Cinematic Katzenjammer Not So Sectret Santa: Black Narcissus (1947)

Whenever you volunteer to participate in a Secret Santa Exchange, you run the risk of displeasing the person that you choose from the pool. Even worse, you could be subjected to a gift from someone that does not know you well and dumps a gift on you that might only be appropriate for a White Elephant party exchange. When you make it a movie review exchange, the danger is heightened, after all, someone can’t just shrug “Thanks” and put the gift aside and ignore it. Here, you have to live with the gift for a while. A two hour film takes up that much time, if you are ordering it on line you may be paying for the privilege of watching your gift. Then you have to figure out what to say about it. If you hate it, that might offend someone who only was trying to share something they love and instead of discovering another friend online, you have created an enemy. All the same, with a film review/swap, I still think you should honestly express your views on the gift, that is what someone else was looking for.

So far in participating in the Secret Santa Reviews on the Cinematic Katzenjammer, I have been lucky. No films that test my patience, morality or my stomach. I’m not sure how Nick decides to pair up films with participants. If he uses a random process then I have been under Fortune’s  good star, if as editor, he screens films and matches them with people that he thinks might fit well with the move, then Good Job Nick. I was pleased to receive my assignment and even more pleased when I opened it up and examined it closely, it is a cinematic gem. “Black Narcissus” is a movie I have heard about for decades and never got around to seeing. Much like a book that has been assigned to you rather than pulled off the shelf and borrowed under your own will, a movie can feel like a chore because it is expected of you to have seen it. Like “The Great Gatsby” or “1984” in high school, “Black Narcissus” turns out to be something that will stick with me because I liked it rather than it being a mere assignment to get out of the way.

One of the reasons that a film could stay out of your reach is a lack of familiarity with any of its premise in the first place. I’d heard this referred to as a mystery, as a cultural piece, as a woman’s film and as a sexual Gothic melodrama. Without a handle on the subject matter or story, it was easy to pass by for something more familiar, that was my mistake. As usual here on the KAMAD blog, I will be staying far away from spoilers. I don’t want to recount the story scene by scene for the readers, I always try to share my impressions and emotions without repeating the whole movie. However, since my own reluctance to see the film for a number of years has been a result of ignorance, let me just give a quick set up of the events and plot. An order of nuns in India have obtained the right to open a school/hospital/convent in the abandoned palace of an Indian general’s family. A younger nun is given authority to take a half dozen sisters and act as the Mother Superior in the new and remote location. The local population is primitive by Western standards and suspicious of outsiders and new ways. The agent for the General making the donation is an expatriate Englishman who appears to be very unsympathetic to the  plan for somewhat selfish reasons. All of the women are chosen to participate in the endeavor for personal characteristics they display, and all of them have different reactions to the situation they find themselves in.

With that set up out of the way, let me explain the features of the film that I most enjoyed and that I think would be appealing to other film lovers. There are three distinct pleasures that I derived from my screening of the film; it is breathtakingly beautiful, it is overtly sexual (at least for 1947) and it is freakishly weird in character development. It deserves it’s reputation as a classic film, I just don’t know that everyone will know why without having a little better peek at it.

This is a film set in India, in the Himalayan regions, and it was shot entirely in England. You will not be aware of how rooted to the backlot this feature is. The cinematography, lighting and background mattes will convince you that you are on a mountain precipice in a remote location in India. The sets are constructed and decorated in such a way as to suggest they are ancient, neglected rooms or sparse regulated spiritual environments. The outdoor shots look expansive and convey a feeling of isolation despite being on the Pinewood Studios lot.

Michael Powell, who shares credit with screenwriter Emeric Pressburger, is known for his visual style. He was responsible for the look of “The Thief of Baghdad”  and made “The Red Shoes”, one of the most iconic color films of the early part of cinema history. This movie revels in colors and camera angles and lighting that are startlingly beautiful and interesting at the same time. Along with legenday cameraman Jack Cardiff, Powell gives us some vertigo inducing views of not just mountains but dining halls, chapels and even people.

The white habits of the nuns crossing against exotic colors creates an otherworldly atmosphere from the beginning. The first shots of the film are of an office with a ceiling fan, but the view seems to be from a level higher than the ceiling fan itself. There are several points in the film where the characters are viewed from above as if we are spying on them under a microscope, observing their actions and noting the characteristics of each cell as it floats across the slide that has been inserted. These shots are well designed and they don’t come off as a directorial flourish but rather as a natural way of observing something that is foreign but at the same time familiar.

