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Thursday, November 29, 2012

FUNNY GIRL (1968)

Barbra Streisand’s sparse film output, 21 films over four & a half decades, hardly measures up to her talent . . . or her potential. Now, even her smash debut looks a bit threadbare, though a recent restoration brings out its shiny gloss. (The ladies all look like they’ve had their hair done for that year’s Miami Beach Republican National Convention.) The original B’way show librettist, Isobel Lennart, got stuck having to please producer Ray Stark, the real-life son-in-law to both leading characters, Ziegfeld Follies star Fanny Brice and Nicky Arnstein, the mid-level crumbum conman she married. And if Brice’s rise in the Follies was lightly fictionalized, her slightly sordid romance had to be completely re-imagined. Well, re-imagined if you don’t know the plots of SHOW BOAT and/or A STAR IS BORN: near-matching principals (tough, kindly producer; glam. but fading/emasculated husband; star wife with unconventional looks; asexual guy pal); a shameful night court appearance; there’s even a ‘This is Mrs. Norman Maine’ moment. Three or four numbers from the stage show still make their mark. Not so much the showcase Follies numbers, staged by dance director Herbert Ross, but the integrated set pieces director, William Wyler kept a hand in: ‘People;’ the ultra-dramatic finale, ‘My Man’; and especially ‘Don’t Rain On My Parade,’ a blissed out end to the first act that’s Wyler’s tribute to Ernst Lubitsch who invented this sort of musical epiphany for Jeanette MacDonald on a moving train in MONTE CARLO/’30. Some of the original Jules Styne/Bob Merrill score got swapped out for actual Brice specialty pieces, even, ‘I’d Rather Be Blue,’ co-written by Fanny’s next husband, Billy Rose! Alas, in gaining ‘My Man’ for the climax, they lost the show’s own great torch song ‘The Music that Makes Me Dance.’ (Listen to a rare live B’way perf here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IxWrfKiAxKI )

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: How times have changed. Now, when Streisand opens the film by slyly looking at herself in the mirror and saying ‘Hello, gorgeous,’ we’re apt to agree. If only she didn’t.

CONTEST: Kay Medford as Mama Brice purposefully & repeatedly mispronounces something in this film. (A gag that goes missing on the French-language soundtrack.) Spot the mispronunciation to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of your choice.

DOUBLE-BILL: The obvious double-bill is the follow-up, FUNNY LADY/’75, but it’s a bit of a stinker. What not try the real Fanny Brice. Her first film, MY MAN/’28 has all her hit tunes, but this early Talkie only survives as a complete set of VitaPhone Synch-Discs, most of the visual elements have been lost. But you can get a pretty good idea of what she was about from THE GREAT ZIEGFELD/’36 where she sings a verse of ‘MY MAN’ on stage; and in ZIEGFELD FOLLIES/’45 where she applies her astonishing (and astonishingly physical) comedy technique to a not particularly amusing missing lottery ticket sketch. These skits always date badly, but she’s something to see. Completely exposed, working without a trace of vanity, she’s thrillingly . . . common.

Monday, November 26, 2012

FOLLOW THE FLEET (1936)

While arguing for the supremacy of TOP HAT/’35 vs SWING TIME/’36, Astaire & Rogers fans sometimes miss the pleasures of the film that came between. Not without some cause. Even by the slapdash narrative standards of the series, the story, gags & characterizations in this one barely make a ripple. Fred & Ginger are their usual delightful selves, this time in Working Class mode as ex-partners who almost got hitched. Now, he’s in the Navy & she’s working as a taxi-dancer when the fleet comes to town. Since they’re already a couple, they spend a lot of screen time getting the painfully uninteresting secondary couple together, Officer-in-Training Randolph Scott & Ginger’s Plain-Jane sister Harriet Hilliard (of OZZIE & HARRIET fame). But with an Irving Berlin score & dances that equal anything in the series, the earthbound script hardly matters. Especially so when Fred & Ginger decide to help their pals by putting on a show. A rehearsal scene, showing them hashing their way thru ‘I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket’ is a rare comedy dance that really raises laughs. (Also, right before the number, Fred limbers up at the piano, playing ‘live’ with a jivey spin Berlin must have marveled at.) Then, to a stunning Berlin lyric & melody for ‘Let’s Face the Music and Dance,’ they step away from their own light romantic characters to reveal an emotional charge they never tapped elsewhere. As supremacy arguments go, this beautiful dance may be their ultimate masterpiece. And watch for brief bits from Betty Grable and a blond Lucille Ball who works up a couple of neat comic bits. (Don’t skip the Extras for some swell Big Band Jazz from Jimmie Lunceford & Co. These guys really swing!)

