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Hell in a High-Rise: The Towering Inferno (1974)

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The 70s was THE golden decade for catastrophe movies. Some of the best ones were made back then. Think of Airport, The Poseidon AdventureEarthquake and, of course, The Towering Inferno. It’s on this one, release in 1974, that we will concentrate today.

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The Towering Inferno was produced by Irwin Allen, known as the “Master of Disaster” (also produced The Poseidon Adventure), and directed by John Guillermin. Note: Irwin Allen directed the action scenes. The film, written by Stirling Silliphant, was a fusion of two books: The Tower by Richard Martin Stern and The Glass Inferno by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson.

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Irwin Allen

The interesting thing is, before Irwin Allen at Fox had time to buy the rights of The Tower, Warner Bros. had already done so. Allen then got interested by The Glass Inferno and bought the rights. But instead of producing two movies that will obviously be very similar and be in competition, Fox and Warner decided to make a team and fused the two books together in one movie that became The Towering Inferno. It was the first collaboration between two major studios.

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The Towering Inferno was obviously a big budget film, with its ton of special effects and, most of all, its all-star cast: Paul Newman, Steven McQueen, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, Jennifer Jones, Richard Chamberlain, O.J Simpson, Robert Wagner, Susan Blakely, etc. A real Hollywood dream. The film cost around $14 000 000 to produce (around $68 000 000 today) and was a big commercial success, winning around $140 000 000 at the world box office on it’ release ($678 000 000 today). Being one of the most entertaining movies of all times, and with such a cast, the success was assured.

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The impressive cast

However, the critical reception was more mitigated. It generally was good, but was mostly criticized by builders for some inaccuracies.

Despite that, The Towering Inferno won the Oscar for Best Cinematography (Fred J. Koenekamp, Joseph F. Biroc), Best Film Editing (Harold F. Kress, Carl Kress) and Best Original Song for “We May Never Love Like this Again” (Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn). It was nominated for Best Picture (Irwin Allen), Best Supporting Actor (Fred Astaire), Best Production Design (William J. Creber, Ward Preston, and Raphael Bretton), Best Original Score (John Williams) and Best Sound Mixing (Theodore Soderberg and Herman Lewis).

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Ok, I’m talking a lot about this film’s production and reception, but it’s because there’s a lot to say. But before I’ll go further with my own appreciation of The Towering Inferno, let me resume the movie briefly for those who haven’t seen it.

Like most catastrophe movies, it’s pretty easy to explain: A new glass high-rise has just been built in San Francisco. It’s the tallest building in the world. Architect Doug Roberts (Paul Newman) is back in town for its inauguration. Once arrived, he meets the builder James Duncan (William Holden). However, on the same day of the inauguration, a short-circuit produced at the 81 floor causes a fire. Roberts accuses Roger Simmons (Richard Chamberlain), the electrical engineer, of being responsible. The ceremony takes place on the 135th floor, the last one. All those people will have to be evacuated before the fire kills them all. They will be helped by the courageous Michael O’Halloran (Steve McQueen), SFFD 5th Battalion Chief, and his team of firemen.

As you can see, it’s highly stressful.

What I found very interesting about the narrative lines of this film is how the spectator (us) sees the fire breaks before any character of the movies. Paul Newman & Co are looking for it in the building, but we know where it is before them and we see it growing. The suspense is perfectly established and the tension is more and more intense as the time passes.

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The Towering Inferno is a movie I love, it’s a movie that worked well but, it’s not either a “masterpiece”. It has its faults. So, before talking all good about it, we will start by getting rid of these little imperfections.

First, sometimes, it’s too much. Well, I’m particularly thinking of this scene when [SPOILER] Dan Bigelow (Robert Wagner), the Public Relations Officer, and his secretary, Lorrie (Susan Flannery) are caught in the fire and eventually die. It is somehow too dramatic, with the big music, the slow motion, Lorrie who becomes crazy, etc. It somehow becomes funny. I’m sorry, but I didn’t cry in this scene. [End of spoilers]

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It contains some catastrophe movies clichés. One of the best examples is, [spoiler] the cute couple who is separated by death. [end of spoiler]

And, something that I always found strange is why they didn’t show us reactions from people from the outside? I mean, this building is obviously in a popular neighbourhood of San Francisco, there’s obviously people walking in the streets. And when you see a building on fire, your first reaction is normally to stop and wonder what’s happening. The movie is mainly concentrated on the victims and the firemen, but I think it would have been interesting if we would have seen reaction shots of the simple witnesses.

But let’s stop this here because there’s also many good things to say about The Towering Inferno.