A key location in the film is the bell that the nuns use to announce the start of the day to the valley of natives below them. It is located on an outcrop from the palace, right on the edge of a precipice that would intimidate even seasoned base jumpers. The view is spectacular, but as I have already said, it is an illusion. The location is not a mountain top and what we see is largely special photographic effects, but they will put to shame much of the CGI wizardry that now dominates film making.

It is not just the sets and scenery that make this film visually spectacular. The lighting of characters and the movement of wind through the palace is also evocative. The mystery of the women and the location is heightened by small touches of color or choices of perspective. This is frankly one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen. It is almost possible to envision each frame as it’s own stand alone image, deserving of a place on your wall or in a coffee table book of photographs.

While I am not quite done mentioning the look of the film, I want to transition to the sexual nature of the movie. A film featuring nuns that was made in 1947 may not seem like a rich subject for erotic psychology but this film is loaded with references and images that seem to scream out “SEX” in spite of the subdued way in which the story progresses. The palace that the sisters take over, is referred to as a palace, but it was actually the location of the harem for the General’s grandfather. He kept his women there and the caretaker makes a passing comment that it is now to be occupied again by women. The decaying but opulent interior is splashed with erotic murals from Indian culture. It might have been the first thing that nuns could be expected to do but to cover or paint over them. It never happens. In many of the interactions that take place during the story, the murals remain in the background. When the nuns arrive at the palace, they are greeted by the General’s agent Mr. Dean. He is an Englishman who has nearly gone native. He is barely dressed each time he encounters the sisters, his shirt opened across his chest and his legs exposed by shorts. He seems to resent that the women are unavailable to him because of their vows, but makes it clear that he has a particular need for women. His suggestion that the education of the young women of the district would be beneficial to him carries with it a strange sexual undertone. He lingers over a piece of tapestry with an erotic scene painted on it as he verbally fences with the new Mother Superior. While several of the nuns
are older, two are young enough to be attractive to a man in his late thirties or early forties. Deborah Kerr plays the tense new
Superior, a woman who has come to the order as a release from the pain of a failed love affair that left her a marked woman in her native Irish land. We never get the full story behind Sister Ruth, played by Kathleen Byron, but it is strongly suggested that she is an emotionally damaged woman of loose morals who is seeking celibacy as a way of righting her mind. All of the sisters are effected by the location. It is hinted that even the oldest and most down to earth nun, Sister Phillipa has allowed erotic thoughts to distract her from her duties as the gardener for the convent.

A young Jean Simmons, plays a native of the district who appears to be orphaned and also something of a vixen. She is deposited with the sisters as a way of keeping her out of Mr. Dean’s bedroom, which he surprisingly does not want her occupying. Her presence stirs the pot of eroticism even more. In a couple of scenes she seductively vamps in front of a mirror or dances with a lewd twerk in her hips in the former bathing lounge of the brothel nee palace.

In a summary of the story that I read on line, the author suggested that the “Young General”, the nephew of their benefactor and an interloper in this world of women, has seduced the young Kanchi. That perspective ignores that she is part of the erotic background of the location and it is her effect on him that produces his action. All of the sensuality becomes too much for some of the characters and they become unhinged in very different ways by its continuing influence. It is at this point that the story becomes a macabre tale of unrequited love and madness.

 The characters frankly become even more strange than they started out as. The atmosphere starts to close in on them and the haunting location and images spark desires and tip egos in ways that seem melodramatic but understandable. We have been set up for some of these elements by the winds whispering constantly through the film. The way the habits move of their own accord suggests that the women are not quite in control of their own behaviors.

The intensity of emotional turmoil is easy to read on the face of Sister Ruth. Her eyes are dark and terrifying from the beginning of their time on top of the mountain. As she lurks in corners and spies on the comings and goings of Mr. Dean, she becomes more and more lost. There is a particularly startling scene in which she is

revealed to us as having made a significant decision about her life. She doesn’t have to say anything, all that has to happen is a door opens and we see that sexually repressed madness has taken her over. While Sister Clodagh may have sexual stirrings triggered by Mr. Dean and the palace, we know that she has kept her sanity. Once again the visual nature of the movie shows us what power the eroticism takes as we see an even graver change in the eyes of Ruth.

We have oversexualized teen Lolitas, and handsome exotic men mixed into a strange location in a foreign land, all of which is layered on top of nuns who have taken vows of celibacy but who are still subject to human frailties. It all adds up to a unique film experience which will haunt you with it’s breathtaking beauty and strange story. “Black Narcissus” deserves it reputation as a great film from post war England, and it was a stocking stuffer that I am sorry I left in the toe for so long. Whoever was my Secret Santa, I’d like to thank you for the push you gave me toward this memorable gift. Merry Christmas to all.


