of Sapphic poetry

Director Bryan Forbes also uses music very effectively to augment his settings and actors. I loved the beatnik club scenes, where Jane and Toby go to see Johnny perform. Everybody drinks coffee, dances the Twist to beat jazz and makes out in smoky corners. Made me think of Expresso Bongo. Elsewhere in the film, Brahms' First Movement is used to suggest tension - first when a lost Jane desperately explores London's seediest neighborhoods in search of a flat, and later when she anxiously watches the clock in the cafe where she works, waiting for her estranged lover to show up. He doesn't.

This is a sad film about loneliness and making connections with others that offers no simplistic happy ending. In that regard, it's like life itself, in which there are no easy answers, only countless perplexing questions. The ending is subtle and dramatic - and rather open-ended. After having her baby and making plans to return home to France, Jane stops by the flat one last time to pick up her belongings and to return Toby's manuscript about their relationship, which is entitled "The L-Shaped Room." Toby is out of his flat, so Jane leaves a note on his typewriter. The note is filmed in a medium-shot and is very hard to make out, but it's something to the effect of "Your story is lovely, but it has no ending. It would be a marvelous story with an ending. - Jane." Cryptic, yes. Perfectly so.

Fanny (1961) (***)
directed by Joshua Logan (USA, 134 minutes)
Cast: Leslie Caron, Maurice Chevalier, Charles Boyer, Horst Bucholtz, Georgette Anys

Why-oh-why is this out-of-print??

Though it boasts a Who's Who cast of French stars in Leslie Caron, Maurice Chevalier, Charles Boyer and Georgette Anys, the real star of this old school tearjerker is the port of Marseilles and the cinematography of DP Jack Cardiff, who captures the beauty and romance of this seaside city in a way no one else has since. When I came across this film on TCM, I thought it looked hokey - I mean, a French cast in berets-and-cafes dubbed into English for Hollywood consumption of Gallic cliches, but it was so gorgeous to look at with its breezy blue skies and the characters set against the azure hues of the Mediterranean Sea, I stayed with it. It seemed so different from drab, humid Baltimore with its pollution and weekend heat advisory. Then, when I saw Caron's face against that backdrop, I was hooked.

Here's imdb's summary of the plotline (based on the plays and films of Marcel Pagnol - Marius, Fanny, Cesar), which borders on the mythic in its simplicity: "Almost 19-year-old Marius feels himself in a rut in Marseille, his life planned for him by his cafe'-owning father, and he longs for the sea. The night before he is to leave on a 5-year voyage, Fanny, a girl he grew up with, reveals that she is in love with him, and he discovers that he is in love with her. He must choose between an exciting life at sea, and a boring life with the woman he loves. And Fanny must choose between keeping the man she loves, and letting him live the life he seems to want."

There are really no surprises there, but we continue to watch because the scenery is pretty, Boyer and Chevalier are engaging and Leslie Caron is captivating.

Father Goose (1964) (***)
directed by Ralph Nelson (USA, 118 minutes)
Cast: Leslie Caron, Cary Grant, Trevor Howard

Don't have much to say about this film except that I've always liked it. Cary Grant was nearing the end of his career and only made one more movie, 1966's Walk Don't Run. This was a change of pace for Grant, as he played against type as a gruff and grizzly boozer instead of Mr. Suave. This was about the time Cary protested that he found it silly to be 60 and still doing romantic scenes with women half his age (co-star Leslie Caron was roughly 32 at the time). Caron has a great drunk scene and the film also boasts a nice title song, "Pass Me By," made famous in a Frank Sinatra cover version.

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