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Sunday, July 31, 2011

IF I HAD MY WAY (1940)

Bing Crosby’s two-fer deal @ Universal switched gears after the goofy, screwball charm of EAST OF HEAVEN’39 to maudlin sentiment & kiddie coloratura. Gloria Jean, Universal’s answer to Deanna Durbin . . . Wait! Full-stop. Deanna Durbin was at Universal! Did they really need two pubescent sopranos? (In her own way, Durbin could be very, very good, see ONE HUNDRED MEN AND A GIRL/’37. Jean, not so much. She barely lives on as the last of W. C. Fields’ child tormentors in NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK/’41.*) Here, Jean’s an orphan girl, chaperoned to NYC by Bing to meet her new guardian, Uncle Allyn Joslyn. But he can’t be bothered and fobs them onto her Great-Uncle, retired vaudevillian Charles Winninger. You probably think you can guess the rest, but it’s even worse then you could imagine; they’ve got a pet squirrel and a kindly bank manger up their narrative sleeve. And Gloria’s apt to let loose with the roulades at any time while Bing responds with his inevitable mordénts, those little vocal turns that date his otherwise impeccable vocals. Well, there must have been an audience for this mush and there is some interest in seeing Bing shed his glib manner for the first time. (Maybe not such a good thing.) Right at the end, we get to see a few old-timey vaudeville stars (Blackface ALERT!), but they must have left the best routines on the cutting room floor.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Durbin & Jean may seem hopelessly old-fashioned, yet Charlotte Church and newbies like Hannah Jewell & Jackie Evancho are pulling the same stunt for new generations . . . and with a lot less vocal allure.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

YOIDORE TENSHI / DRUNKEN ANGEL (1948)

Akira Kurosawa was always a ‘natural,’ but it took half a dozen films for him to become Kurosawa. And this is the film that did it. Takashi Shimura, already a regular, stars as a cantankerous middle-aged doctor who curses his slum clientele & dreams of a high-class trade. But he still can’t keep himself from worrying too much about his ungrateful patients, even that new TB case, a violently self-destructive local Yukuza kingpin. (Toshiro Mifune in the first of his 13 Kurosawa pics.*) While these two butt heads over treatment, Mifune’s rapid physical decline is impacting on his neighborhood clout. An old rival, fresh out of jail, is scoping out Mifune’s territory as well as a former lover, now the good doctor’s assistant. Kurosawa’s emerging style orchestrates in quick-step, with info-packed compositions and an occasional reflective moment between the skillful set pieces, leading to a fight in a narrow hallway that literally paints Mifune into a corner before climaxing with a visual epiphany accomplished by simply opening a double door. Unforgettable stuff. Don’t let a bit of corny melodrama & overstated acting (or some pat philosophizing) put you off. You’d be missing a lot, especially the star-making turn from Mifune whose glamorous, fatalistic gangster prefigures Brando & Elvis. (Check out that hair!) Shimura & Mifune would reunite next year for Kurosawa’s first flat-out masterpiece, STRAY DOG, with RASHOMON as chaser.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Technically, Kurosawa is considered the most Western-influenced of classic Japanese helmers, yet his themes often decry the rise of Western culture. Here, for example, the gangsters adopt a Western style in clothes, drink & music. True, but this ignores Mifune’s anti-hero with his über-West attitudes & look. The pic was a sensation because everyone wanted to emulate this cool cat.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY II: *In RED BEARD/’65, their final collaboration, Mifune more-or-less plays the wise old doctor played here by Shimura, though Kurosawa lets him kick butt to close Part I of that frustrating pic.

Friday, July 29, 2011

EAST SIDE OF HEAVEN (1939)

Universal borrowed Bing Crosby from his home studio (Paramount) for this unprepossessing, but good-natured comedy-with-music, a working-class screwball farce. Bing’s a Singing Telegram messenger who loses his job and gains a year-old tyke when the kid’s mom leaves town to track down her wastrel hubby. Along with Joan Blondell, Bing’s ever-patient fiancé, and his under-employed roommate (Mischa Auer, fun company even without a speck of decent material), they try to keep things on the QT. After all, that kid’s valuable property with a rich bossy grandfather (C. Aubrey Smith) and a nosy radio gossip (Jerome Cowan) hot on his trail; he's a diapered missing heir! Miraculously, considering the cutesy set-up, the film keeps the comic misunderstandings to a minimum, quickly explaining each new complication and moving on to the next, nobody has to act dumb just to keep the plot on track. No doubt, this is possible because a third of the running time is taken up by music spots for Der Bingle. Alas, the songs are no more than pleasant. But in its modest way, this is an exemplary programmer; put over with a snappy pace by David Butler who’d make three more pics with Bing, including THE ROAD TO MOROCCO/’42 back @ Paramount.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The next time you read one of those sexually revisionist bios note the sleeping arrangement for Bing & Mischa in their little apartment. Yep, people of the same sex used to share a bed. No fuss, no sweat, no turning! And saved a bit of cash. Here, the joke isn’t sharing the bed with another guy, but with a little kid. That’s too much!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

HOME (1968 or 1971*)

British playwright & novelist David Storey built his rep in the Angry-Young-Men school of socially conscious, working-class drama, always with Lindsay Anderson helming on stage (THE CHANGING ROOM); on screen (THIS SPORTING LIFE/’63; or both (IN CELEBRATION/’75). HOME, also with Anderson, was something different, a verbal badminton game for two elderly gents, eventually joined by a mismatched pair of ladies and a slow-thinking hulk. It’s a plotless character study that idles away a morning in chat, than returns after lunch for a rematch, all on the grounds of a sanitarium of some sort. Of what, we never quite find out. A retirement home for elderly?, for mental decline?, a reformatory?, for criminal inclinations?, family abandonment?, or is everyone just waiting for Godot? Storey isn’t letting on. It’s intriguing, in theory, but Storey’s writing hasn’t really held up. And if much of his work now reads like Harold Pinter without the threatening undertow, this one sounds like Beckett-lite. Happily, the original production, reproduced here, was a triumph thanks to a brilliant casting idea that brought in two legendary Old Guard stars to tease out the pseudo-enigmatic dialogue. John Gielgud & Ralph Richardson bring such a limitless range of ‘humours’ to their characters, pricking each other’s egos with deflating comic nuance (seemingly teased out of thin air), wicked befuddlement (mostly Richardson), chilling despair (mostly Gielgud) and melancholy for an England that’s become hard to discern from their current vantage point.

