The Pirates of Penzance

There is no better satire of Victorian life than the musicals of Gilbert and Sullivan. And while I enjoy all of Gilbert and Sullivan’s musicals, I definitely have a soft spot for Pirates of Penzance.

I never get tired of watching the 1983 film adaptation of Pirates of Penzance, starring Kevin Kline. It tells the story of Frederick, an upstanding young man who happens to have spent his youth among pirates. On his 21st birthday, he announces that he is going to leave piracy behind and devote himself (albeit regrettably) to the “extermination” of his former friends. Once he falls in love with a girl, whose father is a Major General. Everything seems to be going well for Frederick until his former pirates friends show up and hilarity ensues.

In the end, the girls’ father, General Stanley, proves himself a “model of a modern Major General” by accepting the pirates, who, after all, “with all their faults” still “love their Queen.” It turns out that what they really crave is to settle down for a life of “unbounded domesticity.” Of course, it doesn’t hurt things when it turns out the pirates are actually peers of the realm. Being a rather dotty, social climbing member of the nouveau riche, the General immeadiately instructs the pirates to: “resume your ranks and legislative duties, and take my daughters, all of whom are beauties!”

There is no question that Kevin Kline steals the scene as the Pirate King. His sense of humor and ability is reminiscent of his peerless work in A Fish Called Wanda. His on-stage athletics are pretty impressive as well!

My sister and I watched this film more times than I could possibly count–50 at least. One of our favourite activities was attempting to sing “I am the very model of a modern Major General.” Not an easy feat! The following scene includes both “Modern Major General” and the General’s little song about being an orphan–which of course instantly melts the pirates’ hearts (being orphans themselves, and good Englishmen at heart, they are doubtless well-schooled in the works of Dickens. It would be unthinkable to rob an orphan of his only company).

Review: How to Steal a Million

After reading a great post on Art Blog by Bob about famous forger, Han van Meegeren, I was reminded of the 1966 William Wyler film How to Steal a Million, starring Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole. It’s an art-heist romantic comedy featuring some great performances.

Audrey Hepburn stars as Nicole Bonnet–a hard-working, earnest young woman who whose father, Charles Bonnet (a delightful Hugh Griffith) just happens to be a brilliant art forger who’s made a fortune passing his work off as originals by old masters. One night while her father is out for the evening, Nicole discovers a rather well-mannered burglar (Peter O’Toole) who appears to be stealing one of her father’s paintings. After accidentally shooting him, she drives him home so that the police won’t be called (the paint is still drying on the canvas of the fake Van Gogh that O’Toole appeared to be stealing).

Later, Nicole’s father Charles receives a visit from a museum that wants to borrow the family’s “Cellini Venus”–the sculpture that forms the foundation of the Bonnet family’s reputation as great art collectors. Charles signs a form insuring the sculpture for 1 million dollars, only to discover that in doing so he’s effectively consented to have the sculpture tested to insure its authenticity. After confessing to his daughter that the sculpture is a fake, sculpted by her grandfather, with her grandmother posing–”before she started having those enormous lunches!”–Griffith’s character panics, fearing the sculpture will be exposed as a fake and destroy his reputation.

Nicole reassures her father that she has an idea: she’ll enlist the help of the burglar she’s met (Peter O’Toole) in order to steal the sculpture back from the museum, before they can finalise the tests. What follows is a humorous caper film, filled with great views of Paris (the old Hotel Ritz, in particular). Hepburn also sports a memorable, elegant Givenchy wardrobe. The film is great, light-hearted fare. Eli Wallach puts in a particularly memorable performance as a crazed art collector who will do anything to get his hands on “the Venus.”

The following scene takes place at Nicole Bonnet’s mansion, after O’Toole’s character has broken in to test one of her father’s paintings.

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Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)

I love movies about great teachers. It’s my weakness–Dead Poet’s Society, The Emperor’s Club–give me a movie about inspiring educators and I’m sure to love it. Goodbye, Mr. Chips is in a bit of a class by itself, however. It has been remade several times, but the original, starring Robert Donat as Charles Chipping, remains a masterpiece. The film garnered Donat an Oscar for best actor, and was nominated in pretty much every other category, including Best Picture (it lost to Gone with the Wind–and faced tough competition from the likes of the Wizard of Oz). Robert Donat’s portrayal of “Mr. Chips” progression from a shy, young teacher to a school institution is masterful and remains a standout performance.

Goodbye, Mr. Chips is based on James Hilton’s 1934 novel of the same name and tells the story of Charles Chipping, a Latin teacher at Brookfield, a prestigious boarding school. The story opens in 1870 with Chipping’s arrival at Brookfield, just as the Franco-Prussian War was breaking out. Chipping is painfully shy and lacks confidence in his teaching abilities. His reticence makes him a target for the boys’ rambunctious ways, nearly costing him his job. Determined to be successful at Brookfield, he transforms himself into a strict disciplinarian, earning the boys’ respect at the cost of his popularity.

