This is one of those potentially mushy stories about a young girl with a secret crush on a composer. No doubt cynical viewers will say it’s nothing but a silly, romantic melodrama. But star Joan Fontaine and composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold imbue THE CONSTANT NYMPH (1943) with such tender, true feeling the film transcends cynicism. Charles Boyer plays the inevitably brooding, temperamental composer who can’t seem to find his groove. The wise-beyond-her-years Fontaine recognizes that Boyer, a frequent guest in her father’s house, will only be a success when he learns to write from his heart—when he has known suffering. She becomes his muse and his guide, so is blindsided when he marries her opposite, the coolly sophisticated Alexis Smith. Boyer does achieve musical success (with a majestic Korngold concerto), but of course, there’s a price to be paid for failing to recognize the love that is offered him. Inevitably, the film recalls the Max Ophuls masterpiece, LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN. Fontaine, so good at conveying restrained, secret sorrow, is just as effective here. NYMPH may not be a masterpiece, but it is nonetheless a haunting story of artistic inspiration and unfulfilled love. Available from the Warner Archive Collection.
I’d avoided THE DETECTIVE for years, assuming it was an anti-gay rant with a fascist bent, on the order of the DIRTY HARRY pictures. What a surprise to discover it’s anything but! It is about the investigation of the brutal murder of a gay man. But if the film’s depiction of gay life verges on caricature, it’s likely pretty accurate for 1968. Its gay characters seek sex and companionship furtively, living in fear of being outted, their reputations ruined, or worse being jailed. Sinatra’s character, the titular detective, clearly has a live-and-let-live attitude. He calls out a fellow cop and slugs him for harassing “fags.” This detective has a reputation for getting his man, but would rather do the right thing than kiss up to the powers-that-be. The one time he gets himself in trouble is when he lets ambition cloud his judgment. THE DETECTIVE is a hard nut of a movie with a noir edge and an undertone of despair I can’t quite put my finger on. Is this the portrait of a man realizing he’s past his prime? Sinatra clearly has his heart in the role and he’s well-matched with a cast that includes Lee Remick (as his lonely, neurotic wife), Jacqueline Bisset, and the young Robert Duvall. Reportedly, the other two detective movies Sinatra made in the period, TONY ROME and LADY IN CEMENT, are not of similar quality. But if you like your policiers raw and authentic, shades of Melville, THE DETECTIVE is for you.
The heroine of HANDS ACROSS THE TABLE, played by platinum beauty Carole Lombard, insists love is bunk and she’s going to marry for money. It’s 1935, after all, and the height of the Depression. But screwball fate has a way of testing such determination. Our resolute gold-digger will indeed win the affections of a man with a fat wallet (the sweetly second best Ralph Bellamy) while—very much against her better judgment—falling hard for the dopey guy who plays hopscotch in the hallway (Fred MacMurray). Turns out he’s just as determined to marry a meal ticket. But can they keep their cool after he moves in with her to fake a Bermuda vacation? Lombard and MacMurry have such natural rapport, you just know these reluctant lovers are made for each other. Now that’s star chemistry! If you love the classic comedies of romantic resistance like BRINGING UP BABY, THE AWFUL TRUTH, MY MAN GODFREY, TOP HAT, or director Mitchell Leisen’s own MIDNIGHT, this is a treat nearly their equal. It’s easily found on the Universal DVD, “Carole Lombard: The Glamour Collection.”
Though made more than fifty years ago (in 1963) and set at least a hundred in the past, this little-known but nonetheless great Italian film remains unfortunately relevant. It’s about the labor struggle—the little guy’s fight for justice in a world corrupted by the greedy and powerful. It serves as a sharp reminder of the steep price paid for the workplace gains many of us take for granted—and some still strive for. (Note the modest demand the film’s striking workers make is for a 13-hour day, down from an even more brutal14-hour day.) Surprisingly, the movie’s tone is far from glum. Even in the face of defeat the take-away is hopeful. That’s part of director Mario (BIG DEAL ON MADONNA STREET) Monicelli’s gift—he shows us the comedy and the humanity in the situation, as well as the ugliness and mendacity. The film is full of vivid, memorable characters, not the least of which is The Organizer himself, played by a far-from-glamorous Marcello Mastroianni. He is as inwardly idealistic and courageous as he is outwardly foolish and shabby. According to the director, the film’s key scene is the one in which a teenage Omero cuffs his younger brother for failing to keep up with his schoolwork. By the time you reach the film’s climactic image, you’ll understand the full import of this moment. Available in a superb blu-ray transfer from Criterion.

