Friday, June 27, 2014

I AM A CAMERA 1955

“I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.”
Christopher Isherwood  - The Berlin Stories 1945

I've wanted to see I Am a Camera for 42 years. That’s the length of time I've been aware of - yet unable to lay eyes upon - this little-known, rarely-televised, not-available-on DVD, all-but-forgotten adaptation of the successful Broadway play that inspired the musical, Cabaret, and gave the screen its very first Sally Bowles.
Julie Harris as Sally Bowles
Laurence Harvey as Christopher Isherwood
Shelley Winters as Natalia Landauer
Anton Diffring as Fritz Wendel
Forty-two years ago: It was 1972, I was a freshman in high school, and Cabaret had just opened nationally. I was eager to see the film on the strength of my fascination with Bob Fosse’s choreography in Sweet Charity (1969) and my infatuation with Liza Minnelli in The Sterile Cuckoo (1969), but in order to persuade my family to select it for a night out at the movies, I had to rely on the scores of critical raves quoted in the newspaper ads. Which was all for the good, because I knew next to nothing about just what Cabaret was.

I had absolutely no foreknowledge of Christopher Isherwood’s 1945 novelized twin-memoir: The Berlin Stories; I was in the dark about playwright John Van Druten (I Remember Mama) adapting one of those short novels –  Goodbye to Berlin – as the 1951 play, I Am a Camera (prompting theater critic Walter Kerr’s terse, too-oft-quoted review, “Me no Leica”); and I was thoroughly unaware that said seriocomic play had served as the structural source for the 1966 musical, Cabaret…the original Broadway production serving as merely the launch pad for Fosse’s significantly reworked movie adaptation.

Well, as if to prove the adage, “ignorance is bliss,” a byproduct of my state of unenlightenment was that it afforded me the rare opportunity of enjoying Cabaret free of the usual burdens that come with seeing a beloved stage and/or literary work adapted into another medium: e.g., that feeling of never fully being “in the moment” born of anticipating the omission or mishandling of some favored line or bit of business, or that ceaseless, almost involuntary process of comparison and sizing up that goes on in your head as you watch, hoping expectation doesn't outpace execution.
Lea Seidl as Fraulein Schneider, the landlady
Ron Randell as Clive Mortimer, the rich American playboy

Like most everyone who saw it at the time, I was completely blown away by Cabaret. Especially its stylish, darkly atmospheric depiction of the social and moral decay of pre-Nazi Germany in the 30s…so ideally suited to Bob Fosse’s particular brand of razzle-dazzle cynicism. In an attempt to rectify my prior obliviousness, I subsequently took to reading everything I could about the film.

My first discovery was that it was the rare Cabaret review or feature article that didn't reference the film version of I am A Camera (always unfavorably). Some remarked on the film's failure to do justice to Van Druten's play, others complained that it didn't successfully bring to life Isherwood’s colorful characters, all cited it as the first on-screen incarnation of Sally Bowles. While it definitely came as a surprise to me to learn that Fräulein Bowles (who to this day is difficult to envision as anyone other than Liza Minnelli) appeared on film a whopping 17-years before Cabaret even existed, what really knocked me for a loop was that it was in the startlingly against-type personage of Julie Harris.
I couldn't imagine two actresses with less in common than Liza Minnelli and Julie Harris. Even in the most democratic of fantasies I'm hard-pressed to envision any point at which the talents of these two very gifted ladies might intersect to make feasible the notion of their being cast in the same role. One’s a jackhammer, the other a tap on the shoulder. It piqued my interest no end to discover that Harris (an actress I adored, but always associated with reserved, Plain Jane roles like in The Haunting, East of Eden, and You’re a Big Boy Now) originated the role of one of literature’s most flamboyant extroverts...and won a Tony Award for it in the bargain!
Divine Decadence
Sally bares her emerald-green nails (and tigress snarl)
Suddenly, I am A Camera became a movie I absolutely had to see. In 1972, I hoped the popularity of Cabaret would occasion a resurfacing of it on late-night TV at or a local revival theater…but no such luck. My frustration knew no bounds. In those pre-cable/pre-DVD days, it certainly wasn’t out of the ordinary to have to wait a long time for a favored old movie to make the rounds, but I am A Camera was a unique case in that absolutely no one I knew (not my parents nor my older sister, who was a Late Show maven if ever there was one) had ever heard of it, much less seen it.
Years passed (decades, actually), and I am A Camera eventually became one of those films (like Andy Warhol’s L’Amour) I resigned myself to never seeing. Then, two weeks ago, just as I’d all but forgotten all about it, what do you know?... there it is, big as life on YouTube: I Am a Camera - 1955!!!!

So it's true, good things come to those who wait...for a VERY long time!


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Having read so little over the years that could be considered encouraging about I Am a Camera, I’m afraid that when the time came for me to finally see it, I did so more out of curiosity than conviction. After it was over, I wanted to give each of those early critics a solid trouncing over the head (myself included, for believing them), for to my great surprise, I found I Am a Camera to be a thorough and utter delight. Maybe I wouldn’t have thought so back in 1972 when the air of solemnity Fosse brought to Cabaret rode the then-popular wave of pessimism of so many Nixon-era films (and flattered my adolescent-self-seriousness); but today, I Am a Camera’s unremittingly old-fashioned, studio-bound, almost farcical, light-comic approach distinguishes it so significantly from every other adaptation of Isherwood’s memoirs I've seen, that it stands far and apart from comparison and represents to me, a work unique unto itself.