*The production was apparently taped in ‘68, but the 1971 copyright probably means it aired after its B’way engagement.

DOUBLE-BILL: Mona Washbourne, who plays the limping lady-friend with the horse-laugh, can be seen at her best in another stage-to-screen hybrid, STEVIE/’78, where she’s mother to poet Stevie Smith, played by Glenda Jackson who’s also at her best.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

PANIQUE AU VILLAGE / A TOWN CALLED PANIC (2009)

If you’ve ever wondered what might happen when a couple of plastic figurines (Cowboy & Indian) tried to order 50 bricks on the internet . . . and mistakenly punched in 50,000,000,000!, this is the film for you! Two crafty Belgian miscreants, Stéphen Aubier & Vincent Patar, are largely responsible for this bit of stop-animation heaven about a small town populated with toy figures on little pedestals who live, work, go to school & play in a world of model vehicles, faux terrain & putty homes. It’s a dreamscape for a playful seven-yr old, with a kid's fits of impatience & sudden violence added to the circular logic of Edward Lear, the speed & technical breeziness of SOUTH PARK and the try-anything tone & goofy charm of SPONGE BOB SQUARE PANTS on acid. You, and any youngster you may know, will either sit in stunned silence at the absurd adventures on land & sea, particularly at the derring-do & romantic nature of Horse, or you may giggle helplessly as the town tumbles from crisis to crisis, panicking at every turn. Best of all, this silly childhood idyll comes a la carte, without a speck of snark or wiseguy cultural Pop references in the mix. (Take that, DreamWorks!) Zeitgeist distribution didn’t have a clue on how to market this treat in the States - an innocent Belgian kiddie pic for hipsters? - but don’t let that hold you back. Why not try this as an entry into subtitles for early readers? Train ‘em while they’re still young.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The comically speedy small town postman in PANIQUE is something of a European tradition. (Except in Italy, where he’s comically slow! - see IL POSTINO/’94.) It’s a running gag that long pre-dates Jacques Tati in JOUR DE FÊTE/’49, but where does it come from?

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A FREE SOUL (1931)

Norma Shearer is divinely dressed & decadent as the free-thinking daughter of alcoholic mob lawyer Lionel Barrymore in this irresistible Pre-Code morality tale. Pop’s just used a hat trick to get Clark Gable off on a murder rap* and though Norma’s engaged to that nice Leslie Howard (a ranked polo player!), she’s drawn to Gable’s dangerous glamor. Shearer had just worked similar terrain in last year’s THE DIVORCEE/’30, but what a difference a year has made in Talkie technique and film acting. (Both films come on a single DVD, so it’s easy to compare. Still, no background music, but Leo the lion has found his roar.) Director Clarence Brown shook off much of his early Talkie stiffness here (and even more in POSSESSED/’31 with Joan Crawford & Gable), with dramatic compositions that bring him back to his silent film form and which must have been a breeze to edit. (Producer Irving Thalberg, Shearer’s husband, was notorious for reshooting & generally over-hauling things, but you don’t see many signs of it here.) The film isn’t without its corny elements, but it’s so ‘all-of-a-piece’ stylistically that it’s able to coast over many a dramatic sin. It even holds a few fresh dramatic surprises, especially from that clever Leslie Howard who does wonders with his seemingly soppy part. (You’ll see why Howard was so reluctant to play second-fiddle to Gable’s Rhett Butler on GWTW.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Ever wonder where O.J. Simpson’s lawyers got the idea for their ‘if the glove won’t fit you can’t convict’ routine? Watch Barrymore, Gable & the hat.

READ ALL ABOUT IT:: As mentioned in the Write-Up of this film’s wan remake, THE GIRL WHO HAD EVERYTHING/’53, gal reporter extraordinaire Adela Rogers St. Johns based the source novel on her life with her famous dad, Earl Rogers, and revisited the material in her non-fiction memoir FINAL VERDICT, written three decades later.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

300 (2006)

Frank Miller & Lynn Varley used a graphic novel to retell the Battle of Thermopylae, that legendary tale of Strategy, Sacrifice & 300 Spartans in the most famous delaying action of military history. (It's sort of like the Alamo with Greeks in the fort and Persians knocking on the door . . . and everyone half-naked.) Flamboyantly visualized in DC Comic mode, the book was ready-made for easy video exploitation, but Zach Snyder’s film pumps it up even further, semi-historical Greek mythology as Arena Rock. It works, but it also works you over. Lots of blood-spilling Sacrifice; not so much cunning Strategy. We never do get a clear look at those Persian hordes being funneled into the Gates of Fire. And why not cut over to show the enemy’s flanking maneuver on that secret goat path? Hasn’t Snyder discovered parallel editing? Maybe he should have a look at D. W. Griffith’s INTOLERANCE/’16.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: While never capturing the ‘otherness’ of ancient Greece as Mary Renault did in her mythological novels, THE KING MUST DIE and THE BULL FROM THE SEA, Steven Pressfield’s GATES OF FIRE brings a fine, realistic eye, and great pace, to the story of the 300.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Groucho Marx, talking about SAMSON AND DELILAH/’49, ‘No movie can hold my interest where the leading man’s tits are bigger than the leading lady’s.' Exactly.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

CAROLA (1972)