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First, the cast. The cast is spectacular. In my opinion (and that’s just my opinion)… Ok, I was about to say ” the best performances were given by…” and then I realized I was about to name almost everybody. However, I can’t say I’ve been impressed by Richard Chamberlain (maybe because his character annoys me too much. I know it’s not a good reason), Robert Wagner or Susan Flannery. They were not bad and I know some can think they were great, but just not my favourites.

I can no talk about all the actors and all the performances, but let me give you an overview of my favourites.

Teaming Paul Newman and Steve McQueen, two of the most popular stars in the 70s, wasn’t a small thing. Initially, Ernest Borgnine was supposed to play the fireman and Steve McQueen was supposed to play the architect. He, however, preferred the other role and was cast as the fireman. Paul Newman was then cast as the architect. Things went fair for the two actors as they were both given the same exact number of lines and both received top billings. On the set, it was a friendly competition. Paul Newman and Steve McQueen are two actors that have a similar acting touch. They act with no pretension and are convincing by reminding simple. I’m more familiar with Paul Newman, but, in this film, I can’t say if I prefer Paul or Steve. They were both brilliant. I have to say I love this moment at the beginning when Paul Newman is introduced to us in the helicopter with his 70s style sunglasses. Such a badass!

Faye Dunaway was known as a difficult actress and often arrived late on the set (which highly annoyed William Holden), but despite that, she could only add good to this film as she had talent. Of course, her Susan Franklin is not as good as her Bonnie Parker or her Diana Christensen, but her performance remains one of the bests in the film. And Faye has always been a personal favourite of mine.

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William Holden. Ah, William Holden! Well, I have to say that he is the main reason why I decided to watch The Towering Inferno for the first time (he is my second favourite actor after all)! Bill, even if he was getting older, had not lost his irresistible smile and his beautiful blue eyes. It might not be his most memorable performance, but I can’t help loving him as I love him in all his films. As I often said, William Holden was an actor full of sensibility and (subtlety). He never overacts and is always so hypnotizing. There’s this moment when he does a typical William Holden reaction and that’s perfect: toward the end, after he has spoken to Paul Newman, we can see he’s feeling guilty of what is happening. He has sad eyes and, I don’t know if you ever noticed that, but Bill sometimes does this little move with his chin and his mouth just like if he was trying not to cry. Breaks my heart!! 😥

Susan Blakely as Patty Simmons (Roger Simmons’s wife and James Duncan’s daughter) is an actress I had never heard of before. But hey, she’s cool! She is very touching and I think she inspires wisdom. At least, in this film. An intriguing and beautiful lady!

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I will wrap up this actors section with Fred Astaire and Jennifer Jones. It’s not surprising that Fred was nominated for Best Supporting actor. He is awesome! We are not only amazed by the way he acts, but also by the way he moves! We can see he was a professional dancer 😉 At 75, he still had an incredible posture. And Jennifer Jones, she is lovely as ever and also had an incredible energy. Unfortunately, it was her last film (not because she died, but because she simply decided to retire from acting in Hollywood). The two actors have a contagious chemistry and I think they made the best team of the film. I love when they dance together! (even if it lasts about 20 seconds…)

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Bonus: I’ve always liked the character of Mark Powers, the fireman played by Ernie F. Orsatti. He is the young, cute fireman with not a lot of experience. He is scared at the beginning, but finds courage and becomes a hero. I also love Carlos, the barman played by Gregory Sierra. He probably is the most sympathetic character of them all.

Something I find priceless about the actors are some of their reactions. I’ve previously talked about the William Holden’s sad guilty face, but here are some other of my favourites: When Paul Newman speaks on the phone with William Holden and literally lost his temper: “WE’VE GOT A FIRE HERE!”; when William Holden punches Richard Chamberlain in the stomach (I might sound sadic, but this was deserved. #GoBill); when the two firemen, Scott (Felton Perry) and Mark (Ernie F. Orsatti) realize which building is on fire, etc.

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Once again, I’m talking too much about the actors: I love the world of acting 😉

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The Towering Inferno was also brilliant for many of its technical aspects. The special effects are incredibly impressive. You might not know this, but real fire was used in the filming. So, the cast and crew basically put themselves in danger to produce this film. It was an audacious thing to do and it worked successfully.

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For its cinematography and its editing, The Towering Inferno also was at the top. Surely, what we remember the most from the cinematography is how the building on fire was filmed, but one scene that particularly caught my attention is when the first twelve selected women (including Jennifer Jones and Faye Dunaway) are in the glass elevator. The clear-obscure light is very beautiful, but also very strange. It inspires a moment of calm before the tempest.

We also have impressive aerial views of San Francisco at the beginning of the film. The city and its area are seen from Paul Newman’s helicopter’s point of view.

