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Tuesday, July 17, 2018

ALEXANDER HAMILTON (1931)

Based on his own historical bio-play, it’s another Great Man Portrait from that master of not-much-disguise George Arliss, who knew perfectly well he was a wizened 63 playing a 30-something Hamilton as George Washington’s Sec. of Treasury. (Though what an exceptional Washington from character actor Alan Mowbray!) Surely the only Hamilton dramatization to avoid even mentioning Aaron Burr, it’s a tale of marital infidelity vs. National Bill of Financial Unity. No duel; no gunplay; no mention of illegitimacy; instead, Hamilton is tempted while his wife is away and falls into a sexual trap only to find his blackmail payoffs to the lady-in-question being used to smear his political motives. Will he own up to his wife for the good of the country? Not a bad little plot, but the dramaturgy is turgid, and made worse by having everyone add a gay little laugh at the end of every other line. Presumably a holdover from the stage which might work better had any of the lines a whiff of wit to them. Dreary as the dialogue is, the acting is both spirited and fun in its stagy manner, and John Aldolfi (director of most Arliss projects @ Warners before dying young in 1933 just as Arliss was heading over to 20th CENTURY) gets some handsome production values to play around with. Arliss may seem an unlikely star, a posh snob-appeal sort, but was really quite popular in his day.*

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The young wife who leads Hamilton astray (he can’t resist climbing the stairs to fetch a coat he let her borrow . . . FADE OUT), is played by June Collyer, but was done on B’way by doomed, legendary Jeanne Eagles. A breakthrough perf for her in 1917 thanks to Arliss who did much the same for a struggling Bette Davis in his very next film, THE MAN WHO PLAYED GOD/’32. How fitting that Eagles’ last two films, before her death from drug addiction in 1929, would both become famous Bette Davis vehicles: THE LETTER (filmed by Bette in ‘40) and JEALOUSY, retitled DECEPTION for Davis in 1946.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: In the days of Louis XIV, it was customary for a Kingly Emissary of some sort to appear at a play’s finale to straighten everything out for a fitting (usually happy) end. And the wittiest thing in this generally stiff play (it’s also the most wildly inappropriate) uses President Washington right at the end for a similar coup de théâtre.

CONTEST: *Indeed, Arliss’s popularity in a certain play lives on in a famous salad dressing, created for his enjoyment during a stop in San Francisco. Name the play & the dressing to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of your choice. Hint: not Ranch, not Blue Cheese.

Monday, July 16, 2018

THE GREEN BERETS (1968)

You’d imagine that 50 years after this film came out (and 45 since the U.S. pull out opened a long, winding, ironic path to winning over Hearts & Minds thru pocketbooks) for some historical interest to have accrued (like barnacles) to John Wayne’s contentious pro-military look at the war. But either Vietnam remains too complicated, or the film too poorly made to have gained insight or value with the passing years. For all the unique elements & problems of the conflict, this film might as well be refighting some WWII Philippine battle, on locations that apparently set all the action in Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, with weighty senior citizen senior officers. Wayne shares directing credit with Ray Kellogg, a second-unit man who presumably handled action & ordnance, if none too well. A downed helicopter sequence with Wayne particularly risible. The film’s standout element its gloating display of sadistic killings; surprisingly, on both sides. David Janssen seems constipated, as he always did in features, as a leftie newsman who ‘gets religion’ watching battle up-close, while the always pleasant Jim Hutton at least makes a likable fellow of his mash-up of an Ensign Pulver requisition whiz with Audie Murphy-like combat heroics. (Plotline: Build BaseCamp; lose BaseCamp to VietCong; recapture BaseCamp from Vietcong.) And if you thought they’d forget to add in a baleful orphan boy or a soldier who dies on his final day, then perhaps you also won’t notice them splicing on a needless fourth act combo-plate of Mata Hari, The Dirty Dozen & Bridge on the River Kwai. (No kidding: Mata Hari, Dirty Dozen and BotRK! Sheesh.)

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The big pro-military film of 1968, which ends with a proud son enlisting for an unmentioned Vietnam, was the ‘blended’ family comedy YOURS, MINE AND OURS, starring the very liberal Henry Fonda alongside the somewhat liberal Lucille Ball. And while BERETS did well enough, YOURS did 150% of this film’s take.