Imagine a man, even the most serious musician, preferring his violin to Elizabeth Taylor! But that’s just what happens in RHAPSODY, a deliriously enjoyable musical melodrama from 1954. Spoiled rich girl Taylor loves violinist Vittorio Gassman but finds herself playing second fiddle to his career. Following a failed suicide attempt, she’s nursed back to health by tenderly doting pianist John Ericson (nearly as pretty and earnest as the young Monty Clift). She marries the boy on the rebound—and soon he’s drowning his sorrows in drink. Director Charles Vidor (GILDA, LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME) treats this material with more respect than it likely deserves. Only the Joan Crawford HUMORESQUE or Ken Russell’s THE MUSIC LOVERS are more musically swoony. Though Vidor’s film teeters on the edge of ridiculousness, it’s repeatedly righted by the honestly expressed emotions of an appealing cast. Taylor is at the height of her 1950s beauty—no small asset. Thanks to the Warner Archive Collection for making this piano-pounding romance available again.

It is part of the magic of the movies that they stay the same while the world around them keeps changing, allowing us to glimpse lost times and to see performances by actors now departed. A case in point is the now mostly forgotten THE SPANISH GARDENER, a film from 1956, an era when movies didn’t have to be spectacles to attract an audience. It tells the story of a British diplomat, assigned to an out-of-the-way Spanish post with his young son. The diplomat aspires to better things and possesses a spotless record, but is curtly informed by his boss that he needs to learn to show more humanity in his dealings with others. His wife, we are given to understand, had good reason to leave him. His son lacks this option. His father’s interest in him primarily takes the form of an absurd over-protectiveness. When the lonely boy forms an attachment to their gardener, someone who gives the boy the opportunity for healthy exercise, affection, and fun, the father becomes jealously enraged. He forbids the two to even speak to one another. How this plays out is not surprising, but nonetheless affecting, thanks to the honestly felt performances of Dirk Bogarde as the gardener (then a dashingly handsome young actor on the rise) and Jon Whiteley as the boy. The two had partnered previously in the tender on-the-run story, HUNTED. Coincidently, Whiteley died this May. A serious lad with a wild shock of blond hair, he only made a handful of pictures, before his parents made him quit the business, including THE KIDNAPPERS in 1953, for which he won a rarely given Juvenile Oscar. A friend reads GARDENER as a metaphor for the blundering blindness of British colonialism. You will have to decide for yourself how accurate this is. Available as a DVD import.

I don’t think I’d ever seen SWEET CHARITY with its original ending, before KINO LORBER’s recent blu-ray release of the “roadshow” version. It makes all the difference in the world! The film feels whole again. It has meaning and heartfelt feeling. It’s about carrying on and living life in the face of seemingly impossible odds. And it’s good! The film was a flop when it came out in 1969. As studios were wont to do in that era, when movie musicals were losing their box office appeal, they figured rejiggering it might help. (See also STAR, which became THOSE WERE THE HAPPY TIMES and GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS with Peter O’Toole and Petulia Clark, which had every song cut out of it that didn’t directly further the plot.) This didn’t work, of course, but left CHARITY saddled with a blatantly contrived, wholly false “happy” ending. The film has also struggled with a couple of other misconceptions: 1) That the choice of star Shirley MacLaine was a compromise; that she was not on par with the show’s Broadway star, Gwen Verdon. A superb dancer in her own right, as well as an experienced movie actress, I can’t believe that the delightful MacLaine isn’t just as good as Verdon might have been. 2) That being a first-time director, Bob Fosse didn’t know what he was doing. There are signs he was experimenting here. The brief freeze-frame sequences look mannered and dated now. But Fosse would win a Best Director Oscar for his very next film, CABARET. And when his CHARITY dances, it soars! You can tell he got his start as a choreographer. “Big Spender,” “If My Friends Could See Me Now,” “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This” (with Chita Rivera and Paula Kelly), and especially “Rich Man’s Frug” are all heart-racingly sensational, pulsing with the energy of the best movie musicals. SWEET CHARITY is long past due for reappraisal!

When love occurs where it is not usually found, does that make it wrong? THIS SPECIAL FRIENDSHIP is the story of a schoolboy crush that proves to be something more serious. 16-year-old Georges is the new kid at a Catholic boys’ school. He quickly notices a romantic attachment between two classmates and becomes instrumental in its discovery and punishment. It isn’t clear if he acts out of jealousy or a sense of naïve propriety. But soon Georges finds himself exchanging affectionate glances and love notes with a boy some years his junior—the charming Alexander, who could be a symbol of purity (he is first seen carrying a lamb) were it not for his teasing, mischievous smile. Adult authority quickly moves to obliterate this special friendship, perhaps with some justification considering Alexander’s age. But no one foresees the depth of the younger boy’s feeling. If the situation seems clichéd, the film’s treatment of it is anything but. Which is all the more remarkable since it was made in 1963, long before gay love stories were commonplace. This largely forgotten film is available in a passable DVD transfer from