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It’s hard to imagine how The Towering Inferno was filmed. Around 50 sets were used (most of them were burned for the cause of the film). But the job was done and that’s why Irwin Allen was the Master of Disaster.

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And I bet it was not only a difficult movie to produce for its action and its special effects, but also for having to deal with all those top stars (no pressure…).

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In the 70s, John Williams was starting to build himself a name as one of the most brilliant composers of Hollywood’s new generation. His score for Jaws is probably his most well-known one from the 70s, but his score for The Towering Inferno is unforgettable too. With those aerial shots I was talking about, it makes the movie starts in a very dynamic way. It’s an epic score that fits perfectly the atmosphere of the film or any catastrophe movie. It’s the sound of panic on a hot nightmare. No wonder why he received an Oscar nomination. He lost to Nino Rota and Carmine Coppola for The Godfather Part II. Were also nominated this year Jerry Goldsmith for Chinatown, Alex North for Shanks and Richard Rodney Bennett for Murder On the Orient Express. Ok, the competition was hard, and that’s one of these moments when you’d like to give the award to everybody.

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Even if The Towering Inferno is a dramatic movie, it contains some moments of humour. Those are rare, very rare, but are highly appreciated. The first one I think about is when Dan Bigelow (Robert Wagner) arrives in James Ducan’s office. Duncan is here with Roberts and engineer Will Giddings (Norman Burton). Dan is all happy and proud to show them the giant scissors to cut the ribbon at the inauguration of the glass tower. But when he shows them the scissors, nobody reacts, everybody seems concerned and somehow depress to what he says: “What happened? Somebody hang a wallpaper upside down?” This really makes me laugh. Then they tell him a fire might be burning in the building…

There’s also this very sympathetic scene when Harry Jernigan (O.J Simpson), the Chief Security Officer, save Lisolette Mueller (Jennifer Jones)’s cat from the flames.

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There’s so much to say about The Towering Inferno! And if you’re still curious to know more about it, I highly recommend you to watch this very interesting mini-documentary on its making. Just for Paul Newman’s bloopers, it’s worthy! Here is part 1 of 2 (you’ll find the other one easily):

The Towering Inferno was not only one the best catastrophe movies ever made, but also a majestic tribute to firemen. It’s a movie that makes you realize how this is a hard and courageous profession.

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So, if you’re in for 2h30 of pure thrill and entertainment, The Towering Inferno is for you. I assure you, you won’t be bored a minute and will admire every moment of it for everything I’ve previously said in this article.

Well, what are you waiting for?! 🙂

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The Favourite Sister: Jean Simmons as Barbara Leslie in Until they Sail