The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

I keep promising myself that I am going to stop going to midnight screenings and spare myself the pain of the following day. I also keep breaking that promise and justifying it to myself with all kinds of excuses. Last nights excuse was simple, both of my daughters wanted to go to the double feature of The two Hobbit films and the second premiered at midnight. At 27 and 25, they still have their Dad wrapped around their fingers. When they were small kids and we lived in an apartment in Alhambra, I would read them a chapter of the Hobbit as a bedtime story every night. We must have read the whole book three or four times and it remains one of those proud achievements of fatherhood that I introduced them to that form of literature  when they were only four or five years old. Even though they were not as enthusiastic about the first movie “An Unexpected Journey” as they had been about the Lord of the Rings trilogy, they still want the movies to work and there are still scenes in our heads that we want to see depicted on screen, forty feet high and seventy feet wide. We also craved hearing a voice that we had nightmares over when they were young; the dragon Smaug. This new chapter in the Hobbit series suffers from the same bloat that it’s predecessor did, it takes a long time for some events to happen, some events that are not needed intrude on the story and sequences of action often go on longer than needed. That having been said, we all had a marvelous time and I at least enjoyed the film immensely in spite of the story excesses. I was happy to be in a theater, and I was there for over six hours with two of my favorite three people in the world. The film kept me awake and involved, even though I had been up since 4:30 in the morning on Thursday. If it can keep me awake when all my senses would normally be screaming to shut down, the film must do some things right.

To start on a positive note, let’s focus on the key scene in the movie. The one piece that everyone is anticipating and needs to work for the film to have any chance. Last year, the riddle game with Gollum was the scene that everyone loved and allowed them to embrace the film even though it has flaws. This year the conversation is more dangerous and erudite. Bilbo Baggins, novice burglar, confronts “Smaug”, the dragon responsible for wiping out the dwarf kingdom of Erebor as well as Dale, the nearby town of men that now lays in ruin at the foot of The Lonely Mountain.  Many of us remember the Rankin/Bass animated version of The Hobbit from the 1970s. The dragon was voiced by one of the great pieces of voice casting ever, Richard Boone. His sonorous and gravelly voice fit the serpent like qualities of the character perfectly. His self aggrandizing tone matched the ego of the beast and revealed his weakness. Boone is long gone and when the films were finally announced we played a game; name the actor who would best voice Smaug. At our house we were three for three, all of us picked one voice that we thought would be perfect, and it is not the one that was cast. Imagine our disappointment when we saw that Benedict Cumberbatch would voice the dragon and not our unanimously agreed upon Peter O’Toole. Of course at that point we were not familiar with Mr. Cumberbatch and his vocal talents. I still have not seen his Holmes, but he was excellent in “Star Trek: Into Darkness” and so I had high hopes. He manages to live up to those hopes very well. He brings menace and temperment to the right boil to make Smaug more than a monster but a real character as well. Check out the last thiry seconds of the trailer below to get a preview.

In addition to being well played vocally, the dragon is vividly realized in a visual medium. He moves convincingly and looks very realistic. In one of the many departures from the book, there is a long confrontation sequence and chace between Smaug and the troop of dwarfs seeking his destruction. Like several  other sequences in the film, it goes on a little long and is not entirely needed but it is cleverly put together and entertaining to watch.

A second example of the weakness of the film is the long chase of the dwarfs as they escape from imprisonment in a elf kingdom by riding in barrels. What was whimsical and somewhat comic in the children’s book that I read to my kids, becomes an elaborate set piece featuring a violent battle scene at a water gate and then an extended hunt and chase battle along the path of the river by which the barrels are returned to Laketown. The sequence is well staged and has some amazing stunts and visual tricks to show us but it goes on much too long and it could easily be taken out of the film since it does nothing to advance the narrative and only exits to make this an action film on the same level as the movies from ten years ago. Conversely, the interlude at the beginning of this chapter of the trilogy, features the character “Beorn” and it goes by much too quickly. It was a good change of pace moment in the book but it does not get a chance to allow us to reacquaint with the band of adventurers before they are quickly pursued into Mirkwood. The pace of the film is constantly moving quickly, which is surprising since the story is so padded. For a nearly three hour film, it never seems to slow down enough to take in the events or personalities that we encounter. They are interludes between the long fight sequnces that have been interjected in a half dozen places in the story.

