Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Little Sparrows (Bolderpictures/Film Movement, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Little Sparrows, a 2010 Australian indie written and directed by Yu-Hsiu Camille Chen, though despite the impression you might get from that heavy-duty Asian name (and she’s female, though it took me a Web search to confirm that), all the characters in the film are Anglo-Australians and it’s not an ethnic film about Asians at all. It’s an understated drama — sometimes too understated — about Susan (Nicola Bartlett), a woman living in Perth, Australia, mother of three daughters, whose breast cancer has just returned after a period of remission and who faces the Christmas holidays with the knowledge that this holiday season will be her last. (Since Australia is in the southern hemisphere, December 25 is near the start of their summer, something you need to remember because otherwise you’ll be jarred by the fabulous weather and sights like people eating fresh-cut corn as part of a Christmas meal.) The daughters are facing crises of their own — Anna (Melanie Munt), the oldest, is an aspiring actress married to Mark (Scott Jackson), a rising young film director who’s just returned from Hollywood, where he’s trying to set up a movie; Nina (Nina Deasley) is a widow with two children who’s worried that her current boyfriend is cheating on her with a blonde; and Christine (Arielle Gray) is a medical student who’s just coming to an awareness of her own sexuality by dating a young woman.

There’s also Jimmy (James Hagan), Susan’s boor of a husband, who spends his time making himself obnoxious and offering unwanted advice, like telling Mark he should put his wife in his next movie in order to get her out of Perth and give her talent a chance to blossom. It’s the sort of movie in which nothing much happens — the characters just react to mom’s diagnosis and await the inevitable — and in an irony Ms. Chen no doubt intended, Susan, the middle-aged woman under a medical death sentence, is considerably happier and more “alive” than any of her relatives. The film suffers from an ultra-low budget; it was made on a digital video system (though that doesn’t stop cinematographer Jason Thomas from imposing a past-is-brown look over most of it; maybe the idea is that Australia is brown, though it sure didn’t look so in Baz Luhrmann’s marvelous Australia) and the combination of the Aussie accents and the mediocre sound recording (and the library’s notoriously bad sound system!) rendered a lot of the dialogue difficult to understand.

It’s also the sort of movie where the various plot threads don’t really resolve: at the end of the movie mom is still alive, Christine is shown necking on the beach with her girlfriend (obviously this is supposed to indicate she’s ready to Come Out after having gone around with this woman all movie but without any physical displays of affection between them), Anna is still doing acting exercises in an empty theatre and Nina … well, her storyline is the least interesting and it tends to get lost. I can understand and respect what the writer/director was trying to do — just before the credits there’s a little legend on the lower right of the screen that reads, in all lower-case letters, “for my mother,” which suggested that she’d been through the death of her mom (though according to her interview on the Facebook page of her distributor, filmmovement.com — a sort of movie-of-the-month club for devotees of independent film — it was actually her father who died, and whose loss inspired her to make the film) — the film is an attempt to make a movie as un-movielike as possible, as unexaggerated as possible and as honest about people’s real-life emotions as they are and not as decades of movie clichés have conditioned us to see them on screen. It’s just that I think she went overboard on that; the film is genuinely moving in spots and almost insufferably dull in other spots, sort of like real life, and it doesn’t tie up its story lines in neat packages.

I admire this movie for that but at the same time my mind has been sufficiently conditioned by other movies that I wanted this plot to resolve itself through something more than a series of montage sequences set to a sappy soft-rock song, “Hold You in My Arm” (what, just one?) by Ray Lamontagne, a dreary cliché Ms. Chen did not avoid and which quite frankly should be left to the folks at Lifetime. In particular, I wanted to see Susan’s death and the wrenching adjustments the family members would have to go through when the long-dreaded moment finally came. I liked Little Sparrows and at the same time I had difficulty staying awake through parts of it — and that probably comes as close as I can to exemplifying my problems with this film! Instead, the closest thing this movie comes to a conventional resolution is Susan visits a tattoo parlor and has herself tattooed with the images of three sparrows (yes, this is one of those movies in which we have to wait to the end to get an explanation of the title), symbolizing her daughters, as a way (she explains) of having them with her all the time — even, one presumes, from beyond the grave …

Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror (Graham King Productions, 1938)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran Charles a recent download from archive.org, a 1938 British film called Sexton Blake and the Hidden Terror. Released as The Hidden Terror for U.S. television because presumably no one in this country would identify with the character Sexton Blake — who proved to be a stone ripoff of Sherlock Holmes, complete with Baker Street address (I joked that Fleet Street was the home of the London press and Baker Street must have been the home of London’s private detective industry), silly-ass assistant Tinker (Tony Sympson), chancy relations with Scotland Yard in general and Inspector Bramley (Norman Pierce) in particular, and Moriarty-like adversary Michael Larron (Tod Slaughter), a.k.a. “The Snake,” who runs a secret criminal organization of worldwide reach and scope. This bare recycling of Holmes was the product of author Pierre Quiroule, whose story “The Mystery of Caversham Square” (I don’t think such an address actually exists, though it certainly sounds British) provided the basis for A. R. Rawlinson’s script.

The film starts in China, where Paul Duvall (Bradley Watts) arranges to meet Granite Grant (David Farrar, the hunky male lead from Black Narcissus but here, alas, his part ends after the first three minutes!) in a hotel room, but two Chinese thugs waylay Grant and beat and stab him within an inch of his life — though he survives, he’s going to be laid up in a Chinese hospital for the next six months and that means he can’t take the steamer to Britain to warn Sexton Blake (Gordon Harker, usually a comedian but surprisingly good in a Holmes-knockoff role) about the activities of “The Snake,” an international criminal mastermind, and the upcoming meeting of “The Snake” and his principal associates scheduled to take place in London. Duvall tells Grant he’ll go to London and contact Blake, but the gang traces him to Blake’s live-work space and kills him with a poisoned dart through the open window of Blake’s apartment (yet another reason for all private investigators to keep their damned windows closed!). Blake doesn’t get to see Duvall alive, though Tinker does, and Blake eventually recovers a blank piece of paper and a pen with clear ink, from which he deduces that Duvall was carrying a message written in invisible ink ­— which, when Blake deciphers it, gives him latitude and longitude coordinates for Caversham Square in London. Only there’s a slip-up because Larron a.k.a. The Snake disguises himself as a minster, gets into Blake’s room and puts Tinker out of commission with a drugged cigar (I’m not making this up, you know!), not removing the paper (lest Blake get suspicious when he returns) but altering one letter in the clue to lead Blake on a wild-goose chase.

Blake eventually turns up at Caversham Square and picks up the password to be let into the Snake’s quarters for the board meeting of the “Black Quorum,” the name of his association, but he’s caught and thrown into a couple of traps from which he has to extricate himself. The plot also encompasses stamp collecting, which was to Sexton Blake what beekeeping was to Sherlock Holmes; Blake meets Larron, in his regular identity, at a stamp auction along with Max Fleming (Charles Oliver) and several other internationally renowned stamp collectors — and we’re evidently supposed to believe that the world’s leading stamp collectors collectively constitute the Black Quorum. The Quorum members wear black robes and hoods during their meetings, though one wonders why since in the middle of their session Larron has them doff the hoods so they can see his TV security system (the stuff of science fiction in 1938 and the stuff of everyday reality now), so he’s not trying to remain incognito from his associates the way his super-villain predecessors and prototypes, Moriarty and Mabuse, were.

Sexton Blake and the Hidden Terror is derivative as all get-out but it’s close enough to the sources it was ripping off that it’s still a fun, entertaining movie, and there’s a nice ambiguous role for Mademoiselle Julie (Greta Gynt), who’s dating both Blake and Fleming and who tells Fleming she wants to crash the villains’ hideout for “thrills.” To absolutely no one’s surprise (no one in the audience, that is), at the end of the film she’s revealed as a secret agent for the French police. The film was competently produced and directed by Graham King, and he and his cast seem to have been aware of the story’s triviality and managed to avoid taking it too seriously while also keeping it from becoming total camp. The print we were watching was also in much better shape technically than most of what we’ve seen from archive.org, and there’s one really quirky bit of casting: Julie’s maid is played by Karen Marie Flagstad, sister of the great Wagnerian soprano Kirsten Flagstad and a singer and pianist in her own right.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Lady Said No (MGM, 1930)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Lady Said No, a William Haines vehicle from MGM in 1930 with some impressive talent behind the cameras — the director was Sam Wood and the writers were A. P. Younger (story), Sarah Y. Mason (script — three years later she and her husband Victor Heerman would write the beautiful adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women for George Cukor and Katharine Hepburn at RKO) and Charles MacArthur (dialogue) — and some pretty good supporting cast members in front as well, all lost in a story that ends up more infuriating than entertaining because of the downright boorishness of Tom Ward, William Haines’ character. It opens with him driving a beautiful white convertible down a country road with a nice-looking girl by his side, and just as she’s warning him not to drive so recklessly lest they crash, his reckless driving lands them off the road and into a tree. The car runs O.K. after that but its left front fender is completely ruined; the car pulls to a stop in front of the girl’s house and it turns out that it was her car: she picked him up on the side of the road and he somehow persuaded her to let him drive. He breezily informs her that she can always get another fender, and then he returns to his own home. It turns out he’s a recent college graduate (though the sort of student who seems to have learned nothing at school except how to party) from a fairly substantial and well-to-do family: father Samuel (William V. Mong), mother (Clara Blandick, later Auntie Em in The Wizard of Oz), sister Alma (Phyllis Crane), younger brother Eddie (Frank “Junior” Coghlan), and put-upon housekeeper Polly (Polly Moran).