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During the whole month of August, TCM has a special event called “Summer Under the Stars”: one day, one star. Movies starring this star are broadcast on the channel from the morning until the night. Unfortunately, I don’t have TCM on my television… but that doesn’t prevent me to participate to the 2016 TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon hosted by Kristen from the inspirational blog Journeys in Classic Film. For this blogathon, each participant chooses a topic related to one star on the schedule. Today, on August 30, TCM is honouring Jean Simmons’s career. As she is an actress I absolutely adore, I had to choose her as a topic for my entry. I will more precisely talk about her performance and her character in the underrated 1957’s Until they Sail.
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Promotional banner for Jean Simmons day on TCM
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Until they Sail isn’t Robert Wise’s most well-known film, but it remains a secret hidden gem and proves, once again, his versatility as a movie director. I mean, the man could direct every type of movies: science fiction (The Day the Earth Stood Still), noirs (Born to Kill), dramas (Until they sail), musicals (West Side Story, The Sound of Music), horror (The Haunting), etc. I believe, he and Michael Curtiz were among the most versatile movie directors in Hollywood.
But let’s get back to our main movie. Until they Sail certainly has a stellar cast, not only including Jean Simmons, but also Joan Fontaine (Jean and Joan in the same film: that’s just idealistic for me!), Paul Newman, Piper Laurie, Sandra Dee (in her first feature), Charles Drake and Wally Cassell.
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All the actors are brilliant, but today, we’ll focus on the angelic Jean Simmons.
Until They Sail takes place in Christchurch, New-Zealand during the World War II. The men from the town have left to go fight on the front. Barbara Leslie Forbes (Jean Simmons) and her sisters Anne (Joan Fontaine), Delia (Piper Laurie) and Evelyn (Sandra Dee) are on their own having previously lost their parents and having a brother, Kit, left with the army. The city is now a women’s one and seems quite empty with this absence of male figures. But the Leslie sisters manage as best they can to continue their life normally. However, Delia, who has just been married and is unhappy with it, moves to Wellington to work in the navy. The fear of the war is always felt in the sisters’ hearts, especially when they are thinking about what may happen to their relative, especially to Kit and Barbara’s husband, Mark. This lack of men doesn’t last long when American marines arrive to Christchurch. Anne will meet Capt. Richard Bates (Charles Drake) and will fall in love with him, and Barbara will make the acquaintance of Capt. Jack Harding (Paul Newman) during a visit to her sister in Wellington. They’ll soon realise that love in wartime is not an easy thing to manage.
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Until they Sail was based on a story by James A. Michener and written by Robert Anderson. The movie is not known as the most famous one for any of the actors and unfortunately wasn’t a commercial success on its release. However, it can be considered a worthy one and deserves more recognition. Any fan of Simmons/Fontaine/Dee/Laurie or Newman has to make sure not to miss it. It’s a movie that makes you think. For once, it shows you how the civilians, mostly women, used to live during the war. We never see the men on the front. If we see soldiers, it will always be on the civilian side where there’s no battle. The battle that is presented to us here, is the temptation by the women not to feel too lonely and try to live as normally as possible.
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Jean Simmons and Joan Fontaine are the two main reasons why I first watched this film. They are two actresses I simply adore. So, the idea of seeing them in the same film was nothing but very appealing to me. And I was not disappointed! I also love Paul Newman, and it allowed me to discover the forever sweet Sandra Dee and Pipe Laurie, who also turns out to be a fine actress (more often remember for the role of the crazy mother in Brian de Palma’s Carrie).
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Joan Fontaine and Jean Simmons playing with young Sandra Dee on the set of the film
In the movie, it’s Jean Simmons who has the leading role. The film is mainly focused on her and the story is seen through her eyes. All the four sisters have an interesting personality: Anne is the serious one, Evelyn is the sweet and innocent one, Delia is the rebellious one and Barbara is the wise one.
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A sweet picture of the four sisters
Barbara is the first sister to be introduced to us. What we first hear are her thoughts. Jean Simmons’s voice is one I could recognize everywhere. It’s clear, melodious and well articulated. She certainly had one of the loveliest voices in Hollywood. Actually, her voice makes me think of Audrey Hepburn’s one. We can notice something quite special during the film about this voice: even when Barbara is emotive, she manages to speak as clearly as possible. I honestly think Jean Simmons would have made an awesome diction teacher!
Barbara is a real friend for her sisters. She is compassionate and probably is the one who thinks the more about her sisters. She tries to understand their problems and help them the best she can by giving them wise advice. She comforts them, share her goodwill with them and sometimes tries too hard to understand what is impossible to understand.
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Even if she’s not the older sister (Anne is), it’s easy to say that she kind of play the role of the strong mother.
The problem is, Barbara doesn’t think enough about herself. She has too much to handle concerning her sisters and neglect herself. Of course, she can count on them too, but her fear of losing her strength insists her to stay aside. She worries about everybody, her sisters, the faith of the men who are at war and forget to be happy. Concerning that, the real inspiration would be Evelyn who, despite the fact of being conscious of the events, still manages to enjoy herself in the moroseness of Christchurch.
Barbara doesn’t easily get angry, but when she does, the main reason is “the war”. She is angry because of the war (which is totally understandable). She’s also an honest person, but will never tell the truth to someone in a way to hurt them. She is too kind for that. She’s calm, but she can explode. Is she resisting too much? In a memorable scene, she gives a passionate kiss to Capt. Jack Harding. This moment is intense and it looks like Barbara is releasing herself from something. Maybe she’s looking for someone she can count on to forget her loneliness. In a previous scene, she looks at her sister Anne and Capt. Richard Bate kissing each other. Her melancholic look makes us guess she’d like to have someone for her too, and that she’s probably missing her husband who is on the front. We certainly feel sorry for her.
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Barbara often looks serious, sad and lost in her thoughts. We guess she’s suffering from a high feeling of loneliness. She often has this melancholic look in her face and we wonder what she’s thinking about. However, she can be happy too, and that’s how Jean Simmons shows us her facility of moving from one emotion to another. She can move from sadness to joy in no time. Those moments of joy allow us to admire Jean Simmons’s smile who is one of the most glorious smiles ever.
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Jean Simmons is an actress who never needed to overact to make us understand what her character is feeling and to reach us. She’s an actress who can express a lot of things only with her gaze and subtle facial expressions. There’s this moment  [spoiler] when her character Babara announces the death of brother Kit to her sister Delia. [end of spoiler] Here, she simply breaks our heart, but she doesn’t have to do much for it. It’s just the way her eyes are looking at Delia and the way she chooses to speak. This is not that much felt in the tone of her voice, but more in the rhythm of her talk. The way she simply says “Delia, Kit’s dead” is enough to make us understand the feeling of sadness that is omnipresent in the house.
She’ll also make us have tears in her eyes in this scene when she [spoiler] receives a telegram announcing the death of her husband Mark. She doesn’t even look at the letter, but simply goes away quietly in her bedroom while her sisters are looking at her and feeling sorry for her. Then, one she is alone, she bursts into tears. We don’t see Jean’s face at this moment, but only hear her cries and that’s enough for us to understand her suffering. [End of spoiler]
Jean Simmons certainly was a very natural actress and also managed to make a great teamwork with every actor of the cast. We are looking forward to the moments with her and Paul Newman as they are those where Barbara kind of expresses her true side, the weaknesses she tries to hide to her sisters so they’ll see her as a strong person. Those moments between the two actors are not exactly love scenes like the ones we see in typical classic Hollywood films. There’s something kind of “modern” and more realistic about them. It’s not a Cinderella story. She gets along well with him, but on what level?
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Jean and Paul having fun on the set of the film
Jean Simmons is often a synonym of tenderness and this is pretty well expressed in this film by the way she behaves, the way she talks and the words she chooses to express herself. Her tenderness shines through the final moment of the film and her wisdom, in her final lines:
“As they say, to understand is to forgive. Or is it, to understand is not to forgive? I can never remember. “
This simply represents perfectly the nature of Barbara Leslie.
Until they Sail is a film that deserves more recognition. It has a fabulous cast and the story is sad, but beautiful in its own rights. If you haven’t seen it yet, I first invite you to watch the trailer:
I want to thank Kristen for once again having hosted this amazing blogathon! Make sure to take a look at the other entries:
And to those who have the chance to have TCM, consider the luck you have to watch Jean Simmons films all day lol.
See you!
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Jean leaving MGM studios where the movie was shot. A true star!
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Portrait of Jennie and the Wisdom of Ethel Barrymore