After losing an important promotion as the result of his unpopularity, Chipping goes on vacation in Europe, where he encounters his future wife Katherine while lost on a mountaintop. They marry, and through their relationship Chipping (she gives him his nickname)begins to soften. Sadly, tragedy strikes the couple very early in their marriage, but Katherine has helped Chips to see his relationship with the boys in a different light. He becomes very popular with the students and having Sunday afternoon tea with Chips becomes a beloved tradition.

One of the most pronounced themes in the film is the importance of continuing education in the midst of war. This is hardly surprising, given that Britain was deeply embroiled in World War II at the time of the film’s release. After the outbreak of World War I, Mr. Chips is actually coaxed out of retirement at 65 to serve as headmaster (the position he was overlooked for years earlier). He does an excellent job boosting the student’s morale in the midst of crisis. There is also a clear nostalgia for the Victorian era, and for the past in general (after all, Chips teaches a dead language!). This is also demonstrated by Chips’ reluctance to adopt the “modern” Latin pronunciation (which nearly gets him forced into retirement!). There’s a great scene where Chips tries to explain to the headmaster how much more glorious the old pronunciation of Caesar’s words: “veni, vidi, vici” sounds compared to the new version (sounds like “weenie, weedy, wiki”). Although I was taught modern pronunciation, I must say I’m in agreement with Chips. There are, of course, aspects of the story that seem rather dated, such as the scene when Mr. Chips takes his cane to a rebellious youth. But I don’t see this as a problem because the story is a historical piece and should be seen as such.

Sentimentalist that I am, I never fail to burst into uncontrollable tears at the film’s close, when the dying Mr. Chips overhears his friends discussing what a shame it is that Chips never had any children of his own. He responds: “I thought you said it was a pity… pity I never had children. But you’re wrong, I have. Thousands of them … thousands of them … and all boys.” The story is a classic, and I particularly enjoy the way the film follows the protagonist through his entire life, and showing the audience the disappointments, tragedies and triumphs that make up Chips’ life. It’s also a movie that I appreciate more each time I see it. I remember that in high school, while I appreciated Mr. Chips, I preferred the flashier, more overtly sentimental Dead Poet’s Society. I suppose my perspective has changed over time, because these days I’m attracted more to the subtleties of Goodbye, Mr. Chips.

Do any of you have other favourite movies about education you’d like to share? I always love hearing about new ones!

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Dante’s Inferno to be released September 23rd

Several of you have made comments about the 1967 BBC Rossetti documentary, “Dante’s Inferno.” After doing a bit of research, I discovered that it will be released on DVD for the first time this September.

The box set will be available at Best Buy September 23rd for $69.99

Synopsis of Dante’s Inferno:

One of director Ken Russell’s earliest films, Dante’s Inferno is a made-for-TV biopic about the British poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Oliver Reed), who was a founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood during the late 1800s. The style was influenced by romanticism and Renaissance painters. Other founding members of the movement were William Morris (Andrew Faulds), Edward Coley Burne-Jones (Norman Dewhurst), and John Everett Millais (Derek Boshier). Iza Teller plays Dante’s sister, the poet Christina Rossetti. Judith Paris plays his wife, Elizabeth, who was driven to suicide.
~ Andrea LeVasseur, All Movie Guide

The film is being released as part of a series of BBC documentaries directed by Ken Russell. The DVD, entitled “Ken Russell at the BBC” focuses on biopics of famous artists. Titles include:

Elgar (1962)

The Debussy Film (1963)

Always on Sunday (1965)

Isadora Duncan (1966)

Dante’s Inferno (1967)

Song of Summer (1968)

Dance of the Seven Veils (1970)

BBC Announces Pre-Raphaelite Drama

For those of you who can’t get enough of the Pre-Raphaelites, the BBC has announced that a new drama is in the works that will focus on the lives and loves of the revolutionary group of English painters.

The miniseries, entitled “Desperate Romantics,” will trace the development of the Brotherhood and their unique approach to art. Variously described by its creators as “Entourage with Easels” and “the Boy Band of the 19th century,” the story will be looking at the sexier side of the Pre-Raphaelites. I have some deep reservations with the project, as I did with the latest BBC reincarnation of Brideshead Revisited, but I’m reserving judgement for the time being, except to point out that there was much more to the Pre-Raphaelites than “Entourage with Easels!”

Aside from the 1975 small-screen adaptation about the Pre-Raphaelites entitled The Brotherhood (starring Ben Kingsley as Rossetti), there really haven’t been any films about the Pre-Raphaelites, probably because the art of the Pre-Raphaelites was very unpopular after World War II. Nevertheless, in reading about the lives of the Pre-Raphaelites, there’s so much fodder for screenwriters that rather I’m shocked we haven’t seen more film adaptations of their story.

The script for the BBC miniseries is written by Peter Bowker, whose credits include Blackpool and Shakespeare Re-Told. He’s also penned the script for a new ITV production of Wuthering Heights, due out in the fall of this year.

Filming for the series “Desperate Romantics” is set to begin in 2009. Look for more information to follow!

Thanks to Stephanie Pina, at Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood, for bringing this story to my attention!