The movie is little more than a series of parties, including one in which Tom inflicts all his college friends on his parents on the night of their wedding anniversary (which Tom’s forgotten until his sister reminds him, and even then he has no idea of which anniversary) and another that seems to be taking place at a roadhouse in which all the ordering has to be done in bizarre code because Prohibition is still in effect. When he’s not being an utter boor he’s — well, Tom doesn’t really do anything else in this movie but be an utter boor, and when he’s not being an utter boor around people his own age he’s successfully fending off any and all offers of work, including the one from Kendall (Charles Giblyn), a banker friend of his father who wants to hire Tom but wants him, of course, to start at the bottom. Tom finally finds himself loosely employed by a Wall Street brokerage owned by Sutton (Wilbur Mack) at which the star young broker is his old college enemy, J. Marvin MacAndrews (Ralph Bushman, son of Francis X. Bushman and later known as Francis X. Bushman, Jr.) and he’s got the hots for Sutton’s secretary, Mary Howe (Leila Hyams), even though she keeps saying no to him. (Charles and I couldn’t help but think, given what we now know of William Haines’ sexual orientation, that the film should have been titled The Lady Said No Because She Found Out He’s Gay.)

Eventually, more because the plot has to resolve itself sometime than because this outcome is determined by anything we’ve seen up until now, MacAndrews fires Tom from the brokerage house but Sutton rehires him — in the meantime Tom’s father has died, thereby plunging the family’s fortunes and forcing them to move into a dowdy apartment and subsist on Tom’s salary from whatever sort of job he can get — and MacAndrews sees a way to get rid of him once and for all by sending him out on a sales call to the unsellable Hettie Brown (Marie Dressler), who has a hatred for bond salesmen and a supercilious butler (the marvelously dry-faced Wilson Benge) who specializes in getting rid of them. Oddly, Turner Classic Movies showed this film as part of a tribute to Dressler even though she’s only in one sequence — though it’s the funniest and most entertaining part of the movie: Tom bluffs his way into Hettie’s house by posing as her doctor, then gets her drunk on what she thinks is a tonic but is really just alcohol, and after a marvelous physical comedy routine that reminds us that Dressler, already a major vaudeville and Broadway star, launched her film career in Tillie’s Punctured Romance opposite Charlie Chaplin, and finally after quite a long bit of comic suspense he gets her to sign the pre-written check and appoint him as her financial advisor.

The ending is an odd premonition of The Graduate (indeed, both films are about recent college graduates and their quirky romantic involvements) in which Tom crashes the church where Mary and MacAndrews are about to be married — and Tom literally kidnaps her from the wedding and drives her away in MacAndrews’ car, ending the film as he began it in somebody else’s nice car and a good-looking woman at his side. Brash effrontery was William Haines’ established screen persona — his career declined when sound came in (The Lady Said No was one of the last films released in both silent and sound versions) less because his voice was too queeny (he didn’t sound all that butch but he didn’t sound all that nellie either) than because he was getting too portly (at least in part the doing of his partner, Jimmie Taylor, who was an excellent cook whose fantastic meals for them made it hard for Haines to keep down to camera-friendly weight) and just visibly too old for nonsensical scripts like this — but the main problem with The Girl Said No is that the Haines character doesn’t grow, change or learn from his experiences. Unlike the film Way Out West, which he made the same year and which cast him as a carnival barker subjected to tough love on his inamorata’s ranch, The Girl Said No leaves him pretty much the same as he went in and one feels sorry for Leila Hyams’ character being stuck with him at the end.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Woody Allen: A Documentary (PBS, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Woody Allen: A Documentary is a massive production, written and directed by Robert Weide, telling the story of Allen’s career from his childhood in the Bronx, the demands of growing up in a Jewish family whose parents wanted him to follow in dad’s footsteps — whatever those were; apparently the scenes in Allen’s films in which he flashes back to his childhood and wonders what on earth his daddy does for a living were based on fact — and how he found his niche while in high school by writing jokes (one particularly good early one: “A hypocrite is an atheist who writes a book and prays for its success”) and sending them to gossip columnists, of whom there were quite a few in the rambunctious New York newspaper industry of the 1940’s (mainly because there were far many more papers then than there are now!). He actually got paid for these jokes, and he graduated — if that’s the word — to writing revue sketches for the shows at the Tamamint summer resort (a generation earlier Moss Hart had got his start in show business with a similar summer job at a Catskills resort!) and then to a succession of gagwriting jobs and the culmination of his early career: writing jokes for Sid Caesar’s hit TV series Your Show of Shows and sharing space in the writing room with people like Larry Gelbart and Mel Brooks (!).

Allen’s story after that is a familiar one — how he was discovered by managers Jack Rollins and Charles Joffe, who pushed him into performing his own material as a stand-up comedian (he hadn’t thought of himself as a performer and he was painfully shy, so he turned his shyness into an asset and developed a low-keyed style in which he threw away the punch lines — a far cry from a comedian he’s named as one of his idols and role models, Bob Hope, who hurled his punch lines at the audience with such force that on at least one occasion he forgot to bring his script to his radio show, improvised absolute gibberish on the spot, took care every so often to use the rising inflection with which he always delivered his punch lines — and got the audience laughing!), and then by various TV hosts (including Johnny Carson and Steve Allen) and finally by Charles K. Feldman, an old-line Hollywood agent from the 1940’s who had turned to producing (and had made such successful and acclaimed films as A Streetcar Named Desire) and who offered Allen work as both writer and actor in What’s New, Pussycat? 

The film was a sensational hit but Allen hated it, mainly because Feldman hired other writers to rewrite his script and turned it into a broad farce — though in one interview in this program he admits that if his script had been filmed as written the movie would have been a deeper, richer, finer work but nowhere near as big a commercial hit — and, at least according to this show, Allen swore never to work for Feldman again. (In fact, Allen did work for Feldman again on the 1967 version of Casino Royale, a near-total disaster noteworthy only for some good Allen gags and the fact that three legendary film directors — Allen, John Huston and Orson Welles — appear on screen as actors. The only other film I can think of with three great directors onscreen is Sunset Boulevard: Erich von Stroheim, Cecil B. DeMille and Buster Keaton.) Allen decided that he would never again make a movie unless he had total control over the project, and he got his chance when the ABC-TV network founded a short-lived filmmaking subsidiary, Palomar Pictures, and gave him a $2 million budget to make a spoof of 1930’s gangster movies called Take the Money and Run. (It was heartwarming to me to see this documentary excerpt the scene in which the Tamalpais High School Marching Band played the Spring Street Settlement House Marching Band, which Woody Allen vainly tried to join … as a cellist; that was my high school and I was attending when the film was made — the band had been invited on a trip to Disneyland to perform there, and in addition to the usual round of car washes and bake sales, they used their fee for the movie to help pay for their trip.)

Incidentally, this film does not go into the history of Take the Money and Run — I’ve seen another Allen documentary that said not only was the rough cut three hours long but it ended with Allen’s character, Virgil Starkwell, dying in slow motion à la Bonnie and Clyde — though it does mention that Allen called in another editor who shaped the movie into the form it is now, essentially by taking some of the broad gags Allen had been willing to leave on the cutting-room floor and editing them back into the movie. The movie launched his career and got him a four-film deal with United Artists, of which the first film, Bananas, was yet another hit (it was recently mentioned in The New Yorker, in connection with a new biography of sportscaster Howard Cosell, who played himself in the movie and appeared at the beginning and the end, narrating the execution of a South American dictator by rebels and the consummation of the marriage of Allen’s and Louise Lasser’s characters — the two had been married but, like Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth on The Lady from Shanghai, had already divorced by the time they made the film together).