Presented in the form of an extended flashback told to fellow writing associates by “confirmed bachelor,” now-successful author, Christopher Isherwood (Harvey), I Am a Camera recalls the years Isherwood spent as a struggling writer in Berlin in the 1930s. In vignette-style, the film recounts his platonic, life-changing friendship with free-spirit Sally Bowles (Harris), a modestly-talented cabaret singer and self-styled bohemian whose flighty manner and impulsive behavior propel him into adventures which will ultimately serve as the basis and inspiration for his early writing successes. A subplot involving his only-slightly-worldlier friend, Fritz (Diffring), a would-be gigolo and closet Jew, wooing a department-store heiress (Winters), introduces a bit of drama and brings to the forefront Germany’s mounting Nazi threat.
The Nazi Intrusion
Sally, Clive, and Christopher momentarily have their spirits dampened by a Jewish funeral procession  
I Am a Camera doesn't deviate significantly from the basic plot of Cabaret, its chief point of departure merely being one of approach. While Minnelli’s Sally Bowles symbolized the kind of I’m-dancing-as-fast-as-I can, willful self-deception that allowed the Nazis to take over a Depression-era Germany salving its sorrows with decadence; I Am a Camera presents Isherwood's adventures as a lighthearted coming-of-age story and depicts Bowles as something of an early incarnation of that genre staple: the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (thank you, Nathan Rabin) – the quirky, childlike female character who brings chaos into the orderly life of a sensitive, button-down type, only to leave him a better, more-matured artist for it.

Katherine Hepburn played one in Bringing Up Baby (1938), so did Sandy Dennis in Sweet November (1968). Certainly Minnelli's Pookie Adams from The Sterile Cuckoo qualifies (although "nightmare" might be more to the point), and the characters of Dolly Levi and Mame Dennis from Hello, Dolly! and Auntie Mame, respectively, are nothing if not the Manic Pixie Dream Matron. Of course, the great Grande Diva of Manic Pixie Dream Girls is Audrey Hepburn's Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and ultimately it is this film, not Cabaret, which I Am a Camera most recalls.
One of the setpieces of I Am a Camera is a raucous, remarkably-staged party scene that predates Blake Edwards' iconic cocktail party sequence in Breakfast at Tiffany's 

Both Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's (published in 1958) and Christopher Isherwood's Goodbye to Berlin (published in 1939) are novelized memoirs written by gay men recalling their transformative friendships with quirky, unconventional women of liberated sexuality. Whereas Tiffany's was converted into a romantic comedy (even Cabaret imposed a false romance), Camera leaves Isherwood's homosexuality as coded as the 50s would allow (his declaration "I suppose I'm not the marrying kind," is tantamount to outing himself). 
PERFORMANCES
Whether or not one cares for I Am a Camera’s lighthearted touch and bittersweet Hollywood happy ending (which still feels more honest than making the Isherwood character bisexual [the movie musical] or straight [the stage musical]), I can’t imagine any fan of classic cinema not being enchanted by the sight of so many brilliant dramatic actors displaying such a talent for comedy.
British actor Laurence Harvey, long a favorite of mine yet so unaccountably stiff and affectless in so many of his American roles, is appealingly naïf and boyish as Isherwood. I've always harbored a big crush on him, so perhaps I'm not exactly what you'd call an objective judge, but I’d easily rank his work in I Am a Camera alongside Room at the Top and Expresso Bongo as among Harvey's best film performances.
In a reversal of her role in 1951s A Place in the Sun, Shelley Winters
 plays an heiress wooed by a fortune-hunter 
As for the strikingly handsome Anton Diffring, so chilling as the villain in Fahrenheit 451 and an actor who literally made a career out of playing cold-hearted Nazis, I never would have guessed he’d be so charming a light comedy player. To be honest, I think this is the very first film in which I've ever seen him smile! Shelley Winters, several years away from the grating, undisciplined performances that would later brand her a camp film  favorite, has a surprisingly small role and displays a worrisome German accent, but she is endearing beyond belief. It's easy to forget what an accomplished comedienne she could be.

But hands-down, it is Julie Harris who walks off with my highest praise. She's nothing short of sensational. I've seen Harris in many things over the years (even on Hollywood Squares), but I've never EVER seen her this perky and playful. I had no idea she could be such a flirtatious, funny, physical, and vivacious a personality. Her versatility is on full display here, capturing the many shades of Sally's mercurial personality, from her childlike vulnerability to her flashes of self-interested callousness. Speaking in that rapid-fire manner I associate with George Cukor movies, her Sally Bowles is less a bohemian iconoclast and reminds me more of Kathryn Hepburn's Eva Lovelace in Morning Glory (1933): all self-centered chatter and ostentatious show, but ultimately touching.
I found not a single moment of Harris' performance wanting, save for the poorly-matched dubbed voice she's given during her big cabaret number - the languid vocalist fails to capture the sprightliness of Harris' physical interpretation (I'm reminded of the too-calm dubbed voice attributed to Rita Moreno in West Side Story). Harris doesn't appear to be lip-syncing, leaving me to suspect the other voice was added post-production. I remember hearing Julie Harris sing on the cast album of the 1965 Broadway musical, Skyscraper ... she mostly went the Rex Harrison talk-sing route.

