In Tribute to Cinematic Giant, Sidney Poitier

Sidney Poitier was an iconic cinematic legend and artistic giant. In a career which spanned over 60 years, Poitier found success in some of Hollywood’s most memorable films like Blackboard Jungle (1955), The Defiant Ones (1958), Porgy and Bess (1959), A Raisin in the Sun (1961), To Sir, with Love (1967), In the Heat of the Night (1967), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), and winning an Oscar for his work in the 1963 film, Lilies of the Field. Poitier was a versatile actor who brought a regal majesty to his roles, imbuing a stylish dignity to the parts; but he also had a sly sense of humor which he was able to bring to his lighter work. In the 1960s, whilst cities across the USA were seeing protests, rebellions, and tumult, Poitier was enjoying his greatest success, becoming a major box office draw. Along with his career as an actor and director, Poitier used his celebrity to draw attention to important causes, the Civil Rights in particular. At the height of his fame, he was an outspoken advocate for racial equality and he was one of the few widely popular film stars of Hollywood during the 1960s.

The cover of Sidney Poitier’s memoir
Sidney Poitier: The Measure of a Man- A Memoir
(Harper San Francisco, 2000)

Though his screen persona and inherent elegance would sometimes limit him to roles that relied on his sleek looks and gravitas, he was able to transcend even the most idealized roles by giving them more depth, humanity, and tone than the scripts would have; Poitier was in an unenviable position: as being one of the few Black film superstars, he was saddled with a responsibility to be everything to everyone. It was unfair. White audiences didn’t want him to be a three-dimensional human being and Hollywood wanted him to be an emblem (and would treat him as a token at times), but Poitier overcame these constricts and created a filmography that is rich and varied.

Top 10 The Highlights of Sidney Poitier

Blackboard Jungle (1955) – an explosive and then-innovative film that looked to urban blight and racial tensions that arise in an inner-city high school in 1950s New York City. Much of the film’s legacy is wrapped in its unflinching look at the various struggles of city public schools; Blackboard Jungle is also known for its use of rock and roll on its soundtrack. As with most films that look to chronicle the various struggles that befall on the inner-city, Blackboard Jungle is rife with issues, namely a white savior narrative as well as exploitation of trauma. Poitier – in an early performance – plays a troubled teen who starts off as a rough antagonist to the film’s protagonist (Glenn Ford), before eventually growing and developing a truce and an allegiance. As with a lot of his roles, Poitier does deep, empathetic work.

Blackboard Jungle [DVD] [1955]
Blackboard Jungle
(dir. Richard Brooks) MGM, 1955

Edge of the City (1957) – an early part of Poitier’s career, Edge of the City is a moving drama that is at-once profound and, yet still has issues that date it. The film is an important of the construction of Poitier’s screen persona – particularly, the perception of his nobility. Edge of the City talks about race and friendship as well as violence and cruelty. The script – written by Robert Alan Arthur – makes Poitier’s character a combination of ideals and norms and is typical of the “issue films” of the 1950s. Director Martin Ritt, a veteran of FDR’s WPA, and an artist who was caught up in the Hollywood Red Scare, put together a film that ticked the boxes of white liberal popular cinematic art of the mid-century. Even though Edge of the City would have a hand in some of Poitier’s casting issues later on, he gives a complex performance, doing wonderful work.

Edge of the City
Edge of the City
(dir. Martin Ritt) MGM, 1957

Porgy and Bess (1959) – The tragic musical – composed by George and Ira Gershwin – was brought to the screen by Otto Preminger. The film is an important, if curious, entry in Poitier’s oeuvre, as it wasn’t initially successful and subsequently, it failed to find a home viewing audience as well (substandard copies of the film are available). The script – written by N. Richard Nash, based on the libretto by DuBose Heyward – has a troubled story that includes difficult topics, including rape, poverty, murder, and drug addiction. Though by 1959, the movie musical was about to enter a difficult period in the genre’s history, the stark tragedy of the opera made for a difficult subject for a Hollywood musical. Poitier gives an impassioned performance (despite being dubbed by Met opera star Robert McFerrin) and is matched with the luminous, yet tragic Dorothy Dandridge.