Discouraged after the mangled English-language release of ELENA ET LES HOMMES/’56 (aka- PARIS DOES STRANGE THINGS), Jean Renoir wrote this 3-act play about a Paris theater company struggling thru the Nazi occupation. But it wasn’t performed until Norman Lloyd (the actor Hitchcock dangled off the Statue of Liberty in SABOTEUR/’42) produced & directed it (on video tape) for PBS/L.A. (In basic 'Golden-Age' TV style.) The premise sounds promising: While continuing to perform a boulevard drama on-stage, the cast & crew of a small theater company play out a real-life boulevard farce backstage. Feydeau would have recognized the situations: a vain leading lady & her dresser juggle a past lover who hopes to rekindle their affair; a star-struck virgin who finds himself stuck in a closet; her current lover, the manager who’s forced to escort a couple of interfering inspectors while he’s cuckolded; and an old gossipy actor who can’t keep his mouth shut. But this farce is happening in wartime, so the gags stick in your throat, the comedy curdles & turns tragic. Alas, Renoir the playwright is no Renoir the filmmaker. He’s hemmed in by his single-set structure, he can't take adavantage of the mirror effect of play reality vs backstage reality and he loses the sense of urgency from our virginal resistance fighter? If he’s fleeing the Gestapo, why does he hang around for an autograph? Perhaps a more nuanced actor than Michael Sacks could have made this work, but there are compensating perfs from Leslie Caron as the actress; Carmen Zapata as her dresser; Anthony Zerbe as the opportunistic theatre-manager; and Mel Ferrer, unusually good as the German General who is Caron’s ex. There’s a whiff of GRAND ILLUSION’s Rauffenstein (the von Stroheim character) about him. NOTE: No poster from this tv production, but here's a recent one from a stage revival. And in the original French!)

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: François Truffaut probably never saw this, but he was very close to Renoir and must have known of this play since it’s the likely inspiration for THE LAST METRO/’80, his marvelous WWII Nazi-occupation backstager. Jean would have approved.

Friday, July 22, 2011

BLOOD AND SAND (1941)

While the title to Vincente Blasco Ibañez’s novel still reverberates with dramatic promise, its tale of the rise & fall of a country lad turned bullfighter has been dulled by decades of ripoffs & repetition. But as reimagined by director Rouben Mamoulian, especially in its restored TechniColor glory, the familiar tropes come up vibrant & believable. At least, for the first half. The prologue is a visual tour de force as young Juan sneaks out of bed to dash thru town, peek at the local bullfighting afficionados then head off into a moonlit countryside. There, he steals onto a rich man’s estate and challenges a solitary bull in a private ring. For a reel & a half, we’re watching a masterpiece: color, pace, romance, Spanish atmosphere, the works. And when we jump ahead ten years, now with Tyrone Power as the young matador, the achievement only marginally dims. Mamoulian uses a Spanish palette (Velasquez, El Greco, di Chirico, Goya) as visual inspiration, but avoids getting trapped by them. Instead, he’s trapped by a woman, Rita Hayworth, who stops the film cold. Rita is properly gorgeous as the rich temptress who drags Juan down from his better instincts, but she seems to have had much the same effect on the film’s creative staff. Suddenly, the film looks (and plays) like Hollywood kitsch. While fine things show up in the second half (a startling slap to John Carrardine, a sultry dance for Hayworth & Anthony Quinn as Power’s friend turned rival, a slaughtered bull for the poor), Mamoulian is unable to keep the film unaffected by the more obvious elements in Jo Swerling’s script. But it’s still hard to shake off the harsh light that blasts into the chambers underneath the arena where the bullfighters wait before meeting up with their fate.

TWO OF A KIND (1952)

Edmund O’Brien is a chubby changling in this neatly plotted B-pic that misses its potential under Henry Levin’s lackluster megging. How he can miss every shot is something of a marvel.* The scam, run by a fetching Lizabeth Scott & a dour Alexander Knox, involves a multimillionaire, his fragile wife and the son they lost in a crowd decades ago. O’Brien’s been picked to play the missing prince, but he’ll have to sacrifice part of his pinkie to match up with his assumed identity. (In the pic’s best scene, Lizabeth Scott mangles the digit with a car door. Yikes!) It’s fun, in spite of Levin’s ineptitude, until Terry Moore shows up as the millionaire’s peppy niece. She’s so kooky, she’s a pain. But stick around for the final twists.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Kevin Smith has the same genius at finding ‘dead’ camera set-ups. But at least he can write funny.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

THE KILLER THAT STALKED NEW YORK (1950)

Just five months after Elia Kazan’s PANIC IN THE STREETS showed a criminal gang unknowingly spreading bubonic plague over New Orleans, this modest knock-off had diamond smugglers doing much the same for smallpox in NYC. Naturally, police & medical authorities rush in to solve the case and stop the epidemic before it takes off, sometimes working to cross purposes. That’s the set up on both pics with this ‘B’-item from Columbia rushed thru production to catch PANIC’s box-office drippings. There’s some nice b&w location stuff from lenser Joseph Biroc and a decent cast (Evelyn Keyes, Dorothy Malone, Whit Bissell ), but the retread story turns out to be less interesting than spotting the changes in story construction that move PANIC to a higher plain. In Kazan’s pic, the cops & medical authorities work together right from the start, but fight bitterly over tactics. KILLER blindsides the two arms of the law for most of the story (diamond chasing Feds & smallpox chasing Meds), so the right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing. Theoretically, this should double the tension, but in practice, you wind up losing all the conflict that develops between the two sets of good guys. In the Kazan pic, that’s Richard Widmark & Paul Douglas, which is a tough tag-team to beat, and a nice little lesson in plot mechanics.

DOUBLE-BILL: As mentioned above, double-bill this with PANIC IN THE STREETS/'50.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

THE NIGHT THEY RAIDED MINSKY’S (1968)

