Friday, April 6, 2012

Peck 'n Bette Birthday Spectacular!

Wise: Hello, Werth.

Werth: Hello, Wise. I see you brought a belated Happy Birthday cake for Gregory Peck with you today.

Wise: No, I brought a belated Happy Birthday cake for Bette Davis.

Werth: What? Both of these celluloid big-wigs had birthdays yesterday? No way!

Wise: Apparently way. Good Queen Bette would have turned 104.

Werth: And Gorgeous Greg would have been 96. Ironic that they shared a birthday but never screentime in a movie.

Wise: Bette would have made a marvelous Boo Radley.

Werth: To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) is usually the first Peck movie that people think of, but he had a wonderfully long and prolific movie career. One of my favorites is the William Wyler romantic comedy Roman Holiday (1953). Peck is American journalist Joe Bradley who lucks out on his way home from a poker game when he finds an unconscious runaway royal princess.

Wise: Happens in the West Village all the time.

Werth: Only this doped-up princess is played by then newcomer, Audrey Hepburn. Much ado has been made of Hepburn's first starring role, and boy does she deserve it. You can't take your eyes off her. Her effortless beauty and youthful maturity leap off the screen. It's hard to imagine this girl ever being anything except a hugely successful movie star.

Wise: She wouldn't be scrubbing the john with those cheekbones. 

Werth: With all the attention being given to Hepburn's bird-like, belted waist, you'd think her co-star would just fade into the Trevi Fountain, but not Peck. He had wanted to do a comedy to get away from all the heavy dramas, biblical epics and westerns he'd been doing, so he relished playing the handsome, free-wheeling Bradley. 
This slick, "knows all the angles" newsman attempts to trick this incognito, day-tripping princess into giving him a whopper of an interview without disclosing who he is—or that he knows who she is. He leads her all over Rome on a once-in-a-lifetime tour that has probably done more for Roman tourism than any other movie.

Wise: Except maybe for Gladiator.

Werth: Shot entirely on location (with some help from the legendary Cinecitta Studios) Roman Holiday is just that: a wonderful adventure through a 1950's Rome crowded with horses, bicycles, Vespas, and wildly gesticulating Italian "types."  Of course the two fall in love—but wisely, the ending avoids the fairy-tale possibilities by showing us that sometimes the most magical day in our life only lasts one day. 
With ten Oscars noms (including Wyler for Best Director and pre-Green Acres Eddie Albert for Best Supporting Actor) and three wins (Hepburn as Best Actress, Edith Head for Best Costume Design B&W, and blacklistee Dalton Trumbo hiding behind McLellan Hunter for Best Writing Motion Picture Story), Roman Holiday is a light laugh confection that makes you yearn to use some of those air miles for a nostalgic Italian getaway.  

Wise: Bette Davis leaves for an island getaway at the end of Jezebel (1938), but it's not for a romantic romp. 

Werth: Unless you consider a Yellow Fever colony romantic.  

Wise: Davis plays Julie Marsden, a strong-willed Southern belle who asserts her independence to the detriment of her engagement to stolid banker Preston Dillard (Henry Fonda).  
When she dons a flaming red gown instead of the white traditional to unmarried women at the annual Olympus ball, Preston breaks their engagement and she is shunned by New Orleans society.  After a year spent in seclusion, Julie learns that Preston has returned from a sojourn up North and she goes to him begging for forgiveness and to resume their engagement only to find that he has married another woman in the meantime.  
To further complicate matters, a Yellow Fever epidemic sweeps the city, sickening Preston and condemning him to an island where all the victims are quarantined.  His new wife Amy prepares to accompany him, but Julie begs to take her place on the grounds that only a Southerner could survive the horrors of the island and to prove that her love for Preston has transcended her selfishness. 

Werth: I don't know about you, but there are better ways to try and prove you're unselfish than subjecting yourself to deadly communicable diseases. Donate money to the Milk Fund or something.

Wise: Hollywood legend has it that Davis used Jezebel as a lengthy audition for David Selznick as he was casting Scarlett O'Hara, but whatever the truth to that claim, the film is much more than a pale copy of Gone with the Wind. Davis won her second Oscar for Best Actress and the film cemented her status as a top Hollywood star. 
Of course all the hallmarks of classic Davis performance are here—the unruly pride, a frankness about women's desire—but she also incorporates a vision of ennobling female sacrifice that transforms the character from run-of-the-mill to extraordinary.

Werth: Her Louisiana accent by way of Boston is extraordinary.

Wise: Helping her along is William Wyler's evocative direction, Max Steiner's moving score, and Ernest Haller's alternately tender and terrifying cinematography.  But perhaps the biggest assist comes from costume designer Orry-Kelly who created not only the infamous red dress as well as its obverse, the dimity lace number she was supposed to wear, but also the self-abnegating gray cloak she wears at the end of the film that obliterates her vanity and asserts her sacrifice. So, Werth, whose cake should we slice into first?

Werth: Any way you slice it, we'll be back for next week's Film Gab. 

Wise: No, seriously. I want to eat both cakes.

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