Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Entertainer

TCM is kicking off this final night of Laurence Olivier's as Star of the Month with a gem that I think doesn't get the attention it deserves: The Entertainer, at 8:00 PM.

Olivier stars as Archie Rice, the father in a family who unfortunately hasn't made much of a success in life. Archie's father Billy (Roger Livesey), was a very successful music-hall entertainer a generation earlier, and Archie followed in Dad's footsteps. Like vaudeville over on this side of the Atlantic, the music hall was not destined to thrive in the changing times that followed World War II. Much like vaudeville, I suppose, except that the transition came later. Archie also doesn't have as much talent as his father did, so while Dad got to perform in the great music halls of London, Archie is reduced to performing in Britain's fading seaside resorts; resorts I think would compare roughly to the Borscht Belt here in the US; places where the average family could go for a holiday at a relatively inexpensive price. But after World War II with cheaper transportation options, other places became much more desirable for vacations, leaving the old resorts faded shells of themselves. So that's Archie's work prospects in a nutshell.

His life outside of work isn't much better. Or, that is to say, work seems to be his life, and without much work there isn't a particularly wonderful life. He's married to his second wife, Phoebe (Brenda de Banzie), and has three kids. The eldest, daughter Jean (Joan Plowright), would like to be an artist and social worker, and even has a boyfriend. She also no longer lives with the family, and both loves him and sees he's never going to be a success; Frank (Alan Bates) works for Dad; and Michael (Albert Finney), who has joined the military and is about to be sent to the Mediterranean as part of the Suez crisis. The much bigger problem is financial. Having never really had a successful show, Archie is heavily in debt and has put everything in Phoebe's name in an attempt to keep it away from the creditors. Phoebe is naturally frightened that the creditors are going to get everything, leaving her and Archie penniless. She's got an offer from relatives on her side of the family who have already emigrated to Canada to join them, and she thinks a new start would be perfect for her and Archie, and tries to convince him to take up that offer.

But Archie still has dreams of hitting it big. The resort town where he works is holding a beauty pageant, and Archie chats up Tina, one of the prize winners (Shirley Anne Field). It turns out that her father is well-to-do, and Archie sees that big pile of money: perhaps Tina's father could help back the new show Archie is planning to put on! Archie also woos Tina, of course not letting her know he's married. It's something Phoebe has apparently seen before, and is resigned to seeing happen again. But, with Archie's charm, the money from Tina's father, and Billy coming out of retirement to be the headline act, Archie might finally be able to make the big time and get out of debt. But tragedy strikes, first in the form of Michael being taken POW. And that's not the last of the tragedies....

The Entertainer is, in many ways, a real downer of a film. Olivier's Archie is a man whom society is passing by, and he is utterly powerless to do anything about it. And yet he keeps on plugging away at his dreams, even though there are times you want to tell him to just go to Canada with Phoebe. The thing is, Archie probably doesn't know anything but entertainment, and would feel useless if he didn't have that in his life. It doesn't help that Archie makes himself quite unsympathetic at times by the way he uses people -- especially Phoebe and Tina -- and doesn't seem to care about anybody else's needs. And this is before the real tragedies.

Yet, in the end, The Entertainer is a great film, down in no small part to Olivier's excellent performance. Olivier makes his character real, telling Jean at one point that he's really dead behind the eyes. Still, he carries on, if only because he simply doesn't know anything else to do: if he didn't have the opportunity to attempt to entertain people, he'd be dead in front of the eyes too. I can't help but think of life was like in the dying days of vaudeville, or for other old-time entertainers whose style was being consigned to the dustbin of history. Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd. at least made enough money from the silents that she could like in a decaying mansion, but Archie Rice doesn't even have that, never having been big.

If you want to see The Entertainer, be prepared to catch tonight's showing on TCM. The movie did get a DVD release many years ago, but the DVD is long out of print. With its wonderful cast, especially Olivier, whose name ought to remain well-knwon by the general public even though he's been dead for almost a quarter century.

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