Prodded by producer Norman Lear, of ALL IN THE FAMILY fame, newbie helmer William Friedkin & vet East Coast editor Ralph Rosenblum smothered this sweet-natured burlesque fable in the ‘New Look,’ that choppy style of editing & story construction Richard Lester used on the early Beatles pics. But four years after A HARD DAY’S NIGHT, the stylistic tics, lurching edits & general busyness have lost their luster, they jar us out of the film’s 1925 time period. Happily, it doesn’t take too much away from a host of tasty perfs and some neat variations that the script works into its thrice-told-tale. Brit Ekland, pink & pretty, is the Amish girl who hopes to dance her way into show biz at a lowdown Lower East Side theater. British Music Hall star Norman Wisdom & Jason Robards play the main Minsky comedy team who vie for her favors. Elliot Gould (very strong in his first big part) is the harried theater manager and Joseph Wiseman gets a series of classy putdown lines as his disapproving pappa who owns it. Forest Tucker, Harry Andrews, Denholm Elliot & Bert Lahr, in his last role, are all standouts as tough guy, righteous guy, prim guy & nice guy. You find yourself looking forward to each new scene because someone you like is bound to show up and make you smile. But the biggest surprise is in the specialty musical acts, they’re great. Beautifully staged by choreographer Danny Daniels, and much funnier than they have any right to be. (The material is meant to be hoary & whorey, and we could live without all the audience reaction shots.) There’s a delectable bump & grind routine to Brahms Hungarian Rhapsody; and while it’s no surprise to see a real vaudevillian like Norman Wisdom nail his routines, who knew that Jason Robards could handle a tune. He’s quite the smoothie, as is Brit Ekland who breezily pulls off her accidental striptease. Best of all may be the middle-aged gent who sings in a high tenor as the girls parade their wares around him. A pretty girl really is like a melody.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: The opening chapters of Ralph Rosenblum memoir, WHEN THE SHOOTING STOPS (the only memoir ever written by a film editor!), are all about putting this film together. Yes, it’s a horror story. (He even apologizes for abusing Handel's Hallelujah Chorus.)

Monday, July 18, 2011

THE 4 HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE (1962)

This ruinously expensive remake of Rex Ingram’s FOUR HORSEMEN/’21, the film that tangoed Rudolph Valentino to Hollywood immortality*, wasn’t your everyday studio flop. It toppled the latest regime at M-G-M and heralded the beginning of the end for its helmer, Vincente Minnelli. Yet, while it holds fast to a quickly receding studio-system æsthetic, it’s also extravagantly well-made melodrama (you’ll see where the money went); both an out-of-touch embarrassment and something of a revelation. The project was doomed from (re)conception with both its leading man and its war of choice off by two decades. Apparently, Minnelli met with the 24 yr-old Alain Delon, perfect casting as Julio, the young gaucho who lives in Paris as a hedonistic artist manque and finds WWI ruining his pleasures. But the studio bosses knew best, and insisted on a 43 yr-old Glenn Ford, hopelessly miscast & looking as if he knows it. The switch from WWI to WWII proves equally misguided since Julio’s political ambivalence, even as an Argentine neutral, proves impossible to understand or sympathize with in Nazi-occupied Paris. And yet . . . even with its dubbed leading lady (that’s Angela Lansbury’s voice coming out of Ingrid Thulin) and filmdom’s most overbearing paterfamilias (Lee J. Cobb shouting & dancing to beat the band), there’s just too much that’s visually alive to write this off. Paul Lukas, Charles Boyer & Paul Henreid all turn in magnificent old-school perfs, and the film gathers a sense of place and threatening tension that’s rare even for Minnelli. Those Soviet-styled montages are also out of the ordinary, as is the uncommonly fine score from Andre Previn. (Replacing a discarded score from Alex North and sounding, rather wonderfully, like Miklos Rosza.) In spite of the accounting books, the film’s no write off.

*The old 1921 Metro classic (made before the M-G-M merger) has been beautifully restored . . . for the European market. Drats! Shot in Ingram’s poetic, pictorial style, your home screen can only give hints of its theatrical impact. (And available Public Domain prints don’t even hint.) Ingram’s other Ibañez adaptation, MARE NOSTRUM/’26, hangs fire until the last act which is stupendous. Kevin Brownlow’s HOLLYWOOD, his multi-part history of the silents, memorably excerpted the stunning execution finale. Alas, not only is MARE NOSTRUM not out on DVD, neither is Brownlow!)

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Ibañez is a forgotten author these days, but what an impact the book made in its day. It’s still a great read, if not exactly a great book. Check out these period quotes and the printing stats from a copy of the 98th edition in less than a year.

(No need to squint. Remember, most posters & pictures on this site will ENLARGE with a simple click.)

Saturday, July 16, 2011

THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS (1946)

Strange indeed. Three childhood friends share a dark secret that haunts their lives, especially when the one who ran away returns as a grown man. Lewis Milestone directed, in a disruptive style that takes some getting used to‡, but scripter Robert Rossen, just a year before he started directing, is the main creative force behind this melodramatic fever-dream. (Eugene O’Neill’s updated Greek tragedies may have served as role-model.*) The two kids who stayed behind are now the town’s power-couple, Barbara Stanwyck & Kirk Douglas (in a smash debut); and the kid who unintentionally returns (and unintentionally upsets their hegemony) is now Van Heflin. Still something of a scamp, he’s just picked up a girl who’s got trouble written all over her, Lizabeth Scott. (In her sophomore outing, Scott already looks used, confused & abused.) The plot twists alarmingly, paradoxically turning more compelling & believable as it grows ever more outrageous. A throwaway moment when Heflin slugs a thug at a nightclub and gets congratulated by the bartender sums up the film’s off-center tone. The tale barely makes sense, but it all hangs together.

*Rossen wasn’t alone, a truncated MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA was filmed the following year.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: ‡Milestone only made a handful of silent films (winning an Oscar for Best Comedy Direction), but he was one of the few who transitioned to sound films with little change in technique or style. It stamps his editing rhythms with odd ‘bumps,’ as seen in this film’s prologue and in the opening scenes of the first act. But try the same scene with the sound turned off and your choice of some random instrumental background music . . . instant silent movie! You see this out-of-step style not only in one of Milestone's famous early Talkies, like ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT/’30, but even in some of his excellent later work, like EDGE OF DARKNESS/’43. It's certainly distinctive. BTW: if you ever need a quick music match for a silent pic (or if you just hate what’s on the DVD music track) slap on Manuel de Falla’s NIGHTS IN THE GARDENS OF SPAIN for a background score. It works for everything!