Porgy And Bess (1959) (Region 2)
Porgy and Bess
(dir. Otto Preminger)
Columbia Pictures, 1959

A Raisin in the Sun (1961) – Lorraine Hansberry’s landmark stage drama was made into this important film that featured a searing, explosive performance as the troubled and complex Walter Lee Younger. The play is a pointed look at housing discrimination, economic and racial prejudice, and the importance of human dignity. Hansberry’s work remains a seminal piece of art that shines a much-needed spotlight social conditions that affirm racial and economic inequities. Poitier’s performance is truly magnificent in this film and he does personable work with his costars, Ruby Dee (as his wife, Ruth) and a truly towering Claudia McNeil (as the Younger matriarch, Lena). A Raisin in the Sun poses questions about the choices people are forced to make when they are desperate and in difficult situations and Hansberry refuses to offer pat, easy answers.

A Raisin In The Sun [DVD] [1961] [2003]
A Raisin in the Sun
(dir. Daniel Petrie)
Columbia Pictures, 1961

Lilies of the Field (1963) – This film won Poitier the Oscar for Best Actor in 1963. The Ralph Nelson film – based on William Edmund Barrett’s novella – is a sentimental story about a young man, Homer Smith (Poitier) who finds himself working with a group of nuns, helping them to build a new chapel. A wary, complicated friendship develops, particularly with Homer and Mother Maria (Lilia Skala), who believes Homer has been sent by God to help. Poitier deserves the Oscar for his performance, which is warm, funny, and deeply humane. Unfortunately, after 60 years, it’s clear that the role is somewhat one-note and reinforces the idea of Black people being dropped on this earth to help and serve others, particularly whites. Homer breezes into the nuns’ lives and because his empathy (as well as pride) is manipulated by the strong-willed Mother Maria, he sticks around to help the group, and then, just as quickly, he disappears after being of use. Lilies of the Field is engaging, mainly because Poitier’s warmth and multi-layered performance.

LILIES OF THE FIELD
Lilies of the Field
(dir. Ralph Nelson) United Artists, 1963

A Patch of Blue (1965) – like a lot of Poitier’s films, A Patch of Blue is another ‘issue’ film that tackles a topic and does so with a lot drama (though maybe this film can tip a bit into melodrama). Like many of his other roles, Poitier’s Gordon Ralfe is a kind, upstanding individual tasked to help save someone: this time a young, blind woman who is an abuse victim, nearly pushed to prostitution by her monster of a mother. The actor brings an intelligence to the role and though Guy Green’s script packs a lot of bathos to the proceedings, Poitier doesn’t let his work get buried by the seemingly dramatic plot. But what makes A Patch of Blue is the sensitive way in which Green tells this story of interracial friendship, maybe love, and Poitier gives a beautiful performance.

A Patch of Blue by Warner Home Video by Guy Green
A Patch of Blue (dir. Guy Green) MGM, 1965

To Sir, with Love (1967) – One of the best high school movies ever, Poitier seems to have closed a loop of sorts, playing a student in a troubled American high school in Blackboard Jungle and in middle age, he plays a teacher at an East London school in To Sir, with Love. It’s not a perfect film – it does dip into sentimentality at times, and there are some predictable beats – but again, Poitier elevates the material with his graceful work. Because of Poitier’s popularity and star power, the film is considered a popular classic and a big hit, one of his most successful movies of his career.

To Sir, with Love
To Sir, with Love
(dir. James Clavell) Columbia, 1967

In the Heat of the Night (1967) – Norman Jewison’s atmospheric, tense, and taught drama that has political and social relevance still today, particularly when we look at the relationships between criminal justice, the police, and Black Americans. Poitier is Virgil Tibbs, a talented police officer who is racially profiled in Sparta, Mississippi, but agrees to stay in the town to help the local racist police chief (Rod Steiger in an Oscar-winning performance) solve a murder. Jewison captures a simmering, terrifying Mississippi in which Tibbs is tasked to do his work in a hostile environment, continuously reminded of the town’s antipathy for his presence. It’s a great film that doesn’t aim to show redemption or happy answers about race – instead, it’s a suspenseful thriller that works as a backdrop to social commentary about the corrosive effects of racism and bigotry.

