Sunday, June 21, 2009

Hear My Song

As anyone who loves books, magazines, movies and music can tell you, the main library’s semi-annual sale is a wondrous event. Over the years I have poured through and amassed all kinds of donated and discarded treasures that have made my life richer, and all for a few cents on the original-price dollar.

Friends of the Library get a head-start on sifting through the stacks, and there was one year when I must have carted home at least fifty old magazines to bolster my collection of pre-1960 periodicals.

This year, I waited until the second day of the sale, hoping that there would be fewer items to tempt me, as I realized long ago that if I kept buying these things at my current pace, my collections would quickly take over the house.

I arrived at the library some time around 1 p.m. Much to my surprise, dismay and delight, the tables of were still bulging with bargains. By the time I checked out, I had managed to whittle my stash down to four soft-covers, eight not-so-old magazines, a Wally Lamb audio book I’d meant to read, and a well-worn VHS library copy of the 1991 film, Hear My Song—an eight-dollar-and-change windfall.

I’d watched Hear My Song several times over the years. It's one of those so-called “small movies” that lives up to the old "good things come in small packages" adage. I had a home-taped copy somewhere, but I bought the video because I wanted to share it with a friend, who I know would love it as much as I did. As it turned out, she'd already seen and enjoyed it several times, but she said she knew someone who would appreciate it.

Before I passed it on, I decided to watch it yet again, as it had been nearly a decade since I had last seen the film. I was surprised at how many of the small but delightful moments I had forgotten. Aside from an obvious bit of lip-syncing in a couple of performance sequences, I found it to be as dellightful as ever.

Ned Beatty is the only actor you may recognize, and the only American in this marvelously-cast piece. He plays that part of an Irish tenor by the name of Josef Locke, who, it turns out, was a real person, and quite the celebrity in Europe back in the fifties and early sixties.

After looking Loche's biography up on the Internet, I was surprised to see how much Beatty looks like the tenor, something casting agents tend to ignore. Sought by the government for non-payment of taxes, the real Locke fled England back in the early sixties. It is this fact that forms the basis of this fictionized account, picking up the story some thirty years later.

The film centers around a thirty-something Irishman named Micky O’Neil. Micky is in love, though he just can’t seem to say the three little words his girlfriend longs to hear. He also has trouble telling the truth. His are small lies – white lies if you will, but he is, at heart, a good soul. Played by Adrian Dunbar, who co-wrote the script with director Peter Chelsom, he is charming, sweet, and a bit of a rascal.

Micky owns a night club in Liverpool, booking less-than-authentic (not to mention infinitely cheaper) headliners like Franc Cinatra. Nearly broke and destined to lose his club unless he comes up with some quick cash, Micky books "Mr. "X", a Josef Locke impersonator. Pre-show posters make it appear as if Loche is coming out of hiding for this once-in-a-lifetime concert, filling the club to capacity. But when the ruse is exposed, the town rebels.

Making matters worse is that unknown to Micky, his girlfriend’s mom (Shirley-Anne Field) was romantically involved with Loche shortly before he disappeared. Her anticipation at seeing him again, followed by her (and her daughter's) obvious dismay at being duped, serves as a wake-up call for the lovesick Irishman. Hoping to make it up to her and his patrons, Micky sets off for Ireland in hopes of finding Locke and bringing him back to Liverpool for a long-overdue concert and reunion.

What follows is a whimsical detour from the real story, but it is a lovely detour. To tell you anything more would take away from the enjoyment of this marvelous piece, including a not-to-be-missed ending that will have you cheering from your Barcalounger.

Locke was known for several songs, and they are all included, fitting perfectly into the plot, from the title piece (“Hear My Song, Violetta”) to “I’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen” and “Goodbye.” There are also wonderful bits of dialogue – many of which are mightily delivered by perfectly-cast supporting players like Harold Berens, who, as elderly band leader Benny Rose, responds to Micky’s amused query -“Who are you?” with a Jimmy Durante-like, “If the phone doesn’t ring – it’s me.”