Sunday, November 25, 2012

CORIOLANUS (2011)

Ralph Fiennes grabs Shakespeare by the short & curlies and hoists his last (and least well-known) Roman tragedy into today’s world, amid a modern conflict like Bosnia. As actor & director, he shoots the public scenes like BBC or CNN news coverage, and the private scenes with hand-held fervor, holding back as much as possible on the pomp. It’s clever, it ‘works,’ but decades of this sort of contemporizing makes the basic concept look nearly as old-fashioned as togas, tights & tiled sets. (Here’s CORIOLANUS FOR DUMMIES: Roman general returns in triumph but can’t quite stoop low enough to please the Tribunes or the famished hoi polloi. (Oops!, that's Greek. How 'bout 'the famished rabble?') Expecting kudos & a consulship, he finds himself reviled & exiled. Hardened to the point of cracking, he now joins the enemy and makes ready to attack Rome itself when his patrician mother begs him to make peace. And we all know what happens to the peacemakers.) Most of the cast are Shakespeare savvy, though Gerard Butler’s enemy commander puts out the occasional blank stare, but Fiennes reads Coriolanus as a Pride-Goeth-Before-a-Fall figure when it’s the man’s unwavering integrity that probably does him in. Well, that . . and listening to his mother! That’d be Vanessa Redgrave who pulls out the same dead-eyed, icy stare that Ethel Barrymore once owned. But the best perf comes from Brian Cox as Menenius, the close aide who grows irrelevant, a favorite Shakespearean type. Think of, say, Buckingham in RICHARD III. Did Will write these scene stealers for himself to play? Flawed as it is, the remarkable (and remarkably current) play still manages to come across and is worth a look. (NOTE: Just a reminder about our Family Friendly rating.  It's not necessarily meant to be taken for Kid Friendly, but as truly Family Friendly. As in, something that might work for the whole family.  A high-schooler stuck with a bad bit of Shakespeare might find this newsy approach fresh; and it certainly lends itself to a current events type of discussion.  That kind of Family Friendly.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Back in ‘79, Morgan Freeman did Coriolanus for The New York Shakespeare Festival. The production was taped (for television?), but was it ever shown?

Saturday, November 24, 2012

SOMEWHERE IN THE NIGHT (1946)

There’s a neat gimmick at the center of this film noir*, but Joseph Mankiewicz had just added directing to his long CV as producer/writer, and doesn’t yet have the control to get past the plot holes or integrate the assortment of acting styles he gets from an uneven cast. John Hodiak is merely colorless as the WWII vet, suffering from amnesia and trying to find out who he is, but debuting Nancy Guild, a Veronica Lake/Gene Tierney type, is amateurish as the sweet young thing who believes in him. The rest of the cast (Richard Conte, Lloyd Nolan, a highly theatrical Fritz Kortner) is more colorful, but might as well be in separate pics. The plot, something about a missing briefcase of Nazi cash, isn’t especially clear, but that’s not much of a problem. Spic-n-span plot development isn’t what we need from a noir, just the momentum to get swept up in a cloistered atmosphere of danger, suspense & fatalistic romance. Elements Mankiewicz would put together next year in a different kind of noir, a romantic noir, and his first masterpiece, THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR/’47.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Apparently, DARK CITY/’98, a graphic novel adaptation, shares more than the usual noir story components with this title. Follow the IMDb link below for details.  (NOTE - Spoilers in the link message.)http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0038965/board/nest/189901678

Friday, November 23, 2012

THE VIKINGS (1958)

Pillaging rarely looked like so much fun as in this period adventure tale with Kirk Douglas & Tony Curtis giving battle as friend & foe against dastardly Brits while vying for the affections of Janet Leigh.* Richard Fleischer keeps the action moving and manages to untangle a tricky narrative structure that needs three or four prologues before we get to the main story. (The opening is extra nifty, a limited-animation lecture from the UPA studio, that sketches out a potted Viking history intoned by Orson Welles. And don’t skip the end credits, done in the same spirited manner.) As Papa Viking, Ernest Borgnine isn’t the most convincing fellow on screen, but he throws himself into the stunts & swordplay with gusto. And though Fleischer makes the action look unusually scary with a death-defying castle-keep duel for Tony & Kirk and some terrifying trained hawks in full attack mode, the film never loses its strong comic edge which has the advantage of keeping Kirk from taking things (including himself) too seriously.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Generating plenty o’ heat, Leigh & Curtis easily disprove the old Hollywood canard about real-life married couples lacking on-screen sexual chemistry.