In the end, what pleased and surprised me most about Harris as Sally Bowles is the manner in which she tackles the role with such ease and command, inhabiting her character so winningly and completely that she resists comparisons to Liza Minnelli, making the part her own. No easy task, that.
"I remembered your eyes. It was if they were asking me to look at you and yet not see you!"
It's believed that Julie Harris' outstanding performance was overlooked for an Oscar nomination because I Am a Camera - a British production which failed to punish its sexually promiscuous heroine or delete mention of abortion - was denied a Production Code Seal, resulting in many theaters refusing to screen it, and some newspapers refusing to carry ads. In the UK, it was given the "Certificate X" rating.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
While devoid of anything like Cabaret's "bumsen" scene, I Am a Camera is remarkably frank on the topics of sex, abortion, prostitution, and, depending on one's susceptibility to gay coding in old films, homosexuality. Considered risqué for its time, I was amused by just how much they were able to allude to in this 1955 film (a gay couple is briefly glimpsed in the nightclub scene) and enjoyed noting how many little details of style and content would later show up in Fosse's Cabaret.
This Sally sings at The Lady Windermere, but its clientele is pure Kit Kat Klub, 
as are its wall caricatures
Partaking of Sally's favorite pick-me-up: Prairie Oysters 
The Threesome...
...The Twosome
Laurence Harvey + rectal thermometer = sexiest scene in the film 
"I mean, I may not be absolutely exactly what some people call a virgin... ."

THE STUFF OF DREAMS 
For all the charismatic dominance of Sally Bowles and Julie Harris’ standout performance, I Am a Camera ultimately manages to make good on its first-person title by being a story of one man’s coming of age. The increased presence of the Nazis in Berlin challenges Isherwood's determination to just be a spectator in life, his ultimate inability to ignore its evil facilitating his growth as both as a man and as an artist.

For me, the poignancy of I Am a Camera is found in its final moments when it becomes clear (to us, if not the characters involved) that, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Christopher has possessed all along what he'd sought to find. As the only person to take pity on the abandoned Sally that first night in the club; to be the one individual who offered her shelter without want of anything in return; to have remained by her side during a crisis, even going so far as to propose marriage and lose a promising job opportunity - Christopher was involved in life from the very start. He was never for a moment the apathetic, unthinking “camera” he imagined himself to be.
Christopher ceases to be the passive observer
Author Armistead Maupin in his 2008 introduction to Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories (and if you haven't read The Berlin Stories, I highly recommend it) makes the observation that Isherwood's narrative device of assuming the role of the “camera" in his memoirs - the impartial, uninvolved recorder of events - was the author's way of protecting himself. Intentionally keeping his homosexuality out of his autobiographical stories for fear that its mere inclusion would distract from everything else in the text. 
A necessity at the time, but one rectified by Isherwood himself in his 1976 memoir, Christopher and His Kind, in which the very same pre-war Berlin years documented in this film are recounted with a proud acceptance of his sexuality and an acknowledgment of its profound influence on his life and his art. 

I Am a Camera; a film shrouded in period-mandated gay coding (the aforementioned “confirmed bachelor” line) and starring a closeted gay actor portraying an asexual/sexually ambiguous character; is a product of its time, yet nevertheless contains a timeless message. Especially for the LGBT community which has been so much a part of Christopher Isherwood's enduring legacy. Society, when not actively seeking to eradicate, has always encouraged gay people to “hide in plain sight.” To, in effect, protect ourselves through anonymity and the acceptance of a non-participatory role as a “camera” on the periphery of life.
I Am a Camera - (inadvertently perhaps, but I'd like to think by way of the innate humanity of Isherwood and his characters) - exposes inauthenticity as an obstruction to growth (Sally, a woman defined by artifice, never changes); promotes the necessity of being true to oneself (Fritz finds love and is compelled to reveal his true self to Natalia); and affirms the absolute necessity that we must all be active participants in life...no matter how complicated things become.
Since I consider Bob Fosse's Cabaret to be such a perfect film and wasn't really hoping to find a movie to compare it to or replace it with, I rejoiced in I Am a Camera turning out to be so comprehensively and refreshingly different. Making up for those 42-years of longing, I've already seen it three times and marvel at what a splendid lost gem it is. To quote Sally Bowles, I think I Am a Camera is "Most strange and extraordinary!"


