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From madcap 1930s and 1940s screwball comediennes chasing romance to the fated, impassioned lovers of Douglas Sirk's provocative 1950s melodramas, this program celebrates the luminous screen sirens that embodied Hollywood's grand narratives of love, according to the ACMI statement. And how sweet it promises to be. Andrew L. Urban reports.

In Paris earlier this year (2011) I had the time to visit the fabulous Frank Ghery designed Cinematheque Francaise, where a special program of ‘Brunette/Blonde’ was attracting big crowds – and I only got there on the last day Jan. 16). As only the French would put it, it was billed as “A unique exhibition about feminine beauty and mystique in art and film.”

"Fabulous fun and profoundly interesting"

The exhibition explores through their hair (colours and styles) how films have traditionally represented brunettes, blondes and redheads. That sounds esoteric; it isn’t. Fabulous fun and profoundly interesting. 

ACMI’s program reminds me of it and is related by virtue of gender.

“In classic screwball comedies directed by the likes of Frank Capra and Howard Hawks, stars such as Claudette Colbert and Katharine Hepburn play wilful heiresses and wise-cracking dames pursuing their romantic quarry,” says ACMI Film Programmer Roberta Ciabarra. “In Douglas Sirk’s high-water mark ‘50s melodramas, screen divas including Lana Turner, Dorothy Malone and Barbara Stanwyck play female protagonists pursuing grand passion and fateful romance.”

The program opens with the Frank Capra screwball comedy It Happened One Night (1934). Winner of five Academy Awards, the film stars Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable. The story of a runaway spoilt heiress who meets a reporter on a bus trip to New York, the two hurl clever insults at one another until they give in to their romantic fate. Capra maintained the film was "the only picture in which Gable was ever allowed to play himself.” 

Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant star in Howard Hawks’ 1938 classic Bringing Up Baby. Hepburn plays a charming New York socialite who convinces a socially inept palaeontologist (Grant) to travel with her on a road trip to Connecticut, joined by her leopard named Baby. High on charm, slapstick and innuendo, it isn’t long before the leopard is on the loose and the palaeontologist is at risk of cheating on his absent fiancée. 

From Hungarian director George Cukor is the 1940 comedy The Philadelphia Story. Starring James Stewart in an Academy Award winning performance, along with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, the film is a screen adaptation of Philip Barry’s 1938 screenplay, to which Hepburn cleverly obtained the rights. Hepburn plays a socialite gearing up for her second marriage while her unhappy ex-husband (Grant) and an infatuated young tabloid reporter (Stewart) lust after her. 

"clever dialogue and witty repartee"

Admired for its clever dialogue and witty repartee, His Girl Friday (1940) stars Cary Grant as newspaper editor Walter Burns, a man trying to win back his ex-wife/gun reporter Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell). When a big story breaks the day before Hildy is set to marry an insurance salesman and retire from life in the newsroom, Walter pulls out all the stops to win her over again. 

Packed with clever one-liners and a great cast is Frank Capra’s 1931 film, Platinum Blonde. Starring Loretta Young as a perky reporter forced to compete with a scheming Long Island heiress (Jean Harlow), the film also features Bobby Williams as the object of both women’s affections. Regarded as one of the film industry’s rising comedy stars, Williams' career came to an abrupt end when he passed away at age 34 only a few days after Platinum Blonde was released. 

Known for his unique brand of beautifully stylised melodramas, German born director Douglas Sirk is known for Magnificent Obsession (1954). A huge success for Universal Studios, the film features Jane Wyman – in an Oscar nominated performance – and Rock Hudson in the role that made him one of Hollywood’s most bankable names. The story of a grieving widow and the man partly responsible for her husband’s death, the film is a turbulent romantic drama that leads to redemption for its two lead characters. 
Reuniting Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman on screen at the hands of Douglas Sirk is the 1955 melodrama All That Heaven Allows. Wyman plays a widowed middle class mother of two, Cary, who falls for a much younger working class man, Ron (Hudson). With their relationship challenged by societal constraints, the film acts as a scathing critique of small town conservatism. One of the finest films in Sirk’s legacy, the piece was also a strong influence on Todd Haynes’ 2002 feature Far From Heaven. 

"cinema with a strong social message"

Sirk went on to direct the technicolour melodrama Written on the Wind (1956). His seventh collaboration with cinematographer Russell Metty, the film demonstrated Sirk’s propensity for making cinema with a strong social message. The film tells the story of executive assistant, Lucy (Lauren Bacall), who marries an alcoholic and self-destructive oil tycoon, Kyle (Robert Stack). With Kyle’s good friend Mitch (Rock Hudson) on hand to ensure matters don’t get out of control, Mitch also has to ward off the unwelcome advances of Kyle’s sister, Marylee (Dorothy Malone). Malone’s performance won her the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress but in a move considered controversial by critics, Stack failed to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. 

A film that revived the fading career of Lana Turner, Imitation of Life (1959) is perhaps Sirk’s most scathing social criticism, touching on issues surrounding class, gender and race relations. Exploring the relationships between two mothers and their daughters, the film received Academy Award nominations in the Best Supporting Actress category for its stars Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner. 

Reuniting the stars of Double Indemnity – Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck –Douglas Sirk’s 1956 melodrama There’s Always Tomorrow, explores one man’s crisis of masculinity. The film tells the story of toy manufacturer and family man Clifford Groves, who starts dreaming of a life beyond suburbia when a former flame shows up. 

“The program also celebrates a latter day screwball heroine – the irrepressible Barbra Streisand – in two of her funniest screen outings of the early ‘70s,” says Ciabarra. 

Drawing inspiration from Bringing Up Baby is the 1972 film by Peter Bogdanovich, What’s Up Doc? Directed the year after he won an Academy Award for The Last Picture Show, this madcap romantic farce stars Barbra Streisand as a freewheeling college student chasing after a shy musicologist (O’Neal) with an overbearing fiancée (Madeline Kahn). 

"screwball heroine"

Streisand returns again as a screwball heroine in the 1972 comedy Up the Sandbox. Directed by Irvin Kershner, the film stars Streisand as a mother with two children, who goes into panic mode when she falls pregnant with her third child. Hiding in her imagination she conjures up some wildly escapist fantasies, including an affair with Fidel Castro, but ultimately learns to love herself. 

And audiences will quickly fall in love with this wonderful program. I know, I am biased – towards great movies.

Published April 21, 2011

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It Happened One Night

Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne
Thursday 19 May – Tuesday 31 May 2011

Lana Turner

Bringing Up Baby

What's Up Doc

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