setsuled: (Mouse Sailor)

So you want a better life. Why not go to war? It'll very likely improve both you and your spouse, or at least that's the message in Alexander Korda's 1945 wartime propaganda film Perfect Strangers (Vacation from Marriage in the U.S.), a message all the more insidious for the fact that it's a pretty good movie with amazing performances from Robert Donat and Deborah Kerr.

The two basically play two roles each, and maybe a transitory third role. They start the movie off as a dull, miserable married couple, the Wilsons, Robert and Cathy. Robert is a meek, set in his ways bank employee, at one point contemptuously called an "old maid". Cathy is a stay at home wife who never wears makeup and seems to have a perpetual cold. Then Robert finds himself forced to join the navy and, while he's gone, Cathy joins the Wrens, the women's branch of the Royal Navy at the time.

Gradually, both are transformed and the actors carry it off brilliantly in their performances. Donat's body language becomes more relaxed and expansive--maybe going slightly too far later in the film when he's propped himself up against the fireplace while sitting.

Cathy, under the influence of her worldly new cohort, Dizzy (Glynis Johns), starts smoking and wearing makeup. Both separately start to think they could never go home to their stuffy spouses, each has as close to an extramarital affair as the censors would allow--Robert with a nurse who tells him about how her recently deceased husband went from being a boring clerk to an exciting world traveller whose memory she admires, Cathy with an intellectual in a scene Korda lifts almost wholesale from Powell and Pressburger's A Canterbury Tale.

When the Wilsons are rediscovering each other in the third act, both are surprised to find the other can now dance, prompting the reply from both, "One picks these things up." The message isn't terribly subtle--join the navy, get the sexual experience that will make you more appealing to the opposite sex. Yet I did find it charming and kind of insightful that both Robert and Cathy felt that they were suffering before because they thought the other needed them and it was this suffering that made each seem so helpless to the other. And Donat and Kerr sell it so well. Donat's best known roles were behind him at this point and this was near the start of Kerr's career so it's also an interesting overlap of two eras.

But I would rather the film had been about Deborah Kerr and Glynis Johns having adventures. My favourite scene in the movie is just the two of them on an overcrowded train, taking turns resting their heads in each other's laps.

setsuled: (Louise Smirk)

If someone asked me to write a musical about the King of Siam, I'd probably write a song called "I'm the King of Siam, I am". Fortunately for the world, it was Rodgers and Hammerstein who wrote the music for 1956's The King and I, a beautiful film with great performances. Its cultural clumsiness does not age well yet even now it's hard not to love Deborah Kerr, elegantly and assertively negotiating with an obstinately patriarchal society. And, oh, the costumes, the sets--it's all splendid, I can't resist melting.

The costumes, both Siamese and English, are beautiful, exaggerated versions of their real life counterparts. Kerr, as Anna, wears a ridiculously wide crinoline, about 30% bigger than women actually wore in England at the time--and she wears it in every scene. The fact that Kerr carries it off with dignity alone speaks to her incredible talent. The King, his harem, and children are always covered with jewels.

Yul Brynner as the king cuts a fantastic figure, it's a shame that all the Siamese characters are portrayed like children who Anna must tactfully manage for their own good. The costumes, for being exaggerated, are accurate enough, but the film flaunts misconceptions of Buddhism and portrays most of the Siamese women as pathetically controlled by superstition and the King needing to be guided on nearly every point of etiquette. It is sort of endearing in Brynner's hands that he's actually trying, enough so that the climactic dance sequence is breathtaking, not just for Kerr's gorgeous gown.

The fact that it's immediately followed by a confrontation about the injustice of slavery is really stimulating, particularly after the beautiful and strange Siamese ballet version of Uncle Tom's Cabin a few scenes earlier.

One could look at the whole film as a sort of dream version of Western culture, actually, more than a fantasised version of Siamese culture. By adopting Siamese costumes, names, shapes, and superficial aspects of Siamese culture, the confrontations about slavery, science, religion, and feminism almost seem to exist without any specific cultural connexion. I could almost imagine Anna waking from this dream discovering she's leading a feminist rally in London.


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