BONUS MATERIAL
I Am a Camera is available for viewing in its entirety on YouTube HERE

The tune Sally Bowles sings in her cabaret act is the 1951 German song, “Ich Hab Noch Einen Koffer in Berlin” (I still have a Suitcase in Berlin) written by Ralph Maria Siegel. In this film given new English lyrics by Paul Dehn (the title changing to: "I Saw Him in a Café in Berlin").
You can Hear Marlene Dietrich sing the original song HERE

The 2011 BBC-TV adaptation of Isherwood's Christopher & His Kind is available for viewing in its entirety on YouTube HERE

Copyright © Ken Anderson

39 comments:

  1. Hi Ken - what a treat! I am dying to see this film as well. I had no idea that Laurence Harvey was in this as Isherwood, nor Shelley Winters in the role Marisa Berenson plays in Cabaret (I love the scene where she mispronounces phlegm as "the pleg-ma")...what a cast, and the gorgeous screen caps you've found show it is a stylish production.

    So excited to see the great Julie Harris play the outrageous Sally Bowles. While working at a regional theater here in South Florida, I was honored to meet and spend an evening with her and Charles Durning, thanks to my friend Charles Nelson Reilly, who directed them in The Gin Game. Miss Harris was a gracious lady and had a powerful stage presence, more than any of her film appearances show us today. I look forward to seeing her interpret Isherwood's great madcap diva.

    I will report back after watching--probably this weekend! Hope all is well with you, Ken!!

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    1. Hi Chris
      I look forward to hearing what you think of the film. You can never tell with youTube-one day a film is there, the next it's not. In any event I am eternally grateful to whomever posted this.Such a pleasure to have something you've longed to see turn out to be so gratifying.
      That memorable Marisa Berenson scene is just as amusingly depicted here, although with different comic focus. It's wonderful.
      I am of course most thrilled to hear that you met and spent time with Julie Harris! And During and Reilly too!
      You've had so many encounters with greats long gone, perhaps you'd consider memorializing those encounters with brief anecdotes on your terrific blog? So many us of only know them them from their film and television work, it adds quite a lot to the fandom experience to read about them in some personal encounter.
      I wish I could have seen Harris perform live in something. Next on my YouTube list is "The Belle of Amherst." Happy viewing!

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    2. Just watched it, and really enjoyed it! Very racy for the mid 1950s--the party scene is positively kinky! I l love Harris's interpretation of Sally...very fresh! And Harvey and Winters and the fellow who played Fritz are also wonderful. Now looking forward to viewing Christopher and His Kind--have not seen that for years. Thanks again, Ken, for these treasured finds!!

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    3. Thanks for the follow-up, Chris! Happy to hear you enjoyed it! I've never seen "Christopher and His Kind" I plan on watching it after I read it.
      So appreciate your visits here, Chris!

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  2. Ken, great and insightful writing, as I would expect. I especially like your observation that "I Am a Camera - (inadvertently perhaps, but I'd like to think by way of the innate humanity of Isherwood and his characters - exposes inauthenticity as an obstruction to growth...and encourages being true to oneself." Like you I've wanted to see this film literally for decades and been unsuccessful in locating it. I even had it in my Netflix queue (as a "saved" item) for years before giving up and removing it. I am a huge fan of Julie Harris and also associate her with restrained, even repressed characters and find it hard to imagine her as the uninhibited Sally Bowles. The first thing I ever saw her in, when I was a boy, was a Hallmark Hall of Fame TV production of "The Heiress" as Catherine Sloper, and I've been smitten ever since. Thank you for letting us know where to find "I Am a Camera." I'll be watching it soon.

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    1. Hello Richard
      A big thank you, and so happy to see your name here again! I'm glad to hear that I am not the only one who found this film to be a difficult one to track down. I thought I was just unlucky until I began to ask others about it and nary a soul (on these shores) have seen it.
      In researching this post, I noted "The Heiress" on Harris' IMDB profile. How wonderful for you to have seen it! Now that is a role I have no trouble imagining her taking on. Seeing her as Sally Bowles recalls the surprise I experienced when I saw Elizabeth Hartman (another great purveyor of shy, repressed types) as the self-confident man-hater in You're a Big Boy Now. Love it when a good actor is given a chance to shine in roles against type. Hope you share your thoughts on "I Am a Camera" when you get around to seeing it!

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  3. Do you remember when Julie Harris and Charles Nelson Reilly would appear as a couple on the game show. "Tattletales"? Ah, seventies TV memories, you never let me down!

    I think Julie Harris is sometimes considered frail and fragile because of her physical slightness, but she could play a tough dame (albeit one with a broken center) if the role called for it. In fact, I just saw her last week in "Harper" (which was on TCM) where she played a junkie nightclub singer and she was great. Interestingly, Shelley Winters was also in that movie, but by then, as you observed, she had evolved into the campy parody she'd parlay for the next three decades. Watching Harris and Winters in "Harper," it's as if they're in two completely different movies.

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    1. Oh my gosh...I haven't heard mention of "Tattletales" since I last watched an old "Euinice" episode of The Carol Burnett Show! I don't remember Julie and Charles being paired on that game show, but it sounds like a hoot.
      And you're right about Harris occasionally taking on the occasional tough-lady role. I remember her in Harper, and I have a vague memory of her in a Jim Brown crime caper film ("The Split" perhaps...I should look it up) in which she showed a more assertive side as well.
      Harris was certainly a favorite of mine, growing up, but even now, in my mind's eye, I always envision her with no makeup, hair parted in the middle, up in a bun, and speaking with downcast eyes. I was so taken by how Un-Julie Harris she is in "I Am a Camera" I think I watched the first twenty minutes or so with my jaw dropped to the floor.