DOUBLE-BILL: Lenser Jack Cardiff not only brought his A game to the film, but enjoyed the experience enough to direct a close-follow up, THE LONG SHIPS/’64, with Richard Widmark, Sidney Poitier and a tone that ups the ante from this film’s comic edge to near goofy.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

ROMEO AND JULIET (1936)

Norma Shearer had a test-run on Juliet, doing the balcony scene with John Gilbert’s Romeo back in THE HOLLYWOOD REVUE OF 1929. The pairing didn’t amount to much, but it must have made a lasting impression on her husband, studio honcho Irving Thalberg, who went all out on this love-letter/vanity production. (It was part of a long-term plan to wean Norma off her sexy sophisticate roles and reinvent her as the ‘First Lady of the Screen!’ Hence, her move toward stage-tested vehicles originated by legit stars like Gertrude Lawrence, Lynn Fontanne & Kit Cornell, B’way’s Juliet in 1934.) Naturally, the film was assigned to George Cukor, new to Shakespeare, but the resident stage-to-screen specialist, and noted ‘Ladies Director.’ It’s wildly over-produced, large-scaled & dreadfully tasteful, and its never had much of a reputation. But, on its own terms, it’s better than you may recall. Thalberg really did go all out, physically it’s both gorgeous & gargantuan (note the multiple credits for famed London-based designer Oliver Messel), but you keep expecting some stately grand opera to break out, LA GIOCONDA or LES HUGUENOTS. (Or maybe PIQUE DAME to go along with all the Tchaikovsky on the soundtrack.) The whole cast is twice as old as they should be. Well, maybe not twice as old . . . more like thrice as old!; and the text heavily trimmed to allow for plenty of dance & pageantry in the 2-hr running time. But the old-fashioned, well-mannered speaking style has its charms compared to the bland realism & whispering speech patterns of today. If only the players rose above mere adequacy. The film only comes fully to life with the rude vitality of John Barrymore’s Mercutio & Edna May Oliver’s Nurse. (Barrymore looks completely debauched in his first scene*, less so later. But he spent an entire day insisting that one line about Romeo went ‘He speaketh not; he sleepeth not; he pisseth not.’) Along with Basil Rathbone’s Tybalt**, these two troopers are the only cast members unfazed by the boundaries of taste or refinement. Bless them.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Barrymore was living in a sanatorium during the shoot, trying to dry-out after his 1934 breakdown. You can see the ghastly place re-imagined by Cukor in his version of A STAR IS BORN/’54. It’s the scene where studio head Charles Bickford visits James Mason to offer a small role. OR: Cast your own Hollywood Juliet by auditioning the 18 yr-old Olivia de Havilland as she plays Hermia in A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM/’35.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: **Rathbone had good cause to be loose on the set, he'd been Romeo to Kit Cornell’s Juliet on B’way. (And the 19 yr-old Orson Welles was Tybalt!) Meanwhile, poor Leslie Howard, charming, but cool to the touch as Romeo here, doubled down on Shakespeare in ‘36 with a B’way Hamlet that flopped against John Gielgud’s.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

THE ULTIMATE WARRIOR (1975)

With its tiny budget, and even tinier imagination, this Grade Z Post-Apocalypse tale never finds its groove. Glum, but hardly serious, it imagines New York City in 2012, a place of scavenging savages who roam the streetscape, and a small group of elite survivors whose rooftop garden hold rare hybrid plants with their promise of a new beginning for mankind . . . if we can only keep those tomatoes on the vine! Robert Clouse, a cult director of Martial Arts pics (ENTER THE DRAGON/’73) must have known his script was too sobersided for its own good, more SOYLENT GREEN/’73 than PLANET OF THE APES/’68, and without a Charlton Heston-sized budget. So, Yul Brynner, fresh off a surprise hit with his robotic gunfighter in WESTWORLD/’73, got tapped. But without that film’s comic edge, Yul was stiffer than ever, and the action scenes flatfooted. The film’s biggest mystery is the participation of Max Von Sydow. He’d just finished the super-classy thriller THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR/’75 and then gets booked into this crummy vehicle? Maybe his agent thought it was the end of the world?