If your favorite parts of the “Lord of the Rings” films were the battle at Helms Deep or the War at the gates of Gondor, than this film will be perfect for you. Orcs and Goblins crawl through forests and towns and attack at nearly every opportunity. There are flashback sequences and parallel story lines and there is even a romantic subplot thrust into this film. I can say that even though the tie in to the later stories is not needed here, it was actually assembled very well. Strings of connection have been forged where none existed before but they are not so much grafted on as weaved into the story. The scale of the movie is much larger than the original book required, and it dilutes the product even though it is prepared well and cooked expertly. Gandalf is a much more central figure in this version of “The Hobbit” and sometimes that means that Bilbo gets a little lost. The actors are all playing their parts with great fervor and some of the dwarfs are finally stepping out of the crowd and establishing a little more personality distinction. The scenes in the Kingdom of the Mirkwood elves do feel like the drama is being ratcheted up rather than building naturally. On the other hand, the sequence in Laketown, except for the orc attack, feels much more like a story that is telling itself rather than being forced on us.  Bard as a character is perfectly cast and his somber demeanor fits with the story. I did think his imprisonment made very little sense and there are a couple of similar glitches in other places as well.

This time I splurged and we saw this in 3D IMAX with the 48fps speed film. I understand the criticism that it got last year and there were several spots in which the high speed shooting makes the picture less cinematic and more obviously set based. Some elements look much better with the high speed film but others look almost videotaped rather than filmed. There did not seem to be any consistent reason that this was true. It was not as if all of the action scenes worked but the exposition scenes looked off. Both types of sequences worked and failed at different points and I am hard pressed to say why although I can say I noticed it. For a story that has been building to a confrontation with a dragon, it ends a bit abruptly. This will certainly make the start of the next and final chapter more memorable but it left the audience a little short this morning. The critical praise from the Lord of the Rings films was deserved, it was an intricate story that was massively complex and stitched together in an effective way. The reason the Hobbit films have not had the same kind of support is not a lack of talent, vision or skill. The reason these movies are not as revered as the other series comes down to the fact that this simple story is being reverse engineered. As Peter Drucker said:

“There is nothing quite so useless, as doing with great efficiency, something that should not be done at all.” 

Movies I Want Everyone to See: The Court Jester 1955

Time marches on and history sometimes fades into vague memory and then is forgotten. If I asked anyone in my classes if they know who Danny Kaye was, my guess is that a couple of hands would go in the air and the other twenty-five would look at me blankly. This is no fault of their own, there are so many good films to catch up on, and if you are a fan of the Golden age of Hollywood, you probably want to absorb some film noir, or catch up on classic westerns that you have missed. Heck, maybe you would even want to see some of the socially relevant classics of that time period; films like “On the Waterfront”, “Gentleman’s Agreement”, or “The Best Years of our Lives”. Who could fault you with so many wonderful choices? I don’t ever want this continuing column to be about scolding people for the films they have not yet found. My purpose is always to bring attention to a movie that I want others to share and enjoy. While Danny Kaye starred in dozens of movies and did television up till his death in 1987, it is this movie that makes me most love him. It is time for me to share the love.
“The Court Jester” is a twist on the “Robin Hood” story. A band of outlaws has formed a secret clan to protect the infant that is the true King of England. A group of not so noble Noblemen, has helped a usurper gain the crown and now they seek the last surviving blood heir to end that line. To make the comparison even more complete, the lead conspirator behind the false King is Sir Ravenhurst , played by Basil Rathbone in a part that mirrors his role in “The Adventures of Robin Hood”. The leader of the outlaw group, sworn to protect the true King is known as The Black Fox. Among the followers of the Fox is Hubert Hawkins, a performer in a traveling carnival who dreams of d erring do and the beautiful maid Jean. Danny Kaye is Hawkins, consigned to a role as laundryman to the Fox and nursemaid to the infant king. He and Jean seize an opportunity to place themselves inside the court to gain access to the castle on behalf of the Fox. The means for doing so and the complications that follow make “The Court Jester” a lively entertainment filled with hummable songs, repeatable dialogue and beautiful art direction. It is also comically loaded for bear, with enough ammunition to take down a grizzly. There are corny puns, slapstick physical bits and sly parody of the traditional swashbuckling forms. All of this delivered by one of the most unique screen entertainers of all time. Danny Kaye was a clown, but a suave clown and this is his circus.