Friday, July 15, 2011

THE GIRL WHO HAD EVERYTHING (1953)

This measly remake of A FREE SOUL/’31, the ripely entertaining Pre-Code Talkie with career defining turns from Clark Gable, Norma Shearer & Lionel Barrymore (plus a soppy one from Leslie Howard), is a sorry comedown for all involved. In the old film, Shearer was engaged to Howard, sleeping with Gable and fighting about it with her brilliant but alcoholic dad, Barrymore, top lawyer to the mob. Now we've got Fernando Lamas playing the gangster who falls for a very young Elizabeth Taylor and vows to give up his crooked life for her. The lawyer’s daughter is no longer a rebel against high society but a reformer of bad men. This reverses (and ruins) the whole story. William Powell and, especially Gig Young, in the Barrymore & Howard parts, have their roles gutted in the reconstruction and the film ends so abruptly, you wonder if the projectionist dropped a reel. It also looks like crap with shoddy production values and a compressed grey-scale, as if the film was meant to be an episode for a t.v. anthology series. Hard to believe that vet megger Richard Thorpe was just off some of the best work of his career on IVANHOE/’52.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: As mentioned above, A FREE SOUL/’31. You can’t exactly take it seriously anymore, but what a capsule of its time & attitudes. And for those who only know the staid Shearer of her later films, this Pre-Code sexed up Norma is a dishy revelation. (Alas, she still can’t act. That only happened under Ernst Lubitsch in THE STUDENT PRINCE/’27.)

READ ALL ABOUT IT: This film is based on a novel about her dad, criminal lawyer Earl Rogers, by Adela Rogers St Johns, the original ace ‘gal’ reporter for the Hearst Syndicate. Decades later, she wrote a fascinating non-fiction work on him (FINAL VERDICT) and how she tagged along as his unofficial assistant when she was a kid. Just how good a lawyer was Earl Rogers? Well, when Clarence Darrow needed a lawyer, he got Rogers.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

HAKUCHI / THE IDIOT (1951)

Akira Kurosawa had no luck with his up-dated Dostoevsky adaptation. Completed in two Parts at a whopping 4½ hours, his original cut was never released and the studio print at near 3 is choppy with many scenes ending abruptly with jarring ‘optical wipes.’ International releases were clipped even further, but nothing helped, commercially or critically. That’s when, according to Kurosawa in his autobio, RASHOMON/’50 opened to sensational effect on the international market, saving his career. You’ll see why this one tanked, but it’s not without interest. The story seems a tiresome affair here, especially with Masayuki Mori too much the Milquetoast as the ‘Idiot’ (Prince Myshkin in the novel) whose fragile mental state make him too good, too saintlike, too pure of heart to enjoy the normal comforts of society. He’d rather ‘save’ a bad woman then love a deserving young beauty. Or is it the other way ‘round? Kurosawa circles this problem endlessly. And there are three more suitors: a bad man, a greedy man and a rich sensualist, also involved. And the women are just as conflicted, needy & variable. Should you give yourself to the one you love?; the one who deserves you?; the one who needs you?; the one you don’t love so you can save the one you . . . Oh, good grief! Those Russians! Er . . . Japanese. Boiling down Dostoevsky to plot mechanics does the man no favors! What matters is that Kurosawa seems unable to get inside these characters and winds up repeating actions hoping for depth. And damned if he doesn’t get it . . . after half the movie has passed. The themes pull into focus, the extraneous elements vanish and the film gathers power. Especially from Toshiro Mifune as the 'bad' suitor who loves not wisely, but too well. He overacts something awful for much of the film, but when his big confession shows up . . . look out! He’s already revving up for next year’s Macbeth in Kurosawa’s THRONE OF BLOOD, a far happier adaptation of a Western classic.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: There are Russian & French versions of the story, but no DVDs. Hopefully, the French version from 1946 (once available on a Region 2 DVD) will show up since it stars the young Gérard Philipe, plus-perfect casting as Myshkin.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

THE SILENCERS (1966)

Stupefying. A James Bond spoof where everyone’s in on the joke, but nothing’s funny. Dean Martin is Matt Helm, a semi-retired agent with an eye for the broads & a taste for booze, called back to save the world from nuclear annihilation. The cast isn’t bad: Cyd Charisse (fabu @ 45); Robert Webber; James Gregory; Victor Buono (in YellowFace makeup!), but only Stella Stevens, playing a sexy klutz, manages to redeem a few scenes before sinking under some exceptionally mean-spirited comic humiliation. Phil Karlson was a fine director of low-budget crime mellers (THE PHENIX STORY/’55; SCANDAL SHEET/’52), but here his laisser-faire megging proves as deadly as the inane story and miserable production values.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Hard to believe, but there were three sequels. If you’re dying to see a ‘60s spy spoof, try Mike Myers’ AUSTIN POWERS/’97 which gleaned comic silk out of this sow’s ear.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

HOUDINI (1953)

Tony Curtis & Janet Leigh (Mr & Mrs at the time) make a charming & handsome Mr & Mrs Houdini in this fact-challenged bio-pic. But there’s only so much they can do to liven up the bland proceedings. As magician & escape artist, Harry Houdini gave audiences a combination of thrills & perversity that are homogenized out of existence in this chintzy George Pal production for Paramount. (The same studio that released films from the real Harry Houdini. See poster, below.) Pal specialized in kiddie-fare, often damn good kiddie-fare, but his gentle touch is all wrong here. And he gets little help and less magic from vet megger George Marshall whose standard-operating-procedure tames even death-defying stunts. (And little help from the print used on this DVD edition which shows slight, but noticeable color registration problems.) The most effectively handled trick in the film was made with a fixed camera set in the orchestra and no movement or editing, as if Georges Méliès, the great illusionist of early French cinema, had briefly taken the reins. Everything else is faked with the usual cutaways, curtains & camera tricks. Perhaps the start of the Eisenhower Years, the Golden Age of Conformity, was the wrong time to go looking for the real Houdini. Then again, Houdini’s handful of silents are even more disappointing.