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  4. As a huge Isherwood fan, and an even bigger Cabaret freak, you'd think I'd have seen this by now but I never have! Well, now I definitely will. Great post!

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    1. Hope you enjoy it Thom! Seeing Isherwood adapted in so many mediums in so many different eras really brings home the significant role genre identification plays in making works of literature, works of marketable entertainment. The need to impose, romance, conflict, heroism, etc. to slice of life works changes how they are interpreted by different generations. You'll see 1950s "sophisticated sex comedy" stamped all over this one.
      Glad you now have the opportunity to see it!

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  5. Hello Ken. I've seen this one! It was on swedish television years ago and I happened to come across it. It was fascinating to see these chracters played by others than in "Cabaret" and in black and white. It was very british and enjoyable even without the big production values of a Hollywood movie.

    What I remember most is that they had filmed the outside of a building on location in London (not Berlin for an outdoors scene). The entrance they showed belongs to a house at Bryanston Square where I lived as child. It sounds strange but I'm very certain it is the very same house! It is a long time ago since I saw the film but I was very sure at the time when I viewed it. I'll have to watch it again for all of the reasons in your great review of the film.

    What you wrote about the Sally in "Cabaret" getting lost in the decadence after the war and not noticing what was going on in the outside world is so true. Her lust for a life without worries is symbolic of how people did not want to see what was going on in Germany at the time.
    -Wille

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    1. Hi Wille
      That's amazing about the house you refer two. I only know of two scenes where it appears the film has left the sound stage: One being the visit to the Landauer home, and the other a POV shot of the funeral procession.
      If you say you lived in that circular home they show the car driving up to, I'm going to flip! It's such a striking-looking house!
      If you happen to take another look at the film, let me know.

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    2. I had to see the film again to see if I just had imagined seeing the house that I mentioned. I followed your link to the film and it is in the very first scene after the credits! Christopher is walking to a literary cocktail party held by his publisher. I checked with goggle maps and it's the same part of London. Christopher starts walking down Wyndham Place and walks up to the door of the house in Bryanston Square. It's sounds strange but it's true!
      Wille

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    3. I just want to add that the interior of the house is not how it looked indoors. That's a studio set.

      What a charming film it was, so full of vitality and rather daring too for the times what with the unwed mother and hints of abortion. Thank you for reviewing this undeservedly overlooked gem! I suppose if it had been made in Hollywood, instead of Britain, it would be more well known.
      Wille

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    4. Hello, Wille
      That is an amazing bit of trivia there, regarding your old home appearing in this largely-unseen-in-these-parts film! In trying to remember the location shots, the post-credits scene you cite slipped my mind. I'm glad the film copy was clear enough for you to have made a clear identification. Thank you for sharing this info with us!

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  6. I'm astounded that so many folks here, yourself included, Ken, had (or continue to have!) such difficulty in tracking down "I Am A Camera". It's appeared several times in recent years, free-to-air and without commercial interruptions(!), on ABC-TV (Australia). In fact, the ABC (which manages to be commercial-free because it's basically government-funded) has quite a few really old movies that aren't available on DVD. I caught a screening of it several years ago--I would've taken it for granted that you, Ken, would've caught it many years earlier! Surprised, I was, that there's only one musical number in the entire film--if they'd changed the names of a few characters, I would never have guessed it had anything to do with "Cabaret"!

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    1. Ha! Mark, you make it sound as if it the film has been lying under everyone's noses, undetected yet in plain sight, all of these years!

      No, what I and so many of the commenters here are responding to (and where your feelings of being astounded are better directed) is simply the inscrutability of international copyright laws. How materials readily accessible in one country can be tantamount to The Holy Grail in another.
      In the post I relay that "I Am a Camera" has only recently been made available here in the States, but only on YouTube. I've now seen it three times, and I don't expect a DVD release or TV airing any time soon.

      The list of Hollywood films from the recent past (Puzzle of a Downfall Child comes to mind) that are virtually "lost' here, but accessible elsewhere in the world is a head-scratcher.

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    2. "I Am A Camera" is available on DVD--the image of the DVD cover can be seen at IMDB. But perhaps it isn't available in the States. A good rule of thumb--if something is on YouTube and looks crisp, most likely it's been taken from a DVD. If it's any consolation, a great deal of movies on DVD haven't been released in Australia!

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  7. It's always interesting to me the way many of us cinemaphiles have a "Holy Grail" film or three that we hope and pray we'll get to see. I'm so happy that in this case it worked out that the movie lived up to or exceeded your expectations! It stinks when they don't. There's a Jim Brown movie called "The Split" that has Miss Harris in one of her tougher parts. She's an actress I have grown to admire so much over the years, working backwards (as I have with so many) from seeing her as Joan Van Ark's overbearing and troublesome mother on "Knots Landing" when I was a teen. Thanks for another terrific and insightful read.