In the Heat of the Night (The Criterion Collection)
In the Heat of the Night
(dir. Norman Jewison)
United Artists, 1967

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) – Director Stanley Kramer was known for his social critique films. For Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Kramer looked to interracial marriage (it’s important to note that during the film’s production, interracial marriage was illegal in 17 states). The film is a solid comedy that is notable for being the final pairing of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn (who won an Oscar for her work). Poitier is very good in this film – though to be honest, his role is somewhat thin. He was posited as the ideal man with little-to-no flaws, so Poitier has to work hard to make his character interesting and stand out – which he does with some charming aplomb. More so than any other performance of his career, this role relies almost exclusively on his star power and movie star charisma.

Guess Who's Coming To Dinner? [DVD]
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
(dir. Stanley Kramer)
Columbia Pictures, 1967

For Love Ivy (1968) – Sidney Poitier put together this story and worked with Robert Alan Arthur, with whom he worked on Edge of the City for this romantic comedy that paired him with jazz virtuoso, Abbey Lincoln. The film was another popular hit for Poitier and it was a charming film, far lighter than most of much of his work during the 1960s. It showed that the actor as funny and very appealing; he’s a breath of fresh air.

For Love of Ivy [DVD] [US Import]
For Love of Ivy
(dir. Daniel Mann) Palomar Pictures

Astaire and Rogers entertain in the lighter-than-air ‘The Gay Divorcee’

When watching a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers film, it’s always a curious experience to judge whether Rogers was a great dancer or was she able to keep up with the generous genius of Astaire. Though she’s immortalized as a legendary hoofer, there has been some revisionism when it comes to her actual dancing skills. I’m happy to report that in The Gay Divorce the actress acquits herself quite well as a dancer. She’s no Fred Astaire – he’s mesmerizing – but she’s a solid dancer. But as a screen comedienne, Rogers is far more convincing. She’s a bright enjoyable presence in a film that feels so inconsequential that it threatens to disappear in a puff of smoke.

Rogers is Mimi Glossop, the titular gay divorcée, who is in England, trying to leave her estranged husband, geologist Cyril (William Austin, quite funny) She’s chaperoned by her Auntie Mame of an aunt, Hortense (a brilliant Alice Brady) Mimi hires Hortense’s ex, lawyer Egbert Fitzgerald (Edward Everett Horton, wonderful) to handle her divorce. He suggests that she fakes an affair so that Cyril will leave Mimi. He hires a fake gigolo, Rodolfo Tonetti (Erik Rhodes), but by cinematic convoluted coincidence, Egbert’s close pal, dancer Guy Holden (Fred Astaire) is mistaken as the guy Mimi’s supposed to be seeing. Initially, Mimi is wary of Guy’s advances – they have a great meet cute at a boat port, in which he tries to free her skirt from being trapped in a locked trunk, but rips her skirt instead – but predictably, her reserve melts and she becomes besotted by the charming and debonair Guy.

The film is based on a Broadway musical and it includes some great songs, including Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” as well as some new songs written for the film, including the sprawling and epic “The Continental,” an extravagant musical number taking place at a Deco hotel, with a cast of seeming hundreds. Director Mark Sandrich captures the grandness of the musical number with a brilliant use of black and white photography as well as an ingenious way of showing off the brilliant choreography of Hermes Pan (in one imaginative part of the sequence, female dancers spin inside a trio of revolving doors) Sandrich also does a great job in displaying Astair’s particular genius – he keeps a steady camera, allowing for his dancing to be focus of the musical sequences. For many classic musical fans, you’re either a Gene Kelly fan or a Fred Astaire fan. Both are wonderful with very different points of view: Astaire is elegance personified. His movements are classy and sophisticated, his movements fluid and urbane. Though he’s a slight vocalist, he’s still got a pleasant voice and is a solid song stylist. And the script doesn’t tax his acting talents, but he’s so charming and charismatic that he practically glides through the film.

Along with Astaire, the cast is wonderful. Everyone seems to be having a great time. Rogers was a famously limited thespian, but like Astaire, had a strong screen persona, and she’s very appealing. And as great as Rogers and Astaire are, the acting kudos should go to Horton and Brady who play our leads’ confidantes. Horton and Brady are hilarious comedic character actors and dash away with the film, stealing it right from under Astaire’s and Rogers’ noses. And for eagle-eye movie lovers, Betty Grable pops by, dancing with Horton. None of this is particularly smart, witty, or me memorable, but there is something to say about watching a film created by professionals who are having a ball. Their joy is infectious and palpable through the screen. The Gay Divorcee more than lives up to its title.