LINK: The sing-song lyrics of the title song (by GREEN BERETS novelist Robin Moore) are classic Patriotic Drivel and demand hearing even if you never get to (or thru) the pic. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m5WJJVSE_BE

Sunday, July 15, 2018

THE DAWN PATROL (1930)

Though WWI ended before Howard Hawks (stuck in Texas as an Army Flight Instructor*) made it ‘Over There’, he still managed to lose plenty of aviator pals in the Post-War years. Including kid brother (and fellow director) Kenneth, dead in a plane crash filming SUCH MEN ARE DANGEROUS just as DAWN started pre-production. A personal tragedy that finds its parallel in this Early Talkie, Hawks’ first sound film. Hard to imagine any Hollywood director other than WWI pilot William Wellman better informed to handle the gallantry & fatalism of this story’s company of wartime flyers; and the awful duties of command in having to follow impossible orders sending young men to pointless death, then live with the consequences & casualties. Some of the acting looks a bit stiff now, though pretty advanced for the period, and with a gain in rawness & verisimilitude missing from Edmund Goulding’s far smoother 1938 remake. In 1930, it’s Richard Barthelmess (his most dynamic sound perf); Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (with a star-making killer smile); Neil Hamilton (stuck with philosophical verbiage). 1938 brought in Errol Flynn; David Niven & Basil Rathbone. (See below.) Viewed with Early Talkie blinders in place, it’s a remarkable sound debut for Hawks; with superb action sequences and thematically, what with group sacrifice for a common cause & tough/tender male bonding (watch Barthelmess gently touch the sleeping Fairbank’s hair before a flight), hopelessly Hawksian.

DOUBLE-BILL: In production since 1927 (and reshot-for-sound), Howard Hughes raced to get HELL’S ANGLES, his own WWI Fly Boy meller, into theaters first. And while he did briefly beat DAWN, he soon pulled it back for re-editing. Eventually, both films ran in theaters against each other, and both did well, though HELL’S cost too much to ever earn out. Up in the sky, HELL’S tops DAWN, though each has plenty of spectacular (and mostly real) airborne action, but DAWN sweeps the board on the ground, and generally holds up far better.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Look for a great unedited shot, taken from the back as one of these prop planes takes off, from revved-up to airborne, to see just how fast these ‘kites-with-engines’ could take off. Less than ten seconds. Modern audiences sometimes giggle at such phony-looking 'special effects,' unaware they’re watching a real thing.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *Even Hawks, never one to let truth get in the way of a good story, might have blanched seeing his war record expanded on IMDb.com which has him flying missions in Europe as part of the famous Lafayette Escadrille. (Were they thinking of director ‘Wild’ Bill Wellman?) But then, this mini-bio also gives him credit for making a star of John Wayne in RED RIVER/’48 over John Ford’s STAGECOACH/’39, blithely ignoring a decade of starring pics in between, and then goes on to credit Hawks with directing the John Ford Cavalry Trilogy of FORT APACHE/’48 (filmed after RED RIVER, released before); SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON/’49 and RIO GRANDE/’50.

Friday, July 13, 2018

SHOSHUN / EARLY SPRING (1956)

Yasujirô Ozu’s breakout film, TOKYO STORY, only reached the international circuit after this film’s release. An unusually long three-year wait between films, apparently the result of a canceled project. (Previously, only WWII kept Ozu away from regular releases.) Something happened; but what? A career/confidence crisis after a masterpiece? Whatever it was, this film, about a new dissatisfied generation of post-war 30-somethings, ‘salary men’ at large companies, is more deliberately paced, and has an exceptionally melancholy tone. But once it comes to the boil, the story generates considerable interest & deeply felt emotion. At the center is a married couple, well-matched, but nearly oblivious to each other after about eight years and the death of their only child four years ago. It’s left the husband susceptible to an office flirtation at his serviceable, if slightly deadening clerical job, and leads to a quickly jettisoned affair. SHE taking it far more seriously than HE. Perhaps more important is the effect on his wife, just as a job opportunity comes up for the husband that would move them away from Tokyo. Ozu stirs in about a half dozen side stories on the way, all of uncommon interest, all involving in their understated fashion as played out in the perfect compositions of his equally understated film technique. Observation by a master, lightened with touching and funny elements of the human comedy. Not perhaps the best starting point for Ozu, but still unmissable.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Out on a Criterion series of ‘Late Ozu,’ the sourced print looks somewhat washed out in the early going, but improves as it goes along.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

