Friday, June 24, 2011

In the Gab Old Summertime

It's a quiet week here in Film Gab's spacious Manhattan digs.  Werth is off gallivanting through Europe doing his best Henry James impersonation, although with all his hair and none of the digestive complaints (we hope).  The less picaresque half of Film Gab stuck around the city to get a little work done and dream of foreign shores.  The combination of the two brings to mind those great Hollywood flicks where even those who stay at home get to take an incredible journey. 

Marking the end of her reign as kiddie box office champ, The Little Princess (1939) is one of Shirley Temple's most unusual films.  Based on the book by Frances Hodgson Burnett, the movie follows Sara Crew (Temple), who is sent to boarding school by her doting father (Ian Hunter), only to run afoul of the mean-spirited headmistress Miss Minchin (Mary Nash) when her father and his fortune are lost in the Boer War.  Even though Miss Minchin forces her to become a scullery maid, Sara never loses her good spirits, making friends with the other domestics and finding an ally in Ram Dass (Cesar Romero), the servant of a powerful lord next door.  Refusing to give up hope, Sara continues to search army hospitals for her father until she gets a royal assist from Queen Victoria (Beryl Mercer).   

The film is at times slavishly faithful to its source material while it also packs in all the usual bits from previous Temple films: a dance number with a comedian, young lovers reunited, and a confrontation with an old crank.  These changes never violate Burnett's creation, in fact, they seem to honor the story's muddled past: originally a magazine serial, Burnett revised Princess into a novella, adapted it to stage play with distinct versions running in London and New York, and eventually incorporated bits from all those incarnations into the final novel.  (And to add to the blurry history, when Alfonso Cuarón made his adaption in 1995, he included elements from the Shirley Temple film that had never appeared in print.)

Of course the most famous scene is the dream sequence that takes place after Sara has been banished to the garret by Miss Minchin and she dreams of being a princess in a storybook land that looks like it sprang directly from a Maxfield Parrish illustration.  Inside the dream, Sara meets fantasy versions of her real-life friends, plus she is able to dispatch cruel Miss Minchin and to assert the importance of generosity and kindness over the petty cruelties favored by the headmistress.  

Another film that uses dreams as an escape from the drudgery of the everyday world is Dreamchild (1985), a hallucinatory mediation on the later years of Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Lewis Carroll's literary heroine.  Journeying to New York City in 1932, Alice, now a very elderly and snappish Mrs. Hargreaves (Coral Browne), is preparing to make a speech at Columbia University in celebration of the centenary of Lewis Carroll's birth.  

The trip and the occasion dredge up troubling memories of stuttering clergyman Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Ian Holm) whose infatuation with her transformed him into a literary giant and her into the beloved heroine of millions of readers.  Never comfortable with the acclaim, Alice has grown into a dour adult, but the trip forces her to confront her past, both her actual past at Oxford University among her family, and the imagined past in Carroll's fantasy land.  

The creatures of Wonderland were created by the Jim Henson workshop, and they are startlingly lifelike realizations of  Sir John Tenniel's famous illustrations.  But their function within the movie is to force Alice to re-evaluate her memories and to accept her strange double history.  

The film is a fantasia of odd juxtapositions with deep emotional undercurrents, and while it definitely shows traces of screenwriter Dennis Potter's 1965 stage play, director Gavin Millar skillfully manages the transitions between Victorian England and Great Depression era New York.  Part of that success emerges from the fine performances by Browne and Holm, and even Peter Gallagher's take on a raffish tabloid reporter adds a certain panache.

Both these films leave us pleasantly bewildered, full of imaginary landscapes, and ready to dream of our next journey abroad.  Just make sure we all make it back in time for next week's Film Gab. 

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