The story of Allen’s career — and his various romantic interests — is almost too familiar, though the show does a good job of covering some of the later movies of the 1990’s and 2000’s Charles and I missed at the time and now find ourselves tempted to go back to. At three hours and 20 minutes in length, Woody Allen: A Documentary is a bit of an endurance test, but it’s fascinating to see Allen interviewed at various stages of his career — currently he’s considerably older than we’re used to seeing him and he no longer wears the famously frizzed-out hair — and perhaps the most interesting personality in the film other than Allen is his sister and co-producer, Letty Aronson, who obviously gets along with him because their senses of humor are virtually the same! The film makes at least one of the inevitable comparisons to Charlie Chaplin — the fact that both Chaplin and Allen managed to get complete artistic control over their films, acting as producer, director, writer and star (though neither could have done it in the days of the studio system: Chaplin pulled it off because the studio system hadn’t started yet when he hit it so big he could write his own ticket anywhere in the industry, and Allen did it once the studio system had collapsed and he was able to make modestly budgeted movies that occasionally became blockbusters but almost always made some money) — of course, there are at least two other points of comparison: both Chaplin and Allen specialized in bringing together comedy and drama, and both nearly had their careers destroyed due to scandalous relationships with teenage girls.

Weide’s approach deftly handles the scandal between Allen, his long-time girlfriend and star Mia Farrow (I’d argue that Allen was to Farrow what Alfred Hitchcock was to Grace Kelly: the one director who actually figured out how to get her to act) and Mia’s adoptive daughter Soon-Yi Previn; it chronicles how Allen brought out the best in Farrow (and in Diane Keaton before her) and makes the story seem like the sort of sad happenstance that often occurs in Allen’s fiction, in which people fall in and out of love and often replace their current partners with others from the same family (this was a theme in Allen’s art, particularly in Hannah and Her Sisters, before he actually lived it). Weide also mentions Allen’s obsessions with big issues like God and death, which he’s able somehow to weave deftly into (mostly) comic films, and he shows enough clips from Allen’s work that we can get an idea of what it’s like (and in the case of films like Annie Hall and especially Manhattan, neither of which I’ve seen in years, we can appreciate just how beautiful it is; Manhattan is a black-and-white love letter to Allen’s city and it was ironic to see Martin Scorsese, who seems to feel he has a God-given right to horn his way into every documentary made about the movies or anyone who’s ever been involved with them, showing parallel clips from Mean Streets and Manhattan to compare and contrast their radically different visions of New York City).

The film has quite a few interesting interviewees, including Letty Aronson; Gordon Willis, whom Allen hired to photograph Annie Hall even though he’d never made a comedy before (his best-known cinematography credit was The Godfather, the movie that more than any before it set the “past is brown” schtick in motion and helped harden it into orthodoxy: if you want one person to blame for the fact that so many films, especially films attempting to be serious dramas, look like they were shot through dirty aquaria, Gordon Willis is probably your man) and whose work on Manhattan (even in the handful of scenes shown here) seems so luminously beautiful it makes me want to see the movie again; various people who’ve acted in Allen’s films (and who report that he’s a non-interventionist director who doesn’t insist that actors say the lines he’s written for them if they can think of something else that works); and Allen himself, who’s shown working on an ancient portable Olympia typewriter he’s used for over 30 years

He drafts his script ideas in longhand on yellow notepads and frequently refers back to ideas he’s scribbled down to see if there’s one there he can use for his next film. What’s remarkable about Allen’s career is not only that he’s cranked out a film almost every year since he started directing in 1969, but that virtually all his movies have been original stories: aside from the ill-advised adaptation of Dr. David Reuben’s best-seller Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) — a pretty useless movie with two great scenes: one in which John Carradine plays a mad scientist who invents a monster breast, and one (excerpted here) in which Allen plays a sperm cell about to be ejaculated (“What if he’s masturbating and I hit the ceiling?” he whines) — he’s never done a screen version of a pre-existing book or play (unless you count Play It Again, Sam, which he didn’t direct and which was based on his own play).

Woody Allen’s work remains fascinating — the documentary comes to an end quite different from the one Weide had in mind when he started it because, after a decade or so in which the critics regarded him as totally played out and his movies veered between modest successes and modest flops at the box office, he’s currently enjoying the biggest hit of his career in Midnight in Paris, a time-travel fantasy in which a modern-day writer goes to Paris and ends up transported to the “Lost Generation” Paris of the 1920’s. The documentary also covers Allen’s part-time career as a jazz clarinetist, mentioning that his teacher was Gene Sedric (though oddly it doesn’t mention that Sedric was in Fats Waller’s Rhythm and played on most of Waller’s band records in the 1930’s) and that all the instruction he got was Sedric playing something and then telling him, “Now you do it.” Woody Allen: A Documentary is a fascinating film about one of the most fascinating careers in movie history, as lived by a man who has courted fame while professing total disinterest in it, who’s been able to avoid the traps that destroy most people in the movie business — especially most people who go into it with artistic rather than commercial ambitions — and who’s displayed a remarkable resiliency approaching that of the characters he’s written for himself to play.

Kraft Music Hall with Milton Berle, Andy Griffith (TV, 1958)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The night before last Charles and I watched an episode of the Kraft Music Hall from 1958, hosted by Milton Berle (who seems to have been host of a dizzying array of series under different titles, many of them named after his sponsors — the most famous show he did was the Texaco Star Theatre) and featuring Andy Griffith. Though the archive.org download from which I got this one didn’t give a date, it was easy enough to figure out because Berle’s opening monologue announced that it was just after election day and contained a joke about “Harriman lost New York, but he bought New Jersey” — a reference to the 1958 New York gubernatorial election, in which super-rich Averell Harriman was beaten in a landslide by super-duper-rich Nelson Rockefeller.

Griffith was there to pitch his movies and his TV work — this was two years before his fabled sitcom The Andy Griffith Show debuted (in which he played seriously the country-boy schtick he’d bitterly satirized in the remarkable film A Face in the Crowd) — and his best moment was when Berle introduced him as a folksinger and Griffith launched into a long, convoluted explanation of the song he was about to sing, then sang one line of it and quit. When Berle questioned him, Griffith replied, “I’m not a song-singer, I’m a song-explainer” — a gag that will ring true with anyone who’s been to a folk concert and noted how the performers spend as much time talking about the songs they’re about to sing as they do actually singing them. (With the late Utah Phillips — who was good enough at this sort of thing he could actually have had a career as a stand-up comedian — his pre-song explanations were so long that Ani DiFranco did a remix album of him that used only his stage raps, not his actual singing voice.) As with the Lucky Strike-sponsored program we’d watched earlier, this download left in the original commercials — and Charles and I were both astounded to hear Kraft’s Velveeta actually being sold as a health food!

Friday, November 25, 2011

A Night at the Opera (MGM, 1935)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

A Night at the Opera is the best film of the Marx Brothers after they were dropped by Paramount in 1933 and went over to MGM two years later. MGM studio head Irving Thalberg signed them and at first discomfited Groucho by insisting that their movies have elements that would appeal to female audiences. (Those looking for reasons why there were so many women-oriented movies in the 1930’s and are so few today need look no farther than the essential difference in movie audiences then and now: in the 1930’s movies were entertainment for the whole family, and it was typically the wife and mother of the family who determined what film they would go see; today movies are primarily a teenage date item and it’s the male who decides what film they see, with the result that studios emphasize violent action and other elements that will grab the testosterone of the ticket buyer.) Groucho said that women had just never liked their sort of comedy, and that’s all there was to it; Thalberg responded that that’s why their MGM movies would have to contain lavish musical production numbers and romantic subplots to give women things they would like.

The formula worked beautifully when Thalberg himself was around to make sure the disparate elements of comedy, music and romance were carefully balanced; unfortunately, A Night at the Opera was the only Marx Brothers movie made at MGM entirely during Thalberg’s lifetime. The follow-up film, A Day at the Races, was prepared by Thalberg and was a week and a half into actual shooting when he died, and the finished product shows the glitches in the formula — the dead stops the action comes to when it’s time for a musical number or a romantic interlude — that Thalberg was able to overcome on Opera. And the three films the Marxes made at MGM in 1939-41 — At the Circus, Go West and The Big Store — were done to Thalberg’s formula but without his input (and in the face of opposition by Louis B. Mayer, who seemed to make it his policy to hate everything Thalberg had liked for no better reason than that Thalberg had liked it), and simply creak along between the still-great comedy moments.