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    1. Hi Poseidon
      Thanks for confirming my memory of "The Spilt" I was relating in a comment above how I recalled seeing Harris play a toughie in a Jim Brown film, but was unsure of the title.
      And yes, it is interesting how, every film lover has one (or several) films they long to see and yet the films have eluded them. Like you I have many, and it's always great when they live up to expectations. One "Holy Grail" film I saw recently which was a real letdown was the Sally Kellerman film "A Reflection of Fear"...I missed it in the 70s, when I saw it earlier this year it was like an overlong episode of Night Gallery).
      I think I had allowed my expectations to drop so low for "I Am a Camera" that by the time i saw it, part of me was merely overjoyed to find it not the disaster I had read about for so many years..
      Thanks for visiting, Poseidon!

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  8. Thanks for the YouTube link, Ken, I’ve been wanting to see this film for years, too. I happened to read Isherwood’s “Berlin Stories” for the first time last year. A friend and fellow blogger had just guest-blogged a piece, “Viktor und Viktoria’s Darling of the Gods,” on my site, rekindling my interest in Weimar-era Berlin. Of course, this made me realize that I still hadn’t seen and might never have the chance to see I AM A CAMERA.

    It occurs that one of the very few trailers I remember seeing is the one that preceded CABARET’s release in 1972. The clip ends with Liza’s show-stopping rendition of the title song and, as I watched it in a large, darkened theater, I literally got chills. Thankfully, the film not only lived up to this mesmerizing introduction but surpassed it.

    Your mention of the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” reminds me of a project I’ve been mulling for quite a while, “The evolution of the Kooky Chick.” This came to me while thinking about one of my absolute favorite movie heroines of all time, Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly, along with certain Shirley MacLaine roles of the same era. Thus, the ‘60s descriptor. I began to consider earlier film incarnations of a general type (some you mention in this piece) as well as more recent iterations.

    Your pieces are always intelligent and – obviously – excite and inspire me. Thanks again, Ken, and now I’m off to see I AM A CAMERA.

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    1. Hi Eve
      I only got around to reading Isherwood's "Berlin Stories" this year, too! I was going to write a piece on "Cabaret" and thought i should at last read the real deal.
      I saw "Cabaret" in the theater as well, and I have that final number flared into my brain as well. Truly electrifying stuff.
      That project you speak of sounds fascinating to me, as "kook" was the term i remember always being used when critics wrote about Julie Christie's character in "Petulia" and Shirley MacLaine in "Two for the Seesaw."
      It's such a screen archetype, persistent male fantasy (women's fantasy, too?) , and seems to have no male counterpart, it seems the topic is ripe for exploration and examination. The "type" keeps getting retrofitted to each new generation. Just thinking about what insight you could bring to the topic makes me feel it is a perfect project for you. Go, go, go!
      Thank you, again, for your always very kind and complimentary comments. I hope you like "I Am a Camera" as much as I did. But maybe that's not possible...you don't harbor my Laurence Harvey fixation. :-)

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  9. Anybody watching it keep an eye out for "The Prisoner"'s Patrick McGoohan as well!
    Great find!

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    1. My gosh, he's so young, I never would have recognized him! Thanks for pointing him out, I really didn't know he was in the film at all.
      For those with poor eyesight like me, he's the tall hydrotherapist requesting two bathrooms and an ice bucket in the party scene.

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  10. Hi Ken,

    I had actually noticed that this was available a few weeks ago and was intrigued. Like everyone else I've been curious about it for years since learning of its existence but ran into a brick wall in regards to access. I immediately wanted to see it, it was just finding the time to do that. That time finally arrived this morning.

    A few qualifiers first. Don't hate me since I know you love it but I'm not a huge fan of Cabaret. It's well made, I like a most of the music and Liza aces the role but I just never really connected with it. I was still interested to see the comparisons between it and this film.

    The first thing that struck me was that as a cabaret performer, which of course we only get a brief glance in Camera, Julie is closer to the description that Sally is usually given. That is at best she is a second rate musical performer, I know in the original Broadway production of Cabaret Jill Haworth was cast partly because she wasn't a dazzling singer. As I said Liza was the best part of the movie for me but she was really too talented to be true to the character. A tad ironic that in a film that should have cast a mediocre singer in the lead they spotlit a highly gifted one and in modern musicals often they cast name actors, Russell Crowe, Renee Zellweger, Amanda Seyfried, Meryl Streep etc., with middling musical gifts in roles that require a Minnelli level of talent.

    You could tell that this was an English production almost from the get go as you said in the light coding of Isherwood's homosexuality, the fact that if Sally wasn't an actual prostitute she was certainly willing to trade sex for personal gain, that she clearly planned to have an abortion but the thing that made it most obvious to me was the fact that Julie Harris was playing the lead.

    Even after her big successes in Member of the Wedding and East of Eden Hollywood never really tried to make a leading lady of Julie. Between Eden and her next lead in The Haunting was an eight year gap, it might be that she wasn't necessarily interested since the stage was her major love but she didn't fit into the ready made mode that Hollywood was selling at the time. The fact that she created the part on stage of course meant very little especially at that time, other than Judy Holliday who had Hepburn and Tracy pushing for her, unproven talents were almost always replaced between stage and screen. If this had been produced in Hollywood she would have had to watch from the sidelines as Marilyn Monroe, Ava Gardner, Jean Simmons or even Holly Golightly herself Audrey Hepburn played the (watered down) part.

