Thursday, September 04, 2008
  Pauline Kael (1919-2001)

Here are excerpts from 2,846 film reviews by Pauline Kael, the film critic other film critics acknowledged as the pack leader. A review by Kael could sometimes be more thought-provoking than the film she was reviewing. Thanks to Tom Sutpen we have this audio of Kael speaking at San Fernando Valley State College in 1963. Roger Ebert wrote that she ''had a more positive influence on the climate for film in America than any other single person over the last three decades."

Below is a sample Kael review, Home Before Dark, a memorable psychological drama which has never been on VHS or DVD. The original negative is lost, but it would be nice to once again see this 1958 film, adapted by Eileen and Robert Bassing from the novel by Eileen Bassing. The scene of Charlotte Bronn (Jean Simmons) drifting into madness outside the Bonwit Teller department store in Boston is unforgettable.

Boston's New England Museum of Natural History was in a building constructed in 1863 at 234 Berkeley Street. When the Museum closed in 1947, the building was taken over by Bonwit Teller, which was at that location from 1947 to 1988. On the side facing Berkeley was a peculiar architectural feature, a window display which extruded from the building. This had the appearance of a glass gazebo, enabling a single dress to be viewed from three different sides. Director Mervyn LeRoy used this unusual location to create a sequence of mental erosion worthy of Tennessee Williams.

That Home Before Dark location scene shows the Fanny Farmer Candies shop at the corner of Boylston and Berkeley. Two decades later, I used to get coffee at that same Fanny Farmer shop. During the 1970s it still looked exactly the same; it was like stepping into the 1958 movie. (The coffee, I soon discovered, sometimes tasted like it had been sitting there for 20 years.)

Charlotte is married to college professor Arnold Bronn (Dan O'Herlihy), and she has long suspected that her cold and distant husband is secretly in love with her stepsister Joan (Rhonda Fleming). In her mentally disturbed state, Charlotte gets a makeover so she will look like Joan. 

LeRoy positioned his camera on Boylston Street and panned from Fanny Farmer to Bonwit Teller. When Charlotte walks to the exterior window display gazebo, she stares at a spectacular sparkling gold dress. She goes inside, requests the dress in Joan's size, tries it on and buys the dress, despite protests from Bonwit Teller saleswomen who tell her the size is much too large.

In a Boston restaurant during the holiday season, Arnold and his friends await Charlotte's arrival. She enters with her new hairstyle and the ill-fitting gold dress slipping off her shoulders and breasts. Arnold is aghast as she makes her way between tables in the crowded restaurant with a fixed smile, repeating over and over, "Merry Christmas... Merry Christmas... Merry Christmas... "

Home Before Dark
US (1958): Drama
136 min, No rating, Black & White

Jean Simmons gives a reserved, beautifully modulated performance that is so much better than the material that at times her exquisite reading of the rather mediocre lines seems a more tragic waste than her character's wrecked life. The script starts with a good idea. A professor (Dan O'Herlihy) commits his young wife to a state mental hospital; she returns home after a year, exhausted from eight rounds of shock treatment, her hair gray, but feeling cured-reasonable and happy, rid of her former delusions. Then as she slowly discovers that the delusions the doctors were shocking out of her were actually the truth, she loses her bearings and begins to go mad. Unfortunately, the script makes the heroine too sympathetic, and it has an edge of fashionable, self-congratulatory virtue-the "one must be more understanding toward discharged mental patients" attitude, and Mervyn LeRoy directs in a glossy, uninspired style that drags the material out at least half an hour too long. With Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., and Rhonda Fleming. Warners. -- Pauline Kael

Jerry Lewis on Pauline Kael:

Control click heading at top to hear Terry Gross interview with Kael (February 4, 1986).

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Manny Farber died two weeks ago, aged 91. He was a quirky, cantankerous painter and film critic, among the first to recognize the worth of B-films and what we now call film noir. Like Pauline Kael, he could be bizarre and wrongheaded, but always fun to read. Unlike Kael, little of what he wrote was collected -- just one book called Negative Space and a small, limited circulation, stapled-together volume published in the fifties by Donald Phelps.
Great stuff -- thanks!
Wasn't Pauline Kael the critic that was shocked, shocked when Nixon beat McGovern because she had never met anyone who voted for Nixon?
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