EL VERDUGO / THE EXECUTIONER (1963)

Luis Garcia Berlanga’s much-admired, even revered Franco-era film about an undertaker who marries an executioner’s daughter (then fights against taking over the 'family franchise' which he needs to keep his new government-sponsored apartment!) has the shape of dark, bitter comedy, but not the spirit. It’s critical rep won on intentions. Playing like an off-shoot of the Italian Commedia All’Italiana movement, and no wonder with Nino Manfredi in the lead*; Ennio Flaiano on script; Tonino Delli Colli lensing; perhaps the prestige of its Italian contingent helped it past Franco’s censors. Strongly influenced, if inferior to both Alberto Lattuada’s MAFIOSO/’62 (with Alberto Sordi) and Pietro Germi’s DIVORCE ITALIAN STYLE/’61 (with Marcello Mastroianni), it meets those classics on equal footing only near the end, in a magnificent example of mise-en-scène, as Berlanga stages a doubled-‘Last Mile’ walk for both the condemned prisoner about to be garroted (a particularly nasty ‘hands-on’ form of execution) and for new executioner Manfredi who feels just as condemned. If only more functioned on this level, the film might live up to its bleak, comic reputation.

DOUBLE-BILL: As mentioned above, DIVORCE ITALIAN STYLE and MAFIOSO. (*Few of Manfredi’s 100+ titles came Stateside, his best known, BREAD AND CHOCOLATE/’74, all wet. Instead, from the same year, Ettore Scola’s fine ensemble dramedy charting the lives of a group of friends over the post-war decades in WE ALL LOVED EACH OTHER SO MUCH.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

THE GREAT AMERICAN PASTIME (1956)

Attempt to follow-up THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH/’55 with another leading man role for Tom Ewell doesn’t come off, doesn’t even try. Ewell was probably too eccentrically sardonic to carry a film anyway (his B’way & Hollywood success with ITCH something of a fluke*), but it’s hard to see this minor piffle about a lawyer who manages a suburban Little League team over the summer making much of a mark with anyone. The kids are pleasant enough, son Rudy Lee, who winds up playing on an opposing team, really quite good. And it’s a kick to see rail-thin 25-yr-old Dean Jones in his first year in film (he’s the coach). But there’s little spark or originality here as the boys’ parents bitch about field positions, strategy & losses. Plus single mom Ann Miller who makes Ewell’s wife Anne Francis jealous. Eventually, Ewell wins 'the big game' by letting the kids have fun out there. Piffle. With tv director Herman Hoffman (using Vincente Minnelli’s FATHER OF THE BRIDE/’50 as a loose template) unable to work up the shots needed to make sense of the action on field. (There is one nice over-head gag shot involving a pop fly . . . ONE.)

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: The screenplay, from comic novelist Nathaniel Benchley (son Peter of JAWS fame), might have been better served as one of the dozens of wry one-reel shorts his dad, Robert Benchley, made on the trials of modern life in the ‘30s and ‘40s. And would have saved about 80 minutes.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: *While Ewell soon reverted to supporting roles, the even more eccentrically sardonic Walter Matthau showed how to pull this sort of thing off in THE BAD NEWS BEARS/’76. But then, Matthau, who took a similar B’way to Hollywood path to leading man status with Neil Simon’s THE ODD COUPLE/’68, had a touch of empathetic genius in his acting.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

GUILTY HANDS (1931)