Monday, July 11, 2011

THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE (1980)

Joe Papp’s giddy revival of Gilbert & Sullivan’s operetta was an enormous hit @ the Delacorte/ Shakespeare-in-the-Park with Linda Ronstadt, Kevin Kline & Rex Smith. It went on to an award-winning run on B’way and then toured internationally. But when the original cast & crew made the film adaptation, all the joy had leaked out; PIRATES was a stiff, a bore, canned theater. (Worse, an improbably awful teenybopper knock-off, THE PIRATE MOVIE/’82, beat them to the theaters.) Yet here, risen from the dead, is a rediscovered live taping of the original Delacorte production, made on a windy summer’s night in front of an ecstatic audience and capturing much of the original fun, goofy sentiment & theatrical magic that had caused all the excitement. Shot for CBS, but never shown, the tape is in pretty rough shape with overexposed lighting, distorted sound, degraded color; and the performances, especially the singing, are catch-as-catch-can, the ladies ‘belt’ with abandon. But, as the interpolated trio from RUDDIGORE says, it really doesn’t ‘matter, matter, matter.’ Linda Ronstadt may have a few tumbles as she moves thru her vocal registers, but she seems to enjoy trying out her coloratura and she looks delightfully kissable. So does her co-star, Rex Smith, who in shot after shot looks almost laughably like Princess Di! (Truth is, he’s a tad prettier.) Kevin Kline, George Rose & Patricia Routledge (yep, the KEEPING UP APPEARANCES Brit-Com star) give spectacularly assured musical comedy perfs, and the little known Tony Azito earned a touch of glory leading a squad of loose-limbed police thru their ‘Keystone Kops meet Roy Bolger’ dances. G&S purists will be pleasantly surprised at how affectionate & straightforward this is, with just a few interpolations & key changes. Though the new orchestrations, which sound like a Mozartian ‘Turkish’ band, may not be meant for the ages. Perhaps that’s true of the whole production, it’s very much of its time. But at least we can now see it for the charmer it once was. Find it on Kultur’s Broadway Theatre Archive DVD series.

CONTEST: The part of Ruth was the only major role to change hands from the Delacorte to B’way to feature film. Name the three actresses who played the part and the number of Tony Award nominations they have collectively received to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of the NetFlix DVD of your choice. (NO GOOGLING! These contests are too bloody easy!)

Sunday, July 10, 2011

BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (1955)

John Sturges moved onto the A-list helming this chamber-sized, modern-day Western. A parable played on a vast & barren CinemaScope landscape, it’s a bit like HIGH NOON/’52 in reverse with the bad guys in town and good guy Spencer Tracy coming in on the Super Chief at the top of the story. Contrary to what you may have read, Tracy does not play a one-armed man, but a man with but one usable arm. Freed from having to strap an arm behind his back, Tracy simply tucks his left hand in a pocket and gets to work. The handicap isn’t given much prominence, but it’s always there in the way he balances his body and in the care he takes confronting an adversary . . . or a bowl of chili. For anyone who’s lived with a handicapped person, his performance is uncanny. (Anyone who hasn’t may wonder what all the fuss is about. He doesn’t seem to do that much. Exactly.) In this compact story, Sturges finds the underlying menace in every shot as Tracy walks the small town, asking about a missing Japanese man and getting the cold-shoulder from just about everyone. There’s not much to uncover and both Tracy & the audience quickly figure out the basics, a man was killed and the entire town is either responsible or acquiescent. And while the film holds off on explaining why Tracy is looking for this man, the real matter at hand is in the character of the town. (And alongside the WWII xenophobia, smoldering societal changes brought out racial connotations in 1955 that explain Lee Marvin’s sneering references to Tracy as ‘Boy.’) Marvin and Ernest Borgnine, both working under the malevolent thumb of Robert Ryan. are only the most directly threatening, the rest of the townies (Anne Francis, Dean Jaggar, Walter Brennan, John Ericson) are only better by degree. There’s little actual violence, but when it does flare up, it has meaning, consequence, and the technical precision of Kurosawa or Jean-Pierre Melville. No wonder Sturges made such a hit out of the Stateside adaptation of SEVEN SAMURAI/’54, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN/’60.

Friday, July 8, 2011

HARD LUCK (1921)

Buster Keaton’s independently produced two-reel ‘shorts’ (1920-1923) come in three basic varieties:

  • Compact Story Films
  • Boxes Within Boxes Within Boxes
  • Dadaist Funhouse Follies.

Today’s fans, used to his classic features, tend to prefer Compact Stories like ONE WEEK/’20. Academics & auteurists, the sort who’d rate SHERLOCK, JR/’24 over THE GENERAL/’27, go for Boxes Within Boxes. Say, THE BOAT/’21. But Buster didn’t work for arty types or ponder his future rep, he was out for laughs. And he got his biggest laughs with Funhouse Follies pics; crazy capers & impossible gags strung over two-reels like wash on a clothesline. But with little narrative pull or brain-teasing design to carry us along, the gags have all got to hit or today’s audience tunes out. HARD LUCK pulls it off. Buster begins at the bottom, starting off with a few tries at suicide; but soon he’s nabbed a job as an explorer for a zoo! Still, life holds many a tough decision, fish or roll cigarettes? Both? And there's that damsel-in-distress you want to protect . . . and impress with a death-defying dive from the high platform. This last gag, long lost & just recently restored, earned Buster the single biggest reaction he ever got. What a thrill to finally see it!, even in rough shape. And what a piece of stunt work! KINO re-releases their Keaton pics every few years (now on BLU-RAY), but it’s also out on a 2001 disc called KEATON PLUS.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: KEATON PLUS includes two shorts Buster made at Educational Pictures in the ‘30s, ALLEY OOP/’35 and JAIL BAIT/’37. These films have a terrible rep, but they turn out to be quite watchable, especially JAIL BAIT which unexpectedly shows Buster working up to speed. Just don’t expect THE GENERAL . . . or even SPITE MARRIAGE. Demoted to Hollywood’s Poverty Row, Buster manages more laughs (with a fraction of the time & budget) than he got in his M-G-M Talkies.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

LAND OF THE PHARAOHS (1955)

