Tuesday, November 10, 2009

An in-between all-star movie

In the early days of the talking picture, Hollywood tried to bring people into the theaters by puting all of their stars into the same movie, in the case of films such as Dinner at Eight. It's a formula that became much more common in the 1970s, with the advent of the disaster movie, in films such as The Cassandra Crossing or The Poseidon Adventure. In between? Well, we got movies like The VIPs, which TCM is showing tonight at 10:15 PM ET.

The scene is the VIP lounge at London's Heathrow airport, back in the swingin' 60s, when air travel was much more glamorous than it is today. Several well-heeled passengers are on their way across the Atlantic for various reasons. But, the famous London fog rolls in, socking in the airport and making any flights out absolutely impossible. This, needless to say, causes problems for all of the people stuck at Heathrow.

First among these is Elizabeth Taylor. She's playing a woman married to Richard Burton, but is about to leave him in order to live in the Caribbean with suave Louis Jourdan. She's left Burton a "Dear John" letter that she expects him to find only after her plane is in the air, well over the Atlantic. But the fog scuttles those plans, and when Burton finds the breakup letter, he naturally drives back to Heathrow to try to convince his wife to change her plans. His presence, however, happens to be a godsend for another man, Rod Taylor. Taylor is playing an Australian businessman who has to get to an important board meeting in New York or else face the possibility of losing his business. He needs to be able to borrow some money to pay off some debts, and despite not being able to make it to New York, perhaps Burton's money can help him. Meanwhile, Taylor is also beginning to discover that his executive assistant (Maggie Smith) has a crush on him.

Two other stories involve Margaret Rutherford as a formerly wealthy old lady who has one of those great English manors that is really a white elephant because of all the upkeep, and Orson Welles as a movie director who would like to flee England and its confiscatory tax regime, but discovers that Rutherford's manor house might just be the perfect setting for his new film.

As far as movies with ensemble casts go, The VIPs is probably a better movie than Grand Hotel, in that the stories are more interesting, and rarely seen overplayed. And with these all-star movies, if you don't like one of the stories, they'll always switch back to another of them soon. (This is one of the advantages that the later disaster movies of the 1970s don't really have. The characters have backstories, but there's really only one main plot.) That having been said, The VIPs isn't quite as good as Dinner at Eight; nor does it have the slightly irreverent sense of fun that The Poseidon Adventure does. Not many movies do, though, so this is only a minor criticism. The VIPs is a nice look at a slice of the uppercrust as it was in the early 1960s, and entertaining, to boot.

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