    Julie was wonderful as Sally, definitely a different interpretation but the proper brittle reading of a lost girl who doesn't think she's lost. As good as she always was on film and TV after having seen her on stage in The Belle of Amherst I saw that she registered in a way that she couldn't in pictures. She feed off that live energy like no one I've ever seen. While I'm sure it would have been astonishing to see her in this on stage I'm glad she got the chance to leave a record of her performance.

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    1. Hi Joel
      Nice observations you make about "I am a Camera." Specifically those citing the unlikelihood of Julie Harris being able to recreate her stage role had the film been made in Hollywood. In fact, had Hollywood had a hand in this, I daresay it would have been sanitized out of all recognition.
      Always so curious, as time passes, to ruminate on what censors think they are protecting people from.
      I also like the point you make about the irony inherent in casting an exceedingly talented musical performer like Liza Minnelli to portray a modestly-talented chanteuse; then going out and hiring non-singers to perform in musical films requiting real ability.

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  11. I'm also not as big a fan of Laurence Harvey as you are but I will admit I liked him better in this than almost anything I've ever seen him in. He was more humorous than normal, hadn't settled into that slickness that came along shortly after Room at the Top and seemed overall more engaged with the script and the other perfomers than was usually the case.

    Shelley Winters' gentle reading of her part was also quite lovely. Still about a decade away from when she abandoned, with a few exceptions, all attempts at nuance her quiet work is a nice reminder of how talented she could be. Actually the whole cast does really good work.

    It's funny how most, if not all, movie lovers have their specific Holy Grail films and it's always a dicey proposition when you finally see them, if you do.

    When I finally caught up with The Chapman Report, also with Shelley Winters, I was delighted to find that it had been worth the wait full of pathos and humor but also loaded with soapy goodness. The old Norma Shearer weepie There Own Desire was just the reverse though! I sat in slack jawed horror as that creaky antique unspooled. It was disappointing after chasing it for years but at least I was only watching it to try and see as many performances that had been nominated for a best actress Oscar as possible.

    It's so surprising when a film with a pedigree like I Am a Camera is hard to track down. You would think that certain film makers or pictures with a reference point like Cabaret would automatically be candidates for a release on current media until you realize that not even all films that have been Oscar nominated are readily available. My most desired film that seems totally unavailable at present is a movie with my beloved Linda Darnell called The Lady Pays Off, what's surprising about its obscureness is that it was directed by Douglas Sirk. He's so venerated now that I would have thought his American films would have been released in some sort of collection by now. Frustrating.

    Thanks Ken not just for the interesting overview but for reminding me about the film so I could finally watch it and check it off my list. Youtube is a such a valuble source for this sort of thing. Now if I could only find The Walls of Jericho, The Blue Veil, Mr. Imperium or The Revolt of Mamie Stover on there!!

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    1. I'm wholly unfamiliar with the Holy Grail films you mentioned as being on your list (save for The Chapman Report). Sometimes, good or bad, it's just a pleasure to see a film one has wondered about for a long time.
      Although the movies don't always stay up for long, YouTube has proved to be a valuable Holy Grail source. I've especially enjoyed seeing so many fondly-remembered 70s TV movies from my youth (few actually living up to my memory of them). Thanks for commenting, Joel!

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    2. Ken, Your comment about the films on Youtube coming and going prompted me to check on those films I listed and Happy Day! it turns out that Mr. Imperium has shown up!! It's an obscure Lana Turner musical (?) title that is also one of Debbie Reynolds first films. Debbie told wonderful backstage stories about the making of it in her first bio. Who knows if it will be any good but I'm especially anxious to give it a look since it's the only one of Debbie's theatrical films I haven't seen. So thanks for the inspiration, I'm making time to watch tomorrow.

      One really odd but fascinating number that's still on Youtube is Christmas Holiday. Deanna Durbin is a prostitute or as the film refers to her a "roadside hostess"! who sings of course and Gene Kelly her mad dog killer escaped con husband with mommy issues! To say it's the most unusual film either made is an understatement. The one drawback is that it's posted in ten minute increments which can be a pain but also makes it easier to break away if you have to when one clip ends.

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    3. Happy to hear you found the Lana Turner musical on YouTube! I hope it turns out to be a glad surprise. i must say, you got my interest with your description of "Christmas Holiday", a film I'd never heard of. it sounds like such an against-type affair it HAS to be interesting even if i don't like it! I'm going to see if I can find time to watch it. Thanks for bringing a number of obscurities to my attention, Joel!

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    4. Hi Ken,

      The Lana movie was a piece of ridiculous cotton candy with a preposterous plot and that MGM sheen which is always a good thing. I was glad to finally track it down, I had guessed from the description that it wouldn't be a classic but beside Lana and Debbie Marjorie Main was also in the cast. It was a painless way to spend 90 minutes and rounded off my Debbie viewing, so yeah!

      Anxious to hear your thoughts on Christmas Holiday! Forgot to mention that the mommy Gene had issues with is played by that mistress of malevolence Gale Sondergaard.

