The Bryan Cultural Film Series
The Bryan Cultural Film Series
Three films, three genres, three masterpieces of filmmaking was the story of this year’s Bryan Cultural Film Series. The Philadelphia Story, The Red Shoes and The Magnificent Seven seem a disparate group of films with little in common beyond how compelling the movies are as their stories unfold. Yet there are elements of great films that they all have in common even though thematically they are as disparate as could be.
Certainly the three films call attention to how important the director is to a film. George Cukor’s understanding of the significance of pacing is so much of what makes The Philadelphia Story one of the finest comedies ever put on the screen. The Red Shoes is beautiful and sad, yet filled with the vibrancy of each character as they become three dimensional identifiable people under the directing team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The Magnificent Seven is perhaps the quintessential western action drama, yet under the direction of John Sturgis what emerges is far more subtle than a simple story of seven gunslingers riding to the rescue of a Mexican village with guns blazing. Rather, it becomes a complex character study of hidden desires, motivations andthe meaning of courage.
Ultimately it is that common characteristic, the exploration of what drives us and creates the circumstances that we use for our decisions that is the common thread of these three movies.
Katherine Hepburn’s character in The Philadelphia Story, Tracy Lord, has very little in common with almost everyone in the audience. She is, it’s safe to say, fabulously rich and leads a pampered lifestyle. The same could be said for many the main characters in the movie—Cary Grant’s Dexter Haven, Uncle Willie, Hepburn’s little sister Dinah, and the list goes on.
Yet when Hepburn marches out of the house with Grant’s golf club in hand, looks him in the eye and proceeds to break the club over her knee, the anger is an emotion that has been shared by all. And when Grant, clearly infuriated, rears back as though he is going to hit her and instead pushes her away—again the emotion is a shared feeling.
That scene is a harbinger of what is to come and a master class in acting, direction and script. James Stewart as Mike Connor is the everyman who does his job and does it well, but yearns for something more substantive; Ruth Hussey’s Liz Imbrie is that one true friend who so often gets overlooked.
What emerges are very real, very identifiable people whose emotional turmoil is shared by anyone who has ever experienced love, loss and the pain and yearning that goes with it. Yes, the movie is one of the finest comedies to ever grace the silver screen, but it succeeds because of how real the characters are.
In The Red Shoes, the ability of the audience to identify with the characters is again central to the film’s success. Very few of us will ever experience the acclaim that Moira Shearer’s Victoria Page achieves. The single-minded, perhaps maniacal, focus Anton Walbrook’s Boris Lermontov has on creating and presenting the greatest ballet ever is uncomfortable to watch but is something almost everyone has encountered. Not in ballet, necessarily, since so few work professionally in dance; rather what is universal is the business owner who understands only their drive to succeed and will not consider that others do not feel the same way.
Ultimately, then The Red Shoes examines the dilemma between wanting to achieve professional acclaim yet hold onto love and family.
What Powell and Pressburger bring to the screen is a powerful character study that unfolds almost like a crime drama. Will Victoria Page, a once in a generation talent, choose the beauty and creativity of dance that Lermontov offers or the chance to experience love and life that her composer husband Julian Craster (Marius Goring) represents?
Shearer brings an incandescent beauty to the role, portraying at once a strength and fragility that seems to stretch to the breaking point as the story unfolds. In the end it is that tension between the love of her ballet and the tenuous yet intense love for her husband that lead to an inevitable moment of tragedy.
The Red Shoes seems as far removed from action, gunfights and western theme of The Magnificent Seven as it could possibly be. Indeed other than outstanding camera work and great performances, the two movies at first glance seem to share nothing in common.
The Magnificent Seven is a classic, though, because it transcends the archetype of a western. Yes, there is a huge gunfight. And a stereotypical villain—although to give Eli Wallach his due, he plays Calvera with such verve and joy that even though he is a thoroughly despicable human being, you can’t help but like him.
However, what sets this movie apart is how fully formed every character is. The stories of the six and finally seven that ride to the rescue of the village emerge individually as the story unfolds.
The characters come to life early in the film as Yul Brynner’s Chris Larabee Adams weighs a pouch of coin and asks how much is in it. Told by the villagers that it’s all they have he, answers, “I have been offered a lot for my work, but never everything.”
What may be the defining moment of the film comes when one of the three village boys who have taken on Charles Bronson’s Bernardo O’Reilly as their personal hero, tell him their fathers are cowards because they don’t know how to fight Calvera.