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The Barrymore. Ah, that legendary family of actors! Ethel, John and Lionel, the three siblings were children of Maurice Barrymore and Georgiana Emma Drew, themselves actors. Acting in the family kept going on as the years passed. John and his third wife, Dolores Costello, also an actress, had a son, John Drew Barrymore, who also became an actor, just like his daughter Diana he had from his previous marriage to Blanche Oelrichs. Drew Barrymore, today’s most well known Barrymore, is the daughter of John Drew Barrymore and the granddaughter of John Barrymore. Barrymore seems to be a synonym of talent.

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To honour this great family, Crystal from In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood is hosting, for the second time, the Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon. If you remember, last year I wrote about Drew Barrymore in Ever After. This time, I’ve decided to go back in the old days and explore one of my favourite Barrymore roles, the one of Miss Spiney, played by Ethel Barrymore, in Portrait of Jennie.

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Portrait of Jennie was directed by William Dieterle and released in 1948. This film reunited Joseph Cotten and Jennifer Jones for the fourth and last time. It also was their third film together under the direction of William Dietrele (the two other ones being Since you Went Away and Love Letters). The fourth one, Duel in the Sun (1946) was directed by King Vidor. Portrait of Jennie also stars Ethel Barrymore (of course!), Cecil Kellaway, David Wayne, Lillian Gish (another legend from the beginning of movies), Florence Bates, Henry Hull, Albert Sharpe, Anne Francis and Nancy Davis (also known as Nancy Reagan).

David O’Selzick, future husband of Jennifer Jones (they married in 1949), produced the film. The screenplay was written by Paul Osborn, Ben Hetch (uncredited) and Selznick (uncredited). It was based on the novel by Robert Nathan. The costumes were by Lucinda Ballard. William Morgan was the editor. Dimitri Tiomkin and Bernard Hermann (although this one wasn’t credited) composed the music. This one was based on Claude Debussy’s musical themes. And, finally, the beautiful cinematography was the work of Joseph August and Lee Garmes (uncredited).

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Portrait of Jennie is known as a fantastic movie, but not in the way we first think about it. It’s not a movie with monsters or things that seems completely impossible, it’s much more complicated than that. It’s more a movie about life and death, the past, the present and the future. It certainly is a movie that makes you think about the meaning of life in general.