Howard Hawks’ only film made in CinemaScope was this Egyptian epic, a catastrophic flop that would keep him off the screen for nearly five years. It’s certainly a huge thing with thousands of extras milling about as Jack Hawkins’ Pharaoh builds his pyramid to the advanced architectural plans of captive rival James Robertson-Justice. (The British accents alone on these guys could cut marble in a quarry.) But there’s a snake in the grass, slinky Joan Collins who weds Pharaoh; beds treasure guardian Sydney Chaplin; and dreads seeing all that royal loot buried. On the small home screen, Hawks’ WideScreen interiors can look distant & static, but much of the location work is handsomely designed (by the great Alexander Trauner) and still looks impressive. It helps compensate for some stiff acting & mind-numbing dialogue. (William Faulkner gets top billing for the script, but don’t you believe it.) Still, acting gaffes & bad lines didn’t kill this pic, story construction did. There’s no first act! We’re told about a big battle Pharaoh almost lost; we just don’t see it. We hear about some sand-shifting roadworks that trap the Egyptian army, but we must have come in too late. They say that Pharaoh’s scouts were sent ahead of the line and fought their way back to save the day, but no one filmed it. Instead, the film begins as troops & prisoners-of-war march in a victory parade. Joan Collins’ standard domestic bitchery gets a full development, but everything that’s unique about Egypt, ancient warfare & the enemy’s engineering marvels that Pharaoh uses to make his theft-proof tomb is shortchanged. Too bad, that's the interesting stuff.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The film was shot in WarnerColor, a ‘Tri-Pac’ knock-off of EastmanColor, which produced the odd tint or two. Here, the green titles in the palace interiors get the exact tone of a high-class Las Vegas washroom. Maybe that’s why everyone’s wearing towels all the time.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Ernst Lubitsch’s final German feature, DAS WEIB DES PHARAO/THE LOVES OF PHARAOH/’22, which stars Emil Jannings & Paul Wegener, is a remarkably convincing period melodrama. No DVD yet, but there are good surviving materials. Hopefully, a class outfit will get their hands on it.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

THE FBI STORY (1959)

It opens with a decidedly creepy vignette as dutiful son Nick Adams plants a bomb and his mom on a plane. But not before getting Mom to sign up for flight insurance! Alas, any promise of perversity isn’t kept in this dramatically inert, 2½ hour love-letter to J. Edgar Hoover & all things FBI. It’s quite the whitewash as special agent James Stewart looks back on his days busting up the KKK; defending land rights for Native Americans; nabbing gangsters during Prohibition days; sweating it out in So. America during WWII; and finally tackling the Commie threat in Yankee Stadium! Whew! Look fast for a shot of J. Edgar himself; and isn’t that BFF Clyde Tolson standing by his side? Along the way, Stewart woos & weds a reluctant Vera Miles and raises a fine brood of patriotic kids between assignments. (A pregnant Miles gave up co-starring w/ Stewart in VERTIGO/’58 for this!) Mervyn LeRoy megs with a weary tread, barely staging the action stuff & sitting on his haunches for a few domestic scenes of teary recrimination & pep talks. But then, against all expectations, the film wakes up in the last reel; rousing itself with a rigorous Spy vs Spy sequence as the Red Menace comes to NYC. Suddenly we’re out on location: Central Park; 46th Street; Yankee Stadium; the IRT subway line; the pace ratchets up; cameras go askew; the editing gains wit & energy . . . what the hell is going on? Best bet is that, with none of the star players involved in the scenes, the 2nd unit took over. Just a few static inserts of Stewart back in his office for LeRoy to handle back @ the studio. Too bad he didn’t hand off the whole damn pic.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Larry Cohen’s decidedly odd THE PRIVATE FILES OF J. EDGAR HOOVER/’77, with its where-are-they-now cast (Broderick Crawford, Dan Dailey, Jose Ferrer, Howard Da Silva, Lloyd Nolan, Celeste Holm); community theater sets; and sweeping Miklos Rozsa score is a low-budget astonishment, but not for the feint-hearted.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

THE COMPANY (2003)

Robert Altman’s penultimate film is an ensemble piece that follows members of the Joffrey Ballet, and a handful of fictional ringers, over the course of a season. It’s something of a vanity piece for its star & co-scripter, Neve Campbell, a trained ballerina in a previous life, whose move from ‘featured’ to ‘principal’ dancer provides the story arc. Altman & Co take a lot of care to tread lightly over the usual backstage squalls & the tug toward a ‘normal’ life away from their artistic passion, but they never find anything compelling to put in its place. Splitting the difference between cold-eyed documentary & wan narrative arc, the film leaves no mark at all, but just pleasantly wafts by as we catch glimpses of handsome young people at rehearsal & on stage. Alas, all too often obscured by camera edits, backstage scrims & scaffolding, leaving us with a film that is more admirable for what it avoids than what it achieves. That is, until the finale serves up the big ballet we’ve been dreading, a garish, kid-friendly boondoggle with a big, blue snake, and a hideously designed tale that might well be the missing love child of Maurice Sendak & Julie Taymor. Cripes! For the record, Malcolm McDowell gives a terrifically phony perf as the company director and James Franco as Campbell’s b’friend, looks fit enough to be dancing, but plays the world’s slowest sous-chef. Give yourself an extra two-hours for dinner.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Frederick Wiseman’s fly-on-the-wall documentary about the Paris Ballet, LE DANSE - LE BALLET DE L’OPÉRA DE PARIS/’09. is long, maddeningly opaque, and just about everything THE COMPANY tries so hard to be . . . the real thing.