After a two-year shot at directing, Lionel Barrymore gave in to the inevitable, winning an Academy Award playing a defense attorney whose headstrong daughter Norma Shearer falls for his most dangerous client, mob man Clark Gable in A FREE SOUL/’31. (O. J. Simpson’s infamous defense about those ill-fitting ‘gloves’ comes straight out of this film . . . but with a hat!) A huge triumph not repeated in this copycat follow up. Here, Barrymore’s a District Attorney with a headstrong daughter engaged to sleazy client Alan Mowbray, a womanizing sadist Barrymore says he’d kill before letting a marriage take place. And with the creep’s mistress (Kay Francis) one of the many guests on his island retreat for the wedding, he’s got a perfect candidate to take the fall as murderer. Director Woody Van Dyke, in early Talkie mode here, tosses up the occasional startling camera move as cover, but its mostly stiff & stagy, a Dark Old House/Murder Mystery filmed like a play. (Even using old-fashioned theatrical machinery for thunder & lightning effects.) Early on, Kay Francis shows a bit of modern glam & sex appeal, Paramount style (her home studio at the time), but it doesn’t last. Everything creaks, even for 1931, including a corny twist-ending to settle all scores.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: As mentioned above, A FREE SOUL.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The film does show a side of Lionel that’s a bit like his glamorous kid brother John. A spark usurped next year by Jack when he came over and joined Lionel @ M-G-M.

CONTEST: What surprising connection could there be between this film & a certain Astaire/Rogers’ musical? Name the film & the specific connection to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of your choice.

Monday, July 9, 2018

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017)

Writer/director (and acclaimed playwright) Martin McDonagh’s well-received comic-singed sardonic drama about a mother’s search for justice after her daughter’s rape & murder, piles on too many unintended consequences, driven less by character or plot than by contrivance. Anything goes, as long as McDonagh finds an opening to the next got’cha plot pivot, ‘didn’t see that coming’ as dramatic self-justification. In a less naturalistic treatment, it’s so cleverly worked out (a cross between Coen Bros. sensibility and THE USUAL SUSPECTS) that it just might have worked. A turnaround with every new piece of info a favored structural device for Asghar (A SEPARATION) Farhadi; perhaps in the informed manner Todd Haynes gives classic ‘50s Douglas Sirk melodrama. But here, it’s unadorned and difficult to buy into. Frances McDormand is the wounded mother, inexplicably dour even before the tragedy, a revenge-mad harpy who advertises her pain, shaming the police on the eponymous billboards for a lack of action on the unsolved case. The twist is she’s nearly as wrong as she is right about her major antagonists: Woody Harrelson’s good-natured police chief; violent off-kilter cop Sam Rockwell; even philandering ex-husband John Hawkes. Fun in a sick sort of way, but not really convincing; as if the action were set in the wrong country. Perhaps McDonagh misses home field advantage; not Ireland, the stage.

DOUBLE-BILL: In a film like THE MAN WITHOUT A PAST/'02, Aki Kaurismäki effortlessly gets the tone McDonagh is hunting for.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

THREE DARING DAUGHTERS (1948)

After two decades, including a six-year wartime layoff, motherhood came to fluttery soprano ingenue Jeanette MacDonald. Three times! Teenage girls, all fluttery sopranos, especially eldest Jane Powell, and all raised to believe that Mom’s ex, a skunk who went south, never to return, is really a swell guy who’s always loved them. So when mom comes home from a vacation/rest-cure secretly married to pianist José Iturbi, the reception is chilly. Can this marriage be saved . . . or even announced? Can the family be saved? Can anyone hold intonation above the staff? Of course, it’s just an excuse for a musical potpourri of middlebrow Pop & Classical ‘Pops’ excerpts in the brain-dead manner of family-friendly producer Joe Pasternak who had a real knack for this tripe. Director Fred Wilcox no more than a functionary. But worth Fast-Fowarding thru some screechy coloratura for the goofy charm of José, and sister Amparo, in a wild two-piano, orchestral arrangement (with guitar & chorus!) of Manuel de Falla’s Ritual Fire Dance; and later, an even weirder arrangement, with harmonica whiz Larry Adler fronting, on George Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsody #1. Who did these crazy charts? Music director George Stoll? Iturbi? Adler? Whoever it is, they could justify an even more ridiculous movie.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Powell, who somehow always looks just out-of-focus, made her bones co-starring with Fred Astaire in ROYAL WEDDING/’51 and all those In-Laws in SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS/’54. But with musicals on their way out, she got one decade to MacDonald’s two.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: M-G-M found lots of specialty spots for classical musicians like José Iturbi. But it’s rare to find them playing romantic lead as fictionalized versions of themselves! Pirandello might have thought it up. (Violin great Jascha Heifetz played a fictional character under his own name in THEY SHALL HAVE MUSIC/’39, but not the romantic lead!)