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Well, if you haven’t seen it, you might wonder what the story is about. Eben Adams (Joseph Cotten) is an infamous painter, who like many other infamous painters, can’t sell his paintings and is broke. At the beginning of the film, he manages to send a painting to an art dealer, Miss Spinney (Ethel Barrymore). On his way back home, he meets a little girl in Central Park (oh yes, the story takes place in New-York). Her name is Jennie Appleton (Jennifer Jones). She is alone and wants to walk with him. Before she left him, she makes a wish: she wishes that he’ll wait for her to grow up so they’ll could always be together. This doesn’t make much sense for Eben as people can’t wait for other people to grow up. Then she mysteriously disappears. Eben thinks about how strange she was, wearing old fashion clothes and talking about things that happened a long time ago. He then decides to sketch her. Miss Spinney and her colleague Matthews (Cecil Kellaway) are amazed by the sketch and believe Eben might have found a successful painting subject. The painter coincidentally meets Jennie again on the ice rink in the park. Curiously, she seems to have grown up. Eben doesn’t understand it, but for Jennie, it’s obvious: her wish becomes real. Eben suggests her to paint her portrait and she’s delighted by the idea. Each time he sees her, she grows up and keeps talking about things of the past. This Jennie is a mystery to him. Who is she exactly? He’s he imagining her? He’ll do is own research to find the truth about the mysterious Jennie.

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I have to say that Portrait of Jennie is one of the most beautiful movies I ever saw. It’s a movie that has a kind of fluidity that makes it so easy to watch, even if it touches a complicated subject, which is the time. And this beauty is not only embodied by the story in general and the magical cinematography, but also by the characters and the personality the actors chose to give them.

Ethel Barrymore is the wise one in this film. You can picture her with her quiet smile and her doe eyes. She gives to her character a fairness that is amazing to watch. Miss Spinney is the one who believes in Eben Adams. She is like his the fairy godmother. She knows that he has found the perfect subject, a subject full of love (which is for her a most important thing). Yes, Jennie is the inspiration Eben have found, but Miss Spinney is his guide. I don’t think he would have gotten through it without her wise advises. Miss Spinney hasn’t seen Jennie, but for her, the most important is that she is real to Eben. She first seems to be someone quite down to Earth, but we discover she can sees over what is real and understand what is not, their meaning and their utility.

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It’s also interesting to see that, through the film, Miss Spinney sort of completes the idea of Jennie. Just like her, she knows how to make compromises with the world around her, she knows how to see its beauty. She is a friend and a confidant to Eben. If Jennie belongs to the past, Miss Spinney is somehow the present version of her.

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It’s funny, but I somehow thought Ethel Barrymore was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in this film. Well, I checked out to be sure and it seems that I was wrong. I probably believed that because she DID deserved a nomination. I mean, she sort of has the idealistic acting here. I’ll explain what it is to me the “idealistic acting”: it’s an actor who doesn’t exaggerate his emotions, who doesn’t overact. Who can transmit a ton of feelings to us and win our admiration by being subtle and thorough. Ethel Barrymore had all these skills in Portrait of Jennie. That only proves her immense talent and the fact that she knew perfectly how to make the difference between stage acting and movie acting, or silent movies acting and talkies acting. Because we know that silent actors had to be more theatrical, which was normal, because the power of the voice wasn’t already there.

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I also have to say a few words about the other actors of the film who, just like Ethel, all manage to have the idealistic acting.

Joseph Cotten and Jennifer Jones, we understood that, were meant to act in movies together. But it’s in Portrait of Jennie that they might have the best chemistry. They perfectly make us feel the love between their two characters. They are just magically beautiful together. Joseph Cotten seduces us with his well known low voice and his character he’s so full of sensibility so it completely makes us forgot Uncle Charlie from Shadow of a Doubt, This proves his great versatility as an actor. Jennifer Jones is lovely as ever and she knows perfectly how to switch from the attitude of a little girl to the one of a young woman. This is my favourite performance of hers.

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Cecil Kellaway plays a good man and makes a good team-work alongside Ethel Barrymore and Joseph Cotten. This actor always seems to be a very sympathetic fellow. He’s like the nice uncle everybody likes, isn’t he?

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David Wayne certainly had a great sense of comedy. He plays the friend of Eben and his presence is most appreciated.

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And I have to say, he’s kind of cute dressed like that ❤

Finally, Lillian Gish also embodies a certain wisdom, just like Ethel Barrymore, but this one is kind of different. I love Lillian Gish and it’s too bad that she only makes a very small appearance in the film. But she’s wonderful as always in her few minutes of glory.

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About its screenplay, Portrait of Jennie uses words and dialogues that makes us perfectly understand what this story is about and what it wants to make us see. Those make us think and seemed to have been chosen very carefully. Here are some of my favourites:

1- Jennie: I know we were meant to be together. The strands of our lives are woven together and neither the world nor time can tear them apart.

2- Jennie: There is no life, my darling, until you love and have been loved. And then there is no death.