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: For a neat twist on Post-Apocalypse NYC pics, it’s hard to beat the formal storytelling stylings of John Carpenter near his best in ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK/’81.

Friday, November 16, 2012

CAMELOT (1967)

Jack Warner’s final film at his home studio was this immense, lumbering musical that didn’t please anyone. He’d bet big (and won big) on Lerner & Loewe’s MY FAIR LADY/’64, but this show had been nothing but trouble. (See Alan Jay Lerner’s ON THE STREET WHERE I LIVE.) Hiring film-phobic Joshua Logan to direct only made things worse and, while the film has some lovely things in it, none of the pieces go together. It’s a stylistic nightmare right from the start when Richard Harris’s pasty-faced Arthur sings his intro song between finicky jump-cuts while Vanessa Redgrave’s Guinevere grooms a fur coat right out of Carnaby Street. At least, the ridiculously handsome Franco Nero gets a dashing number as Lancelot, riding in stages from France to Camelot to the verses of C’EST MOI. It’s the film’s one happy moment, a lively glance from Lerner-the-lyricist toward his favorite film musical, LOVE ME TONIGHT/’32 from Rodgers & Hart and helmer Rouben Mamoulian. That’s the director who might have pulled this off, instead we get the inert film staging of Josh Logan. You don’t expect Logan to find shots for a jousting tournament or a ride to the rescue, but even a musical roll-in-the-hay like ‘The Lusty Month of May’ leaves his poor editor helplessly repeating shots of forced merriment.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The legend of King Arthur has been filmed often, if not particularly well. Those with a tolerance for Wagner, Flower Power, magic & communes should try John Boorman’s EXCALIBUR/’81.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: As mentioned above, Lerner’s B’way book is a treat.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

BLUEBEARD (1972)

Richard Burton hit the classics in ‘72 with a film of Dylan Thomas’s radio play, UNDER MILK WOOD, a forgotten Faustian fable from Peter Ustinov, HAMMERSMITH IS OUT, and this odd take on Bluebeard, that legendary ladykiller. The films were all disasters, but this one, a late effort from vet Hollywood helmer Edward Dmytryk, isn’t bad in the way you expect. The Hungarian-based production is surprisingly lux, handsomely shot by Gabor Pogany, and the tale fits nicely into its Old Europe/Fascist ‘30s setting. But the script plays out like a check list of aristocratic rue, with an unvaried pace and uninventive murders. Dmytryk seems out of his element, unable to lighten Burton’s ghoulish purring or deathmask demeanor. Some of the international crew of wives show a bit of spunk (unlike the impotent Bluebeard) and lots of bare breasts (which repel him); alas the most screen time goes to Joey Heatherton, inept as his last wife. (Raquel Welch looks yummy as a highly experienced nun, but her big confession only makes you hark back to Stanwyck’s similar tell-all in THE LADY EVE/’41.) As told here, it all boils down to sexual inadequacy, an explanation that feels . . . er, inadequate. WARNING: This film contains Wild Game Hunt footage.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Edgar Ulmer’s BLUEBEARD/’44, with John Carradine & some memorable puppets is effective zero-budget fare, and there’s the similarly themed THE HONEY POT/’67, Joe Mankiewicz’s failed VOLPONE update. That leaves Chaplin’s MONSIEUR VERDOUX/’47, itself a disconcerting mix of brilliance & heavy-handed dramatics. Maybe it’s best stay in Hungary with a CD of Bartok’s great one-act opera, BLUEBEARD’S CASTLE. Try Bernard Haitink on EMI with Anne-Sophie von Otter & John Tomlinson. Close your eyes to watch.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

BATTLE BENEATH THE EARTH (1967)

This ultra-low-rent thriller for the Kiddie Matinee crowd imagines an underground network of tunnels being prepped by a rogue Communist Chinese General for an American invasion! Fear not, our best scientific mind (and ear!) is on the case, closely listening to the activity with his ear pressed to a Las Vegas sidewalk! Now, if we can only count on the military to get this nutcase genius out of the loony bin and off to combat headquarters! You don’t find this level of silliness everyday and, for much of its running time, the cheesy production values & straight-arrow acting are plenty fun to watch, along with a plot that looks back to DR. NO/’62 and forward to MOONRAKER/’79. Fantasy film star Kerwin Matthews deserved something classier for his last leading role, but megger Tully Montgomery makes his particle-board budget look even worse than it has to with camera set-ups that force his cast to unnaturally twist their heads just to make eye contact. Still, who’d want to miss the set decoration on the General’s underground field office: Chinese screens, ornamental vases and a fresh pineapple on the desk. He’s taking the Hawaiian route in.