Disney’s ‘Pinocchio’ is a morality tale that stands the test of time

Pinocchio is Disney’s second full-length animated feature after the charming Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and it’s the film that established the Disney template for animated features: anthropomorphized animals, a sidekick for the protagonist, a parent narrative, songs, and the use of comedy and humor to tell its story. The Disney ‘look’ was also established by the time Pinocchio was released and you can see its stamp throughout all of the following animated features – namely wide, expressive eyes, large mouths, exaggerated features like apple cheeks and jutting chins and protruding brows. Snow White and the Seven Dwafs combined a realistic aesthetic with Snow White, the queen, and the handsome prince with the jokey stylized look of the dwarfs. A physiognomy takes place with these cartoons – the good guys are drawn as cute and inviting whilst the bad guys are drawn as ugly and scary.

Pinocchio is based on Carlo Collodi’s 1883 novel The Adventures of Pinocchio. The film’s plot is diluted from the original novel, but it shares some important points. In an Italian village, woodworker Geppetto builds a marionette, naming it Pinocchio. Pining for a child, he wishes on a star that the puppet becomes a real boy. A blue fairy floats into his workshop in the middle of the night and grants Geppetto his wish. The narrator of the piece, and the stand-in for the audience is the witty, Jimmy Stewart-esque Jiminy Cricket, a singing, dandy cricket, who settles on Geppetto’s workshop as a refuge from a life of homelessness. Once Geppetto discovers that his puppet becomes a little boy, he’s overjoyed and jumps into fatherhood with abandon. What follows is a picaresque tale of Pinocchio’s journey to morality and good character – he’s distracted by temptations of a life on the stage, or a hedonistic life of decadence and indulgence – but Jiminy Cricket is always on hand to remind him of the importance of morality and goodness.

Like many of the canonical films of the Disney studio that are based on classic fairy tales, this interpretation of Pinocchio dwarfs the original source material. Most people are more familiar with the Disney version of Collodi’s story (in fact I’d venture that many would be surprised to learn that Pinocchio isn’t a Disney original). In Disney’s version, Pinocchio is a charming, kind-hearted little boy who means well, but is easily swayed. Because he’s a newly-born living being, he’s very curious about the world, which leads him to being very gullible. It’s a frustrating experience watching the kind if silly Pinocchio being convinced to follow miscreants into a world of sin and debauchery.

More than anything, Pinocchio is a morality tale, a fable about the virtue in being obedient and hard-working. The script holds a dim view of being self-indulgent and the characters who indulge in these base instinctive desires are summarily punished. After promising to go to school, Pinocchio is skipping with Jiminy Cricket in tow, until he runs into the ironically named Honest John, the anthropomorphized fox. He’s joined by his partner in crime, Giddy, a mute cat. Along with Jiminy, Honest John, and Giddy are the first instances in a Disney feature-length film in which animals interact with people with dialogue. Though there are animals with incredible communication powers in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, they don’t speak. But in Pinocchio, the animals occupy a space in which they are treated as humans – the fact that they speak isn’t strange, and paradoxically, even though Giddy is a cat that acts like a human, Geppetto has a pet cat, Figaro, that acts like a real cat (well, sorta – it doesn’t speak, though it has the kind of outlandish reactions of a Disney character)

As mentioned earlier, there’s a physiognomy taking place. Though all the characters are drawn in the stylized Disney style (with the exception of the ethereally beautiful blue fairy who is drawn realistically akin to Snow White or the wicket queen), the good characters are drawn as adorable, but the villains are scary. Honest John and Giddy are mangy and ugly; the corrupt impresario, Stromboli, is drawn with some crude anti-Semitic and anti-Romani tropes (early Disney was not great when it came to ethnic stereotypes)

But despite the problematic use of physiognomy, the animation is gorgeous. Despite the film’s age, the look of the film and how the animation operates is seamless. This is especially true when we look at Pinocchio’s movements when he’s still a lifeless puppet, being pulled by strings. There’s a lifelike quality to the jerky, pulled actions of Pinocchio’s limbs – the animation captures the stilted awkwardness of a marionette’s movements beautifully.