3- Jennie : [singing] Where I come from nobody knows and where I am going everything goes. The wind blows, the sea flows, nobody knows. And where I am going, nobody knows.

4- Jennie: I wish that you would wait for me to grow up so that we could always be together.

5- Miss Spinney :  Don’t be soft, Matthews. I’m an old maid, and nobody knows more about love than an old maid.

6- Jennie : How beautiful the world is Eben! The sun goes down in in the same lovely sky. Just as it did yesterday, and will tomorrow.

Eben: When is tomorrow, Jenny?

Jennie: Does it matter? It’s always. This was tomorrow once.

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This is how the film is introduced to us

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Before leaving you, I have to talk more in details about the stunning cinematography by Joseph August and Lee Garmes. The funny thing is that, the majority of the film is in black and white, but during the crucial ending scene, there is a green and a sepia filter. What was the purpose? I’m not sure exactly. As for the closing shot, this one is in colour, and that was perfectly justified. But the beauty resides in the black and white cinematography, which illustrates perfectly the magic and the mystery of the film. There’s sort of something unreal in what we see on our screen. The whole thing seems almost like a long dream, not only for the characters in the movie, but also for us.  Joseph August knew perfectly how to use the light of the sun to make Manhattan looks like heaven. The night scenes are also wonderfully filmed and the city is presented to us as a real masterpiece, which certainly was appropriated for a movie about a painter. My favourite scene of the film is the one when Jennie and Eben are ice skating together. When Jennie arrives, that is for me, visually, the most memorable moment of the film.

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Jennie’s majestic’s entrance

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I often mentioned the word beauty in the article, but that’s because this film is a synonym of beauty. Ethel Barrymore’s performance is too. I haven’t seen many of her movies, but this one was the first one I saw. If you’re not too familiar with her, I believe it’s a good one to start with as she shows us her full potential as an actress. She’s just great you know. And I think she’s one of the main reasons why I’ll never be tired to watch this film.

I wanted to write about Portrait of Jennie since a long time and The Second Annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon was a perfect occasion for me. So, I want to thank Crystal very much for organizing this amazing event. Next time, I might talk about Lionel Barrymore, who is my favourite Barrymore among all the Barrymore ;).

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Lionel

But wait, that’s not all! You can also read the other entries here:

The Second Annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon

See you, wherever we go.

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A Patch of Blue: When one sees with the Heart

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Is there some actors or actresses that you loved all their films you’ve seen so far? Sidney Poitier is, for me, one of them. I haven’t seen all his films yet, only Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? A Patch of Blue, In the Heat of the Night, The Defiant Ones, Edge of the City and Blackboard Jungle, but I’ve enjoyed them all very much. Plus, Sidney Poitier is such an awesome (and handsome!) actor. I don’t know what the world of cinema would be without his wonderful acting skills and his irresistible smile.

If you ask me what is my favourite Sidney Poitier’s film, I think I’ll have to go with A Patch of Blue. Of course, they are all great, but there’s something so special about this one. So, that’s the one I’ll be focusing on today.

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Just like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? and In the Heat of the Night, A Patch of Blue is one of those anti-racist movies made in the sixties and starring Poitier. The story involves a young white blind girl ( Elizabeth Hartman) who becomes friends with a black man  (Sidney Poitier) and eventually falls in love with him. The fact that she is blind or not is not important, because Selina D’Arcy’s love for him is not stopped by all the racial prejudices. However, apart from this wonderful friendship with Gordon, Selina has to face some difficult times with her cruel mother, Rose-Ann (Shelley Winters) and her alcoholic grandfather “Ole Pa” (Wallace Ford). They live in very poor conditions; Selina has never been to school, she is neglected by her mother and, worst of all, she is used as a maid in the house. Of course, when she’ll meet Gordon in a park, things will change.

A Patch of Blue was directed by Guy Green in 1965 and the story was based on the novel by Elizabeth Kata, Be Ready with Bells and Drums. For her terrific and very convincing performance, Shelly Winters won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. The film was also nominated for Best Actress (Elizabeth Hartman), Best Cinematography (Robert Burks), Best Original Score (Jerry Goldsmith) and Best Production Design.

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A Patch of Blue is one of those films that makes you appreciate the simple things in life. The character of Selina d’Arcy is a real inspiration, not only for us, but also for Gordon, who discovers that one doesn’t necessarily need much to be happy. Since she is five, Selina lives in the darkness, but since she is born, she lives with a cruel mother who forbid her to be happy. So, when Selina has a new friend, her life changes completely. Gordon is certainly fascinated by Selina’s joy when she drinks pineapple juice, when she goes to the grocery store with him (my favourite part of the film – I work in a grocery store and when one of my friends was working with me, we were also doing some caddie rides!), or when she listens to Gordon’s little music box.