Friday, November 9, 2012

THE IRON LADY (2011)

No doubt, a straightforward bio-pic on Britain’s transforming Conservative/Tory Prime Minister was never a possibility. But it was an odd (and largely unsatisfying) idea to tell the tale via flashes of suspect memory as the retired P.M. drifts toward senility. And not much helped by a production that looks cable-ready, at best. An obvious plan might have shown her trying to hang on to power, after alienating most of her own party, while we jump back to see how her political principles grew out of a middle-class upbringing as a grocer’s daughter; her start in politics & the unlikely rise over the usual ‘suits; how her career was ‘saved’ by a ‘lucky’ war, only to watch it all go sour before she's ready to leave the scene. An even better idea might simply have stuck with the Young Margaret, it's the best/most revealing part of the film as Alexandra Roach’s young & bristly Thatcher finds her voice and her life partner in Harry Lloyd’s amused portrayal of young Denis Thatcher, a man who doted on her prickly personality and her paradoxically lofty, yet down-to-earth manner. Of course, that would have left out the film’s raison d’être, Meryl Streep’s powerhouse Maggie T., along with any commercial shot at the American market.* She’s certainly something in the role, though the ghost of Greer Garson keeps veering into view. Or did Mrs. Thatcher actually use Garson’s manner as a lady-like speaking/fashion template? And while the economic issues of the day have been ludicrously simplified and Argentine’s military might is probably misrepresented**, the film is neither a whitewash nor a hatchet job. And unexpectedly watchable.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Included with the Extras is a little puff piece on three other ‘historicals’ from the Weinstein Co.: CORIOLANUS/’11 via ‘director’ Ralph Fiennes; IN THE LAND OF BLOOD AND HONEY/’11 from ‘director’ Angelina Jolie; and W./E./’11 out of ‘director’ Madonna. With a combined Stateside gross around 6 mill., these Harvey Weinstein vanity pics are ‘star f**king’ losses comparable to Sheldon Adelson’s Republican Super-PAC funding.

DOUBLE-BILL: **If you can roust up a copy, there’s a good Argentinian pic on the Falklands War from the POV of some conscripted Army grunts called BLESSED BY FIRE/ILLUMINADOS POR EL FUEGO/’05 that shows how politically motivated & ill prepared the invasion actually was.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

THE WOMAN IN BLACK (2012)

This Gothic Ghost story about a Haunted House in a Haunted Village where a Haunted Spectre makes Haunted Kiddies do themselves in has all the ingredients to make your flesh crawl. But it’s overcooked, with script & direction that make everything go bump-in-the-night, so the shock effects bring diminishing returns. By the last act, it’s the audience who’s rolling their eyeballs. Speaking of eyeballs, a spectacle-free Daniel Radcliffe is fine, if a decade too young, as the widower who’s sent up to settle the estate and finds the deathly hallows . . . er . . . apparition while Ciarán Hinds, as a friendly local who pooh-poohs the occult, gets good horror mileage out of his hangdog face. The film is something of a resurrection for the old Hammer Studios and, much like their famous '50s horror pics, the storytelling doesn’t keep pace with the elegant visuals. Fourteen producers on this, and not a one of them figured out how to take proper narrative advantage of the wild country landscape or an evening tide that puts the only road to the mansion under water.