A Night at the Opera has it all, though: a tightly-knit script by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind (whom Groucho always insisted were the best writers for the Marx Brothers), a first-rate physical production (there are actually shots in this film that are carefully lit by photographer Merritt Gerstad and directed by Sam Wood with at least some flair for visual eloquence — in the Marx Brothers’ Paramount films the cameramen seemed to be interested in little more than aiming the cameras in the general direction of the action and hoping they picked it up), and a great supporting cast including Margaret Dumont (in her fourth of seven Marx films), Sig Rumann (in his first of three), Walter Woolf King (inimitable as the arrogant bad-guy tenor) and the quite good voices of Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle as the nice singers whom the Marxes help to an operatic career. The witty script enables Groucho to dominate the screen for just about the last time in the Marxes’ career (as the quality of the dialogue deteriorated in subsequent Marx Brothers films, Harpo looked better by comparison if only because he didn’t have to speak any of the unspeakable and unfunny lines the Marxes’ later writers concocted for them all too often), and the film’s great comic set-pieces — the contract routine between Groucho and Chico, the infamous stateroom scene (written by gag writer Al Boasberg and shredded by him and stuck to his office ceiling before he let the Marx Brothers or anyone else see it), the scene in Groucho’s hotel room where he and the (unseen) other brothers make four beds dance about from room to room and drive the usually unflappable Robert Emmet O’Connor (playing — what else? — a cop) to the edge of a nervous breakdown, and the final disruption of the performance of Verdi’s Il Trovatore — are as gloriously amusing as ever.

It’s surprising, in retrospect, that the Marx Brothers concocted a superbly funny sequence set in an opera house without doing much to satirize what one would think would be the most risible aspect of the opera scene, the high-class atmosphere of it and the number of people who are there just “to be seen” and who couldn’t care less about the music — as it is, they basically treat an opera performance much the way they treated Margaret Dumont’s high-class party in Animal Crackers (another Kaufman-Ryskind script), as an arena in which to run amok and disrupt things for the sheer joy of doing so. (The real comedown in the sequence is when they’re obliged to stop disrupting once good-guys Jones and Carlisle are on stage doing the “Miserere” — though they’re surprisingly good in it, it’s hard to watch them and keep a straight face after the previous five minutes have done so much to render the entire concept of opera utterly absurd.) When I read Joe Adamson’s book Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo I found myself regretting that the rejected Bert Kalmar-Harry Ruby script for A Night at the Opera (which Adamson quoted at length) hadn’t been used, and indeed there are aspects of that script that are funnier than the movie that actually got made — but the movie that actually got made is quite funny enough, thank you. — 1/2/98


The film was A Night at the Opera, a movie that hardly seems to need any more comment — it’s become so integral a part of popular culture that in the episode of the TV show The Odd Couple featuring New York City Opera baritone Richard Fredericks (whom Tony Randall had insisted on including in an episode!), Oscar Madison (Jack Klugman) growled out to Randall, “The only opera I ever saw had the Marx Brothers in it!” A Night at the Opera took two years to make — unusual for a film in the 1930’s — partly because the Marx Brothers were considered over the hill (their immediately previous film, Duck Soup, had been a box-office flop on its initial release; it didn’t really find its audience until the 1960’s, when young people began to distrust the government and rebel against authority, and they found in this 35-year-old movie a reflection of their anarchic attitudes and conviction that all politics were stupid and soul-destroying) and partly because MGM production chief Irving Thalberg wanted to be very careful in how he re-introduced them to movie audiences. Thalberg began their relationship by telling the Marxes he’d thought Duck Soup was funny but wasn’t a good movie — to which Groucho, being Groucho, replied, “Well, we didn’t think Grand Hotel was so hot, either!”

Thalberg patiently explained that you couldn’t make a great movie by just building gag on top of gag without any letup, and when Groucho asked why not, Thalberg said because women wouldn’t like such a film. “Women have never liked our kind of comedy, and that’s all there is to it,” Groucho said. Thalberg replied, “That’s why your film has to have romance and music in it, so there’ll be things in it women will like.” The obsession with appealing to women came from the fact that two-career couples were incredibly rare — indeed, one of the major cliché plots of the 1930’s was the poor but honest couple who can’t get married because the man isn’t earning enough money at his job to support both of them — and the theory was that while their husbands were away at work, wives would be scanning the movie listings in the papers and deciding what film the family would go see that night. That’s one reason why so many 1930’s movies have strongly etched female characters — whereas today the studios assume that most of the movie-theatre audience is adolescents and it will be the boys who decide what movies they will take their girls to, which is why so many of today’s films seem to appeal mostly to an audience of young men whose brains are being pickled in testosterone.

Anyway, getting back to the Marx Brothers and A Night at the Opera, Thalberg went through his usual incessant preparations — and as usual he kept the Marxes waiting for hours on end when they supposedly had appointments to see him (they literally smoked him out of his office at one point!) — and he accepted a story by James Kevin McGuinness dealing with a fast-talking swindler who wants to bilk a wealthy widow out of her millions by having her sponsor an opera. Groucho brought along a writer named George Oppenheimer and tried to get the story remodeled into an earlier version of The Producers — he would play a producer who would charge his backers 1,000 percent of the cost of his opera and put on a deliberately bad show, but instead it would be a hit (the premise had been an urban legend on Broadway for years and, well before Mel Brooks got hold of it, was used seriously in the film The Falcon in Hollywood). Thalberg turned it down and instead hired Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, principal screenwriters on Horse Feathers and Duck Soup, who came up with a really intriguing screenplay giving Groucho some of the wild, self-contradictory witticisms they’d written for him before and some elaborate pantomime routines for Harpo. Judging from the excerpts from it published by Joe Adamson in his book Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo, the Kalmar-Ruby A Night at the Opera would have made an excellent movie — as good, certainly, as the one we have — but neither Thalberg nor the Marxes liked this script either.

Groucho then remembered that their two most successful stage shows, The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers — which both had been turned into hit movies — had been written by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, and though Kaufman absolutely loathed Hollywood, the promise of a large amount of MGM’s money was enough to lure him there. (It was during the writing of A Night at the Opera that Kaufman was assigned an office on the MGM lot. His door was kept closed and his only contact with the studio was that every week a minion would slip his paycheck under the door. Kaufman decided to take a vacation, and returned several months later to find that no one had bothered to contact him during his absence, no one at the studio had noticed he was gone, and the studio’s minion had continued to slip paychecks under his door until he now had an accumulation of nine months’ worth of them — an interesting tale of Kaufman’s life imitating his art, since he’d written a similar scene involving a Broadway writer brought to Hollywood, paid a large sum and otherwise ignored, in the play he and Moss Hart co-wrote, Once in a Lifetime, and Kaufman had himself played the writer in the play’s Broadway premiere.)

Kaufman and Ryskind duly turned in a script — with Al Boasberg called in as a gag man (it was he who wrote the celebrated stateroom scene — and shredded it, forcing the Marxes and Thalberg to reassemble it so they could read it) — but nobody was particularly thrilled with that version, either. So Thalberg and the Marxes hit on the idea of taking the movie, or at least parts of it, on tour, performing it before live audiences in vaudeville theatres and seeing which jokes went over, which ones didn’t, and taking writers along so anything that didn’t work could be punched up or totally rewritten on the spot. The Marxes also got the services of a visually inventive director, Sam Wood, and a marvelous cinematographer, Merritt Gerstad, with the result that this is the best-looking film the Marxes ever appeared in. By this time they were down from four brothers to three — Zeppo Marx had left the act to work as an agent — and A Night at the Opera emerged as a disjointed but brilliant movie in which, for the first and only time in the Marxes’ career at MGM, the comedy, music and romance reinforce each other instead of getting in each other’s way. The singing stars, Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle — providing the appeal to female audiences Thalberg insisted on — are attractive and personable, with great voices. (Jones had been offered the lead in MGM’s operetta Naughty Marietta and, in one of the most boneheaded career decisions of all time, had turned it down; instead Nelson Eddy agreed to co-star with Jeanette MacDonald, thus launching their fabulously successful series of eight films together.)