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  12. I'm sure I'm not telling someone with your extensive knowledge of Cabaret anything new, but Judi Dench was the original Sally Bowles on the London stage in 1968. I remember an interview where she said something like how hard it is to sincerely play someone with mediocre talent who is blithely oblivious to their lack thereof. I've seen some photographs from the production--Dame Judi looking very downscale with runs in her stockings and much-mended garments. And I can just hear her croaking out some of those Cabaret classic songs!

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    1. Hi Deborah
      On the contrary, I did NOT know that Judi Dench originated the role on the London stage! That's fascinating. I can only imagine how terrific she must have been (her bit in the movie "Nine" I guess could serve as a hint).
      So interesting to know how the dramatic productions adhered to that element of Bowles' character that asserted her meager singing skills.
      I've seen a stage production of "Cabaret" with a not-very-talented Sally, and to this day I'm not sure if it was intentional.

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  13. Thank you so much for this review and especially the links! I thought for sure "I Am A Camera" would turn up on TCM - but no. I'll have to set aside some time to watch both "Camera" and "Christopher & His Kind" which I read h so many years ago. (P.S. Ditto on Laurence Harvey)

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    1. Hi Robert
      I'm with you, I always thought this film would turn up one day on TCM. I waited so long I forgot about it entirely. It felt like quite the find seeing it on YouTube. As I missed my chance in the past to see several other "lost" films that were uploaded one day, only to disappear the next, I watched it I believe the very same day. I hope you enjoy it when you get around to it.
      Thanks for commenting, and I'm happy to hear you too appreciate the lanky charms of Mr. Harvey.

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  14. Having just discovered your blog, and gone through your wonderful reviews, this is the first one that I really disagree with. The only reason to watch this, IMHO, is for the actors and particularly to see Julie Harris (Isherwood, who hated the play just as he hated the various iterations of Cabaret and probably would have hated A Single Man and Christopher and his Kind's adaptations as well, for that matter, has written that on stage Julie Harris was exactly his Sally Bowles come to life.)

    And I'm not sure it's really true that the original van Druten play has been de-fanged, but that's just my impression from having read the play and never, of course, seen it. The film strikes me as pretty faithful--and maybe that's part of my prob. Van Druten, IMHO, is one of those 20th century playwrights who had great success (The Voice of the Turtle, I Remember Mama, etc) but is now largely unperformed because his work, while always capable, is also completely uninspired. I almost wrote that I find him a hack, but that would be unfair...

    At any rate, I admit part of my dislike for the movie is that I saw it as an opinionated teenager in the 90s (and yes, like you said, it was next to impossible to track down until a Canadian movie station here aired it one night and I managed to catch it,) who was obsessed with Isherwood, Cabaret, etc. So I admit my bias, and the fact that the Breakfast at Tiffany's take on the material simply does not work at all for me (good call on the comparison, however!) I recently re-visited it on youtube however, and my feelings hadn't changed. I guess I simply can't divorce the piece from the works it's adapting and the complete change of tone (which is funny as often I appreciate when films go in a different way. Back to Isherwood, I even really liked Ford's film of A Single Man even though stylistically it's nearly the opposite of Isherwood's remarkable novel which relishes in the ugliness of life not the austere beauty Ford portrays.)

    Of course the original play did help form the structure of Cabaret on stage (and to a lesser extent on screen, even though even on stage they added a lot of elements taken from brief mentions in The Berlin Stories like Herr Shultz) So I guess there's... that. And, while I've heard the film as not a success, the play did make a big enough impact that for a good decade before Cabaret finally was made, various composers wanted to make more light hearted musical adaptations (including Bob Fosse who saw Sally as a good vehicle for his wife Gwen Verdon in the early 60s) before Hal Prince came up with his brilliant concept for the production and hired his own writers.

    Still--as always a great and thought provoking review,
    Eric Henwood-Greer

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    1. Thanks very much, Eric!
      You really have covered quite a few films here!
      As stated in an earlier reply to one of your comments, I like that you are able to articulate the whys and wherefores of what you like and don't like about a film, or where our personal tastes (takes) differ.

      A through line in your comments and in most of those posted throughout is that our response to a film is influenced by so many factors: our age, the circumstances of viewing, our interests at the time, etc.
      From that perspective, everyone is able to enjoy differing or contrasting takes on a beloved or reviled film without ever feeling someone else's opinion is right or wrong. We're afforded a glimpse into a personality as well as fresh eyes through which to look at a film.
      Thanks for sharing your informative and enjoyable comments with all of us!

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  15. Cabaret is a favorite film of mine. In college, the theater department did a stage production which wasn't nearly as interesting as the film. Instead of the Fritz & heiress subplot, there was a much less interning subplot about an old married couple. It wasn't until j read the script "I am a Camera" that I realized where the story came from.

    Christopher and his kind is a favorite book as well. I've read it a few times - including a trip to Europe where I read chapters late into the night on a night train from Amsterdam to Berlin. A perfect setting.

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    1. That is indeed a perfect setting to read Isherwood! I've never read "Christopher & His Kind", but people tell me I should read it rather than check out the movie adapted from it.
      The various adaptations of his Berlin Stories seem to offer something for everybody - even though it's difficult to find people who like them all.

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