DOUBLE-BILL: Naturally, Wilkie Collins’ THE WOMAN IN WHITE. The famous Victorian shocker has been filmed many times and a recent tv version (shown on Masterpiece Theatre in 1997) may take liberties with the story, but it also has a real gasp-worthy ‘reveal’ on the main mystery.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

KNUTE ROCKNE ALL AMERICAN (1940)

While this loudly sentimental bio-pic retains a dollop of fame as the film where Ronald Reagan tells his coach to ‘win one for the Gipper,’ there’s not much else memorable in this programmer. Pat O’Brien was an odd kind of movie star and, as the eponymous Notre Dame football coach, he uses the same unpleasant manner & brusque delivery he brought to all his roles.* (And Warner Bros. did him no favors with a blondish receding hairline that makes him look like Jack Benny.) Add in some by-the-numbers megging from Lloyd Bacon and the film threatens to come to a complete standstill. As the loyal Rockne wife who hopes for a bit of vacation time, Gale Page is a complete nonentity. (She’d soon fade from the screen.) And even Reagan is a bit, well, amateurish, though his sheer presence is formidable. (The acting would quickly improve.) A decent supporting cast walk thru their roles (has Donald Crisp ever done less?) with the film only fitfully coming to life during some archival footage that features lots of lateral passing (yeah!) and during a sequence that shows how Knute was inspired to create a ‘shifting offense’ after watching an all-gal chorus line. If only Bacon could have bothered to stage it with a little pizzazz. By the way, the ‘K’ in Knute is sounded.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: *For O’Brien, the exception to the rule came in his co-starring vehicles with pal James Cagney. TORRID ZONE/’40 lets them work up a fine vaudevillian rhythm of mutual respect & loathing that gives O’Brien’s dyspeptic line readings something they can bounce off of. Nothing sticks to Cagney when he’s wearing that awful little moustache he grew to annoy boss Jack Warner.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

JITSUROKU RENGO SEKIGUN / UNITED RED ARMY (2007)

The late Kôji Wakamatsu was just past 70 when he made this grim, but compelling film about the small, but lethal local Maoist cult that emerged in Japan like a toxic residue after the mass global student uprisings of the late-‘60s had evaporated. The opening half hour plays out as docu-drama, with newsreel clips of the period interspersed with recreations and perhaps too much expository narration. But hang in there because the film soon evolves into a full character piece. Once the authorities start taking out key members of the ultra-left, we follow two of the most extreme organizations who join forces to secretly train in the hills for their soon-to-come labors as catalyst to the revolution with acts of violence & anarchy. But when the small cult of true-believers find themselves removed from capitalist hostilities & constant police surveillance, they start turning on themselves with deadly tests of communist purity tearing them apart from within. Political self-delusion soon has them ‘drinking the Kool-Aid’ of revolutionary correctness while the authorities, more felt than seen, start to close in. Not an easy watch, and as emotionally dry as late-Godard, but powerfully argued by Wakamatsu who shows the control of a master.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: How odd that these young militants question every aspect of their own culture & society (quite rightly, too), yet blindly parrot whatever New Order dogma they are fed.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

BLOODHOUNDS OF BROADWAY (1952)

This Damon Runyon adaptation was trying to hitch a ride on the GUYS AND DOLLS bandwagon. (The film version of the hit B’way musical wouldn’t come out till ‘55.) But there’s little Runyon flavor to be had in this tale of a backwoods gal (Mitzi Gaynor) who reforms Scott Brady’s Times Square wiseguy. In fact, little flavor of any kind. What a colorless crew of lowlifes, hangers-on, sharpies & book-makers the guy runs around with! To say nothing of the forgettable dames & coppers. Five or six musical numbers get shoe-horned in, but only a trio for Gaynor, Mitzi Green & dancer Richard Allan (‘I’ve Got a Feelin’ You’re Foolin’‘) puts out a bit of larky energy. And we get two (count ‘em, 2!) hayseed 'numbos.' Credit dance director Robert Sidney rather than helmer Harmon Jones for the lift & the corn.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Mitzi Gaynor had it all: looks, voice, legs, steps . . the works. Yet, frustratingly, she makes almost no impression other than cheery ultra-competence. She’s a flawless Ms. Efficient when we want Ms. Memorable, flaws & all. An interview with her in the Extras (she's remarkably well-preserved, sharp & funny), lets her review her incredibly smooth career-track. Maybe the lack of obstacles partially explains what’s missing on screen.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Frank Capra's LADY FOR A DAY/'33 is the great Damon Runyon film; and Lucille Ball had a couple of winners with THE BIG STREET/’42 and SORROWFUL JONES/’49. (Check out the latter to imagine the Adelaide & Nathan Detroit that Ball & Bob Hope might have made in a dream version of GUYS AND DOLLS.)

CONTEST: Spot the uncredited future star seen here as one of Brady’s gang, and name the other film he made in ‘52 playing a comic gangster to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of any NetFlix DVD. As always, no Googling or IMDb, please. What would Runyon have said?