When I was at the height of my obsession with all things Marxist in the 1970’s I used to sit through the musical and romantic interludes of their MGM films with teeth gnashing in frustration, waiting for the comedy to begin again; now I find a lot of the music quite charming, and well filmed — “Alone” is a haunting song (both Groucho and Chico wanted it deleted; Allan Jones, of course, wanted it to stay in; and Thalberg told Jones, “The Marx Brothers know comedy. You know music. It stays in”) that became a number one hit, and “Cosi-Cosa” is an infectious number vividly filmed, with the beaming faces of joyous, transfixed children adding to the light, giddy appeal of this movie. Sometimes the transitions (especially between Groucho as romantic sentimentalist giving Kitty Carlisle Allan Jones’ love note and Groucho as remorseless swindler blackmailing Margaret Dumont into coming into his room on the boat) jar, but for the most part A Night at the Opera is a very funny movie that’s also genuinely charming. It’s a romantic triangle between established tenor Rodolfo Lassparri (Walter Woolf King), aspiring soprano Rosa Castaldi (Kitty Carlisle) and unknown tenor Ricardo Baroni (Allan Jones); Lassparri gets an offer from Herman Gottlieb (Sig Rumann), manager of the New York Opera Company, to sing in New York, and he invites Rosa to join him in hopes that she’ll reward him for his favor to her by having sex with him. But, being the innocent heroine of a 1930’s Production Code-era movie, she only has eyes for Baroni. The Marx Brothers get shoehorned into this plot situation in a variety of ways; Groucho is Otis B. Driftwood, smooth-talking swindler who’s trying to get into the fortune (and the pants, if he has to) of Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont, in her fourth of seven films with the Marx Brothers) by serving as liaison between her and Gottlieb. Harpo is Lassparri’s valet (until the vain tenor fires him) and Chico is Baroni’s friend and manager.

There are lots of delicious comic highlights in the film, from the famous contract-tearing scene (just about everyone I know who shares my love of the Marx Brothers has at some time or other said, “The party of the first part shall be known in this contract as the party of the first part”) to the stateroom scene (preceded by a just as hilarious scene in which Groucho is ordering a meal for himself and the three people — Chico, Harpo and Baroni — who have stowed away in his trunk; he’s told Chico and Harpo to shut up but Chico keeps chiming in, “And two hard-boiled eggs,” whereupon Harpo honks his taxi horn and Groucho says, “Make that three hard-boiled eggs” — the punch line coming when Harpo emits a whole series of honks and Groucho says, “Either it’s foggy out or make that a dozen hard-boiled eggs”) and the finale in which the Marx Brothers disrupt the opening-night performance of Verdi’s Il Trovatore (a silly opera the Marxes had already parodied twice before!) to get Lassparri out of the cast and Ricardo and Rosa on. Their tactics include slipping “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” into the parts for the orchestra, so in the middle of the overture the music changes from Verdi to Albert von Tilzer’s baseball classic; going “booga-booga-booga” as a mezzo-soprano (Olga Dane) wretchedly made up to look like a hag sings Azucena’s aria “Stride la vampa”; tearing off the clothes of a dancer as she passes from one end of the stage to the other; switching backdrops on Lassparri so the tenor ends up singing “Mal reggendo” and “Di quella pira” in front of New York streetcars and a battleship; and finally kidnapping him just before the last act so a desperate Gottlieb agrees to put Ricardo and Rosa on for a surprisingly straight version of the “Miserere” duet. (In it, Kitty Carlisle adds an un-Verdian high note that is “wrong” musically but adds to the vertiginous excitement of the scene; it was a traditional interpolation and I believe Frances Alda took it on her record with Caruso.)

 A Night at the Opera is a lovely movie that hangs together surprisingly well for all its (deliberate) changes of direction, and it’s only a pity that the Marxes’ later films for MGM didn’t sustain its quality. Irving Thalberg died during the pre-production of A Day at the Races and the absence of his keen hand in shaping and reshaping a popular entertainment is missed, and in the three films the Marx Brothers made at MGM after that (At the Circus, Go West, and The Big Store) the scripts seem thrown together with chewing gum and paste and the quality of the musical interludes descends from genuinely talented singers like Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle to people like Kenny Baker, John Carroll and Tony Martin.oHHoo Incidentally, MGM had so many pre-recordings of Verdi’s Il Trovatore left over from A Night at the Opera that they concocted a whole movie the following year, Moonlight Murder — a murder mystery set against the backdrop of a performance of Trovatore at the Hollywood Bowl — just to be able to reuse them. — 11/25/11

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Window (RKO, 1947, released 1949)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched an American Movie Classics broadcast of the 1949 film The Window, a suspense thriller directed by Ted Tetzlaff (a much better movie than A Dangerous Profession, which he made at the same studio — RKO — the same year), probably one of the few noir movies that had a major role for a child (played by Bobby Driscoll, on loan from Walt Disney), a “Boy Who Cried Wolf” fable about a kid with an overactive imagination who actually witnesses his next-door neighbors commit a murder but can’t get anyone — his parents, the police or any other authority figures — to believe it. It’s a visually stunning film, full of Langesque shots of the “city” on hauntingly lit and framed interior sets, though the content is rather trivial and the final resolution unconvincing (one would think, psychologically, that witnessing a real-life murder and then being threatened by the killer would make a young boy more prone to “imagine” things, not less so — and, indeed, would probably push him towards paranoia and a real inability to distinguish between reality and imagination). — 8/20/93


The film was The Window, a 1949 movie that was essentially Aesop’s fable “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” recast as film noir. (An opening title actually mentions the fable just so we get the point.) In this version (which, according to an imdb.com commentator, was actually filmed in 1947 but held back from release for two years as part of the confusion surrounding Howard Hughes’ acquisition of the RKO studio in 1948) the boy who cried wolf is Tommy Woodry (Bobby Driscoll, star of Walt Disney’s Song of the South, So Dear to My Heart and Treasure Island — Disney got acknowledgment on screen for supplying him, but it was probably an easy deal to make since at the time RKO was still Disney’s distributor), whose parents Ed (Arthur Kennedy) and Mary (Barbara Hale, top-billed) are largely absent from his life.

They live in a grungy tenement building in New York City — there are some exteriors that were obviously filmed on location (too many people, including too much moving traffic, over too much space to be the RKO backlot) but the building itself is clearly a studio construction and thanks to the direction by former cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff and the two directors of photography he used, Robert De Grasse (returning to the Gothic effects of his early British credit The Sign of Four after years of making Ginger Rogers glamorous) and William O. Steiner, it’s a noir netherworld of shadows, railings, forced perspectives and oblique angles: The Tenement of Dr. Caligari. Tommy’s fantasies appear motivated partly by his feeling inferior to the other neighborhood kids and partly to escape that hell-hole of an apartment building he lives in — it’s significant that the first fantasy we actually hear from him is that his father owns a ranch out West (Mel Dinelli’s script, based on a story by noir specialist Cornell Woolrich, ingeniously counterpoints one set of iconic movie images with another, representing Tommy’s real life and his fantasy of escaping it!), and that gets them into trouble when word spreads from the neighbor kids to their parents to the Woodrys’ landlord that they’re moving out West in a couple of days and therefore the landlord actually shows other prospective tenants the apartment.

The Woodrys threaten to punish their overly imaginative son by locking him in his room, but before they can do that he gets permission to sleep on the fire escape (this being an ultra-hot New York summer), and unable to sleep on his own fire escape he climbs up one story — and witnesses the upstairs neighbors, Joe and Jean Kellerson (Paul Stewart, the sinister butler from Citizen Kane, and a wildly anti-typecast Ruth Roman — TCM was showing this as part of a birthday celebration for her), try to subdue a drunken sailor they’ve brought up to their apartment, and when they’re unable to shut him up any other way Joe stabs him in the back with a pair of scissors, killing him. (There’s a bit of dialogue in which Jean upbraids her husband for killing the man, asking him why he didn’t just wait until she fed him a drugged drink — exactly what they planned to do with him isn’t spelled out explicitly, but it seems as if they planned to lure him up there with the promise of sex with Jean, then drug him, steal his bankroll and dump him on the street, unconscious and broke but still alive.) They hide the body in a nearby building that’s been condemned, and think they’ve got away with it — but in the meantime Tommy has told his parents about the murder.

Naturally, they not only don’t believe him, but they lock him in his room — though he escapes down the fire escape (again!) and visits the police station, where he tries to report the killing but the cops don’t believe him any more than his parents did. The only people who do believe him are the Kellersons, who wait for a night when he’ll be alone in the apartment (his dad is working a night shift and his mom is visiting a sick sister-in-law) and kidnap him, pretending to be his parents (one imdb.com reviewer noted the irony that his real parents have been replaced by a false set of “parents” who want to do him in instead of protect him). They take him to the condemned building where they stashed the corpse, apparently intending to make it look like he died accidentally when bits of the building fell on him, and in a set of scenes in which beams hurl themselves at the camera and one gets the impression the final reel may have been intended for 3-D (even though this was five years before the first 3-D feature, Bwana Devil), Tommy is indeed put in mortal peril as the building collapses around him and he’s left holding onto a rafter for dear life — and the fire department ultimately arrives, though they tell him there’s no way they can set up a ladder in that basement and therefore the only way they can rescue him is to set up a net into which he’s supposed to jump.

