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Wednesday, June 12, 2019

How Close Attention Do We Ever Pay?

George Stevens Goes To The Movies

Directors knew that what happened after shooting wrapped and prints gone out was not a thing they could control. Maybe George Stevens felt that reality hardest for taking his films most serious, this all a more after the war where each project wrung life’s blood from him. Stevens' control went far as reels put on delivery trucks, but no further. From there, he and all directors were at the mercy of showmen, and projectionists they hired. Most theatres, and certainly television, was where movies went to die. Stevens did Quixotic bid to save A Place in the Sun from network shears when the Paramount feature tube-debuted on 3/12/66. His was a Pyrrhic win, but done on principal, like many a vain gesture. What Stevens saw coming can be glimpsed in A Place in the Sun where Montgomery Clift and Shelly Winters share balcony view of a movie that fights losing battle with distractions inherent in the ritual of crowding with strangers to watch. The scene is comical on one hand, sad on the other. These folks are more for connecting with each other than w/ shadows on a screen. Clift glimpses Winters in the dark and slides over, her his focus from there on, a fresh sailor in an opposite seat dealt out of the contest.

Stevens’ camera pulls back from the couple to reveal the mass, several of whom react to a kiss scene from a feature we don’t see. Boys do the finger-in-mouth pop understood to have been part of theatre-going ritual at the time. Was lovemaking on screens always so ridiculed? There seemed always a joker in full deck of filled auditoria in those days. Has viewing courtesy improved since? I doubt it. They just have other things to jeer at now. Stevens confirms a balcony as make-out site, one couple twisted round each other and breaking their clinch only when house lights come on. Clift and Winters are but slightly embarrassed to sit behind the pair, for it’s moviegoing fact of life. Stevens knew and was resigned to A Place in the Sun put before audiences like this. What good was his mightiest effort where these were eventual consumers, yet Stevens gave of his best, even if viewership too often went heedless.

Not that Stevens disdained his audience. He spoke to regard at least for behaved viewers in an interview conducted by Robert Hughes in 1967: “This is what a theatre does so well. People gathered in a large group, finding a little something about themselves. When an audience was truly moved, it was absolutely quiet. They were in a communion because they were learning the truth about themselves. They were there for discovery, not entertainment. They say film is a narcotic, an escape. But when film was done right, it asked real questions: Who am I? What am I? Why do I do this? Real theatre and film is therapy for the audience.” Stevens wanted his crowd to pay attention. Nothing less would do. Days serving light souffle were over for him. A Place in the Sun is a demanding film, enough so to be bent by critical revision since 1951. Maltin’s guide gives it but three stars: “seems outdated” … “downright absurd,” thanks in part to Raymond Burr’s “fiery” performance as a prosecuting D.A.

But Stevens knew his first-run mob well, and catered to it. Ultra close-up love scenes between Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor sent otherwise downer Sun into profit. Teens flocked for embraces more intense than films of their limited experience. Richard Griffith and Arthur Mayer, writing The Movies, asked Stevens about this in 1956, A Place in the Sun among the authors' survey of then-recent features. Seems those “huge close-ups … ‘sent’ youth … who knew not the days of Vilma Banky and Ronald Colman,” to which Stevens simply responded, “They’ll fall for anything.” Had the director, by then in his late forties, gone deeper cynical? Or maybe those finger pops still rang in his ears, a tinnitus-like hazard of watching films with the great unwashed. And what about Banky and Colman? They were “remembered not” in 1956, and less so over sixty years since. Far as I know, there is only one of their co-starring vehicles in circulation, The Winning of Barbara Worth, itself untypical of the team’s romance-centered output. Images below, from The Night of Love, speak clearer to what inspired Stevens. Everything old, he knew, could be made new again.

Stevens would have loved TCM. They never interrupt his movies, or anyone’s, with advertising. Latter, plus concern over cuts, was the bone of contention with NBC. Never mind concentrating at a theatre … here was presentation with all things stacked against it (ads, dissolves lopped off, assorted mayhem). TCM does a best they can with reality they’ve got, which is home-watching with lights on, people and pets in and out of the room, breaks to get eats and then void what you’ve eaten. Words Stevens spoke in his '67 interview seem almost poignant now: "(A Place in the Sun) was designed with a form similar to a symphony, with its moods and interludes, and alternate changes of pace … With all that at work, audiences had a real chance to accept the film’s meaning, for its meaning to creep into their hearts.” Might A Place in the Sun properly creep before a modern-day theatre audience, provided they come without “devices” to distract them more completely than even NBC did in 1966? Maybe Fathom Events should offer A Place in the Sun and let us find out. It’s no secret that many films register powerfully and unexpectedly when projected on a large screen before a filled house. Considering that George Stevens designed his film for just an environment, could A Place in the Sun still work the magic he instilled in 1951?


Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

"Could A Place In the Sun still work the magic he instilled in 1951?"

'Fraid not. It's too long, it's too old, it's too "boring" for today's crowd (who would be taking frequent peeks at their devices), and it's in black-and-white.

Of course I'm talking about mainstream audiences. Specialty audiences are another story. The picture's age and the black-and-white image wouldn't enter into the equation. A cineaste audience would pay respectful attention, just as certain crowds would be riveted to four or five Stooge shorts in succession, or to a triple feature of "classic horror."

10:06 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

You're right I'm sure, Scott. In fact, I wonder if Fathom has run PLACE IN THE SUN by any focus groups to determine if it's viable. Maybe they did and it tanked (I'm assuming that Fathom does have a process to vet old movies they play in theatres --- would be curious to know what sort of process they use in selecting them).