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But, for Selina, the most difficult thing about being blind is probably the loneliness. She can’t go to the park alone (until Gordon shows her how), she doesn’t have anyone for her at home and, this scene when she is alone in the park waiting for her grandfather to pick her is certainly one of the most heartbreaking.

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If “friend” is Selina’s favourite word, Gordon’s one is “tolerance”. Of course, this refers to the racial subject highlighted by the movie. People need to be more tolerant and accept the friendship and eventually the possible love relation between a black and a white person. Of course, Selina’s mother will do everything to put an end to this friendship, but we’ll soon discover that she’s not that strong… The 60s were, of course, a very important moment in the United States as the black people were starting to make their right heard, but much was still to be done (and even if the society advanced a lot since then, even today the situation is not perfect).

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Tolerance and patience.

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If Sidney Poitier, Shelley Winters and Wallace Ford were already well known actors at the time, A Patch of Blue introduced Elizabeth Hartman to the world of cinema. It was indeed her first film. She was 22. What a bright way to start a career! What a tour de force! Playing the role of someone blind is certainly not an easy thing. You have to be convincing otherwise it won’t work. Elizabeth Hartman could do this. Plus, she is absolutely adorable as a sweet and innocent girl. The way she expresses emotions : joy, sadness, anger, love is simply inspiring and makes us realize that the world needs more people like Selina d’Arcy. Of course, her Oscar nomination was quite well deserved. Unfortunately, she lost it to Julie Christie for Darling. I cannot really compare as I haven’t seen this film.

This is the only Elizabeth Hartman’s film I’ve seen so far, but it makes me curious to see more. I was so sad when I learned that she died very young at the age of 43 by committing suicide. When we see her in such a beautiful role as Selina d’Arcy, we would like to go back in time and do everything to help her.

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Sidney Poitier is without any doubts great too, as always. His smile and his laugh get me all the time. He makes us laugh, think and fall in love with him just like Selina. His wisdom and Selina’s (Elizabeth) one are perfectly teamed-up and that’s one of the reasons why the two actors have such a great on-screen chemistry.

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According to IMDB, Shelly Winters hated the role of Rose-Ann. That’s comprehensible as she is a terrible person! But Shelly had no pity for Rose-Ann and played her as she was meant to be. Playing mean characters is always something more difficult as it sometimes involves being someone completely different. Unless you are a cruel person in real life, but I don’t think it was the case for Shirley Winters. Her performance is perfect as she succeeds to make us hate her. That’s the main purpose of this character. Without revealing it, the last scene involving her is priceless. She simply realizes the consequences of what she has done. But it’s too late…

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Finally, if this film was Elizabeth Hartman’s first one, it unfortunately was Wallace Ford’s last one. Wallace Ford is one of those actors that you can’t not like. He often played supporting roles, but each time he’s a delight. Of course, we’re not too fond of Ole Pa, but he’s not that much of a bad guy. Of course, he drinks, he’s selfish  and doesn’t do much to protect Selina from her mother, but we just feel he’s very vulnerable. Wallace Ford was only 68 when he died in 1966.

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On a more technical plan, one thing that always struck me about this film is the poesy created by the black and white cinematography and the score. The softness of the music and the image allow the difficult moments of the film to be “beautiful” and the happy moments to be even more beautiful than they already are. We have the same effect in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980)

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The films’ main theme:

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Finally, as for the screenplay, we have an interesting evolution of Selina’s character and this one is certainly helped by the presence of Gordon, who has a major impact on her life and how she will then survive as a blind girl.

As for the dialogues, some quotes in the film really make us think as they are full of meaning. Here are a few examples:

1- Selina D’Arcy: I know everything I need to know about you. I love you.

[touching Gordon’s face]

Selina D’Arcy: I know you’re good, and kind. I know you’re colored and I…

Gordon Ralfe: What’s that?

Selina D’Arcy: …And I think you’re beautiful!

Gordon Ralfe: [smiling] Beautiful? Most people would say the opposite.

Selina D’Arcy: Well that’s because they don’t know you.

2- Selina D’Arcy: It’s wonderful to have a friend.

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You might wonder why the film is called “A Patch of Blue”. It’s simply because the color Selina can remember the most is blue. She remembers the sky is blue.

But of course, it sometimes can be grey. It’s in a grey sky that Selina lived all her life, until Gordon came to her. He was this patch of blue in the grey sky.

A Patch of Blue is a film that will make you think. About love, friendship, racial problems and hope. It’s a real inspiration.

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