And given how stylized the facial features are, even on the wooden, painted face of Pinocchio, the facial expressions seem real – not exaggerated or silly-looking. When smoking a cigar and ingesting the putrid smoke, Pinocchio’s face turns green and it instantly becomes drawn and pinched – the animation captures the dizzy, woozy state of Pinocchio’s health perfectly.

What I liked most about Pinocchio and it’s one of the reasons I appreciated it more than Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, is the use of humor. Comedy is a common thread that is laced through nearly all of the interactions: from Geppetto’s kindly bumbling quality to Jiminy’s fussy pedantic personality to Pinocchio’s alarming naivete, these character traits are used for humorous effect, even when the situation is stressful. And along with Jiminy, Geppetto also has Figaro the cat and Cleo the goldfish, both of whom, whilst not anthropomorphic, have rich, comedic personalities – especially Figaro, who acts as a sidekick for Geppetto, punctuating their scenes with a hammy take, like diving into Cleo’s fishbowl and kissing her on the mouth in rapturous joy.

The humor is important because so much of Pinocchio deals with trauma and violence. When Pinocchio is kidnapped by Stromboli, he savagely throws the little puppet into a birdcage, vowing to keep him enslaved. Though, Pinocchio escapes, he only gets into further mischief by being led to Pleasure Island, a decadent haven for bad kids who act out.

In Pleasure Island, Pinocchio becomes a local right quick, and starts to drink, smoke, and be gluttonous, whilst the other little boys destroy things, fight, and act ridiculous. This sequence is reminiscent of a Lord of the Flies scenario, in which children left to their own devices devolve into animals. This analogy becomes literal because when these kids achieve peak debauchery, they become donkeys. The transformation is pretty disturbing – one of Pinocchio’s pals goes through the change and it looks painful and disturbing as his head sprouts long ears, a tail bursts from behind and he’s forced to stand on all fours, as his feet and hands fuse into hooves. His shouts and cries become rusty brays. It’s a terrifying scene, and Pinocchio himself begins the transformation, his ears suddenly long, but is rescued by Jiminy who leads his friend off the island before the transition becomes too advanced. The Pleasure Island sequence is a rather heavey-handed, but still effective morality tale of shirking one’s responsibilities. The root of Pinocchio’s problems all started when he decided to play hooky: had he been a good boy and go to school, he never would have fallen. Whilst Jiminy was on hand to be his conscience, he failed to convince Pinocchio to remain moral. The other boys in Pleasure island all indulged in their most basest impulses: we see kids fighting, breaking things, even demolishing a house with their bare hands. The boys are promised no schools, no chores, no adults. The Pleasure Island sequence shows its audience that if one subverts standards of morality, one can expect severe consequences.

The other major scene that may terrorize audiences is when Pinocchio and Geppetto manage to escape from inside the whale’s mouth. When Pinocchio and Jiminy escape Pleasure Island, they return to Geppetto’s workshop only to see it shut up. Through a convenient deux machinas, a note wafts in front of them, alerting them to Geppetto’s whereabouts: the inside of a giant whale. Invigorated with a newly-acquired dashing bravery, Pinocchio sets off to save his father. When Geppetto realized that his son was missing, he set off to rescue him, getting on a boat, and ending up inside the whale. When Pinocchio gets himself swallowed up, the two are finally reunited – a touching scene, given what the two went through. Before they can wallow in their shared danger, Pinocchio – suddenly really smart – figures out how to get them out of the whale: building a fire, the smoke causing the whale to sneeze. Though the plan works, the whale is angry and chases our heroes, who manage to just scurry into a cave before the whale crashes into it. Pinocchio dies upon impact, and is duly mourned before the blue fairy, impressed with his bravery, makes him into a real boy. Just as the Pleasure Island sequence taught us the risk of being bad, Pinocchio’s reward is a marker of what one can expect if one behaves.

Pinocchio came out only three years after Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but it’s incredible how much the studio evolved in terms of its animation as well as how quickly it established a signature look and style. Though we’re talking about a film that’s 80 years old, it still remains an effective, moving, and funny moral tale with a message that continues to resonate.

 

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