11:17 AM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

Fernando Martín Peña would probably run A PLACE IN THE SUN, if he didn't do it already, but in stock film and never in digital form which he can only accept for his television show. I have seen the other of the Ronald Colman and Vilma Banky vehicles that survive and it is a very good film... I would prefer Fanthom to play that one instead.

11:34 AM  
Blogger JonCow said...

The first time I saw A Place in The Sun on the big screen in a small theater (The Dryden Theater at the George Eastman House, ironically enough), those closeups draw you into the movie, involuntarily. I came out of the theater is a daze, realizing I had just seen the greatest, most cinematic movie I ever would see.

12:35 PM  
Blogger Lionel Braithwaite said...

@Scott McGillray-"Could A Place In the Sun still work the magic he instilled in 1951?"

'Fraid not. It's too long, it's too old, it's too "boring" for today's crowd (who would be taking frequent peeks at their devices), and it's in black-and-white.

For all you know, Scott, A Place In The Sun might work if shown; as I've said, the national theater chain here in Canada (Cineplex) does show older movies on special nights. Maybe a national chain in the U.S. could do the same thing (the Alamo chain comes to mind.)

1:50 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Right, you see my point: the Cineplex does show older movies on special nights. Specialty audience. No slight intended to the picture; I was just pondering John's original question.

9:16 AM  
Blogger Ed Watz said...

I offer the following anecdote out of left field, so to speak, because where else am I ever going to mention A PLACE IN THE SUN and film collector fiend Raymond Rohauer in the same blogpost? Rohauer told me that when he ran A PLACE IN THE SUN for a week at his Coronet Theater in the 1950s, he gradually grew to hate the film. "It's a brilliant movie," he noted, "but that Shelley Winters character is such a pain in the ass I could understand why Monty Clift wanted to kill her!"

3:06 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

William K. Everson had the same reaction to Shelly Winters in his book, LOVE IN THE FILM, to wit, " ... the dull, whimpering girl ... as played by Shelly Winters, so abrasive and dispiriting that there is almost no need for a moral choice, and anything that is planned for her seems justifiable!"

3:36 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

I think the film will work well specialty audience or no. I don't like specialty audiences to begin with. Their specialty generally consists of being boring. I am reminded of a man who wrote to Jean Cocteau stating how much he loved THE BLOOD OF A POET and of how inadequate was the audience he had seen it with. Cocteau wrote him back, "That's the audience I made it for." I had never seen this film until tonight. I ran it on the big screen on the main floor. Yes, the close-ups are magnetic, a clear indication Stevens knew what he was doing. Everything about the film is sincere in the best possible way. The little connection Clift's character has with a boy singing hymns on the street with his family stands out. So much said in so little time. The face of the mother, austere, grim and unknowing that she suffocated the life out of her child. Shelly Winters plays a girl of neither hope nor imagination into whose life has come a man so outward good looking and to all appearances strong that she feels the pull of him. He, brought up in a belief system that promises hope in the hereafter while denying it in this life, is completely unprepared for the feelings that he finds pulsating through him. Everything that happens between them is an accident like the rainstorm that makes them run from the car, the radio blaring loud that forces him into her room to silence it, to we know what happens next without having to see it. Similarly Clift's first sighting of Elizabeth Taylor, radiant, full of life and so far beyond him he sighs and accepts it. This is a man brought up to expect nothing from the world so he doesn't. We could call him weak but which of us is not when it comes to the power of the passions. I was most impressed by Steven's ability to present genuine sensuousness, something we don't see at the movies anymore now that people can get naked at the drop of a hat (and I'm not against that, I just wish film makers knew how to make it sensuous). No one who knows we all have thoughts we wish we would rather not can condemn the boy. Our justice system knows everything about the Ten Commandments (all of which we are told the boy broke) and nothing about, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." It is the poison of The Hammurabi Code and Leviticus we embrace while on our lips we place the word "Christ" which by our very utterance we mock moments later with our deeds. I was surprised by the stark beauty of Taylor at the end as he and she renew their love--he for a few moments, she for the rest of her life--and suddenly I realized that this is perhaps the only genuine;y redemptive motion picture I have seen. Thank you for directing me towards a very great experience. Yes, Shelly Winters quickly loses our love just as she loses his. I can understand why he'd wish her dead. I can also understand how he'd shudder at the idea that one person could so direct his thoughts downward. We are not capable of loving another until we have learned how to love our terrible self. That is extremely hard to do when we know how unworthy of love we are. It is for this reason so many fail at love. They think the person who loves them must be a fool for if they really knew them they would not love them. Shelly Winters was a damn fine actress, much better than she's usually given credit for being. I'm big on Von Sternberg. It's been years since I saw AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY. It's next on my list.

9:20 PM  
Blogger Chrisk said...

Reg, your above comment on love very meaningful and well written! Best regards.

6:57 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Just finished watching AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY. It's good, extremely good but Stevens transcended his material with his version.

7:56 PM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

Reg, one long, long paragraph makes reading your thoughts unnecessarily difficult.

9:36 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

If you have a problem copy and paste. Break it up into sections.

For decades film buffs have told me we'd come to your programs if only you would not speak...

"Whatever people criticize in your work, keep it. It is yourself."--Jean Cocteau.

"Whatever people condemn you for make it your own. It is yourself."--Jean Cocteau.

5:48 AM  

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