I’d seen The Window once before, in the early 1970’s, and hadn’t liked it much — thanks, I suspect, to the overplayed cuteness of Bobby Driscoll in the lead, and this time around I spent the first 25 minutes or so wishing RKO could have cast a tougher boy in the lead (like the young Robert Blake, maybe?), but as I got into it I found the film absolutely gripping, with shock scenes more frightening that quite a lot of horror films and a compelling visual atmosphere that gives the impression that it was precisely because his real environment was so damnably claustrophobic that Tommy became such a fantasist.  The Window comes off today as a minor gem of the classic noir period, well worth watching and excellently cast, especially in the adult roles — Arthur Kennedy appears properly hangdog, Paul Stewart looks sinister but not so sinister that he can’t maintain a nice façade (Ed Woodry tells his son that he can’t believe their nice, considerate upstairs neighbors could possibly be guilty of the heinous crime Tommy has accused them of), and Ruth Roman’s performance works (this normally staid actress becomes a convincingly beaten-down madman’s wife and accomplice), though Barbara Hale is somewhat overshadowed by the other adults in the cast. A neatly done movie, a bright spot in Tetzlaff’s promising but largely unfulfilling directorial career, and in those interior scenes one of the most relentlessly stylized of all noirs. — 11/23/11

Jack Benny Program with Ronnie Burns, April 6, 1958

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Back in August I had downloaded an episode of the Jack Benny Program from archive.org which was from the 1958 season (the original air date was April 6) and featured Ronnie Burns, adoptive son of George Burns and Gracie Allen (and his tall Anglo good looks and chiseled features, which these days reminded me of a young Mitt Romney, made it all too clear that he was not George and Gracie’s biological progeny!), doing a lame rock song called “She’s Kinda Cute” in what I guess was a bow to the youth audience. Fortunately, the main part of the show was a good deal better than Ronnie’s kinda silly song; there was a great gag with Rochester (Eddie Anderson) calling Benny while he’s in the middle of his show to tell him that his new suit arrived, only because of how little Benny had been willing to pay for it, the tailor hadn’t put it in a box; instead he actually wore it to Benny’s house, took it off and left it there. While we see Rochester there’s a knock on Benny’s door — it’s the tailor’s partner, delivering the second pair of pants (and having to leave without any pants). “It’s a good thing for the censors he didn’t buy any underwear!” says Rochester.

But the main attraction for this show is a plot line featuring Don Wilson’s jealous hissy-fit that George Burns’ son has got on the Benny show before his son Harlow (Dale White) has. Harlow turns out to be an overgrown baby — they actually feed him in a high chair, and both he and dad eat an entire turkey for their meal (though this was an Easter Sunday show originally, the turkey gag made it quite appropriate viewing for the eve of Thanksgiving!) — indeed, he seems to be anticipating the entire “adult baby” schtick: though he’s the size of a grown man he’s clearly behaving like a child, and the gag is that his parents (his mom is played by Lois Corbett) are stunting his emotional growth big-time. There’s also a neat gag in which every time Don Wilson stomps the floor in anger, plaster comes falling from the ceiling on top of him. The show was then sponsored by Lucky Strike cigarettes, and whoever uploaded it blessedly left the commercials in it — which were a trip: not only are we no longer accustomed to seeing tobacco commercials on TV but the commercials themselves, crudely animated and (in one case) featuring some Latino stereotypes so obnoxious the Frito Bandito comes off as a model of cultural sensitivity by comparison — an additional bit of cultural history to a show that’s quite appealing on its own even if it evokes nostalgia for a time when the common run of ordinary mainstream TV was this good!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Colgate Variety Hour with Martin and Lewis (TV, 1955)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran a TV show we had recently (not that recently; last August, actually) downloaded from archive.org: a Colgate Variety Hour starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, who usually had co-stars and guests but not this time: it was a series of brilliantly funny sketches showing that when he wasn’t being too obnoxiously infantile Jerry Lewis was actually a quite good slapstick comedian (though how those French critics could put him on the same level as Chaplin still baffles me). It starts with the most hilarious show on the program, featuring Dean Martin as the host of “Mighty Martin’s Midnight Matinee Movie,” showing a Tokyo Films production called Egg Roll is a Many-Splendored Dish. The movie proper (if such a term is appropriate here) starts with the Tokyo Films logo, which is a ripoff of the J. Arthur Rank logo, only instead of one muscular man striking a gong with a hammer, there are two — and they’re close enough together that they end up striking each other instead of the gong. Then the movie turns out to be one of those silly Japanese things with a geisha girl doing teasing motions with a fan, and Jerry Lewis in Asian drag plays her lover — and there are dialogue exchanges between the two in which a long speech Lewis rattles off in pidgin-Japanese gets translated in the subtitles with just two words: “Oh, yeah?”

The scene then fades to Lewis as the great Japanese actor, Tab Yattaguchi, coming in for an interview with host Martin and announcing that they’re going to do a staged version of a scene from Tab’s latest film, Rice Cake Jungle, which features Martin as an accused spy being threatened with torture for having stolen a government secret (an interesting anticipation of the Matt Helm movies — essentially James Bond knock-offs — he’d make over a decade later) and Lewis as the Japanese police chief who offers him his choice of one torture from column A and two from column B. Later there’s a sequence with Martin as a man who has managed to get a rich fiancée to accept his proposal, and is now the guest of honor at a party being thrown by her mother to introduce him to the family — and the scruffily dressed Lewis is Martin’s old friend from the neighborhood, who crashes the party and sandbags the engagement. This one is a lot more predictable and less fun, but it’s still nice to watch Lewis actually managing the basics of physical comedy. Like the Three Stooges, Jerry Lewis is a comedian I found uproariously funny when my age was still in single digits; later I grew up, watched his movies and wondered what on earth I’d ever seen in him — but here he seemed genuinely amusing and I had a good time watching him.

The episode was also welcome in that it contained Dean Martin doing what’s one of my two or three all-time favorite songs of his, “Memories Are Made of This,” and doing it (blessedly) “straight” (earlier in the show he’d also covered the song “It Must Be True,” which Bing Crosby had recorded in 1930 with far more power, emotion and drive, but Martin’s version was certainly pleasant enough and did the song justice), and after the performance of “Memories” Lewis tells Martin he has a singing group of his own, which turns out to be the entire Norman Luboff Choir (I kid you not!), which when Martin tries to sing “Sometimes I’m Happy,” comes in on him and won’t let him get out more than one line without going into a plethora of loud, obnoxious backing-vocal bits — at one point, after Martin gets through enough of the song to sing “Sometimes I hate you, sometimes I love you,” the chorus goes back and forth chanting “Hate! Love! Hate! Love!” as if they were scoring Robert Mitchum’s famous role in the film The Night of the Hunter. “The first punks,” I joked — and later, when Dean Martin was literally pushed to the ground by the Luboff choristers, he said, “You may be right. We’ve just seen Dean Martin go down in a mosh pit.” There’s also a good bit in which Lewis’s supposedly “spontaneous” song is interrupted so often by the director and his two assistants telling him where to go that he runs out of time to sing it at all.

The show was 52 minutes long (most “hour-long” shows on TV today are 43 minutes, the difference being taken up by — you guessed it — more commercials), and while this one eliminated the original commercials (which are sometimes incredibly interesting bits of cultural history) and had a few ripping and synchronization glitches, it was still remarkably entertaining and pushes my opinion of Jerry Lewis several notches upward again. In his book Movie Comedy Teams, Leonard Maltin quotes auteur critic Andrew Sarris as saying, “Martin and Lewis at their best — and that means not in any of their movies — had a marvelous tension between them,” and bits of that tension are readily discernible here as the mock antagonism between the characters threatens to reveal real antagonism between the performers. Even if you didn’t know it already, you’d probably be able to guess from watching this movie that the Martin and Lewis collaboration was on its last legs — they broke up in 1956 and didn’t get together again in public until 1975, when Frank Sinatra clandestinely arranged for Dean Martin to appear on one of Lewis’s Muscular Dystrophy telethons and they were good enough professionals that they actually managed to survive on the same stage at the same time without killing each other.

