Friday, August 15, 2008

"A film that defends the old against the young"

Powell and Pressburger were to British cinema what Gilbert and Sullivan were to musical theatre or Baskin and Robbins to ice cream. I've been revisiting two of their 1940s films on DVD recently: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) and The Red Shoes (1948). Both were shot in glorious Technicolor and both have been lovingly refurbished and made available on home video by The Criterion Collection. What would we film buffs do without Criterion? The first time I watched Colonel Blimp I was lukewarm, but on subsequent viewings I've come to appreciate it more and more. It's old-fashioned moviemaking at it's best. Melodramatic, high-gloss and thoroughly enjoyable!

The character Colonel Blimp was created by political cartoonist David Low. In Low's hands Blimp was a buffoon who represented the most reactionary elements of the British establishment...sort of an Edwardian Donald Rumsfeld with a walrus moustache. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger took the kernel of Low's Blimp and turned him into a more developed, sympathetic figure with the grand name of Clive Wynne-Candy. Powell and Pressburger's Blimp-ish Clive Candy still comes in for his fair share of well-deserved satire, but they invite us to "walk a mile in his moccasins" and so understand how and why the cranky, pompous old man came to be such -- a wise thing to do before harshly judging our elders. Roger Ebert wrote of this film:

One of the many miracles of "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp" is the way the movie transforms a blustering, pigheaded caricature into one of the most loved of all movie characters. Colonel Blimp began life in a series of famous British cartoons by David Low, who represented him as an overstuffed blowhard. The movie looks past the fat, bald military man with the walrus moustache, and sees inside, to an idealist and a romantic. To know him is to love him.

Made in 1942 at the height of the Nazi threat to Great Britain, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's work is an uncommonly civilized film about war and soldiers--and rarer still, a film that defends the old against the young...rarely does a film give us such a nuanced view of the whole span of a man's life. It is said that the child is father to the man. "Colonel Blimp" makes poetry out of what the old know but the young do not guess: The man contains both the father, and the child.

Another admirer of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is Martin Scorsese. Scorsese has been a catalyst for the renewed interest in Powell and Pressburger's films after decades of neglect. He remembers seeing Colonel Blimp as a boy of around ten in a shortened version on black and white television. It's a testament to the film's power that he was captivated despite missing out on two of it's major assets -- the bold Technicolor palette and epic quality. This is a movie, after all, that tells the story of a man's life over the span of 40-plus years. It begins in 1943 with General Wynne-Candy leading the Home Guard in a mock exercise defending London against attack. This leads into a seamless flashback to 1902 and the story begins which will eventually bring us back full circle.

Michael Powell wanted Laurence Olivier to play Clive Candy, but the role eventually went to 36-year-old Roger Livesey. With the help of makeup and strategically placed padding Livesey convincingly portrayed Candy from dashing dandy to pot-bellied old general who's become an object of mockery to the young soldiers in his command. Livesey's performance embodied the mix of naiveté and charm that make this film a tragicomic masterpiece.

The Faces of Roger Livesey in Colonel Blimp

"Do you know who I am?!"

Middle-aged gentleman of leisure

The young officer on the left

Next Friday I'll talk a bit about The Red Shoes. BTW I'm curious if anyone can name the movie featured on this month's masthead?


redeyespy said...

A fine tribute. BLIMP has long been on my must-see list. My initial awareness of it was due to Scorcese, after I read an interview with him.

The film on your masthead is GARDEN STATE. Might I add that the still you chose might make appropriate wallpaper for your desktop!

Stephen Ley said...

You can borrow it anytime. And of course you are correct!