Hear My Song is truly a gem of a film. Rent it. Watch it. Love it. Share it, and spread the joy.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Captain's Paradise

I don’t know why, but it always comes as a surprise to find out that something or someone I thought I had discovered, had a prior life. Example? The hauntingly beautiful "Smoke Gets in your Eyes." I heard it for the first time in 1958, when The Platters version of the song topped the charts for weeks on end. Like so many of my friends, I thought it was a new tune, when, in fact,Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach wrote it for the 1933 operatta, Roberta. Bob Hope introduced it, but it was Paul Whiteman who scored with his rendition, as did three other artists. Who knew?

Many people think Nat King Cole introduced the tune (his version of the song was a 1940's hit), while those of you who are post-Platters babies probably discovered it within the body of a movie soundtrack. It’s been on a bunch of them, including Hearts in Atlantis, Smoke, American Graffiti and Four Weddings and a Funeral. So new, it’s not.

Mad Man fans may recognize the song from the AMC series’ pilot episode, which not only borrowed the tune, but the title. All of which is to say that there are a lot of people out there who would be surprised to learn that what they believed to be a new song, is actually a seventy-six-year-old classic.

But surprises come in all shapes and sizes. As a young girl, I was surprised to learn that some of the TV stars from my childhood days had once been big time movie stars― people like Lucille Ball, Dick Powell, Loretta Young and Ralph Bellamy.

A few actors and actresses are lucky enough to have careers that span fifty, sixty, even seventy years. As a result, they may be known for one thing by one generation, and another by another. Case in point: the late Sir Alec Guinness. Twenty-somethings may be surprised to learn that Sir Alec (aka Obi-Wan Kenobi) was a major stage and screen star long before the Wars, appearing in dozens of plays and motion pictures, Bridge on the River Kwai, for which he took home a Best Actor Oscar.

Guinness was said to be the director's good luck charm, and can be seen in some of Lean's most well-received works - Dr. Zhivago, Lawrence of Arabia and A Passage to India among them. But Guinness was also in a number of smaller films, like The Lavender Hill Mob, The Ladykillers and my personal favorite, a sprightly British comedy called The Captain’s Paradise.

I was just a child when Paradise hit the big screen in 1953, but Pete, my long-time significant other, remembered it well, and would bring it up from time to time when the subject of what to give someone presented itself. Last month, faced with the task of choosing a staggering number of birthday, wedding and graduation cards and gifts, the world's worst chooser of gifts turned to her well-worn VHS copy of The Captain’s Paradise for a fresh perspective.

Sir Alec plays Captain Henry St. James, a ship’s captain who makes his living ferrying passengers back and forth from the British territory of Gibraltar to the Spanish-ruled Tangiers. Believing that no one woman could fulfill all of his – or any man’s needs, he becomes a bigamist, with a wife in every port. When in Gibraltar, he lives quietly with the domestically-inclined Maud, aptly played by Celia Johnson. You may remember her from the previously-reviewed Brief Encounter. Maud is the ideal homemaker, content, it seems, to cook and clean her way into her husband’s heart.

When in Tangiers, the captain comes home to Nita, played by Yvonne De Carlo. Nita is a hot little number, who, it appears, likes nothing more than to party her way through life, dancing, romancing and pleasing her man, without ever having to worry about dish pan hands.

Over the years, the Captain continues to live this double life, each wife unaware of the others existence. A captain’s paradise? Perhaps, but a paradise built on lies and assumptions: assumptions tested when the ever-thoughtful but careless captain unknowingly switches anniversary presents, giving Maud a bikini intended for Nita, and Nita an apron he bought for Maud.

What follows is a clever and thought-provoking conclusion that will have you questioning any pre-conceived notions about people, places, and preferences. To tell you anything more about the plot or predicament would ruin the fun. Suffice to say that life – and people, are unpredictable, because, as the good folks at Almond Joy have been known to say, “Sometimes you feel like a nut; sometimes you don’t.”

The Captain’s Paradise is a lovely way to discover or rediscover the talents of Sir Alec. Give it a shot. After watching it, you just may want to rethink this year’s Father’s Day gift.

Till the next time...