Her Favorite Patient (Andrew Stone/United Artists, 1945; reissued by Astor, 1950)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our “feature” the night before last was an engaging little movie called Her Favorite Patient, a mild little charmer from producer/director Andrew Stone in 1945 based on a Robert Carson story from the Saturday Evening Post called “Bedside Manner,” also the original title of the movie when United Artists released it in 1945. (The print we were watching was a retitled 1950 reissue by Astor Pictures, which usually handled much tackier reissues from studios like Monogram and PRC.) The story is about a woman doctor, Hedy Fredericks (Ruth Hussey), who’s driving to Chicago to take a job with a research institute, but first she has to stop in her home town of Blythedale (at least that’s what I think the name is — we never see it on a sign or any other document and I’m just guessing from the way Ruth Hussey pronounced it in the opening scene) to see her uncle, J. H. Fredericks (Charlie Ruggles sans his usual moustache), also a doctor.

Indeed, the older, male Dr. Fredericks is one of only two M.D.’s in town, which means they’re both frantically overworked, and he’s dead set on making it three by getting his niece to abandon her plans to go to Chicago and do research, and instead to settle down in Blythedale and become his assistant and partner. On her way to Blythedale she picks up three U.S. Marines who all, it turns out, have the last name “Smith” (one begins to wonder if the World War II-era Marines functioned like the band The Ramones, making all their privates take the last name “Smith”), and who are likewise going to Chicago and don’t relish getting stuck in a small town like Blythedale which, as the younger, female Dr. Fredericks puts it, “time has passed by.” When they arrive they find Blythedale a thriving metropolis, complete with a busy Main Street and even a nightclub, thanks to an airplane manufacturing company that has opened a factory to produce for the war effort. Among the people who’ve been lured to town to participate is test pilot Morgan Hale (John Carroll), whom Hedy pulls out of a line for lunch (that’s a sign of how crowded the town is!) because he reminds her of a boy she knew in town when they were both kids.

Needless to say, it’s the sort of hate-at-first-sight that is going to blossom into love by the final reel, only when Morgan’s head is wounded in an altercation at the nightclub the elder, male Dr. Fredericks hits on a scheme to have him pretend to a series of ever more fantastic ailments in order to keep Hedy in town caring for him, and the proximity works its magic and they end up billing and cooing by the end. Her Favorite Patient isn’t much of a movie — the script by Malcolm Stuart Boylan and Frederick J. Jackson is amusing but hardly as funny as they obviously thought it was, and the best thing that could be said for the direction is this movie cried out for Preston Sturges and got Andrew Stone — but it’s saved by a marvelous performance by Charlie Ruggles (a bit less befuddled than usual, he acts the part much the way Frank Morgan might have, only less theatrically and therefore more believably) and a great slapstick scene in which Hedy is on her way out of town towards Chicago at long last — and Morgan gets in his own car, determined either to run her off the road or persuade her to go back. It was surprising that anyone staged such an elaborate car chase — between two cool-looking but rather lumbering pre-war white convertibles — in the era of gas rationing (and even more surprising that the cars in the movie don’t have gas rationing stickers on their windshields, which I had thought were de rigueur during the war years).

Aside from that, the movie has some nice gags — having run out of physical ailments he can fake well enough to fool a doctor, Morgan is forced to pretend to “pantophobia” — the fear of everything — which in practice means he’s always ducking into closets or hiding under tables and beds, and this leaves a lot of the other characters wondering how such a scaredycat ever got to be a fearless, macho (well, as macho as John Carroll could ever play on screen, anyway) test pilot. It’s not that great a movie, and at nearly 80 minutes it’s about 10 to 15 minutes too long for its own good, but it’s still charming and fun, and Ruth Hussey is personable, attractive without being drop-dead gorgeous and adept at the rare opportunity (shared, among actresses of her generation, mostly by Katharine Hepburn and Rosalind Russell) to play an intelligent woman on screen.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Bad Teacher (Mosaic/Columbia, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Bad Teacher, released earlier this year in theatres and then on DVD, which offered a choice of the 92-minute theatrical release (rated “R”) and a 97-minute “unrated edition.” I ran the latter (the differences between them are basically more explicit sexual situations — one of the most delightful gags of the version we saw was not in the theatrical release, more on that later — and more dirty words) and had a great time with it. Granted that almost no modern comedy is going to make me laugh as hard as a classic from Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel and Hardy or the Marx Brothers — and the one that came closest came out of left field, Scott Prendergast’s 2007 indie Kabluey, of whom I wrote in my journal, “Had he been born in 1900 instead of 1970 would probably have had a great career in silent comedy” — but Bad Teacher, though it contained one flatulence gag (alas, no “comedy” made by the major studios today seems complete without one!) and a lot of raunchy sex talk and situations (fortunately, most of it genuinely funny raunchy sex talk and situations!), was genuinely entertaining and amusing if only rarely laugh-out-loud funny.

It’s about a teacher from hell, Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz), who’s the most blatant golddigger we’ve seen on screen since Joan Blondell and/or Glenda Farrell chatted up Guy Kibbee for his millions in innumerable Warners programmers in the 1930’s. When the movie begins she’s about to retire from her teaching job at a school incongruously referred to as “Jams” (it’s short for John Adams Middle School) — and yes, seventh grade there is as hellish as I remember it from my own life (in terms of being teased and bullied it was the worst year of my childhood; for me things actually got better in high school, where it being the late 1960’s I met more nonconformists and people I could genuinely respect and get along with) in order to marry a rich pigeon, Steven, only Steven shows up with his mother in tow and tries to break off the engagement as politely as possible, while mom is pushing him to throw the tramp out on her ear without any of the pleasantries he’s trying to muster. So she has to return to teaching, though she makes clear it’s only to do the bare minimum to draw a paycheck and make a living (she’s rooming with a fat male pig she met on Craigslist) until she can hook her rich man and marry into the fortune she thinks she deserves. (She drives a red sports car with the license plate “Hers” and almost always wears Christian Louboutin’s red-soled designer shoes — result of a product placement deal between the film’s producers and Louboutin, though the brand name also gets written into the script.)

Her big motivation is to raise the nearly $10,000 she needs for a breast expansion at Chicago’s highest-end plastic surgeon (in one grimly amusing scene, also deleted from the theatrical release, she looks at the distented breasts of the native women in Africa in a National Geographic-style magazine and seems to be seriously considering that as a model for what she wants), and she finds out that a potential rich “catch” is already available, more or less: nerdy substitute teacher Scott Delacorte (played by a surprisingly unsexy Justin Timberlake — that’s actually a compliment to him that he’s able to suppress his usual twinky attractiveness to suit the role) who turns out to be related to the Louboutins on his mother’s side. The only problem is that Scott is interested not in Elizabeth but her fellow teacher Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch) — who, despite her silly last name, is one of the two closest things in this movie to a decent human being — who’s red-headed, down-to-earth and, unlike Elizabeth (who uses virtually all her class time to show her students movies), genuinely cares about her job and her students. The most amusing aspect of Bad Teacher is its — and its central character’s — sheer relentlessness: willing to stop at nothing to get the money she needs for her breast remodel, Elizabeth vamps the principal and feigns an interest in his principal avocation, dolphins (he’s even joined a Save the Children-type foundation, only instead of getting to adopt a child he got to adopt a dolphin), to keep him from coming down on her unconventional, to say the least, teaching methods; she also dons a wig from the school’s production of Little Orphan Annie and poses as a reporter to obtain the answers for that year’s standardized tests once she hears that the teacher whose class turns in the best test scores in Cook County is eligible for a $5,700 bonus.

From then on the movies in the classroom stop and instead she drills her students in the inner meanings of the novel To Kill a Mockingbird (the parallels to the movie Up the Down Staircase and the lesson Sandy Dennis’s character gives on the meanings of Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” are probably intentional, though the contrast between the 1967 movie about the idealistic teacher who wanted to make a difference in her students’ lives and the 2011 movie about the spoiled-rotten teacher who wanted only to land a new set of tits and a rich man says volumes about how the moral sense of this country has deteriorated over that time), gets the great test scores out of her class that she intended and gets the bonus. She also hatches a plot to seduce Scott by arranging to go with him to a field trip to Springfield, both the Illinois state capital and the home town of Abraham Lincoln, by rubbing poison ivy over Amy’s apple and thereby rendering her unable to go, and in the raunchy scene I mentioned earlier that was deleted from the theatrical release (it seems that the funniest gags in this movie were the ones deleted from the theatrical release!) she finally makes it into bed with him and has sex with him, sort of. It seems he’s still too nerdy and too hung up over his body to have actual intercourse, or even to take his clothes off, so he ends up orgasming by rubbing his crotch against her ass and then director Jake Kasdan (son of Lawrence Kasdan of The Big Chill) cuts to a medium shot of him showing the wet spot on his jeans.