Monday, July 4, 2011

BIRUMA NO TATEGOTO / THE BURMESE HARP (1956)

Kon Ichikawa built this confounding anti-war fable out of the most unlikely pieces: a harp-playing, guilt-ridden soldier; a musical sergeant who drills his men in three-part harmony; war-trained parrots with spoken messages; a Burmese Bloody Mary right out of SOUTH PACIFIC; a gemstone imbued with the souls of Japanese war dead; and "Home Sweet Home,’ in English & Japanese as leitmotif. Yet he incorporates these (quite literally) fabulist elements as if they were as natural & realistic as bird calls or soldiers longing for home, as corporal & horrific as decomposing logs or unburied dead. Taken from a novel that Ichikawa felt was like a fairy tale for adults, the story has been given a war zone verisimilitude as it follows a heroic harp-playing soldier who fails on his most important mission, but goes on to sacrifice his life for his country’s war’s dead . . . yet doesn’t die; and his fellow soldiers, going home after Japan’s surrender, who cling to the idea that their missing comrade hasn’t deserted or died. Somehow, in this beautifully directed, physically stunning film, Ichikawa avoids the stink of sanctified worthiness, the film is too odd & mysterious to fit any committee’s notion of universal brotherhood. And what a moving testament he makes of it.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

HE WALKED BY NIGHT (1948)

Dandy little police procedural, built on the docu-drama model Louis de Rochemont started @ 20th/Fox, still holds up after thousands of tv cop shows. Maybe more than ever, now that its analogue forensic techniques have passed from quaint to historic. (And how cinematic compared to read-outs on computer screens.) Richard Basehart is the ruthless killer whom the police can’t get a bead on. And those cops run the gamut from middle-aged white guy Roy Roberts; to hunky white guy Scott Brady; to that young, whippet-like white guy Jack Webb, the same Jack Webb who made the format his own with DRAGNET. The wall-to-wall narration is a bit much*, but there’s lots of good L.A. atmosphere and knock-out lensing from John Alton, the Prince of Darkness. The obvious standout sequence takes place in the storm drains under L.A., but don’t overlook that bleached-out sterile look he gets in a bungalow courtyard. Alfred Werker is the director of record, but Alton’s great noir partner, Anthony Mann apparently helmed a good chunk of this one.

CONTEST: *Name the full-length commercial feature where the story, dialogue & even the credits are done entirely with narration. (And, no, Chaplin’s re-release of THE GOLD RUSH, where he reads all the inter-titles, doesn’t count.)

THE OTHER GUYS (2010)

Odd couple detectives Will Ferrell (fastidious, bookish) & Mark Wahlberg (rambunctious, gonzo) find themselves on a high profile case when precinct glamour boys Dwayne Johnson & Samuel L. Jackson self-destruct on the job. That’s about all there is to this high-concept comedy that ought to be a lot more fun then it is. Ferrell uses his bulky height to good comic effect against the surprisingly diminutive Wahlberg, but never gets out of second gear. A character-defining running joke about his babe-ilicious blindspot keeps stopping Ferrell dead in his tracks. Wahlberg, who’s been photographed to look like a squashed bug, is a natural dick, but does he have to shout out every punchline? Weak as this all is, these guys have the audience rapport & general goodwill to carry us thru the story’s dry patches. Too bad they're stuck with a plot that's nonsensical (okay), but not very funny (not okay). Worse, Adam McKay megs the action scenes without a clue about how it will piece together in the editing room. Is mess the new comic default?, or does he think that he’s making a parody of OTT set pieces? But lack of craft is never funny; it’s insulting . . . and lazy. GRACE NOTE: As the precinct Captain, Michael Keaton saves every scene he’s in with deft acting choices that are wildly original, totally believable, & hilarious. He’s everything the rest of the film ain’t.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

IN A LONELY PLACE (1950)

Before Humphrey Bogart found his signature flawed-heroic character in THE MALTESE FALCON/’41 and CASABLANCA/’42, he often played the ‘heavy’ against more established stars. Only after WWII was he able to bring his neurotic, even psychotic rage to leading roles with films like TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE/’48 and THE CAINE MUTINY/’54. Yet he never fell so far into the abyss (nor looked it) as he did in this unjustly neglected near-masterpiece from Nicholas Ray. Bogie’s a wised-up screenwriter who takes home a hat-check girl; not for hanky-panky, but because she’s just read the trashy novel he has to look at. Later that night, the girl is murdered and suddenly he’s a prime suspect. But the story hangs less on a murder case than on a mental case, Bogie’s. Tightly strung at the best of times, he’s cracking under the pressure of being a suspect, pouring himself into a crap project and finally finding the ‘right’ woman living just across the courtyard, an indispensable Gloria Grahame. His guilt is never an issue, we know he’s in the clear, but his demeanor is. Inappropriately jokey about the victim and lashing out with jealous fits & violence over presumed slights, something is eating away at him, but what? Ray pushes his slight story a bit too hard, and risks some ‘bad laughs,’ even his best films like BIGGER THAN LIFE/’56 and REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE/’55 suffer from them. But few films take us so far down into romantic chaos or offer a better look at the Hollywood life away from the studio cocoon.

Friday, July 1, 2011

UNDERWORLD (1927)

Included with THE DOCKS OF NEW YORK/’28 and THE LAST COMMAND/’28 in a Criterion 3-pac of Josef von Sternberg silents, this groundbreaking gangster pic is an eyeful. With superb lensing from Bert Glennon, as atmospheric & abstract as a charcoal sketch, and a Ben Hecht script that all but established Hollywood’s gangster iconography (squealing tires, jangling phones, sneering accents & rat-a-tat-tat guns would arrive with the coming of sound), it’s the purest mob tale imaginable. Tough guy George Bancroft stumbles over drunken Clive Brook after an explosive bank robbery and winds up helping the bum get back on his feet. Brook cleans up pretty good and is soon running the office, so to speak. Trouble looms when Bancroft’s moll, the alarmingly impassive Evelyn Brent, falls for this suave accountant. Meanwhile, a spat between Bancroft and a rival gangster is coming to a head. Bancroft nails the guy, but gets pinched for the hit, setting the coast clear for Brook & Brent. But there really is honor amongst thieves and Brook plans a tricky Death Row escape for his boss. Too bad he doesn’t know that Bancroft has heard about the affair and only wants to get out so that he can kill his two-timing partner! It’s all great dramatic fodder for Sternberg who crafts a series of thrilling action sequences & character-keyed moody chiaroscuro from the material, and quite probably never realized what a priceless set of pointers he had made for just about every director who followed him in the genre.

CONTEST: Howard Hawks really took ths film to heart, not only in SCARFACE/’32 where scripter Ben Hecht got to poach his own stuff, but also in one of Hawk’s best known Westerns. Name the Western and the two major steals from UNDERWORLD to win our usual prize, a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of a NetFlix DVD.