Much of the humor derives from the fact that this is a mistaken identity plot.  To start, Hawkins assumes the part of Giacomo, a jester imported from Italy to entertain the new Royal family. John Carradine, the patriarch of the acting family, appears briefly as the jester that the outlaws hope to replace. Since no one at the court knows Giacomo by sight, they think they have the perfect cover.  There of course is a twist on the plot because the jester is also an assassin, brought in to quell rival nobles in palace intrigue. So the hero thinks he is playing a simple entertainer and Ravenhurst thinks the fake jester is his hired killer. The confusion  over character goes even more crazy when the Princess, seeking escape from the plans of her father the usurper, chooses the jester as a love interest. It involves hypnosis and subterfuge from the chief lady in waiting Griselda, played by Mildred Natwick, standing in for Una O’Conner. 
Rathbone is at his oily best, planning assasinations, plotting to thwart an alliance with a powerful baron, and in the end showing one more time that he was Hollywood’s premier fencer. He plays the straight man to Kaye’s clown so well that you might think they had worked vaudeville or Broadway together years before. Although his lines are never the punch lines, he manages to fit in with the clever word play and come off as a really sinister character at the same time. I suppose like Bond aficionados, who prefer the actor they first discovered 007 with, Baker Street Irregulars will identify with the Sherlock Holmes that helped them discover the great detective. For me, Rathbone will always be the perfect Sherlock. He was the quintessential villain for generations of fans of Errol Flynn and other swashbuckling stars of the era. His casting here is a sly nod at the familiarity with which he played those parts. 
Danny Kaye gets to play several different roles in the story, without ever changing the character he is portraying. As Hawkins, he is a bit nebbish and googie eyed around the outlaws he is working with. As Giacomo he plays suave lover and cunning conspirator sometimes in the same scene. Inevitably he will also get to play the hero but before that happens he must be the buffoon that everyone underestimates or mistakes for someone else.  When he puts on the raiment of the jester, he entertains the whole court as only a song and dance man like Kaye could. The lyrics and rhyming dialogue that Kaye performed were crafted with the assistance of his wife, composer Sylvia Fine.  The delivery was all Danny Kaye. He could take a couple of silly lines, perform them in a funny voice or accent and make them memorably hysterical. In this film the pies-ta resistance is the dilemia over which cup to drink from in the ceremony preceding a joust he is forced to engage in. I hope it doesn’t spoil the movie for you but I can’t resist including part of  that sequence here:
The villainous but lovely princess in the film was played by Angela Lansbury. Glynis Johns, who later played Mrs Banks in the film version of Mary Poppins, is a pretty sexy partner for Kaye as Maid Jean. Both of these actresses get to play off different versions of Kaye’s character and they are suitably bewitched or befuddled as the case may call for. The witch Griselda, who is both matron and victim to the Princess, manages to confound the whole scenario by giving Hawkins the illusion of a romantic Don Juan type and later, makes him into a fine swordsman, all at the snap of a finger. Of course fingers get snapped in awkward situations and the pantomime of Kaye bouncing back and forth between his persona’s is one of the gifts of

the movie. He has to go from dashing devil may care lover to confused spy, to heroic outlaw all in the blink of a moment. That is Danny Kaye’s gift to film, his ability to instantly convey an emotion or a state of mind in an instance. The only parallel I can think of among contemporary performers is Robin Williams in one of his milder comic riffs. In a few weeks, we will see Ben Stiller tackle the role of “Walter Mitty” a character from a short story, who visualized and led a vivid imaginary life. Danny Kaye played the part in a musical comedy back in 1947. I doubt that Stiller will be expected to be quite as elastic as the Danny Kaye version of the character, I also doubt that he would be willing to try. Kaye’s gift feels truly unique. It may be imitated but never duplicated. 

Film styles change and many movie lovers of today may not have the patience for the way narratives unfolded in traditional Hollywood fare. I also know that despite the frequent love of films adapted from stage musicals, many people can’t relate to this form of musical story telling. I find it magical and I want others to take a chance and give the movie an opportunity to charm you. Pay close attention to the lyrics, there are delightful puns and word play in most every line. The opening title credits are funny. I mean the text and the font, not just the picture and the words. I have been keeping a list of all the films I watched this year and this one appears three times already, and it was not in theaters. 
It’s up to you to decide to enhance your life and seek out one of the wonderful comic geniuses of the twentieth century. Don’t let the fact that this actor and his style of comedy are not en vogue prevent you from experiencing one of the best comedies of the 1950s and a terrific musical to boot. All you have to do is choose. Now will it be the Vessel With the Pestle or the Flagon with the Dragon? I know which I will choose, no wait wasn’t there a Chalice from the Palace? Oh Oh. 
Richard Kirkham is a lifelong movie enthusiast from Southern California. While embracing all genres of film making, he is especially moved to write about and share his memories of movies from his formative years, the glorious 1970s. His personal blog, featuring current film reviews as well as his Summers of the 1970s movie project, can be found at Kirkham A Movie A Day
A great Podcast with Danny Kayes Daughter on Warner Home Archives