Writers Gene Stupnitsky (who should probably change his name before some critic who doesn’t like one of his movies makes the inevitable pun on it, “Stupidsky”) and Lee Eisenberg try to give their movie a “positive” ending by a flatly unbelievable Capra-esque finish in which Elizabeth lets go of Scott, who pairs up with Amy, and ends up with the poor but nice gym teacher (Jason Segel) who’s been after her throughout (and a new gig as a guidance counselor at JAMS, which was supposed to be an uproarious gag but which left me shaking my head) — it would have been more believable if, after blowing it with Scott, she hooked up with a Bill Gates-style multibillionaire who showed up at JAMS to give it a much-publicized gift of computer equipment, and waved a contemptuous goodbye from his limo to everyone at the school who still gave a damn — but until that false moment Bad Teacher is a movie that entertains and astonishes in its sheer relentlessness, the utter amorality of its central character, though frankly the Lifetime movie Mini’s First Time (whose main difference from Bad Teacher is that the amoral female protagonist is a student, not a teacher, and which has the requisite cynical ending instead of a silly attempt at a worm-turning one) did the same trope even more outrageously and even better!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Sybil (Lorimar, 1976)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Sybil, the original 1976 TV-movie based on the 1973 best-selling book by author Flora Rheta Schreiber (whose previous book was called Your Child’s Speech and whose only other work was The Shoemaker, about a schizophrenic serial killer) about a woman, whose real name was Shirley Ardell Mason but whom Schreiber renamed “Sybil,” party to protect her identity and partly to evoke the Sybils, the multi-voiced prophetesses of Greek mythology. The real Sybil (Shirley) had the mother of all dysfunctional childhoods; she grew up in a Wisconsin farm village, and while her dad was relatively sympathetic (though ineffectual), mom, Hattie, was almost literally the parent from hell. A paranoid schizophrenic herself, Hattie alternated between occasional bouts of tenderness and monumental rages in which she would give her daughter cold-water enemas and insist that she hold the water in while she sang and played on the piano (she was a frustrated pianist who had hoped for a concert career, hopes dashed when her sister died and she had to return to the family’s farm). She would also stick knitting needles and other similar objects up her daughter’s cunt, telling her all the while that this was because when she grew up men would be sticking things up her and she’d better get used to it now.

 Sybil got turned into two TV-movies: this one, which became legendary for the casting of Sally Field as Sybil (before that Field had only done stupid, banal TV shows like Gidget and The Flying Nun: her performance won an Emmy Award and convinced film producers that she could handle tough dramatic roles like the title character in Norma Rae, for which she won the Academy Award and gave the infamous acceptance speech in which she cooed, “You like me! You really, really like me!”), and a mediocre 2007 remake by Norman Stephens Productions for the Lifetime channel that basically turned the story into yet another woman-in-peril genre piece (and which was only half as long — this one originally ran 198 minutes and was shown in two parts, though the DVD times out at 187 minutes, likely because there was a recap of part one at the start of part two and that wasn’t needed on a disc that spliced the two parts together and showed them as one movie).

The extra length certainly benefited the story — at times this movie seems like a tough slog, not only because it’s long but also because it’s awfully claustrophobic (at least half of it takes place in the office of Sybil’s psychiatrist, Dr. Cornelia Wilbur, and much of the parts that don’t are in the room Sybil herself lives in and in the room in the adjoining building her sometimes-boyfriend Richard Loomis) and it deals so relentlessly, and almost exclusively, with the darker sides of human nature. Field had to fight for the part of Sybil; at first the producers wanted Joanne Woodward because she’d already successfully played a victim of multiple personality disorder in The Three Faces of Eve nearly 20 years earlier (and won an Academy Award for doing so), but Woodward turned it down — imdb.com’s entry on Sybil doesn’t specify why, but it was almost certainly because she realized she was too old for the part by then and instead she insisted that she’d do the movie, but only if she played Dr. Wilbur rather than Sybil herself — which she did, magnificently, though as with Joan Crawford’s role in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Woodward’s good work here tended to be overshadowed by the bravura performance of her co-star. (When Sybil was remade I was hoping the new producers would have had the wit to cast Field as the therapist, continuing the daisy chain of the two roles, but they used Jessica Lange instead — perhaps because she’d already played a crazy woman in Frances.)

The film also featured important behind-the-scenes roles for two people prominently associated with James Dean — writer Stewart Stern, who wrote Rebel Without a Cause, and composer Leonard Rosenman, who did the music for both Rebel and East of Eden — and though Stern clearly shaped Schreiber’s material into screenplay form, playing fast and loose with the chronology to cut and paste the book into a structure suitable for a movie, he did his job well and provided the film’s excellent actors with material that played to their strengths. Sybil is a fascinating film mainly because of the acting, though the usually stage-bound director Daniel Petrie also turned in a fantastic job, rising above his training in theatre and live TV and making a movie out of this material, including some suspense and even horror sequences rivaling anything in films billed as horror movies or thrillers. Sally Field’s performance is a tour de force, rivaling Woodward’s fine work in The Three Faces of Eve (after Sybil Christine Sizemore, the real “Eve,” wrote a book in which she claimed to have had 26 personalities to Sybil’s 16) and Carole Lombard’s magnificent performance in the 1933 film Supernatural (in which her soul is taken over by that of a convicted murderess; it’s not clinically a multiple-personality movie but it similarly gives a female star a tour de force role playing two radically different personalities), utterly credible in her ability to switch personalities literally on a dime (at one point Woodward as the therapist addresses her as the “wrong” personality and then apologizes: “I’m sorry, Peggy, but you popped out so fast … ”).

Woodward is also excellent, particularly in the scenes in which she worries that she’s getting too close to Sybil, too wrapped up in her delusional system and acting too much like a mother rather than a therapist. Richard Loomis is played by the ill-fated Brad Davis (he died of complications from AIDS in 1991 at age 41 and complained about Hollywood’s hypocrisy, in which prominent producers appeared at AIDS benefits and signed charity appeals but discriminated against hiring anybody who might actually have it), who’s got an appropriately dorky-looking face but a great body and an impressive basket (which director Petrie shows us quite a lot of!), and he’s fully credible as a basically nice guy who tries to unlock Sybil’s affections but finds the relationship too much for him when she — or, rather, one of her “alters” — tries to commit suicide one night. And while I found myself wishing that the producers would have cast Joan Crawford as Sibyl’s mother — she was still alive then, and let’s face it, she would have been playing herself! — little-known actress Martine Bartlett turned in a fantastic job and made her performance indelible. I hadn’t seen this version of Sybil since it was new (and even “in the day” I think I only caught part one), but despite the rather lame ending (revelations Schreiber spaced out throughout her book are jammed together at the end to provide a “surprise” finish and a neat movie-cliché explanation of why Sybil dissociated) it holds up beautifully and, while I want the world of movies to express more than just the direst of human emotions as is the case here, this is definitely a movie that takes a fantastic story and does it justice.

Incidentally, there’ve been allegations that the story of Sybil is “fantastic” in more ways than one: psychiatrists and psychologists have debated the existence and prevalence of multiple personality disorder (now called “dissociative identity disorder”) for decades. When Dr. Wilbur was treating Sybil she got criticized by male doctors for having taken an ordinary case of hysteria and either consciously or unconsciously tricked her into believing she had multiple personalities, and afterwards, as the rate of multiple personality disorder diagnoses soared up, some therapists were accused of taking garden-variety schizophrenics or bipolars and diagnosing them with multiple personality disorder in hopes their case would be the next Three Faces of Eve or Sybil, generating a best-selling book and an award-winning hit movie. The debates still rage — as reflected in the various editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), which reflects the votes of psychological associations as to what is and isn’t a mental illness (and merely the fact that those definitions have to be voted on is evidence that the whole category of “mental illness” is largely subjective and doesn’t have the clarity of symptoms/diagnosis/treatment we expect in the world of physical illnesses), from the flat-out acceptance of multiple personality disorder in the second DSM to much more guarded criteria (DSM-III lumped it in with other dissociative disorders and DSM-IV renamed it “dissociative identity disorder”) in more recent editions. Both during her lifetime and since, Dr. Wilbur has been accused of professional malpractice, from allegedly suggesting multiple personalities to Sybil as a metaphor for understanding her condition to outright planting false memories in her hapless head, and though the real Shirley Mason may have got over the most obvious symptoms of her dissociation she didn’t have much of a life after that: she died in 1991 in Lexington, Kentucky, where she’d worked as an art teacher but otherwise had been a recluse with no contact with other human beings outside her work in the classroom.