Saturday, November 3, 2012

STATE'S ATTORNEY (1932)

John Barrymore’s journalist pal (later his biographer) Gene Fowler did him no favors on this poorly structured legal drama. It breaks up the remarkable run of performances Barrymore gave from ‘32 to ’34, before alcohol took him out of action and largely reduced him to supporting roles. Playing a heavy drinking attorney to the rich & corrupt, he falls for one of his clients, Helen Twelvetrees, very sympatico as call-girl turned mistress. But when he switches sides to become the new State’s Attorney, setting up a likely run for Governor, he finds himself compromising whatever remains of his professional integrity, even leaving his mistress for a proper wife. Fowler (or someone) had a nice idea here with Barrymore’s character losing principles as he gains sobriety, kicking out tru-love for a respectable wife. But nothing in the direction (from an over-parted George Archainbaud), story construction or in Barrymore’s undisciplined burlesque manner adds up . . . and the drinking plays into Jack’s worst habits. (Very different then the tragic alcoholic actor, Barrymore would soon play in DINNER AT EIGHT/’33.)

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Barrymore is at his greatest as the attorney in William Wyler’s superb adaptation of Elmer Rice’s COUNSELLOR AT LAW/’33, the play that established Paul Muni as a B’way star.

Friday, November 2, 2012

MONTANA (1950)

You can almost feel Warner Bros. washing their hands of Errol Flynn (and his pricey contract) on this Western programmer. Minimal production values and a B-list megger (Ray Enright) do it in, yet the basic idea isn’t bad at all. It’s that old stand-by, Cattlemen vs Homesteaders, but nicely varied to play into Flynn’s Aussie roots as Cattlemen vs Sheepmen. Alexis Smith is on hand as a ranch owner ready to be romantically won over and S. Z. Sakall shows up driving a covered-wagon department store for comic relief. Too bad no one bothered to work out the plot & character turns, pulling the plug after a brief 76 minutes. Even shorter once you factor in a couple of musical numbers which at least seem to let Flynn & Smith do their own vocals. A nice touch even if Smith looks oddly uncomfortable in her tight costumes while Flynn looks just plain tight. Maybe that explains the unusual amount of stunt doubling for the aging matinee idol.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Flynn ran out his contract with happier results: a couple of decent loan-outs to M-G-M and a final Warners release, THE MASTER OF BALLANTRAE/’53, one of his better late efforts.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: According to Flynn's auto-bio (MY WICKED, WICKED WAYS), he did some sheep tending as a young man back in Australia.  Alas, there's nothing in the film that displays any great lamb-expertise and definitely no sign of a custom he claims to have performed called daggit ta hapsheep (well, that's close to the phrase) which is castating male sheep with your teeth!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

THE CARPETBAGGERS (1964)

Ultra-professional trash . . . and plenty good fun. Harold Robbins’ once shocking Hollywood roman-à-clef peaks at the early life & times of financial whiz, industrialist & movie mogul Howard Hughes, salivating over every indiscretion. Martha Hyer fails to bring the necessary insincerity to her prostitute turned-movie-star, but everyone else gives just the sort of ripe, over-indicative performance helmer Edward Dmytrk must have wanted. Robert Cummings, in a part he was born to play, is gleefully two-faced & venal as an opportunistic Hollywood agent, a veritable beacon to the film's younger stars (George Peppard, Elizabeth Ashley, Carroll Baker) who rinse any residue of ‘the Method’ right out of their system. John Michael Hayes brings the unwieldy story under control, as he had on PEYTON PLACE/’57, and producer Joseph E. Levine fakes the appearance of an all-star cast with a splashy opening title sequence. Note that Alan Ladd, the film’s one true movie star, takes second-billing for the first time. It was 50 and out for Ladd, decent & touching in what would prove to be his final role.

DOUBLE-BILL: The recent Scorsese/DiCaprio Howard Hughes bio, THE AVIATOR/’04, has real names & events, but a similar disregard for facts. And it misses this film’s spot-on chintz factor. (So much money, so little taste!) To get a feel for the real Hughes, try Max Ophuls’ CAUGHT/’49 with Robert Ryan in terrifying control-freak mode; along with Hughes’ very own directing gig, the hilariously over-ripe, closet-case Western THE OUTLAW/’43.